a rather strange decision

By Alison Campbell 24/09/2009

A fellow blogger drew my attention to a recent decision by the Broadcasting Standards Authority.  It seems that Dr Shaun Holt, a medical doctor who appears regularly on TV1’s Breakfast show, has been slated by the BSA over some comments he made (several months back now) concerning chiropractic. The BSA found that the show – & by extension Dr Holt – had breached standards of accuracy, impartiality & objectiveness, & that the coverage was neither fair nor balanced.

Before I get on with the story – while the media like to present ‘both sides of a story’, sometimes there really aren’t two sides. Think of evolution & creationism, for example. One’s science, & one’s not, & a story about evolution most emphatically does not require ‘balance’ by adding a segment on creationism. The same could be said for vaccinations; contrary to what can be found on far too many websites, to date any number of well-designed scientific studies have found no link between autism (for example), so an item on vaccination does not need ‘balance’ by reporting claims that such a link exists…

OK, I’ll get off my soapbox…

Anyway, I can see where the ‘impartiality’ thing came from. Dr Holt has an interest in a firm that tests prescription medicines & CAM remedies, & because this wasn’t declared he could be said to have a conflict of interest in commenting unfavourably on chiropractic. But the BSA also decided that Dr Holt’s comments represented personal opinion & that he had made a number of strong, unqualified statements about what scientific research had to say about chiropractic treatment. Well, you can find a clip of the interview on YouTube (isn’t the internet wonderful?).

I watched it this evening. Dr Holt does indeed make some statements of opinion, but he also makes it clear that this is what he’s doing (what he would do for back pain, for example). But he also refers to scientific studies looking at the benefits & risks of chiropractic. (You can find reviews & protocols for meta-analyses of this work in the Cochrane system – here, for example. For more general commentary, Ben Goldacre has a fairly extensive set of links to such work here, as does David Colquhoun on his blog.) And TV1 gave equal time to a chiropractic spokesman, so it’s hard to see how a finding of ‘unfair’ could arise.

It would also have been nice to see the inclusion of a scientist on a panel that was making decisions about the scientific accuracy of what was being said, but alas! this was not the case. As I commented a little while back in relation to debate around adding folic acid to bread – for questions where questions of science are involved, we really should be hearing the voice of science in there somewhere.