talk to Chilton seminar, 26 March 2004
Many years ago there was a competition in the New Statesman magazine which asked readers to summarise great works of literature in newspaper headlines. Hamlet became 'Five die in palace brawl'. Genesis was 'God says 'Man to blame''. And, most tasteless of all, Joan of Arc was rendered as 'Phew! What a scorcher'.
It made me wonder what cruel tabloid headlines might sum up radiation scientists:
'We're hot' say atom babes
Plutonium? Eggheads eat it for breakfast
Nuked to nothing for not saying no
I am very grateful for the invitation to deliver a Chilton seminar here today. It is an unusual privilege for a journalist like me who spends most of his time reporting other people's opinions to be given a platform for his own. It is also, I confess, a little nerve-wracking.
I am used to phoning up experts and asking what they think. I am less used to standing in front of them and saying what I think. My task is not made any easier by the fact that everyone in my audience certainly knows more about radiation than I do. But humility and deference have never been much valued in my profession, so here I am. Please note that the opinions I shall offer are entirely mine, and not necessarily those of any of my employers.
Understanding the media: What I want to do first of all is to outline the nature of the media, so that you can perhaps understand the beast a little better.
Understanding radiation: Then I want to talk a little about the nature of radiation, the industries that use it and the risks it poses.
Understanding each other: Then finally I want to try and draw out some lessons and make some observations about how the media and radiation scientists could learn to live more comfortably together.
Like all journalists I may occasionally exaggerate or simplify to make my point. I might put my tongue in my cheek, and I apologise in advance if that offends anyone. My aim is not to win agreement, but to provoke thought. I am aiming to leave time for questions at the end, and will do my best to respond to any points any of you wish to raise.
Many people do not understand the media. Public reactions vary from outright hostility, to cynicism, to admiration. Journalists are sometimes seen as intrusive, unthinking and malevolent, like the selfish sleazebag in the Die Hard movies with Bruce Willis. Other times they are portrayed as heroes or heroines dedicated to uncovering the truth for the public good, like Woodward and Bernstein, alias Robert Redford and Dustin Hofman, uncovering the Watergate scandal in 'All the President's Men'. I know people who conform to both stereotypes, but most of us are, of course, somewhere in between.
Understanding the media
For radiation scientists, as for many others, it is important to really understand what the media is, and how journalists work.
It may sound obvious but we deal in news: the previously unknown, the surprising, the enlightening, the revelatory, the insightful, the new. We like to deal with the world's infinite shades of grey in simple black and white. We are overfond of stereotypes. We dislike caveats, complexities and cop-outs.
We are not particularly interested in harmony: we are far more interested in conflict. We prefer soundbites to lectures. We are more concerned with understanding a few essential facts rather than a wealth of detail.
We work at great speed with the aim of getting things roughly right rather than at leisure with the aim of getting things precisely right. We are not academics or experts or decision-makers. We are merely observers trying to provide, as someone once said, the first draft of history.
We prefer events instead of issues, personalities not ideas, criticisms not praise. We are much more preoccupied with bad news than good news. We are much more interested in the things people don’t want to say rather than the things they do. This is because conflict, events, personalities, criticisms, bad news and secrets are much more interesting to read about. It is also because, I would argue, they are the stuff of life.
Journalists and editors rely on what they call news values to help them decide what constitutes a story. News values determine what gets in the newspapers or on the news, and how prominent the story is on the page or in the running order. News values are an ever-changing chameleon-like concept. Just when you think you've grasped them, they change. But they are founded on the criteria I have just outlined. And in pursuing them, journalists are not, I'm afraid, always noble beings. The obsessions they pursue - sex, royalty, religion, celebrities are not always edifying. Sometimes their stories are bizarre sometimes lightweight, sometimes fascinating and sometimes important.
The organisations journalists write or broadcast for are first and foremost businesses. Their overriding aim is to produce a product that people want to watch, listen to or read. There are some parts of the media - sections of the tabloid press for example - which cannot really claim to be anything other than entertainment businesses.
