Saturday, January 11, 2014

Thoughts on BBC failure on Snowden

Adrian Chiles is an affable broadcaster who now works for the BBC and ITV. He does the Drive programme on BBC Radio 5 Live on a Friday. I happened to catch a bit of it on the way home from work yesterday evening, just as he was introducing Myles Allen, Geosystem Science Professor and Head of the Climate Dynamics group at Oxford University's Atmospheric, Oceanic and Planetary Physics Department.

The short extract from the programme is worth listening to (before it gets timed out on the BBC iPlayer). It is one illustration of the low level of understanding BBC presenters seem to have of science and technology.

The segment begins a little over 2 hours in at  2:11:24. Mr Chiles was friendly as always. Prof Allen was engaging and informative but it sounded to me that the presenter was not really following him too well. In fairness to Mr Chiles, unlike many of his colleagues who determinedly and rudely cut people off and paint the world in simplistic "balanced" extremes, he did his best to listen, ask questions and give the good professor the opportunity to make his points. Mr Chiles then closed by deciding he's going to get a tractor to deal with the bad weather.

I use this example not to criticise Mr Chiles in particular - he's a terrific broadcaster who does his job really well, particularly on the sports end of his varied portfolio - but because in spite of his difficulty in following the argument he, at least, made an effort. Many of his colleagues use straw men, sarcasm, the god of "balance", attack the messenger and/or a variety of other tactics to cover their low level understanding of or lack of interest in science; some even boast and cheer about that ignorance.

However, in an information age, the scientific, technological and mathematical ignorance of mainstream public service broadcast and print journalists presents a significant democratic deficit.

The 4th Estate is supposed to talk truth to power and provide a check on the branches of government and hopefully help prevent them getting out of control. Well parts of the US and UK government are out of control.

Edward Snowden has revealed the levers of power are being wielded in secret to engage in suspicionless mass surveillance of entire populations, via complex modern technologies. Also that the political hierarchy in charge of this activity have been dangerously clueless about the mass surveillance infrastructure they have funded, constructed and facilitated.

If the journalists tasked with holding these people to account don't understand the science, technology or mathematics then they cannot do their job with any degree of credibility. IMHO the BBC has largely failed in its public duty to report on the Snowden affair with any degree of credibility. The poor scientific and technical background of many of their mainstream presenters will have been a contributory factor in this failure.

The latest from the NSA is that they now seem to be admitting (in spite of previous claims that this mass surveillance stopped 54 major terror attacks it didn't really stop any, but may possibly have provided secondary supportive evidence in relation to one) that the best argument they can come up with is mass data collection might be useful as an "insurance policy". What?! An insurance policy?! The infrastructure of mass surveillance might be useful in the future, somehow, to someone?

Who? Why? When? How? What? Where? Those six honest serving men serve pretty well in the science and technology arena too. BBC presenters might like to take note.

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