5G – Bias and conflict of interest at the BBC

19 October 2020 — True Publica

5G - Bias and conflict of interest at the BBC

EXCLUSIVE – By Annelie Fitzgerald: A call for the broadcaster to be transparent about its vested interest in wireless technology 5G

conflict of interest  n.  (a) an incompatibility between the concerns or aims of different parties;  (b) (chiefly in Business, Politics, and Law) a situation whereby two or more of the interests held by, or entrusted to, a single person or party are considered incompatible or breach prescribed practice (Oxford English Dictionary).

“Our audiences must be able to trust the BBC and be confident that our editorial decisions are not influenced by outside interests, including political or commercial pressures” (BBC Editorial guidelines).

Since the start of the Covid-19 crisis, in addition to a host of reports on the subject in its news and current affairs programmes, the BBC has run a few stand-alone radio and TV documentaries on what it refers to as “5G conspiracy theories”. In April, there was an Inquiry radio episode called “Why are people attacking mobile phone masts?” In June an episode of File on Four was titled “The 5G con that could make you sick”, while a 25-minute documentary broadcast on BBC1 in early July was called Viral: the 5G conspiracy theory.

All these programmes took as their starting point unsubstantiated rumours of a link between 5G and Covid-19 that had reportedly spread rapidly through social media and that needed to be debunked.

The public broadcaster, however, did not stop at debunking a purported link between the virus and 5G. In a nakedly dishonest and deceitful move, in each case producers also sought to conflate all those who have concerns about 5G technology with conspiracy theorists. As a colleague and I argued recently[1], there are many legitimate reasons for being opposed to 5G, so public concern about this technology is more than justified.

In addition to adverse impacts on human health, issues with 5G include privacy intrusions and increased surveillance, as well as harm to flora and fauna and the wider environment, e.g. through more wireless pollution, mining for rare earth minerals, generation of e-waste and increased energy consumption. With the exception of an all-too-cursory, anti-scientific and socially irresponsible dismissal of health concerns, not one of these issues was discussed—or even mentioned—in any of the BBC’s recent 5G programming.

Contrary to the impression given, there is in fact considerable and growing concern in the scientific community about impacts on health from 5G

Contrary to the impression given, there is in fact considerable and growing concern in the scientific community about impacts on health from 5G. This has its basis in copious scientific evidence of non-thermal biological and health effects from exposure to radiofrequency electromagnetic fields (RF-EMFs) from existing wireless technologies. The mounting body of evidence has led scientists and medics from all over the world—all experts in the field—to issue numerous appeals calling for exposure guidelines to be revised and for a moratorium on the roll-out of 5G.

And something that should give everyone pause for thought is that next-to-no research has actually been conducted on the millimetre wave frequencies that will be used by certain 5G technologies. During a US Senate committee hearing last year, wireless industry representatives admitted that no industry-funded research on the health impacts of 5G was underway, leading Senator Richard Blumenthal to remark: “We’re flying blind here, as far as health and safety is concerned.”[2] The BBC chose not to point this out in any of its reporting, despite having been advised of these facts at the highest levels.

And if you follow the logic displayed by the BBC in its coverage of 5G, the 253 scientific signatories of the EMF Scientist Appeal[3], the 193 scientists and medics who have signed the EMF Call[4], and the 406 experts (as of September 2020) who have signed the 5G Appeal[5] are nothing other than irrational conspiracy theorists.

Or perhaps, as physicist Dr David Robert Grimes—star witness for the BBC’s pro-wireless viewpoint in both File on Four and Viral—would have it, these scientists are simply “frightened” of the “scary word” that is “radiation”. (Presumably, over 1,000 Belgian health professionals who recently signed an appeal demanding a public safety moratorium on 5G in their country are all “scared”, superstitious types too.[6])

But none of these appeals were mentioned and not a single specialist urging caution got to present their point of view on the programmes either. The presenter of the File on Four episode, Tom Wright, stated that he had interviewed eminent US epidemiologist Dr Devra Davis, a lead author on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and part of the team of scientists awarded the Nobel Peace Prize along with Al Gore in 2007. The founder and president of the Environmental Health Trust, a leading US non-profit science organisation active in this field, Davis has published on the subject and is a prominent advocate of a preventive and precautionary approach to RF radiation. According to Wright, Davis withdrew her consent for the interview to be used in the programme owing to concerns about the context in which it would appear. Davis later described the BBC as having “fraudulently invited me to talk about the science when all they wanted to do was make a mockery of the serious concerns many scientists have about EHS [electrohypersensitivity]”.[7]

