The transcripts of the official inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the press. More…

  • MS FIONA BERNARDETTE FOX (sworn).

  • Please make yourself comfortable, Ms Fox and your full name for the Inquiry.

  • Fiona Bernadette Fox.

  • Thank you. You have provided a submission on behalf of the Science Media Centre dated 5 December 2011. It runs to 12 pages. Is that your formal evidence to the Inquiry which you're going to elaborate?

  • Could you tell us, please, about the Science Media Centre. Who or what is it?

  • We are an independent press office for science set up by the whole of the scientific community in 2002, and we were set up after stuff that went wrong -- so GM, BSE, MMR -- to be on the kind of front line between the scientific community and the very, very controversial breaking science stories hitting the front pages.

  • Thank you. And you're the chief executive --

  • -- of the Science Media Centre. The headline message which you wish to impart is probably to be found in the final paragraph on page 54258, a message which you then elaborate:

    "While the media was not solely responsible for the MMR scare and lessons have been learned by all concerned, some of the underlying values still remain in parts of our newsrooms -- the appetite for a great scare story, the desire to overstate a claim made by one expert in a single small study, the reluctance to put one alarming piece of research into a wider, more reassuring context, journalistic balance which conveys a scientific divide where there is none, the love of the maverick and so on."

    Those are the key themes which you develop.

    Is it also fair to say, if it's not putting it disparagingly, that the general public does not always apply a rigorous scientific method to its world view? Witness, for example, belief in astrology or, in the United States in particular, belief in creationism?

  • Indeed. I think our view is that the responsibility of the press is to allow all of those opinions to be reflected but that their facts are accurate.

  • You're entitled to your opinions; you are not entitled to your facts.

  • Well, you're not entitled to your own facts. You have to have the facts. The MMR scandal may not be a very good example, given that, of course, that was supported by the peer review journal. I think it was the Lancet.

  • It's actually a wonderful example. Are there other people to blame? Yes, absolutely, and most of the responsibility lies with one individual scientist, who's been discredited, but I think on this one you cannot absolve the media, and the reason I would say that is because it was just a small study, it had not been replicated, nothing had been proven, it conflicted with all the previous scientific evidence, and so it should never have been splashed on the front pages.

    And I think the other crime of the media in relation to MMR was what we call false balance, where time and time again the editor demanded that the fact that 99.99999 per cent of medical science believed this vaccine to be safe had to be balanced in every article by Andrew Wakefield or one of his supporters. So you have the terrible situation where a MORI poll showed, at the height of this crisis, that nearly 60 per cent of the British public thought that medical science was divided. That's the bit on which the media let the public down.

    I mean, if you were sitting in a GP's surgery thinking that medical science was divided about whether this vaccine would give your child autism, it's a wonder that anyone vaccinated their children. Even Wakefield didn't do that. He never claimed that everybody agreed with him.

  • No, I understand that, but I was actually sort of trying to provide the context of the support which Dr Wakefield received from a highly respected, peer-reviewed medical journal, which may have contributed to a lack of understanding, whereas some of the other examples you give don't have that defence. It isn't a full defence. I'll put the word "defence" in inverted commas. Partial excuse. Would you agree with that?

  • Yes, absolutely agree, and I think if you look at the role of almost everybody in that saga, nobody comes out smelling of roses. But as this Inquiry is about the role of the media, then that's the role --

  • Absolutely. But for balance purposes, without seeking to in any way remove the responsibility for the research from Wakefield, there was the support originally given to it by the Lancet. But the whole issue of balance is itself an interesting one.

  • Yes.

    You set out some ground rules, Ms Fox, at 54259, getting the basics right in relation to the empirical sciences and you explain the difference between various types of study, what it means when you say that the risk is doubled. This is all meat and drink to a scientist or probably someone with an A level in a scientific subject, but these are points which are not always caught up in media reporting of the sciences; is that right?

  • I think that's right, but I do think that if you -- one of the points I haven't made yet, which I'm really keen to make, is that the best ally of science are the science reporters. We have some fantastic science journalists in this country and I believe that if you put them in a room with very eminent scientists and members of the public that it would take them a couple of hours to come up with these basic guidelines for science coverage. It is things that are very straightforward. If you say that taking aspirin doubles your risk of heart disease or cancer, that sounds massive. If you look at the actual figures, and that means a rise of cancer from 1 in 1,000 to 1.5 in 1,000, then people will make different judgments.

