Ofcom: Explain your decision re BBC Horizon “Clean Eating: The Dirty Truth”

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The BBC and Ofcom have effectively ignored my complaint about a recent documentary, by refusing to engage in reasonable discussion. Such alarming behavior should be of concern to all, including the programme's supporters and critics alike. So please sign this petition to send a clear message to those responsible that this kind of abuse of power will not be tolerated.

Earlier this year the BBC broadcast a Horizon documentary containing a section on Prof Campbell, co-author of The China Study and a leading advocate of wholefood plant-based vegetarianism (“Clean Eating – The Dirty Truth”: the section starts at about 37 min in). Prof Campbell and fellow interviewee Dr Esselstyn immediately complained to the BBC that the report was inaccurate and misleading, as well as a dishonourable betrayal of trust, but received no meaningful response (Prof Campbell's complaint; Dr Esselstyn's complaint). The BBC have also refused to properly respond to my own complaint, and Ofcom have decided not to pursue an investigation, without offering any reasonable explanation for their inaction (see points 1 & 2 below).

This situation is shocking and completely unacceptable. It is vitally important that major broadcasters like the BBC report this kind of issue accurately and impartially, and prove themselves to be beyond the influence of big business.

So please sign this petition to Marcus Foreman at Ofcom, demanding that Ofcom explain their decision not to investigate the BBC in this case. If you would like to complain directly to Mr Foreman and/or the BBC Complaints Director, Richard Hutt, then please contact me for details (@realchinastudy). You could also send Giles Yeo (@GilesYeo; gshy2@cam.ac.uk) a link to this petition asking for his response (or better still an apology!) and I would of course be very interested to hear about any ideas for how to spread the word about this petition.

Why the documentary was misleading, and why the BBC and Ofcom's rejections of my complaint are unacceptable

1 Prof Campbell’s views were misrepresented

Prof Campbell appeared to admit during the programme that the China Project (the largest epidemiological nutritional study ever carried out) by itself is “not strong enough to make broad conclusions,” and the presenter Dr Yeo repeated these words as part of a take-home summary indicating that the former had seen what he wanted to see in data that does not support his results:

The China Project was not strong enough to make broad conclusions. But when Colin wrote his book, he stated that plant based foods are beneficial, and animal based foods are not. (…) The China Study’s message (...) is not proven.

However, Prof Campbell has made it clear that his apparent admission was taken out of context, because the parts of the interview in which he went on to fully explain himself were deleted from the televised version. Dr Yeo’s interpretation of his remarks explicitly contradicted his intended meaning, which was to explain a major and repeatedly emphasised theme of The China Study and other publications: the China Project is not by itself strong enough to make broad conclusions, SO THEREFORE should not be considered in isolation, but in conjunction with his other research, because the combined whole is indeed strong enough to make broad conclusions.

The BBC ignored this point, insisting that the meaning of Prof Campbell’s comments was self-evident and was not taken out of context, without even referring to the fact that the programme misrepresented one of his most fundamental ideas, and Ofcom simply agreed with this completely unreasonable stance.

2 The presenter cast doubt on the science behind the China Project using an argument that was based on a false premise.

The China Project revealed a clear link between animal food intake and human disease, via the intermediary of blood cholesterol levels, but the presenter Dr Yeo argued that this “proxy method” may be unreliable because many factors in addition to animal food intake influence blood cholesterol levels. His premise was however false in relation to the China Project, because it is based on data derived from people consuming animal based Western diets, in which the connection between animal food intake and blood cholesterol does not show up well, since there is no control group with which to make any comparison. The connection is however clearly evident in the contrasting data from China, where people were monitored while transitioning from plant based diets in rural areas to more animal based diets in urban towns and cities. Dr Yeo’s argument was therefore unsound, and there is no good reason to doubt Prof Campbell’s use of the proxy method.

The BBC claimed that the premise of Dr Yeo’s argument was correct because it is based on mainstream research and “reflects what is known to science”. Mainstream obviously does not mean infallible or indisputable however; the premise may be correct with reference to Western diets, but it does not apply to the China Project. Ofcom, for their part, misunderstood the point and claimed irrelevantly that Dr Yeo was not refuting Prof Campbell’s views, but putting forward a “counter argument” to suggest people “should be cautious about (his) results.” I did not however object to Dr Yeo’s criticism on the grounds that he was attempting to disprove Prof Campbell’s findings; my point was that his “counter argument,” used to cast doubt on the science behind the China Project, was unsound, and there is no good reason for people to mistrust Prof Campbell’s use of the proxy method or his conclusions. Ofcom should refer the matter to an independent science expert if necessary.