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Late August (2011) update:

Time has flown by and since my last report the BBC's Editorial Complaint's Unit (ECU) have confirmed that that they are maintaining their position, if not their advertised standards. They have given me the opportunity of appealing to their own BBC Trust about the BBC's failure to admit my complaint regarding impartiality and accuracy.

This is hardly an ideal situation, as a House of Lords inquiry into BBC governance has ruled within the last few weeks. Criticizing "the convoluted and overly complicated complaints process at the BBC", the inquiry recommended that the BBC Trust should be overseen by an independent body, such as Ofcom, to "resolve the regulation of impartiality and accuracy so that the BBC is no longer its own judge and jury in these matters".

This news was even reported by the "BBC's Bible", the Guardian - www.guardian.co.uk/media/2011/jun/29/bbc-ofcom-complaints - along with a red carpet picture of Professor Brian Cox. Interesting: that a subject of my complaint regarding impartiality and accuracy was called to give witness at the House of Lord's inquiry into the poor performance of the BBC when handling complaints regarding impartiality and accuracy. Sadly, I was not called to give witness; though I feel I could have added an interesting perspective on the user-experience of the process.

Unfortunately, the House of Lords recommendations are unlikely to be actualised within the deadline given to my appeal. I kept this brief, realizing that we are only going through motions and the outcome I predicted in June (see below) was unnervingly accurate (to the extent I suspect the BBC referred to it when failing to find their own argument for why inaccurate reporting which lacks impartiality is not subject to concerns about inaccuracy and impartiality).

My appeal to the BBC Trust briefly set out my concern that the BBC's ECU, having agreed in their letter to me of 24 June 2011 (p.2) "I accept the comments of Dara O'Briain did not accurately represent the astronomical and technical basis on which astrologers believe astrology to work" should fail to uphold a complaint against inaccuracy, whilst admitting that inaccuracy did in fact take place.

I have pointed out that the BBC has broadcast to the public the mistaken view that the astronomical reliability of astrology is flawed, when in fact it is entirely reliable, and that according to its own policy the BBC should have issued an apology and an affirmation that action will be taken to stop such a mistake happening again - (the BBC's editorial complaint's code of practice states: "2.6 If we made a mistake we will apologise and take action to stop it happening again"). I drew their attention to the fact that this has not happened. Rather than receiving any kind of reassurance that the BBC will be careful to avoid inaccurate misrepresentation of astrology in future, I have only been given a collection of unsupportable arguments as to why:
  1. astrology is not a controversial subject and so is not subject to the guidelines that concern controversial subjects.

  2. the inaccurate remarks did not constitute 'material inaccuracy' (apparently because within a scientific and factual programme, it is not materially inaccurate to present false information about astrology, so long as this false information is used to justify the programme's declaration that astrology is all rubbish and absolute nonsense). The ECU appears to believe this is the scientific position, and so if the false comments lead to the scientific position then no material damage is done in the process. Never mind if this is defamatory against the reputations of astrologers who take their professional standards seriously.

  3. that even though I demonstrated clear bias and anti-astrology prejudice on behalf of the presenters, who clearly lack the ability to be as impartial as they should be when offering reliable information about the subject; "due weight" did not require this non-controversially nonsense subject (in the BBC's opinion) to be treated impartially or factually within a programme with a scientific focus.
In its justification for its decision, the ECU ignored all the properly cited peer-reviewed research papers I had referred to, to arbitrate "there is no proof for astrology, regardless of the astronomical and technical basis for it".

Upon what was this judgement based? Not upon intelligent debate, philosophical discussion, or reasoned argument, but purely on the basis of what was termed a "relevant precedent" - a previous decision of the BBC Trust to decline a complaint against Brian's Cox's dismissal of astrology as 'rubbish' in a different programme altogether, which had an entirely different context. Upon this earlier complaint the BBC Trust had proposed:

"The Committee agreed that the phrasing would have offended some viewers but was satisfied that this matter was not a controversial subject as set out in the BBC's guidelines and, therefore, did not require the programme to provide an alternative view or explanation of astrology."

And so that remark was quoted as the justification for the BBC being unable to uphold the complaint I subsequently submitted on prejudiced misinformation, made much more serious by its presentation to the public of patently ridiculous, incorrect facts.

