Friday, 23 November 2012

Newsnight: the Reply

Afternoon everybody.

The big news of the day is that after a series of obstructions, I've had a response from Newsnight about my complaint that they invited Peter Lilley MP on to the show to discuss climate change (which he thinks is a monstrous lie) without mentioning that he's a director and shareholder of an oil exploration company.

I asked a series of questions:
1. Did Newsnight know about Mr Lilley's position?
2. Did it ask Mr Lilley or did Mr Lilley bring it to the producers' attention?
3. Does it have a policy of asking about and highlighting potential conflicts of interest?

The answer is predictably high-handed and evasive. Newsnight appears to have learned nothing. Here it is in full:

We forwarded your complaint to the programme team who respond that:
Peter Lilley was invited onto Newsnight as an economist, politician and supporter of the Global Warming Foundation. He joined a discussion that acknowledged that global temperatures are changing but asked whether there should be human intervention to attempt to reverse them? The previous day Mr Lilley had published an analysis of the economics of tackling climate change which we felt made him well placed to appear live on the programme.
It is a matter of public record that Mr Lilley is Vice Chairman and Senior Independent Non-Executive Director of Tethys Petroleum - it appears in Parliament’s register of members interests. Many MPs have interests outside Parliament and generally, as in this case, that does not affect their participation in media interviews. Peter Lilley has long held strong opinions on climate change which is why we wanted him involved in our discussion on the Newsnight.
I hope this is helpful and would also like to assure you that we’veregistered your comments on our audience log for the benefit of senior management within the BBC. The audience logs are important documents that can help shape future decisions and they ensure that your points, and all other comments we receive, are made available to BBC staff across the Corporation.
1. Peter Lilley is not an economist. He has a degree in economics and physics, and worked as an energy analyst for a stockbroker. His report is somewhat hampered by his lack of credentials in the field  of climate science.
2. His report was not discussed, explored or challenged.
3. It's true that Mr Lilley's Tethys Oil position is on the register of members' interests - but are Newsnight viewers meant to consult it every time someone appears on the screen? It takes five pages to get through to the correct information. I think this is a fundamental evasion of the programme's responsibility to fully inform viewers. For the record, Lilley's hourly rate as a board member is £375.
4. My general questions about Newsnight policy have been completely ignored. They're treating me - and all viewers - as outsiders with no right to information or opinion.

I'm actually pretty angry about this. The news media is the only way to hold power to account, and if it has no checks and balances, power wins. In this instance, Newsnight failed to fully disclose a fundamentally relevant fact which would have influenced viewers' assessment of a guest's credibility. To airily claim that we can look it up in a parliamentary register is to assume that viewers have the time, skills and inclination to chase details – or it's an arrogant brush-off from an Establishment that has lost sight of the audience's needs. Not every viewer knows the Register exists. A casual viewer, I think, would have been under the impression that Lilley was a disinterested expert in the field rather than a man who is financially and ideologically committed to one side of a debate. This is why I think Newsnight behaved dishonestly.

The refusal to disclose Newsnight policy on guests' interests is similarly arrogant. It's announcing that some things are none of my business. Yet Newsnight  is in deep trouble precisely because a closed group of editors has resisted scrutiny and become detached from basic common sense. I don't think it's too much to ask for a news programme to ensure that guests' interests are made known. Ignoring my question indicates an institutional failure to address key questions about its practices.

But this is the end of the line. There's nowhere else for this to be taken up: I can't even reply to this email, as it comes from a no-reply address. Newsnight wins - and journalistic integrity loses.

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