Scientists have an important role to play as public communicators of science (Peters 2013
). Public relations departments in universities encourage and facilitate media contact based on the belief that a media presence will give the institution visibility and will help to attract students (Peters 2013
). Further, in an increasingly competitive market, universities are turning to new ways to raise money (Hale and Viña 2016
) and scientists are under pressure to deliver commercial benefits from their research (Langley and Parkinson 2009
). Some science-related companies are commercial spin-offs from universities and many academics take on consultancy roles in the private sector. Media-savvy companies try to attract free media coverage for their commercial products under the guise of public-interest science stories, which saves on the cost of advertising and gives an apparently independent endorsement of the product. There is great public interest in science but few journalists are scientists or have any scientific training, which can result in sensationalised or unbalanced reporting (Science and Technology Committee, House of Commons 2017
; Kennedy and Overholser 2010
While most scientists take a broadly positive view of media exposure of their science and their host institutions typically encourage science-media interactions (Peters et al. 2008
), tensions can arise between scientists and companies over the scientific basis of claims in the media that appear to the general public to be scientific but that are in effect little more than disguised marketing. Sometimes disagreements arise between independent scientists and scientists working for a company due to this apparent conflict of interest. Exaggerated claims, or claims with little scientific merit, can be lucrative in terms of business promotion but independent scientists may be concerned that they devalue the relevant scientific fields and create a misleading impression of the state of the science. Moreover, there appears to be little support provided by universities to individual scientists challenging questionable claims in the media.
Fear of legal action is also likely to be a factor in discouraging scientists from speaking out. The science writer Simon Singh was sued by the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) for comments made about chiropractors in an article in The Guardian
). The legal case lasted for two years and the legal bills came to an estimated £400,000 (Singh 2010
). The BCA were ultimately responsible for their own legal costs and the vast majority of Singh’s legal costs but Singh lost a large amount of money in unrecovered legal costs (Singh 2010
; Singh 2011
). The Guardian
newspaper was sued by Matthias Rath, a promoter of vitamin supplements for AIDS, over three critical articles written by the science writer and medical doctor Ben Goldacre (Boseley 2008
). Rath eventually dropped the case but it cost the newspaper £500,000 in legal fees (Goldacre 2008
). Although Rath was ordered by the high court to pay the initial costs, the newspaper lost £175,000 in unrecovered legal fees (Singh 2011
). These high-profile cases were instrumental in calls for reform of the libel law in England and Wales (Nature editorial 2012
). A new Defamation Act came into force on 1st January 2014 (BBC News 2013
) but concerns still remain over the costs of litigation (Cressey 2013
Direct-to-consumer genetic ancestry testing exemplifies many of the issues raised above and, in this article, we relate a case study of a company with strong media connections that was able to achieve substantial favourable coverage in newspapers, radio and television. The story is told by the group of concerned scientists and a genealogist (the authors) whose challenge to some of the company’s claims was met with legal threats. We begin by first providing a guide to the science that underpins genetic ancestry testing before addressing the particular case of the BritainsDNA company. The rest of the paper focuses on our interactions with BritainsDNA, the role of the universities and the media in this case and our efforts to counter bad science.
3. Our Interactions with BritainsDNA
On 9 July 2012 Alistair Moffat was interviewed by Jim Naughtie on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme about the findings of his “BritainsDNA project”. During the interview Moffat made a number of unjustifiable claims, such as that the Bible was “beginning to come alive” through DNA testing, that he had identified an individual living in Scotland who is “Eve’s grandson” and that he had found nine people descended from the Queen of Sheba. Listeners were directed to the BritainsDNA website and told that “You have to pay for it but we subsidise it massively”, thus giving listeners the false impression that this was a publicly-funded academic research project.
Two of the scientists involved with the venture, Jim Wilson (University of Edinburgh) and Gianpiero Cavalleri (Royal College of Physicians in Ireland), had previously been based at University College London (UCL). As former colleagues, David Balding (DJB) and Mark Thomas (MGT) emailed them to express their dismay at what they had heard. They asked for clarification of the claim that BritainsDNA was “massively” subsidised and suggested that Moffat should be encouraged to retract his erroneous statements. The emails were copied to academic colleagues Francois Balloux (UCL) and Mike Weale (then at Kings College London and formerly at UCL), who were interested in the issues and knew some of those involved.
No response was received from their former colleagues but on 22 July 2012 MGT and DJB received an email from Professor Malcolm Grant, then UCL Provost, saying that Moffat had contacted him threatening to sue and asking the Provost to intervene. Moffat had demanded an apology and an undertaking that DJB and MGT retract their remarks and never repeat them. Professor Grant responded to Moffat saying that he had no intention of intervening, reminding him of the principles of academic freedom and pointing out that Moffat held office (Rector) at the University of St Andrews where those principles are as fully respected as they are at UCL. He suggested that Moffat engage in rational debate rather than try to suppress his critics.