What we have here is not just an example of "the convoluted and overly complicated complaints process at the BBC", but also the self-supportative circular arguments by which the BBC judges against contravention of its own policies by reference to its own opinion. It will be of interest to see how the BBC Trust rule on the matter of whether this complaint was handled fairly, given that its dismissal rested on their own precedent being used as a remit to broadcast inaccurate rubbish, and absolute nonsense about a subject defined as such for no verifiable argument; only by reference to the programme presenters' own (admitted) invented criticism which bears no relevance to how astrologers actually work.

Little wonder that even the former BBC chairman Lord Grade has called the experience of complaining to the BBC "grisly" in a system he describes as "absolutely hopeless"!



Previous report - 21 June, 2011

Since the beginning of this year I have been involved in a process which few in their right mind should contemplate - submitting a complaint to the BBC. The now substantial file of letters reveals just how much effort can be given to avoiding action. It is too lengthy to reproduce in full but I want astrologers to be aware of the problems I have faced in getting the BBC to consider my astrological complaint.

My letters have met with obfuscation, prolonged delays, and immaterial responses that don't relate to my complaint. I will define the process by reference to some recent remarks, and a diarised record of the exchanges involved (as much for my benefit as well as anyone else's).

The current position is that I have asked BBC's Editorial Complaints Unit (ECU) to reconsider their decision not to uphold the complaint, in light of 'further points' that show they made their decision by reference to irrelevant points. Should this fail, I have the final option of appealing to the BBC Trust.

My complaint is essentially simple and concerns a lack of factual accuracy and impartiality within offensively misrepresentative remarks about astrology. It is raised against a dialogue between BBC presenters Dara Ó Briain and Professor Brian Cox on Stargazing Live (3rd January 2011) in reference to the "very rare" planetary line up between Jupiter and Uranus and the Earth that occurred that night (in other words, the Jupiter-Uranus conjunction, which as astrologers know is not "very rare" in astronomical terms, since it repeats every 13-15 years):

Dara Ó Briain: Very rare for this kind of thing to happen, it is, because all of them have a different, different orbital length; this is, you know, only, only the Earth goes round in one year and comes back to the same spot. Horoscopes: that's all nonsense. We're happy to say this now, once and for all, that's all rubbish, right, astrology - because the planets are in different places at different times.

Brian Cox: In the interests of balance, because we're on the BBC, I should say that, indeed, Dara is right: astrology is … [gesticulates to support the last word given to Dara].

Dara Ó Briain: It's nonsense, it's absolute nonsense; right.

The BBC's current position is adequately summarised by a remark used to justify the ECU's decision not to support the complaint:
"As you will have noted from my earlier letter, the BBC's guidelines refer to "due" accuracy - that is accuracy as appropriate to the subject and nature of the output. I therefore judged the accuracy of what was said in the context of the programme.
This was a science programme, presented by a scientist and a comedian who is an amateur astronomer. The programme made clear its focus at the outset, as Brian Cox, introducing the programme, said that astronomy was important because it was "the father of modern science" from which all scientific advancements had flowed. I think it follows that audiences would have expected the programme to offer a scientific perspective on the matters discussed."
My argument is that the BBC broke its policies on 'accuracy' and 'impartiality'. On the matter of accuracy I have responded to the above remark to say:
"I object to the complete lack of accuracy and deliberate impartiality delivered to the audience, by which the audience were emphatically informed that astrology is nonsense (etc) because its astronomical basis is supposed to be a patently ridiculous one.

…Astronomy is a science and astrology rests upon knowledge of that science; therefore your audience would expect that the account of the astronomical principles of astrology were correctly reported - which is why the misrepresentation of astrology in this particular programme is more significant than it would be were this not a science programme. Had the remarks been made in a comedic panel show, the audience would not expect that they should be taken seriously. Within the context of this programme, which was scientific and focussed upon explaining astronomy, there is a heightened expectation that comments which draw attention through the emphatic nature by which they purport to offer clarification, are reliable and accurate in their astronomical details. Clearly this was not the case.

… It is the attempt to qualify the remark by introducing false argument that makes this complaint serious, through its implication that astrologers are not educated upon the scientific and technical principles of astronomy."
On the matter of impartiality I have argued:
"Ó Briain's unequivocal declaration "We're happy to say this now, once and for all" shows that he was speaking for the production team and therefore the BBC itself. It also reveals that the inflammatory exchange was pre-planned and deliberately engineered for inclusion with the agreement of others, since Dara Ó Briain made this remark on behalf of himself and others after making a very sudden and unnecessary reference to astrology, which had no previous development in the preceding commentary.

