15 October 2008: BBC Trust (the BBC’s watchdog) upholds BBC ruling that animal testing documentary ‘Monkeys, Rats and Me’ was unbalanced. Yet they still deny the programme was inaccurate, ignoring conclusive evidence to the contrary.
In our last newsletter we reported that the BBC had upheld our complaint of bias concerning the programme ‘Monkeys, Rats and Me’ which was screened in November 2006. The BBC admitted that the programme suffered from an unacceptable lack of balance and must not be aired again. We further pressed the BBC Trust (the BBC’s watchdog, defending its independence in the public interest) to uphold our complaint regarding accuracy, since the central premise of the programme – that treatments such as deep brain stimulation (DBS) for Parkinson’s disease and dystonia resulted from experiments on monkeys – is false. DBS was actually pioneered in patients, not monkeys.
We had to wait just over a year for the BBC Trust’s verdict, which was – astonishingly – that the programme was not inaccurate. Even more disappointing than the ruling itself was the fact that the BBC Trust ignored our central complaint (that DBS was pioneered in patients, not monkeys) just as BBC management had done. We pointed this out in a series of correspondence both before and after the ruling but to no avail.
We have spent almost two years negotiating the entire BBC complaints procedure only to find that the process is a charade. We spelled out our key complaint and requested a response on six separate occasions but still the point has never been addressed.
Our complaint is legitimate and important. Public opinion on the acceptability of animal experimentation – particularly its most controversial element, i.e. brain research in primates – is influenced overwhelmingly by the magnitude of its purported value to human health. Producing treatments for distressing disorders like Parkinson’s disease provides a powerful argument in defence of such controversial research. However, if such claimed successes are actually the fruit of research in humans, those seeking to justify research in monkeys are left, like the emperor, without any clothes.
Why the BBC should wish to defend animal experimentation deserves explanation. The BBC is a public service broadcaster charged with a statutory duty to inform and educate the public – who own and pay for it – with the highest standards of honesty, accuracy and impartiality.
The BBC proudly accepts this role and has its own stringent guidelines defining its responsibilities. The guidelines state, for example:
Clearly the BBC is prepared to defend animal research to the extent of making a mockery of its own guidelines. The position they have adopted in order to defend the false claim that DBS was discovered in monkeys is that programme makers and contributors are ‘entitled to their view’ – whether true or false – and may present it as fact, even as part of a supposedly factual documentary.
It is thus fair to conclude that what passes for truth at the BBC cannot be trusted – in blatant contravention of its obligations to the public, as laid down in its Royal Charter. Furthermore, there is little point complaining about mistakes since, if the BBC does not like a complaint, they will simply ignore it. In this case, BBC policy appears to be:
We are still waiting for the BBC to respond to our criticism of the intervention in the complaints process by powerful organisations with enormous commercial and intellectual vested interests in defending animal experimentation. One of the BBC Trust’s major roles is ‘to ensure that the BBC remains independent, resisting pressure and influence from any source.’
Yet the programme team, with the approval of BBC executives, joined forces with pro-animal testing lobby group RDS (Research Defence Society) to solicit letters from eminent pro-animal testing spokesmen professors Colin Blakemore and Clive Page. The purpose of the letters was an attempt to overturn the ruling that the programme was biased. Happily, the attempt was unsuccessful, presumably because the bias is so overt that it simply cannot be denied.
However, it is reasonable for us to speculate that such heavyweight intervention may have exerted some influence on the BBC’s continuing refusal to address our key complaint: striking, as it does, at the heart of the Establishment’s defence of animal experimentation. It would be illuminating to see Professor Blakemore’s letter but the BBC has refused to show it to us. They did, however, send a copy of Professor Page’s letter by mistake, which can be viewed on our website, along with all of our letters of complaint and the BBC’s responses (which reveal a catalogue of lies on the part of the programme maker).
Professor Page’s letter contains a barrage of false and defamatory allegations against us and is a blatant attempt to undermine our credibility in order to persuade the BBC to dismiss our concerns. It illustrates the lengths to which those who feel threatened by our position are prepared to go in an attempt to suppress coverage of the scientific challenges to animal experimentation that we represent.