BBC Editorial Complaints Unit debags the Panorama WiFi scare

November 30th, 2007 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, bbc, electrosensitivity | 16 Comments »

You will remember Panorama’s WiFi program very clearly. Even the children in the school where they tried to film it spotted the problems with their methodology, and they were promptly booted out by a science teacher. I for one found those two little details truly mood enhancing, and you can read the full story here – because here is where you read it first (all the various entries related to the show are listed here).


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I’ve re-posted the video above, so your reading of the BBC’s reasonably damning report can be accompanied by the sounds of misleading, venal, scaremongering tabloid television. One thing in particular is noticable in the findings of the BBC Complaints Unit: they feel able to condemn the programme makers on the grounds that they misrepresented an experts’ opinion, and the scientific consensus; but they claim that the experiment in the school, and the portrayal of the Essex electrosensitivity study, were reasonable.

…the report backed the programme’s radiation experiment, saying it had made it clear that its measurements of wi-fi and mobile phone mast radiation were taken at points where schoolchildren were likely to be exposed to signals. The ECU said Panorama had also correctly presented the results of an experiment on electro-sensitivity as inconclusive.

This is unreasonable, as you may agree on reviewing the program alongside my original explanations of its flaws. The Essex electrosensitivity study, for example, to my mind, was characterised as having a positive finding by the extensive use of positive anecdote, and this misrepresentation was reinforced by the deliberate omission of the context of all the pre-existing similar experiments: 35 similar studies, in fact, all with negative findings.

The failure to recognise these problems suggests, to me at any rate, a paucity of scientific understanding on the committee who reviewed the programme. I don’t know who the two viewers who complained were, but I would suggest that they may like to appeal this initial finding. Experience suggests that sense will eventually prevail.

The BBC reports on this are

www.bbc.co.uk/complaints/news/2007/11/30/51156.shtml

and

www.bbc.co.uk/complaints/news/2007/11/30/51158.shtml

Here is the most excellent Guardian report.

Panorama rapped over wi-fi report

Leigh Holmwood
Guardian Unlimited
Friday November 30 2007

Paul Kenyon

Paul Kenyon: presented Panorama’s wi-fi investigation. Photograph: BBC

The BBC has upheld complaints against a controversial Panorama investigation into wi-fi health concerns, saying the programme had given a “misleading impression” of the state of scientific opinion on the issue.

Two viewers complained that the programme, Wi-fi: A Warning Signal, which aired on BBC1 in May, had given an unbalanced impression of the state of scientific opinion and had wrongly suggested that wi-fi installations give off a higher level of radiation than mobile phone masts.

They also complained that an experiment designed to test whether certain people were hypersensitive to such radiation had been misleadingly presented.

Professor Michael Repacholi, a scientist who had appeared on the programme, also complained that the scientific issues had been presented in an unbalanced way and that the treatment of his own contribution had been unfair.

The BBC said the programme reflected concerns about wi-fi expressed by Sir William Stewart, chairman of the Health Protection Agency, and that it was legitimate to focus on questions raised by an eminent scientist with responsibility for public health issues.

However, the corporation’s editorial complaints unit (ECU) today criticised the programme for not having adequate balance, saying it had included only one contributor who disagreed with Stewart, compared with three scientists and a number of other speakers who seconded his concerns.

“This gave a misleading impression of the state of scientific opinion on the issue,” the ECU report said.

“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 uncritically.

“This reinforced the misleading impression, and was unfair to Prof Repacholi.”

However, the report backed the programme’s radiation experiment, saying it had made it clear that its measurements of wi-fi and mobile phone mast radiation were taken at points where schoolchildren were likely to be exposed to signals.

The ECU said Panorama had also correctly presented the results of an experiment on electro-sensitivity as inconclusive.

In response, the BBC said the commissioning editor for TV current affairs had discussed the findings and the need to reflect the weight of scientific opinion effectively with the Panorama team.

It said the programme was also planning a special session with the production team to explore issues of balance and fair dealing with contributors in relation to scientific and medical topics.

The Panorama wi-fi report by Paul Kenyon was widely questioned after it was broadcast, not least by the BBC’s own science correspondent, David Gregory, and the Guardian’s Bad Science column.

Kenyon’s investigation was just one of several Panorama programmes that have been criticised this year, including an edition in which John Sweeney losing his cool and ranting at a spokesman for scientology, and an investigation that claimed Pakistan cricket coach Bob Woolmer had been murdered.

The ECU also today finally published the findings of its investigation into a BBC2 documentary about the use of HIV drugs on children in New York.

MediaGuardian.co.uk revealed last month that the ECU would criticise the Guinea Pig Kids documentary for giving undue weight to an expert witness who was a leading advocate of the proposition that HIV was unconnected to Aids.

Today the ECU said said the programme, which aired in November 2004, also gave the false impression that parents or carers who objected to their children being placed in drug trials risked losing custody of their children.

The BBC said that executives were now addressing the issues arising from the ruling for the commissioning and supervision of similar independent productions.


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16 Responses



  1. marcdraco said,

    December 1, 2007 at 12:09 am

    At least John Sweeny losing his cool was, well, cool. I mean, it’s not like the guy hadn’t been roundly mistreated by a bunch of alien worshiping loonies.

    OK, we should expect better than that, but it pales against this sort of bogus reporting that belongs in the Daily Mail (which in turn should be publicly flogged for misleading the public on a regular basis.)

