Reel Life: Thalidomide – A Necessary Evil – documentary – Dr Nigel Brown claims no evidence that any chemical which causes a birth defect in one generation can also cause defects in subsequent generations – inaccurate
Standard G1 – legitimate expression of scientific opinion – no uphold
This headnote does not form part of the decision.
A Reel Life documentary broadcast on TV One on 9 March 2001 between 9.45pm and 10.45pm, entitled Thalidomide – A Necessary Evil, examined the reappearance of thalidomide as an apparently effective drug in the treatment of a variety of illnesses including leprosy.
During the course of the programme, Dr Nigel Brown from St George’s Hospital in London commented to the effect that there was no evidence that any chemical, including thalidomide, which had caused a birth defect in one generation could be blamed for similar defects in subsequent generations.
Kees Bon complained to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, that Dr Brown’s comments were inaccurate, and that the broadcaster had failed in its duty to inform the New Zealand public on the reality of cell poisoning.
TVNZ declined to uphold the complaint.
Dissatisfied with TVNZ’s response, Mr Bon referred the complaint to the Broadcasting Standards Authority under section 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. The Authority determines this complaint without a formal hearing.
A Reel Life documentary entitled Thalidomide – A Necessary Evil screened on TV One on 9 March 2001 between 9.45pm and 10.45pm.
The documentary examined the reappearance of thalidomide as an apparently effective drug in the treatment of a variety of illnesses including leprosy. The programme commented on the moral dilemma of putting back into circulation a drug which had resulted in the birth of thousands of physically deformed children when it was used as a treatment for morning sickness. The documentary highlighted the dilemma by interviewing a woman whose painful mouth and genital lesions had been successfully treated by thalidomide. She admitted she had taken doses of the drug even while pregnant. The programme also reported that South American women treated with thalidomide for leprosy had given birth to deformed children.
During the course of the programme, Dr Nigel Brown from St George’s Hospital in London commented on a thalidomide victim who had fathered a daughter who also exhibited the physical deformities associated with thalidomide. He said there was no evidence that any chemical, including thalidomide, which had caused a birth defect in one generation could be blamed for similar defects in subsequent generations.
Kees Bon complained to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, that aspects of the programme were inaccurate, and that the broadcaster had failed in its duty to inform the New Zealand public on the reality of cell poisoning, also known as RNA and DNA poisoning. With respect to Dr Brown’s comments, Mr Bon said:
TV One’s broadcasting of this nonsense, masqueraded as it is by ‘scientific integrity’, makes me wonder what is going on here, in 2001? First as a nation we poison Vietnamese innocent civilians with the worst synthetic poison ever made (in the 60s and 70s). Then we treat our own servicemen to the same poison. Now their children are succumbing to the same exposure. And here you are – spouting nonsense like Goebbels in the time of Hitler – WHY?
After drawing TVNZ’s attention to the controversy surrounding the use of chemicals at Christmas Island, Mr Bon stated:
Dioxin and radioactive chemicals will poison our DNA and RNA. These two chemicals can (and will) go on to next generations.
And does our government do anything for the victims? NO! And does TV One tell the truth when the opportunity presents itself? No!
The complainant invited the broadcaster to contact either himself or the President of the New Zealand Vietnam Veterans Association if it wanted clarification on the information provided in the complaint. He concluded:
I am certain that with a certain amount of good faith this complaint can be justifiably addressed. And I must say that I very much enjoyed this documentary! Just that I could also imagine the agonising pain of the Vietnam Vet who may have fathered a Spina Bifida child or worse!
As a society we must face up to that national debt and this is as good a time as any to make a start!
TVNZ considered the complaint under standard G1 of the Television Code of Broadcasting Practice, which states:
G1 Broadcasters are required to be truthful and accurate on points of fact.
In TVNZ’s view, the complainant had "perhaps … misunderstood which generations Dr Brown was referring to."
The broadcaster said Dr Brown had not been arguing that the children of those exposed to a chemical did not suffer from its effects. It said:
Quite the reverse. In the case of thalidomide it was the mothers who were exposed to the chemical and it was their children who suffered the effects. The position Dr Brown was taking was that there was no evidence that the next generation – the children of the children damaged by thalidomide – would be affected by the chemical.
In the case described in the programme it was Dr Brown’s view that the daughter’s birth defects were caused, not by thalidomide, but by an inherited genetic disorder.
TVNZ then quoted a section of the programme to demonstrate that the documentary carried not only Dr Brown’s views, which had been presented as expert medical opinion, but also an explanation for lay people about why Dr Brown held those views.
TVNZ provided the following transcript:
Nick is only one of a handful from the British thalidomide group to have a child with the same disabilities. Although it appears the thalidomide must be to blame for what has happened, overwhelming scientific evidence is that the drug cannot pass on its effects through the generations.
