The Observer readers’ editor, Stephen Pritchard has responded (by email) to criticism of his 4th December column regarding complaints about an article on the controversial Burzynski Clinic. I have published his email in full at the end of this post.
I hope that this inadequate response will not be the Observer’s final word on the subject. It remains to be seen whether the Press Complaints Commission will be able to resolve the situation (together with my more recent complaint against the Evening Standard).
To summarise – on 20th November, the Observer published an article regarding Billie Bainbridge, a young girl suffering an inoperable brain tumour and a fundraising appeal for her treatment at the Burzynski Clinic. The article, ostensibly written by Billie’s uncle, was moving and honest – yet I believe gave a very one-sided and misleading impression, with no mention of the serious legal and ethical issues surrounding the clinic. I therefore believe the article was effectively promoting the clinic.
Stephen Pritchard responded on the 4th December, with what he had perhaps hoped was a balanced column, to respond to critics and set the record straight. He mentioned concerns raised by Professor Dorothy Bishop regarding the relatively lax ethical regulation allowing the treatment to be sold in the US as part of a ‘clinical trial’. He also mentioned concerns raised by Cancer Research UK regarding the lack of evidence of efficacy despite over thirty years of ‘clinical trials. He even mentioned the fact that Andy Lewis had pointed out that Burzynski may lose his medical licence in April and that bloggers like Andy and Rhys Morgan had been subjected to intimidating pseudo-legal threats by someone claiming to represent the clinic.
Unforunately however, the column left me feeling personally insulted – since I thought it portrayed bloggers such as myself, Rhys and Andy in a negative light, implying we had been sanctimonious and vitriolic and even (this is what particularly enraged me) – lacking a proper regard for the facts. Clearly, I found it difficult to judge the column objectively. Similarly, I felt Mr Pritchard would have found it difficult to write such a column objectively – since he admitted to a connection with the Bainbridge family.
Predictably, Pritchard’s column led to a new wave of complaints (including my own), which I published on my blog. I am also aware that after reading the column, at least one person filed an official complaint with the PCC.
One correspondent, Mike Wake, also wrote to Alan Rusbridger, editor-in-chief of Guardian News & Media, questioning the readers’ editor role. By 16th December, there had still been no reply. Mike emailed once more, again raising concerns about the portrayal of the Burzynski clinic in the Observer and pointing out that there had since been a similarly uncritical piece in the Evening Standard.
Rusbridger’s response was to forward the emails to Stephen Pritchard. Since I had published the original emails, Mike Wake felt that it would be only fair for me to also publish the reply. You will find it at the end of this post.
I find this reply unsatisfactory because it is not a reply from the Observer itself, but rather a case of Stephen Pritchard defending his own actions. The criticism is not of Pritchard personally, but of the Observer’s response to complaints. (The exception to this is what I felt was the insulting and misleading portrayal of bloggers – but that is a relatively trivial matter and in any case, seems to have been ignored.)
It seems obvious that there should have been a balanced and objective follow-up article written by a science or health specialist. Even without a connection to the family, one would not expect the readers’ editor to properly understand the issues, for example regarding clinical trials and evidence (which he seems not to – since he quotes a single anecdote to demonstrate evidence of medical efficacy).
I concede that two weeks isn’t a particularly long a time for him to have written the column – but the column did not constitute a satisfactory response and more than two further weeks have since elapsed.
It remains to be seen whether the PCC will now negotiate satisfactory responses from the Observer and the Evening Standard.
Stephen Pritchard’s email to Mike Wake (cc Alan Rusbridger and John Mulholland) reads as follows:
Dear Mr Wake,
Alan Rusbridger has passed me your emails concerning my response to complaints received at the Observer following its full-page article on a young cancer sufferer and the Burzynski clinic.
I’ll take your points as you list them in your second email.
1. Although the Readers Editor has a personal interest in this story, it was left in his hands rather than being handed over to an independent reviewer.
I declared a tangential interest as a matter of transparency. My son is a musician; he knows the music journalist Luke Bainbridge (whose niece was the subject of the original article). When Luke approached my son’s band they agreed without hesitation to take part in a benefit gig, not because they knew anything about the Burzynski clinic but because they had a desire to help Luke’s family. Of course, I am not responsible for my 27-year-old son’s decisions and I didn’t think such a tangential interest disqualified me from taking a view but nevertheless I felt I should mention it. I certainly have no personal interest in the Burzynski clinic.
2/3. The first critical comments about the original article arrived on the day of original publication. An edited version of this letter from Michael Warren was published on 27th November, but it was two weeks before an editorial response appeared.
Even readers’ editors are allowed a holiday. I was 1,000 miles away when the first objections arrived. My colleague who was deputising for me alerted me to the emails and I suggested that I should examine the whole case on my return. It is not unusual for readers’ editors to wait two or even three weeks for all objections to arrive before taking a view. Indeed, on taking up this post 10 years ago, Ian Mayes, the Guardian’s first readers’ editor, advised against rushing into print at the first opportunity.
In the interim, the editor chose to publish a letter which was representative of the many that had arrived that week. It condemned the clinic for its behaviour and criticised the paper for not including the scepticism which surrounds Dr Burzynski.
Upon my return I had lengthy conversations with the editor, his deputy, with Luke Bainbridge and with the blogger Andy Lewis before writing a piece for that week’s paper. I also received a telephone call from a reader who had been reading the growing concern about the clinic online. Her son had begun the Burzynski treatment at the age of seven. He is now 23 and has started his masters in graphic design. The treatment which had cost her £150,000 over seven years had reduced her son’s tumour by 75% and he was now back under the watchful eye of the NHS. I could have included her story in my piece but did not wish to be seen to be promoting the clinic in any way.
4· The response commendably drew attention to some of the serious doubts about the treatment omitted from the original article, but then bizarrely claimed that the original omission, leaving a wholly one-sided view, didn’t imply endorsement.
Naturally, I shared the view of the objectors that the paper should have included some of the considerable scepticism that surrounds the clinic. The original piece was presented as a “first-person” article but was actually an interview with Luke Bainbridge. As the four-year-old’s uncle, he knew the agony that the family was going though but did not write the piece. Had he done so, he tells me, he would have been careful to include some of the criticism. As it was, the reader only knew that “there were no guarantees” about the treatment’s effectiveness. Plainly, this wasn’t enough but I still maintain that the highly regrettable omission of this detail did not turn the whole piece into an endorsement. The piece was about the generosity of both celebrities and the general public in finding a large amount of money quickly for a very sick child.
5. The response concludes with a quote from the Deputy Editor which contains a crude and unsubstantiated attack on the paper’s critics, the sort of aggressive displacement usually seen from Government politicians in a corner, and unbecoming in an organ with a proud investigative tradition. Its inclusion in this form, and the significant delay before publication, raises serious doubts about the viability of an independent Readers Editor.
It is my job to represent all sides in an argument. I have a duty to include the paper’s point of view just as much as those who criticise the paper. I don’t agree that there was “a significant delay” in my response, nor do I agree that providing a direct quote from a defensive deputy editor somehow raises doubts about my viability.
6. And finally, at least in the online edition, the response was not accorded anything like the same prominence as the original article. Whereas the original had a front page link, the response was buried so deeply that it could only be found with a subject search.
My column has appeared in the same place online and in print for the past 10 years. I have a permanent front page link on the right hand side of the web page. Readers know where to find me. Additionally, I have placed a link in bold type at the top of the original article directing readers to my column.
Thank you for your interest. I hope I have managed to answer your points.