… The submission of my report which referenced the use of public Twitter feed activity, demonstrates how three of the programme presenters engaged in disruption of astrological-community concerns and publication of highly offensive and prejudicial insults of astrologers, down to the level of comparing them to paedophiles. … [This] plays a very relevant role in my complaint of underlying impartiality being allowed to express itself through the broadcasting of deliberately inaccurate information.

... Section 4 of the BBC charter also states "The external activities of staff, presenters and others who contribute to our output can also affect the BBC's reputation for impartiality". I have provided sufficient evidence to show the presenters have done this, demonstrating that they introduced impartiality into their role of science communicators because they are biased by their emotive hostility of the subject. For this reason I have raised reference to the policy of Impartiality; on the basis that such prejudice motivated the dishonest broadcast which was deceptive and inaccurate in its details, and deliberately based upon unfounded speculation, irrational argument and invented criticism, resulting in an abuse of audience faith in the BBC's published pledge to keep impartiality at the core of its commitments."
Here is my running diary on the progress of the complaint so far, which concludes with the introductory outline of the points raised in my latest letter (my actions in black / BBC actions in blue). I will update next month or when there is more to report.


The History of My BBC Complaint.
Part 1:
19 January 2011

  • Telephoned BBC Audience services to register complaint. Explained I would be sending a letter to the BBC Trust to cover details of my complaint in full and was told to quote BBC case number 555221 so the letter would be referenced to the phonecall.


  • Submitted letter of complaint, with reference number as instructed, to the BBC Trust outlining my complaint against the programme itself and the way a previous complaint by another astrologer had been rudely handled by a member of the BBC's complaints department.

  • 29 January 2011 - date of letter

  • Letter of response from BBC Trust stating they cannot act unless the complaint has passed through the multi-tiered complaints process undertaken by the BBC's own management, and only then if the ECU considers that it qualifies for appeal. Was informed the Trust had forwarded my letter to the BBC's Audience Services department for investigation. Given new case number: 565354.

  • 8th February 2011 - date of letter

  • Letter from the BBC's Audience Services department apologising for delay in replying (they advertise intention to respond within 10 days); stating that the approach of the program was "primarily from a factual, scientific point of view" and confirming the BBC's commitment to impartial reporting. Letter concluded to say they were sorry I was disappointed with the programme, but would register my comments on the audience log. This letter was returned with yet another case number: 560135.


  • Spoke on the telephone to a Correspondence Assistant at the BBC Trust to express general concern about how the response had not addressed my points or answered my questions, and specific concern that the BBC Complaints Department were being designated the duty of investigating my complaint regarding the response given to an astrologer by a member of the BBC's Complaints Department. Felt this was a matter that called for external review and should go directly to the BBC Trust.


  • Received an email later in the day sent by the BBC Trust Correspondence Assistant. Said my comments and queries had been forwarded to Keith Jones in Audience Services and someone in Audience Services would get back to me on the matter.


  • 11th February 2011

  • Submitted my second letter in reply to the BBC's letter of 8th March, addressed to the BBC Complaints department staff member who sent the letter to me, quoting the case number 565354 given to me as the latest reference. Explained that the clarification of policy had effectively demonstrated the justification of my complaint. As further support of the impartiality claim I submitted a copy of my report "The Back-story of the AA's Petition and How Twitter Chums stick together when the Beeb makes a Boob" and drew the BBC's attention to "how serious these misrepresentations and discriminatory remarks are becoming". Asked the BBC to escalate my complaint to a further level of investigation and requested a speedy response to acknowledge that was the case, along with some guidance on how long the process was likely to take.


  • 12th February 2011

  • As an extra precaution and to expediate matters, submitted PDF copies of my letter and report by email to the BBC Trust correspondence Assistant. Explained that I wanted to get the two documents over to for the urgent attention of the Audience services team, so although they had been sent in the post I was emailing them over as well for them to be forwarded on, since there was no direct email address given for me to use.


