Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Martyn Vs You and Yours

Today I’m going to tell you a little story. When I say little I use that word incorrectly, this goes on for a while. It is a tale of one man and one Radio 4 Producer. Oh and a series of E-mails that were sent between them.
 I mentioned this on my regular Sunday blog a couple of weeks ago but there have been a few developments since then. Here is the story in full.
 A few weeks ago on the, usually pretty poor, Radio 4 programme “You and Yours” was having a phone in about the regulation of Herbal “Medicine” (I put it in inverted commas because, as we know, if it works it would simply be medicine)  when I stumbled upon. I stopped listening to the programme regularly a long time ago but I turn the radio on in the kitchen whilst I was making my lunch and there it was.
 They had an “expert” in the studio to answer questions from callers and the studio presenter. Their chosen “expert” was Michael McIntyre who is a herb peddler. He practices herbal medicine and acupuncture at his clinic in Oxfordshire. The programme decided that this was a balanced approach to the subject. It wasn’t. He ranged over the full expanse of CAM for about 52 minutes, barely pausing to draw breath, ravelling in his opportunity to disperse nonsense like an aural muck spreader.
 He covered the usual topics and made the usual “mistakes” (I’m being kind by not calling him a liar, yet). He claimed that Reiki worked fine thanks despite the fact that it was disproved by a child.
  A lady phoned in and said that acupuncture didn’t help her relapsing/remitting MS; he however claimed that the remitting bits of her condition, that happened before acupuncture and after acupuncture, where down to the mini-stabbings.
 I was becoming a little more irate and then he flat out lied. “Well of course you can’t design placebo control trials for acupuncture”. Yes you can. There have been many. Studies not using the correct meridian points, studies were the needle only just punctures the surface of the skin and studies that use collapsing needles that are a bit like stage daggers. Can you guess what these studies found? Yes, that’s right. It’s no more effective than placebo. Oh and he didn’t understand just how powerful the placebo effect can be either. If you don’t, either click here or here to listen or watch Ben Goldacre tell you all about it.
 He lied (there I said it) about “Traditional” Chinese Medicine, “Well they’ve used it 2000 years so it must work.” 1, this is a logical fallacy, just because they have used it for a long time or that a lot of people think that it works doesn’t mean anything except that 50million Elvis fans CAN be wrong and, 2, it’s not true. Up until as late as 1960 the average life expectancy in China was 36.3. Now there were some other factors in this lack of birthdays, the lack of decent food for instance, but I think it shows that their health care wasn’t that good.
 Now, whilst he was rabbiting on I was E-mailing the show complaining about the lack of questioning of Mr McIntyre by the presenter and pointing out his untruths but I heard nothing during the broadcast so I decided to make a proper complaint.
 I went to the BBC website, found the appropriate page and dashed off a barely literate complaint,
        “This program let Micheal Macintyre simply lie about various things for 52 minutes with no one qualified to challange him.
 It was, effectively, an polemic in favour of Alt Med during which lie after lie and straw man arguements went without critisism.
 It was the most biased 52 minutes of radio I have ever heard.

 Like I said, barely literate but I was angry.

 To be fair to the BBC I got a response,

“Dear Mr Norris

Thank you for your recent e-mail. 

Within Call You and Yours this week 13 callers were included.

There were many contributions throughout the hour which cast doubt on the
efficacy of specific branches of alternative medicine and of alternative
medicine as a whole.

As you highlight, the programme also included calls from advocates of
alternative medicine which many people, rightly or wrongly, believe has relieved their medical symptoms. However the programme is confident that both sides of this debate were treated with respectful scepticism.

It's also worth bearing in mind that the topic of Alternative medicine has been covered widely by Radio 4 and over time we have very much reflected a large array of differing opinions on it.

Nevertheless, I fully appreciate that you feel strongly about this matter. Therefore I would like to assure you that we have registered your comments on our audience log. This is the internal report of audience feedback which we compile daily for all programme makers and commissioning executives within the BBC, and also their senior management. It ensures that your points, and all other comments we receive, are circulated and considered
across the BBC.

Thanks again for taking the time to contact us with your views.


