The Observer and The Burzynski Clinic

Very few people reading this blog will be unaware of the current furore involving the Burzynski Clinic. Twitter and Skeptic blogs worldwide have been active ever since this story appeared in the Observer on Sunday 20th November 2011. For many people, mention of the Burzynski Clinic was an immediate red flag. It wasn’t the first time that this organisation had come to the attention of bloggers. Saul Green, writing in Quackwatch, identified problems five years ago. The reaction of tweeters and bloggers was hardly surprising – except, it seems, to the Observer. Publication of the article produced a flurry of emails to the readers’ editor. Josephine Jones has recorded some of them on her blog. As you will see from the list, some eminent bloggers contacted the Observer yet most did not receive a reply and only one was published in Readers’ Letters on Sunday 27th November 2011. It was my email which was published (heavily edited), and I also received a reply. Many people considered this response to be inadequate – Ben Goldacre described it as a ‘one tiny letter’!

Why this feeble response from the Observer? It is a newspaper with a long tradition of campaigning journalism and is the oldest Sunday newspaper in the world. Along with its sister newspaper The Guardian, it has been involved in covering controversial issues such as wikileaks and phone hacking. The Burzynski Clinic would appear to be the sort of issue that the Observer/Guardian would relish covering. It has all the ingredients for an in-depth investigation.

The hard work has been done for the scientifically challenged. The Josephine Jones blog has a handy list of useful sites. Yet still the Observer/Guardian sees no evil and reports no evil.

Does the reluctance of the Observer to become involved result from its inglorious past in reporting scientific controversies? They made an awful mess when reporting supposed links between autism and the MMR vaccine. Ben Goldacre takes them to task here. (The original Observer article has been removed from their archive). Perhaps the bruising they took over that issue has conditioned them to avoid the scientific arena. In today’s Guardian there is a small article featuring Rhys Morgan, one of the bloggers who has been on the receiving ends of threats from the Burzynski Clinic. It has taken over a week for the Observer/Guardian to recognise the existence of a controversy which they themselves initiated.

What a strange state of affairs. The newspaper I’ve read for forty years ignores a big issue happening on it’s own doorstep. The editorial staff would do well to take a look across the Atlantic and see how it should be done.

Update
Rhys Morgan now has a page on the Guardian’s Comment is Free. One comment sums up my position perfectly:

Excellent work, Rhys. Now let us hope our professional journalists get off their collective backsides, rather than allowing the science blogosphere to do all the lifting and carrying (and the receiving of frankly sinister threats from this organisation). If Burzynski has nothing to hide, let him come forward with the complete data for peer review into the efficacy of the treatment his ‘clinic’ offers.

A (very brief) Reply From The Observer.

This is The Observer’s response to my latest email:

As I wrote to you last week, we take the matter very seriously. It is now in the hands of Stephen Pritchard, our readers’ editor, who, I assure you, will examine the issues with great thoroughness.

Best wishes

Obviously this is not the response I was hoping for but I am cautiously optimistic that The Observer will fulfill its obligation to provide even-handed, well informed  journalism. For the moment I will give them the benefit of the doubt. I hope my optimism is not misplaced.

Meanwhile, anyone who has not read Rhys Morgan’s blog , “Threats from the Burzynski Clinic“, should follow the link. He details the threats he has received from Mr Marc Stephens, a spokesman for the Burzynski Clinic. Rhys asks for the support of bloggers and tweeters. If you are in a position to help, please do so.

Dear Observer Part 2……………

Dear Observer

Thank you for publishing my letter regarding the Observer article on the Burzynski Clinic. I am grateful that you gave me the opportunity to raise some of my concerns regarding this organisation. However I am compelled to draw your attention to my concern about the level of the Observer’s response to the issues raised. You cannot be unaware of the ongoing debates on Twitter and in the blogosphere about the Burzynski Clinic. As well as consideration of the medical and ethical issues involved, some of this debate is about the responsibility of the Observer to redress the balance with regard to this matter. There is a perception that the Observer, albeit unwittingly, has given a validity and respectability to an organisation which is exploiting the vulnerable. Many individuals have contacted the Observer expressing their concern, but the printing of one letter does not reflect the disquiet felt amongst the skeptical community. Should you wish to have some measure of this disquiet I can refer you to the excellent blog of Josephine Jones who is maintaining a list of all blogs dealing with this matter. Andy Lewis, Ben Goldacre and David Colquhoun  have all made eloquent and persuasive contributions which deserve wider dissemination.

I am still hopeful that the Observer will fulfil what I believe to be its responsibility for providing its readership with an informed and balanced view of the issues raised in the original article.

Mike Warren

A Reply from The Observer.

Following my email to The Observer, a reply arrived in my inbox:

Received this evening, 25.11.2011, 7.45 pm.

Dear Mr Warren

I have been passed the letter you wrote to the Reader’s Editor re. the Burzynski Clinic. We are carrying out furher research into the story and the clinic.

In the meantime, I wondered if you would be interested in having your letter published on our Letters page?

We never run notes sent to the ‘reader’ email as letters before asking the writer.

Best wishes

Robert Yates
Assistant Editor
The Observer

Dear Observer ……………

My email to The Observer in response to this article about the Burzynski Clinic.

I have had the Observer delivered each Sunday for some forty years and therefore feel entitled to describe myself as a loyal reader. I was concerned to see the article entitled, ‘The worst year of my life: cancer has my family in its grip’ in the 20th November edition. It is entirely appropriate for you to raise awareness of the dilemmas faced by the families of young children suffering from life-threatening conditions such as Billie Bainbridge. What concerns me is the way in which the article appears to give uncritical support to the treatment offered by the Burzynski Clinic. There is much evidence to suggest that this clinic operates on the fringes of medical practice and does little more than offer false hope at a high price. A look at the Cancer Research UK website would have confirmed this. I fear that the consequences of this article will be to raise unrealistic expectations in other cancer sufferers and their families and line the pockets of charlatans. I look to the Observer to provide balanced and informed articles. I hope therefore, that a future edition of the paper will address the issues I have raised.

The issues raised in this article were brought to my attention by Le Canard Noir and has provoked a good number of blog posts. Anarchic Teapot has listed many of these on his site and Josephine Jones is keeping tabs on new blogs.

Over at The 21st Floor there is an online petition calling on the Burzynski Clinic to release its data.