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"Guardian fabricates attack on Panorama", and James Randerson's response

Response 1 from the Panorama Extra story from May 2007

Posted by walter on May 27, 2007, 5:01 pm

An excellent Panorama programme on Monday that, for once, featured the EVIDENCE of health effects from mobile technology, seems to have been sabotaged by the Guardian.

The main question the programme was asking was this: IF there is a potential health issue in placing phone masts near schools (a conclusion of Stewart report, accepted by government), AND the Wifi microwave exposure is greater at the typical distances, then WHY should Wifi be placed in classrooms?

The Guardian piece that appeared on Monday thundered that the Panorama programme to be aired that evening, concerning health risks from Wi-fi, was "grossly unscientific", a "scare story", did not take into account a "basic" scientific concept, it presented a "bogus" comparison.
[Scientists reject Panorama's claims on Wi-Fi radiation risks, http://education.guardian.co.uk/schools/story/0,,2084525,00.html]

In addition, several further accusatory comments about the programme from the author, Mr Randerson, appeared on the internet piece Commentisfree, also before the programme was transmitted, comments such as:

  • "The claim is based on a spectacularly disingenuous presentation of the facts"
  • "Only after quizzing the press officer did it become clear that the team measured radiation strength 100 metres away from the base station and one metre away from the laptop"
  • "my suspicion is that it was deliberately presented in that way to bamboozle journalists.."
  • "..writing the story on a Sunday with little chance to get through to someone who could set them straight"
  • "Certainly most of them fell for it without mentioning the 100 metre versus one metre detail."
  • "bogus TV experiments".

[Original Article]

The accusation that Panorama was deliberately misleading is a very serious one. However it was clear from the programme there was nothing 'bogus' about the experiment.

It is interesting to note that Mr Randerson had not seen the programme before making these criticisms. They are all in fact based on one 'criticism' - Mr Randerson's claim that Panorama were misleading the public by suggesting a Wi-fi source in the classroom was the same as (or 3 times worse than) a phone mast in the classroom. That would indeed be a serious health hazard!

The Guardian piece says clarification was sought from the BBC. "A spokesman for the programme told the Guardian that the "three times higher" comparison was based on measurements taken one metre away from the laptop and 100 metres away from the phone mast, although material sent to journalists promoting the programme did not make this clear" (It was however clear enough for the Mail and Telegraph)

This straightforward BBC answer (they must have been puzzled by the question) ought to have cleared up the 'misunderstanding'; it was the typical exposures from masts and Wifi that were being compared, not the two sources. With the clarification, how is it possible to get this wrong?

For such serious accusations, surely the right thing to do would be to watch the programme and confirm the comparison being made really was 'bogus'.

Rather, time seemed of the essence, and Mr Randerson chose to go to town on his straw man. An expert, Dr Paddy Regan, was quoted criticising the methodology for not taking measurements from the two devices at equal distances. But clearly there would be no point in measuring the Wifi 100 yards away in order to assess exposure in the classroom. Assuming Dr Regan has not taken leave of his senses, one would have to wonder what question he was actually asked. But Mr Randerson would not say what it was he asked Dr Regan.

The piece also suffers from one-sidedness. Despite the onslaught on the programme's integrity, no comment was provided from anyone concerned with the health risks of Wifi.

Regarding the attack on the programme, in response to my email Mr Randerson said

"The story was really an attack on the way the documentary was sold to the press rather than the case for or against wifi itself."

Judge for yourself whether the above statements constitute an attack on the programme. Bear in mind the Mail and the Telegraph had no difficulty interpreting the comparison, without needing any BBC clarification, even on a Sunday.

Interestingly, Mr Randerson now concedes that "The programme was itself clearer about what it did".

So after all that, the fierce attack was unjustified after all - perhaps an apology is appropriate, then? I also asked why the piece was so one-sided in the viewpoints sought. Mr Randerson replied:

"Lastly, there was some counter comment in the story from people who do believe that wifi poses a problem but this was cut out during the editing process because the story was compressed."

'Reasons of space' is an old chestnut - there was not enough space to be balanced! But there was space for the unwarranted attack which takes up most of the article.

Was this attack the purpose of the article? This question needs to be answered by the space-deprived editors:

Why was such a strong article, already defaming the quality and integrity of an investigative programme reporting on an important health issue, and just prior to being broadcast, further unbalanced by 'editing' out of counter comment?

And what was the unseemly rush to denigrate the Panorama programme in the first place? I am still waiting Mr Randerson's response to these questions.