MGT and DJB wrote to Moffat on 7 August 2012 explaining the many errors in his interview. Having received no response, a second email was sent on 28 August. Wilson and Cavalleri were copied in on both emails. There was no response from Moffat but Wilson replied by email two days later. He responded to the scientific issues raised by MGT and DJB but not the “we subsidise it massively” claim. MGT and DJB replied to Wilson the same day, offering to respond to his points but first requesting an explanation of Moffat’s subsidy claim. A further follow up e-mail asking for clarification on the subsidy issue was sent on 3 September. That same day David McKie, a partner in Levy & McRae solicitors, representing both BritainsDNA and Moffat, emailed MGT and DJB (with a paper copy following in the post). The letter demanded three undertakings from MGT and DJB, warning of legal action if the demands were not met. These were:
That any statement, written or otherwise, which you make in relation to our client’s organisation will not suggest that their work, or the statements and opinions of Mr Moffat, are in any way fraudulent, dishonest or disingenuous.
That you will not report or state as a matter of undisputed fact that our clients’ science is ‘wrong’ or untrue. Clearly you disagree with their approach but the basis of that disagreement is a matter of interpretation. Our clients accept that change and reinterpretation are part of the nature of scientific enquiry. But the issues of which you complain are currently issues of opinion and not matters of absolute fact, correct or incorrect.
That you will not report anything inaccurate or misleading in relation to the funding of our client’s business, when you have no basis or knowledge of how the business was started or has been funded historically.
MGT and DGB had an extensive private discussion with Wilson at a meeting in London in November 2012 but he did not provide a substantive response. Cavalleri later resigned as a director of BritainsDNA (effective April 2013).
On 17 December 2012 Vincent Plagnol, a UCL colleague of DJB and MGT, posted on the Genomes Unzipped
blog about the BBC Radio 4 Today
programme interview and the lack of a scientific basis for the claims made (Plagnol 2012
). Another UCL colleague, David Colquhoun, wrote about the affair but with a focus on the threat of legal action and the disguised advertising on the BBC (Colquhoun 2012
). The article on Genomes Unzipped
provoked a response from Wilson who was given the opportunity to write a guest post (Wilson 2013
), which did finally clarify the subsidy issue:
“The remark in the interview about a subsidy … 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. There is no further subsidy”.
In February 2013 MGT, DJB and Debbie Kennett (DAK) attended the Who Do You Think You Are? Live
exhibition at Olympia, London. Moffat gave a lecture that included misleading claims (Kennett 2013c
). Unusually, there was no opportunity for questions from the audience at the end of the lecture. DAK tried to question Moffat afterwards to enquire when the “research” presented in the lecture was to be published but did not receive an adequate response. MGT tried to engage Moffat in debate but to no avail.
There have been no further direct interactions between us and BritainsDNA, Moffat or Wilson. Despite ignoring the solicitor’s demands, no further legal action was taken, suggesting the letter was intended only to stifle debate. We have set up a website to document the saga; it includes a timeline and all documents of correspondence because of its public interest (Appendix A
4. The Role of the Universities
In December 2012 MGT and DJB emailed a letter of complaint about Moffat’s professional conduct in his role as Rector of the University of St Andrews to Professor Louise Richardson, then Principal and Vice-chancellor of St Andrews, now Vice-Chancellor at the University of Oxford. Thanks to the publicity on the Genomes Unzipped
blog the matter was brought to the attention of Simon Singh, the prominent campaigner for libel reform. Singh was himself a victim of a damaging libel action, dropped only after two years, arising from his criticism of questionable claims by chiropractors (Singh 2010
; Singh 2011
). Singh had been awarded an honorary degree by the University of St Andrews and he was disappointed to read that its Rector was threatening legal action to stifle criticisms from academics. He wrote personally to Professor Richardson to encourage her to ensure that the university took the complaint seriously. At this point it was discovered that the Principal had not received the original e-mail. This was rectified and St Andrews then investigated the complaint. They set up a Senate investigation panel, which concluded that parts of the solicitor’s letter sent on behalf of Moffat to MGT and DJB were “contrary to the principles of academic freedom and honest scientific debate in a matter of public interest”. This conclusion was endorsed by the Senate Business Committee and later by the Academic Council. Moffat was asked to “delineate more clearly between the university and his personal business interests”.
We later became aware that similar threats of legal action had been made to Jonathon Bucks, news editor of the St Andrews student newspaper The Saint
. Bucks was “repeatedly warned” by Moffat that “if necessary, he would take legal action over anything the student newspaper published” (Nature editorial 2013
). Bucks ignored the warnings and the newspaper published several critical articles (Bucks 2013a
; Davies 2013
). Moffat had previously unsuccessfully brought a £25,000 libel case against the Scottish Media group in 1999, claiming that he had been defamed by a satirical article in the West Highland Free Press
(HeraldScotland Editorial Staff 1999
Moffat’s three-year tenure as Rector of St Andrews ended in October 2014. He was not nominated for an honorary degree, becoming only the second rector in the university’s history not to receive that honour and the first not to be nominated (Bucks 2014
). The Saint
commented that Moffat “finishes his term with many positive changes” but with “a slightly tarnished reputation” as a result of the “BritainsDNA scandal” (Harsanyi 2014
To our knowledge the University of Edinburgh took no action over Wilson’s role in threatening legal action against academic colleagues nor over his media appearances as a representative of the university while not mentioning his commercial interest, which appeared to be more relevant to the claims that he made. Wilson was subsequently promoted to Professor by the University of Edinburgh.
