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Europeans for Medical Progress complains to BBC regarding BBC2 programme ‘Monkeys, Rats and Me’.

‘Monkeys, Rats and Me’, BBC2, Monday 27 November 2006

This programme by Adam Wishart was broadcast by the BBC as a ‘documentary’ – the definition of which is ‘giving facts and information rather than telling a fictional story.’

However, the major theme of the programme: that treatments such as deep brain stimulation, which can restore mobility and dignity to patients such as Sean Gardner, would not have been possible without experiments on monkeys, is pure fiction. In fact, deep brain stimulation for Parkinson’s disease and dystonia was pioneered in patients, not monkeys (see New Scientist, vol 183 issue 2457, 24 July 2004, page 40).

It is more than unfortunate that most of the facts in a supposedly factual programme were wrong. For example, the claim was made many times that all medical breakthroughs have come from animal research, without which medical progress would be impossible. This is a ludicrous claim, which is patently false. The Advertising Standards Authority recently ruled that the milder claim “Some of the major advances in the last century would have been impossible without animal research” is misleading and should not be repeated (see http://www.asa.org.uk/asa/adjudications/non_broadcast/Adjudication+Details.htm?adjudication_id=40340).

Wishart’s pretence that he was a neutral observer was deeply dishonest. I first met him in May, when he filmed the debate in Oxford in which I participated for the programme. His position, firmly and unambiguously on one side of the issue, was immediately apparent. Indeed, he makes his long-held views very plain; in an article in the Mail on Sunday advertising his programme the day before its screening, he says: “I, of all people, understand that medicine has benefited enormously from experiments on animals: the anaesthesia and surgery that extended the life of my father when he was dying of cancer wouldn’t have existed without investigations on animals, and I was pleased that all the drugs he took while he was ill were tested first on animals rather than sick and vulnerable patients.”

Again, the claim that anaesthesia and surgery arose through animal experimentation is simply wrong. Anaesthetics were discovered through self-experimentation in the 1800s and cancer surgery is an entirely clinical advance, thanks to previous patients. Wishart should not be pleased that his Father’s drugs were tested on animals: the editorial in the world’s leading science journal, Nature, this week (December 13th) acknowledges: “certain mouse models of cancer, for example, do not accurately mimic the disease in humans, and may even have hampered the development of some drugs (see Nature 442, 739–741; 2006).” Many eminent cancer scientists have gone much further, eg. according to Dr Irwin Bross, former Director of the world’s largest cancer research institute: “While conflicting animal results have often delayed and hampered advances in the war on cancer, they have never produced a single substantial advance in either the prevention or treatment of human cancer.” Furthermore, Cancer Research UK asserts: “We do trials in people because animal models do not predict what will happen in humans.”

With his support for animal testing clearly established, Adam Wishart set out to make an ostensibly balanced ‘documentary’ for the BBC which was, in reality, a grossly distorted and biased piece of pro-vivisection propaganda.

Mel Broughton, who featured prominently in the programme, insisted when he was first approached by Wishart that he would not participate in the programme unless my organisation, Europeans for Medical Progress (EMP), was represented. This is because scientific objection to animal research is central to this most heated of controversies and must necessarily be an important focus of any meaningful programme on the issue. EMP is a patient safety organisation, comprising scientists and medical professionals whose concern is that patients are being harmed by an unwarranted preoccupation with animal tests which frequently prove misleading or fatal when applied to humans. Two recent examples: six unfortunate men at Northwick Park hospital were reassured that TGN1412 was safe because it was safe in monkeys.  Withdrawn arthritis drug Vioxx was good for the heart in animal tests but caused hundreds of thousands of heart attacks: the biggest drug disaster in history. Superior human-based tests could have predicted the effects of both TGN1412 and Vioxx, where animal tests failed so tragically.

