The Today Programme’s irresponsible MMR interview

By AnthonyLast updated: Friday, February 6, 2009 • Save & Share4 Comments

Today, the Today programme decided to cover the news of a rising number of measles cases in the UK. Instead of a sober discussion about the facts, Today decided to attempt its normal mechanism of covering contentious political issues. They had two individuals from opposing sides of the debate in order to achieve “balance”. First they interviewed a parent who had refused to give his children MMR vaccine. The parent was not someone who was merely confused about what the right decision to make was, as many of those who decided not to give MMR may be, but a fundamentalist anti-vaccinator. He was in favour of children catching measles, and had allowed his own children to do so – because of the benefits of measles (there are none). While he was willing to risk the long-term consequences of measles, he found any risk in vaccines unacceptable. This was then followed by Prof David Salisbury’s views on the current surge in measles cases, and the safety of MMR vaccine. You can listen to the segment of the show here.

Given the very real dangers of measles to the children of the UK, I really fail to see why the BBC hard to find one of the most extreme examples of anti-vaccination to broadcast on the programme. While many might see this as an opportunity to undermine his arguments, I suspect the broadcast of material like this merely adds further suspicions in the minds of some listeners. There are surely more well-informed commentators who are able to give a view on the reasons for parental concerns about MMR (certainly, a number of socialogical researchers could have been interviewed who have performed research in this area). The Today Programme have form on MMR vaccine, and at times have been no better than the tabloid newspapers I suspect they feel they are superior to.

Back in 2004, one of Wakefield’s co-authors wrote a letter to the The Lancet fully endorsing MMR, “There is now unequivocal evidence that MMR is not a risk factor for autism–this statement is not spin or medical conspiracy, but reflects an unprecedented volume of medical study on a worldwide basis.” Concerned by the low level of vaccine uptake he decided to speak out. However, his attempt to dose the flames of irrational fear over MMR failed. Why?

Well, in part, it was the Today Programme. They invited Dr Andrew Wakefield, the leading critic of MMR, and Dr Murch onto the Today programme. Wakefield was the “balance”. John Humphries first grilled Dr Simon Murch, delivering lines like “You are still asking mothers to take a greater risk with MMR” with his typical hectoring interviewing style which always creates more heat than light, and then Wakefield was interviewed. He was given a platform to personally attack the motivation of Murch “His laboratory is under threat. He has failed to gain due promotion. He has been strongly advised to withdraw from scientific publications that involve any mention of my name or association with MMR and bowel disease” and suggested government conspiracies to suppress of important safety data, a claim for which he had no evidence and that was specifically denied.

Today’s broadcast was irresponsible and totally unnecessary. There is no balance to be acheived in the scientific and rational judgements about MMR vaccine. It is not linked to autism. Frankly, I think David Salisbury was extremely restrained and diplomatic when interviewed, given the oxygen the BBC had just given to a dangerous anti-vaccinator. Would they have interviewed a member of Combat 18, immediately prior to interviewing Trevor Phillips of the Equality and Human Rights Commission about a rise in racial attacks?

Filed in Media, MMR

4 Responses to “The Today Programme’s irresponsible MMR interview”

Comment from rosamundi
Time 6/2/2009 at 2:38 pm

I heard that man interviewed on the radio this morning. Well, I heard most of it, but when he got to the bit where he said “we let them catch measles” instead of giving them the separate jabs, I started shouting so loudly at the radio that I scared next door’s cat.

I nearly e-mailed the Today programme to point out that we stopped exhibiting lunatics to public mockery 200 years ago.

Comment from John Robertson
Time 6/2/2009 at 6:11 pm

I like the way they let the ‘ordinary man’ say what he liked and didn’t challenge him but as soon as Prof David Salisbury said measles can cause problems, the reporter cut in to ask him if they were long or short-term problems.

When he was asked what could be done to increase the immunisation rate I wished he’d said that getting the BBC to stop interviewing people who don’t know what they are talking about would be a big help.

Comment from al capone junior
Time 6/2/2009 at 6:24 pm

Excellent blog. At least the doctor got most of the clip, a chance to contradict the antivaxxers comments, and the last word.

However, it’s still irresponsible for Today to have someone who’s as ill-informed as the first guest be given such a large public forum.

In the name of being fair and balanced, or showing both sides of the story, the media is giving uneducated, dangerous non-medical people a strong and loud voice in medical affairs that affect the public. That’s the most irresponsible thing of all.

al

Comment from Tristram
Time 9/2/2009 at 9:29 am

we can write to todaycomplaints@bbc.co.uk

I’ve just sent them this:

I was impressed with your item on MMR at 0710 which gave a straight account of our current knowledge about the MMR vaccine and the measles outbreaks that are currently causing concern.

However, I was appalled by the way your 810 item gave an uninterrupted piece from an uninformed parent voicing their unfounded comments on the MMR. You did follow this with Professor Salisbury but why have the ignorant and counterproductive clip before? It was bizarre. It served only to give credence to the misinformation that is causing the problems with low uptake of the MMR vaccine.

It was like having a Holocaust denier given 2 minutes uninterrupted time before interviewing an historian like David Cesarani.

It was irresponsible journalism. At a certain point, and I think we have reached it with the MMR, the ‘dissident’ view no longer deserves airtime. People once believed that ‘bad air’ gave them malaria. You would no longer preface a piece on malaria and mosquito eradication with someone proposing ‘bad air’ theories now.

When there is no real controversy it is lazy journalism to give ‘both sides’ equal time.

You have done good coverage of MMR at times. What happened at 810?

Best wishes
Tristram

Tristram Wyatt, PhD