Other sections of the media - mainstream television, BBC radio, the quality newspapers and, I venture to suggest, New Scientist - regard themselves as something more than just businesses. They are institutions with a duty to reflect the public interest, organs of mass communication with a responsibility to enable to spread of accurate information, a fourth estate. That doesn't mean of course that they don't make mistakes. And even amongst the quality media there are worrying trends.
Dumbing-down is a real phenomenon. These days there is more attention given to crime, celebrities, sex and entertainment in the broadsheets than used to be the case a decade ago. One result of this is the obsessive, almost morbid, fascination that takes hold when a famous person like Princess Diana dies in unusual circumstances.
It is also much harder to find a serious current affairs documentary on the main five TV channels. And the aggressive techniques used by TV and radio interviewers make every politician look like a crook or a liar, which they are not. The concentration of media ownership in a few hands, like those of the much-sought after Mr Murdoch, is still a major problem.
Against that, with cable, satellite and the internet, we have far more choice in our media than we ever used to. So if you are anxious to get a point across, you can easily write it up and put it on a website for anyone who wants to read. And it ought to be possible to find what you want amidst the dross of reality TV, soft porn and Pop Idol. You just have to look harder.
The nature of the media poses awkward problems for radiation scientists, whether they be in government, the nuclear industry, universities, research organisations or the national health service. Our fondness for bad news over good means that we are bound to run far more stories about problems than about benefits.
I would have difficulty selling a story to a news editor about a new study showing that radiation was not doing anybody any harm. I would have much less difficulty selling a story about a new study showing that radiation might be doing somebody some harm.
Accidents, leaks and incidents are news: the routine operation of nuclear installations over decades is not. People who die from handling radioactive sources are a story, those that spend a lifetime dealing with them without incident are not. An argument over whether patients are overexposed to iodine-131 during treatment for thyroid disease is a story, agreement that people are generally being well looked after is not.
It is the same with every other issue covered by newspapers, radio and television. If we are honest with ourselves, I think we are all more interested in learning about other people's dramatic mistakes than about their mundane successes. We are far more likely to read an article about someone who was murdered than one about someone who simply went to work and then came home. And what we want to read is what the newspapers are bound to print. I can understand the frustration this sometimes produces amongst scientists. But it is a reality you have to learn to live with.
So much for understanding the media. The other side of the coin is understanding radiation. This is important for journalists and the public. But there are a number of barriers to understanding radiation, some of them major. For a start radiation has a big public image problem.
It is invisible. It can't be seen, smelt, tasted, felt or heard. That makes it more sinister, more threatening, more worrying.
Its dramatic entry into public consciousness in August 1945 at the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was among the worst imaginable. Everyone in the world knows splitting the atom has killed hundreds of thousands of people - 200,000 in Hiroshima and 150,000 in Nagasaki.
The subsequent development of nuclear fission as a source of power has not been an unqualified success, with a history of leaks and accidents at Windscale, Three Mile Island, Sellafield and Chernobyl. Not to mention economic disasters like the Steam Generating Heavy Water Reactor programme, the Fast Reactor programme, and the financial collapse of British Energy.
None of this has been helped by the legacy of secrecy that has been left by fission's military origins, a legacy which has distorted public debate about nuclear technology for decades. Unfortunately, examples of unnecessary secrecy still persist and continue to undermine public confidence, as I shall illustrate.
Scientists sometimes compound the problem by failing to effectively communicate their findings. I spend a lot of my time reading papers from radiation journals written in obscure scientific language, and then talking to the authors and attempting to get them to speak English in terms that ordinary people can understand. Some scientists are good at this, but many, the majority I would suspect, find it very difficult.
There is no point in bamboozling your audience with megabecquerels, risk ratios and epidemiological excesses. Without underestimating the intelligence of the public, and without lapsing into jargon, you need to tell them what's safe and what's not, and what the limits of your knowledge are.
Communication difficulties aren't made any easier by the large degree of uncertainty in any argument about radiation. Scientists are still arguing about whether there is a threshold below which low-level radiation is safe or not. There are those that think that a little blast of radiation might be good for you by aiding DNA repair mechanisms, and those that think that a single alpha particle inside your body could marginally increase your risk of cancer. And many in between.
