Quack Focus: The BBC’s ‘Health Focus’ On Homeopathy


Since the beginning of our 10:23 Campaign, it’s become increasingly clear that there are an awful lot of parties out there waging a war on reason with regards to homeopathy – from Homeopathic Dana (so-called because he’s smaller and weaker than Dana International, the transsexual Israeli winner of the 1998 Eurovision Song Contest), spambot and drive-by troll ‘Dr’ Nancy Malik, idiot and BBC favourite Gemma Hoefkens, bowel-botherer Greg ‘Kaizen Clinic’ Wimbourne and all manner of ‘health’ activists peddling Big Pharma paranoia, while also peddling magic. The actions of these people I can actually understand (thought not condone): they sell homeopathy for a living, they have a very vested interest in keeping people in the dark as to what it is and why it’s bullshit. Homeopathy is how they make their name, how they feed their family, and how they milk their loyal and vulnerable supporters. It’s what they do.

However, alongside the honest, up-front, god-fearing quacks and charlatans, we’ve had to fight the homeo-forces on another front: the media. Almost universally, when homeopathy is discussed in the media, they ask a homeopath. At best, they also ask a healthcare professional, or (failing that) me, to represent the other side, while leaning the conversation in the favour of the water-wizard. The homeopath gets the first and last word, and the balance of the debate is very firmly on terra homeo. That’s when they’re not just outright selling homeopathic treatments, or allowing homeopaths to wax lyrical about how ‘it worked for me’ and ‘it can’t be placebo as it works on my baby/animal/etc’. This is the battle ground, and it’s this fight we choose to fight – so be it.

But it still pisses me off when it’s the BBC drinking the homeopathic Kool-Aid.

I mean, I love the BBC – they’re meant to be fair, unbiased by commercial concerns, free to investigate and report, educate and entertain, and all that good stuff. Sure, they may spend a little too much money giving Graham Norton a career, or padding out Saturday night’s with Dr Who and fancy dancing (neither of which I particularly care for), but they’re still ace. Except, when they do this:

The view of the regulatory body for pharmacists, who are consulting their members about how the products are currently marketed, is that people who buy homeopathic products should be advised that they do not work and only have a placebo effect.

But according to homeopaths, the real issue behind the consultation is the threat complementary medicine is posing to the highly lucrative relationship between the drug companies and the Health Service.

Face – meet palm.

The Newsline report featured here is really one of the most shockingly-biased, intellectually-dishonest and factually-bereft pieces of reporting I’ve ever seen. In 2 minutes, it manages to squeeze more logical fallacies, outright and long-debunked inaccuracies (the placebo effect DOES work on babies) and Big Pharma innuendo than I thought possible, and serves it up with a huge helping of the kind of smug-snark that only comes with CAM. If you want a summary of what I felt was utterly unprofessional about the report, check out below, where I’ve included the full text of the complaint letter I sent to the BBC yesterday (if you’re equally offended by the report, please feel free to complain to them too, and you can use my complaint as a template if you like. Please do, I urge you, the actually listen to these). Needless to say, the report followed the classic media pattern of interviewing homeopaths, rather than healthcare experts, and allowing their countless statements and facts to go unchecked – with the added bonus of backing their claims of Big Pharma conspiracy to keep the poor homeopath down, and topping off with an appeal by the ‘Health correspondent’ to find a way of accepting homeopathy into the bosom of actual healthcare. Based on nothing more than anecdote, rumour and conjecture, naturally. What do you want – proof? Evidence? Journalistic integrity?!

The BBC should not be behaving like we’d expect the Daily Mail to behave – they’re meant to be better than this. This is the organisation who gave us Brian Cox, Simon Singh and David Attenborough, yet – as was pointed out to me on Twitter yesterday – for insiders in the corporation, anti-science is rife:

“Producer on BBC series on alternative medicine told me he enjoyed “taking scientists down a peg or two”, hence his pro-woo film”

“…Full stand up row in the office with him. But scientist who presented show also at fault”

‘Taking scientists down a peg or two’ – I couldn’t have summed up the feel of the Newsline piece any better myself. We expect this of the Daily Fail, and we expect it of crackpots and quacks like Dana, Nancy and Greg. We don’t expect this of our BBC. You’re better than this. Start acting like it.

