Broadcasting watchdog rolls over

BSC hearing on Street of Doom

BBC 2tv May 1997

The Broadcasting Standards Commission has rejected a complaint about BBC tv's Street of Doom - a documentary about the famous cluster of childhood leukaemia in Pembroke Road, Northampton.

In July 1997 LLRC filed a complaint on behalf of parents of the leukaemia victims and in May '98 Dr Chris Busby and Richard Bramhall attended a hearing at the BSC's headquarters in Westminster, where they confronted producers Richard Klein and Harry Dean, the reporter Jolyon Jenkins and Tony Byers of the BBC Complaints Unit.

The complaint centred partly on the parents' feeling that the programme made them look stupid for hoping that an explanation of their children's deaths could be found by examining the history of pollution in their locality. The BBC maintained that the parents had been treated sympathetically and had been fully informed that the programme would explore the limitations of what can be learned from clusters of rare diseases. As far as the BBC was concerned there was a conflict between what Richard Klein called "the cold hard reason of science" and the parents' desire for answers "where there were none to be found".

LLRC pointed out that the parents had clearly not been shown the distinction between the cluster's statistical significance, which is admitted by the Health Authority, and the question of whether it warranted further investigation. The BBC insisted that the difference had been explained, but Richard Bramhall wondered how intelligible such an explanation was likely to have been, since reporter Jolyon Jenkins persistently used the term "significant" in the wrong context.

LLRC criticised the programme for limiting its choice of scientific opinion. "The only interviewees who thought the cluster was worth investigating were a local reporter and two amateur cluster busters with strange and unlikely hypotheses", Chris Busby told the Commission. "The BBC must explain their failure to interview any epidemiologist who thought the cluster might have a discoverable cause". Dr Busby named several scientists who might have been approached to give the programme a balanced view. "Professor Viel has made an analysis of the false methodology which is used to lose clusters by diluting them into larger populations", he said, "There is certainly no evidence that the scientific community is united in its opinion." However, no explanation was forthcoming from the BBC, although Jenkins angrily maintained that according to "more than 99% of reputable scientific opinion" the cluster was not significant.
Quickly resorting to personal abuse, Jenkins dismissed Busby as "a disreputable scientist" and dismissed the relevance of Professor Viel's work.

For LLRC a major cause for concern was the way the BBC illustrated the mathematical likelihood of a cluster of five cases. In a 1996 report on the cluster Dr Amanda Burls of the Northampton Health Authority had calculated that the population of Pembroke Road had a risk 6 times the national average.
In an attempt to explain epidemiology "in terms the parents could understand" she had also illustrated the chance clustering of events using a grid into which points had been distributed by a random computer programme.
LLRC demonstrated that the real excess risk of the leukaemia in Pembroke Road is about 250 times, and that Dr Burls' computer simulation was a gross distortion of the true probability.
The BBC programme had also shown a computer simulation which produced exactly the same numerical results as Dr Burls.
In reply to criticism the BBC admitted that their computer simulation had suggested that a five-fold cluster was far more common than it ought, but it had "not formed part of the assertion that the cluster was random".

Papers released during the complaint process reveal that video tapes of Street of Doom are now being used in Universities to train epidemiologists.

Cartoon Sergeant Mercer and Constable Jenkins investigate

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