‘Serious concern’ at BBC over flawed HIV film
Posted by pozlife on November 1, 2007
The BBC has apologised after admitting that a documentary about the testing of HIV drugs on children contained "serious breaches" of its editorial guidelines on accuracy and impartiality.
In unpublished documents seen by MediaGuardian.co.uk, the BBC admitted to "very serious issues" in the BBC2 This World documentary Guinea Pig Kids, which originally aired in 2004. The corporation said the programme had led to "discussions at the highest editorial level".
The New York-based Center for HIV Law and Policy, which complained to the BBC, received an adjudication on the programme at the end of July, but has become increasingly angry that it has not been published.
The BBC told the group that until the serious issues raised by the investigation had been concluded, it could not decide on what further action to take.
According to a source, the documentary – which was made by independent film-maker Jamie Doran – has caused considerable anguish within the BBC, which is still reeling from more recent fakery allegations, because of fears it deceived viewers by "playing fast and loose with the facts".
Those involved with the documentary on the BBC side are still at the corporation, including executive producer Karen O’Connor, now head of current affairs, and the This World series producer Sandy Smith, who now edits Panorama.
"There is a serious concern in high places about how to react to this and some talk of a possible internal review to think through the implications," one source said.
The makers of the documentary said it aimed to question the ethics of testing anti-HIV drugs on, "vulnerable and poor children at a New York care home … who had no choice in whether or not to take part in trials and no proper advocates to speak on their behalf".
However, following an investigation led by the BBC’s head of editorial complaints Fraser Steel, the corporation has upheld complaints about several key parts of the film and a related article on the BBC website.
These included claims that the HIV medicines given to the children were "futile" and "dangerous" and that children were taken from their families because they resisted the "experimental" drugs.
In its adjudication, the BBC also said that the film-makers falsely tried to "create an association between the [clinical] trials and a loss of parental rights" while it also acknowledged that the film was biased towards the views of HIV "denialists".
However, the BBC did not uphold all the complaints made against the programme.
In a letter to the Center for HIV Law and Policy, Mr Steel wrote: "I hope you will accept my apologies, on behalf of the BBC, for the deficiencies we found in the programme and the associated website material."
In a further email, Philip Abrams, the BBC’s complaints director in the editorial complaints unit, apologised to the centre for the delay in publishing the adjudication.
"The very serious issues raised by this matter have given rise to discussions at the highest editorial level here at the BBC," he said.
"Until those have been concluded the BBC can’t decide on what further action to take, and we would want to include that in the summary when we post it on our website. I’m sorry to say I can’t give you a firm estimate of when that will be."
Despite welcoming the BBC’s adjudication, Jeanne Bergman, an Aids activist with the Aidstruth.org website and the Center for HIV Law and Policy, told MediaGuardian.co.uk she had become increasingly angry that the corporation had still not offered a public retraction or apology.
"The BBC has been shamefully slow to respond to our urgent concerns," she said. "We have been asking them to examine our charges that this independent video is HIV-denialist propaganda with no basis in science or fact since the video was first broadcast in 2004.
"Two and a half months have passed since we received Fraser Steel’s letter apologising for the video’s misrepresentations and bias, but the BBC has still not issued a public retraction and apology, nor stated what actions it intends to take to redress this situation.
"I am horrified that the BBC would air a lurid, untrue video about HIV clinical research and treatment in the first place, and I am angry about the BBC’s inexplicable delay in retracting publicly the very dangerous lies to which it has lent its fading legitimacy."
A BBC spokesman confirmed that the adjudication had been made, but said it had not been published because a meeting of news executives – expected to include those involved with the commissioning of the documentary as well as deputy director of news Adrian van Klaveren – had not yet been held to decide on what action to take.
"It is a fixed policy that we don’t publish simply the findings of the complaints unit without also publishing the action the BBC intends to take as a result of the investigation," the spokesman said.
"As you can imagine, several of those involved in the investigation have been incredibly busy over the past several weeks and we have been unable to schedule a meeting.
"As soon as we have had that meeting, the complaints and action will be published on the BBC website."
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