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.

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.


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