5. The Role of the Media
BritainsDNA was notable for its prominent coverage in the UK media. Moffat’s previous position at Scottish Television, and his involvement with the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and the Borders Book Festival, had brought him into contact with many celebrities and journalists, particularly in Scotland. He was able to exploit these contacts to promote his company through considerable free publicity (O’Conor 2015
A particularly concerning aspect of BritainsDNA’s marketing was that the commercial nature of the venture was frequently disguised. People were encouraged to take a DNA test to participate in “research” as part of a “project”. The two principal shareholders of BritainsDNA held positions at Scottish universities. Although their university positions were not connected with their work at BritainsDNA, these associations were mentioned in marketing material to add credibility. The BritainsDNA website included a page on research and development which stated that they were “open to collaborations from academic partners” and “committed to publishing relevant research in the academic peer-reviewed literature”. However, no peer-reviewed research paper was ever published by the company. Instead, the “research” was published in press releases and in newspapers to generate further publicity for the company. Often these press releases coincided with the launch of a new test or a new feature. Celebrities were encouraged to have their DNA tested and their results were shared in newspapers and on the radio. Prior relationships and conflicts of interest were not declared. It remains unclear if the celebrities understood that they were being used for promotional purposes or if they genuinely thought they were contributing to a scientific research project.
The disguising of a commercial venture as a research project and the exaggerated nature of the claims served to undermine legitimate scientific research on human population history and evolution. There was a danger that the public would become disillusioned with the science and lose their trust in scientists. As Jobling et al. commented: “The presentation of nonsense in the guise of science is not only misleading the paying customer but runs the risk of damaging science itself” (Jobling et al. 2016
5.1. Newspaper, Broadcast and Online Coverage
In this section, we quantify the scale of UK TV, radio and print media coverage of BritainsDNA. In order to highlight the scientific and ethical issues raised, we detail some specific cases. BritainsDNA is not the only company selling genetic ancestry tests in the UK, nor the only company to make misleading inferences from haplogroups. Phillips identified 74 companies offering ancestry testing (Phillips 2016
). However, the misleading claims made by other companies are generally confined to their own websites and not disseminated through mainstream media outlets.
A search was conducted on 13 August 2017 of the following UK online newspaper websites: the BBC website, Daily Mail Online
, The Guardian
and The Observer
, The Independent
, The Scotsman
, The Times
and The Sunday Times
and the Scottish newspaper The Courier
and using the following search terms: “BritainsDNA”, “ScotlandsDNA”, “IrelandsDNA”, “YorkshiresDNA”, “CymruDNAWales”, “Moffat AND DNA”. A list of articles is provided in Supplementary Materials File S1
The first direct promotions of the company were published in The Scotsman
on 30 November 2011 to coincide with the launch of the new ScotlandsDNA website (Moffat 2011a
). Readers were encouraged to participate in a “ground-breaking plan to test the DNA of thousands of Scots” led by “author and historian” Alistair Moffat (Moffat 2011a
). It was not clarified that this project was a commercial venture rather than a scientific research project. Moffat’s position as Rector at the University of St Andrews was listed in his biography at the bottom of the article but there was no mention of his financial interest in ScotlandsDNA. An additional feature article by Moffat was published in the print edition of The Scotsman
). The article included a reader offer with the headline “Are you a Pict or a Viking?” Readers were invited to have their DNA tested as part of a “new national project”. They were told that “With new technology we have brought the costs down to £170 for women and £200 for men”. To get involved in the project readers were directed to the ScotlandsDNA website. A five-part series in The Scotsman
by Moffat, beginning in October 2015, was also accompanied by a reader’s offer for a discounted ScotlandsDNA test.
The ScotlandsDNA website carried a banner until late 2013 with the legend “In proud association with The Scotsman
and The Courier
”. The Scotsman
published 33 articles promoting the company or Moffat’s books whereas The Courier
only published a single article. Ten of The Scotsman
articles were written by Moffat. Six articles, although not bylined, appear to have been sourced from the Moffat and Wilson book The Scots: A Genetic Journey
(Moffat and Wilson 2011
). There is no public information on the status of the relationship between The Scotsman
and ScotlandsDNA. Clearly the newspaper was happy to provide the company with free publicity but it is not known if they also took a percentage of sales through reader offers, or if Moffat received a payment for the articles he wrote for the paper and for the serialisation of his book. Whatever the case may be, the extensive use of advertorials for a commercial venture undermines the editorial integrity of the newspaper.
