Talkback – therapeutic remedy – editorial independence – advertorial – ethical issues
Principle 4 – no uphold
Principle 7 – host agreed with caller – reference to mainstream medical advice not necessarily required in context – no uphold
This headnote does not form part of the decision.
A caller, who said her granddaughter had open weeping sores, asked the host on Radio Pacific for his views on the efficacy of colloidal silver and Celtic sea salt in treating her condition. The call was broadcast on 21 February 2000 at about 4.10am on Radio Pacific.
Christopher Ingram complained to The RadioWorks Ltd that the broadcast was not balanced and was irresponsible in not advising the caller to seek medical advice. In addition he expressed his concern about the sponsorship of the programme by a company which made alternative remedies. He sought an assurance that the host had received no payment from that company.
In a brief response, The RadioWorks acknowledged that the host had omitted to refer the caller to a health professional. It advised it would discuss the matter with him. Dissatisfied with The RadioWorks’ response, Mr Ingram referred the complaint to the 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 listened to a recording of the broadcast and have read the correspondence which is listed in the Appendix. On this occasion, the Authority determines the complaint without a formal hearing.
Advice was sought from talkback host Ewing Stevens by a caller whose granddaughter was said to have open weeping sores. In his programme broadcast on Radio Pacific at 4.10am on 21 February 2000, treatment was discussed which included bathing the sores in colloidal silver and taking a supplement of Celtic Sea Salt.
Christopher Ingram complained to The RadioWorks that the exchange breached broadcasting standards because the host had failed to recommend that the child be seen by a medical practitioner. In his view, the caller should have been advised to include mainstream medicine along with alternative remedies. Mr Ingram suggested that it was possible the child was suffering from impetigo, which is a highly infectious condition, and that failing to refer the caller to a medical doctor was irresponsible, and raised serious medical, social, legal and ethical questions. In addition, Mr Ingram sought reassurance that the host had no commercial link with the programme’s sponsors. He also asked whether the advertisers had editorial control over the content of the programme. He cited a number of standards from the now revised Code of Practice which he considered had been breached.
In a brief response, The RadioWorks advised that it required its hosts to on such programmes to support any recommendation or advice with a statement that the product was to be used as directed and if the problem persisted, to see their health professional. It acknowledged that the host had apparently not done so, and reported that the issues raised in the complaint "will be addressed with the host at length".
Mr Ingram referred the matter to the Authority as he was dissatisfied with the broadcaster’s response and because the alleged breaches he had cited had not been fully addressed or answered.
In a further response, The RadioWorks suggested that the host had merely agreed with the treatment already being administered to the child. It acknowledged that a more appropriate response may have included advice on referral to a medical doctor, but it argued that in this case the host believed he was dealing with a person who was aware of health issues. It maintained that the broadcast had not breached any aspect of Principles 1, 4, 5, 6 or 7 of the Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice.
In response to questions asked by the Authority, it advised its policy relating to sponsorship of programmes and editorial control of programmes by advertisers. Such sponsorship and advertiser’s editorial input was reserved solely for programmes broadcast between 2.00-3.00pm on weekdays. Secondly, it reported that no host had received any payment from advertisers for promoting any product, and they would be subject to instant dismissal if they did.
In his final comment, Mr Ingram suggested that therapeutic recommendations or advice of the kind dispensed on this programme should be accompanied by a statement indicating that the product should be used strictly as directed, and that a health professional or doctor should be consulted if the problem persisted.
The complaint was couched in terms of the Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice which has since been revised. Of the principles cited by the complainant, the Authority considers the relevant ones are Principles 4 and 7. They read:
In programmes and their presentation, broadcasters are required to maintain standards consistent with the principle that when controversial issues of public importance are discussed, reasonable efforts are made, or reasonable opportunities are given, to present significant points of view either in the same programme or in other programmes within the period of current interest.
In programmes and their presentation, broadcasters are required to be socially responsible.
In addition, it notes, the complaint raises ethical matters which at present are not specifically provided for in the Code. It returns to this point below.
First, the Authority deals with the complaint that the programme was unbalanced because no effort was made to present any other views. In the complainant’s view, the matter raised was one of public importance because there was a possibility that the child, who was of school age, could have an infectious condition and the caller was not urged to seek mainstream medical advice in her treatment.
The Authority notes that in order for Principle 4 to apply, the matter raised must be a controversial issue of public importance. If that threshold is met, then there is an obligation on the broadcaster to provide reasonable opportunities to present other views. On this occasion, the Authority is not persuaded that the discussion about a range of treatments is controversial as contemplated in Principle 4. It therefore concludes that the Principle does not apply. Notwithstanding, it takes into account the complainant’s arguments when it considers the complaint under Principle 7.
Next the Authority deals with the complaint under Principle 7, which sets out the broadcaster’s obligation to be socially responsible. The concept of social responsibility is expanded upon in the Guidelines which accompany the Principle. However, the Authority notes, there is no specific provision relating to some matters which were of concern to the complainant. These concerns included: that the host endorsed the course of action being taken by the caller in dealing with a medical condition without referring her to mainstream medical advice; that it was not clear whether the host had any commercial interest in any products endorsed; and that his credentials for dispensing medical advice were not detailed. Notwithstanding the absence of a specific guideline, the Authority is not constrained from determining the complaint under Principle 7.
First, the Authority records that it sought clarification from the broadcaster as to whether there was a commercial relationship between the host and the therapeutic products being promoted. According to the complainant, the entire programme – broadcast between 12 midnight and 6.00am – was sponsored by a company which marketed such products. The RadioWorks gave the Authority an assurance that no such relationship existed, and advised that a breach of its company policy forbidding a host from receiving payment from advertisers would result in their instant dismissal.
Turning to the substance of the complaint and the application of the principle requiring broadcasters to be socially responsible, the Authority finds no breach on this occasion. In reaching its decision, it takes into account that the host had not himself proffered medical advice, but had simply concurred with the course of treatment proposed by the caller. It acknowledges that he omitted to refer her to mainstream medical advice, but does not consider that in the context of a programme dealing with alternative remedies such a reference was necessarily required. In the circumstances it concludes that the host’s conduct was not socially irresponsible and that there was no breach of Principle 7.
For the reasons set forth above, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.
Signed for and on behalf of the Authority
17 May 2000
The following correspondence was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint:
1. Christopher Ingram’s Complaint to The RadioWorks Ltd – 9 March 2000
2. The RadioWorks’ Response to the Formal Complaint – 14 March 2000
3. Mr Ingram’s Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority – 22 March 2000
4. The RadioWorks’ Response to the Authority – 28 March 2000
5. The RadioWorks’ Further Response – 6 April 2000
6. Mr Ingram’s Final Comment – 9 April 2000