Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Tuesday, 30 June 2009

If Jeni Barnett's MMR show is within Ofcom rules then the rules are broken

I have just read through Ofcom's ruling of the disgraceful Jeni Barnett LBC radio phone in show on MMR from January this year. The ruling is here (you need to scroll down to about 80% of the way down to read it).

I blogged about this show earlier this year with respect to Ben Goldacre's coverage of it and also gave my views. Basically a totally ill informed woman allowed her prejudices about a (non-existant) link between the MMR triple vaccine and autism to overtake her professional judgement. She was hectoring and rude to the callers who disagreed with her. I am convinced that this show and other ignorant media coverage like it are responsible for the drop in immunisation coverage for measles below the herd immunity required level and hence outbreaks on a scale not seen for years. Utterly, utterly irresponsible.

Yet Ofcom feel that LBC and Ms Barnett are not in breach of their rules.

The rules need to be changed. The problem that I can see with the ruling is that it all seems to pivot around the need for "balance". But this is not a political debate. It is about whether dangerous scientific illiteracy should be given equal weighting with properly researched views backed up with scientific evidence as this show did. Balance doesn't come into it.

Barnett and her ilk will always claim that "more research is needed" but the MMR/autism hypothesis has been tested to destruction. There is no link. The original "study" that much of this hysteria is based on was flawed in a number of fundamental ways.

People like Barnett (and Melanie Phillips, Peter Hitchens etc.) need to shut up about this now and accept the evidence but I fear that the fact that Ofcom has effectively exonerated Barnett will only give succour to their anti-scientific nonsense.


liquidindian said...

There's a quote I wish I could remember about neutrality not being a balance between right and wrong. Can't find it.

CountingCats said...

Trouble is, start shutting down idiots on the basis of their being 'unscientific' and how soon will it be before the Carbon Cultists really do make it illegal to disagree with their AGW twaddle?

Banning idiots from speaking because they are idiots allows the idiots to ban the rational because they are not idiots.

Tony_E said...

For a liberal that's a very illiberal argument!

Counting Cats has it right, censorship but government of anything is a poor way to go, and invites abuses of that power. Could you imagine what this country would be like now if Brown could stifle debate the way in which you suggest? We'd all be sitting round one lightbulb, driving electric cars, believing that the economic mess is all Americas fault!

The problem with the MMr situation has been caused by the government trying to stifle debate with poor science in the early days after the report. Had they made the single vaccine available but mereley advised the triple, the whole situation would have quietly gone away.

Mark Thompson said...

But there has to be a limit to free speech in even the most liberal of societies. There is the old saying about not having the freedom to falsely shout "Fire" in a theatre. This is a variant on that surely?

Of course people should be free to their views and to express them but there should be consequences if people use their privileged positions as trusted commentators and TV/Radio show hosts to propagate dangerous nonsense which, make no mistake will contribute to an increase in severe illness and in some cases deaths.

The fundamental problem is scientific illiteracy in general (not just restricted to journalists and commentators). But when there is no credible evidence for a claim like MMR causes autism (none) and yet year after year we read and hear articles and programmes which give "voices from both sides of the debate" equal measure, this is damaging. Then anecdotal "evidence" is wheeled out when it is scientifically irrelevant to try and back up the claims. Parents end up confused and not knowing what to do for the best when there is really no need.

As for making the individual vaccine available, why should the government have done this when there is no evidence that it is any safer and there are the following problems:

1) Because it involves multiple trips to the doctors, a significant number of parents/children do not return to get the second and third jabs.
2) There is a period of months between each jab so the period of not being covered for one or two of these diseases is longer than with the triple jab.
3) It is more expensive. I know it sounds penny pinching but this has to be a consideration. Why should the NHS deliberately go down a more expensive route that has inherent problems and for which there is no evidence that it is any safer? There are better things to spend that extra money on and other more worthy things will lose out. There is always a consequence to these decisions.

If you are interested in reading more about this, the chapter on the MMR scare in Ben Goldacre's "Bad Science" book is highly recommended.

CountingCats said...

The answer to bad speech is more speech.

Do you really think Polly, George Monbiot and their ilk would not already have seized on the laws forbiding the promulgation of scientific nonsense to shut down anyone who disagrees with them if these laws existed?

Given that there are STILL people who regard Marxist twaddle to be sound 'science' what you are proposing is to give the powers that be the ability to shut down anyone who disagrees with them.

The only tool that should be available in these circumstances is ridicule.

neil craig said...

