Last December I wrote a blog post that referred to an episode of the Australian documentary series Catalyst, which airs on the ABC network (similar to the BBC in the UK). The programme, entitled ‘Heart of the Matter’ essentially challenged the widespread use of statins. My personal opinion (and I admit I am quite ‘statin-sceptic’) is that the programme was well made and balanced. It featured the opinions of several academics sceptical about the value of statins including Drs John Abramson, Beatrice Golomb and Rita Redberg.
This documentary was preceded by another episode of the same title, this one questioning the conventional wisdom regarding saturated fat – specifically the role this fat supposedly has in heart disease.
There was quite some uproar after the shows aired, particularly with regard to the second show. The main accusation appeared to be that the programme did not provide a balanced view of the effectiveness of statins, and might ‘frighten’ people into not taking their statins, with the result that some may die.
My blog post in December explored this claim. As I explained, the risk here, even for people who have had a previous heart attack or stroke (‘secondary prevention’) individuals, is very small. In primary prevention (for those who have no previous history of cardiovascular disease), the risk is even smaller and, in fact, may pose no risk at all (some research finds that statins do not reduce risk of death in primary prevention).
So great was the controversy surrounding the documentary that ABC’s own Audience and Consumer Affairs Unit (ACA) carried out an investigation into the two programmes. Its report (which you can access here Catalyst Heart of the Matter FINAL ACA Report) clears the first documentary (on saturated fat) of any bias. However, the ACA concluded that in two instances, the second documentary demonstrated bias.
The two issues appear to be:
1. That the documentary did not put enough emphasis of the benefits of statins in secondary prevention (see page 40 of the report).
2. That the documentary omitted information regarding the use of information relating to primary prevention. Some claim that statins can reduce mortality in those in the primary prevention category who are at relatively high risk of cardiovascular disease. The makers of the Catalyst programme argued there is no evidence for this stance. But, according to the ACA, they should have included it anyway so that viewers could ‘make up their own minds’. Here’s the actual wording (see page 45):
Catalyst has also explained that the stratified risk approach was omitted because it is ‘erroneous’ and lacks an evidential basis. However, the effect of excluding this issue was that viewers were not given the opportunity to hear both sides of the argument, and were not left in a position to make up their own minds.
Two days ago, Mark Scott, the managing director of ABC TV published a statement in which he announces the removal of both documentaries from the ABC website. His reason is that the second documentary “breaches ABC standards on impartiality”, and goes on to explain that the first documentary will also be removed “[b]ecause of the interlocked nature of the two programs…”.
I am sceptical about the role of saturated fat in heart disease and the value of statins in the prevention of cardiovascular disease. My scepticism is based on the published research. I’ve documented contemporary research relevant to the issues many times. Obviously, I have a bias towards Dr Demasi’s programmes and their broad sentiments.
However, when I attempt to put my own bias aside and focus on the facts, I am still left with the belief is that Dr Demasi did, overall, a very good job of highlighting the misinformation that abounds in this area. It is my opinion that Dr Demasi’s work was an example of good, responsible journalism. Read through the ACA report, though, and you’ll see that the content of the programmes was fundamentally sound.
Somehow, I feel like Mark Scott’s action to remove these documentaries is inappropriate and wholly disproportionate. If all documentaries (whatever the subject) were subjected to the level of scrutiny seen here, and then judged because of the omission of information (which one could argue is inevitable), then I suspect no documentaries would be deemed fit for transmission.
I am also left wondering what sort of pressure Mark Scott felt he was under to capitulate in such a spectacular fashion. If you’re wondering the same thing, or simply would like to express your support or otherwise for his decision, you may care to email Mr Scott at firstname.lastname@example.org.