Thus I was asked to participate in the debate in Oxford alongside Mel Broughton, in opposition to Laurie Pycroft and Professor Tipu Aziz. Wishart assured me many times that a vignette of the debate would be broadcast during the programme – though my suspicions were aroused when all of the speakers were fitted with microphones except for me! In June, Wishart interviewed me for a further two hours for the programme; during which I again presented compelling evidence of the failings of animal research and the superiority of human-based approaches. I offered to provide further scientists who would be willing to be interviewed or offer advice.

Despite all of this, our entire contribution was edited out, with two very serious consequences:

  • Mel Broughton’s participation in the programme was gained under false pretences.
  • The issue of the scientific necessity of animal experimentation was totally misrepresented and portrayed, instead, as a simple matter of dispute between altruistic scientists and ignorant animal rights protestors: a clichéd ‘emotion versus reason’ impasse. The fact that a significant proportion of scientific opinion disputes the wild claims of pro-vivisections such as Professor Aziz for the medical value of animal experimentation was deliberately omitted; thus depriving viewers of the facts they need in order to reach an informed conclusion on an issue that could not be more important for human health and medical progress.

The BBC is obliged by its own charter to remain impartial and to cover all sides of a story factually and fairly. In the words of the Producers’ Guidelines;

“Due impartiality lies at the heart of the BBC. All BBC programmes and services should be open-minded, fair and show a respect for truth. No significant strand of thought should go unreflected or under represented on the BBC.

We must be accurate and must be prepared to check, cross-check and seek advice to ensure this. …All relevant information should be weighed to get at the truth of what is reported or described.”

The BBC has failed in its duty to its licence-payers to inform them truthfully about an issue which is of enormous importance in terms of human health and the future of British science, as well as in terms of animal welfare, which is itself of great concern to the majority of the population.

The BBC’s reputation is built upon the fact that the listener can trust what they hear on its programmes. Sadly, that trust has been badly abused with respect to the issue of animal experimentation – and not just on this occasion. The BBC’s persistent bias on this subject is astonishing and has led to vast numbers of complaints, some of which have been upheld.

There exists a significant strand of scientific opinion that animal experimentation is largely irrelevant and frequently harmful to human health. There is abundant scientific evidence to support this view, which lies at the very heart of the fascinating story about Oxford University’s controversial animal laboratory. There are spokespeople who would like to make this case and they were made available to the BBC but were denied the opportunity to be heard. This amounts to nothing less than censorship.

The complete lack of journalistic integrity displayed here is inexcusable. The BBC made no attempt to confirm the truth or otherwise of claims made by Professor Aziz and other supporters of animal experimentation. It should be self-evident that the last people who can be relied upon for an objective opinion on a controversial practice are its practitioners. Many claims that were completely untrue were made without challenge by a presenter/producer who had been acquainted with the true facts of the matter but had chosen to ignore them and to make a programme in support of his own views.

In conclusion, the BBC appears to have its own opinion on animal experimentation and refuses to challenge anyone speaking in its favour. Furthermore, the BBC refuses to give a fair hearing to those who do challenge the Establishment position – in direct contravention of its own guidelines and codes of practice with regard to accuracy and impartiality. Worse still, the BBC routinely misrepresents all opponents of animal experimentation as violent and/or ignorant and misanthropic anti-science extremists.

The BBC has been criticized by its own Governor’s study group and others, including Glasgow University Media Group, for failing to report impartially on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The BBC’s failure to monitor its own coverage over time, or the views of its journalists on the ground, or to allow an independent complaints procedure, were all cited as reasons for the lamentably unbalanced reporting. All three failings are equally applicable to the animal experimentation issue, the BBC’s coverage of which is dramatically more one-sided.

I trust that you will address these issues and hope that the BBC will attempt to redress the balance. Europeans for Medical Progress would be delighted to help in that endeavour. I look forward to hearing from you.

Yours sincerely,

Kathy Archibald,
Director, Europeans for Medical Progress


‘Monkeys, Rats and Me’, BBC2, Monday 27 November 2006

Many people have contacted us regarding the responses they have received from the BBC to their complaints about the bias displayed in the above programme. The BBC’s responses all contain a dismissal of the arguments of Europeans for Medical Progress and its director, Kathy Archibald, as not being credible. Astonishingly, this standard response was even sent to Kathy Archibald herself, in reply to her own complaint!