    So there's a really basic thing, that you will ask journalists: don't just put the increased risk in percentage terms or doubling or trebling terms; also give us the numbers. Very basic, not difficult. The reason newspapers don't do it is because it doesn't have the same impact, so then it becomes a question about the news editor wanting to terrify us with the scary figures, and we're saying that actually the science journalists and health journalists don't agree with that. They want a more balanced message.

  • You also point out there's a difference between a small experimental study on a rat on the one hand and a series of randomised control trials testing efficacy on homo sapiens on the other hand.

  • Indeed, and I think this takes us back to MMR and it's slightly, very slightly, a defence of the Lancet here because it was a very, very small study. I think it was 12 children. Most studies are preliminary and provisional. The vast majority will not be replicated, and indeed will be overturned because they're small. They're very important scientifically, but they're not important to the public at that stage.

    I mean, the irony, of course, is by the time we've proved the risk or by the time we've proved that the treatment works, it will be boring to the newspapers because it will have been through massive trials with tens of thousands of people.

  • Of course, to be fair to the Lancet -- I have to try to be fair to everybody -- there was the issue about where the sample came from in the first place.

  • Indeed. That's right. They were lied to. That's very difficult to check for. The peer review system doesn't actually check against that.

  • Yes, I'm just trying to be balanced to everybody.

  • I think it's very, very relevant because we are not saying that we don't want the media to report on these. I mean, that would be going back 20 years to where science was in a ghetto and wasn't covered. We want all these studies to be reported, we're delighted to see them but we want them on the inside pages. They should not be on the front -- can I give you an example from the last couple of days?

  • So we get our bearings right in our submission, if you go to 54260, please, you deal with the issue of headlines. It's a big point I know you make, Ms Fox, that you're concerned about sensational, misleading or sometimes down right inaccurate headlines as much as the underlying text.

    You've found for us a very recent example which illustrates that point, I think.

  • I brought a couple of examples. I think it's important to say that no matter what day or what week I had come, I would come with topical examples. I mean, this is routine, and what you have is very, very excellent science journalists who take care to write an article, accurate, balance, measured and third party experts, but they leave at 8 o'clock and the subeditors, who don't seem to go out in daylight hours, arrive at 9 or 10 o'clock, skim-read the article and put often a very inaccurate headline on it, and I think that causes -- especially now with new media, very often it's the headline that gets tweeted, and if that headline is that red wine gives you cancer, then that can be alarming.

    The one from today --

  • I have been asked you to slow down.

  • You can ask. I shall try.

  • It's actually important for a different reason. It's very important that what you say is available to everybody who wants to read it, and the only way it will be available to everybody is if this lady can manage to catch it all.

  • I apologise.

    So this was a lovely story from yesterday, which -- I don't know if you were just watching Leveson on the television but was on the news last night, of a stem cell break through, and the first proof in a safety trial that stem -- embryonic stem cells could actually be safe to give to humans, which is extraordinary in itself, it's a real break through, it's been a long time coming, but it was not an efficacy trial. It didn't test for whether these stem cells will cure blindness; it was just a first trial to check that the stem cells get to the place they're meant to get and are not rejected by the immune system.

    As it happens, the two -- only two -- patients who have been given the treatment showed a tiny, tiny improvement in their sight, but that's not what it was testing for and those two patients may have shown that improvement totally by chance. Yet we wake up today to a headline which says "Once they were blind, now they see -- patients cured by stem cell miracle". No patients have been cured. It is not true that they were blind and now they see. This is just inaccurate.

    I know that hundreds of thousands of people with (inaudible) degeneration who are blind will have been given false hope by this. We all hope that it will turn out like this in the end, but it has to --

  • Please slow down. It's a subject obviously you feel extremely strongly about.

  • I'm very keen to hear it but I'm actually keen that everybody else hears it as well.

  • As you point out, with all these ethical trials, the first trial, once you've moved past your rats, is a safety trial on human beings and the purpose is only to determine whether the drug is safe, not whether it works. If it's established to be safe, you then move on to the efficacy trials, that's right, and this was a safety trial --

  • -- which showed a very slight improvement but in no way --

  • And then you'll do it qualitatively and then quantitatively; is that right?

