UCL Division of Biosciences


PR attack on the BBC

The scale of the BritainsDNA PR onslaught on the BBC can be seen in this list of interviews and TV coverage, which may not be exhaustive.  These, together with extensive website coverage, have little basis in science or any other aspect of public interest.  If you want to get a taster of the nonsense promoted by the BBC on behalf of BritainsDNA, see its online story about Scottish people supposedly having "extraordinary DNA".  Yet again Razib Khan in Discover Magazine does some debunking, but even he cannot cover it all.  The BBC gullibly reports that Tom Conti is related to Napoleon Bonaparte - we all are (more here).  Tom shares a genetic marker with Napoleon; we all share many genetic markers with Napoleon, and presumably very many people share that particular marker, which is implausibly proclaimed to be "Saracen in origin". There is more laughable nonsense about the Tuareg ancestry of many Scots, and about the travels of Fred MacAulay's slave ancestors (see next paragraph).  Are the BBC editors simply naive, or is it worse than naivety? The item is introduced with "The Scotland's DNA project, led by Edinburgh University's Dr Jim Wilson," and "historian Alistair Moffat, the current rector of St Andrews University". In common with almost all of the BBC's extensive coverage of BritainsDNA, this article fails to inform the public that it is a for-profit business, and it fails to invite comment from independent experts.

The interview with Fred MacAulay on BBC Radio Scotland is among the silliest: he was told that his Y-chromosome DNA "put him in south-west Ireland as part of the descent of Irish kings who were captured by Vikings and then sold in the slave market taking him up to the Hebrides".  But the three interviews of Moffat by his close friend James Naughtie are at least as bad because they are all fatuous, they appeared on a high-profile news programme, and the close connection between the two men was never revealed.  As usual, no mention was made of the for-profit business, and no independent expert was asked to comment on the extraordinary claims.  Could the free publicity and protection from critical comment that was afforded BritainsDNA by the BBC be due to friends in the corporation?

The BBC made matters worse by a series of very poor responses to serious complaints by well-qualified experts relating to a number of different programmes, although eventually a complaint was upheld by the Editorial Complaints Unit.

Nevertheless, the BBC's promotion of BritainsDNA continues, and on the very same day news broke that the complaint had been upheld a further interview with Alistair Moffat was broadcast on BBC local radio with misleading content about "Viking DNA". See this blog post by Debbie Kennett.

Question: The BBC has over the years made some bad programmes about what can be inferred from genetics about human history.  The public loves stories about our past, which seems to make programme makers incapable of sticking to the facts.  The truth is actually very interesting and much progress is being made - why can't the BBC make a proper doco on human genetic history, one for people who want to know the truth (with no celebrities, no nonsense about individual journeys, and no covert business promotion)?