  • Undated

  • On a date I didn't record, I was called by a member of the BBC Complaint's department who wished to read out to me over the telephone a statement which explained that I was not able to raise a complaint on the way that another complaint had been handled. I was unprepared for this call and called back the same day, and several other times, to try to clarify the reasoning I was given, but was never able to be connected to the person I needed to speak to and promises that I would be called back were not followed through. At this stage I was not recording details of phone calls because I didn't realise it would prove necessary to do so.


  • 25th February 2011

  • In response to my several telephone requests to have someone write or call me back and clarify the reason I was not able to raise a matter on the handling of another complaint - even with that person's specific instruction to act on their behalf - on this date I was called and given another indistinct reason as to why it could not be done, and why the BBC were unable to confirm the reason for this in writing. At this point I decided to give up pursuing that matter so as not to detract from my main complaint about the programme. I raised the matter of how long I had been waiting for a reply to my letter and was assured that this would be looked into to make sure it was attended to, and if there was any problem someone would call me back that day (no one did).


  • 7th March 2011

  • Called the BBC's Audience Services department to query the status of my complaint and when I was likely to receive a response. Spoke to another named member of the BBC Audience services staff (but was not allowed to be put through to the named member of staff who signed the BBC's letter to me). Was assured again that my letter would be located and attended to, and that if there was any problem someone would call me back that day (no one did - I took a case number for the call).


  • Visited local MP to ask for his advice and assistance concerning the fact that the BBC were failing to attend to my letter of complaint.


  • Local MP, Sir Alan Meale, sent a letter to Sir Michael Lyons, Chairman of the BBC, stating that my legitimate complaint has so far only received a reply from Audience services "which deals with her complaint in a very trite fashion" and stating that "at the very least a fulsome reply is deserved on this matter".


  • 14th March 2011 - date of letter

  • Letter from BBC Audience services, with yet another different case number: 640319, thanked me for contacting them about my response to their letter but said they were unable to locate my correspondence and asked for it to be sent again.


  • Called the BBC Trust Correspondence Assistant to whom I had cc-d electronic copies. Was told that due to recent activity on my case it had been realised that my letter and report of 11th February could not be found, but the existence of the PDF copies had now been confirmed and these had been forwarded on to the approriate department.


  • 17th March 2011 - date of letter

  • Chairman of the BBC wrote to my local MP expressing concern at my dissatisfaction of the programme and the subsequent responses. Letter explained that the Trust Unit had now found my electronic copy of the correspondence and the BBC Complaints team were consulting with the producer of the program in order to send me a further reply. (A copy of this letter was not received by me until after I had replied to the BBC complaints department myself on 21st March).


  • 21st March 2011 (first day of spring)

  • Submitted my third letter in reply to the BBC's letter of 14th March, addressed to the BBC Complaints department quoting the three latest case reference numbers of the four case reference numbers I had been given so far. Expressed concern that a letter which had been received by cc-d recipients and had been sent by post and also submitted by electronic copy as a precaution against the letter getting lost in the post, had still managed to get lost in the system. Requested that they relax their policy of not allocating named members of staff to individual complaints, and give clarification of who specifically was responsible for the handling of my complaint. Included reference to the fact that the third main presenter of the Stargazing program complained about had also used his public Twitter, on 23rd February 2011, to publish a message which stated "Calling an astronomer an astrologer is like calling a paediatrician a paedophile!". Commented:
    "It is now apparent that all of the so called 'experts' on that show have a renown discriminatory bias and personal intention to discredit the subject of astrology, which reveals the motivation for the gratuitous introduction of the subject on the show; purely to make 'nonsense' out of it by using factually incorrect arguments and misrepresentational demonstrations. As the BBC has itself reported, the PCC has ruled that material that is published on Twitter is considered public, not private; and so I would like this further example of how the presenters of the programme have used their roles as BBC representatives to promote anti-astrology discrimination to be added to my previous report on the Twitter activities of Brian Cox and Dara O Briain. All of this demonstrates how the presenters are unable to put their personal views to one side when carrying out work for the BBC, and show no real concern that the BBC as a corporation might pull them to account for breaching BBC policy on this issue."
  • 12th April 2011

  • Submitted fourth letter to the BBC's Complaint's department reminding them that the only letter I had received in response to the points raised in my original complaint of 19th January had been a standard text letter (of February 8th) which I subsequently discovered had been circulated as a word for word copy to a number of individuals who complained about the comments on astrology in that program. Expressed my surprise that the BBC does not appear to have a complaints policy in place, which would require them to at least acknowledge receipt of correspondence concerning complaints (as requested in my previous letter).