Another tactic used by BritainsDNA was the use of celebrities to endorse their tests. Robin McKie, the Science Editor of The Observer,
was tested by BritainsDNA and he returned the favour by writing an article to promote the launch of the new BritainsDNA website (McKie 2012
). The focus of his article was the “remarkable claim” that the actor Tom Conti is related to Napoleon Bonaparte:
“According to Moffat, Conti’s DNA marker reveals his male lineage is Saracen in origin. His ancestors settled in Italy around the 10th century before one of them, Giovanni Buonaparte, settled in Corsica and founded the family branch that produced Napoleon … He [Conti] is clearly a close relative of Napoleon. Only DNA could have told that story”.
The “marker” in question is M34, a SNP that defines a sub-branch of Y-haplogroup E (ISOGG 2018
). A scientific paper has indeed been published purporting to show that Napoleon’s Y-chromosome belongs to the E-M34 lineage (Lucotte et al. 2011
). The authors determined the haplogroup by testing some beard hairs stored in a reliquary at the Bertrand Museum of Châteauroux, which were thought to belong to Napoleon. They suggested that the most recent common ancestor (MRCA) of all modern bearers of E-M35 lived around 7000 years ago (± 850 years). Different methods of calculating the time to the MRCA using SNPs instead of STRs would have yielded different dates (Balanovsky 2017
). Given the small fraction of ancestry that the Y-chr represents, these results—if correct and regardless of the date—provide no evidence of a closer relationship between Conti and Napoleon than between a randomly picked European and Napoleon. They merely share a Y-chr lineage in common with perhaps millions of other men. Saracen is the nickname that BritainsDNA give to the E-M34 haplogroup but these names have no scientific basis and we cannot tell where E-M34 originated.
The media coverage of the launch of BritainsDNA continued the practice of disguising a commercial venture as an academic research project. In addition to the account in The Observer
, the story was covered by The Telegraph
, the Daily Mail
, The Scotsman
and the BBC Scotland website (BBC Editorial Staff 2012
; Cooper 2012
; Cramb 2012
; McGinty 2012
). None of the reports clarified that the project was a commercial venture. Only the Daily Mail
and The Telegraph
mentioned that it was necessary to spend £170 to buy a DNA test to participate in the “project”. All five reports described BritainsDNA as a project that was set up by Dr Jim Wilson, a geneticist based at the University of Edinburgh and Alistair Moffat, a historian and the then Rector of the University of St Andrews but not their roles in a commercial genetic ancestry company. Evidently, none of the journalists verified the status of the project with the universities in question or sought opinions from scientists working in relevant fields.
In June 2013, The Times
exclusively covered a story from BritainsDNA about Prince William’s Indian ancestry (Brown 2013a
), which was subsequently widely shared in other newspapers and picked up by TV and radio stations worldwide. DNA tests were carried out on two of William’s matrilineal relatives who are likely to share his mtDNA sequence. Their genealogy traced back to a common female-line ancestor, Eliza Kewark, who had lived in western India but was “usually described as Armenian”. The analysis was carried out by Jim Wilson who was described as “a genetics expert at the University of Edinburgh and BritainsDNA”. He concluded that the results provided “unassailable” evidence of William’s Indian heritage (Brown 2013c
). However, The Times
articles left many questions unanswered, such as how the researchers had eliminated the possibility that the rare mtDNA haplotype was not also present in Armenia (Kennett 2013d
). The research was not published in a scientific or genealogical journal so it is not possible to scrutinise the findings. The only additional information about the research was provided in a press release on the BritainsDNA website. Although not mentioned in the media coverage, the Prince William story coincided with the launch of BritainsDNA’s new Chromo2 test.
The story took up most of the front page of The Times
and almost two further pages inside. There was also a special offer for Times
readers who were encouraged to visit the BritainsDNA website to “discover more about the unknown stories in their genes”. Times
subscribers were offered a “free upgrade package worth £65” if they ordered a test through the company. Media observers criticised The Times
for the disproportionate coverage of a trivial story and the link with a readers’ offer. Greenslade pointed out that the story “didn’t exactly cut it as a splash in the paper of record, as many of the reader comments below the online version make clear” (Greenslade 2013
). Johnson commented: “From where I’m standing, it looks like one of Britain’s most famous news outlets has traded the sacred space on its front page for a spurious science story that is really intended to puff itself and a marketing partner” (Johnson 2013
). Some observers also raised questions about the ethics of inferring Prince William’s mtDNA signature by proxy and publishing it without his consent (Hern 2013
; Middleton 2013
; PHG Editorial Staff 2013
These are just a few examples of the type of stories generated in the press by BritainsDNA. The eight newspapers and websites we studied published a total of 109 articles about BritainsDNA between 2011 and 2016. Following the acquisition of the Moffat Partnership by Source BioScience, the company’s tests were no longer actively promoted and only one incidental story was published in 2016. Just six articles provided critical content about the company. The remaining 103 articles promoted the company. None questioned the information provided in the company’s press releases or included an uninvolved expert for commentary. Only one of the 103 promotional articles was written by a science editor.
