BBC Appeal Part 1

Our Appeal Part 1

part 1 | part 2 | part 3 | part 4 | part 5

23 August 2007
Complaints Manager
Room 211
35 Marylebone High Street
LONDON
W1U 4AA

 

Dear Sir/Madam                                                                                  Ref: AB/0700018

Monkeys, Rats and Me, BBC 2, 27 November 2006

We are pleased that the BBC has upheld our complaint with respect to balance. I am writing again because I believe that our complaints with respect to accuracy and fairness to contributors should also be upheld and that action should be taken to rectify the damage caused by the screening of such a biased and inaccurate programme in the guise of a balanced documentary.

My original complaint concerning Monkeys, Rats and Me was submitted via the BBC website on 21 December 2006. I enclose a copy as several of the issues it raised remain unresolved. In summary, I complained that:

  • The programme contained important inaccuracies, such as the false claim that deep brain stimulation is an advance we owe to research on monkeys
  • The programme was very one-sided in its presentation of the scientific issues surrounding animal experimentation, whilst pretending to be neutral
  • Mel Broughton’s participation in the programme was gained under false pretences
  • The issue of the scientific necessity of animal experimentation (and therefore of the motivation and rationality of its opponents) was totally misrepresented
  • No attempt was made to confirm the truth or otherwise of extreme claims made by Professor Aziz and other supporters of animal experimentation, despite the BBC’s avowed commitment to accuracy and impartiality.

My reply from Jonathan Dunlop at BBC Information was identical to the replies received by many of our supporters, who had also complained along similar lines. This reply ignored most of the issues of complaint and simply dismissed allegations of bias by allowing the film-maker himself to assert that it was not biased! Quoting journalists who thought that the programme was balanced is meaningless: because of the BBC’s persistent omission of the key scientific dimension to this controversy – both in this programme and in general – journalists and the public are simply unaware of this ‘censored’ aspect of the debate. The journalists were impressed by Adam Wishart’s ‘ambivalence’ – which, in fact, was not genuine, as my first complaint demonstrates, with reference to Wishart’s article in the Mail on Sunday, advertising Monkeys, Rats and Me.

Shelly Willetts, our Communications Director, then complained to the Editorial Complaints Unit on 12 January, explaining that the reasons given by the BBC for
editing out EMP’s contribution to the programme were insupportable. We received a letter from Fraser Steel, dated 7 June, which upheld our complaint that claims regarding the necessity and efficacy of animal experimentation were allowed to go unchallenged and were not balanced by contrasting views.

Mr Steel went on to explain that he also agreed with our complaint regarding accuracy but that he didn’t think it was the key question. He therefore upheld our complaint regarding accuracy on grounds of balance, rather than accuracy.

On the subject of Mel Broughton’s participation in the programme, Mr Steel said that a member of ECU staff had spoken to Mr Broughton, and that Mr Steel had concluded that although the decision to edit out the scientific challenges to animal experimentation was a misjudgement, there was no intention at the outset to deceive him.

Mr Steel said that action would be taken as a result of the deficiencies found in the programme and that his findings would be published in due course on the BBC website. On 6 July I wrote to Mr Steel (copy of my letter enclosed) to ask what action was going to be taken as a result and to make two offers of help. I received a reply from Andrew Bell, on Mr Steel’s behalf, dated 18 July, saying that the action to be taken was now posted on the BBC website and that my further points should be raised with Mark Thompson, rather than with the ECU.

Hence this letter of appeal, which I am also copying to Mark Thompson. Clearly, I am not appealing the decision to uphold our complaint regarding balance, with which we are very pleased. But there are other outstanding aspects of our complaints which have not been satisfactorily resolved. I will be as brief as possible and divide the issues into sections, as follows:

Accuracy
As I pointed out in my first complaint, the major theme of the programme was 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. Yet this is not true. In fact, deep brain stimulation for Parkinson’s disease and dystonia was pioneered in patients, not monkeys (see New Scientist, 183 (2457), 24 July 2004 – excerpts enclosed). This is at least as important as the issue of balance.

This major part of our complaint has been systematically ignored and must be addressed. It is not enough to say that Professor Aziz claims that DBS resulted from his experiments on monkey brains; others disagree and therefore this is a controversy that should be covered in a balanced way. In reality, it is a plain, unarguable fact that Professor Alim Louis Benabid discovered DBS while operating on a patient before Professor Aziz made any similar ‘discoveries’ in monkeys. Thus the whole premise of Monkeys, Rats and Me is dishonest.

Fraser Steel said in his letter of 7 June that our complaint regarding accuracy (with respect to Professor Aziz’s claims) was valid and that (bizarrely) he would uphold it on grounds of balance, rather than accuracy. Yet the ruling posted on the BBC
website said that the issues raised were of ‘balance rather than accuracy’ and were only upheld ‘to that extent’ – thus downplaying the fact that our complaints were upheld.

