Complaint about Alistair Moffat interview upheld by BBC

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The BBC has upheld a complaint made about an appearance by Alistair Moffat, the rector of the University of St Andrews, on Radio 4’s Today programme.

Mr Moffat appeared on the show on 9 July 2012 to talk about BritainsDNA, his genetics company. During the interview he claimed that the company’s work meant it had “discovered the Bible, the Old Testament, beginning to come alive” and that it had uncovered the “grandson of Eve”.

Professor David Balding, an ex­pert in genetic evolution and environment at UCL, said he listened to the broadcast and was astonished by what he heard. He told The Saint in March 2013: “It is very misleading to say that he’s the son of Eve because we simply don’t know that.

“There are the good guys who present their results and there are al­ways caveats. But then you get these guys coming in with very simplified stories that undermine the serious side of the work we do.”

Mr Moffat, speaking to The Saint at the same time, rejected the criticism, saying: “Mr Kinnaird’s [the ‘grandson of Eve’] markers placed him deeper in the human family tree than anyone else in Britain.”

Professor Balding complained to the BBC about the interview in August 2012. He argued that the content had been inaccurate and misleading, and suggested there had been a conflict of interested because Mr Moffat is a good friend of James Naughtie, the Today presenter who interviewed him. Mr Naughtie publicly endorsed Mr Moffat’s campaign to become rector of St Andrews.

The BBC’s head of editorial complaints, Fraser Steel, has now upheld Professor Balding’s objection. Writing on 19 February, Mr Steel said he accepted that “in the instances you have pointed out, Mr Moffat spoke in terms which either went beyond what could be inferred with certainty from the evidence or were simply mistaken… some of the terms used on this occasions conduced to an exaggerated impression of what was possible.”

The letter makes clear that the BBC’s findings should not be treated as a reflection on either BritainsDNA or Mr Moffat, nor should they be taken as endorsing or criticising any particular academic opinion.

Mr Steel also addressed Professor Balding’s concerns that the interview unduly promoted BritainsDNA as a commercial business. He wrote: “It seems to me that Mr Moffat’s statement that ‘we subsidise it massively’ may have contributed to an impression that [BritainsDNA] was a disinterested research study (an impression which Mr Naughtie’s description of the company as a ‘DNA database’ and this reference to ‘people who give their DNA for the project’ would have done nothing to dispel).

“It seems to me that the reference to the website amounted to undue prominence for what is in fact a commercial organisation.

“I’m therefore proposing to uphold your complaint in both those respects.”

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