BBC Devon Promotes Dangerously Deluded HIV Homeopaths in Africa

Judi Spiers

BBC Radio Devon – Judi Spiers Show

Last week, BBC London broadcast a dreadful programme promoting an animal chiropractor despite the fact that there is no good evidence chiropractic is of any use on animals and that chiropractors can only work with animals under very tightly defined circumstances. Yesterday, BBC Radio Devon managed to go one better with an amazingly misguided interview with a homeopath who had been to Tanzania to treat people with HIV.

The Judi Spears show hosted homeopath Lorraine Findlay for the main segment of the show which was entitled “Homeopathy for Health in Africa”. The show allowed Findlay to uncritically promote the work of Jeremy Sherr in Tanzania and his dangerously deluded ideas that homeopathy can treat people with HIV. Sherr’s views on homeopathy and HIV put the people he comes into contact with at serious risk to their health and lives. The legal correspondent of the New Statesman and celebrated blogger, Jack of Kent, describes Sherr as at best “highly irresponsible” and possibly  breaking the law under the Traditional and Alternative Medicines Act, 2002.

[Listen here for the next week: 1hr 18mins in]

The show was completely uncritical of Findlay’s beliefs and actions. It accepted without question that homeopathy is a legitimate form of medical treatment. Indeed,it went so far as to deliberately exclude any discussion of its highly controversial nature.  Spiers appeared to conflate homeopathy with herbal medicine and so misled viewers about its true nature.

Homeopathy is a magical belief system that flies in the face of well established and fundamental results of physics, chemistry and biology. It is based on absurd notions that the more dilute a poison becomes, the better the medicine it becomes. Its products are so diluted that no active ingredient remains. The totality of the experimental evidence base fails to demonstrate any specific effects for homeopathy for any condition.

The homeopath claimed that they were ‘working alongside conventional medicine’ and were working to reduce ‘side effects’. I would suggest this is a very big misrepresentation of what Sherr is doing in Tanzania. He knows that to claim that he is trying to cure AIDS would attract fierce condemnation, so his team is very coy about their public statements. What he does say, contradicts the position that they are all about being complementary, [see here]

I have decided that the main aim is to get out there and cure as many people as possible. I know, as all homeopaths do, that you can just about cure AIDS in many cases. But shhhh… I’m not allowed to say that, so you didn’t hear it. With the little funding that I have I will start working in Sigsbert’s existing clinics seeing as many AIDS patients as I can. Together with Margot Diskin from Ireland we will check out the northern areas of Tanzania and see if there are more opportunities to treat the sick. That is the first, high and only mission.

[…]

And that is the third mission, teaching homeopathy, spreading what we learn, using Sigsbert’s School and any other means possible. We need to get homeopathy known through Africa, because millions are dying of AIDS and malaria and TB, and the pharmaceutical companies are making fools of them with their expensive, non curing, mal inducing drugs. Homeopathy IS the solution for Africa- curative, gentle, natural, and affordable. No side effects- just effective!

The stated aims of Homeopathy for Health in Africa have nothing to do with working alongside conventional medicine and treating side effects of mainstream treatments. They are conducting their own trials, without any ethical oversight, in order to find out what homeopathic remedies cure AIDS. If Big Pharma was doing this, there would be an international scandal. Sherr published videos where local people sing and claim “It is a good medicine with no side effects” and “Homeopathy is the only medicine that God wants”, and that you should “Take it for malaria and gonna feel alright”. This is the language of someone promoting an alternative to real medicine with the disastrous consequences that will follow.

Sherr is loved by UK homeopaths for his no-compromise stance. He champions the basic homeopathic principles that ‘allopathic’ or mainstream medicine is corrupt and out to make people sicker. He embodies the superstitious and conspiratorial attitude of the  pseudo-medical cult of homeopathy. And as an esoteric cult, his followers are prepared to present once face to the public whilst holding quite different internal beliefs. By not challenging the guest, the BBC allowed the view that homeopaths are complementary to be presented as truth. (You could hear some of Findlay’s true beliefs leak through when she admitted that ‘conventional drugs can interfere with homeopathic remedies’. Imagine if she was saying that to a Tanzanian patient on ARVs.)

