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  • Truth, trust and the responsibilities of journalists

The suicide of a UK biological weapons expert has thrown a harsh spotlight on the tasks faced by journalists reporting on areas in which science, technology and politics overlap.

For the past few weeks, British politics has been dominated by an acrimonious dispute between the government and the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) over the latter's reporting on the background to Britain’s involvement in the Iraq war. The dispute has focused on whether the government had – as a report on the BBC claimed – deliberately exaggerated intelligence reports about the size of the threat posed by Saddam Hussein and his weaponry in order to justify joining the United States in its invasion of Iraq.

For a while, the dispute was little different in nature – although considerably more in intensity – than many that have dogged the UK Labour government, which is frequently criticised for the 'spin' that it places on issues in order to cast its policies in a positive light. But that all changed with the suicide of one of the central individuals concerned. A government expert in biological weapons with extensive experience in Iraq, David Kelly had admitted to his bosses that he had held an unauthorised meeting with the BBC correspondent who had broadcast the controversial story, and was subsequently identified publicly as the source of the 'leak'.

Much remains to be revealed about the events that led up to Kelly's suicide. The government has already come under heavy criticism for the pressure that it put on him to make a public confession of his guilt, which he was subsequently required to do before a committee of the House of Commons. Equally difficult questions face the BBC about the accuracy of its reporting, particularly since, in his appearance before the committee, Kelly claimed that he did not "recognise" the BBC story as an account of what he had told the reporter.

Further light is expected to be thrown on these issues by a judicial inquiry that is currently being held, and it would be premature to speculate on its outcome. It is already clear, however, that the dispute, and the personal tragedy that it triggered, raise important issues that reach to the heart of modern journalism. And that includes scientific journalism. For a key aspect of the whole affair is the responsibility placed on journalists covering complex and politically-sensitive stories in which scientific or technical facts and political commitments are deeply entwined.

Putting science in context

This is territory that is increasingly familiar to science journalists. The more that science becomes embedded not only in everyday life, but also in the political decisions that shape such everyday life, the more that science journalists have been required to reflect this trend in their reporting. And this in turn requires a set of skills and sensitivities that are substantially different from those needed merely to summarise results emerging from research laboratories (the terrain that seems the principle focus of those concerned about the 'public understanding of science').

In one sense, it is already familiar territory. The task of any journalist is not merely to report facts accurately, but also report on the significance of those facts, indeed on what makes the facts significant. This applies to a straightforward scientific discovery; the audience for such a story – whether readers, viewers or listeners – will want to know not only the nature of the discovery but also how it fits into what is already known. It is also clearly true where the implications are direct (such as the potential therapies likely to emerge from a biomedical breakthrough) and form a critical aspect of the significance of the results being reported.

More difficult are those areas where the links between the scientific or technical information and public policy are more complex, particularly when the science or technology involved may carry a substantial degree of uncertainty.. Here, it is precisely because any "facts" being quoted carry the extra legitimacy of being labelled as "scientific" that particular care needs to be taken to ensure their accuracy. At the same time – and this is often the trickiest part – a competent journalist needs to remain sensitive to the possibility that this labelling is being misused.

Take, for example, the current dispute between the United States and Europe on the issue of genetically modified crops. European opposition to such crops has many different causes, ranging from possible long-term damage to ecosystems to the threat that small-scale farmers will find their lives dominated by the agendas of multinational corporations. Attempts to reduce this to a 'scientific' argument are doomed to failure (as are US protests that European policy is not based on "sound science"). Reporting accurately requires an awareness of the broader picture.

The need for independent reporting

The stakes have been even higher with reporting on the war on Iraq. At the root of the dispute between the BBC and the British government are two questions that appear to be technical ones. Firstly, how accurate was British intelligence about the threat posed by Saddam Hussein’s armoury of weapons of mass destruction, particularly since this evidence was used as the public justification for US and UK action against Iraq? And, secondly, how accurately was this information reflected in the public statements made by the government to defend its actions?

Before his death, Kelly denied that he had explicitly accused the government of deliberately distorting the information that he (and others) had provided. But it remains clear from his remarks to the parliamentary committee that he had profound misgivings about what was happening – and felt sufficiently strongly about them to risk his career by voicing his concern to journalists, despite his awareness that his remarks would undermine the credibility of the government that he served.

His views carried particular weight because of the nature of his technical expertise (he had spent much of the past ten years working as a weapons inspector in Iraq). Kelly was right to wish to see his views in the public domain (even if he had hoped for anonyimity in placing them there). And the BBC was entirely correct to report them. It would be a tragedy if one outcome of the current dispute were the introduction of procedures – such as tighter regulation – that undercut the BBC's ability, or indeed that of any journalist, to challenge government policy on such important topics.

At the same time, the extent to which the impact of such stories depends on the legitimacy of the experts being quoted, even if anonymously, places an extra burden of responsibility on the shoulders of reporters. Too often, science journalism gets a bad name when science-related stories are handled by political reporters or others who lack sufficient awareness of this need. To her credit, a different BBC reporter, who specialises in scientific matters and who also reported on Kelly’s concerns, seems to have been more restrained in her description of them. It remains to be seen whether her political colleague shared the same caution.

Loss of trust

There is an old saying that "the first casualty of war is truth". The Iraq conflict has demonstrated that this is no less true in the modern, media-saturated world than it was in previous eras of demagogic empire building or naked colonialism.

In principle, the political accountability required by the modern electorate, combined with the ability of communications technology to provide mass exposure to the workings of government, should make evading the truth more difficult. Certainly the instantaneous television reports from the battle front (as well as interviews with US soldiers complaining about the failures of their leaders) has given war an immediacy and impact that earlier technology could never have achieved. Indeed last week the US administration sought to turn these techniques to its advantage by broadcasting pictures of the dead bodies believed to be the two sons of Saddam Hussein.

In practice, however, governments have often also discovered novel ways of cloaking their actions with legitimacy (some even suspect that the deaths of Hussein's sons – and the television pictures intended to 'prove' it – were faked). One such way has been to give technical expertise a greater certainty than it deserves.

In such situations, all journalists have a responsibility to point out the limitations of the expertise being offered. But they also have a responsibility to evade the opposite trap of 'spinning' what they are told by experts – whether anonymous or otherwise. Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair has already squandered much of the trust with which he came into office by, in the eyes of much of the public, doing precisely that. Journalists cannot afford to make the same mistake.

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