The jury is still out on the impact of genomic instability and the bystander effect. There is a vast amount we don't know about the impact of radiation on wildlife. And we are not omniscient about the pathways via which radiation can contaminate people.
There are two recent examples where I think it is fair to say that the regulatory agencies have been taken by surprise. The first was the discovery that pigeons roosting in old buildings at Sellafield were contaminating the garden of two local bird-lovers who fed them. The second was the discovery that tritium discharged from an isotope factory in Cardiff was concentrating in fish hundreds of times higher than expected.
Sometimes, too, scientists underestimate the personal way we all as individuals respond to risk. We all experience risk subjectively. Sometimes we seek it out for fun, as when we climb mountains, go skydiving or ride roller-coasters. Most of us don't theorise about risk, or make complex calculations about the 'tolerability of risk'.
We just make choices founded on an instinctive evaluation of the dangers. We make these choices every day when we cross the road, drink a beer or cook a meal. Our perceptions of the risk can change from what our friends tell us, what we read in the newspapers and what we see on the television.
Our nightmares are also very personal. Our responses to threats real or imagined are sometimes more emotional than rational. I do not necessarily think there is anything wrong with that. It is simply part of being human.
Yet most people, I would suggest, are reasonably confident and worldly-wise in their personal risk assessments. They will take precautions or avoid doing things they regard as too dangerous. They will sensibly dismiss some risks they regard as minimal. They will get annoyed when they are being patronised, as they increasingly are.
The key to how individuals perceive risk is the degree of control they exert over them. If they feel in charge of the risks, they are more confident about taking decisions about them and more likely to keep them in perspective. Problems arise when people are not in control. Individuals, by and large, are not in control of environmental pollution.
We have very little control over the fumes we breathe in from vehicle exhausts or genetic modifications to our food. We feel frustrated that we may suffer the consequences of climate change but can do virtually nothing to stall its progress. This lack of control provokes anger and frustration, and causes us to worry about developments that cause pollution. Perhaps more than anything else, this applies to radioactive pollution.
And there has been good reason to worry about radioactive pollution. There was cause for concern over the levels of strontium-90 from atmospheric nuclear tests accumulating in children's bones. There is cause for concern over the safety with which nuclear weapons and power were tested and developed by Britain, the US and the former Soviet Union, and contamination and health problems that may have resulted.
There is cause for concern over the thyroid cancers caused by the Chernobyl accident in 1986. There may be cause for concern over the excess of childhood leukaemias around Sellafield, and the large amount of pollution pumped into the Irish Sea from that plant in the past:
"Not the least of the attractions of the sea as a dumping ground has been the lack of administrative controls…The intention has been to discharge fairly substantial amounts of radioactivity as part of an organised and deliberate experiment…the aims of the experiment would have been defeated if the level of radioactivity discharged had been kept to a minimum."
John Dunster, head of health and safety, Windscale, 1958.
Disgracefully, in Britain the huge amounts of plutonium and other contaminants discharged into the sea from Sellafield in the early years were seen at the time as a deliberate experiment, an experiment in which the people and wildlife of Cumbria and elsewhere were the guinea pigs. As some of you will know, the author of this quote, John Dunster, went on from running health and safety at Windscale to become deputy director, then director of the National Radiological Protection Board between 1971 and 1987.
As I suggested earlier, the nuclear industry has not always been open about its activities, or honest about its mistakes.
Let me give some examples. It took nearly three decades for the whole truth about Britain's worst nuclear accident to come out. In 1957 one of the first nuclear reactors at Windscale, as it was then known, caught fire, resulting in the release of three quarters of a million giga-becquerels of iodine 131 into the atmosphere. The release contaminated cow's milk and resulted in a government ban on milk consumption around the Cumbrian plant.
Although the authorities insisted at the time that no-one would be harmed, the National Radiological Protection Board said in 1983 that the radioactive iodine released could "in theory" cause 260 cases of thyroid cancer, thirteen of them fatal. In response to criticism that it had underestimated the number of potential deaths, the board subsequently increased its estimate of potential fatalities to thirty-three.