The obvious and simplest explanation that springs to mind – well, I was affected by thalidomide therefore that’s the cause of my child’s effects. I understand that completely. I can say that there is no evidence at all for any chemical including thalidomide – but for any chemical – to cause a birth defect in one generation and also in subsequent generations.
For a chemical to cause a specific birth defect that is repeated through the generations it has to be able to damage the particular gene along the DNA that controls the development of that particular characteristic, but a chemical cannot distinguish between the thousands of genes in our DNA in order to pick out and damage those particular genes, while leaving all others unharmed.
There is absolutely no evidence that thalidomide can cause mutation. But if it did then we know it would cause mutation randomly throughout all our genetic material. So you expect then to result in a second generation with effects on all sorts of different properties, effects on growth, effects on mental development, effects on structural development of the heart, the eyes, the ears and so on … not specifically just limb defects like the first generation.
TVNZ noted that the subject Nick had questioned this view himself, finding it difficult to believe that whether or not thalidomide had been involved in his own case, the similar physical defects he saw in his daughter were in the view of scientists the result of an inherited genetic disorder.
TVNZ said it found no evidence that the programme was inaccurate. It said:
Dr Brown was clearly a qualified scientist, an expert in his field who was entitled to express his view and that of the scientific community within which he works. The views were supported by scientific observation outlined in the two final paragraphs of the transcript listed above.
TVNZ noted that the complainant had not produced "any reputable scientific data or papers to debunk what Dr Brown had to say."
In his referral to the Authority, Mr Bon said TVNZ had deployed a "typical Goebbels tactic" by cutting the "majority of effected individuals out of the debate" when it commented on his failure to provide scientific evidence. He referred the Authority to a report produced by the Ministry for the Environment entitled "Organochlorins in New Zealand" and to an article in a recent edition of Nexus magazine about the human cost of animal experiments. Mr Bon also invited the Authority to refer to a documentary called "Trade Secrets" which he said had screened recently in the United States.
Mr Bon reiterated that his complaint was that Dr Brown had been incorrect to state that there was "no evidence for any chemical" to cause a birth defect in one generation and also in subsequent generations. He said:
My complaint is, that there are chemicals that can do exactly what Dr Brown says they can’t. Dioxin (2378-TCDD) is one of those.
He recommended some further reading to the Authority and finished by suggesting that the "only suitable remedy in this instance is to give equal broadcasting time to those who feel disadvantaged by this nonsensical garbage, dressed up as ‘scientific gobble-de-gook.’"
Mr Bon wrote again to the Authority referring to items he said had been broadcast on the Holmes show on TV One on 2 April and 3 April 2001, about a man who had fathered two children with spina bifida. He objected that the word "dioxin" had not been mentioned on the programme, and referred the Authority to a number of groups of people who had been exposed to the effects of dioxin.
The Authority subsequently wrote to Mr Bon advising him that he would need to make a separate complaint about the Holmes items if he wished his comments to be treated as formal complaints. It also requested him to provide it with copies of the documents he had mentioned, if he wished the Authority to take the information into account when it considered his complaint. Mr Bon then provided copies of several articles, which the Authority has read and copied to the broadcaster.
Mr Bon wrote a further letter to the Authority, in which he asked it consider the following additional points:
He said TVNZ had broadcast a news item concerning timber workers and dioxin, in which cancer, birth defects, and early deaths had been mentioned. He asked: "Why does TVNZ argue with me and then broadcast the opposite nationwide (as if they agree with me)?"
He said a Frontline programme screened some years ago had dealt with effects of another drug, Dimethyl Stilbestrol, reporting that while the mothers who had taken the drug had not been affected, their daughters had "suffered horrendously."
TVNZ responded to the additional material Mr Bon had provided, stating that the examples he cited suggested he still had not recognised that the generation Dr Brown was referring to in the documentary was the grandchildren of those exposed to the chemical.
In response, Mr Bon wrote that when rats were exposed to radioactive isotopes, the rats’ DNA was still damaged up to 40 generations later. In addition, timber workers exposed to pentachlorophenol contaminated by dioxin were seeking redress for up to the seventh generation on. He said, "In my view it is debatable that human DNA recovers from that type of chemical attack."
The Authority begins by acknowledging that the issue of chemical poisoning is controversial and that there are a number of different viewpoints.
This complaint requires the Authority to decide whether the broadcaster breached the requirement in standard G1 of the Television Code of Broadcasting Practice to be truthful and accurate on points of fact. In the Authority’s view, the broadcast did not breach the standard. The comment from Dr Brown which offended the complainant – that there was no evidence for any chemical which caused birth defects in one generation to also cause defects in subsequent generations – was the legitimate expression of his expert medical opinion. Dr Brown was not denying that chemicals can cause birth defects. He did, however, express his medical opinion that the same chemical would not cause the same defect in a subsequent generation. In terms of the standard, Dr Brown’s statement was not a "point of fact" but an expression of opinion.
For the reasons given, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.
Signed for and on behalf of the Authority
7 June 2001
The following correspondence was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint.