A Weblog monitoring coverage of environmental issues and science in the UK media. By Professor Emeritus Philip Stott. The aim is to assess whether a subject is being fairly covered by press, radio, and television. Above all, the Weblog will focus on science, but not just on poor science. It will also bring to public notice good science that is being ignored because it may be politically inconvenient.

Friday, December 12, 2003

The disgrace of Channel 5.....?

On Monday, 15 December, Channel 5 is due to screen Hear the Silence, a drama about a campaigning mother of an autistic child and a doctor who is an advocate of the link between the MMR vaccine and autism.

I am no medical expert, but, having followed the debate, and having read articles by colleagues who are, I am convinced that Channel 5 has a real chance of plumbing the depths of media morality in relation to the broadcasting of serious science, in whatever form. Thus, although this is not strictly a subject for EnviroSpin, I felt it was vital to cover it.

However, because I am not personally equipped to comment on this matter in detail, I will leave the response to two outstanding authors who are:-

First, the splendid Ben Goldacre of The Guardian 'Life' Section (The Guardian, December 11): 'Never mind the facts':

"The only things that the writers of Hear the Silence get wrong, to be fair, are the science and the story [my emphasis]. As a drama, it's moving and convincing. But when you watch it, and you must, make sure you have this paper next to you. Use it as a tick chart for the half-truths, distortions and omissions."[That first sentence is just excoriating!]

"MMR immunisation rates have now fallen to as little as 60% in some areas, and 84% nationally. Measles cases have almost trebled in six years, and it will get worse. I don't want to be a scaremonger, but it's relatively easy to spot drops in uptake of vaccines that happen immediately after major scare stories, or, perhaps, a major TV drama. The drop after next Monday's drama will contribute to measles outbreaks, and that will cause distress, disability and probably deaths. That's not the small risk of a small risk, like MMR and autism. It's just simple maths."

And then, secondly, Dr. Michael Fitzpatrick writing in Sp!ked (December 11): 'MMR: fact and fiction':

"In not a single child has it been established that MMR played a role in causing autism."

"While the public has heard the strident voices of a small minority of middle-class parents of children with autism, the quieter voices and the pressing concerns of the vast majority have been ignored."

I am personally dismayed that a whole suite of my favourite actors, including one of my own all time greats, is appearing in this dangerous drama. Sometimes, I do wish the 'luvvies' would think before they utter! I also believe that it is appalling to treat so serious a multicondition as autism in this manner.

To me, this does not look likely to be art imitating life; more likely, as Ben Goldacre points out so trenchantly in his piece, it might turn out to be art with the potential to ruin young lives - in his words, "It's just simple maths."

I should perhaps mention that, according to reports, all the leading experts in the fields of child and public health, immunisation and autism, have refused to join in the debate that follows the drama.

Philip, for once incensed. Lunch, if I can swallow it.

[New counter, June 19, 2006, with loss of some data]

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