And well Davis might be concerned, for the BBC has a dire record when it comes to allowing precautionary scientists like her air-time. On the very rare occasions that they do feature, their contributions are systematically followed by lengthier ones from deniers of health effects such as Grimes, to which the former, it seems, are never permitted to respond; thus the deniers always get the last word. It’s really not a difficult ploy to see through, and it can therefore only mean one thing: the BBC is counting on public blindness or apathy—or both.[8]

BBC Impartiality

This brings us neatly onto the subject of the BBC’s much-vaunted “due impartiality”. The corporation makes much of its commitment to this principle. One of the Public Purposes included in its Charter is to “provide impartial news and information to help people understand and engage with the world around them.” The BBC is also supposed to “provide duly accurate and impartial news, current affairs and factual programming” (Article 6(1)).

Of course, science operates on fact not opinion, so impartiality when it comes to science is a rather different kettle of fish from politics or other areas of inquiry. In his 2011 assessment of the impartiality and accuracy of the BBC’s coverage of science, Professor Steve Jones points out that, “to identify impartiality is a particular difficulty when it comes to science, for that field, unlike any other, claims to present objective, tested and accepted truth.”[9]

History now appears to be repeating itself, with the BBC breaching its own editorial guidelines—this time in its coverage of the science regarding the health impacts of RF-EMFs, including 5G.

Jones also warns against “false balance” in science reporting, namely giving the same weight and validity to opposing positions, even when one of them has no evidence to support it. The example often cited is climate change where for years the BBC—along with many other news outlets—gave equal time to IPCC climate scientists and climate change deniers, giving the false impression that more controversy and uncertainty surrounded the issue than was in fact the case.[10] In 2018, the BBC had to issue internal guidance to its journalists on how to report on climate change after a reprimand from Ofcom for a breach of broadcasting rules in 2017. The briefing note states that the subject “has been a difficult subject for the BBC, and we get coverage of it wrong too often”.[11] History now appears to be repeating itself, with the BBC breaching its own editorial guidelines—this time in its coverage of the science regarding the health impacts of RF-EMFs, including 5G.

Indeed, back in 2011, Professor Jones noted that impartiality in science amounts to “equality of voice”, which is defined as “the acceptance that disagreement must be among those with at least some understanding of the nature of debate.”[12] It must be noted that there has been no equality of voice in any of the BBC’s recent reporting on 5G and health concerns although there is a wealth of eminently qualified scientists and medics to choose from. For example, the BBC’s Viral documentary pitted layperson and activist “John” against physicist Dr David Robert Grimes. Despite the fact that the broadcaster recognises, thanks to Professor Jones, that “equality of voice calls for a match of scientists not with politicians or activists, but with those qualified to take a knowledgeable, albeit perhaps divergent, view of research”[13], not a single expert on the health and biological impacts of RF-EMFs was featured in the 25-minute documentary.

After the withdrawal of Dr Davis for understandable reasons, no other knowledgeable, divergent view featured the File on Four episode either—the programme only included a few brief extracts from lectures Davis had given, instead. Needless to say, the same bias was evident in the Inquiry episode, in which Dr Jack Stilgoe, lecturer in Social Studies of Science at UCL was presented as one of “four expert witnesses”; despite lacking medical qualifications and associated expertise, he took it upon himself to dismiss outright all health concerns about 5G. None of the other “expert witnesses” interviewed was actually an expert on the biological effects of RF-EMFs either: they included Zoe Kleinman, BBC technology correspondent, James Temperton, digital editor of Wired UK, and a social scientist from the Netherlands.