P*** H*****
BBC Complaints”

Great, thanks, but it didn’t answer my points so another E-mail was sent,

 “Dear Mr H*****,

       Thank you for taking the time to write back to me.
 One of your points seems to be that "balance" can be judged across all programmes as a whole rather than on a specific programme. I disagree with you on this. If I had only tuned in to this programme I would not have heard balance. Having one or two people phoning in and having only 2 minutes of frequently interrupted chat is not the same as having 2 studio guests. Given the BBC's recent definition of "balance", having an expert and then someone else who flatly disagrees whatever (or lack of) their qualifications, this was a surprise.

 Your contributor lied flatly 3 times and no one picked him up on this because they were not sufficiently informed.

 It was claimed that the Chinese have been using their traditional medicine for 2000 years so it must be great which, apart from being an irrelevant argument, is also wrong. If this form enabled hyperlinks I could show that up until about 1960 the average life expectancy in
China was 35. Since the introduction of "Western Medicine" it has risen sharply.

 It was also claimed that you could not do placebo controlled trials on acupuncture. Also untrue. If you Google it there are plenty of examples but save you some time here are some examples.

 To be honest time has past since the programme and I can't remember the third lie (Sorry about that).
  Again I thank you for your time,

 Martyn Norris”

 I then got a rather generic sounding response and thought that that would be an end to it. Oh I was wrong.
 I was sat in my lounge and the phone rang, “hello Mr Norris, This is P***** B********. I am a producer on “You and Yours””.
 Oh my. “hello? How can help you?” “You made a complaint about our programme, would you like to come on the show and discuss this with Mr McIntyre?” (I may be paraphrasing a little here)

 No, no I wouldn’t. I’m crap at debating and I’d probably end up calling him a rude name but I asked her to E-mail me and I’d get back to her properly.

 “Dear Mr Norris,
As I said on the phone I was wondering whether you would like to come  and put some of your points to our contributor on alternative medicine.  He is very happy to do an interview with with you and answer your accusations that he
"lied flatly several times and no one picked him up on this because they were not sufficiently informed"
And that he
" claimed that the Chinese have been using their traditional medicine for 2000 years so it must be great which, apart from being an irrelevant argument, is also wrong"
And he
"claimed that you could not do placebo controlled trials on acupuncture. Also untrue. If you Google it there are plenty of examples but save you some time here are some examples".
The interview would be pre-recorded with Julian.  Do let me know your thoughts.
Thank You
P***** B********
  At this point I had an idea. The slightly excitable Ben Goldacre was trying to get through to the programme when it was broadcast and then complaining about not getting though on Twitter so I thought I’d E-mail him and ask him if he would be prepared to go on in my place. He rather kindly accepted my offer and also suggested Prof David Colquhoun of UCL who had briefly managed to phone the offending show. Another E-mail and another agreement to take my place.
 So back to my Hotmail account and a message was dashed off to Ms B******** saying that I won’t go on but suggesting these 2 rather fine gentlemen would be more than willing to go on in my place. I even provided their E-mail addresses to make her life easier and pointed out that Prof Colquhoun had also made a complaint about the programme (and blogged about it here) so he was just the same as me really, just slightly more clever and better informed. This was her reply,

 “Dear Mr Norris, 
thank you for getting back to me.  I am sorry that you do not feel able to take up our offer of an interview between yourself and Mr Michael McIntyre as I said we would have been happy to pre-record it.  I am afraid though that we will not be taking up your offer to inverview your  two suggested guests.  We believe that the programme on alternative medicine was fair and balanced with 13 different calls offering different opinons both for and against herbal  and chinese medicine.  At the time there was a specific news peg for this Call You and Yours, as that has passed there is no reason to re-visit the subject unless we can speak directly to you and address your specific concerns.

Thank you for your continued interest in our programme.

all the very best

P***** B********

 The original reply is in blue for some reason.