Unfortunately the 1957 Windscale accident is not an isolated example. At the start of the nuclear industry after the Second World War secrecy was the norm. Margaret Gowing, atomic energy's late, great official historian, pointed out that the public and most government ministers were deprived of any information about the nuclear project.
"A small inner ring of senior ministers took decisions in a confusing number of ad hoc committees with science fiction titles that never reported to the Cabinet."
Margaret Gowing, official atomic historian, 1978.
In 1954 when the government convened a working party to discuss plans for Britain's first civil nuclear power programme, even the chairman of the electricity generating authority at the time, Sir Walter Citrine, was kept in the dark. So when he received the government resulting policy White Paper in 1955, he was somewhat taken aback.
Sadly, such attitudes have persisted. In the Sizewell B Public Inquiry in the mid 1980s, the senior policy witness for the Central Electricity Generating Board, as then was, John Baker, had to deal with probing questions about the precise fate of Britain's civil plutonium. He denied that any plutonium from civil nuclear power stations had ever been used in nuclear weapons. His denial was memorably described by the respected former CEGB chairman, Lord Hinton, as "bloody lies".
"That which we do know, we may not necessarily share"
John Baker, Central Electricity Generating Board, 1984
But Baker never seemed to feel there was any great need to justify his organisation's view with detailed factual information.
British Nuclear Fuels - BNFL - has a long and inglorious record of being economical with the truth. It only revealed the full extent of the infamous beach contamination incident in November 1983 after protest divers from the environmental group, Greenpeace, came up from the pipeline emitting radiation.
The truth about the extent to which the outside of BNFL's spent fuel flasks were contaminated had to be dragged out of the state-owned company in 1999 by journalists. And it was only because of investigations by the Independent newspaper that the public found out in 1999 that safety data at the Sellafield mixed uranium and plutonium oxide plant had been falsified. The scandal that emerged provoked one of the biggest crises in BNFL's 30-year history. As well losing BNFL valuable business, it ended up claiming the scalps of a whole swathe of senior executives.
It is not just BNFL that has tried to hide the truth. The UK Atomic Energy Authority's record of openness about the Dounreay nuclear plant in northern Scotland is hardly spotless. That is why in 1995, two government advisory committees accused the UKAEA of withholding vital information about an explosion in a waste shaft at Dounreay in 1977. By raising doubts about the UKAEA's "veracity", they went about as near as official committees ever go to accusing an organisation of lying.
In the past the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has not always as forthcoming as it should have been on the risks of radiation from Sellafield, nor the Ministry of Defence about its nuclear activities. The Health and Safety Executive once refused to give me any information about a prosecution that had collapsed on the grounds that a general election was imminent.
And even now the government keeps nuclear information secret for no good reason. In the wake of September 11, when I was investigating the dangers of a fully-laden jumbo jet dropping on the high-level waste tanks at Sellafield, BNFL and the Health and Safety Executive wanted to tell me about the precautions they had taken. But the government forbad them from saying a word. BNFL couldn't even confirm or deny whether they possessed fire extinguishers capable of putting out a jet fuel fire. Is that knowledge really going to make any difference to what terrorists might or might not do?
At the same time as promising to be open and honest, government ministers are still refusing to come clean about the list of potential underground repositories for nuclear waste identified by the nuclear waste compant Nirex in the 1980s. I do not think they can truly claim to have turned over a new leaf until they come clean about the past.
The persistence of secrecy undermines the works of everyone in the nuclear business. The public think the obvious thoughts. Why won't they tell us? Why don't they trust us? What have they got to hide? All this contributes to the poor public image of radiation, which, for all the reasons I have already outlined, has a major public relations problem.
Understanding each other
Understanding the media and understanding radiation are both crucially important. But most crucial of all is the need to understand each other. There are no simple or pat answers to how this should be done, though much seems obvious. A lot comes down to common sense and decency.
Radiation specialists and the media have to overcome the barriers that keep them apart and learn to talk to each other, to talk more often, to talk better. Never refuse an opportunity to chat to a journalist, to get across, politely but firmly, your point of view.
Scientists need to shorten their sentences, avoid acronyms and learn to abhor jargon. They should write abstracts and conclusions that are comprehensible to ordinary people. They should, as George Orwell once advised, never use a long word when a short one would do. Long words, complex sentence structures and contorted conditional clauses are too often a disguise for muddled thinking. Good prose, as Orwell again said, should be like a pane of glass.
Journalists too have a responsibility to improve. They should make more effort to find out what experts think, to talk to a wider range of voices, to listen to what they are told. They should be prepared to abandon preconceived agendas if the facts say otherwise. They should be prepared to tell their editors if the story is different from the one they want. They should better reflect scientific opinion. They should be prepared to admit mistakes.
The historic legacy of secrecy which I have outlined has to be completely shaken off. I know this takes time and that it conflicts with much ingrained institutional thinking, but it is essential. I know that much progress has been made, with many government agencies now much more committed to openness than they have ever been in the past. But there is still in my view a way to go.
Honesty is the sister of openness. The two should go together as an inseparable package. Openness and honesty doesn't just mean accurately answering questions. They mean letting on which questions should be asked. Let me give you an example.
I was once tipped off by an environmental group that a piece of radioactive metal from the Rosyth naval dockyard in Fife had turned up in a commercial scrap yard. It sounded pretty unlikely to me, but just in case I phoned the Ministry of Defence press office to check. After I asked my question, I could hear the press officer at the other end of the line tapping away at his computer terminal.
"Ah yes," he said. "Here it is." And he proceeded to confirm the story. I asked whether the ministry had put out a public statement explaining what had happened. "No," he said. "It just went on a database of answers to be given out if questions were asked." But how on earth was anyone to know to ask the right questions?
As a journalist, it made me think that I should ring the MoD every week or so with a suitably vaguely worded question in the hope of learning about other undisclosed radiation incidents ("Dropped any nuclear warheads lately?" "Have any nuclear submarines crashed into rocks?") A policy of only responding to specific questions does not constitute honesty.
More spin doctors
I hesitate to suggest this, but scientists and government agencies should be more pro-active in trying to influence the news agenda. They should take a leaf from the non-governmental organisations' book, and get more skilled at manipulating the media. They need to invest more in public relations, and not be shy at putting forward their point of view.
If they have problems, if there are accidents, they should always be the first to tell the world, so they are not caught on the back foot, on the defensive. You need, in other words, to become better spin doctors. Those who invest in influencing the media, as long as they do so with intelligence (and without airhead PR companies), can win real progress in public understanding, and in influencing the political process.
Forgive me if I am telling you things here that you already know. I have just a few more personal thoughts to offer about radiation and journalism. Although I have made some criticisms, and may have sounded cynical and negative at times, I want to stress that in some ways I do think things are getting better.
As I've mentioned, there is certainly more openness amongst officialdom now than there was 10, 20 or 30 years ago. I think there is a better understanding, too, on the part of the general public than there used to be. Most people have heard the message that any level of exposure to radiation carries a risk, however small. They know that any type, natural or artificial, can increase their chances of developing cancer.
But there is relatively little they can do about natural radiation. That is why frequent comparisons with levels of natural radiation are not always as comforting as they are meant to be. I'm not sure either that people are very reassured by probability statistics suggesting that the chances of developing cancer may be less than one in a million, or whatever. They know simply that if they are unlucky, it will be a personal tragedy.
But people are anxious about additions of artificial radioactivity. They are unhappy that there is at least a quarter of a tonne of plutonium from Sellafield in the mud at the bottom of the Irish Sea, slowly coming ashore. They don't like the plutonium in the ground from weapons tests, of the caesium in sheep from Chernobyl.
People don't like this kind of contamination because they cannot control it. They haven't chosen it, they don't want it, and it brings them no benefit. They therefore get upset about it. This is a very common response, and it is reflected by the media in the pages of the newspapers and in programmes on the television and radio. It is what drives politicians, and sometimes what determines their decisions.
It is also, to my mind, a perfectly sensible response to an danger inflicted from outside. It should not be brushed aside as irrelevant, or labelled as 'radiophobia'. It should be dealt with realistically, honestly and straightforwardly, in the real world.
