The BBC and The Big Questions

Sunday, 15 August 2010 01:55

For the last two months I have been out on the road publicising my new book Why We Lie. It was not so much on the road as on trains or waiting at stations to see if the train I need to get is actually going to run. If you are thinking of writing what will be your first book here is something you need to know. Writing the book is the easy part. Then come finding a publisher and, having done so, preparing and checking the text. Then comes the really hard part. Unless you are an A class celebrity, your publisher will have no money to advertise your book. You have to do that by accepting every invitation, however insignificant, to do something that will let people know that your book exists. According to Wikipedia, in the UK in 2005 some 206,000 books were published. It doesn't matter how good your book is, if people don't know about it, they won't buy it. So when your publisher's publicist says to you, 'You've got an invitation to Much-Binding-in-the-Marsh's Literary Festival,' you go. If your publicist says to you that the radio station 7ZH (audience figures 12) want to interview you about your book, you turn up on time and give your wittiest and most entrancing performance.

The BBC is renowned for trying to get its facts right. When a mistake is made, there is a correction and an apology. When, in a religious programme, my words were edited so as to make it appear that I had said the opposite of what I had said, the BBC apologised and invited me to set out my views on their Religion and Ethics website. Ref Generous though the BBC were, I expected that their Religion and Ethics Department would never again invite me to take part in any of their programmes. However, I was invited to take part in a BBC1 God-slot programme, The Big Questions. This did surprise me, but then I discovered that the programme was actually made by Mentorn. Apparently, Mentorn's researchers did little research, or at least when they worked on The Big Questions. They not only failed to uncover my past, but they also failed to find that a lie-detector or polygraph does not identify liars. Anyone claiming that it does is gravely mistaken. In failing to do their research Mentorn allowed the BBC to give advertising time to a man who made his living by pretending that with his polygraph he could identify when a person was lying.

According to their website, 'Mentorn is one of the UK's longest established independent television producers. Since 1985, we have made thousands of hours of television for broadcasters in the UK and worldwide. Our offices in London, Oxford, Cardiff and Glasgow produce programmes across a range of genres: drama, current affairs, factual and entertainment. . . . Our current affairs output includes the BBC flagship politics programme Question Time, now into its 30th year; and high profile editions of BBC One's Panorama and Channel 4's Dispatches such as the BAFTA winning edition on Beslan. In 2007 we won the tender to make BBC One's new religious and ethical debate show, The Big Questions which is currently mid way through a 43-week run.'

It was not until I was in the green room that I discovered that Mentorn had invited a man who was described as 'a lie-detector expert'. Had I known this and the nature of the programme before I set out for Bristol where this programme was being made I would have withdrawn. A programme where there was a serious discussion of how difficult it is to tell if someone is lying would have been worthwhile, but such a programme had not entered the minds of those entrusted with making this programme.

The recording took place in a school where one large room was used for the set. This was basically a U-shaped arrangement of chairs placed facing a dais. The front row of the chairs was for the people who had something special to say about each question, while the three chairs on the dais were for a retired bishop, a rabbi and a woman journalist, all people with opinions.

Then there was the presenter, whose warm-up patter seemed to be aimed at getting us to like her because she constantly denigrated herself. We soon discovered that she also denigrated any person there (other than the bishop, the rabbi and the woman journalist) who did not respond as she wished them to.

The programme was supposed to be a discussion but in fact nothing was discussed. Instead the presenter would point to an individual and ask a question. That person was required to state his or her view as briefly and simply as possible, that is, to state a prejudice, not a reasoned view. Try to add a touch of complexity and the presenter would hold her briefing sheet across the person's face to stop the person talking, in mid-sentence if necessary. The people who got any kind of hearing were those who talked the loudest, presenting their well-rehearsed view. Three people excelled at this, the bishop, a man who called himself a libertarian, and lie-detector expert. His name was Don Cargill, and he informed us that with his machine he could tell when a person was lying.

Don was sitting next to me. While we were waiting to begin he told me about the wonderful work he did. His clients would say to him, 'I just want know the truth.' His clients were people who, he said, wanted to know whether their partner was unfaithful, or whether their partner was a paedophile. When recording started and he had an opportunity to advertise what his company did he made the most of it.

Ignoring the presenter, I spoke up loudly, clearly and succinctly. It is easy to be succinct about polygraphs. They do not identify liars. All they reveal is emotion. A truth-teller can be in a high state of emotion while a cold, practised liar is not. Yet, according to Don Cargill and his colleagues, the truth teller is lying and the cold, practised liar is not. The presenter could have asked me for my evidence, and I could have quoted the world expert on lying, Paul Ekman. In his book Telling Lies he states simply, 'The polygraph exam does not detect lies, just signs of emotion.' But the presenter did not. Instead she shut us up by ordering us to go into the playground and finish our argument there.

Next day I received an email from a researcher on the programme. Clearly this was an email that was sent to every person who took part.

Dear Dorothy,

I just wanted to say thank you so much for giving up your Sunday morning for The Big Questions. We very much appreciated your contributions. You were an invaluable member of our show and made some really interesting and important points.

I hope you enjoyed taking part in the show and we look forward to seeing you again.

Best wishes,


Sheena Lahive

Researcher - BBC1 The Big Questions

Mentorn Scotland

BBC 40 Pacififc Quay Glasgow G51 1DA


I replied,

Dear Sheena,

Thank you for your routine 'thank you' email. I not only gave up my Sunday morning but I also gave up my Saturday afternoon and evening and much of my Sunday afternoon.

I have been puzzling over what was the purpose of having Don Cargill on the programme. Was it because, as you had a nice young man as an example of an alcoholic (albeit an ex-alcoholic), you had an example of a liar in a not-so-nice man who was selling a skill he did not possess to gullible people at a point of great crisis in their lives? Or was it that no one in your team could be bothered to do a little research on polygraphs.

If polygraphs worked, the police and the law courts would be using them. All neuroscientists are agreed that the evidence is that the only thing that polygraphs do measure is emotion. They do not and cannot show that a person is lying. Some American states do use polygraphs, even though American neuropsychologists like Paul Ekman have been telling them for years that polygraphs do not identify when a person is lying. Similarly, some American states continue to use capital punishment, despite the fact that the research has always shown that capital punishment does not reduce the incidence of murder.

In recent research neuroscientists have found that certain changes in a person's brain might reflect the effort needed by a person to lie, but this research has not been sufficiently replicated for neuroscientists to say with any degree of certainty that these changes shown on the scan do reflect the effort involved in lying. They will never be able to say yes, definitely, this person is lying because an MRI scan cannot read a person's thoughts. Neuroscientists are a long way from being able to do that.

I find it scandalous that the BBC has allowed a person like Don Carhill to advertise what he does, or purports to do.

Please pass this email on to other members of your team.

Yours sincerely,

Dorothy Rowe


To date I have not received a reply from any member of the team or from Mentorn.

However, some weeks later I did an interview on BBC Radio Wales about Why We Lie. It was a straightforward interview until the end when I was asked, 'Do polygraphs show that a person is lying?' I was given amply, uninterrupted time to explain that polygraphs reveal nothing but emotion.

From my experience it seems that the BBC is a huge closed system in which news and gossip whizz around at the speed of light. Most BBC staff care enormously about maintaining the BBC's fine reputation, but a few do not.

Do remember this, and that, when you're out publicising your new book, you're unlikely to get any writing done, not even answering your emails.

Last modified on Tuesday, 17 May 2011 16:04
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