The Panorama screw-up

On May 21 last, the BBC Panorama programme screened a sensationalist ‘inquiry’ into allegations that wi-fi in schools posed serious health risks to children. Two viewers objected that the programme presented a misleading impression of the state of scientific knowledge and one interviewee complained that the scientific evidence had been presented in an unbalanced way and that the treatment of his own contribution was unfair to him.

The BBC’s Editorial Complaints Unit has considered the issue and issued a ruling

The programme reflected concerns about wi-fi which had been expressed by Sir William Stewart, Chairman of the Health Protection Agency, and it was legitimate to focus on questions raised by an eminent scientist with particular responsibility for public health issues. The programme made clear that its measurements of wi-fi and mobile phone mast radiation were taken at the points where schoolchildren were likely to be exposed to the respective signals, thus avoiding the false impression that the level of radiation from wi-fi was higher at source, and the results to date of the experiment on “electro-sensitivity” were correctly represented as inconclusive. However, the programme included only one contributor (Prof Repacholi) who disagreed with Sir William, compared with three scientists and a number of other speakers (one of whom was introduced as a former cancer specialist) who seconded his concerns. This gave a misleading impression of the state of scientific opinion on the issue. In addition, Prof Repacholi’s contribution was presented in a context which suggested to viewers that his scientific independence was in question, whereas the other scientists were presented uncriticaly. This reinforced the misleading impression, and was unfair to Prof Repacholi.

Further action

The Executive Editor/Commissioning Editor for TV Current Affairs discussed the finding, and the need to reflect the weight of scientific opinion effectively, with the Panorama team. The team is also planning a special session to explore issues of balance and fair dealing with contributors in relation to scientific and medical topics. The finding against this edition of Panorama will be marked on the programme website in the appropriate place.

Hmmm. I’ve just been poking round the Panorama web site and the aforementioned finding is nowhere to be seen.

Update: Nice email from Duncan Thomas who found it buried in the Panorama archive — it’s at the bottom of this page.