  2. raygirvan said,

    December 1, 2007 at 1:03 am

    This is fairly baffling. I have been in touch with the BBC editorial complaints unit in the past, and they have actively fobbed me off in relation to my complaints over balance on scientific opinion – see BBC Online and impartiality: update. WTF is going on?

  3. mr e guest said,

    December 1, 2007 at 7:21 am

    Good news indeed. It is actually rather shamful that only two people complained though – possibly more immediate and authoritative complaints from the UK scientists involved in this issue would have been better.

    Goes to show the importance of getting off your backside and putting pen to paper though. If you do complain about something, you may well be the only person in the country to do so!

  4. briantist said,

    December 1, 2007 at 9:33 am

    Someone didn’t take no for an answer! Not just taking “I am therefore upholding this aspect of your complaint” as being enough.

  5. humber said,

    December 3, 2007 at 8:31 am

    If only two complained, how many even noticed there was a problem
    ?
    Almost every BBC news broadcast contains technical and logical errors, but it seems that the general public are quite satisfied. As such, the BBC can weather even the most damning criticism, and sail on.

    By the way, am I the only person the think that John Sweeney’s outburst looked staged?

  6. SpiderJ said,

    December 3, 2007 at 5:15 pm

    Only 2 complaints? That can’t be right… I know I submitted a complaint – and I’ll bet that many others who read this site did too

  7. jeffers said,

    December 6, 2007 at 6:45 pm

    Everyone I think will applaud Ben Goldacre’s insistence that evidence on health matters receives a proper and objective airing in the media. So I was looking forward to a word or two from the good doctor on the Bio-initiative Report, launched in August 2007, undertaken by an international group of experts and including a contribution by the European Environmental Agency (www.bioinitiative.org/). This (over six-hundred page) report contains very convincing evidence for the seriously damaging health effects of electromagnetic fields, including those emitted by wi-fis. Naturally it has received little media coverage. Come on, Ben, instead of banging on about the Beeb, why don’t you do something useful for a change and let us see your page by page refutation of this report?

  8. jeffers said,

    December 10, 2007 at 5:59 pm

    Got the message, Ben. Free debate on your website when your own total lack of scientific objectivity is not exposed, right?

  9. jeffers said,

    January 8, 2008 at 8:17 am

    Electrosentivity: sceptics about this condition really need to come up with something better than some generalized psychological category to describe it: if it’s psychosomatic, why do rats, not noted (as far as I am aware) for their technophobia or susceptibility to psychosomatic disorders, display the same skin changes when exposed to electromagnetic fields as electrosensitives? In my view that most strange of strange claims, that the symptoms of electrosensitivity are not a reaction to exposure to electromagnetic fields, needs to respond to the one of the most important studies of the health effects of electromagnetic fields ever published, the Bioinitiative Report (www.bioinitiative.org), especially section 8. This has been ignored by the media, Ben Goldacre included, and instead much attention has focused on the provocation studies. But many of these are much less objective than they might at first seem, and their methodologies are highly questionable. Actually, to anyone who has direct experience of the condition, many of them are absurd. A recent investigation of studies into the health effects of mobile phone use, again wholly ignored by the media, might help us to understand why this is the case: the study proves that there is a clear correlation between their sources of funding and their scientific findings (www.ehponline.org/members/2006/9149/9149.html): the more funding that comes from the telecommunications industry, the more they are likely to tell us that mobile phones are safe. This is a wholly predictable outcome that confirms that much science in this area is subject to deep conflicts of interest. It places into some kind of context any condemnation of conflicts of interest among what Dr Goldacre likes to call “the electrosensitivity lobby”. The real story here is how the telecommunications industry are deliberately obscuring the issue from public view, alas with Dr Goldacre’s unwitting help.

  10. Harlequin said,

    January 24, 2008 at 12:14 pm

    Mobile phone insomnia
    22/01/2008

    A study funded by mobile phone companies has suggested that radiation from handsets can cause insomnia, headaches and confusion in users.

    www.bcs.org/server.php?show=conWebDoc.17046

  11. briantist said,

    May 28, 2008 at 9:09 pm

    Update: They’re at it in New Mexico now… www.betanews.com/article/Electrically_allergic_group_seeks_a_ban_on_WiFi/1211996304

  12. briantist said,

    October 6, 2008 at 8:28 am

    Bloody BBC are at it again!

    The same rubbish scare story on BBC Radio 4 “Today” at 0655 on 6th October 2008.

    Will they ever learn?

  13. CILIPInfo said,

    September 17, 2009 at 5:33 pm

    This story is back in the news again and people are going into libraries asking if the WiFi is harmful to their children.
    I’ve just blogged about it here: communities.cilip.org.uk/blogs/informationadvice/default.aspx

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  16. avnash said,

    July 18, 2013 at 1:49 am

    Any debate on non-ionising radiation can only be bad science if one does not consider the non-thermal effects which are completely ignored by the majority of the scientific community. It is easy to disregard a lot of research and claim it is faulty to support one’s own viewpoint but to be open minded about possibilities is another ball game entirely!
    The current controversy on this subject was started more than 10 years ago! This was presented to US Congress by talented scientist Ted Litovitz
    www.youtube.com/watch?v=6lAFbQqyVio
    Why the current position on non-ionsing radiation is Bad Science:
    www.i-sis.org.uk/FOI3.php

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