The BBC went so far as to ask viewers to donate to Sherr’s project. Let’s be clear. Telling people that homeopathy can treat any aspect of serious illness will put their lives at risk. Such activities undermine the legitimate activities of public health campaigns and medical workers. As such, the BBC were complicit here in advocating murderously dangerous quack activities on some of the most vulnerable people in the world.

I put my concerns to Mark Grinnel,  Managing Editor of BBC Radio Devon,

Dear Mark,

It was distressing to hear this programme promote the most egregious and dangerous form of quackery as practised on some of the most vulnerable people in the world.
Homeopathy is a magical belief system that flies in the face of well established and fundamental results of physics, chemistry and biology. Its products are so diluted that no active ingredient remains. The totality of the evidence base fails to demonstrate any specific effects for homeopathy for any condition.
Nonetheless, there are a number of UK based homeopaths who work in Africa promoting the use of these sugar pills to treat life-threatening diseases such as HIV, malaria and TB. By suggesting that these treatments may be effective, lives will be put at risk and the desperately hard problems of providing sound public health in these areas is undermined.
The BBC should not be uncritically promoting dangerous nonsense. Despite the fact the programme was presented as a ‘traveller’s tales’ type story, the programme deliberately avoided the most important issue: that the treatments are completely ineffective. Listeners will have been misled into believing this is a legitimate form of treatment and were encouraged to donate money to those that carry out this deluded work.
I am copyng in Sam Smith at the BBC as she has done some excellent work in the South West exposing the dangerous and deluded practices of homeopaths in your region. I hope you will listen to her.
I look forward to hear how you propose to make good this serious problem and ensure your listeners are not left under the impression that homeopathy can treat serious illnesses.
Regards

Mark responded to me but said he did not want his reply published. What I can say was his response was completely unsatisfactory.

However, Hannah Wilkinson, a publicist for BBC Communications, did say to me,

The interview on BBC Radio Devon, ‘Homeopathy for Health in Africa’ was about the guest’s experiences in Africa rather than an exploration of the benefits or not of Homeopathy. We are aware that it is a highly contentious issue and the BBC holds being impartial as one of our core values. We expect our staff to demonstrate this always.

The BBC have a duty to be factual and not mislead the public. A listener to this show would have been left with the impression that this was valuable work in Africa and might have felt it important to donate. The BBC did actually call for donations. Had the show been framed in the factual and evidence-based position, that homeopathy was an inert treatment based on magical thinking and dangerous delusion, then the interview would have taken on an entirely different meaning which would not have misinformed the listeners. The ‘experiences’ of this homeopath could then have been properly appraised by the listeners for what they are.

Homeopathy is not a scientifically contentious issue. The matter is settled. It is as contentious as the existence of unicorns, flying carpets or faeries. But the actions of homeopaths most definitely are contentious. If the BBC were aware of this, as they say they were, then they should have taken appropriate steps to ensure that this interview did not mislead. They failed completely in their duty here.

The presenter did say that some people were not ‘believers’ in homeopathy. But this in itself is misleading. There are people who believe in homeopathy and there are people who understand the scientific facts and are aware of the evidence base who accept that there is no good reason to think that homeopathy can work. Opinion and belief cannot be balanced against facts and evidence.

This is the central message of the Jones Report which looked into how the BBC deals with accuracy and impartiality of the BBC’s science coverage. It is quite clear that the BBC has failed to ensure the recommendations of the Jones Report have filtered down to regional broadcasting  The BBC should as a matter of priority ensure that all responsible editors have been fully trained in implementing the recommendations of the report and that regional output is monitored to ensure compliance.

