TONY BAIRD AGAINST NORTH & SOUTH

Case Number: 2520

Council Meeting: AUGUST 2016

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: North & South

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Balance, Lack Of
Conflict of Interest
Unfair Coverage

Overview

1. Dr Tony Baird complains that an article by Chris Barton published in the February 2016 edition ofNorth & South is in breach of Principles 1 and 10 of the Press Council principles.

2. The Press Council does not uphold Dr Baird’s complaint.

Background

3. This complaint, and the article that gave rise to it, have their origins in the long-running controversy over the study by Professor Herbert Green at the National Women’s Hospital that became the subject of the Cartwright Inquiry and that has since been re-examined and subjected to comment many times by medical and other academics, practitioners and journalists.

4. In its February 2016 edition, North & South published an article entitled “Unfinished business with the unfortunate experiment”. It was written by Chris Barton and was prompted by the publication in August 2015, in the American Journal of Public Health, of an article by Charlotte Paul and Barbara Brookes. That article compared the “Unfortunate Experiment” study that led to the Cartwright Inquiry with an American study (the Tuskegee study). Both studies had raised concerns that went beyond the purely medical, and the Paul and Brookes article set out to evaluate the scientific, political and moral claims of those who defended the studies. In doing so, it rejected many of the arguments put forward in defence of the National Women’s Hospital study in a book and articles written by Linda Bryder.

5. Mr Barton’s article also rejected the views of “revisionists”, including Professor Bryder, and concluded in general by agreeing with Paul and Brookes that the women involved in the study had not given their consent and that some of them had been harmed by not getting the treatment they should have received in a timely manner.

6. A letter from Dr Baird, criticising Mr Barton’s article, was published in the March 2016 edition ofNorth & South, and a further critical letter, from Dr Derek Dow, in the April 2016 edition. Dr Baird’s letter was accompanied by two paragraphs of comment from Mr Barton and Dr Dow’s letter was accompanied by an editorial note to the effect that Dr Dow did not declare in his correspondence his relationship with Professor Bryder.

The Complaint

7. Dr Baird complains in general that the article was unfair and unbalanced, as was the comment on the two letters to the editor. Specifically he says

  • Mr Barton supports uncritically the Paul and Brookes article.
  • He does not disclose how he came to be reading the article, in a journal with a very limited circulation in New Zealand, and does not refer to other relevant articles.
  • Many of his facts are wrong. Dr Baird refers to points made in his published letter of March 2016 to the editor ofNorth & South and rejects or dismisses the comments on it made by Mr Barton.
  • He should have mentioned that in the 1960s and 1970s in New Zealand there was no informed consent as we now know it, that diagnosis and grading is partly subjective, that there was no conventional treatment at the time of the study and that treatment now is almost always conservative, as advised by Professor Green.
  • The editorial comment on Dr Dow’s letter is gratuitous and unfair.

8. In addition Dr Baird complains that North & South did not publish further letters critical of Mr Barton’s article.

9. Finally, he says that the language used by Mr Barton is not impartial, and that he is clearly presenting the case put by Charlotte Paul and Barbara Brookes and thus displaying a conflict of interest.

The Response

10. Virginia Larson, editor of North & South, addressed Dr Baird’s complaint in some detail. She explained Mr Barton’s longstanding interest in the issues about which he was writing and how he became aware of the Paul and Brookes article. She also quoted from Mr Barton’s pitch to North & South for his article and noted particularly that he proposed “.. a kind of personal essay – a journalist’s struggle to assimilate and report on conflicting views held by highly intelligent people about medical research done without informed patient consent.” The article was in fact written in first-person essay form.

11. Mr Barton has no relationship with Charlotte Paul, Barbara Brookes or any other supporter of the Cartwright report other than that of a journalist who had interviewed them on topics related to this issue.

12. As an editor, she is under no obligation to print all letters to her, and as the two letters she published were both critical of Mr Barton’s essay, she denies the allegation of editorial bias. The editorial comment on Dr Dow’s letter is justified as she was not aware of his relationship with Professor Bryder until advised by a sub-editor.

The Decision

13. The Press Council principles require publications to observe accuracy, fairness and balance, with a fair voice to the opposition view when there is controversy or disagreement. There is an exception for articles of opinion or comment, where balance is not essential, but when such articles have a foundation of fact, and then the facts that make up that foundation must be accurately stated.

14. The article in this case is clearly one of opinion and comment, generally of more comment than opinion. It is indeed written in first person essay style and while the conclusions drawn by the author place him firmly on one side of the debate, they are drawn in the context of a long professional interest in that debate and a well-explained sense of a need to revisit the fundamental ethical questions it raises. It is not a news report that would require a neutral stance and a careful balancing of opposing views. For this reason the general requirements of the Press Council Principles on fairness and balance do not apply. Much of Dr Baird’s complaint is directed at a perceived failure to include balancing material and on this ground it cannot be upheld.

15. Dr Baird has submitted that Mr Barton’s general support for the approach taken in the Paul and Brookes article demonstrates a lack of impartiality and amounts to a conflict of interest. This submission appears to be based on a misunderstanding of the Press Council principles. They do not require impartiality in an article of this nature, and they set the concept of conflict of interest firmly within the context of the independence of the press, which should not be compromised by obligations to a news source. There is no suggestion that Mr Barton was under any obligation to Charlotte Paul or Barbara Brookes, and no grounds for finding a breach of principle 10.

16. To the extent that North & South has an obligation to be fair to all parties, that obligation was fulfilled by the publication of the two critical letters to the editor. An editor’s right to decide to publish or not to publish letters is constrained only by considerations of fairness, balance and the public interest (Principle 5). The two letters that were published gave a fair voice to those holding views opposed to Mr Barton’s and provided balance. There was no obligation to publish all letters received.

17. Ms Larson has provided a satisfactory explanation of her comment on Dr Dow’s letter.

18. There remains the question of the accuracy of the factual background to Mr Barton’s article. It is difficult to address this part of the complaint as neither in his letter toNorth & South nor in his letter of complaint does Dr Baird specifically identify any part of the article that he considers to be factually wrong. There is a possible exception in that he takes issue with Mr Barton’s assertion that at least eight of the women involved in the study died, but even here he has not offered an alternative, apart from saying that nobody knows how many died. Mr Barton has provided a source for his figures in his response to Dr Baird’s letter toNorth & South.

19. To the non-expert reader, the main difference between Dr Baird’s and Mr Barton’s approach to this controversy is not a question of fact at all. Dr Baird seeks to place and judge the events in the light of conditions prevailing at the time they occurred, when, for example, the concept of informed consent was less developed than it now is, while Mr Barton takes a wider and more universal approach to what are, in the end, universal questions of morality and ethics. In the absence of identifiable errors of fact rather than differences over the interpretation of such facts as were known (and clearly much was not known) there are no grounds for upholding Dr Baird’s complaint.

Press Council members considering this complaint were Sir John Hansen, Liz Brown, Chris Darlow, Sandy Gill, Jenny Farrell, Jo