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.
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