Last week the BMJ (British Medical Journal) published a report compiled by researchers from Oxford, Cambridge and University College London suggesting as many as 120,000 people had died as a result of Tory austerity policies in the last seven years.

Why did the BBC not cover the research showing that the impacts of austerity had caused 120,000 deaths?

They were pretty clear …

It seems it was on the advice of the Science Media Centre, a key part of the LM Network, the group we last saw acting against the ban on smacking children the Scottish Government were trying to put in place through working with some right-wing fundamentalist christian groups ( see On Being Reasonable, and Christians and others for Assault).

See also how this same group worked against the Scottish Governments GM-free policy here.

Matt Thomas has written that:

“120,000 UK victims of Tory austerity ‘economic murder’, about the size of the population of Chester. has decided not to report it because they were ‘advised’ the academic authors on BMJOpen were not a creditable source. Yet they still use Guido Fawkes as a source.

The Science Media Centre is run by Fiona Fox (who also goes under the name of Fiona Foster amongst others).

George Monbiot has noted the recurring theme that: “BBC news values: Extreme scepticism towards stories that challenge the status quo. Naive receptivity to stories that defend it.”

He continued:

“As we discover that the BBC took Fiona Fox’s advice not to run with the story about 120,000 killed by austerity, the enduring influence of former members of the fake-left “Revolutionary Communist Party” continues to mystify. Fiona Fox, like her sister Claire, was a prominent member of a group that specialised in denying attested facts. Yet the BBC relies on her as an arbiter of sound science.”

So what’s the basis for the claim and why did the BBC refuse to follow the story?

The blog Stumbling and Mumbling lay it out:

“Austerity kills. That’s the message of new research in the BMJ:

“Spending constraints between 2010 and 2014 were associated with an estimated 45 368 (95% CI 34 530 to 56 206) higher than expected number of deaths compared with pre-2010 trends…. Projections to 2020 based on 2009-2014 trend was cumulatively linked to an estimated 152 141 (95% CI 134 597 and 169 685) additional deaths.”

This is consistent with a point made recently by Danny Dorling:

“For the first time in well over a century the health of people in England and Wales as measured by the most basic feature – life – has stopped improving…The most plausible explanation would blame the politics of austerity, which has had an excessive impact on the poor and the elderly; the withdrawal of care support to half a million elderly people that had taken place by 2013; the effect of a million fewer social care visits being carried out every year; the cuts to NHS budgets and its reorganisation as a result of the 2012 Health and Social Care Act; increased rates of bankruptcy and general decline in the quality of care homes; the rise in fuel poverty among the old; cuts to or removal of disability benefits. The stalling of life expectancy was the result of political choice.”

It’s also consistent with international evidence gathered by David Stuckler and Sanjay Basu; with Sarah O’Connor’s report of a “quietly unfolding health crisis” in deprived seaside towns such as Blackpool, and with the fact that benefit sanctions have driven people to suicide.”

The evidence lies heavily with tested social scientists and academic researchers at prestigious universities.

The results are important, it is highly newsworthy and deeply political.

The blogger Matt Thomas again points out:

“BBC were advised not to run “120k austerity deaths” article by the Science Media Centre. SMC’s CEO is Fiona Fox. Who, incidentally, has no scientific qualifications, denied the Rwandan genocide & covers up evidence against GM foods. In 2013 she was awarded an OBE by the Tories…”

An OBE for a revolutionary communist? Move along nothing to see here.

Aside from an insight into how the BBC processes and distorts the news agenda, the controversy also shines some light into the LM network itself.

As Tom Pride points out “apart from industry giants such as BP, Unilever, GlaxoSmithKline and AstraZeneca, the SMC’s biggest funders include the UK government”.

The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy has given them over £30k. But the SMC are also, incredibly, funded by the Daily Mail:

 

 


An independent body that peer review scientific news funded by the Daily Mail? Move along nothing to see here.

Now it seems that “Fox”  while Director of the SMC made a hoax phone call for an MP.

