Press Press

An end to health scares?

BMJ 1999; 319 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.319.7211.716 (Published 11 September 1999) Cite this as: BMJ 1999;319:716
  1. Annabel Ferriman
  1. BMJ

    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 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.