Complaint from Mr Henry Lincoln - Adjudication


On 17 September 1996 BBC2 broadcast an edition of the historical documentary series ‘Timewatch’ entitled ‘The History of a Mystery’.

The programme investigated the theory put forward by Paul Andrews and Richard Schellenberger in their book ‘The Tomb of God’ that the tomb of Jesus Christ was located in a hillside close to the village of Rennes-le-Château in the South of France. Andrews and Schellenberger had based their book partly on research done by Henry Lincoln, the author of a book called ‘The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail’ and presenter of three previous BBC documentaries about Rennes-le-Château.

Mr Lincoln had argued from an analysis of parchments and occult geometry that Rennes-le-Château had religious or mystical significance. Andrews and Schellenberger had used some of Mr Lincoln's theories to argue that the significance of Rennes-le-Château was that Jesus Christ was buried there, a conclusion which had not been deduced by Mr Lincoln. In investigating the case put by Andrews and Schellenberger, the programme included Mr Lincoln's researches in so far as they formed the basis of ‘The Tomb of God’, and included extracts from the films on Rennes-le-Château made by Mr Lincoln for the BBC series ‘Chronicle’ in the 1970s.

Mr Lincoln complained to the Broadcasting Complaints Commission (now the Broadcasting Standards Commission) that the programme was unfair and unjust to him.

The complaint.

Mr Lincoln complained that, by reporting the conclusions he had reached in the 1970s without giving him an opportunity to explain how his views had developed since then, the programme had unfairly given the impression that his research had stood still and that he was associated with the conclusions of Andrews and Schellenberger. Specifically, Mr Lincoln complained that the programmes had,

(a) allowed his research to be presented in a garbled and misleading manner,
(b) used a statement he had made in one of his ‘Chronicle’ films in 1974 as if it were an answer to a quite different question 22 years later,
(c) treated a detailed and complex geometrical analysis by the late Professor Christopher Cornford of Poussin's painting "The Shepherds of Arcadia" as if it were "no more than an aberrant fantasy" created by Mr Lincoln,
(d) included the views of another art historian, Professor Martin Kemp, who contradicted Professor Cornford, thus furthering the suggestion that the geometrical analysis stemmed from Mr Lincoln's imagination as well as being disrespectful to the memory of the late Professor Cornford, and
(e) allowed interviewees to make statements as "Henry Lincoln "believes..." and "Henry Lincoln was convinced that..." which were parodies of the truth.

In his written submissions and in the hearing held by the Commission, Mr Lincoln said that the programme had been very critical of Andrews' and Schellenberger's book ‘The Tomb of God’. This book had used research from his ‘Chronicle’ TV series from the 1970s. However, Andrews and Schellenberger had been aware that the conclusions of the ‘Chronicle’ films were outdated. In July 1995, when first contacted by the producers of the programme, he had agreed to a meeting. However, the programme-makers did not let Mr Lincoln have sight of the book and he had pointed out that he could not contribute to a programme which addressed a book of whose content he was in ignorance.

The BBC said that when they had first spoken to Mr Lincoln, they had explained that they were making a film about ‘The Tomb of God’, but that they were bound by a confidentiality agreement and so could not disclose its contents until after publication. When the two parties had finally met, Mr Lincoln had described his earlier work as "snapshots of research in progress" and had been keen to move the discussion in the direction of his new discoveries and theories. He had said he would be keen to answer questions about his previous work on Rennes-le-Château if he could have two minutes to talk about his later discoveries, which had included a geometrical analysis of the churches around Rennes-le-Château.

The BBC said they had wanted to interview Mr Lincoln, since he had raised the question that the parchments on which his theories were based might be forgeries, and they wanted to pursue this. They had tried to make programme time for Mr Lincoln's new theories, but most of his latest ideas had no bearing on the main subject of the programme. In ‘The Tomb of God’, Andrews and Schellenberger had accepted Mr Lincoln's earlier work in almost all its essentials, e.g. suggestions that the Knights Templar had discovered a secret in the Holy Land; that a secret society had preserved the secret down the centuries; that the parchments held the key to that secret, and that they might be decoded to yield a geometric map; and that the map related to patterns in the landscape around Rennes-le-Château. The foundations of these beliefs, as laid out by Mr Lincoln in the ‘Chronicle’ programmes, were relevant to the current programme in a way in which his recent discoveries were not.

Mr Lincoln had nevertheless told them he would only be interviewed for the programme if he could talk about his latest discoveries. The producer had tried to get extra running time for the programme but had failed. The BBC had therefore written to Mr Lincoln to say they were unable to film an interview with him.

Mr Lincoln said that one of his statements had been made to appear as if it were the answer to a question in relation to ‘The Tomb of God’, when in fact it had been made in one of his `Chronicle' programmes in 1974. This gave the false impression that he took Andrews and Schellenberger's work seriously. The narrator had asked "If something is concealed here, who could have put it there?" which had been followed by a passage in which Mr Lincoln had said "Well, one answer would seem to be some kind of secret society..."

The BBC said that a caption had identified this passage as having been from 1974. It did not, in any case, misrepresent Mr Lincoln. They accepted that he had disagreed with Andrews and Schellenberger over some aspects of their work, e.g. their claim that Rennes-le-Château held the mortal remains of Jesus Christ. However, it was Mr Lincoln who had first suggested that the secret of what lay concealed in the environs of Rennes-le-Château may have been preserved by a secret society, and he had repeated this suggestion in a recent series he had made for Danish Television.