The ruling on the BBC website also said that my scientific criticisms of animal experimentation ‘were not sufficiently substantial’ to be included in the programme. Yet the person who made that unilateral judgement was the programme-maker himself, who, as my initial complaint clearly shows, already had a strong belief in the value of animal testing before he embarked upon this programme. The summary slides that I presented to him for the programme, both in Oxford and, again, in London, are enclosed. How much more substantial could the evidence be than the fact that, for example, 700 stroke drugs successful in animals have all failed, often injuring or killing patients, in clinical trials? An editorial in the Lancet (2006: 368:1548) said: ‘the stroke [research] community needs to think long and hard about whether these animal models are financially and ethically viable’.

Fairness to contributors
My complaint that Mel Broughton’s participation in the programme was gained under false pretences was not upheld because there was no ‘intentional deception at the outset.’ With respect, I did not say that there was intentional deception at the outset. My point was that Mr Broughton would not have participated in the programme unless he believed that scientific objection to animal research would be well represented as an important focus of the programme – which he had been assured many times that it would be.

I telephoned Mr Broughton in June, after receiving Fraser Steel’s letter, to ask him whether he would have participated in the programme if he had known that it was not going to cover scientific challenges to animal research, and to tell him about the BBC’s ruling on my complaint regarding his participation. He said that the BBC’s ruling was ‘wholly disingenuous and unfair’ because he had been led to believe throughout the filming of the programme that a strong scientific case against animal experimentation was going to be made and that he would ‘absolutely not have participated in the programme’ had he known that this promise was going to be reneged upon.

In the BBC’s own editorial guidelines, under ‘fairness to contributors’ – it says that ‘we will normally make them aware of significant changes to the programme as it develops which might reasonably affect their original consent to participate.’ The guidelines further say that ‘the more significant their contribution, the more detail we should provide.’ Mr Broughton could not have been a more significant contributor – so why was he not informed that the programme in which he had agreed to participate had changed so significantly?

My point remains that Mr Broughton’s participation was secured through deception – even though that deception may not have been intentional. 

Action
Fraser Steel said that action would be taken as a result of our complaints being upheld. Yet the only action the BBC intends to take is to desist from repeating the programme in its present form. That is not action! The damage done by screening such a biased and inaccurate programme in the guise of a balanced documentary is incalculable. Many thousands of people will have watched the programme and based
their opinions on the thorny issue of animal experimentation upon it. Virtually none of those people will be aware that our complaint has been upheld. The damage done by Monkeys, Rats and Me must be rectified by screening a programme dealing specifically with scientific challenges to animal testing. The BBC owes it to its licence-payers to redress the shameful balance of its output on this subject to date.  Monkeys, Rats and Me is but one example in a long list of one-sided programmes on this issue – including the Newsnight special to which I refer in my letter to Fraser Steel, dated 6 July.

The BBC’s editorial guidelines say that ‘No significant strand of thought should go unreflected or under represented on the BBC’– yet, in many programmes on the issue of animal experimentation, the BBC has never covered the scientific perspective represented by EMP, as I explained in my letter to Fraser Steel of 6 July. Eighty-three per cent of viewers believe that ‘broadcasters should report on all views and opinions’ according to the BBC’s recent survey of its audiences’ views on impartiality.

BBC denial of complaints
On the BBC Complaints website, it says ‘We issue public responses to recent issues of wide audience concern if they cause a significant number of complaints or involve a significant issue.’ Yet no comments on Monkeys, Rats and Me appeared on the BBC website until July – almost 8 months after the programme was transmitted. I know that a significant number of complaints were sent to the BBC because many people sent copies of their responses to us. Presumably this can only mean that the BBC considers the subject of animal testing is not a significant issue. In the adjudication posted on the website in July, it says that ‘two other viewers complained in broadly similar terms.’ This is remarkable. It may be that only two other viewers complained to the ECU but I know that a significant number of people complained to BBC Information – don’t their views count?

Intervention by Biosciences Federation and others
We received two letters from Andrew Bell, apologising for the BBC’s delayed response and saying that he hoped to let us have a decision by 5 and subsequently by 21 March. We then heard nothing until Fraser Steel’s letter of 7 June.

I understand that Professor Clive Page wrote to George Entwistle on 23 March, saying:
‘I understand that the BBC is about to uphold a complaint from Europeans for Medical Progress about Adam Wishart’s documentary "Monkeys, Rats and Me" which was broadcast in November 2006. As the Chair of the Biosciences Federation’s Animal Science Group I wish to applaud the BBC’s decision not to include the arguments of European’s for Medical Progress in the documentary. I urge you not to uphold this complaint, which would deliver a propaganda coup to an animal rights
organisation, and tie the hands of the BBC into reporting an extreme and misleading version of the science of animal research.’