5.2. Analysis of the Press Coverage
The following analyses focus on the relationship between BritainsDNA and the press. Fig 1 below illustrates the strong relationship between the UK and the world (R2
= 0.86) when considering public interest in DNA ancestry testing, using the search terms ‘DNA’ and ‘ancestry.’ Data were obtained using Google trends, between 1 January 2011 and 13 August 2017 and plotted at a monthly resolution. Meanwhile the press coverage of BritainsDNA (using 109 articles listed in Supplementary Materials File S1
) bears no resemblance to the UK public interest in this industry (R2
= 0.09). We analyse the proportion of articles that mention BritainsDNA in this period in the online versions of three respected UK newspapers (The Telegraph
, The Independent
and The Guardian
) and compare this with the two hypothesised promotional vehicles (The Scotsman
). A Google search was conducted within each newspaper’s online domain for articles between 1 January 2011 and 13 August 2017 with ‘DNA’ in the title. The total count was recorded, as was the count of those articles that mention BritainsDNA (or other company alias) and any other DNA ancestry testing companies in the article content. Results are shown in Table 1
and Figure 1
Overall the proportion of broadsheet DNA articles that mention BritainsDNA is 0.9%. In contrast, the proportion is 54.2% and 55.0% for The Scotsman and WalesOnline respectively. Statistically, these differences are highly significantly (p = 7.1 × 10−21 for The Scotsman and p = 5.8 × 10−18 for WalesOnline).
The abundant coverage of BritainsDNA in The Scotsman and WalesOnline might be explained by the hypothesis that both these papers have an unusually large interest in the field of DNA ancestry. To assess this hypothesis, we perform a similar analysis on the number of articles that mention other DNA ancestry companies. We estimate the expected background rate from the proportion of DNA ancestry articles in the broadsheets (excluding BritainsDNA articles) as 28 in 656 = 2.7%, which is not significantly different from the 2 in 44 = 4.5% of DNA articles mentioning a different DNA ancestry company in The Scotsman and WalesOnline combined.
Overall these results suggest that, although The Scotsman and WalesOnline had a similar level of interest in the general field of DNA ancestry as the broadsheet newspapers, both were used as promotional vehicles for BritainsDNA.
5.3. TV and Radio Coverage
A list of TV and radio programmes featuring BritainsDNA-related content is provided in Supplementary Materials File S2
. This list was compiled by monitoring the social media accounts of BritainsDNA and ScotlandsDNA on Twitter and Facebook.
The first programme identified in this list is a six-part radio series The Scots: A Genetic Journey
, broadcast in February/March 2011 on BBC Radio Scotland. The programme was presented by Alistair Moffat and Jim Wilson and was timed to coincide with the publication of their book of the same name (Moffat and Wilson 2011
). At the time of broadcast, Wilson’s genetic ancestry testing company EthnoAncestry was still operating independently, prior to its merger with ScotlandsDNA in November 2011. The EthnoAncestry website, as preserved in the Internet Archive, shows that the company featured the programme on their home page, presumably to give legitimacy to their DNA tests. It has not been possible to review the content of this series as it was only brought to our attention a long time after it was broadcast and it is no longer available online. However, the programmes were reviewed in a series of blog posts by Amanda E Epperson (Epperson 2011a
) indicating that some of the content of the programme was questionable. For example, she comments: “It turns out the McAuleys, from MacOlaf, have a DNA marker that clearly links them with southwest Ireland, suggesting they were perhaps brought to northern Scotland as slaves by the Vikings”. It would appear that no independent experts appeared on the programme to query such claims.
Moffat appeared on BBC radio 15 times between 2011 and 2014 (Table 2
). The guest appearances followed a similar pattern. He was invited onto the programmes to discuss the latest “research” from BritainsDNA such as the launch of a new project or a new DNA test. Often the presenter had his DNA tested with BritainsDNA and the results were presented on the programme. Although Moffat has no background in genetics and is not an academic historian, his claims were accepted on these programmes without question and there was no opportunity for academic geneticists and historians to challenge his stories. We are not aware of any other genetic ancestry testing companies being given a similar opportunity to promote their tests so extensively on the BBC.