  • Sent PDF copy of my letter to the Correspondent Assistant at the BBC Trust, cc-d to local MP, asking for it to be forwarded to the appropriate department and pointing out that I had now waited over two months for a response to my last letter, and had not been given a written response demonstrating *any* personal attention to my concerns, despite the complaint now being three months old.


  • 13th April 2011

  • Local MP wrote again to the Chairman of the BBC requesting him to intervene to end the lack of response and ensure the complaint is taken seriously.


  • Received emailed response from the Correspondence Assistant at the BBC Trust, to say Audience Services had asked for me to be informed that the production team are looking into my concerns and would be submitting a response to me shortly.


  • 15th April 2011- date of Letter from BBC Audience Services

  • Letter expressed concern that "you have encountered some problems with the handling of your complaint… In this case it seems there has been a breakdown of communication along the way and I suspect this is partly down to correspondence being sent to various parties and in a number of formats". This letter gave the statement of the Stargazing Live producer Alan Holland, which he had asked to be forwarded to me. It read:
    "I was unaware of your initial complaint but I am pleased to now have the opportunity to respond to your concerns.
    As with most programmes we used a rough script for Stargazing Live but Dara and Brian were also encouraged to engage in natural conversation about matters related to astronomy. For instance, when discussion a possible conjunction of all eight planets they joked about how this event would bring about the end of the world. The remarks about astrology were similarly light hearted in tone.
    BBC presenters's obligations under the Editorial Guidelines on impartiality vary according to the output. I recognise you felt the comments were unfair and demonstrated a lack of understanding of astrological study but in the context of a factual broadcast specifically about astronomical events, I think the presenters were entitled to express the opinion that astrology itself has no scientific merit.
    Whilst I appreciate that the terminology used was rather colloquial, I would suggest this could only add to the audience's understanding that these were Dara and Brian's personal views rather than those of the BBC. Your letter also made reference to a complaint about similar comments made by Brian Cox during Wonders of the Solar System. This complaint was not upheld by the BBC's Editorial Complaints Unit and an appeal against this finding was rejected by the BBC Trust. To clarify, these rulings were recorded in the BBC Trust bulletin published in November 2010, prior to the broadcast of Stargazing Live:
    www.bbc.co.uk/bbctrust/assets/files/pdf/appeals/esc_bulletins/2010/oct.pdf Finally, the BBC is not responsible for comments posted by Mark Thompson on Twitter."
    Letter concluded with the statement that if I wished to escalate my complaint to stage 2 of the process, I could submit a complaint to the BBC's Editorial Complaint's Unit within 20 working days quoting a new case number.


  • 28th April 2011- date of letter

  • Chairman of the BBC wrote to my local MP confirming that I had now received a response from the producer and had been advised that I could escalate the complaint to stage 2 if I wished.



  • Stage 1 done - onto stage 2:
    6 May 2011

  • Submitted all-new 8-page letter of complaint to the BBC's Editorial Complaints Department (ECU) which included the following amongst its comments:
    "I consider the producer's response to be inconsistent and unsatisfactory, because it swings between the defence that the remarks were off-the-cuff and intended to be light-hearted (and so presumably not to be given weight and credibility?) and the complete reverse: that "in the context of a factual broadcast specifically about astronomical events, I think the presenters were entitled to express the opinion that astrology itself has no scientific merit".

    ...I hope it would not be necessary to have to persuade the BBC of the astrological argument, in order to pursue this complaint that the astrological argument does exist and was subject to inaccuracy and a lack of impartiality in the presentation of the programme complained about. Even though the producer of the programme suggested that the comments would have been perceived as light hearted in tone, following as they did the earlier references to the end of the world in 2012, it should also be considered that Professor Cox clearly realised that even such a far-fetched and jokey suggestion as the impeding end of the world needed to be clarified, so that he looked concerned when he interrupted Dara Ó Briain’s presentation to make the statement to viewers: “can I just be clear about that – it's not going to happen in 2012!”, upon which both presenters shook their arms in denial to give an obvious dismissal in their tone and gestures, to indicate that they had introduced a joke which was not to be taken seriously. Nothing of this sort happened with the astrology references. Dara Ó Briain took his time to repeat the comments with a raised volume in his voice and sweeping arm gestures to indicate that the only dismissal to be made was the idea that astrology was anything more than absolute nonsense. He looked straight into the camera to give a heightened sense of presenting a factual correction of a point of idiocy, so that the ‘fact’ of the matter can be cleared up “once and for all".

