3 News – possible cure for cancer – deceptive – misleading
Standard G7 – not applicable
Standard G11 – not applicable
Standard G15 – no uphold
This headnote does not form part of the decision.
A dietary supplement made from pig pancreatic enzymes was said to provide a possible cure for cancer, according to an item on 3 News broadcast on 11 May 2000 between 6.00–7.00pm.
Murray Tonks complained to TV3 Network Services Ltd, the broadcaster, that the item lacked scientific credibility and that it was apparent that there was no independently verified research findings which backed the claims made. In his view, the item used a deceptive programme practice and was misleading, as it could have raised false hopes for cancer sufferers.
In its response, TV3 pointed out that the item had made it clear that development of the treatment was in its early stages and did not agree that viewers would have been misled. It declined to uphold the complaint.
Dissatisfied with TV3’s decision, Mr Tonks referred the complaint to the Broadcasting Standards Authority under s.8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989.
For the reasons given below, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.
The members of the Authority have viewed a tape of the item complained about and have read the correspondence which is listed in the Appendix. On this occasion, the Authority determines the complaint without a formal hearing.
An alternative new cancer treatment was the subject of an item on 3 News broadcast on 11 May 2000 between 6.00–7.00pm. It was reported that a dietary supplement had been successful with some patients, and that the researcher featured had been given a grant to conduct extensive clinical trials.
Murray Tonks complained to TV3 that the item was misleading in implying that an important medical discovery had been made. In fact, he noted, there had been little or no independently verified research to back the claims of the promoter of the diet supplements. Mr Tonks expressed concern that the item would have raised false hopes among cancer sufferers, and profit among those peddling unproven cures. He complained that standards G7, G11 and G15 of the Television Code of Broadcasting Practice were breached.
TV3 advised that it had considered the complaint under the nominated standards. Standard G7 requires broadcasters:
G7 To avoid the use of any deceptive programme practice in the presentation of programmes which takes advantage of the confidence viewers have in the integrity of broadcasting.
The other standards read:
G11 To refrain from broadcasting any programme which, when considered as a whole:
Simulates news or events in such a way as to mislead or alarm viewers.
Depicts the actual process of putting a subject into a hypnotic state.
Is designed to induce a hypnotic state in viewers.
Uses or involves the process known as "subliminal perception" or any other technique which attempts to convey information to the viewer by transmitting messages below or near the threshold of normal awareness.
G15 The standards of integrity and reliability of news sources should be kept under constant review.
TV3 noted that the item, sourced from the ABC, had been "very carefully introduced" by TV3’s presenter as concerning "a promising new cancer treatment". TV3 argued that the footage from the ABC made it clear that development of the treatment was in its early stages, and that the doctor who was developing the treatment had been granted $1.4 million to conduct extensive clinical trials. Clearly, TV3 wrote, the research was incomplete, and the footage made that clear. The item concluded with the reporter stating that the therapy was being put through traditional testing to see if it could really become a common cancer treatment.
In TV3’s view, this "careful commentary" could not be described as "peddling unproven ‘miracle’ cures". It informed the viewer of the sort of treatment which was involved and made it clear that it was still in the development and testing phase, it wrote.
TV3 did not consider standard G7 had been breached, nor did it consider viewers would have been misled in such a way as to breach standard G11. As for ensuring the integrity and reliability of its news sources, TV3 responded that it considered the item, which was sourced from a major American broadcaster, met this requirement. It declined to uphold the complaint.
When he referred the matter to the Authority, Mr Tonks maintained that the item did not make it clear to the average viewer that this potential cure for cancer had little or no independently verified research to back the claims of the promoters of the supplements. In his view, the concluding statement that the therapy was now being tested by traditional methods was a "carefully constructed use of words" which avoided having to say specifically that the cure was unproven.
Mr Tonks asked to know the origin of the item, and whether its production had been sponsored, either directly or indirectly, by the promoters of the enzyme cure. He said he believed the product was available on the market in the US, and might well be available in New Zealand. He also asked if the item had been given to the broadcaster free of charge, as essentially he considered it to be an advertorial.
Mr Tonks asked, if his complaint was upheld by the Authority, that TV3 be required to exercise greater discretion in broadcasting health features where the product was available for sale, but where there was little or no independently verified scientific proof of the claimed beneficial effects. In his opinion, this should be so particularly in the case of dietary supplements, which as he understood it were not subject to the same standards as prescription medicines legally available for sale. He suggested that as the claims had not been substantiated by independent testing, then a clear and unambiguous statement to this effect should have been made.
In its response to the Authority, TV3 answered the questions raised by Mr Tonks about the origin of the item. It advised:
The feature would have been made by an ABC reporter. The promoters of the supplement would have had no influence on the scripting or direction of this story. As [a] major American news organisation, ABC would not knowingly risk its reputation in this way.
Secondly, TV3 advised that it had not paid for the particular item. It noted that it paid an annual licence fee to ABC to use its material, but no extra payments had been made in this case. This, it said, was but one item which arrived in ABC’s normal news bulletins, and neither ABC nor the product’s maker would have known that it would be selected for broadcast by TV3. As a final point, it advised that it would never accept any money to screen an item.
In his final comment, Mr Tonks said he stood by his complaint.
The complainant contended that the item exaggerated the efficacy of the supposed cure for cancer, and maintained that the research to date was of "dubious significance". He expressed concern that the item targeted cancer sufferers, an inherently vulnerable group, with false hopes about a cure.
Mr Tonks nominated the standards under which he wished the complaint to be considered by TV3.
Turning first to the complaint under standard G7, the Authority notes that for this standard to be breached, the broadcast must involve technical trickery or an editing practice which is designed to deceive viewers. As neither concern has been established, the Authority declines to uphold this aspect of the complaint.
Next, the complainant contended that the broadcast breached standard G11 because it would have misled or alarmed viewers. Again the Authority questions the relevance of this standard, noting that there is an express requirement in standard G11 for the item to have simulated news or events in such a way as to mislead or alarm. As the item did not simulate news or other events with the potential to mislead or alarm viewers, the Authority finds the standard inapplicable, and declines to uphold this aspect.
With respect to the complaint under standard G15, the Authority notes TV3’s advice that the item was sourced from the ABC in the United States, where it had already been broadcast to an American audience. In the Authority’s view, it was legitimate for TV3 to rely on the integrity of the ABC as a source of information. In reaching its conclusion on this point, the Authority also notes that the item was carefully worded to avoid overstating the curative properties of the treatment, and it emphasised that clinical trials, which had not then been undertaken, were soon to begin. Accordingly, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.
For the reasons given, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.
Signed for and on behalf of the Authority
14 September 2000
The following correspondence was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint:
1. Murray Tonks’ Complaint to TV3 Network Services Ltd – 12 June 2000
2. TV3’s Response to the Formal Complaint – 14 July 2000
3. Mr Tonks’ Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority – 25 July 2000
4. TV3’s Response to the Authority – 4 August 2000
5. Mr Tonks’ Final Comment – 28 August 2000