This Wednesday, the London Evening Standard published an article promoting a fundraising campaign set up in order to send a five-year-old girl suffering a rare form of brain cancer to the controversial Burzynski Clinic. This was despite the author of the piece already being aware that Cancer Research UK had raised concerns about the clinic and that seventeen-year-old schoolboy Rhys Morgan had received intimidating threats from those claiming to represent it.
I summarised my concerns in an email to the Editor (email@example.com):
Dear Mr Greig,
I write to express concern at what I feel is the misleading and uncritical portrayal of the Burzynski Clinic in the 14th December article “Cancer girl’s £130,000 plea for life-saving operation in US” by Rob Parsons.
I am writing to you directly as I understand that Rob has already responded to criticism of the piece, stating that:
The reason is wrote the piece the way I did is that the family concerned have made up their mind to go ahead with the treatment, having satisfied themselves of its merits, and that in itself is worthy of coverage. My aim was to write the article reflecting what the family is doing and telling the story of their little girl, without making any claims for the efficacy of the treatment.
I acknowledge that the reporting by the media on treatments such as this does impact on how people see them, and perhaps how willing they are to consider spending money on them. But my aim was to try and tell the story of Chiane and leave people to make up their own minds as to whether they want to help her be treated at the clinic.
Further details of that exchange are available here.
Without wishing to comment in detail on individual cases, it is clear that Burzynski’s patients are very vulnerable. They are willing to try anything, whatever the cost, if they think there is even the tiniest chance it may be useful. I believe that the Burzynski Clinic are exploiting these people (and the well-meaning public) in an unscrupulous, unethical, even illegal manner. In presenting the Clinic so uncritically, the Evening Standard are effectively complicit in this.
In case you are not already aware of this, in order to protect vulnerable members of the public, the Cancer Act (1939) makes it illegal to take any part in the publication of advertisements offering to treat people for cancer, to prescribe any remedy for cancer, or to give any advice in connection with the treatment of cancer. Although I am uncertain whether uncritical news pieces are ‘advertisements’, I believe it would be immoral to ignore this legislation and ask that you bear this in mind.
I realise that the piece concluded with an acknowledgement that there had been criticism of the clinic and that Cancer Research UK had reported that the treatment is “unproven”. Placing the word “unproven” in quotes is misleading. It is a simple fact that the treatment is unproven – despite over thirty years of “clinical trials”. This also indicates that Rob had done some online research before writing the piece. In fact, he has since admitted that he was aware of the scandal involving Marc Stephens and Rhys Morgan (which has been reported in The Guardian). You should also be aware that as far as the legal and ethical issues are concerned, that is the tip of the iceberg.
I believe that the Evening Standard ought to set the record straight with a balanced, objective and accurate piece on the Burzynski Clinic and some of the scandal surrounding it. This should probably be written by someone with a scientific or medical background, who is well able to understand the issues.
Since Rhys Morgan published the threats he’d received from those claiming to represent the Burzynski Clinic, bloggers all over the world have been investigating the Clinic and reporting in detail. I have been keeping track of the main developments on my ‘Master List‘ post. I urge that you read this – in particular the sections entitled “Cancer treatment and conspiracy theories“, “What are antineoplastons? Is there evidence that they work?” and “Legal and ethical concerns“.
I look forward to your reply.
UPDATE (22/12/11) I was not happy with the Evening Standard’s response to this email and have now made a complaint to the PCC. Further details are here.