    In addition, I would ask the ECU to investigate why it has taken so much time and so much effort on my part to get a personal response to my complaint, despite my follow-up letters and telephone calls asking for an acknowledgement that my correspondence was being attended to."
  • 16th May 2011- date of letter

  • Received letter of acknowledgement from ECU that my complaint would be investigated. Asked me to confirm that I was complaining against the policies of accuracy and impartiality. Stated the intention to let me know the outcome of the investigation by 14 June 2011. The letter came by electronic mail with a note saying:
    "You have also raised concerns about the management of your complaint thus far. This unit is limited to investigating alleged breaches of the standards expressed by the BBC's Editorial Guidelines, so it would not be open to us to consider this part of your complaint. I have however asked a senior colleague in BBC Audience Services for a response on those points, and I will ensure that this is included in my finding letter to you."
  • 18th May 2011

  • Sent my response to ECU by email with the following clarification:
    "The one comment I would like to make is concerning the top paragraph of the 2nd page, where you quote me as saying that the comments "received no opportunity for counter view or impartial correction". I understand that the BBC cannot commit to absolute neutrality on every issue, or absolute balance in every programme, and so I hope my complaint doesn't get lost in that point. It is my belief that nonsense comments were deliberately put forward in order to take the opportunity to express (and stretch) an emotive bias, beyond the point where there could be any worthwhile information that added editorial value to the programme. So although I don't want to centralise the complaint on that, (or make it too formal) I hope the ECU will be able to reflect upon my view that the lack of impartiality was more serious because it was underlined by intent, and will be able to consider this whilst in the process of investigating the matter".
  • 14th June 2011

  • 2:18 pm - Submitted email to ECU advising that the date they had hoped to inform me of the decision had been reached, and asking for an update on the status.


  • 5:24 pm - received email from Richard Hutt, Complaints Director of the ECU, containing PDF copy of his letter giving the results of his investigation. The complaint was not upheld. Justification for denying the accuracy complaint dwelt heavily upon the BBC's decision that "It is a fact that science does not consider that there is proof to support astrology", with additional discussion on what the word 'due' in the phrase "due accuracy" might mean for a science programme talking about something which is not recognised by science, and reference to the explanatory statement given by the producer of the programme.

    The impartiality complaint was not upheld through defence of an argument I had not made (that impartiality does not mean astrology should get equal discussion or a balance of time on science programmes) and reference to the previous ECU ruling on the complaint submitted by the Astrological Association (although this involved a very different situation in a completely different programme).

    The letter stated that the ECU would be happy to consider any further points I wished to make.


  • 20th June 2011 (Summer solstice)

  • Took up the opportunity to make further points in a new letter, which began with the following brief outline of the points I intended to discuss in full:
    "I am dissatisfied with the way my complaint has been handled throughout the complaint process, and am concerned that your reply 1) failed to address the points I raised directly, 2) misquoted the dialogue between Ó Briain and Professor Cox, so that there is exaggerated emphasis on comedy rather than the attempt to deliver facts, 3) judged according to an irrelevant precedent, and 4) inappropriately defined the fundamental basis of my complaint, which is actually about the astronomical and technical basis of astrology and not, as you state, about the basis for astrology. Anyone reading your letter would get the impression that I am arguing about the validity of astrology, which I am not. This suggests that you have not understood my objection and I would ask you to reconsider my complaint based on a clearer understanding of what it is.

    My complaint is not about the views of Dara Ó Briain or Professor Brian Cox nor about a question of BBC duty to present astrology impartially and equally on a science program. You addressed my complaint by reference to an earlier one lodged by the Astrological Association of Great Britain, concerning comments made about Professor Cox in a separate TV series, where the objection was whether it was appropriate for Professor Cox to express his unqualified personal views in a BBC scientific program. Although I deny that there is a consensus about astrology among scientists who have studied astrology, the justification given under those circumstances holds no relevance to my complaint.

