O my Ghosh! Pallab's back.

31/02/2005

Iain Taylor talks to Pallab Ghosh, the BBC's science correspondent, about journalism, Hutton and editing Felix.

Do you have fond memories of Felix?

It was great fun. When I took it over, Felix had a great tradition of being independent, and we quite enjoyed satirising College and the people. As far as I know, I was the only Felix editor to so enrage the Rector, it was Lord Flowers at the time, that he produced a rival newspaper called Fido containing all sorts of salacious and exaggerated gossip about me. It was wonderful and the thing that made me decide to be a journalist. I initially got involved with Felix since my friend in halls was working in Felix and he encouraged me to come along and meet the editor. It seemed like a nice social group, and I got involved in photography and layout. It was in the days of cut and paste, so there were many technical layout and design issues.

What did you study as an undergraduate?

I studied physics. I didn't get very good marks in physics - I got a degree, but I was obviously not going to set the world alight. I didn't think that I'd be a journalist, partly because of my background. Although I grew up in this country, English wasn't my first language - I could speak it quite well, but my grammar and spelling were atrocious. I think a lot of people from poorer, disadvantaged backgrounds feel that, and that's partly why when at the Association of British Science Writers (ABSW) I set up this scheme to try to help people from disadvantaged backgrounds get onto MSc science communication courses like the ones at Imperial.

Was the problem with physics that your time was being taken up by Felix?

No, it was because physics was hard! A lot of people who go to Imperial are top of their class in school and then find they're at best mediocre amongst an exceptionally gifted bunch of people. I knew I wasn't going to be a good scientist, and so decided to edit the newspaper instead. Unfortunately I couldn't write to save my life! I could do the layout and design, and I thought I could get my staff to write the news stories, people to write features, and my girlfriend at the time to write the editorial. When I took over it was a month before the first issue deadline and while concentrating on the design, I kept asking my girlfriend to write the editorial early because I was feeling anxious about it. She kept saying she needed to wash her hair or do the shopping - the things girlfriends say when they don't want to do something - and it became quite obvious she wasn't going to write it. At the very last minute I had to write to save my life, or it wasn't going to get published. I realised I could write after all.

What is your position within the BBC?

I am one of the science correspondents here. There are four of us because BBC News has expanded so much recently. When I first started at the Beeb, I was doing science stories for all the radio and TV - I was completely exhausted. Now I focus mostly on radio. The Today programme is the most important customer in radio, but I'll also do TV when I've got a story. I find it a nice balance. Now I've got a bit more time, I can actually find my own stories rather than just responding to the diary.

Do the public want to know about science?

I think so. The only thing I have to go on is that there's a big appetite for science stories. You must know from your own interaction with people who aren't scientists that they tend to be interested. People followed Beagle very closely, they follow the stem cell debate. Perhaps people aren't interested in studying science, or in becoming science teachers, but I think people are interested in the whole area.

Were you in favour of the decision to dumb down Horizon recently?

Have they tried to dumb down Horizon? I think that perhaps years ago BBC2 lost its way slightly. Channel 4 was going great guns with innovative broadcasting, and it's my own personal view that BBC2 had a bit of an identity crisis. It wanted to be innovative but had to keep one eye on its ratings. You mustn't think of the BBC as one entity, with one evil genius in charge of it all. It's a large organisation with different people doing different things. Production teams differ between Horizon programmes, and the apparent `dumbing down' may have just been down to one production team.

The Hutton report had a big effect on reporting in the BBC, but science news is generally assumed to be impartial. Has the report affected science reporting by the BBC at all?

No, but remember that Susan Watts (BBC Newsnight science editor) was a key player in that affair and picked up the same WMD story. In fact, this illustrates my point on there being grey areas: there are lots of government scientists that tend to talk to science correspondents rather than defence correspondents. Gilligan was a defence correspondent so David Kelly spoke to him as well. I think it's made us think about our own reporting and our own standards of reporting. Generally, we do ok, but the whole David Kelly/Hutton thing reminds us not to be complacent. There are various things the Beeb has done to try and go back to core values I suppose. It sounds like flag-waving, but one thing that still distinguishes the BBC is the freedom its journalists have to tell a story as they see it. Many of my science correspondent colleagues, even those on the broadsheets, get told what to write.

As a public service corporation, does the government instruct the BBC on the amount of science it has to report on?

No, that would be appalling! One of the things I did when I was at the ABSW as chair was to make it quite clear that the job of the science journalist isn't primarily to educate. It might have that effect, but I've been trying to get science journalists to be journalists again. There's been a tradition for science journalists to be translators - to be part of the whole education movement. In other countries they call it `popularization'. It's a laudable aim and important for society, but what's also important is to hold people to account and put them under scrutiny. If we spend all our time saying how fantastic everything is, then we don't do our jobs properly.

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