Dear BBC

The article entitled ‘Health Focus: Homeopathy’ contains a large number of issues which are great cause for concern:

  • The tone and bias of the article leaves a clear impression that homeopathy is effective, given that the case for ineffectiveness is not stated (it’s merely stated that the regulatory body advise it be considered ineffective), whereas the counterarguments to this position are detailed, with language leading the reader towards believing the claim as being likely correct (‘real issue‘, ‘threat to the highly lucrative relationship‘)
  • The videos are clearly supportve of homeopathy, starting with ‘it’s an alternative way of treating and illness, but more and more people are turning to homeopathy‘. This lacks both balance and scientific/factual insight.
  • The interview puts forward that babies do not experience the placebo effect – this is factually inaccurate, but goes uncorrected – leaving the viewer under the false misapprehension that this statement is true, and that placebos really are not active on babies.
  • It has worked for my family for years‘ – again, this is a factually unproven statement that the viewer is not encouraged to question, despite being demonstrably implausible
  • Once frowned upon by conventional doctors‘ implies it’s now accepted – it is not, and conventional doctors are still aware that the evidence proves homeopathy does not work
  • here, there are only 5 (homeopathically) registered doctors‘ – clearly the implication from the journalist is that there should be more homeopathy in Northern Ireland – this is blatant editorialising, and is not supported in the views of healthcare experts
  • house of commons reports raised questions about its effectiveness‘ – in fact, the report examined the evidence and concluded homeopathy was not effect – no questions were raised, they were demonstrably answered
  • …unreliable… cannot for the basis of any NHS treatment‘ – this is a cynically-selected quote – in actual fact, the report concluded comprehensively that homeopathy can be reliably shown not to be effective, as the authors will gladly attest to (please contact me if you’d like me to demonstrate this)
  • The balance of the whole piece is entirely lop-sided, interviewing a pharmacist for 15 seconds on the issue of labelling, before returning to a pro-homeopathy stance with an interview with a homeopath
  • some feel there’s more behind this current debate…’ – here, the journalist (and by extension, the BBC) are clearly and implicitly adding weight to the unfounded accusations of collusion and conspiracy between doctors and pharmaceutical companies. This is disappointing in the extreme, and in my view is deeply irresponsible journalism.
  • In Europe, there are over 100million people for whom homeopathic medicine is their first choice of treatment‘ – an unproven claim, not supported by the data in the video, and disproven by even a cursory level of research
  • The statment regarding the growing ‘success’ of homeopathy is misleading – this success is not clinical success, nor scientific success, nor is it a growth in usage; the clear implication is that the opposition to homeopathy is financially based, rather than based on the paucity of evidence for this unproven treatment. This goes unchecked, again, by the report.
  • Where the real challenge lies is for the homeopaths and the pharmacists to work together, to provide a service that’s safe, productive, and cost-effective‘ – again, this is biased and baseless. There is no challenge in getting homeopaths to work with pharmacists – the challenge is in proving homeopathy has a place in healthcare, and it has failed this challenge consistently. Further, the implication from the reporter is clearly that only homeopathy is ‘safe, productive and cost-effective‘ – again, this is baseless and irresponsible editorialising, and is not supported by data.

Having watched this video, and the supporting extended pro-homeopathy interview, a number of times, I must conclude that it’s one of the most biased, one-sided and evidence-free pieces of reporting I’ve witnessed by the BBC. Not once is the lack of evidence for homeopathy addressed, indeed there’s not even a qualified medical professional involved in the whole report. Facts supporting homeopathy are not questioned (if they were addressed even in passing it would be clear that those presented here are simply false), and no facts regarding the continual failure of homeopaths to show any efficacy of their pills and tinctures are presented.

In short, I find this to be an irresponsible, biased and potentially very misleading article, which does nothing to add clarity to the public understanding of healthcare.

Yours dissapointedly
Michael

PS – it’s not all bad news on the homeopathy front, of course: not with the closure of the Price of Wales quackfest FIH; the BMA Young Doctors going on record with ‘Homeopathy is akin to withcraft; and a little-birdy-style rumour regarding some pretty interesting developments with NHS Primary Care Trusts here in our very own Liverpool… more of which to follow soon I’m sure…

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  1. #1 by Colin H on May 18, 2010 - 23:04

    Hey, Doctor Who is not ‘padding’!

    However, I agree with you on everything else…

  2. #2 by Rob McD on May 18, 2010 - 23:21

    I saw your tweet about this earlier today and already complained through the online form, although not nearly as comprehensively as you!