  • Indeed. I mean, you go into the next set of trials and then phase two trials and then face three and then you try in the population. As I said earlier, we do think these stories should be reported because they are breakthroughs in a sense, but they are nowhere near a cure. They're nowhere near a miracle. We shouldn't be seeing "miracle" or "cure" on stories unless they are proven to be such and this study wasn't even asking this, and therefore it cannot be proof.

  • Ms Fox, towards the bottom of 54260, you offer a gentle bouquet to the Guardian newspaper, which you say is the first paper ever to appoint a news editor and three subeditors with specialisms in science and environment, and by implication you're hoping -- perhaps not expecting -- to see that pattern replicated elsewhere; is that right?

  • Yes. Strangely, many of the science, health and environment journalists stay on that beat. They hope to be promoted to become science editor or health editor but they rarely go down the editorial route. So you do find that the newspaper which is packed with humanities graduates tends to have editors and subeditors who don't understand some of the basic rules of science. We're not saying everyone has to have a science degree. We're not saying they all have to go through arduous training, but we do think for some subeditors and news editors on the paper, as well as the specialists, to have some understanding in the basics of science would benefit -- it would see the end to some of these either overhyping headlines or terrifying headlines.

  • Thank you. Taking the extremes, 54261, this deals with the issue of probability and what happens at the outer end of your probability graph or curve. Could you develop for us that issue, particularly in relation, please, to the 65,000 swine flu death figure?

  • Yes. This is a tricky one, because what self-respecting journalist is going to hear our chief medical officer telling us that 65,000 people could die of swine flu and not report it? I don't in any way ask them not to report it, but I do think there is a special responsibility to make clear that that was the very worst possible outcome, and that was explained very clearly by Liam Donaldson, the chef medical officer. It was from a model. These modelling exercises are not absolutely exact science. They give a range of probabilities.

    Ironically, as I said, what happened was the media a year later kind of turned on the medical establishment and on Liam Donaldson: "You told us 65,000 people were going to die, you hyped this, you did it in order to sell or buy the vaccine from GSK", et cetera, et cetera, and actually he had never said that. Scientists were worried about swine flu. They were right to be worried.

    Again, it's about the headlines and the top line reflecting the range of possibilities. On something like this which really matters -- I think the climate change one was a classic example, you know.

  • Take it slowly. Let's just focus on swine flu and then we'll go onto climate change.

  • I just have to take it slowly.

    So right to identify there's a range, wrong not to provide the context, and absolutely wrong to criticise when it comes within the range but not at the extremes.

  • It's a similar point analytically in relation to climate change, because 11 degrees is at the outer level of probability?

  • In other words, very unlikely.

  • Yes, and that particular press briefing the Science Media Centre ran and there were four scientists on the panel and I watched them at such pains to repeat time and time again -- because the questions were coming from the floor, you know: "Will it be like The Day After Tomorrow? Will London freeze over because of this 11 degrees?" And time and time again, the four scientists said, "90 per cent of the models come back and show us it's likely to be around 2 degrees warning, but some -- a tiny minority of models show us 11 degrees."

    And what did every newspaper do the next day? Everybody splashed with 11 degrees. In fact, one newspaper, that was the front page, a massive big "11 degrees" with a picture from "The Day After Tomorrow", which is a terrifying blockbuster movie.

    So again -- and I think I said in the evidence that again, a year later, Radio 4 did a documentary accusing the scientific community of exaggerating the impact of climate change and cited this briefing, which was incredibly unfair and I actually emailed each of the journalists who had been present at that press briefing and asked them for an email back to send to these producers on Radio 4 to say that it was not the scientists. In fact, many of them were very upset that their peers would no longer trust them because they'd gone out and told the media that we were going to have 11 degrees warming.

  • Thank you. A related theme but it may be all part and parcel of the same point: extraordinary claims need extraordinary evidence, which I suppose, as a matter of logic, must be right.

  • You give an example of the human clone story. An extraordinary claim which needed extraordinary evidence; in fact there wasn't any evidence.