Moffat was interviewed by James Naughtie three times on the BBC’s flagship Today
programme. In all these interviews, he was given the opportunity to promote his business and his questionable claims passed without challenge. Moffat had known Naughtie for many years, dating back to when Naughtie worked for The Scotsman
). Naughtie has also worked with Moffat in his capacity as patron of the Borders Book Festival and as a trustee of the Great Tapestry of Scotland (Borders Book Festival 2018
; Scottish Tapestry 2018
). He wrote the introduction for Moffat’s book Britain’s Last Frontier
). The two men appeared together in promotions for this book, at book festivals and similar events. Naughtie featured in a YouTube video endorsing Moffat’s candidature for Rector at the University of St Andrews. Naughtie did not declare the personal connection in the radio programmes. Although it was legitimate for Naughtie to invite a friend to talk about a potentially interesting subject, it was a mistake to do so without involving any science experts to challenge the claims (Colquhoun 2012
BritainsDNA was also able to generate publicity for its DNA tests through involvement in various programmes on public-service TV channels in the UK. A two-hour documentary called Meet the Izzards
, featuring the comedian Eddie Izzard, was broadcast on BBC One in peak viewing hours in February 2013. The programme focused on Eddie Izzard’s maternal and paternal ancestry through Y-chr and mtDNA testing. BritainsDNA was not directly mentioned but the programme implicitly promoted the tests offered by the company and used many of its sales promotion phrases. The only genetics expert appearing on the programme was Jim Wilson, Chief Scientific Officer of BritainsDNA, who was therefore able to promote his business interests without fear of challenge from an independent expert. Wilson was introduced as being from the University of Edinburgh but his presence on the programmes seemed to have more to do with his BritainsDNA roles (Director, Chief Scientific Officer and shareholder) rather than his university position. Much content of the two programmes was scientifically questionable, for being generic (common to us all, not just Eddie Izzard), exaggerated, misleading, or wrong (Kennett 2014
). Izzard was already known to Moffat as they had met at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival (Southern Reporter editorial staff 2013
). It is not known if this prior friendship had any influence on the editorial decisions but BritainsDNA certainly benefitted from the friendship. After the first programme was aired Eddie Izzard tweeted to his then two million followers: “If you have watched #meettheizzards and you’d like to do something with your DNA, please go to http://www.britainsdna.com”. He shared the same message on his Facebook page.
An episode of The One Show on BBC One in March 2013 featured a segment on genetic ancestry testing. The science presenter Michael Mosley promoted the haplogroup names used commercially by BritainsDNA. Audience members stood up with placards showing their Y or mtDNA types and a label like “hunter-gatherer” or “herdsman farmer” and told the camera, for example, “my father-line is Scandinavian” or “ancient Irish”. Mosley was given his own DNA results and told that his haplogroup was “Germanic”. Jim Wilson was once again the only geneticist to appear on the programme.
An episode of the Hairy Bikers
, broadcast on BBC Two in October 2015, also featured testing by BritainsDNA. We did not have the opportunity to review this programme but the content is summarised in a post on the BritainsDNA Facebook page (BritainsDNA 2015b
S4C, the public service Welsh-language TV channel, aired a five-part series entitled DNA Cymru
in 2015 which overtly promoted BritainsDNA. Ian Jones, the CEO of S4C, was an old friend of Alistair Moffat’s—they had previously worked together at Scottish Television Enterprises (Bevan 2014
). A website was set up to accompany the TV series. This page has undergone a number of changes since it was first published but on the earliest version preserved in the Internet Archive on 10 April 2015 the following description was given:
The S4C series DNA Cymru will set out to answer the questions by using DNA samples from the people of Wales today. The series is part of an exciting project Cymru DNA Wales set up in a partnership between S4C, CymruDNAWales, Trinity Mirror—publishers of the Western Mail and the Daily Post—and production company Green Bay Media.
The website explained that “The CymruDNAWales venture is the brainchild of S4C Chief Executive, Ian Jones who went on to discuss the idea with the successful Scottish research company responsible for ScotlandsDNA”. To participate in the research, it was necessary to “purchase a test kit from the science experts in this project, The Moffat Partnership Limited”. At the bottom of the page there was a link to the DNACymruWales website.
The introductory programme in the DNA Cymru
series Who are the Welsh?
was broadcast on 1 March 2015 (St David’s Day). The first half of the programme was devoted to a retelling of the human story. In the second half, three Welsh celebrities, Sian Lloyd, the TV weather forecaster, Dafydd Iwan, the former president of Plaid Cymru and Gareth Edwards, the rugby player, were given their DNA results from CymruDNAWales. They were all told stories of questionable scientific merit about the origins of their Y-chr and mtDNA haplogroups (Kennett 2015a
). The Welsh political blogger Jac o’ the North described it as a “crude, money-making exercise dressed as ‘science’” (Jac o’ the North 2015
The final four programmes in the series were broadcast on S4C in November and December 2015. The producers had clearly listened to the complaints and had made some attempts to address the issues raised. The claims made were not so fanciful and there was some real science featured from independent and credible scientists like Professor Dan Bradley of Trinity College Dublin and Professor Peter Donnelly from the University of Oxford. It is not known if the academics who participated in the programme were aware of the commercial nature of the venture or that their science was going to be mixed up with speculative findings from the unpublished research of BritainsDNA (Kennett 2015b
; Lamb 2015
). Jim Wilson was the principal scientist for the DNA Cymru
series. He featured prominently but none of the many scientists who are critical of his interpretation of haplogroups were invited onto the programme to present the scientific consensus.
