Monday, 8 September 2014

The Daily White Male Reaches for the Stars

You may remember from some months ago, outrage about the way the Daily Mail covered the appearance of two eminent scientists on Newsnight:
Newsnight's Guardian-trained editor, Ian Katz, is keen on diversity.
So, two women were invited to comment on the report about (white, male) American scientists who’ve detected the origins of the universe – giggling Sky at Night pre-senter Maggie Aderin-Pocock and Sri Lanka-born astronomer Hiranya Peiris.
Obviously only people indoctrinated by those Commie Feminists at the Guardian care about diversity. Thus he deliberately searched the astronomy and astrophysics worlds until he found 'two women' – we'll just have to live with the 'giggling', just as the Mail's (white, male) editor has to cope with constantly being referred to as 'simpering' whenever he flaunts his luscious curves on the comment pages. And what women he found: a giggling TV presenter and a foreigner.

Or as we know them, Dr Maggie Aderin Pocock, research fellow at UCL's Department of Science and Technology Studies, inventor, managing director of Science Innovation Ltd and James Webb Telescope instrument designer, and Dr Hiranya Peiris,  
Reader in Astronomy in the Astrophysics Group in the Dept. of Physics and Astronomy at UCL. I am also the coordinator of the CosmicDawn project, funded by theEuropean Research Council under the FP7 Ideas programme.

Prior to becoming a Lecturer in Cosmology at UCL in 2009, I was an STFC Advanced Fellow at the Institute of Astronomy,University of Cambridge and a Junior Research Fellow at King's College Cambridge. Previously, I was a Hubble Fellowin the Kavli Institute for Cosmological Physics at theUniversity of Chicago. I did my postgraduate research at theDepartment of Astrophysical Sciences at Princeton University.
Clearly these two were just plucked from a list for their looks, and not at all for their incredible knowledge of the subject.

And talking of incredible knowledge, what about this 'white, male' bit? I looked up the authors of the research they talked about. It took literally seconds. Turns out that this international BICEP2 partnership consisted of men and women of almost every ethnic grouping. The Mail journalist simply assumed that clever science can only have been the product of 'white, male' minds.

So I complained to the Press Complaints Commission, and on Friday, 2 days before it was replaced by IPSO, I got a reply. Guess how apologetic the Mail is feeling!
The newspaper explained that its columnist’s focus on gender and ethnicity was designed to be nothing more than a “cheeky reference” to the BBC’s alleged political correctness. In the columnist’s view, the selection of Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock and Dr Hiranya Peiris to comment on the BICEP2 (Background Imaging of Cosmic Extragalactic Polarisation) study was another such example of this institutional approach.
I see. So you can print untruths as long as they're 'cheeky'. And obviously a professional journalist lacks both the skills and the motivation to quickly Google the scientists' names to see if they are actually fully qualified to comment on a subject, in pursuit of his job.

The resulting outrage did push the Mail to publish a partial retraction of the factual errors it hadn't bothered to check before publication
The newspaper took a number of measures to address the situation: the managing editor wrote to both Dr Aderin-Pocock and Dr Peiris; a letter criticising the columnist’s argument was published the following day; its columnist later explicitly noted both scientists expertise, and competence to comment on the study; and, a correction was published promptly in the newspaper Corrections & clarifications column which acknowledged that the BICEP2 study was “conducted by a diverse team of astronomers from around the world”, and which “apologis[ed] for any suggestion to the contrary”. The latter measure was sufficient to meet the newspaper’s obligation under Clause 1 (ii) of the Code, to correct significantly misleading information.
but isn't really sorry:
The columnist’s suggestion that Dr Aderin-Pocock and Dr Peiris were specifically selected for the Newsnight programme because of “political correctness” was clearly presented as his own comment and conjecture which, under Clause 1 (iii) and the principle of freedom of expression, he was entitled to share with readers. There was, therefore, no breach of the Code in publishing that suggestion. However, the subsequent correction of the factual inaccuracy regarding the BICEP2 team and the acknowledgment of both experts’ expertise will have allowed readers to assess the suggestion in a new light.
Who needs evidence when conjecture will do? On the main point of my complaint, they've got away scot-free:
Under Clause 12 (Discrimination) (ii) of the Code, “details of an individual’s race, colour, religion, sexual orientation, physical or mental illness or disability must be avoided unless genuinely relevant to the story”.  
I suggested that coverage of a scientific discovery did not require discussion of the scientists' (or scientific commentators') sexes or ethnicities. The Press Complaints Commission said:
While the terms of Clause 12 (ii) do not cover irrelevant references to gender, the Commission would need to have received a complaint from a member, or members of the BICEP2 team, or Dr Aderin-Pocock or Dr Peiris in order to consider the complaint about [word omitted: race or colour?] under this Clause. In the absence of any such complaints, the Commission could not comment further. 
So according to the PCC, you can lie and fantasise to your heart's content as long as the specific individuals are too depressed, worn-out or distant to personally complain about your disgusting behaviour. The rest of us just have to let them get on with it. In essence, the Daily Mail's defence is that their reportage is just 'banter'.

Can IPSO be any worse?

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