Monday, 9 March 2009

Bad Science the Movie on London Tonight

That was exhausting. I blogged about the back story to this here. Having done so I realised it might make a good piece for London Tonight.

After all, the broadcast was made on a London radio station and immunisation rates for the MMR vaccine in London have fallen from around 90% to around 50% in a few short years. It's therefore a public health issue, especially relevant to Londoners.

The day after I wrote the blog piece I pitched it to Stuart Thomas, the editor at London Tonight. This would be an authored television package, which in broadcast news-speak means an opinion piece presented by a non-reporter. Stuart liked the idea and commissioned it.

I emailed Ben Goldacre (seen here working hard in ITV's media lounge at Gray's Inn Road) and got a positive response. After a long chat on the phone we agreed a filming date (not easy when dealing with a full-time NHS doctor who has a very healthy journalism career already) and set about finding the elements.

The main people to try and get involved were Jeni Barnett and/or her employers LBC (the radio station who effectively sparked the story when they got their lawyers onto Ben) and Norman Lamb, the MP who felt the issue was important enough to put down an early day motion in the house of commons.

I got the planning desk to call Norman Lamb's office and was delighted to find he was available on the day we were filming. I also emailed Jonathan Richards, the big cheese at LBC to see if Jeni were available to be interviewed by Ben, or failing that, if Jonathan would speak to Ben.

Jonathan was courteous, but was not prepared to put anyone up for interview. I can see why he didn't (I think they just want this story to go away now), but it would have made fascinating viewing if he had.

Incidentally both Ben himself and Jeni's agent Robert told me that Jonathan had invited Ben onto Jeni's programme to discuss MMR, but Ben has so far refused. Again I think I can see why.

The context of any debate (ie the medium, the media) is just as important to the protagonists as the content. The internet has democratised the delivery of a point of view to the extent that a successful blogger can build a significant powerbase that allows them to get their message across without having to jump at every airtime opportunity that comes their way.

If you believe the media is biased then why wouldn't you do everything you can to control the medium through which you attempt to get your message? I  believe the personal is political, and therefore every action and utterance anyone ever makes has an inherent bias - the best we can do is to monitor and if necessary redress how people in the supposedly neutral media manifest their biases, especially the unconscious ones. It's an impossible task, as it's human behaviour. But that's yer paradox.

Jonathan said he would provide us with a statement via the LBC press office, which I was grateful for. Like all my dealings with LBC on this story the press officer I spoke to was as friendly and helpful as I could expect him to be.

Having worked out what we were and weren't going to get from the filming I set about drafting a script. After doing so I got involved in a near-stand up row with another reporter in the newsroom who revealed her dislike of Ben ("too superficial" I think she claimed, before I directed her to his blog, which she hadn't read) and trotted out similar lines to many of the things Jeni said in her broadcast, adding words to the effect that:

a) double-blind scientific testing cannot be trusted
b) every child is different and no one can prove that the MMR jab hasn't given children autism
c) how can a perfectly healthy child have the jab, suddenly regress horribly into autism and the two events not be related?

I was gobsmacked. Anyway the script went to Ben three days before filming. When I hadn't got anything back 48 hours later I was starting to get jumpy. Thankfully, on the night before we were due to meet, Ben sent back his thoughts.

Working off my original template his script was a) better than mine and b) editorially in the same ballpark, which was a considerable relief.

He also didn't lay down any pre-conditions for script-lines or filming, which was a godsend as it meant we could at least attempt to work together.

 Filming was exhausting. We started at 12.45pm on Thursday outside the Millbank media centre and finished some time past 7pm, working right through. Norman Lamb met us first and Ben arrived soon after in a taxi. We got the interview filmed with Norman and then went into some set up shots before saying goodbye. It was the first time Ben and Norman had met and there was some polite mutual respect going on.

I stayed in the background, checking Gemma had her shots whilst Ben and Norman chatted. Then we had to film the multiple pieces to camera (PTCs) that made up the bulk of the rest of the piece. For these we stuck closely to the script, filming in Soho and Leicester Square before making our way back to Gray's Inn Road to film the interior sequences.

Ben is a natural with a very expressive face and an ability to do most of his pieces to camera first time of asking. Not that they were in the can first time of asking as there was always something to discuss, re-do and improve, whether it was a technical change, script suggestion or an interruption beyond our control like background noise.

Whilst also trying to get the piece done I was trying to arrange filming for the following day on a completely different story in Hackney and trying to get the lawyer to tell me if anything about the latest version of the script needed radical surgery, as we only had Ben and his voice for the rest of the afternoon.

Thankfully the lawyer was happy and I could let Ben go knowing we were basically covered. Ben recorded some track and a bong (only after being reminded to do so by a colleague as we were just about to say goodbye) and we went our separate ways. To cut a long story short the piece got to air the following Monday, but not before a lot more lawyering, more communication between myself and LBC, myself and Jeni's agent and a final referral to a different ITN lawyer who insisisted on removing what I thought was a completely innocuous section regarding, er, radioactive paedophiles.

I knew this would upset Ben as he had been looking forward to saying radioactive paedophiles on television. I texted him to warn him and received the message:

"This is a massive fail." I know Ben, I know...

I got lots of props in the debrief for the story, and for my other piece (the one I was trying to organise) which led the programme, although by that stage I was too completely knackered and confused by working on two stories at once (especially as we neared TX) to point out that both pieces only got there because of a long list of people who helped out massively. Stuart, Faye, Becky, Tracey, Toby, Hannah, Nicolette, Gemma, Bill, Sophia, Nigel, Ken, Tobias, John, Glenn and of course the good doctor himself: thank you. I'll post the link to the relevant video as soon as I know where it is.


  1. What an interesting insight into what is involved in putting together an item like this. It seems extraordinary that anything is ever put together never mind in such a polished fashion.

    Your previous piece on Bad Science and LBC was a useful perspective although I might quibble with some of your characterisation.

    "Science's problem is that it is dispassionate, it is all too often it seems to be practised by people who understand mankind as biological and statistical subjects rather than human beings, and has ridiculously few practised communicators championing its cause. (Note to scientists, a pronounced superiority complex is perhaps understandable, but it doesn't make you likeable, nor your opinions (sorry, facts) more likely to be heard. That might be the public's problem for being stupid, but it is your responsibility to solve it.)"

    All too often it seems that correcting somebody on a matter of fact (e.g., there is no thiomersal/thimerosal in MMR vaccines and there never has been) is interpreted as an 'attack' or 'being superior'.

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