Throughout our exchanges I had been polite and jovial but this reply had pissed me (and Dr Goldacre) off a bit. Why would they have me on, I know nothing, but won’t have informed guests on? So I E-mailed back,

 “Dear P*****,
       I have to admit that I am a little confused about your reply. You are happy for me to come on the programme and speak about my complaints but you are not offering the same thing to David Colquhoun who also complained about the programme. If you haven't read his complaint, that was emailed as mine was, it can be read here. Can you explain to me this difference in approach?
       Martyn Norris

and so she replied,

 Dear Mr Norris,

thank you for your email.  However, I'm afraid I am no longer able to help you as I believe I have answered your questions about Call You and Yours on alternative medicine.  If you would like to make a further complaint - please contact the BBC Editorial complaint unit at

thank you for your interest


P***** B*******

Again in blue.

 Now I don’t know about you but that sounds like a go away and leave me alone message. Of course I am going to but I think my question stands, why would they have me on and not some really good guest who knows the subject? You may draw your own conclusions, like they didn’t want a decent discussion about CAM because they have their own agenda or that the Herb Peddler didn't want to debate clever people (as suggested by Robert Weeks (@Chutzpah84 on Twitter), but I won’t because I don’t know why this happened. Shame though.

 I have not included the names of the BBC employees that I have been in contact with as that would be unfair.


  1. You & Yours is now the aural equivalent of the Daily Mail. It used to run some truly outstanding campaigns (when it was on less often - maybe that's the clue?). It used to be informative, it used to be a hella lot more genuinely balanced. Christ knows what's going on now - either they've decided we're all mush-brained knuckle-draggers barely able to tear ourselves away from Grazia magazine & mumsnet, or else that description is valid for the produciton team.

  2. Whilst reading this, I was trying to be as generous as possible to the BBC's side in this.

    I'd've accepted that perhaps they didn't want a 'famous' contender whilst they could get hold of 'an ordinary member of the public' (yourself - sorry about that!). I'd've allowed that this wish would have been uninfluenced by Herbert Peddler of course, that it would be just the BBC's idea (overriding any veto by the quack). It's good, responsible 'open' radio you see.

    This itself is rather over-generous as far as the actual logic of the situation requires. The source of an idea should of course be irrelevant - it doesn't matter who presents it. And I certainly understand that you may have thought that you might have been browbeaten into submission by those more experienced at public speaking.

    But this has stretched beyond breaking point. What you have ended up with is rather more offensive than the 'go away' you've described it as. I think we can all see where you've been told to go. It's outrageous.

  3. Do as they suggest and complain to the BBC's Editorial Complaints Unit. It's there to sort out this kind of thing and the judgement of the unit is bound to influence other programmes on the BBC.

  4. this was a ridiculous programme. i complained during the show too, and unlike you i received no such invitation. i've got no particular interest in hustling onto radio4 myself but it seems extraordinary that You and Yours will go to such extraordinary lengths to have someone such as McIntyre in the studio on their show effectively unopposed for an hour, with no meaningful questions or challenges from confident people who know the evidence and arguments well. it's just plain dodgy, and i'm sad to say i have stories i may tell one day about You and Yours which sadden me like no other mainstream media outlet.

  5. for pedants: when i say "with no meaningful questions or challenges from confident people who know the evidence and arguments well" to absolutely clarify, i mean "with very few". over an hour of woo. a whole hour. they must love this guy, or be very keen to promote his pseudoscience, for reasons only they can know.

  6. you don't know shit. My sister has suffered horrifically from M.E and his treatment is the only thing that has ever helped her (she has seen every doctor and tried every medical drug on the sun) so shove that in your pipe and smoke it

  7. Well, jeez, dude, it seems like you want to discredit traditional medicine and support the 'new' scientific medicine but I am not convinced. You ramble and whynge and present no evidence that you understand either way of helping people heal. It does actually take years of experience and a lot of training to get comfy with either one.
    You clearly haven't bothered with either, so maybe you should just be silent for now? Or maybe this is just your idea of something to kill time? Perhaps you've been seriously ill and had a bad experience? Perhaps someone in your family or circle of friends has been critically ill or perhaps died at the hands of some inept or unlucky medical practitioner. Where are you coming from? You can't claim 'science' since you clearly don't know how the trials publishing industry functions. Maybe have a look at the Oxford Handbook of Clinical Medicine and see what those highly experienced physicians think of 'evidence-based' medicine.