Tom Sutcliffe: Pity the referee in a fight between faith and fact

Social Studies: The BBC shouldn't be impartial between proven knowledge and wilful ignorance
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The Independent Online

The setting is a great medieval cathedral and the lighting is low. On the soundtrack a voice is speaking to us with hushed urgency, telling us that hidden within this building are "clues to a mystery". Its 13th-century masons, we learn, built into its walls "a code that has the power to unlock the laws that govern the universe".

The allusion is unmissable, but just in case the thicker viewer doesn't latch on, the series for which this is a curtain-raiser has been given the title The Code. Forget Dan Brown, this opening says, we've got a better thriller for you. The speaker is Marcus du Sautoy, Charles Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science, and if it strikes you as odd that such a figure would adopt the rhetoric of potboiling irrationality to introduce a series about mathematics then you've led a sheltered life recently. On television, information, particularly abstruse information, must conceal its identity until the ambush is inescapable.

I found myself thinking of The Code when I was reading Steve Jones' recently published review into the Impartiality and Accuracy of the BBC's Coverage of Science, a report which patted the corporation on the head for its science coverage but also raised the tricky question of what happens when impartiality rules framed for divergent opinions find themselves enlisted in a face-off between fact and faith.

The difference between the two might be a matter of opinion in itself, of course. Professor Jones writes at one point of "rectifying" the situation that one in six of the British population apparently still believes that human beings were created by God within the past 10,000 years – an ambition which would presumably not sound very impartial to a Biblical literalist. And that's Professor Jones's point; a rigid application of impartiality rules might suggest to a producer that counter-evolutionary opinion should be given a voice. But to do so would propose a false equivalence between religious conviction and demonstrable fact.

Professor Jones doesn't argue anywhere that scientists shouldn't be challenged on their views. But he does suggest that some forms of balance are a waste of time – including an over-anxiety to let global warming sceptics have their say, in the teeth of overwhelming scientific evidence. This has alarmed some. The famously even-handed Melanie Phillips even described his review as the basis for a "secular Inquisition", though I couldn't see anywhere a suggestion that climate sceptics should be burnt at the stake (or even denied a voice proportionate to their scientific credibility).

What he doesn't perhaps give enough weight to is the possibility that this arises less out of an anxiety over impartiality rules but over simple watchability. That, after all, is why Professor Du Sautoy applies the manners of an airport novel to a subject distinguished by its logical clarity. And it's often why controversies are thought to make better television or radio than explanation. The head-to-head barney, with the BBC as referee, might not illuminate an issue, but it's much less likely to make dull or difficult viewing. We can all understand a boxing match.

Professor Jones is right to point out that the BBC shouldn't be impartial between proven knowledge and wilful ignorance. But BBC producers need to remember too that sometimes the former is duller than the latter, and they just need to live with the fact.

Is that a mobile I see before me?

As Simon Callow noted over the weekend, theatregoer rage at mobile-phone interruptions is often more disruptive now than the mobile phone itself. A ringtone goes off and the hapless offender is subject to hissing and clucking from all around.

It happened the other night when I went to see Sarah Helm's play Loyalty – based on her perspective of the build-up to war in Iraq, as the partner of Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair's chief of staff.

As it happens, this is a play in which the action is constantly interrupted by mobile-phone calls. But then a phone rang out in the audience during a pensive monologue from the heroine. Maxine Peake handled it very elegantly, I thought, breaking off ruefully in mid-line and saying "Welcome to my world". She got a laugh anyway and smoothed the bump. And then I realised that, rather unusually, nobody had delivered the usual spiel about turning off mobile phones as I entered. Could it be that Peake's ad lib was premeditated and that this is the only production in London which actually hopes for a wayward ringtone?

You can sail, but you can't hide

I watched my teenage son embark on a Tall Ship crossing to Stavanger last Saturday. As he's now out of range I have no way of knowing whether his daydreams of the nautical life are coming up to scratch. But I am, for the first time in at least two and a half years, aware of exactly where he is and where he's going. The Tall Ships Youth Trust, has a fleet tracker which lets you see the current location of their vessels. At time of writing he's at 53°15'52" N 2°07'09"E, heading 318 degrees at a speed of 6.4 knots. If only it covered Camden as well.