Press Complaints Commission defends Sunday Times’ rewriting of medical history

If you were the PCC, how would you defend a newspaper’s claim that British Airways, for example, rather than the Wright brothers, pioneered flight? Simple: rewrite the definition of the word "pioneer"!

Incredibly, this is how low those who are charged with upholding standards in the press are willing to stoop in order to defend the media’s wilful misrepresentation of facts concerning animal experimentation. This concerns Safer Medicines Campaign because we exist to expose the truth about the best means to discover and develop treatments for patients and to ensure their safety.

The truth is that medical progress is overwhelmingly the result of human clinical observation and studies of human tissues and human disease, rather than research based on animal "models" of human disease. In fact, patients are frequently harmed by reliance on misleading data from animal experimentation. We do not oppose animal experimentation per se but we do believe that it should cease to be given precedence over human-focused testing. Greater focus on research based on human biology would accelerate medical progress and improve the safety of treatments for patients.

But defenders of animal experimentation often claim that medical breakthroughs depended on animal experimentation, refusing to acknowledge that the pivotal discoveries were made in humans (or in vitro) and only later recapitulated in animal models. Their mission is to convince people that animal experimentation is crucial to medical progress. In their eagerness to make their point, truth is often jettisoned in favour of good copy. Editorial codes stipulating accuracy do not appear to apply to this particular topic, as we have found many times. 

On 10th January 2010 the Sunday Times magazine published a four-page feature article on animal experimentation, claiming that deep brain stimulation (DBS) – a surgical treatment for Parkinson’s disease – was "pioneered in monkeys". In fact, the technique was discovered in a human patient by Professor Alim Louis Benabid at the University of Grenoble. Following his momentous discovery, Professor Benabid and his team established the technique by treating a series of patients successfully, before other researchers began to experiment with the technique in monkeys. It is true that this subsequent research in monkeys helped to refine the technique but – crucially – not before the technique was already established as a treatment for Parkinson’s.

DBS is widely acknowledged as a major medical breakthrough. Thus the truth about its discovery is important to establish. The powerful pro-animal testing lobby flaunts DBS as an example of the fruits of animal experimentation. In 2007, the BBC made exactly the same claim about DBS in a documentary entitled "Monkeys, Rats and Me", which they later admitted was unbalanced: see our complaint and the BBC’s apology here.

Regarding the inaccurate Sunday Times article, Safer Medicines Campaign complained first to the newspaper and then to the PCC, when the newspaper refused to correct (or even acknowledge) their error. The PCC eventually concluded that to claim DBS was "pioneered in monkeys" was not inaccurate because the term "pioneer" has different meanings! They accepted that Professor Benabid made the initial discovery of DBS but rejected his fully-referenced account of the history of the development of the technique in favour of a version of events proffered by the UK’s leading pro-animal testing lobby group, Understanding Animal Research. We proved conclusively that their version of events was chronologically incorrect but the PCC upheld the false conclusion that DBS only became established after the monkey studies and not before.

Since the PCC’s conclusion is clearly untenable, we asked the Charter Commissioner to request that the PCC reconsider their decision. Ten months after complaining to the PCC, we received a response which concluded that there are no grounds for reconsideration. Once again, the reason given was the meaning ascribed to the word "pioneered". Bizarrely, the discovery of America by Columbus was given as an analogy, to illustrate that his "discovery" did not preclude the American pioneers being called pioneers. However, the analogy does not hold up, nor does it hide the fact that crediting people who were not among the first to establish a new technique as "pioneers" is an abuse of language. We pointed this out to the Charter Commissioner and asked him to have the courage to reverse his conclusion but have received no reply.

A better analogy is that of the Wright brothers, who pioneered flight, and any airline company that subsequently exploited the brothers’ breakthrough. The PCC and the Charter Commissioner are effectively arguing that it would not be inaccurate or misleading to credit British Airways, for example, as pioneers of flight! The absurdity is clear. The PCC – the self-proclaimed guardian of standards in the press – is prepared to defend the lowest possible standard of journalism, where an important truth is deliberately misrepresented in pursuit of a political agenda. The word "pioneered" was carefully chosen to imply that DBS is a fruit of research in monkeys, in order to construct an argument in support of animal experimentation around this bogus "fact".

The pro-animal testing lobby, including Understanding Animal Research, continues to cite DBS as justification for animal experimentation and clearly has the media in their thrall. Safer Medicines Campaign continues to challenge this deliberate dishonesty because the repercussions for society are immense, influencing not only the public’s perception of the value of animal experimentation but also the level of funding and support it receives from scientists and governments.

Had Professor Benabid patented his discovery, anyone falsely claiming the discovery for their own would find themselves in court. Without such legal protection, it remains to be seen whether history will give due credit to Professor Benabid or whether the animal experimentation lobby will get their way. Interestingly, the Nobel Prize for the discovery of dopamine as a neurotransmitter and its role in Parkinson’s disease was awarded in 2000 to three scientists who studied dopamine in animals, despite the fact that their research had already been pioneered in humans by another scientist, Oleh Hornykiewicz. More than 250 neuroscientists signed a letter to the Nobel committee, condemning their neglect of Hornykiewicz. Let us hope that this disturbing miscarriage of scientific justice is not prophetic.

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Postscript: We have been contacted by the "second complainant" referred to in the PCC’s correspondence. She also complained to the Charter Commissioner, who replied that the PCC "judged that one could not pioneer by accident"! One wonders what Sir Alexander Fleming would have to say to that!

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