  • Yes. In some ways, I think this possibly could sum up our 12 pages of evidence and sum up my view, that the disjuncture between the scientific community and your average newsroom is that within science extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence. Within a newsroom, I actually think it's the exact opposite. The more extraordinary, the more shocking, the more sensational, the more the rush to publish.

    So "MMR leads to autism" was extraordinary. This was a very safe, effective vaccination campaign that had wiped out these diseases. Of course it was extraordinary, but for the newsrooms, that was the reason to splash it on the front page. For me, that was a reason to step back, ask some questions, see whether those results had ever been found before, wait until they were replicated or at least put it on page 10 with those caveats. But that's not the case and I think there's an element of that that we've seen today in this coverage.

  • Then you point out that very often claims even in scientific journals, although they usually are very heavily caveated, turn out not to be true. That, I suppose, is the life history of science, that most claims in science turn out not to be true.

  • That's right. The example I give of the XMRV virus -- again, I don't know if you know anything about chronic fatigue syndrome or ME --

  • For the purposes of everybody else, tell us.

  • I don't know how we disagree, but it is a disease which affects many, many people which causes chronic fatigue and many people cannot work. Some children have MECFS but they have never found a biological cause. They've found many things that contribute to it and there are treatments that are effective, but for many people, to discover that a virus has been found in the samples of, I think, 60 per cent of patients was extraordinary. We found a biological cause. And not only that, it promised an effective treatment. The treatments we have can alleviate the symptoms but they don't cure the disease.

    So this was huge hope for everybody. It was published in a good journal and it was run on the front pages, but again, I think the question newsrooms should have asked is: this is extraordinary. Has it been replicated? Has it been found before? The answer is is: no. No one has ever found it before and this is the first study. Let's put it in the inside pages.

    In fact, in the States, people were running out buying tests for this virus, buying treatments which had helped alleviate other symptoms of this virus and then, within months, a group from Imperial College London came to the SMC. They tried to find it, couldn't find it, a group in Holland, a group in the States, and now we've had about ten studies. They cannot find it, and it ends it up it was contaminated samples.

    Again, it was in Science. It was in a good journal. It's right that the journalists write it up but not splash it on the front page. It's too preliminary.

    So we love science on the front page and there's some fantastic science stories. There's plenty of opportunities but I think it would resolve a lot of problems if journalists just didn't overclaim for these studies.

  • When Mr Dominic Mohan was here from the Sun, he spoke about having engaged a scientist to write science stories in a straightforward, user-friendly way. I can't remember the name of the scientist.

  • I imagine it's Brian Cox.

  • He's not an ordinary scientist.

  • No. He's wonderful. These very, very, very media friendly.

  • I didn't call him "ordinary".

  • No, no. What I'm reflecting is that wouldn't work with many scientists. They wouldn't be able to write and communicate in the way that Brian Cox can. He's now a celebrity scientist, and I say that in a good way.

    I think -- you know, to stress it's very important that I stress this again and again. The science, health and environment journalists who write for the tabloids and on newspapers are brilliant. They are genius. Every single day they communicate very complicated and very important science to a mass audience.

  • I think you've just created tomorrow morning's headline on this subject.

  • Trying to bring together themes in the context of getting the balance right, point number one, you're not, of course, arguing in favour of any form of censorship; you're seeking to attain the right balance between different reviews.

    Secondly, you recognise -- this is under the heading "Inconvenient truths" -- that some issues are very heavily politicised and polarised. For example, GM crops; for example, climate change.

    In terms of practical recommendations for this Inquiry, given those matters, how would you recommend that the right balance is achieved?

  • I'm very pleased how many science journalists supported our recommendation for guidelines because ten years ago the scientific community recommended guidelines and they were very fiercely rejected by journalists. But actually most of the science journalists themselves say that these guidelines would help them to win the arguments with their editors and their news desks about the kind of prominence to give to these stories.

    So I think as long as the science reporters were involved in drafting those, they could then be used for training, for editors and subeditors and general news reporters as a part and parcel of journalist accreditation. They could also be used by a PCC or a strengthened PCC to adjudicate on a complaint.