Back in 2010 Deadline news covered a story that a:

“Disgraced former Labour politician Jim Devine persuaded a friend to call his office manager pretending to be a journalist looking into MPs expenses, it was claimed today. But when she took time off for stress after discovering his actions had been an elaborate hoax, he told other staff that it was her being investigated for fraudulent expenses claims used to fund a non-existent gambling habit.The bizarre series of events were described to a hushed Edinburgh Employment Tribunal today (Thurs) as part of office manager Marion Kinley’s case against her former employer.”

And who was the hoax caller? Why none other than “Fiona Fox”.

This bizarre set of affairs exposes problems not just with news management, assessing scientific stories and transparency and process in public affairs – but also deep failures within the public broadcaster.

As John the Jack has written:

“The problem for the SMC, though, is that as an institution it is inherently biased. It exists to be biased. A handful of people have set themselves up as judges of what does and does not constitute ‘good science’ and who does and does not qualify as an ‘expert’. The SMC is predicated on an idea that there is one true science and that a group of ‘wise people’ can find other ‘wise people’ to make sure the media get the true picture.”

None of this is new.

Back in 2015 Mićo Tatalović called for more critical journalism and public interest in science media centres and took apart the practices of the SMC. Coming out of the PCST2014 (13th International Public Communication of Science and Technology Conference) in Salvador, Brazil (5-8 May) he reported on a “body of academic research is emerging that challenges the self-professed independence and objectivity of the information provided by the Science Media Centre (SMC) in London, United Kingdom.”

He wrote back then:

“Researchers are questioning two of the SMC’s claims: to provide neutral scientific views to promote better representation of science in the media, and to be independent of its many funders, who are largely the corporate world and the government.

Instead, they said at PCST2014, corporate lobbyists feature high on the agenda, which is dominated by the topics close to corporate rather than public interest.

And the journalists who uncritically report on SMC briefings and quotes sent by the centre are being taken for a ride by a lobby organisation instead of a neutral science information provider, they said.

“I would close down the Science Media Centre,” said Connie St Louis, former president of the Association of British Science Writers and a senior lecturer at City University, London. She conducted a small study on the centre’s impact on UK science reporting in the 12 national newspapers in 2011 and 2012.

The SMC’s main activities include sending out ‘expert reactions’ — quotes on issues in the news — and holding media briefings, essentially small press conferences with a few experts.

She found that more than half the SMC’s expert reactions were covered in the press and, in 23 per cent of the stories that included these, the only quotes were those that came from the centre.

“Whatever the SMC delivered to them is what they used,” St Louis said of those 23 per cent of stories. “The SMC never claims to deliver a balanced [argument], so it’s really interesting that many of them weren’t using somebody independent of what the SMC offered.”

See the full article here (‘UK’s Science Media Centre lambasted for pushing corporate science’).

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Perhaps is just what it claims to be? Perhaps the links to this LM Network are exaggerated?

In a critique of the SMC in Nature journal, the science policy journalist Colin Macilwain said the SMC “offers the media a clearing house for scientific briefings and packaged quotes from scientists” and commented on plans to set up a Science Media Centre in the US:

“The London SMC’s narrow approach to risk assessment — if you want to hear about the risks of nuclear power, say, just ask your local nuclear engineer (see Nature 471, 549; 2011) — sits happily with the prevalent ethos of British journalism. This was, of course, immortalized by the otherwise-obscure poet Humbert Wolfe: “You cannot hope / to bribe or twist, / thank God! the / British journalist. / But, seeing what / the man will do / unbribed, there’s / no occasion to.”

The past advisory committee of the SMC has included: Kenny Campbell, editor of the Metro, Clive Cookson Science Editor, Financial Times, Louise Dunn, Vice President Communications, GlaxoSmithKline, Tristram Hunt, Ceri Thomas, Editor, Today, BBC Radio 4, and Adrian Van Klaveren, Deputy Director, BBC News (2004-2008).

See a breakdown of the (known) funders of the SMC here.

Three simple facts emerge out of this scandal:

1. The BBC filters news and has been exposed as doing so.
2. The Science Media Centre is a propaganda unit.
3. The government’s policy of austerity is killing people.