Paradigm shift

It is clear that the BBC has chosen to represent the science about RF-EMF impacts as non-contentious whereas it is in fact far from settled. An ever-growing volume of research has in reality irrefutably invalidated the long-held—and commercially convenient theory that only RF-EMFs that are powerful enough to cause significant tissue heating have the potential to harm our health (see emfscientist.org and bioinitiative.org for plenty of evidence to the contrary). The research demonstrating non-thermal effects signals a paradigm shift, where one hypothesis about how the world works has to give way to another thanks to scientific evidence that contradicts received wisdom. In his assessment of the BBC’s science reporting, Professor Jones pointed out that science consists of “a body of scrutinised fact, interrupted by rare moments when ideas change”[14], while the BBC acknowledges—in theory, if apparently not in actual broadcast practice—that, in science, “the expert is sometimes wrong and the received view is not always to be relied on”.[15]

Yet instead of exploring this fascinating scientific paradigm shift, the BBC systematically excludes discussion between qualified scientists and medics of our rapidly evolving understanding of the biological effects of RF-EMFs. As testified to abundantly in its recent programmes and reports on 5G, the BBC adopts the scientific viewpoint that suits industry, the government and its own technological ambitions—of which more below. But perhaps this is to be expected from a body whose reporting, as noted by Tom Mills in a recent Guardian article, is “strongly shaped by corporate interests, state officials and the political elite.”[16] Giving little or no voice to the many expert scientists who have conducted research in the field and who have serious evidence-based concerns about the health and environmental impacts of 5G—and of wireless radiation in general—constitutes clear bias and flouts the BBC’s commitment to affording equality of voice to qualified experts.

Recent research by the US National Toxicology Program found “clear evidence” of carcinogenicity from RF-EMF exposure, indicating that a reclassification of RF-EMFs as a ‘probable’ or ‘certain’ human carcinogen is required.

Then there is the question of cherry-picking: one of the sections of Tanya Beckett’s Inquiry episode was titled “Pickled Vegetables and Talcum Powder”. Both of these substances have been classified as 2b ‘possible’ human carcinogens by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). RF-EMFs currently sit in this category too, so the BBC was clearly cherry-picking the most innocuous-sounding substances from this extensive category, which actually also includes lead, bitumen, gasoline and exhaust fumes.[17] Moreover, recent research by the US National Toxicology Program found “clear evidence” of carcinogenicity from RF-EMF exposure, indicating that a reclassification of RF-EMFs as a ‘probable’ or ‘certain’ human carcinogen is required.[18] And it should be pointed out that no one spends their entire lives consuming pickled vegetables or coated in talcum powder whereas these days most of us are immersed in RF-EMFs 24/7. Nor would anyone voluntarily expose themselves or their children to lead or exhaust fumes—even if they are ‘mere’ 2b carcinogens.

In the future, we will look back and understand that the BBC’s treatment of the subject of RF pollution was akin to only giving air-time to fossil-fuel-industry climate-change deniers or to the mercenary scientists who worked for the tobacco lobby. The BBC’s current reporting bias reveals that the BBC is neither following its own editorial guidelines nor acting in the public interest—contrary to what is stipulated in its Royal Charter and its Agreement with government.

The BBC’s conflict of interest

The broadcaster’s pro-5G stance was evident in the Inquiry episode, where “expert witness” number one, BBC technology correspondent Zoe Kleinman, gushed about the “dramatic” and “life-changing” applications of 5G, set to provide humanity with such vital services as making “video games easier to download”, reducing the “fractional delay” between “hitting ‘go’ and ‘go’ actually happening”, and enabling driverless cars. But it’s not simply the BBC’s uncritical embrace—not to say enthusiastic promotion—of 5G that is so grave.

Given that a large part of the File on Four episode was devoted to exposing the alleged conflicts of interest of some of the opponents of 5G, it is high time that the BBC came clean with the public about its vested interests in the technology. Trust in journalism depends on a high standard of honesty; when the journalistic organism has a vested interest in one of its objects of inquiry, this standard is not to be jettisoned but, rather, reinforced with even greater rigour and scrutiny. Full disclosure of the vested interest is the first, pivotal step in avoiding a conflict of interest.

Few members of the public are probably aware that the BBC is actively involved in 5G development and deployment.