The BBC’s response claims that “We took these arguments seriously and investigated their credibility. Thus we interviewed on camera Richard Klausner, a former director of the US National Cancer Institute, refuting Archibald’s argument and how she had used a quotation of his ‘entirely out of context’.” Richard Klausner’s quote was this:

The history of cancer research has been a history of curing cancer in the mouse… We have cured mice of cancer for decades – and it simply didn’t work in humans.”

It is hard to see how such a quote could be taken out of context: it is unambiguous, whatever the context. Europeans for Medical Progress always stresses that Richard Klausner nevertheless fully supports animal experimentation and Kathy Archibald would have been the first person to tell the BBC that Dr Klausner would strongly refute EMP’s position. Dr Klausner’s refutation does not diminish EMP’s argument at all – on the contrary, it strengthens it. Just as admissions that cigarettes cause lung cancer were far more powerful coming from tobacco company executives, so is criticism of the animal model all the more powerful when it comes from someone of Dr Klausner’s stature and position on animal experimentation. We are interested to know: did the BBC travel to America to interview Dr Klausner?

The BBC’s response goes on to say: “Moreover, we had also lined up to film a Gleevec patient and some of the scientists involved in the creation of Gleevec who also wanted to refute EMP’s arguments.” This begs the question of what the BBC perceived EMP’s arguments to be. Kathy Archibald had told Adam Wishart that Gleevec was discovered through in vitro research, including rational drug design based on a specific human defect; and that the drug was nearly lost because it proved to be toxic in tests on dogs. These are indisputable facts, as evidenced by the following two quotes:

The major importance of this drug is the nature of its discovery…The enzyme was isolated, reproduced, and then a drug to inhibit it was engineered” – Dr Lou Fehrenbacher, haematology/oncology specialist, Kaiser Permanente Medical Centre, California.

The wonder drug was almost shelved because it caused liver damage in dogs. The drug company therefore wanted to abandon it but because of the excellent in vitro results seen with Gleevec, Brian Drucker pressed for it to go to human clinical trials where it was revealed that liver damage in humans was not a problem” – Dr Jerome Groopman, Chief of Experimental Medicine, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Centre, Harvard University.

Curiously, the BBC’s response says: “We also asked Peter Singer, the author of Animal Liberation and Professor of Ethics at Princeton University, what he thought and he said it was ‘wishful thinking’ to assert that animal experiments did not benefit medicine.” This is extraordinary! Peter Singer is not a scientist and is not familiar with EMP or our position. With no disrespect to Professor Singer, he is not qualified to judge the relative scientific merits of particular methods of research, as he himself openly admits. Following the controversy caused by his comments on this programme, Professor Singer wrote in a letter to the Sunday Times on December 3rd that “whether particular experiments on monkeys were justified is a question I have not studied sufficiently to offer an opinion about.”

It is also very clear from the direction of the phrasing of the question that was put to Professor Singer that EMP’s position was misrepresented to him. Our position is not, nor ever has been, that society has never benefited from animal experimentation. Rather, we question whether, today, animal experimentation offers an effective means to help us find cures for the diseases which still blight us. There is substantial evidence that it does not and that, disturbingly, patients are frequently harmed by reliance on information from animal research, which is often misleading or fatal when applied to humans.

This serious issue deserves to be addressed in any ‘documentary’ purporting to assess the medical value of animal experimentation. Constraints of time are no excuse for omitting such a vital aspect of an important controversy. The reasons given by the BBC for editing out EMP’s contribution are clearly insupportable.

It is noteworthy that the BBC attempted to ‘investigate the credibility’ of EMP’s arguments but made no attempt to investigate the credibility of claims for the benefits of animal experimentation, however outlandish.

I trust that you will address these issues and hope that the BBC will attempt to redress the balance. Europeans for Medical Progress would be delighted to help in that endeavour. I look forward to hearing from you.

