The panel on Monday's Newsnight. L-R: Dr Peiris, Dr Aderin-Pocock, Jeremy Paxman, Associate Professor Pryke. (Image: Screengrab)
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UCL calls out Daily Mail for complaining that women of colour can’t be scientists

BBC's Newsnight relied on two British experts to help explain this week's momentous discovery of primordial gravitational waves – but the Mail thinks they could only have been chosen for “diversity” reasons.

The discovery of primordial gravitational waves by the Bicep2 experiment this week has set physics tongues a-wagging with talk of how it important it is. Newsnight covered it on Monday evening with three guests, all experts in the field: associate professor of astrophysics and cosmology at the University of Minnesota (and co-author of the study) Clement Pryke; reader in astronomy at UCL Dr Hiranya Peiris; and Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock, research associate of UCL's Department of Physics and Astronomy, and co-host of The Sky At Night.

Notice anything strange about that list? The Daily Mail’s Ephraim Hardcastle - a pseudonym used for writing celeb gossip and judgement by other writers at the paper - certainly did:

Newsnight's Guardian-trained editor, Ian Katz, is keen on diversity.

So, two women were invited to comment on the report about (white, male) American scientists who’ve detected the origins of the universe – giggling Sky at Night presenter Maggie Aderin-Pocock and Sri Lanka-born astronomer Hiranya Peiris.

It’s a rubbish bit of right-wing “PC-gone-mad” crap, focusing entirely on the ethnicity and gender of the two scientists. So full marks to UCL’s vice-provost for research, David Price, for writing this excellent response calling it out:

Dear Mr Dacre,

I am writing to express my deep disappointment in the insinuation in your newspaper that Dr Hiranya Peiris was selected to discuss the Big Bang breakthrough on Newsnight for anything other than her expertise.

In Ephraim Hardcastle's column on 19 March, he asserts that Dr Peiris and Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock were selected based on gender and birthplace because 'Newsnight's Guardian-trained editor, Ian Katz, is keen on diversity.'

The implication that anything outside of her academic record qualifies Dr Peiris to discuss the results of the BICEP2 study is profoundly insulting. She is a world-leading expert on the study of the cosmic microwave background, with degrees from Cambridge and Princeton, so is one of the best-placed people in the world to discuss the finding.

Dr Aderin-Pocock is a highly-qualified scientist and engineer with an exceptional talent for communicating complex scientific concepts in an accessible way.

Mr Hardcastle also wrongly states that the discovery itself was made by 'white, male American' scientists, when in fact the study was conducted by a diverse group of researchers from around the world....

It is deeply disappointing that you thought it acceptable to print an article drawing attention to the gender and race of scientific experts, suggesting that non-white, non-male scientists are somehow incapable of speaking on the basis of their qualifications and expertise.

I look forward to your reply and would ask that the Mail rectifies the insinuations made about Dr Peiris and Dr Aderin-Pocock at the earliest opportunity.

Yours sincerely,

David Price

Both of the scientists added their own comments to the letter, too. Dr Peiris said: “I deeply pity the sort of person who can watch a report about ground-breaking news on the origins of the universe and everything in it, and see only the gender and skin colour of the panellists. I am disturbed that he has even erased the contributions of all of the non-white and non-male and non-American scientists involved in the discovery at the same time.”

While Dr Aderin-Pocock said: “I find Ephraim Hardcastle’s idea very interesting, I now picture the Newsnight team flipping through their rolodex, saying ‘too white, too male… ah, 2 ethnic minority females, perfect!’. Monday was a very busy day for me, receiving 10 requests for news interviews, I was able to do Radio 4’s PM program, 5 Live, Channel 5 News and Newsnight. I believe that the requests were made for my ability to translate complex ideas into something accessible, rather than my gender or the colour of my skin.”

Comments like Hardcastle’s (whoever they are) are the kind that reinforce two damaging stereotypes about science at the same time – that it’s for men, and that it’s for white people. A report from the Institute of Physics, published in December 2013, found that on average only 20 per cent of pupils choosing to study physics at A-level were female, compared to the 53 per cent average for all subjects as a whole. Parliament’s Science and Technology Committee published the results of a inquiry last month which detailed a range of barriers to women to choosing STEM (that's science, technology, engineering and mathematics) careers: everything from gendered research (for example, many biological studies take the male body to be the default, from rats to humans) to institutional sexism in hiring policies (only 17 per cent of professors in STEM subjects in the UK are women).

A 2011 study by the Equality Challenge Unit found that BME academics face a range of discriminatory factors in work, and they are often compounded if they are also women. It found that “both BME and non-BME female staff are less likely to have personal influence at all levels than their male colleagues”; “both BME and non-BME women are less likely to be involved in service activities, for example, have served as a peer reviewer, a member of a national/international scientific body, or an editor of a journal/book series”; and that “while some institutions appear to feel they do not have a problem because they do not have many BME staff, it is precisely the absence of BME staff that constitutes their problem”.

Challenging theses systemic issues isn't helped by national newspapers printing tired clichés straight from the Jeremy-Clarkson-shrugging-and-looking-annoyed-about-something literary tradition.

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder