Source: BBC Newsnight
A university has written to a newspaper to express “disappointment” over an article it claims insinuated two academics were only invited on to the BBC’s Newsnight because of their gender and ethnicity.
In an open letter to Paul Dacre, the editor of the Daily Mail, David Price, vice-provost for research at University College London, said it was “profoundly insulting” that anything other than the “academic record” of one of the scientists in question qualified her to take part.
The academic, Hiranya Peiris, a reader in astronomy at UCL, said that she had deep pity for the journalist who wrote the piece.
Dr Peiris and Maggie Aderin-Pocock, an honorary research associate in UCL’s department of physics and astronomy, appeared on the 17 March edition of Newsnight to comment on the big bang gravitational waves discovery by US researchers.
Two days later the Mail published an article in its Ephraim Hardcastle diary column that suggested Newsnight asked the academics to contribute because editor, Ian Katz, “is keen on diversity”. The column added that the discovery had been made by “white, male” scientists.
In the letter Professor Price writes: “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.”
Professor Price says of Dr Peirism: “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.”
He adds: “Dr Aderin-Pocock is a highly-qualified scientist and engineer with an exceptional talent for communicating complex scientific concepts in an accessible way.”
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 panelists.”
She added: “I am disturbed that [the column] 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.”
Dr Aderin-Pocock, who also presents the BBC’s The Sky at Night, 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!’”
She added that she received 10 requests for media interviews the day the news broke. “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,” she said.
An attachment was also added to the letter describing the “extensive academic credentials” of the two scientists.