    So I think that's probably our most solid proposal, apart from that Leveson has given us this wonderful opportunity to step back and just to dream about the kind of culture change in newsrooms which would eradicate many of the problems. Most scientists owe a huge debt to our newspapers for communicating science. There's actually quite a small amount that needs to be done to really assuage their main concerns and to stop damaging the public interest. I do -- you know, the whole theme of this Inquiry is about public interest, and I have to say sometimes it doesn't matter but sometimes it really does. With the example of MMR, with the examples of GM, which is a technology that the British public and policy-makers have rejected based on inaccurate claims about its damage to human health -- you know, these things matter.

  • When you say it would be the work of a couple of hours to create guidelines, have you put your mind to them?

  • The list that I came up with in the evidence took me two minutes and quite a few people agreed with it, but there is actually a new project funded by government, which is a national science journalism training coordinator which has only just come about and we're very excited about, and he is actually in the process of putting those guidelines together.

  • Would you like to see them?

  • He probably has something he could -- it may be work in progress and it could be improved on, but I think he probably has something he could deliver very soon.

  • Thank you. Please clarify 54264, under the heading "Columnists". Precisely whom are you referring to there?

  • Oh, there are many, many columnists. We love columnists, we love opinionated people. We're quite opinionated at the Science Media Centre. Our beef with these columnists is that sometimes, much like the previous witness said, they are stating things that are blatantly inaccurate and we question whether newspapers can disregard accuracy when it comes to their columnists.

    The complaint that came alongside my complaint from UEA, the University of East Anglia, was about Phil Jones, the scientist whose thousands and thousands of emails were stolen, hacked into and put out on the Internet about climate change.

    It was a very difficult time for him at the time. Now four independent inquiries -- parliamentary inquiries, university inquiries, independent inquiries -- have ruled in his favour, that he was not guilty of lying about climate change, presenting some big hoax, and yet you still have columnists like Delingpole who, under the masthead of the Daily Telegraph, continue to write, persistently, that he is a liar and a fraud and a hoaxer, and I know that UEA went to the Press Complaints Commission on that particular issue and the response was: "James Delingpole has robust, strong opinions and it was all in the ..."

    So I think, again, there is no strong recommendation here. There are different views within the scientific community but there is just a sense, getting back to one of my original points, that -- this thing about: you are entitled to your opinions; you are not entitled to your facts, and that there should still be some requirement for factual accuracy on issues like climate change, vaccines and things which matter so much.

  • You did provide us with the ruling of the PCC in relation to the UEA against the Daily Telegraph case and Professor Jones. It is quite complex, and if you don't mind I'm not going to go into the detail of it, although I've studied it. I've passed it on to Lord Justice Leveson. Maybe that's something I can take up with the PCC, if there's time.

    Can I ask you, please, moving on through your paper -- we haven't looked at the case studies at 54267. All four of them are interesting, but the two I'm going to ask you about, the first and the last, the stillbirth and sleep position paper in the BNJ and then recognising the link to longer lifespan. Can you tell us briefly about those, please?

  • I have to say I don't know much more about those than was presented in evidence. I wonder if you would object if I went through a couple from this week instead with similar messages; is that okay?

  • One was just from last week from the Sun. I don't know if you can see -- it was a full page in the Sun, which is quite hard to achieve:

    "Breast cancer risk all over shops' shelves."

    And basically what the story is saying is commonly used chemicals that are all around us in products are linked to breast cancer. It's a classic example of an article which should not have been given this prominence or headline. It was a very small study, it has several flaws in it, it was in a relatively obscure journal and it showed that traces of these chemicals are found in the breast tissue of women with breast cancer but it didn't test the breast tissue of women without breast cancer, healthy women. So it didn't do a control.

    Now, it's interesting that the traces of these chemical was were found -- many toxicologists would have expected them to be found -- but it certainly is not terrifying and there's no evidence that the chemicals cause the cancer. Neither has there been any study ever before showing that these chemicals cause breast cancer, so I'm aware that three major cancer research charities wrote to the Sun about this.

    Again, the Sun does fantastic health and science coverage on many occasions, but you don't have to go many weeks before you will get the -- what we call the scare quotes.

    My final one was, again, from last week. It was a story the Science Media Centre launched -- again, another very exciting story about the prospect that we will be able to stop the transfer of mitochondrial diseases, terrible incurable diseases like muscular dystrophy. There was a patient -- case study where a woman had seven children, all of whom had died -- very, very tragic -- and last week the government announced that it's going to have a year-long public consultation on a new approach where you would take some healthy mitochondria from the donor and replace the mother's damaged mitochondria, and so the child could -- but it's quite a radical technique. It's quite new.