Mr Lincoln said that the programme had presented only the first tentative approach by the late Professor Cornford of his analysis of Poussin's painting "The Shepherds of Arcadia" (which Mr Lincoln believed was the subject of a coded reference in the parchments), in which Professor Cornford had stated that the angles of a pentagon could be present. The programme had then cut to Mr Lincoln saying: "The next step was to join the opposite points of the pentagon". This had given the impression that Professor Cornford's work was a fantasy created by Mr Lincoln. Furthermore, Professor Kemp had been allowed to assert "there is no such geometry" about Professor Cornford's analysis. Professor Cornford's findings had been directly relevant to the development of Mr Lincoln's research, and his work had been skilled and irrefutable.

The BBC said in reply that Professor Cornford's argument had been presented in an abridged way so that its essential point could be conveyed briefly. Professor Kemp's opinion was not inexpert or uninformed. He was a Professor of Art History at Oxford University, and a leading authority on the use of mathematical and geometrical principles in painting. His views, like those of Professor Cornford, had been edited to convey the principal point briefly. Both academics had been treated on the programme in the same way.

Mr Lincoln said that the narrator had said during the programme: "The Secret Dossier convinced Henry Lincoln" and that "What convinced Lincoln was the evidence of the parchments". In fact, he had not been convinced by any of the evidence, and had always treated it with extreme caution. The narrator's interpretations of his thinking of twenty years ago could not be presented as a statement of his views today.

The BBC said that the statements in the narration about Mr Lincoln's beliefs were simply paraphrases of his own account of them, as broadcast in the ‘Chronicle’ series. They did not believe that his work had been misrepresented or distorted in the programme.

They had found great difficulty in getting a clear statement from Mr Lincoln as to precisely how his views of the 1970s had changed. The theories he had propounded then he still seemed to be propounding now. In a new edition of Mr Lincoln's book ‘The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail’, brought out in 1996 by Mr Lincoln's publishers to coincide with the ‘Timewatch’ programme, he had not taken the opportunity to disavow any of his earlier views or suggest they were outdated. While recognising in another recent book, ‘The Holy Place’, that some of the evidence for the story could be "hearsay", he had nevertheless reaffirmed his belief in it. He had also repeated essential elements of the story in a new four-part series made for Danish Television. It was therefore not unfair or misleading to cite his 1970s views when he was continuing to publish and broadcast them today.

Mr Lincoln repeatedly told the Commission at the hearing that there was nothing in his earlier views which he now disowned; however his views had developed and had been modified by later discoveries, and it was the BBC's refusal to allow him to talk in the programme about his developed views which was unfair.

Evidence considered by the Commission

The Commission had before it a complaint form from Mr Lincoln and supporting statements and documents from him, and statements and supporting documents from the BBC. The Commission viewed a video recording of the programme and read a transcript. A hearing was held attended by Mr Lincoln and representatives from the BBC. At the Commission's request, both Mr Lincoln and the BBC provided the Commission with transcripts of the relevant part of one of the programmes made in 1974.

The Commission's findings.

It is not the task of the Commission to solve the mystery of Rennes-le-Château but to consider whether ‘Timewatch: The History of a Mystery’ was unfair and/or unjust to Mr Lincoln.

Since the programme was primarily about the Andrews and Schellenberger book, the Commission does not consider that the BBC was under any obligation to interview Mr Lincoln for the programme.

It accepts that the producer tried in good faith to arrange an interview, not least because this would have provided an opportunity to question Mr Lincoln on why he appeared to continue to place his faith in parchments which he had been told were forgeries. But Mr Lincoln's insistence that he wished to explain developments of his theory which had no immediate relevance to the book which was the subject of the programme clearly made this difficult. In the Commission's view, the decision not to interview Mr Lincoln was not unreasonable or unfair.

In the absence of such an interview, however, there was clearly a greater obligation on the BBC to ensure that the use of extracts from programmes made by Mr Lincoln more than twenty years earlier did not misrepresent his current position. Whether there was any misrepresentation turns on the extent to which Mr Lincoln's current views differ from those he expressed in the 1970s. Despite pursuing the point with Mr Lincoln, the Commission had difficulty in distinguishing significant differences between his 1970s views as reflected in the programme and his views as published and broadcast more recently. Later discoveries had caused him to qualify his earlier research but not to disown it. In the Commission's view, the programme's extracts from Mr Lincoln's early work, clearly signposted as such, were not presented in a misleading manner, did not misrepresent him and were not unfair.

On Mr Lincoln's complaint that a 1974 statement of his was used in answer to a completely different question posed in the 1996 programme, the Commission was assisted by Mr Lincoln's offer to provide a transcript of the relevant part of the 1974 programme (a copy of which was also provided by the BBC). The Commission notes from the transcript that both the question posed in 1974 and that asked by the ‘Timewatch’ narrator in 1996 related to the part allegedly played in the mystery by secret societies.

Although ‘Timewatch’ changed the wording and the focus of the question, the Commission is not of the view that viewers were likely to have been misled into supposing that Mr Lincoln was commenting on a completely different matter. While the updating of questions in this way is a somewhat hazardous editorial process, the Commission is of the view that on this occasion it led to no significant unfairness.

On the complaint about the use of Professor Cornford's work, the Commission accepts that the programme compressed a complex analysis, but not to the point of distortion or unfairness, particularly to Mr Lincoln. Nor does the Commission accept that it was unfair (or disrespectful) to include the opinions of another art historian who challenged Professor Cornford's and Mr Lincoln's conclusions.

Mr Lincoln was unable to point the Commission to witness statements in the programme which, as he complained, amounted to "parodies of the truth" about his position. Views expressed about his position were either his own, in his own words, or were accurate paraphrases by the narrator or fair comment from people who had met him. The programme did not suggest he was a fantasist, and did distinguish between his views and those of Andrews and Schellenberger where they materially differed from his.

Therefore the complaint is not upheld.

Danielle Barr

Robert Kernohan

David Boulton

25 June 1997

Henry Lincoln