 

If you would like to express your opinions about this you may like to contact the following:

The Head of Regional and Local Programmes for the BBC in the South West is Leo.Devine@bbc.co.uk

and

BBC Complaints

17 comments for “BBC Devon Promotes Dangerously Deluded HIV Homeopaths in Africa

  1. May 21, 2013 at 6:31 pm

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/complaints/complain-online/

    This interview was disgracefully lazy and incompetent. The presenter conflated homeopathy with herbs, a free pass on the risible truth of homeopathy, and made the despicable claim that a doctor will just treat the symptoms presented, not look for underlying disease. This is doubly misleading because of course homeopaths are medically completely untrained, so their long case-taking has all the medical worth of reading a fairy story.

  2. David
    May 21, 2013 at 7:07 pm

    Best line:
    “Homeopathy is not a scientifically contentious issue. The matter is settled. It is a[s] contentious as the existence of unicorns, flying carpets or faeries.”

    • Jen Kirby
      May 22, 2013 at 11:11 pm

      I’d rather believe in faeries than homeopathy.

  3. Dr Richard Rawlins
    May 22, 2013 at 8:19 am

    I am embarrased to say some homeopaths are medically qualified.

    Dr Peter Fisher gave evidence to the House of Commons Select Committee Report. He is also a physician to HM the Queen!

    When I get round to it I will ask the GMC to assess whether he is fit to practice under the requirement that a doctor should always do his/her best for his/her patient. And kidding anyone, especially a vulnerable old aged pensioner who has had no training in science or medicine that sugar pills have an effect on any disease, illness or any pathological process – cannot be said by any reasonable assessor to be ‘doing the best’.

    The GMC of course may go along with nonsense.

  4. May 22, 2013 at 11:37 am

    Curious. The reply I got from Mark Grinnell has a large chunk cut-and-pasted from your reply from Hannah Wilkinson. Does this mean that they are inundated with complaints and so aren’t reading tehm?

    Efficacy of homeopathy above that of placebo is as contentious as the Earth being flat!

  5. Tim
    May 22, 2013 at 5:06 pm

    Given that Grinnell’s reply was “completely unsatisfactory” and the twerps in BBC Devon are so completely misguided, I can’t see what duty you have not to publish his response.

    I really do believe that the BBC these people will only come to their senses if subjected to public exposure & ridicule!

  6. Dave
    May 22, 2013 at 7:32 pm

    Publish his reply and be damned! What’s the worst that can happen? He’s only made a request. It’s not as if it’s a court order.

    • Peter Robinson
      May 22, 2013 at 7:58 pm

      Absobloodylutely! Publish the reply! No doubt it was a load of waffle. Am sending complaint to main BBC complaints as opposed to just BBC Devon.

      As one top BBC journalist once told me, the place is full of arts grads who wouldn’t know what science looked like if it punched them on the nose. They need a proper sorting out. That Judi Spiers always was a silly bint!

    • May 22, 2013 at 9:40 pm

      Andy, much as I would love to see what Grinnell wrote to you, I don’t think you should publish it. Not because he deserves to have it kept private, but because I don’t think we (i.e. sceptics) should behave badly just because the likes of Grinnell do; surely we are above that.

      I replied to him and complained about being fobbed off with a cut-and-paste reply that addressed none of the substantive points I made; he responded with some assurances and I am expecting a proper reply once he has addressed the matter internally. Not that my breath is ‘bated or anything….

  7. Grumpycat
    May 22, 2013 at 9:31 pm

    Andy this came up in Jan 2009 when you et al wrote to the Tanzanian government who as you know investigated.
    So 4 years later Mr Sherr continues to get the support of the Tanzanian authorities.
    Don’t you think that he must be doing something to help?

    • Badly Shaved Monkey
      May 23, 2013 at 7:12 am

      Don’t you think that he must be doing something to help?

      Don’t be silly.

