Animal Aid

BBC complaint

Posted 1 April 2005
Primate in medical research

Animal Aid has made a formal complaint to the BBC about their coverage of the recent announcement of an inquiry into the use of monkeys in medical research...

Michael Grade
BBC Chairman
Broadcasting House
London W1A 1AA

April 15, 2005

Dear Mr Grade

I write to complain about a news item that went out on BBC 1 television on Wednesday March 23. My concerns go beyond the handling of this particular piece, which is why I'd appreciate your consideration of the issue - not least the paragraphs in italics at the end of my letter. I have sent a copy to Fraser Steel.

The piece related to the announcement by a prominent group of pro-animal experimentation research and scientific bodies that they intended to launch a major study of the use of non-human primates in medical research. The bodies included the Academy of Medical Sciences, The Medical Research Council, the Wellcome Trust and the Royal Society.

Representatives of those bodies featured in the broadcast item, together with a Parkinson's disease sufferer who was offered as an example of how monkey experiments allegedly bring direct and spectacular benefits to patients. There was also a soundbite from our own scientific consultant, André Menache.

Altogether, we found the item to be conspicuously biased in favour of those promoting the use of monkeys in medical research. This was particularly disappointing considering the BBC's recent self-confessed failure to achieve balance in this area - and because of the detailed discussions on the importance of balance that we had with your correspondent in advance of broadcast.

Primate in medical research

Animal Aid's own position is that medical research using primates is both morally unsupportable and scientifically invalid. At a public inquiry in 2002 into Cambridge University's plans to build a new primate research centre, presided over by an independent Government inspector, evidence was submitted both for and against the use of primates in research. Animal Aid played a key role in coordinating scientific evidence against such research. The inspector concluded that the University had not substantiated its claim that the experiments would benefit human health or that they were of 'national importance', and recommended that planning permission be turned down.

One of our central concerns about the study into primate research that you reported on in the March 23 broadcast was that - because of the declared commitment to primate research by the bodies involved - the resulting inquiry is unlikely to be an open assessment of the issue. Rather, we fear that it would amount to a propaganda exercise designed to assuage growing public concern over whether the use of primates is justified morally and scientifically.

Returning to your own coverage, medical correspondent Fergus Walsh visited the Animal Aid office and interviewed our scientific consultant, André Menache. Fergus and I talked at some length about how the piece was to be presented. He was aware that, in April 2004, I received an apology from the Today programme after the BBC governors criticised them over the way they edited an interview with me for a January 2004 item about Cambridge University's decision not to pursue their plans to build the primate research centre referred to above.

Primate in medical research. Photo credit: ISAV

Fergus said he was committed to producing a balanced piece and he seemed genuine in that desire. However, I was concerned that, while he intended giving prominence to 'soft' footage he had been invited to shoot at an unnamed primate research centre, he was reluctant to consider balancing this by including graphic undercover footage of monkey experiments shot by the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection at Cambridge University.

He argued that using the BUAV footage was a problem because the BBC had 'not been there to verify it'. I pointed out that it had previously been used by Newsnight and that there had been no suggestion by any party that the footage was faked. Equally, he acknowledged that at the research centre he had visited he had not been permitted to see or film any damaged monkeys. This is despite the fact that brain research on primates is inevitably highly invasive, involving, typically, penetrating the skull and causing deliberate damage to the brain with surgery and/or with corrosive chemicals.

The broadcast piece did indeed give prominence to his soft lab footage, while omitting the BUAV film. Furthermore, while different proponents of monkey research were given an opportunity to make their case, André Menache was allowed just a couple or so sentences.

Among the most distorting elements was the interview run at the end of the 6pm piece with a man suffering from Parkinson's disease. He was introduced as an example of the benefits monkey experiments can bring - his violent shaking eliminated by the switch of a device whose discovery, it was claimed, resulted directly from monkey research. This testimony - and the credence afforded it by the authorial voice - is very likely to have been decisive in persuading the uninitiated viewer that monkey experiments do indeed benefit human medicine.

In fact, as we pointed out at the aforementioned Cambridge Primate centre public inquiry, deep brain stimulation (DBS) for Parkinson's sufferers was discovered some 40 years ago through serendipity by the French surgeon, Dr A Benabid. Monkey experiments followed but it is the habit of the animal research community to try to attempt to 'confirm' in 'animal models' what has already been discovered in people. If the 'discovery' had first been made in monkeys, the only way of knowing if DBS would work in people - whose brains are markedly different - would have been to attempt it in people. In short, if we are to advance human medicine we must study (non-invasively and with informed consent) human beings and not other species.

Primate in medical research. Photo credit: ISAV

Even if Fergus Walsh and his news team were/are unconvinced by the proposition set out above, they were still in error when they presented DBS as an outcome of monkey experiments. Furthermore, five minutes on the web would have told them that (see enclosed items).

There is, it seems to me, a distressing reluctance at the BBC to challenge the 'official version' when it comes to medical research and animal experiments. Powerful voices within government, academic circles and pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies, are wedded to animal experiments and the BBC is too timid to challenge them by giving proper voice to a dissenting view. What is more, there is a tendency to explain away this timidity and lack of journalistic scrupulousness as 'responsible and balanced' reporting.

By contrast, I would refer you to the coverage of the issue given by the 7pm Channel 4 News on the same evening. They ran both soft monkey footage and the BUAV undercover material (an expert in the studio said that both sequences were representative of what takes place in a monkey lab) and they pitted our scientific consultant against a leading animal research advocate in a debate. The piece tilted neither one way nor the other, but it dared to offer contrasting views on a matter of great public importance. For this is not only about the suffering of animals. It is about whether animal research yields benefits for human medicine or if it is a wasteful activity that also harms people.

Yours sincerely

Andrew Tyler
Director, Animal Aid

Copy: Fraser Steel

For background information on primate experiments, read The Scientific Case Against Primate Research.

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