6. Countering the Bad Science
DJB and MGT independently submitted complaints to the BBC about Alistair Moffat’s interview on the Today
programme. The BBC responded that it was normal to interview “commercial firms about their products” but failed to acknowledge the point that the commercial aspect was not declared and was disguised as an academic “project”. They justified the interview on the grounds that the story had been covered in The Telegraph
and that it was “interesting”. DJB sent multiple follow up e-mails and the complaint was eventually investigated by the BBC’s Editorial Complaints Unit. DJB was advised in February 2014 that his complaint had been upheld on grounds of both accuracy and product prominence and a statement was published on the BBC website (BBC Editorial Complaints Unit 2014
; BBC Help and Feedback 2014
DJB and DAK also complained to the BBC about the Meet the Izzards programme. The BBC responded that “the production team met an extensive range of independent, academic experts” but it was not explained why Jim Wilson, BritainsDNA’s Chief Scientific Officer, was the only scientist who appeared on the programme and in the credits. The BBC also wrongly claimed that “the series reflected the standard, accepted interpretations”. They asserted that “No viewer could have been informed by watching the series that Dr Wilson had any relationship with a testing company”. Yet it was the failure to make viewers aware of this conflict of interest that was one of the main concerns, as well as the fact that the content of programme was motivated by Wilson’s commercial interests with BritainsDNA and had little bearing on his academic research at the University of Edinburgh.
DAK submitted further complaints to the BBC about the BritainsDNA segment on The One Show
and Moffat’s appearances on the John Beattie Programme
on BBC Radio Scotland and the Mark Forrest Show
on BBC Local Radio. The responses for the most part did not adequately deal with the points raised, though Husain Husaini, the executive producer of the Mark Forrest Show
did concede that “the science behind DNA testing is more complex and the results less certain” than the interview suggested and “we fully accept therefore that the programme should have provided more accurate coverage of the issue”. DAK enquired about the editorial decision to invite Moffat onto the Mark Forrest Show
to discuss Viking DNA rather than a suitably qualified scientific expert. She was told by Paul Moseley, Senior Complaints Adviser, that Moffat was selected because “A member of the team heard an interview with him on BBC Radio York last year. They felt that he was an engaging speaker on the subject of DNA and noted that he might be an interesting guest for the programme”. The complaint about the Mark Forrest Show
was escalated to the BBC’s Editorial Complaints Unit in an attempt to question the editorial decision to choose a guest not for their scientific expertise but for their ability to talk in an “engaging” way. DAK also wanted to address the issue of Alistair Moffat’s repeated appearances across the BBC. She was told by Richard Hutt, the Complaints Director, that:
“…the choice of guests is a matter of editorial discretion and does not fall within the remit of the ECU. In practice that means I can consider whether what was said during the broadcast met the BBC’s editorial standards but not whether the programme ought to have invited him [Alistair Moffat] to participate.
You have also raised the issue of Mr Moffat’s appearances across the BBC over a number of years. Again, this falls outside our remit—we are limited to considering specific items broadcast or published by the BBC and are not able to investigate claims of editorial breaches over time and across output”.
Therefore, while the BBC provides a website where viewers and listeners can comment on individual programmes within 30 days of broadcast, surprisingly there is no mechanism for airing concerns about long-term editorial bias and the use of unqualified individuals to talk as if they had science expertise.
Our full correspondence with the BBC has been published on our website (Appendix A
Once the news about the threats of legal action and the criticisms of BritainsDNA went public on the Genomes Unzipped
blog, the tide slowly began to turn. MGT was given the opportunity to write an article in the Notes & Theories section of The Guardian
criticising the misleading claims made by some genetic ancestry testing companies and BritainsDNA in particular (Thomas 2013
). Martin Richards (University of Huddersfield) and Vincent Macaulay (University of Glasgow) wrote a follow up article in defence of the Meet the Izzards
programme and in particular the use of interpretative phylogeography (Richards and Macaulay 2013
). However, Richards and Macaulay are in a small minority of population geneticists who still use this technique to make inferences about the deep ancestry of populations from the Y-chr and mtDNA of living people. Interestingly, Richards had previously criticised the deep ancestry inferences made by genetic ancestry testing companies in an earlier Guardian
article (Richards 2003
). He had also previously co-authored an article which was critical of the “distorting effects of commercialization” which are “omnipresent in science and are often reflected in misguided research goals, further exacerbated by the misrepresentation of research and false claims made by scientists and reporters alike” (Bandelt et al. 2008
MGT and DJB were invited by the charity Sense About Science to work on a publication to set the record straight about genetic ancestry testing. They worked in collaboration with academic colleagues Dr Turi King (now Professor), Dr Lounès Chikhi, Dr Rosalind Harding, Professor Mark Jobling and Professor Guido Barbujani. Sense About Genetic Ancestry Testing
was published in March 2013 (Sense About Science 2013
) generating some press coverage (Collins 2013
; Ghosh 2013
; Macrae 2013
; Rowley 2013
), much of it positive but some felt that the whole genetic ancestry industry was being tarred with the same brush. DAK was invited by Sense about Science to blog on their website clarifying this point and correcting some inaccurate media coverage of the guide (Kennett 2013e
The BBC began to make amends for its previously poor coverage of genetic ancestry testing. The Science Unit made a programme on The Business of Genetic Ancestry broadcast on Radio 4 in May 2015. The programme was introduced by the science writer Dr Adam Rutherford and provided a balanced overview of what you can and cannot learn from a genetic ancestry test. MGT and DAK were interviewed along with Professor Mark Jobling from the University of Leicester.
