SIRC Media Watch Archive
Comment and Opinion – October 2000

The lesson of BSE "BSE has caused a harrowing fatal disease for humans. As we sign this Report the number of people dead and thought to be dying stands at over 80, most of them young. They and their families have suffered terribly. Families all over the UK have been left wondering whether the same fate awaits them." So begins the 16 volume report by Lord Phillips on the handling of the BSE / vCJD issue – the 'crisis' which has led to deep suspicions about the food we eat and to a loss of faith in the scientists and government officials who are responsible for advising us about health risks. Full story.

Don't get anxious, get angry. The Independent seems to going through a very welcome phase of balanced reporting and rational debate. Following on the heels of Cherry Norton's coverage of the polio vaccine scare, which was the subject of a SIRC 'Naming and Praising' award, comes a nicely crafted and well argued piece by the paper's columnist Natasha Walter. Full story.

Naming and Praising: The Independent. A SIRC 'Naming and Praising' award for responsible reporting of health issues goes to the Independent's coverage of the polio vaccine scare. An article by Cherry Norton, the paper's Social Affairs Editor, sets the tone clearly with a head: "Wanted: a vaccine to fight fears over the health of children." It lays out the facts clearly, noting that the recall of one type of vaccine had been made after it was discovered that it had been produced using foetal calf serum from Britain. Full story.

Fibre – the pendulum swings. The publication in the Lancet of a study concerned with the effect of dietary fibre on bowel cancer makes interesting, if depressing, reading. Claire Bonithon-Kopp and her colleagues of the European Cancer Prevention Organisation Study Group have obtained findings which appear to challenge long-held assumptions that diets rich in fibre help prevent not only heart disease but also colorectal cancer … What this study really highlights is the near impossibility of providing definitive dietary prescriptions when the body of scientific evidence on which they are, or should be, founded is constantly shifting. Full story.

Another potential pill scare? A number of newspapers have carried a report of research conducted at the Mayo clinic concerning adverse effects of the very early forms of the contraceptive pill. The piece in the Independent is fairly typical: "Pill linked to breast cancer in daughters. The oral contraceptive pill may increase the risk of breast cancer being passed down the generations, researchers have found. An American study of 426 families in which at least one member had been diagnosed with breast cancer has shown that the daughters and sisters of the women affected were three times as likely to develop the disease if they had taken the Pill than daughters and sisters who had not taken it."

The author of the piece, Jeremy Laurance, who is the Independent's health editor, contrasts this 'finding' with the view of Professor Beral of the Imperial Cancer Research Fund: "We looked at family history and whether the Pill had an effect [on breast-cancer risk in close relatives] and found it was exactly the same as for everyone else. Having a family history of breast cancer increases the risk by one and a half to two times [in close relatives] and current Pill use multiplies that by 20 per cent. It's a 20 per cent increase not a three-fold increase and that is known and based on firm evidence."

All of this sounds like good, balanced journalism, and it is, up to a point. But – read on.