    I object to Ó Briain and Professor Cox's statement that astrology is absolute nonsense because the astronomical basis is flawed. The remarks are simply false and seriously misleading to the audience. I welcome that you accept the presenters "may not have accurately described the grounds on which astrologists (sic) believe astrology to work, …" However, we are not talking about belief but hard astronomical facts about planetary movements which can be independently verified. As you state in page 3 of your letter, a science program should not present arguments for matters which are not supported by scientific evidence.

    You suggest the context might be viewed as comedic, but the air of assurance and repetition by Ó Briain, backed by the authority of Professor Cox, demonstrates that the dialogue sought to present a serious and factual point, even though it masqueraded under the guise of spontaneous banter. The discussion was not spontaneous; it received prior editorial approval and was delivered authoritatively as fact. There was no attempt to qualify it as opinion or to differentiate between horoscope analysis and simplistic media Sun sign astrology.

    Professor Brian Cox is well-known for his campaign against astrology and his use of the BBC as a medium to promote his own beliefs on this. Even if astrology is considered by some to be an uncontroversial minority viewpoint where normal rules of respect do not apply, the presenters' use of their public profiles to raise intolerance towards the astrological community compromises the BBC's impartiality guidelines (15.4.20); guidelines that Professor Cox dismissed in mocking tones when he endorsed falsities on Stargazing Live "in the interests of balance on the BBC". I have shown why the patently inaccurate and insulting remarks were pre-planned and had prior editorial approval before being manipulated into a conversation that held no need for them. This breaks the BBC's editorial guidelines of producers needing to do all they reasonably can do to make sure that broadcast remarks are fair and accurate in their details.

    Prior editorial approval of such uninformed and insulting remarks demonstrates indulgence for a juvenile laddish culture, which might be appropriate in a pub, but is totally out of place when promoting and presenting science on the BBC. This is something that needs to addressed and cleaned up by the BBC. By deferring your judgement mainly to the defence of the producer (which I have already shown to be unconvincing), and supporting it only by reference to the BBC Trust's findings on another complaint which was irrelevant to mine, and by failing to recognise the correct basis of my complaint, I am left to consider that your judgement did not demonstrate due consideration and appropriate attention to my letter, and the seriousness of the relevant points of impartiality contained within it.

    Essentially, the comments clearly breached BBC policies on impartiality and its guidelines 3.2.1 on accuracy, 3.2.2 on using evidence without any source and in making unclear claims and 3.2.3 by misleading audiences with distorted or invented facts. To not act on this appropriately would be a breach of 3.2.4 that serious factual errors should be corrected. The rest of this letter substantiates what I say above and aims to be self-referential by incorporating details of previous exchanges."



  • In their letter of 14th June the ECU apologised for failing to deliver on their promise of asking a senior colleague in BBC Audience Services to arrange a response to my concern over the handling of my complaint and ensuring that this was included in their findings. I have requested that they take whatever reasonable time is necessary to arrange for this to happen in their next letter. I will be submitting the above record of exchanges to facilitate that process.

    At this stage I continue with low hopes and lower expectations, holding back my instinct that when all irrelevant arguments are removed and there is no defence left for the indefensible, the ultimate finding will be a creatively worded letter which expresses the sentiment:
    "This was a science programme. I think it follows that the presenters were entitled to express their emotively biased and prejudicial comments to demonstrate that astrology is absolute nonsense, even if they made up ridiculous explanations to prove it. This is not inaccuracy since it is a fact that astrology itself has no scientific merit. It is absolute nonsense. But to preserve our position we shall suggest that the whole thing was just a joke that made for good entertainment at your expense. In the context of a factual broadcast specifically about astronomical events, who cares if we get the facts right when talking about the astronomy of astrology?
    Of course, these are Dara and Brian's personal views rather than those of the BBC."


    [Update: 21 December 2011:
    Oh how prophetic those words proved to be. Re-on to the conclusion of this drama, in the winter solstice report: A festive present from the BBC: "It's nuts" ("Oh no it's not ...")]




    Deborah Houlding is a practitioner and teacher of traditional Western Astrology, specialising in horary, with a particular interest in the history, philosophy and early development of astrological symbolism. She is host of the astrology site www.skyscript.co.uk. Her personal website is at www.debhoulding.co.uk



    The document is offered for private, non-commercial, public information use only. It may not be reproduced further without specific agreement. Published online June 2011.



           
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