There was very limited critical coverage of BritainsDNA in the UK press. The Sunday Times
covered James Naughtie’s interview with Alistair Moffat on the Today
programme and the ensuing threats of legal action (Gillespie 2012
). A blog post about the affair was published on Occam’s Corner, the Guardian’s
science blog (Cule 2013
). The Sunday Times
was the only newspaper to report that the substance of DJB’s complaint about the Today
interview had finally been upheld by the BBC (Gillespie 2014
The launch of our debunking website (Appendix A
) in March 2014 received a brief mention in the Times Higher Education Supplement
(THE editorial staff 2014
). The BBC’s Welsh-language website published one critical article about the S4C DNA Cymru
series (BBC Cymru Fyw editorial staff 2015
). Tom Chivers, a science writer for the UK edition of Buzzfeed
, published a critical story in December 2016, by which time the company had been sold to Source BioScience (Chivers 2016
The only publication to regularly provide critical coverage of BritainsDNA was Private Eye
. It described how “Fleet Street’s finest have swallowed another piece of scientific hokum from self-styled ‘genetics expert’ Alistair Moffat” with the publication of the story about Prince William’s DNA (Private Eye Reporter 2013a
). It pointed out that “the BBC has given BritainsDNA its biggest airing over the past year, including radio and TV interviews, news items, features or programmes unquestioningly promoting the company’s assertions” (Private Eye Reporter 2013b
). It reported on the upholding of the complaint about the interview on the Today
programme (Private Eye Reporter 2014
). The DNA Cymru
programme on S4C was criticised as “another commercial undertaking dressed as proper collaborative science” and it was suggested that Moffat had “again used his old boys’ network, just as he did at the BBC. Ian Jones, chief executive of S4C happens to be a mate” (Private Eye Reporter 2015a
). When the BBC aired The Business of Genetic Ancestry
on Radio 4 Private Eye
informed its readers that “Moffat, for once shy of media exposure, declined to appear on the programme” (Private Eye Reporter 2015b
Adrian Timpson (AJT) has presented the issues discussed here to several academic audiences, including the UCL 2016 CoMPLEX ‘The Misrepresentation of Science’ Conference and the UCL 2016 LMCB ‘Ethics in Science’ conference. MGT has presented the issues discussed here at a Wenner-Gren Senaste symposium in Stockholm, titled ‘The Age of Humans in Europe’.
This case study has shown how a direct-to-consumer genetic ancestry testing company benefitted from a disproportionate amount of media coverage in the UK. It highlights the ease with which someone with high-profile media contacts was able to manipulate the media to promote his commercial interests disguised as a science “project”. There was a failure to question dubious press releases and programme ideas, or get feedback from experts working in the field before publishing an article or going ahead with a programme. BritainsDNA was provided with multiple opportunities to promote bad science on the BBC and other major media outlets without challenge. The underlying principles of the BBC’s impartiality guidelines to ensure ‘due weight to the many and diverse areas of an argument’ (BBC Editorial Guidelines n.d.
) were not followed.
Academics and broadcasters need to ensure that they separate their academic roles from their commercial interests and make any conflicts of interest (even if only perceived) clear. Universities have a duty to ensure that their staff do not misuse their academic positions to advance their personal and financial interests.
Threats of legal action can have a pernicious impact on academic freedom. DJB and MGT consulted UCL lawyers shortly after receiving the threat of legal action; their advice was to concede and make no further public comments about Moffat’s or BritainsDNA’s activities. This guidance was in stark contrast to the UCL Provost’s principled response to Moffat’s threat. DJB and MGT ignored the legal advice and they ultimately achieved a positive outcome, at some personal risk. It is important for those who can speak out to do so, not just to deal with a particular issue but for the longer-term health of their field. BritainsDNA’s misuse of legal process created a side story which itself became newsworthy. This is an example of the Streisand effect (Jansen and Martin 2015
): an attempt to censor critics had the unintended consequence of raising awareness of the issue.
The poor behaviour of BritainsDNA risked damage to the public perception of the fields of genetic history and genetic genealogy. The public were given a false idea of what they can learn from a genetic test and the media failed to provide balance by writing about the legitimate uses of DNA testing for genealogy. When the media did finally start to criticise genetic ancestry testing companies (e.g., the coverage of the Sense About Science booklet) they sometimes went overboard the other way giving people the mistaken impression that all DNA tests were useless. Fortunately, the eventual demise of BritainsDNA suggests that bad science did not pay in the long term in this case.
We believe this detailed case study is a rare example in the literature of how science can be distorted for commercial gain by influential, well connected figures in society. The case demonstrates the necessity but also the risks of critically engaging with developments of this kind. We hope that it will be of interest to historians and sociologists of science, that educators, practitioners and researchers in science communication will learn from our experience and that this case study can be used to inform training and education programmes. Most importantly, we hope that other scientists will be encouraged by our experience and will not be afraid to engage with the media to challenge misreporting.