Although the BBC’s status as broadcaster entails it having an interest in new broadcasting technologies, few members of the public are probably aware that the BBC is actively involved in 5G development and deployment. This was, however, made abundantly clear in its response to the National Infrastructure Commission’s “5G call for evidence” in 2016, where the BBC claimed that it had “the potential to make a significant contribution to 5G in the UK”, and that it was “well positioned to contribute further to discussions on the development and deployment of 5G”. The corporation also stated that it “would welcome opportunities to contribute further to the work of the Commission and to the Government’s 5G strategy”.[19] In addition, its response underlined the BBC’s “active role in developing 5G standards and building partnerships with industry and its on-going engagement with 5G PPP and other UK industry and international forums”.[20] Perhaps not what you’d expect from a publicly funded national broadcaster whose fundamental mission according to the Charter is to inform, educate and entertain.

The public also ought to know that the BBC also advocated using higher frequency RF-EMFs: “the step-change in performance proposed for 5G can only be achieved if the system has access to large contiguous amounts of radio spectrum, which can only be found in higher frequency bands.” It also stated: “While these lower bands (sub-6 GHz) would allow early deployment of 5G technologies, it should be noted that they cannot deliver the large improvements in performance foreseen for full-mature 5G networks.”[21] So we have our national broadcaster explicitly advocating for us all to be exposed to more RF-EMFs, and at higher frequencies.

But the BBC is not merely contributing to discussions on 5G deployment; it is also actively involved in 5G roll-out. As recently pointed out by Angel Garden in an article responding to the Radio 4 File on Four episode[22], the BBC is a partner in 5G Rural First, and has been “at the forefront of trials and developments of the 4G and pre-5G Broadcast technologies to be trialled in 5G RuralFirst.”[23] Last year, the BBC also began trialling 5G radio on Stronsay in Orkney, broadcasting radio over 5G mobile networks.[24]

In addition, as Garden noted, the BBC is a partner, alongside BT, in 5G-XCast. This is, as stated on the 5G-XCast website, a “5GPPP Phase II project focused on Broadcast and Multicast Communication Enablers for the Fifth Generation of Wireless Systems.”[25] Both BT and the BBC are also partners in the University of Surrey’s 5G Innovation Centre, which “brings together leading academic expertise and key industry partners to develop the next generation of wireless technology, 5G.”[26] Mobile operators EE, Huawei, O2, Vodafone, and Three, among others, are partners too.

Finally, the new Director-General of the BBC, Tim Davie, has also been cheer-leading for 5G: while he was CEO of BBC Studios, Davie stated his wholehearted support for the Government’s £30 million open competition, 5G Create, which was launched earlier this year and aimed “to develop new uses for 5G in a variety of industries, including our creative sectors such as film, TV and video games.”[27] As Garden pointed out, far from fulfilling a vital need, in many respects 5G appears to be a technology in search of a purpose.

So in its File on Four episode the BBC purported to reveal conflicts of interest regarding 5G yet glaringly failed to disclose its own

So in its File on Four episode the BBC purported to reveal conflicts of interest regarding 5G yet glaringly failed to disclose its own. Currently, therefore, the corporation’s own conflict of interest undermines any assurances it gives regarding the safety of this technology. Before broadcasting any further documentaries or reports asserting the safety of 5G—a claim that not even the government dares to make[28]—the BBC owes the public a prominent and full disclosure of its own vested interests in 5G. It should also issue an formal apology for its failure to accord equality of voice to qualified experts in its reporting on the subject of 5G and public health.

Despite these flagrant breaches of its editorial guidelines, it seems unlikely that the BBC will ever be reprimanded by Ofcom, the UK’s media watchdog, given that Ofcom also happens to be the body that sells off and manages the use of the broadcast spectrum, i.e. “the airwaves over which wireless devices operate”.[29] And on its website, Ofcom makes much of “enabling the development and rollout of 5G” and of ensuring that the UK becomes “a world leader in 5G”.[30]

In its misleading and biased coverage of the subject of 5G, the BBC has betrayed the public interest as well as public trust. While it is profoundly unscientific to dismiss reams of science as impossible, it is journalistically negligent and unethical not even to acknowledge the existence of this science—or indeed not to reveal one’s own vested interest in the subject under discussion. And the BBC’s consistently choosing, across a range of recent broadcasts, to withhold such essential information from the public appears to reflect a blanket editorial edict that smacks more of a conspiracy in fact than a conspiracy theory.