‘…Europeans for Medical Progress (EMP) argues that no research using animals has ever been of benefit, nor can ever be of benefit. From my point of view, EMP does not represent a significant strand of scientific debate about animal research. Unlike many other conflicts within science, there is remarkable unanimity within the scientific community about the value of animal research. This is not a matter of controversy. There is no significant dissension within the scientific community.’
The letter went on to make further false and defamatory accusations against EMP – I enclose a copy for your information. According to the website of the Biosciences Federation (www.bsf.ac.uk/asg/asghome.htm), other organisations also wrote to the BBC in a similar vein. These letters raise two major questions:

1) Who within the BBC leaked the news that our complaint was about to be upheld?
2) Was the BBC influenced by these letters?

It seems more than coincidental that a response was due by 5 and then by 21 March but, following these letters, this response was delayed by several more weeks. It would be deeply disturbing if the BBC’s independence was compromised by pressure from powerful lobbyists with vested interests in maintaining the status quo. As Michael Lyons wrote in the Guardian on 30 July ‘everyone has a stake in the BBC and the Trust’s job is to represent their interests. Above all, this means securing the BBC’s independence from political and commercial interests.’ Professor Page’s letter perfectly illustrates the lengths to which those who feel threatened by our position are prepared to go in an attempt to silence us and undermine our credibility. The leaking of the news that our complaint was due to be upheld is proof positive that there are people within the BBC who are very anxious to suppress coverage of the scientific challenges to animal experimentation that we represent.

To answer just three of Professor Page’s charges:
1) We are a patient safety organisation; not an animal rights organisation.
2) We have never argued that no research using animals has ever been of benefit, nor can ever be of benefit: that is a total misrepresentation of our position.
3) The value of animal research is a matter of great controversy within the scientific community, as elsewhere.

In light of these letters, I believe Fraser Steel should be congratulated for upholding our complaint regarding balance – but does the influence of these letters explain why he refrained from fully upholding our complaint regarding accuracy?

I wrote to Mr Steel (via email) on 13 August to request a full copy of the programme-makers’ comments, on which his decision was based, and which the BBC’s guide to making an appeal says I am entitled to see and comment upon. I would like to know the basis on which it was decided not to uphold our complaint regarding accuracy.

Accountability
The editorial guidelines state that ‘The BBC is accountable to its audiences. Their continuing trust in the BBC is a crucial part of our contract with them. We will act in good faith by dealing fairly and openly with them’ and that ‘We are open in admitting mistakes when they are made and encourage a culture of willingness to learn from them.’

In this case, the lack of action in response to such serious breaches of the BBC’s own guidelines indicates an unwillingness to learn from these mistakes, which are made with depressing regularity by the BBC every time it covers this particular subject. Passion and integrity seem sadly lacking when it comes to fair portrayal of this issue.

The fact is that animal experimentation is not simply an issue of concern over animal rights, as repeatedly portrayed by the BBC; it is also an issue of supreme importance
to human health and medical progress. 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 BBC Trust recently stated that ‘The public has a right to expect the BBC to set the standards for editorial integrity in broadcasting and expect those in charge of the Corporation to protect the reputation of their public institution.’ The Director-General’s interim report found ‘deeply disappointing evidence of insufficient understanding amongst certain staff of the standards of accuracy and honesty expected.’ Professor of Journalism Roy Greenslade wrote in the Evening Standard on 20 July: ‘If the BBC is to have any hope of rescuing its reputation for honesty, it needs to think more deeply about every area of its output.’ It is encouraging that the Trust regard[s] any deception or breach of faith with our audiences as being utterly unacceptable’ and that Mark Thompson acknowledges the BBC needs to put ‘its house in order’ and that honesty and accuracy are paramount.

Therefore, I hope that those sentiments will extend to amending the extraordinarily unbalanced output to date on the subject of animal experimentation, by making or commissioning a programme dealing specifically with scientific challenges to animal testing. Thus far, audiences have been denied the information they need to reach an informed conclusion on this highly important issue.

Mr Thompson’s action plan includes mandatory training for 16,500 staff. This training should include alerting BBC staff to the existence of the important scientific perspective on animal testing that is represented by Europeans for Medical Progress. As I have mentioned previously, EMP would be willing to assist by providing or contacting scientists who could address BBC staff and explain the evidence on which their position is based.

Europeans for Medical Progress Trust has recently produced a half-hour film, Safer Medicines (DVD copy enclosed), which I believe would be extremely valuable for BBC staff and programme-makers to watch. We would be delighted to send further copies – please do not hesitate to request as many copies as would be helpful.

Yours sincerely

 

Kathy Archibald
Director

 

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