The real world is a mostly sensible place. People know that the risk of squirrels taking over the world is small, so they dismiss scientists who make such predictions. They know that computer models are only as good as the assumptions their programmers make. They can sense when they are being spun a line by someone with vested interests. People can also spot the difference between a scientific fact and a joke. Unfortunately, the nuclear industry does not always get the joke.
When presented with an advert for Guinness showing a two-headed fish alongside the suggestion that nuclear power is safe, the nuclear industry objected. Presumably this was in the belief that people seeing it might actually believe that radiation has spawned two-headed fish. I really don't think people are that naive.
Treat people like adults and they will respond like adults. They don't want to be patronised, they don't want to be kept in the dark, they dislike being lied to. They are intelligent enough to understand the limits of certainty. They like laughing at jokes.
In the circumstances, it is my belief that communicating radiological risk has to fall back on the simple prescriptions I have been promoting. A realistic awareness of how the media works, honesty about the risks and an honest appreciation of the bounds of scientific uncertainty.
That's fine, you may think. But what about the gross errors, exaggerations and distortions of which the media is guilty? I'm not here to apologise for the mistakes that have been made, nor to defend some of the doubtless indefensible things members of my profession have done. We are all aware, I'm sure, of instances where the media has got it wrong.
But I hope that I have given you some understanding of the way things look with a journalist's eyes. I can't leave you, however, without making one more point in mitigation of my profession.
There is a lot of rot talked about bias in journalism. The idea is still around that journalists should be some kind of beacon of objectivity, beaming out impartial, unbiased, utterly factual reports. This is, and always has been a fallacy.
In any argument of any worth, there is no set of absolute facts that proves one side or the other right or wrong. Yet the fallacy persists, and was implicit in the biggest journalistic argument of recent years - the report by Andrew Gilligan on BBC Radio Four's Today programme that Tony Blair's chief spin doctor, Alistair Campbell, had sexed up an intelligence dossier to improve the case for war against Iraq.
Part of the allegation against Gilligan was that he had an agenda, a point of view, and shouldn't have let that interfere with his judgement. Now, there's no doubting that Gilligan made a mistake or two in his wording on a single live broadcast just after 6 am in the morning. But what is important, to my mind, is that his story turned out to be mostly right. Say, 80-90% right. In journalism, that's not bad. And the story was - and still is - a crucially important insight into the working of government in the run-up to war, and indisputably in the public interest.
Of course Gilligan was not the first journalist to be accused of bias, and nor will he be the last. Thinking about this, I am reminded of the great journalist, James Cameron. He wrote extensively about nuclear weapons and about the Vietnam War in the 1950s and 60s, often making fierce criticisms of them both. Cameron often found himself the butt of criticism for being biased or lacking objectivity. His response was typically robust.
"I do not see how a reporter attempting to define a situation involving some sort of ethical conflict can do it with sufficient demonstrable neutrality to fulfil some arbitrary concept of 'objectivity'. It never occurred to me in such a situation, to be other than subjective, and as obviously so as I could manage to be...As I see it, the journalist is obliged to present his attitude as vigorously and persuasively as he can, insisting that it is his attitude, to be examined and criticised in the light of every contrary argument, which he need not accept but must reveal."
James Cameron, Point of Departure, Oriel Press, 1967.
As far as I am concerned, that says it all. I have enormous difficulty with the idea of objectivity. I have never met any human being, let alone any journalist, who I would regard as objective. Those who have claimed it, were deceiving themselves and their audiences.
In every angle in every story, in the choice of each word - does a person 'claim' something to be the case or 'state' it? - we are all revealing our opinions, our prejudices, our perspectives. That is not something to be ashamed off, to hide, it is something to accept as human and be as open as possible about.
In practice as a journalist I think that means that there is nothing wrong with taking a particular line, with - if you like - slanting a story against someone or in favour of someone else. But in so doing you do have responsibilities. You should expose yourself to opposing views, listen to those who take a different line and reflect their views in whatever you write. You should always give those who are criticised an opportunity to defend themselves. You should obviously try to be as accurate as you can. In a nutshell, it is not the job of a journalist to be objective, but it is his or her responsibility to be fair.