Annelie Fitzgerald is a member of Safe Schools Information Technology Alliance (SSITA) and Wiser Wireless Wales.

References

[1] https://truepublica.org.uk/united-kingdom/ten-reasons-to-be-concerned-about-5g-and-it-has-nothing-to-do-with-c-19/

[2] https://www.blumenthal.senate.gov/newsroom/press/release/at-senate-commerce-hearing-blumenthal-raises-concerns-on-5g-wireless-technologys-potential-health-risks

[3] International Appeal. Scientists call for Protection from Non-ionizing Electromagnetic Field Exposure: https://www.emfscientist.org/index.php/emf-scientist-appeal

[4] https://www.emfcall.org/

[5] http://www.5gappeal.eu/

[6] https://en.hippocrates-electrosmog-appeal.be/appel

[7] Angel Garden, “The 5G Con that Could Make You Sick”, 24th June 2020: https://whatis5g.info/5g/2020/06/the-5g-con-that-could-make-you-sick-bbc-file-on-four/

[8] See also Claire Edwards’ “BBC Fake News Decoded: Health Impacts Denied Despite Overwhelming Scientific Evidence”, 2019: https://www.globalresearch.ca/online-bbc-fake-news-5g-decoded/5687055

[9] BBC Trust review of impartiality and accuracy of the BBC’s coverage of science. With an independent assessment by Professor Steve Jones and content research from Imperial College London, July 2011, p. 56.

[10] BBC Trust review, op. cit., p. 66.

[11] https://www.carbonbrief.org/exclusive-bbc-issues-internal-guidance-on-how-to-report-climate-change

[12] BBC Trust review, op. cit., p. 56.

[13] BBC Trust review, op. cit., p. 16; https://www.bbc.com/news/entertainment-arts-14218989

[14] BBC Trust review, op. cit., p. 56.

[15] BBC Trust review, op. cit., p. 53.

[16] Tom Mills, “The BBC’s fabled impartiality was only ever an elite consensus”, The Guardian, 24th November, 2019: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/nov/24/bbc-impartiality-elite-consensus-crisis-legitimacy

[17] https://monographs.iarc.fr/list-of-classifications

[18] Hardell, L., Carlberg, M., 2019. “Comments on the US National Toxicology Program technical reports on toxicology and carcinogenesis study in rats exposed to whole-body radiofrequency radiation at 900 MHz and in mice exposed to whole-body radiofrequency radiation at 1,900 MHz.” International Journal of Oncology 54;1: 111-127. DOI: https://doi.org/10.3892/ijo.2018.4606

[19] BBC Response to the National Infrastructure Commission’s: “5G Call for evidence”, 11th July 2016, p. 2, p. 3.

[20] BBC Response, op. cit., p. 8.

[21] BBC Response, ibid.

[22] https://whatis5g.info/5g/2020/06/the-5g-con-that-could-make-you-sick-bbc-file-on-four/

[23] https://www.5gruralfirst.org/partners/

[24] https://www.broadbandtvnews.com/2019/05/15/bbc-extends-5g-broadcast-trial/

[25] http://5g-xcast.eu/partners/

[26] https://www.surrey.ac.uk/news/5g-innovation-centre-officially-opens-university-surrey

[27] https://www.gov.uk/government/news/new-65-million-package-for-5g-trials

[28] The Government’s recent 5G mobile technology: a guide (with Ofcom) only refers to Public Health England’s assertion that “there should be no consequences for public health” from 5G and that exposure levels will comply with ICNIRP guidelines (which are widely known to be flawed in that they only protect from heating effects): (https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/913179/5G_mobile_technology_a_guide.pdf). In a pre-Covid episode of the BBC’s technology programme Click, broadcast on 19th November 2019 but still available on BBC iplayer, presenter Spencer Kelly made the claim that the programme had helped viewers “to understand how safe 5G signals are”.

[29] https://www.ofcom.org.uk/about-ofcom

[30] https://www.ofcom.org.uk/spectrum/information/innovation-licensing/enabling-5g-uk

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