  8. May 24, 2013 at 4:42 pm

    Just received a (presumably stock) response from BBC Complaints, It contrives to completely fail to address the substantive points I made in my complaint:

    Many thanks for getting in touch about an item on BBC Radio Devon’s ‘Judi Spiers Show’ broadcast on 20 May 2013.

    We’re naturally sorry to learn of your unhappiness surrounding the interview with Devon-based homeopath Lorraine Findlay.

    To explain, the interview on Judi’s show here was purely about the guest’s experiences in Africa. It was not – nor was it intended to be – a full and detailed exploration of the alleged or perceived benefits or otherwise of Homeopathy as an entire premise, nor an in-depth investigation into every facet of the practice of alternative medicine generally. This context and approach was clear to listeners in the broadcast.

    We are of course fully aware that homeopathy is a highly contentious issue for some, and that’s why this is a subject matter that the BBC has and will continue to cover across our output in contexts where the many claims, counter-claims and issues can be effectively discussed and debated, thus allowing audiences to reach their own conclusions.

    Indeed, with your complaint in mind, it’s interesting to note that the BBC has also been accused of holding a bias against, or attacking, homeopathy. And it’s worth adding here that as recently as January this year, BBC South West (the BBC region which includes BBC Radio Devon) broadcast an “Inside Out” television report covering the claims made for so-called “homeopathic vaccines” for whooping cough and other serious and potentially-fatal conditions.

    We can assure you that, whatever the subject matter, impartiality is one of our core news values and we expect our staff to demonstrate this always.

    We’d also like to assure you that we’ve registered your complaint on our Audience Log. This is a daily report of audience feedback that’s made available to all BBC staff, including members of the BBC Executive board, channel controllers and other senior managers.

    The Audience Logs are seen as important documents that can help shape decisions on future BBC programmes and content.

    Once again, thank you for contacting us.

    • Andy
      May 26, 2013 at 3:33 pm

      Can I assume that the BBC use the word “impartiality” when they really mean “false balance”?

      • May 27, 2013 at 2:26 pm

        It’s instructive to see what the BBC Editorial Values page (http://www.bbc.co.uk/editorialguidelines/page/guidelines-editorial-values-editorial-values/) actually says about their responsibility to be impartial:
        ” We will be fair and open-minded when examining evidence and weighing material facts.” Nothing there about having to “balance” evidence with bullshit.

        This follows its paragraph on Truth and Accuracy which states:
        “…we will weigh relevant facts and information to get at the truth. Our output … will be well sourced, based on sound evidence, thoroughly tested …”

        And I’m the Queen of Sheba!

  9. rita
    May 28, 2013 at 10:09 am

    I got just the same response when complaining about the use, in a cooking programme, of foie gras – the production of which, as I’m sure everyone knows, is prohbited in various coutries, including the UK, for its cruelty: “both sides of the debate” must be shown. I have pointed out to them that this reply is essentially bad faith: the debate is over, the product is known to be the product of a process prohibited in the country where the programme was shown; only trade agreements, which have no ethics, ensure its continued presence in shops etc. This “both sides, we’re impartial” must be shown up for the bad faith it really is in all arguments where this is the case. Where there is genuine debate, by all means, but where the excuse IS only an excuse, attention should be called and insisted on.

  10. Graham
    May 30, 2013 at 1:42 am

    Quackcast covered this rather appalling trend of exporting ‘alternative health’ to the third world in their 63rd episode.

    http://www.pusware.com/quackcast/quackcast63.mp3

    A few episodes later they gave pointers to a Ugandan based medical charity that was worth donating to.

    http://www.pusware.com/quackcast/quackcast86.mp3

    The letter read out in episode 86 can also be read on the Quackcast website.

  11. July 12, 2013 at 5:07 pm

    It was definitely worth taking this one all the way to the top. As a result of my complaint to the Editorial Complaints Unit, the Judi Spiers Show has been censured for its uncritical endorsement of quackery..
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/complaints/comp-reports/ecu/Judispiers

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