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Date:  13 December 2000

BRITISH  MEDICAL  JOURNAL  CRITIQUE  OF  SIRC  MEDIA  INITIATIVE

Remember the infamous SIRC, with whom Krebs collaborated over guidelines for the media on how they reported issues like the GM debate - and who now say they intend to set up a secret directory of approved expert contacts where journalists should check out their science stories?

If so, you may also remember that, despite the emphasis on “health” in the SIRC’s media code, there was nobody on the SIRC’s Forum of “leading scientists” from the British Medical Association nor from any UK medical journal, most obviously The Lancet or the British Medical Journal.

This curious omission raises interesting questions about the Forum’s credibility, particularly as the British Medical Journal, for example, has helped lead the way in setting standards in order to uncover falsified research results and disclose researcher bias [see, for example, BMJ editorial Vol 317]. The BMJ has also been highly outspoken on the general issue of researchers’conflicts of interest.

We also noted previously that it was equally curious, for what was billed as a “Forum of leading scientists”, that while such notable voices as those of the BMA, the BMJ and the Lancet were absent from the Forum, the “voices” of  some otherwise fairly obscure clinicians were to be heard amongst those selected to represent the medical profession.

We argued that this suggested attitude rather than eminence had formed the real basis of selection, and we pointed to the example of Forum-member Dr Roger Fiskin who first came to public notice with a letter to Private Eye:

“Prof. Krebs is right and you are wrong:  the whole GM debate in the British media has been a disaster as far as public information is concerned.  The experiments carried out by Puztai were, in scientific terms, a pile of steaming horse-shit... [etc]” [Private Eye, 24 March 2000 (p14)]

This strident condemnation of Pusztai’s work came not from someone with any expertise in nutritional science or food-gut interactions, but from a little-known hospital consultant without a single research publication to his name!

What we were unaware of, however, when we drew attention to the curious selection of medical men on the Forum, was that this SIRC initiative had come under fire from the British Medical Journal as far back as Sept.  1999, ie a full year before the publication of the SIRC’s media code.
And the BMJ’s critique, it turns out, was along almost exactly the same lines as the concerns expressed by ngin, ie the total unsuitability of a group like the SIRC, whose personnel are so commercially involved with relevant industries, to be organising guidance on science and health reporting for the media.

The existence of this BMJ critique means, of course, that there is even less excuse for the likes of Krebs and Michael Clarke (from the Commons’ Science and Technology Committee) having leapt into bed with this bunch of pontificating social scientists with big food industry funding - the BMJ focuses on the SIRC’s drink industry clients but direct funding to the SIRC by the likes of US food giant Bestfoods has also subsequently emerged.

If a scientist raises a concern about food safety, they become subject to the most intense critical scrutiny and, all too often, attack - witness the Commons’ Science and Technology Committee’s treatment of Pusztai. If you share the pro-GM agenda, however, anything goes, and we find the Chair of the Science and Technology Committee cuddling up with the likes of Fiskin and an otherwise obscure group of corporately aligned libertarians!

For more on the SIRC and their initiative see:
BAD COMPANY - reporting the business of science
http://members.tripod.com/~ngin/scisale.htm
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British Medical Journal (BMJ) 1999;319:716- ( 11 September )
Reviews - Press

An end to health scares?

At last, something is going to be done about health scares.

Irresponsible, biased medical journalists are going to be taken in hand and forced to abide by a code of conduct which will be drawn up a by a working party of the great and the good, according to last week’s edition of GP magazine.

The working party is being set up as the result of a recommendation from the House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology.  In the committee’s report on genetically modified food, published in May, the committee recommended that “media coverage of scientific matters should be governed by a Code of Practice, which stipulates that scientific stories should be factually accurate. Breaches of the Code of Practice should be referred to the Press Complaints Commission.”