 

Yours sincerely,

Shelly Willetts
Communications Director, Europeans for Medical Progress


BBC response:

Dear Ms Archibald

Thank you for your e-mail regarding ‘Monkeys, Rats and Me: Animal Testing’

I appreciate you had concerns about the balance of the film.

This programme was made by independent production company Hardcash Productions by film-maker Adam Wishart. Adam has explained his approach to making the film and background to some of the issues raised:

“A year ago, I set out to make a film about the battle for the Oxford animal lab. The intention was to focus only on what was happening in Oxford, and to explain the argument on both sides of the debate through that prism. That Mel Broughton represented the animal rights side of the argument had very little to do with the choices of the programme makers – simply he was the force behind the Oxford demonstrations. I didn’t see other animal rights organisations on the streets of Oxford two, three or four times a week. Broughton and Speak embodied the campaign against the Oxford lab, and that is why they appeared as such in the film. That was an absolute and truthful representation of what happened on the ground.

We did try to set out what some activists call the ‘scientific argument’, as promoted by the organisation Europeans for Medical Progress. We filmed a long interview with their spokesperson Kathy Archibald, her taking us through her arguments. We took these arguments seriously and investigated their credibility. Thus we interviewed on camera Richard Klausner, a former director of the US National Cancer Institute, refuting Archibald’s argument and how she had used a quotation of his ‘entirely out of context’. Moreover, we had also lined up to film a Gleevec patient and some of the scientists involved in the creation of Gleevec who also wanted to refute EMP’s arguments. We also asked Peter Singer, the author of Animal Liberation and Professor of Ethics at Princeton University, what he though and he said it was ‘wishful thinking’ to assert that animal experiments did not benefit medicine. In the end, we felt that we could include none of these contributions. We simply did not have the time in the programme to delve into these complicated arguments.

Similarly, I could not really explain the history of science during the last two hundred years, which led to the development of deep brain stimulation. I would have liked to have begun with the discovery of nerves in frogs, the investigation of the brains of cats with stereotaxic examination, the insertion of electrodes into Bulls by Delgado in the 1950s, the induction of a Parkinson state in monkeys in the 1980s, and the contribution that Tipu Aziz made to surgery. This is a difficult and circuitous history to tell concisely on the television, but it certainly included many contributions from the use of animals as well as the contribution of experiments on patients. However, I simply didn’t have the space to tell these stories in the time that I was allowed. It should be noted that we also filmed the Prime Minister, three police officers, two other scientists, a Parkinson patient, another operation, another animal experiment, and a whole series of other animal rights activists including John Curtin – none of whom were included in the programme because of constraints of time.

Of course, the filming in the labs was pre-arranged, they are under heavy security and we could not have got access otherwise. However, once inside the labs we were allowed to look wherever we fancied and talk unrestrictedly with the animal carers. We did this not only on the filming days, but on a number of other occasions throughout the production of the film. On no occasion did we discover any kind of cruelty to the animals, or behavior that was different to what we filmed. Moreover, we also showed the BUAV footage that was filmed undercover, and we used footage from PETA that showed animal cruelty.

Ultimately I would refute the idea that this was a biased programme.

My contention is supported by two of the reviewers in the broadsheets. Lucy Mangan, in the Guardian, wrote, ‘this BBC documentary was superbly balanced’. And Tim Teeman in the Times said, ‘What distinguished Adam Wishart’s Monkeys, Rats and Me: Animal Testing (BBC Two) was the film-maker’s ambivalence, a refreshing grey area for a subject that normally polarises opinion’. Clearly, those who would like to complain about the bias of this programme are too partisan to see my equivocation.”

Nevertheless, we appreciate your feedback and let me assure you that your comments have been fully registered on our daily audience log. This internal document will be made available to the production team and Senior BBC Management.

Once again thank you for taking the time to contact the BBC with your views.

Regards

Jonathan Dunlop
BBC Information

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