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My polite complaint to the BBC & its impact

July 5, 2012

Last Thursday, @callyauckland tweeted:

Penny Edwards, from Helios #TunWells today on
         @BBCSurrey #homeopathy 1pm, until about 1.45pm.

I think the tweet was from one of Penny’s fans and was intended to promote her and her radio appearance. This was RT’ed by @lecanardnoir, which is when I spotted it.

I decided to investigate further. My correspondence over the next 24 hours illustrates exactly why we need to complain when it is clear that the media is promoting potentially dangerous pseudoscience. This is particularly true in the case of the BBC, which has a responsibility to maintain the standards expected of a public service broadcaster.

First, before the show was even aired, I rang the producer and asked why a homeopath was appearing on the programme. She explained that the homeopath appeared regularly in the 1pm expert slot of the Joe Talbot show on BBC Radio Surrey and BBC Radio Sussex. I explained why this was problematic, but the producer seemed confused. Her three main responses were:
     (a) Penny (the homeopath) knows what she is talking about. After all, she has a busy surgery.
     (b) Penny has a website and is allowed to advertise, so she must be ok.
     (c) Nobody had ever complained before.

My responses were:     
      (a) There are busy psychic hotlines, but they are also very dodgy.
     
(b) The Advertising Standards Authority is currently dealing with over 150 complaints about homeopathic websites.
     
(c) I said I would send out a quick tweet to see if others shared my view.

     Does homeopath http://www.pennyedwards.com deserve expert
          slot on@BBCSurrey  today at 1pm? Is this the BBC at its best? Yes/No?
 

There were 17 twitter replies in the next 5 minutes, all sharing my concern. I accept that my twitter followers are not a fair cross-section of the British public, but the replies proved that I was not a lone voice/ear.

Later that day, I listened to the show on i-Player. It was a painful experience. It was half an hour of utter tosh, concentrated baloney and dodgy advice, interspersed with some easy listening tunes. It was a major piece of promotion for homeopaths. At least, that’s my opinion. You can hear it for yourself here:http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/p00tm4z5/Joe_Talbot_28_06_2012/?t=01h09m48s The URL should take you to the start of Penny’s contribution at 1hr 9m 48s.

 Prompted by callers and emails, Penny talked about homeopathy in relation to gout, multiple sclerosis, high blood pressure, Raynaud’s syndrome, psoriasis, urinary tract infection and back pain following a miscarriage.

At this point, I should stress that Penny Edwards seems to have a genuine belief that homeopathy is effective. Sadly, she is wrong. She is merely doling out placebo sugar pills to her patients.

Given the producer’s lack of interest in my concerns and the presenter’s apparent enthusiasm for homeopathy, I thought I would complain straight to the station’s managing editor/director, Sara David.

Ms David replied within eleven minutes and said she would get back to me after her meetings. The following day she wrote:
Thank you for your email about yesterday’s phone-in with Penny Edwards.  I have reviewed the programme and spoken to its producer, and made clear that this was the wrong kind of guest, and the wrong kind of advice, for a phone-in programme on BBC Sussex and BBC Surrey.   We will not be giving advice based on homeopathy on BBC Sussex and BBC Surrey in the future.

I must admit that I was a bit shocked. No half-hearted defence. No tedious back and forth. No attempt at a cover up. Just a simple: “We got it wrong. It won’t happen again.”

We all make mistakes. As my teacher used to say, “That’s why they put rubbers on the end of pencils.”

So what conclusions can we draw from this? First, nobody had previously complained, which is why homeopaths on Radio Surrey had been allowed to continue to appear as ‘experts’. So, the only way to stop pseudoscience in the media is to raise concerns (firmly, but politely).

Second, an informal complaint or a friendly note to the presenter, producer or managing editor is sometimes sufficient to have an impact. If you receive a sensible response then great. If not, then a formal complaint to the BBC Trust or OFCOM might be necessary.

 Third, Sara David’s response is very important, as I think it sets a benchmark that other local radio stations now have to match. If you hear a homeopath or any other quack on your local radio station, then please send the station a friendly note. You might even cite Ms David’s response. If that does not work, then submit a formal complaint.

Finally, as someone who is campaigning for more free speech (www.libelreform.org), am I being a hypocrite? I think there is no contradiction. If the BBC promotes a homeopath as a health expert, without any critical voice to counter the twaddle, then this is anti-scientific, pseudoscientific and possibly dangerous. Libel reform is about encouraging debate and criticism, it is not about the BBC providing a free platform for deluded quacks to promote potentially dangerous treatments. Of course, homeopathy is harmless, but if patients choose it over conventional remedies, then the issue of patient safety is very real.

Ps. Although I love the BBC and worked in the BBC Science Department for five years, complaining to the BBC holds a special place in my heart. One of my first adventures in skepticism was when I complained about a programme that gave a misleading impression of the power of acupuncture. You can find more information about the complaint here.

PPs. Well done to @JonMcA who actually submitted a formal complaint about Penny Edwards’ appearance on the BBC. The complaint may not be necessary now, but it might still be interesting to see if the BBC Trust is as unequivocal in its apology as Sara David.

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7 Comments
  1. CaptainPedge permalink

    Only thing I would ask is how easy is it for people who don’t have a background in broadcasting, such as yourself, to directly contact show producers and station managers?

  2. CaptainPedge permalink

    Don’t get me wrong. It’s awesome that you did complain and it makes it clear that the BBC needs to both sort out it’s content and its complaint procedure. I re-read my first comment and realised how harsh it sounded. My apologies

  3. MalleusH permalink

    It’s more complicated than that.I always refer journalists to – http://www.mhra.gov.uk/home/groups/pl-a/documents/websiteresources/con102849.pdf which contains very clear advice. it is often ignored but I suspect that many journalists do not even know that the guidance exists. Nor do their employers. Which is unfortunate to say the least. I’m not sure that the Press Complaints Committee are even aware.I personally believe that the right to free speech is abrogated once promotion of specific products and services becomes involved.

  4. Patricia permalink

    To me, the manager’s rapid and direct response suggests that she hadn’t heard the program, and she was not happy with what she heard when she checked it out in response to the complaint.

  5. Adam permalink

    I think CaptainPedge makes a good point. It is of course wonderful that Simon complained in the way he did and got the result he did, but the fact that he’s well known and respected may mean that it’s easier to be taken seriously than if an ordinary member of the public were to do the same thing, even if they could find the right people to complain to.Perhaps we need a randomised controlled trial: let’s find the next 50 dodgy articles or programmes put out by the BBC, and randomise them to having someone famous like Simon complain about them or some complete unknown like me complain about them. Then we could see if the profile of the complainant made a difference.My guess is that it would.

  6. anarchic_teapot permalink

    "I personally believe that the right to free speech is abrogated once promotion of specific products and services becomes involved."I second that most emphatically. Nobody should get a bye on talking arrant and potentially dangerous nonsense just because they’re messed up enough to believe in it.

  7. kompani101 permalink

    I agree with Adam. When I have complained via the BBC web site the reply has been extremely ‘generalised’, suspect pre written paragraph, and then nothing further and no follow up feedback.It is very encouraging to know that something can be done. I have personally become much more active in responding to what I believe to be broadcasting or advertising infringements. We can’t always rely on ‘a’ name but we can become many names.

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