  3. #3 by Ash Pryce on May 18, 2010 - 23:31

    As I said on facebook, for the Dr Who comment you must hand in your “Skeptic-card”.

    Though I agree with everything else.

  4. #4 by Teek on May 19, 2010 - 08:14

    cracking complaint about a really rather awful piece of reporting – keep us posted how the complaint goes, although I wouldn’t hold out too much hope…!

  5. #5 by Gittins on May 19, 2010 - 09:21

    Dear Marsh

    The article entitled ‘Quack Focus: The BBC’s ‘Health Focus’ On Homeopathy’ contains a large number of issues which are great cause for concern:

    The tone and bias of the article leaves a clear impression that Doctor Who is rubbish…

  6. #6 by Marc on May 19, 2010 - 11:50

    I sent a similar complaint, Now where do I complain about the ridiculously non-factual comment that Dr Who is padding?

  7. #7 by Stu on May 19, 2010 - 16:26

    Ah. The Doctor Who comment seems to be a spectacular own goal – drawing attention away from the real issues as it undoubedly does.

    Get real people – Dr Who is pretty shite. If it wasn’t for Karen Gillan I wouldn’t even watch it with the kids (please see http://bit.ly/dhX11f)!

    By the way, I’ve complained.

  8. #8 by Michael W Story on May 19, 2010 - 16:52

    The BBC generally have more brains in their offices than other broadcasters, but emotionally satisfying relativist narratives (“Scientists are culturally and intellectually privileged to the detriment of disadvantaged groups, therefore they are wrong about everything”) are always going to appeal to some, particularly in the less prestigious parts of the beeb.

  9. #9 by Sel on May 22, 2010 - 09:45

    Excellent letter Marsh – let’s hope the Beeb show some integrity by giving a comprehensive and impartial response

  10. #10 by Colin G on May 22, 2010 - 11:51

    I’ve complained too (three days ago), and I’ve checked the box requiring a response. I’ll post what they send me here.

  11. #11 by Allan on May 25, 2010 - 00:46

    I complained and here, dear readers, is the “cut’n’paste” bs reply i got back.

    Rob McD :
    Dear Mr C

    Reference 9—–

    Thanks for your e-mail.

    I understand that you found a paragraph and parts of a video on the following webpage to be a clear, unadulterated, unsubstantiated claim of an anti-homeopathy conspiracy based on the ‘fact’ that homeopathy is very ‘successful:

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/northern_ireland/8687935.stm

    I also note you feel this report is a terrible waste of money that the BBC could have used to genuinely educate the public on what science actually is and believe the report should not only be internally corrected but the public should have a corrective piece put before them, dismissing what you feel is the fatuous, self-serving conspiracy theories of homeopaths, as well as educating the public as to the crazy ideas that homeopathy is built upon.

    It is not always possible or practical to reflect all the different opinions on a subject within individual programmes or articles. Editors are charged to ensure that over a reasonable period they reflect the range of significant views, opinions and trends in their subject area. The BBC does not seek to denigrate any view, nor to promote any view. It seeks rather to identify all significant views, and to test them rigorously and fairly on behalf of the audience. Among other evidence, audience research indicates widespread confidence in the impartiality of the BBC’s reporting.

    Please be assured that your concerns have been registered on our daily audience log which is an internal document which is made available throughout the BBC as well as to senior BBC management.

    Thanks again for taking the time to contact us.

    Kind Regards

    J——- D—–

  12. #12 by Marsh on May 25, 2010 - 16:11

    Thanks to BethanyBlack on Twitter for pointing out that Dana International is in fact transsexual, not transvestite. Happily corrected.

  13. #13 by Mick on May 25, 2010 - 18:40

    Don’t be discouraged guys…I’m an Aussie listener who is currently overnighting in the UK en route to a work conference on the continent, and I felt so supportive of the 10:23 campaign that at the Heathrow Arrivals area there was a tiny Boots outlet so I marched up and gave them a good old-fashioned bollocking about having homeopathic sleeping pills etc for travellers. At least you can feel proud that it’s conditioning foreigners to harangue the Boots brand when they come to the UK even of only overnight !

  14. #14 by Stu on May 27, 2010 - 15:55

    It’s been over a week since I complained and have received no reply yet!

(will not be published)