Monday, 2 June 2014

BBC story featuring BritainsDNA breached editorial guidelines

This should interest those who, like me, are fed up reading about DNA genetic astrology stories...

On July 9th 2012, BBC Radio 4 broadcast an interview between Jim Naughtie as presenter, and Alistair Moffat, representing BritainsDNA (which also trades as ScotlandsDNA, IrelandsDNA and YorkshiresDNA), the third such interview between the two. Apparently the company had found that the "Old Testament was coming alive" and how they had established that we all did descend from Adam and Eve. Not only that, they had apparently found "Eve's grandson" in Scotland, nine people in Britain were allegedly related to the Queen of Sheba, and that "that 33% of men are closely associated to the founding lineages of Britain". And so it went on, including claims that BritainsDNA tests were 'massively subsidised'. The company's claims were unchallenged on air, in what many saw as free product placement on a flagship BBC programme. The interview can be heard at

Following this interview, there has been an extraordinary and long running spat between BritainsDNA and members of UCL and others in the academic and genealogy communities concerning both these claims made, and subsequent assertions by the company and its representatives. The UCL website has a timeline based summary of the proceedings from its point of view at

I've just learned that at the end of February 2014, the BBC's Editorial Complaints Unit found that there were indeed faults with the interview between Jim Naughtie and Alistair Moffat of July 9th 2012, following a complaint made on October 8th 2013 by UCL academic David Balding - the latest in a line of complaints previously dismissed by the BBC (a full list of the complaints, and their BBC responses, is summarised at

The ruling, dated February 19th, and published on April 15th, states:

The ECU found that, in a number of instances, the representative of BritainsDNA had spoken in terms which went beyond what could be inferred with certainty from the evidence, or were simply mistaken. Even allowing for an element of shorthand arising from the need to render technical information comprehensible to a non-specialist audience within the compass of a short interview, the result was to give an exaggerated impression of what could be established about the remote ancestry of individuals by the kind of testing offered by BritainsDNA, and the programme team should have done more to guard against this.

In relation to an impression of endorsement or promotion, the ECU noted the explanation of the term “massively subsidised” subsequently offered by another representative of the company, who said “The sentiment was that many people were working for free to get the effort off the ground and had made investments from our own funds”. While there are contexts in which references to subsidy in that sense would be unexceptionable, the context in this instance was one in which it was not made clear that BritainsDNA is a commercial undertaking. In that context the reference to massive subsidy may have contributed to an impression that BritainsDNA is a disinterested research study (an impression which the interviewer’s description of the company as a “DNA database” and his reference to “people who give their DNA for the project” would have tended to reinforce). Against this background, the mention of the company’s URL towards the end of the item contributed to an inappropriate impression of promoting what is in fact a commercial enterprise.

The full ruling is available at

(With thanks to Debbie Kennett)


Now available for UK research is the new second edition of the best selling Tracing Your Family History on the Internet: A Guide for Family Historians, whilst my new book British and Irish Newspapers is also now out. And FindmyPast - please reinstate the original Scottish census citations on your new site.

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