One of the most vivid examples of a lack of intellectual accountability in broadcasting is the now-notorious “Alternative Medicine: The Evidence.” Broadcast on BBC2 in 2006, it suggested that patients could undergo heart surgery with no anaesthetic other than acupuncture. Thanks to the efforts of Simon Singh some public criticism of the broadcast took place, but the series and the press coverage which accompanied it reached a far larger audience that the complaints and subsequent retraction.This episode provides a useful insight into the ways that media executives might have approached a situation such as this.
The first problem is that even a public service broadcaster is chiefly concerned with reaching the largest number of viewers possible, and so will favour a concept that can be widely understood. The central theme of this series – that the proud medical establishment, whose hubris led them to believe that they had all the answers, is being humbled by Mother Nature – is a dramatic narrative. It allows the viewer to feel superior, and relieves the anxiety many have about their relative ignorance.
Secondly, whether something is actually true or not doesn’t seem to figure in the commissioning process. I have seen this happen. At the Sheffield Documentary Festival earlier this year, the Wellcome Trust was giving development grants for films which promoted the understanding of science. One filmmaker wanted to do a project about fMRI, and the potential that it might be used as a lie detector. A representative from Channel 4 suggested using it to test Michael Barrymore to “prove” whether or not he was responsible for the death at his home of Stuart Lubbock in 2001, despite protests from the panel that no such thing as a lie detector exists.
Thirdly, there is a significant amount of nepotism in television. A great number of lower-ranking production staff, particularly in independent production companies, are the nieces and nephews of the higher-ups, and are simply not capable of making some of these difficult decisions. One of the worst examples of network stupidity was a recent episode of Five’s sideshow “Extraordinary people” strand, featuring the horrendous baby mind reader, Derek Ogilvie. The film follows the shrieking Scottish psychic as he tries to win James Randi’s million dollar paranormal prize. The whole thing is on YouTube, and is as predictable as you might expect (spoiler: no, he didn’t win the money), but what’s really shocking about this programme is that it was almost never broadcast.
The original pitch for the programme was that Derek really was a psychic, an “extraordinary person”, and the film was structured around him winning the money at the end. When he didn’t, they almost pulled the plug, and it was only broadcast when they shot some extra material with a dodgy scientist who hooked Derek up to a computer and said he wasn’t normal. By now, the producers had switched from credulity to cynicism, and tacked on something that ended the narrative on a suitable high – without worrying about whether or not it was true.
Finally, a strain of what we might call postmodernism runs through much of media thinking, with an emphasis on different “readings” of facts. It’s quite widely believed that western science is just another opinion among many. The fact that the heart-surgery-with-acupuncture sequence was made in China is significant: the less understood another culture is, the more likely it will be regarded as having spiritual, esoteric knowledge. This is why people will happily visit a Chinese Herbal medicine practitioner, but not someone whose ancient “arts” are closer to home.
An executive would have looked at the proposal for “Alternative Medicine: The Evidence”, and seen a chance (under the auspices of the Open University, no less) to sneak in a satisfying narrative which might get a large audience, and add it to their annual statistics as a successful science programme. The damage being done to the public’s understanding of the issues involved wouldn’t really have figured highly in their thinking.
Since 2006, when this embarrassing project was broadcast, there have been some attempts to improve things. Thanks to the complaints about this and similar programmes, subsequent broadcasts in this area by the BBC have been more muted. Channel Four have this year introduced new guidelines on the use of experts (PDF), which demands that anyone identifying themselves as an expert must be vetted “by a series producer or higher”. Published in April 2008, it might have saved them some embarrassment with regard to their employment of “Dr” Gillian Mckeith had staff been asked, as per guideline number 2 to: ”Check what is in the public domain about the expert through internet searches and press cuttings.” Number 7 asks: “Do specific qualifications apply in this expert’s field? If so, ensure that the expert holds these qualifications.” [Note to producers- Ben Goldacre’s dead cat would make an excellent contributor to any debate]
If it’s taken a public service broadcaster this long to get around to asking their researchers to do some minimum diligence before interviewing anybody, then you can bet there’s little or nothing being done on commercial networks – particularly in the U.S. How long will it be before we see another programme as ridiculous as “Alternative Medicine: The Evidence”?