Sunday, 8 February 2009

BBC News, the MMR debate and biased "fairness"

On Friday 6th February Today, the BBC Radio 4 new programme ran an item on the increase in measles cases following the panic about the risks of the triple vaccination - known as the MMR. This panic was caused by Mr Wakefield, a surgeon, apparently faking results from his trials. It might be considered that he is effectively responsible for the additional deaths that have occured from measles.

The BBC's role in this...

The BBC attempted to maintain impartiality during this debate in the late 1990s by giving equal time to Wakefield and the mass of the medical establishment who believed the was mistaken (not knowing at this point that he was basing his arguments on spurious data). This is ridiculous. If I stand up and shout that the world is flat, or something equally ridiculous, should I be given equal airtime to the entire scientific establishment?

The BBC has failed to learn its lesson...

Last Friday the Today programme gave a fairly balanced report, though the only person they could find to propose non-vaccination was a parent. This father thought that giving his kids measles was the best thing for there health... The fatality rate from measles for otherwise healthy people in developed countries is 3 deaths per thousand cases. This was promptly dispatched by the medical expert on the Today programme - and I thought I caught a hint of Dr. Julius Hibbert dismissing Homer Simpson Nietzschean response to his heart attack - "That which does not kill you, only makes you stronger".

However...

On the 11am Radio 4 news bulletin, the report was presented with two quotes giving these view points equal time, with the parent's comments finishing the item unchallenged. If I do get a response from my complaint I will post it here.

Conclusion...

Is the BBC conspiring to kill people? No, I suspect that they simply don't have anyone in their decision making process with sufficient scientific knowledge to understand what balance means in these cases. If I'd have been planning the Today item it would have run:
  • background on MMR and the fact that Wakefield has fled the country;
  • list of risks of catching measles - both at the time and in later life (ie they could have read the BBC Website on the subject);
  • a short quote from someone still defending non-vaccination;
  • a long interview with an established expert in the field.
This is not what they did, and a consequence of this was that the editor of the bulletin grabbed two quotes without properly understanding the issues.

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