NEWSNIGHT GUEST: Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock appeared to discuss cosmic radiation
AN UNDERFIRE journalist at the Daily Mail has defended his column about BBC’s Newsnight selecting guests based on their gender and ethnicity rather than their expertise.
He further accused the broadcaster of having a “policy” of picking non-white people.
Columnist Peter McKay, who revealed to The Voice he wrote yesterday’s (Mar 19) controversial Ephraim Hardcastle column, argued that Newsnight did not choose guests Dr Hiranya Peiris and Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock because of their expertise on cosmic radiation and the new breakthrough of evidence supporting the Big Bang theory.
He wrote: "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."
McKay went on the offensive after his column was criticised by a senior professor at University College London, who complained to the Daily Mail’s editor about the piece.
Professor David Price penned an open letter to the paper’s editor Paul Dacre expressing his “deep disappointment” for the column insinuating that Peiris and Aderin-Pocock were chosen to speak on the programme because they are female and non-white.
Price took issue with the comment about the scientists appearing because “Newsnight’s Guardian-trained editor, Ian Katz, is keen on diversity.”
Peiris and Aderin-Pocock featured on the news show to talk about scientists uncovering cosmic microwave background radiation that backs up the theory that the universe came into existence through a big bang and has been expanding ever since.
Price said: “The implication that anything outside of her academic record qualifies Dr Peiris to discuss the results of the BICEP2 study is profoundly insulting.
OUTSPOKEN: Mail columnist Peter McKay
“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.”
The UCL academic, who is vice-provost for research at the institute, called out the column for getting it wrong about who actually discovered the cosmic breakthrough, arguing that the columnist was incorrect to assert “white, male American” scientists were responsible.
Price added: “In fact the study was conducted by a diverse group of researchers from around the world.”
In conclusion, the professor told Dacre: “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.”
Aderin-Pocock, an honorary research associate in UCL's physics and astronomy department, 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, two 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 evening programme, 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.”
When the Mail was contacted, McKay told The Voice that Price’s letter expressed “a perfectly legitimate point of view.”
However, he pointed out that his column was aimed at taking on the BBC’s “well-known policy of not having too many white people on screen.”
McKay added: “They don’t want people thinking Newsnight is all middle-class white men.”
A programme spokesman told The Voice: “We ask people onto Newsnight because we think they know what they are talking about and have something interesting to say.
"If they also come from a wide variety of backgrounds that’s all to the good.”