    But all of the papers -- every single one of the papers went with this "Child with three parents". Nobody in the whole of science -- none of the patients I've spoken to, the clinicians, the researchers, the stem cell -- nobody I've ever spoken to about this technique believes that this is going to be a baby with three parents. They think it's going to have some material from a donor in the way that you do when you have a kidney transplant, but we have: "Children with three parents to be born in two years", "Babies with three parents planned" ...

  • That's the Financial Times?

  • It is. "Babies with two mothers and one father within three years", "Three parent IVF closer to approval", "Three parent IVF."

    Does it matter? The articles were beautiful, and in fact, most of this story was reported in a way that I would say is the best of science reporting, but we are about to have a year-long national debate. It will culminate, in a year's time, in a parliamentary debate because they have to enact legislation to legalise this. Is it helpful that it's going to be framed forever in this -- and when I have spoken to the science journalists, the point they make is: "Our news editors love it. It's controversial. They love it." And maybe we should be scared what we wish for because maybe if it wasn't controversial, it wouldn't get any coverage.

  • It is remarkable in that case that every one of those newspapers has chosen the same headline.

  • And some of them are in inverted commas but nobody uses it. Not even the opponents of this technique use it. It is a creation of news editors because they like it.

  • What's possible is that everybody's written up the story, somebody has written it up under this headline, then, as everybody scans each other's online editions, the next paper says, "Hmm, that's a good way of putting it", and lifts an equivalent headline and so it goes virally around the newsrooms of Fleet Street. I'm not saying that's happened --

  • I think that's entirely possible.

  • It's rather more plausible than everybody --

  • It may not matter, but I just think the fact that we are powerless to change it, I think that was the point I wanted to make to you. The framing has been set because it's controversial and because it works for the news editor, we are landed with it. It will be impossible to change it.

  • Ms Fox, this is very, very interesting, but why isn't this covered by a simple requirement for accuracy?

  • Very good question. That's what we are asking for. We're not asking for special treatment or regulation but we're asking for the best possible standards of accuracy in relation to these --

  • The code requires accuracy.

  • I know, yes. As you heard from the previous witness, there is also the situation which we've raised where only the individual scientist involved in the article that's inaccurate is able to go to the PCC.

  • Have you been able to go to the PCC?

  • No, although I think it's quite important to say that when we set up in 2002, we decided not to go down that route, that we would -- our philosophy was that the media will do science better when scientists start to do the media better. So our focus -- apart from this half an hour that I've got in this room, most of my life is aimed at persuading scientists to accept what they've got, to live with it and to engage much effectively and actually, over ten years we've seen a dramatic improvement in coverage of science, partly because of the wonderful science journalists but also because more and more scientists --

  • Don't feel you have to speak quickly because it's only half an hour. I can extend the time.

  • I'm just concerned that smoke seems to be emanating from the shorthand writer.

  • Well, those are all my questions. In fact, it's 35 minutes on my watch. Not that we're counting.

  • I think it's a very interesting area because it seems so easy to fix. If you're pleased with the reporting, the general stories, then it doesn't seem to be beyond the wit of man to devise a mechanism for ensuring that everything else flows from that. But it may underline a slightly more serious problem, which is all about the culture in the sense, not in the normal sense we've been using it during the Inquiry but in the sense of needing a headline that grabs attention and the extent to which sufficient attention is paid to the link between the story and the headline. That's not just in science; that's in criminal justice, to my certain knowledge, and I'm sure many other fields as well.

    As regards the climate change story, presumably there are all sorts of potential remedies open to that particular scientist if he's been defamed.

  • I only know of one complaint that he's made to the Press Complaints Council and that has not been upheld. I don't think he feels like that.

  • All right. Having got your time, is there anything else that you would like to share with us?

  • Let me just have a quick --

  • Take a moment just to check you've said all you want to say, because I do agree it's very important.

  • No, I think you have managed to get all of my points out of me. Thank you very much. Thank you for the opportunity. We really appreciate it.

  • Thank you very much indeed.

  • I'll rise for just a few minutes.

  • (A short break)

  • The next witness is Mr Ryan Parry, please.