BBC reply to the Janet Thompson incident

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Last week I wrote about how the BBC's Drive Time show on Radio 2 allowed a quack therapist to promote herself on air, making bizarre statements about the human body. This included the 'scientifically proven' existence of meridians which "carry the energy of our thoughts".

Needless to say, myself and others took umbrage to this miseducation, so I submitted the following to the BBC complaints panel:

As a science writer, I was disappointed to find out that your R2 Drive Time show on Wednesday gave a considerable amount of airtime to life coach Janet Thompson, allowing her to voice numerous bizarre and false statements about the human body.

Thought Field Therapy is a pseudoscientific practice; the opening paragraph of its entry on Wikipedia states: 'There is no scientific evidence that Thought Field Therapy is effective, a
nd the American Psychological Association has stated that TFT "lacks a scientific basis."'


Founder Roger Callahan, whom Thompson described as "highly credited and extremely talented and professional man", was fined $50,000 in 1998 by the Federal Trade Commission for false advertising and deceptive practices relating to claims about his ability to treat drug addiction, smoking, and compulsive eating.

I accept and appreciate that presenter Chris Evans challenged Thompson's claims on several occasions but that doesn't change the fact that someone was able to insinuate themselves onto a BBC radio station to state blatant falsehoods. These include:
1) The idea of 'meridians' in the human body, an idea that has absolutely no ground in reality
2) Claims that a voltmeter applied to the skin could measure negative thoughts, which is again ludicrous. There is such a thing as the galvanic skin response, a measurement used in polygraph tests, but Thompson's claims do not reflect anything approaching this.
In addition were claims of efficacy in treating people with TFT, evidence for which is non-existent on her website.

Janet Thompson appears to have no formal qualifications to treat clinical disorders such as phobias and trauma. It's worrying to me that the BBC would allow someone who could do significant harm to others under the guise of pseudoscientific 'treatments' to endorse themselves and their business on air. In essence, BBC Radio 2 gave a substantial amount of advertising to someone who, I believe, is a dangerous quack.

Please, in future screen your guests more carefully to eliminate self-serving quacks and prevent them spreading falsehoods on air.

Kind regards

Compared to my past letters, it's considerably restrained. Here's the reply from Phil Hughes, Editor of Mainstream Programming:

Dear Mr Swain

Thank you for your note to the Chris Evans team. This is clearly a contentious subject. I have spoken to them and this is the response from their researcher:

"Most of Janet's treatments are based around practices with sound scientific principles such as Neuro Linguistic Programming and Hypnotherapy, and she also has a masters degree in Diet and Exercise; she
considers Thought Field Therapy to be just one tool in her box and she used all of these when she came into the show. She has also appeared in a four part series on ITV's Central News talking about her techniques.

"Speaking specifically about TFT Janet did refer to Doctor Callahan and did say that these techniques had been proven once in the first hour of the
show and then once again in the second hour when Chris asked her again. This would, in fact, appear to be untrue in terms of them being proven in a peer rated scientific journal. However, although there is no scientific proof for the existence of meridians Janet told me that it's a treatment based on the ancient Chinese art of acupuncture and pressure points. The
NHS offers Acupuncture as an Alternative Treatment so we viewed this to be widely credited (if not proven)."

I think a lot of listeners would find the subject interesting but I agree
we should be more wary of highlighting unproven medical theories.

We would not of course pass Janet's business details to listeners - we are not here to promote commercial operations. Editorially I am happy the item was covered but equally I agree with your view that there is no proof that Meridians either exist or work.

We will take note of your comments about more careful screening.
Thank you for taking the trouble to contact us.

This is a weird reply because I didn't complain that TFt and acupuncture were presented as 'widely credited', I complained that they were presented as 'scientific fact'. If anything this highlights the problem of Government regulation of healthcare where efficacy is not a lynchpin of approval. The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency, to their great discredit, seem to be abandoning one of the three core tenets of approval (safety, efficacy and cost-effectiveness) in favour of 'patient choice'. The result is that regulation becomes nothing more than a rubber stamp endorsing any manner of 'harmless' quackery, which in turn dupes the public into believing these practices actually work. If you want further proof of this, simply look into the new Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council (a voluntary alt-med regulatory office widely known as OfQuack). Of all the things you need to do to win their endorsement, demonstrating efficacy of your therapy isn't one of them. The Government would have us believe that this somehow improves the healthcare industry in 21st Century Britain. I call it state-sponsored snake oil.

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YES. The BBC is considered a reputable source. For them to abrogate all responsibility like this indicates that they do not understand the effect their actions may have on the community at large. They need to be educated.

Yet they'll quite happily slam Duchy for detox 'quackery'.
Perhaps because they can tie the story in with the good old crunch...

Typical of the sort of response you get from the BBC's editorial staff. If you want to make a bit more progress I'd suggest complaining to the ECU

@reef
Really that's the BBC reporting on Edzard Ernst's criticisms, rather than taking an active role in it, though they have previously investigated homeopathy, Brain Gym and such quackery. So we know there must be at least some scientifically literate people working there. Just not on the Drive Time show.

@apgaylard
In this context I'm not sure what progress means. Should we be pushing the BBC to make an on-air clarification / correction? Or be happy that it (presumably) won't happen again?

@Frank. Good question. From my experience getting corrections or retractions is very rare. Though, to be fair, when a few of us complained about R4's Questions, Questions piece on dowsing we did get a correction broadcast. As the piece featured a bogus therapy for cravings or phobias it's in order, I think, to ask for a piece that provides genuine advice on these topics to be aired.

It's probably a case of if you don't ask you don't get, but don't hold your breath!

Is typical of the BBC to be giving credence and airtime to someone who thinks that Neuro Linguistic Programming is a practice with sound scientific principles...

By The great agnostic (not verified) on 16 Mar 2009 #permalink

Another example of the harmful side effects of the infiltration of medicine by quackery.

As the great agnostic has indicated, you might as well have stopped reading the reply from Phil Hughes as soon as you reached the line "Most of Janet's treatments are based around practices with sound scientific principles such as Neuro Linguistic Programming..."

Even wikipedia knows that NLP is a load of unscientific twaddle!
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/NLP_and_science

Just curious folks,

You all speak as if you are experts on the above subjects, how many of you actually know anything about NLP TFT etc, or have any FIRST HAND EXPERIENCE of them, or are you the sort of people that just jump on any available band wagon.

By nina martin (not verified) on 01 Feb 2011 #permalink