Mary Branscombe (marypcb) wrote,
Mary Branscombe
marypcb

Ofcom rules on Jeni Barnett; what is the role of popular journalism in science education?

I had a letter from Ofcom this morning explaining that they couldn't uphold my complaint about the LBC broadcast in which Jeni Barnett gave her views on MMR (and revealed a worrying lack of knowledge about vaccination and medicine in general).

There were 190 complaints which Ofcom considered with regard to Rules 2.2 and 5.13 - the duty not to mislead the audience and the duty not to give undue prominence to personal opinions on matters of public policy or controversy. They dismissed the complaint of misleading the audience (2.2) on the grounds that it was clearly "presenter opinion" - possibly because before weighing in with a biased opinion Barnett said "I know I shouldn't be biased" - and that the show "did include sufficient and important opposing arguments" because two of the six callers were medical professionals who were "largely uninterrupted by the presenter" even though they said "Barnett's treatment of the nurse who criticised her handling of the topic was at times dismissive and impatient" (5.13). So advice to broadcasters to do better, but no judgement against LBC.

I'm disappointed because Ofcom seems to be saying that it's OK for the official voice of the broadcaster to be ill-educated, foolish, misleading and downright wrong because the general public can ring in and correct them; this assumes that someone who knows the facts and has the time hears the broadcast and manages to get on air. That' doesn't seem to reflect the high standards of broadcasting I’d like to see in this country, or that level I hope Ofcom would hold broadcasters to. And the judgement on 5.13 is based on the different way national and local broadcasters are treated; a national broadcaster has to be impartial within a single programme or series; for a local broadcaster it's enough to ensure no undue prominence is given to views "across 'all programming on a service dealing with the same or related issue within an appropriate period'" (quoting Ofcom quoting the legislation). But is that going to reach people who were mislead by the initial programme? Is there an assumption that people listen to local broadcasting regularly and that they will remember and readjust their view?

As a journalist myself, and as someone with plenty of opinions, I hate to see sloppy reporting and factual inaccuracy disguised by a veneer of opinion, especially when it's science. I can have an opinion on, for example the Windows 7 interface; Fitts Law is much less up for debate. And actual medical science and the fall in vaccination leading to an increase in *diseases I thought we were well on the way to eradicating? That's plain irresponsible.

*I started by writing 'childhood diseases' but I remember a friend's husband getting measles at the age at which it was at best excruciatingly painful and at worst life-threatening. Measles causes brain damage and death as well as spots and a week in bed. I was 23 when I got chickenpox. Diseases children get aren't some junior, sugar-coated variety.
Tags: health, ofcom, radio, responsibility
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