The problem is that the people who want "balance" on MMR never want it on "catastrophic global warming", AIDS, nuclear power or any of the other subjects. The difference seems to be that those opposed to vacination want to reduce the power of the state while the warming alarmists, nuclear alarmists & AIDS epidemic alarmists want to increase it, raise taxes & get billions for their friends. I would not prevent alarmists shouting "prevent fire or Greenland will melt", though I admit i do object to the billions spent by goevernment pushing that lie & the relentless propagandising of the likes of the BBC.

Pa Annoyed said...

If you want scientific literacy, one of the basic principles of science is that you can only believe a hypothesis to the extent that it withstands criticism and all attempts to discredit it. To have a scientific understanding requires that you encourage and listen to the best of the opposing arguments, and be able to explain why they're wrong.

Balance is science.

And it is scientifically illiterate, not to mention illiberal, to allow only one side of a scientific debate; even a very one-sided one. It is an outright rejection of the parts that give a theory scientific credibility.

The problem here is not that the criticism of MMR was allowed a voice, but that the medics failed to properly explain to the public why it was baseless. (Which it is.) People will naturally be illiterate if nobody ever teaches them.

Mark Thompson said...

Pa Annoyed:

I never said only have one side of the debate. My main problems with JB's programme are:

1) The host herself was biased. This manifested itself in numerous ways during the programme. There was nobody in the studio with her to counter her, only people on the end of the phone and she was in the driving seat as far as they were concerned able to decide how long they got and often interrupting them and also making comments about what they said after they were gone.

2) The strong implication given by this programme was that there is lots of confusion and the "jury is still out" on whether there is a link. That is simply not true. After years and years and countless studies there is no link. It is impossible to prove a negative but we are as close as you can get in this situation now so why do shows like this and articles in the press etc. often still make it seems like there is lots of scientific uncertainty? The media's approach to this issue is frightening parents unneccessarily.

I admire your scientific approach to this and your desire to be balanced and allow all criticism which can then be argued with and ultimately explained to be wrong. The problem is in this situation that we are not talking about a debate in the Oxford Union or through letters published in a scientific journal. We are talking about a debate within the media which has raged for 11 years and the public in many cases is still not clear that MMR is safe (as safe as anything like this can be anyway).

The media's idea of balance is to give equal weighting to both sides of an argument. you see it all the time on things like the Today programme. In some cases this is fine but in a situation where the overwhelming scientific evidence points to one conclusion and yet still the media gives the impressions we are in a 50/50 situation (or worse that "we just don't know" playing on people's fears), surely something is wrong with this? I think that this state of affairs should not just continue unchallenged because it can ultimately result in unneccessary illness and death?

I don't think the medics did fail to explain why it was baseless it is just that the anti-MMR voices to a large extent had (and still have) control of the media steering wheel. Doctors generally get on with their jobs and most of them aren't media trained. Whereas people like Jeni Barnett with their ignorant opinions based on anecdotal "evidence" know exactly how to get their message across.

I agree that the public should be better educated about the scientific process. That is a very long term thing and something I intend to campaign on myself but unless and until we can reach a point where the issues involved are widely understood then we are stuck with the current situation and I intend to keep banging away from my small corner about this.

Pa Annoyed said...


You make some fair points, but I would answer that you have to judge the balance of the debate overall, not that of every individual programme or discussion. I don't expect programmes like 'Songs of Praise' to have to include disclaimers citing all the atheists' arguments. If there are other programmes around that give it a pro-MMR slant, to have some biased against would be acceptable.

I don't have a problem with people saying "the jury is still out" on any argument, even if it's not true. It's up to their opponents to demonstrate that the jury isn't out; to make it clear why the jury is so conclusively not out that if anyone tries to say "the jury is still out" they just get laughed at.

As a side note - it isn't impossible to prove a negative. There are statements that are provable/falsifiable, and statements that are not provable/falsifiable, but the criterion distinguishing between them isn't that they're expressed as negatives. Certain sorts of negatives, yes.

You are right that this isn't the Oxford Union or the letters page of a scientific journal. But in saying that, you are just explaining why scientific illiteracy is accepted in the public debate. You either discuss real science in the media, or you admit that scientific illiteracy is both inevitable and acceptable. What you can't do is try to replace unscientific debate with unscientific Argument from Authority.

I would suggest that while allowing debate and confusion can indeed lead to increased deaths, that in the long run forbidding debate and trying to set up a scientific orthodoxy as the only point of view that may be disseminated, and scientific Authorities that cannot be argued with or debated in public, is far more dangerous. Scientific evidence is often much less overwhelming than you might think, and scientists are only human.

