Sunday, 11 October 2009

Doesn't being a Health Editor mean you need to know about science?

The Sunday Express has issued an apology (of sorts) and clarification over last week's Jab 'as deadly as the cancer' story.

It was an article of dreadful, groundless scaremongering and staggering journalistic ineptness. And the author was the newspaper's Health Editor.

Here's the apology:

Last Sunday we incorrectly suggested that the cervical cancer vaccine Cervarix could be as deadly as cervical cancer and that the vaccine is ineffective. We now accept that there is no evidence to suggest that this is the case and that Cervarix in fact provides protection against the viruses that cause 70% of cervical cancers. We are happy to set the record straight and apologise for causing undue alarm to all those women and teenage girls considering vaccination against cervical cancer.

So they're not sorry for completely misrepresenting the views of the doctor who was 'quoted' and not sorry for printing blatant lies that were seen by many millions of people - not just Sunday Express readers, but anyone who saw it in a newsagent or supermarket.

Shockingly, the apology has not been posted on the Express website. As the original story appeared on the website, there is no question the PCC should force the paper to publish the retraction there too.

And speaking of where the apology should be published, three sentences on page two is simply not adequate for a front page headline. The PCC should make it a set rule that any apology should appear on the same page, or an earlier one, and never further back in the paper. If that is the front page, then so be it.

This followed Ben Goldacre's column on Saturday, where he outlined the actual views of Dr Diane Harper, who the Sunday Express so completely misrepresented. Here's what she told Goldacre:

I fully support the HPV vaccines. I believe that in general they are safe in most women. I told the Express all of this... I did not say that Cervarix was as deadly as cervical cancer. I did not say that Cervarix could be riskier or more deadly than cervical cancer. I did not say that Cervarix was controversial, I stated that Cervarix is not a 'controversial drug'. I did not 'hit out' – I was contacted by the press for facts. And this was not an exclusive interview.

And there were other errors:

Harper did not "develop Cervarix" but she did work on some important trials of Gardasil and also Cervarix. "Gardasil is not a 'sister vaccine' as the Express said, it is a different compound. I do not know of the side effects of Cervarix as it is not available in the US." She did not say that Cervarix was being overmarketed. "I did say that Merck was egregiously overmarketing Gardasil in the US – but Gardasil and Cervarix are not the same vaccines."

So how does the Sunday Express and journalist Lucy Johnston take:

I fully support the HPV vaccines...I did not say that Cervarix was as deadly as cervical cancer.

And turn it into:

Jab 'as deadly as the cancer'

Or take the sentiment behind this:

I did not say that Cervarix could be riskier or more deadly than cervical cancer.

And decide she meant this:

Dr Harper, of the University of Missouri-Kansas, said she believed the risks – “small but real” – could be worse than the risk of developing cancer itself.

Dr Harper has also sent a complaint to the PCC. Hopefully the PCC will not meekly decide that as the paper has already published an general apology, that the case is closed.

Goldacre points out that Lucy Johnston has some form on hopeless, evidence-free science stories, and highlights this front page:

The story begins:

The spate of deaths among young people in Britain’s suicide capital could be linked to radio waves from dozens of mobile phone transmitter masts near the victims’ homes.

If it wasn't so serious, you might laugh.

Ben Goldacre wrote two excellent articles on this. In the first he found that Johnston's expert - 'Dr Roger Coghill' - isn't a doctor, and he doesn't sit on a 'government advisory committee', as the paper claimed.

And here is what Coghill believe about AIDS:

The idea that AIDS is caused by a virus is a well-protected fiction. The possibility that immune deficits, both mild and serious, can be acquired through over-exposure to non-ionising electromagnetic fields is, however, real, and proven in the laboratory.

A statement which should send any half decent science journalist running as far away from him as possible. But 'half-decent' and 'journalist' clearly don't apply to Johnston.

Except in the twisted world of Express Newspapers, where she's the Sunday Express' Health Editor.

No, really.

But back to Coghill and that's both AIDS and suicide that he is blaming on electromagnetic fields. Which is handy because, Goldacre reveals:

Readers worried by the front page story on Mr Coghill’s inaccessible research may have visited his website for more information. There they could buy his electromagnetic field protection equipment at competitive prices, and a £149 device called the Acousticom for 'finding out if your home is being exposed to microwaves from e.g. cellphone masts'.

In the second article, Goldacre tried to find out more about Coghill's research on the phone masts and suicides:

Sadly Dr Coghill still does not wish to tell me what figures he collected, what analysis he did on them, what “average” he compared them with, what the results were, and what interpretation he makes from these results. This baffles me.

He claims online that he has offered to let me inspect his data but that I declined. This baffles me too, because he also explains – in a complaint to the Press Complaints Commission about me harassing him – that he will not give me his data, as he considers it “sensitive”.

And this man is the Sunday Express' only source for a front page health scare story.

Of course, the Express papers carry on with their pathetic, churned front pages from press releases on health scares and miracle cures. And neither the Sunday Express Editor or Health Editor are disciplined or sacked for their serious transgressions.

(Hat-tips to Anton Vowl, Roy Greenslade and Ben Goldacre)

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