Saturday, 5 November 2011

Why pick on the BBC?

The BBC's news editor has written to the Guardian in response to Ben Goldacre's article last week about my bowel cancer data analysis.  The points his letter makes are roughly:

  1. There is too a three-fold variation
  2. It's not our fault, we copied it off Beating Bowel Cancer
  3.  It's not fair to pick on us because...
  4. ...lots of other people published the same story, including the Guardian.
(the links are mine)

There's nothing factually incorrect in that.  But point 2 is feeble.  It's tantamount to say that the BBC will reproduce any plausible-looking press release so long as it offers a sufficiently eye-catching headline (I suppose "regional variation in bowel cancer mortality easily explained by randomness" wouldn't do).

I can't speak for Ben Goldacre, but I picked on the BBC for the same reason that I link to it wherever possible for news stories - because it's an impartial organization that "exists to serve the public interest".  Charities and newspapers have their own axes to grind, but the BBC ought to be a reliable source of information.

Overseas readers may not be aware that the BBC is funded through a "television licence".  It's obligatory in the UK, on pain of a fine of up to £1000, to have such a licence if you "watch or record TV as it's being broadcast".  This applies even if you never watch BBC programmes.  Collecting income under legal duress imposes on the BBC a special obligation to get things right.

It's common among experts in technical fields to bemoan the poor standard of reporting on the things they know about.  "If they'd rung me up I would have told them what's what for free."  Perhaps something could be done.  It might be difficult to get this sort of report analysed in a few hours, but what does it matter if your news story on data from three years ago is a day or two behind the press release?

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