17 July 2007

BBC Trust takes an alternative line on medicine programmes

The people who made the programmes "Alternative Medicine: The Evidence," broadcast at the beginning of 2006, may have dismissed viewers' objections, but the BBC Trust found at least some of Simon Singh's complaints to be justified. You can find the result of the Trust's adjudication on the Editorial complaints appeals findings page. Go for April.

Then again, the Trust backed the programme's makers on most of the complaints, which leads you to wonder why DC's IMPROBABLE SCIENCE page describes the findings as "excellent news". (Please, DC, do something about that cumbersome web page.) A better phrase might be "good news" given the partial nature of the "victory".

Yes, the BBC Trust did uphold two of the 10 complaints, but from DC's comments you would have thought that it was rapped knuckles all round.

Isn't this the sort of misreporting, and spin, that DC (David Colquhoun), who usually avoids such elephant traps, likes to excoriate?

As to the two bits that the Trust did find dubious, the "summary finding" sums up the issues with content:

"The programme, while making reference to the clinical drugs administered to the patient in the open-heart surgery, did not accurately reflect the effect of acupuncture on each occasion that the operation was referred to and implied incorrectly that acupuncture was being used as the sole source of pain relief. It agreed that this could have misled the audience and upheld the complaint with regard to accuracy."
The other complaint that the Trust upheld was not about the programme's content, but about the tactics that the programme makers used to fend off criticism. As the adjudication describes it the complaint was that:
"The BBC orchestrated a letter to The Guardian without being open about its role and fabricating some of the signatories. The complainant noted that the letter “gave the impression that this was a volley of independent scientists rallying to its defence”."
The Trust also upheld this one.
"The committee ... while acknowledging that the programme had a legitimate right to write and organise the letter to defend the series, agreed that it was wrong for them not to have acknowledged that the letter was from the BBC. The Committee therefore upheld the complaint on the grounds that the letter did not satisfy the requirement to deal with audiences fairly and openly."
This last finding seems to be a symptom of the same malaise that has caused the BBC's recent problems. As the Trust put it:
"The Committee’s view was that this breached trust with the audience. The Committee agreeing that it was important for all programme makers to deal fairly and openly with the audience."
Treating the audience with contempt, with fake phone ins and dodgy editing, is a great way to lose friends.

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