We the undersigned call upon the BBC to instigate an urgent change to its editorial policy for BBC News Online. We want this change to ensure that all BBC Health Editors clearly cite whenever a writer on mental health issues has received money from pharmaceutical companies. We ask that making these disclosures explicit at the foot of the article be a matter of common policy for the BBC, as it is for all respectable academic journals. At present we think it regrettable that someone receiving money from pharmaceutical companies can extol the virtues of antidepressants on the BBC, without the reader being fully informed as to the writer’s potential conflict of interest. When such financial links are not declared such reporting can constitute, at worst, a form of surreptitious pharmaceutical advertising that belies the BBC’s mission statement to offer impartial reporting free of commercial bias.
What Alerted Us to this Problem?
Some months ago an article appeared on the BBC News website extolling the virtues of antidepressants: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-12716742 This article was heavily biased in favor of antidepressants, advocating their wider consumption. At the end of the article the citation stated that the author has “given lectures on behalf of a number of pharmaceutical companies”. Upon further researching these company ties we found that the BBC citation had omitted that the author had actually received consultancy fees and honoraria from many pharmaceutical companies including Janssen-Cilag, Eli Lilly, AstraZeneca, BristolMyers Squibb/Otsuka and Wyeth. The thousands of people who read this article were not told this.
After pressing the BBC, the Health Editor finally conceded to change the citation to reflect this potential conflict of interest. The new citation now reads: “[the author has]… received fees and honoraria for providing consultancy and giving lectures on behalf of Jannsen Cilag, Eli Lilly, AstraZeneca, BMS and Otsuka Pharmaceuticals”.
By changing the author’s citation we welcome the BBC’s implied admission that full disclosure is the proper course of action. We, the undersigned, therefore urge the BBC to enshrine in its editorial policy the obligation to disclose any relevant financial links its authors may have. We believe that if the BBC takes the lead on this matter, then other media outlets are more likely to follow upon further lobbying. Our ultimate aim is to change editorial policy throughout the UK. And signing this petition is the first step towards that end.
Dr James Davies, Senior Lecturer in Social Anthropology and Psychotherapy at the University of Roehampton
Barry Turner, Senior Lecturer in Media Law at the University of Lincoln
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