The readers of GP magazine must have breathed a collective sigh of relief.  But wait a moment. Which guardians of the public good are going to set up this powerful working party?  Two organisations are involved apparently: the Royal Institution of Great Britain in London and the Social Issues Research Centre, in Oxford.

Most people have heard of the Royal Institution but who or what is the Social Issues Research Centre?  At first sight, it seems to be a heavyweight research body. It calls itself “an independent, non-profit organisation founded to conduct research on social issues,” it is based in Oxford, and the “dreaming spires” adorn its website.

Moreover, it was quoted in the Independent last week, when the paper’s health editor, Jeremy Laurance, told us that the centre had invented the term “riskfactorphobia,” a condition in which people become hypersensitive to health scares. It has also been quoted in the last few months in the Times, the Daily Telegraph, the Daily Mail, the Observer and the Evening Standard.

But on closer inspection it transpires that this research organisation shares the same offices, directors, and leading personnel as a commercial market research company called MCM Research. Both organisations are based at 28 St Clements, Oxford, and both have social anthropologist Kate Fox and psychologist Dr Peter Marsh as directors, and Joe McCann as a research and training manager.

The scenario becomes even more interesting when one reads the list of MCM’s clients. These include Bass Taverns, the Brewers and Licensed Retail Association, the Cider Industry Council, the Civil Aviation Authority, Conoco, Coral Racing, Grand Metropolitan Retail, the Portman Group (jointly funded by Bass, Courage, Guinness, etc), Pubmaster, Rank Leisure, and Whitbread Inns, as well as several Australian brewing concerns and several independent television companies.

The Social Issues Research Centre (whose website is at http://www.sirc.org/) fosters the image of an ultraconcerned, public spirited group.  It deplores the fact that it is “often impossible to distinguish between sound, evidence-based concerns and those which are either whimsical or fostered by unstated social and political agendas.”

Its website opens with a high minded editorial stating: “The public has a right to balanced and accurate information on the basis of which they can make responsible decisions. Unfortunately, unfounded scare stories are increasingly drowning out responsible reporting and sensible advice.”
The editorial then attacks the press for unnecessarily increasing people’s fears about genetically modified food; the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine; the dangers of E coli O157; and the increased risk of liver cancer from aflatoxins in food.

MCM Research, in contrast, has a commercial approach. It describes itself as an Oxford based company that specialises in applying social science to real world issues and problems. Its website (which is at www.i-way.co.uk/~mcm/index.html) asks: “Do your PR initiatives sometimes look too much like PR initiatives?  MCM conducts social/psychological research on the positive aspects of your business. The results do not read like PR literature, or like market research data. Our reports are credible, interesting and entertaining in their own right. This is why they capture the imagination of the media and your customers.”

Given that the two organisations are so closely connected, is the Social Issues Research Centre the best organisation to run a working party on responsible health reporting?  I asked Kate Fox as director of both organisations, whether she thought there could be a conflict of interest.
She said: “No, I don’t think so. The kinds of work we have done at MCM have been fairly worthy things like designing management training programmes to reduce violence in pubs. They are fairly uncontroversial.”

She added that the commercial work carried out by MCM Research sometimes paid for the research work undertaken by the Social Issues Research Centre.

But how seriously should journalists take an attack from an organisation that is so closely linked to the drinks industry? If, for example, the centre attacked newspapers for exaggerating the effects of alcohol and thereby causing an unnecessary scare, could the centre put its hand on its heart and claim that it was totally neutral on the issue? On its own website the centre has a long article, entitled Health Stories: Reading Between the Lines, which offers advice, including the need to look for the source of any information you are given, to read past the headline, and to consider whether a reported study makes sense.

Journalists and readers would be wise to heed this advice and look at the centre’s sources of information.

Annabel Ferriman, BMJ.

“Journalists who blindly quote ‘experts’ without illuminating their agenda are simply adding another layer of fog to an already confusing debate.”
- Howard Kurtz, “Dr Whelan’s media operation”, Columbia Journalism Review March/April 1990

 

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