But I agree that it's a state of affairs that should be challenged, and that if you think presenting science to the public is important, then scientists should be trained and employed to do so. I wouldn't object either to the media getting more scientific training, so they know how to ask the right questions.

neil craig said...

Mark are you on record of publicly criticising the BBC, ITN, etd every time they put on a programme about alleged global warming & don't have an equal number of speakers who dispute it. (ie every single time they report this scam).

If not then you are displaying a bias in your call for "impartiality" which, by definition, is not showing impartiality.

Mark Thompson said...

Hi Neil.

No I am not on the record doing what you ask, not least because I am not able to keep track of every news report on every issue. In fact I have not made much comment about climate change on this blog at all although I doubtless will as time goes on.

For what it's worth though my view is that on Climate Change the media balance is about right in terms of where the debate is at the moment. It seems that the majority of scientific evidence points towards man made climate change although I accept that it is not definitive. It is a very difficult area to be sure about.

I accept that the media narrative is with the arguments for man made climate change but there are plenty of times I have seen and heard opposing arguments. Bjørn Lomborg for example has a very high media profile and I have seen and heard him being interviewed on many occasions as well as things written by him and others who agree with him.

The Daily Telegraph and other papers regularly publish articles and comment pieces critical of man made climate change advocates and there have been TV programmes along these lines too.

I think this is right as it is a huge question, possibly the biggest we will ever face and the debate should be robust and the case proven as far as it can be.

In the meantime there are other arguments for moving away from such a carbon intensive economy anyway which will reduce CO2 emissions whilst the evidence for MMCC is further debated so if the evidence gets stronger at that point it is not too late to turn things around.

neil craig said...

So it is "the biggest question we face" & you have not found time to critise the dishonestb way broadcasters report it "not least" because they have donne so 10s of thousands of times & you only notice something like the subject here, if it happens once?

"there have been TV programmes along these lines too" - I would be interested inn knowing what the name of the other one was? I think you prove my points wonderfully.

Mark Thompson said...

You say broadcasters are dishonest about MMCC, as I have said, I do not think they are. So why would I comment on them in that way?

I do think it is a huge question for our time. One of the issues I have is that I own and run a company that works in the building energy efficiency sector and as I have learnt in the past, anything I say on this will be filtered through that prism so I have largely steered clear of it. It won't stop me speaking out about it altogether but I will not make it one of the main things I discuss or campaign on either whilst I am professionally involved. People like you Neil, who hold very different views from me would be the first to claim I had a conflict of interest were I to do so. Aside from this it is up to me what I post on my blog. I have all sorts of reasons for posting and not posting on things: time, availability, what I happen to have been reading etc. etc. To try and read into what I haven't posted some underhand motive is just wrong.

Your comment about me only noticing about the subject here (MMR lest we forget) if it happens once is a joke. It is one of the most covered medical stories of the last 10 years. I don't have access to Lexis Nexus to come up with some stats but just google MMR and see what you find. Barnett's contribution is the tip of a massive iceberg.

I cannot off the top of my head remember the names of TV programmes for or against the arguments for MMCC right now. Are you saying there has only ever been one TV programme that has been against it?

neil craig said...

Well your evidence of bias which should be opposed was "people use their privileged positions as trusted commentators and TV/Radio show hosts to propagate."

Now not havinmg seen any BBC reportage you will have to take my word that they unanimously use their privileged position to propagate the "catastrophic warming" tail.

You enhanced your objection by saying "The fundamental problem is scientific illiteracy in general (not just restricted to journalists and commentators). But when there is no credible evidence for a claim like for a claim like MMR causes autism (none)" & unless you have a unique insight I think you would have to concede that there is no evidence for catastrophic warming (none) which shows your hypocrisy in complaining about 1 programme showing a bias you don't like while ,akinmg absolutely no objection to 10s of thousands of instances of precisely the bias you say you object to.

I know of only one on British TV programme on "catastrophic warming" which put gave balance to the sceptical view - Durkin's Great Global warming Scam. You claimed to know of at least 1 other & I await you naming it. Or not as the case may be.

Dave Cole said...

Although I subscribe a bit to Dawkins argument - would we also give equal weight to flat earthers? - the problems and, more particularly, risks in giving the government the power to arbitrate would, I feel, outweigh the benefits, particularly as before we took that step we could spend more on science education. You could make a decent argument that EastEnders makes people think the crime rate is higher than it is.

I wonder what Barnett's views are on the potential swine 'flu vaccine.