A sustained attack on the paper

The Observer has responded to bloggers’ responses to its uncritical story about a fundraising campaign to send a child to the Burzynski clinic. Stephen Pritchard writes:

Yet what was intended as a gripping, human-interest story quickly drew a sustained attack on the paper for apparently offering unquestioning support for a highly controversial cancer treatment, known at antineoplaston therapy.

That seems like an unnervingly irresponsible way to look at the matter. However gripping a human-interest story may be, surely it’s irresponsible (at least) to report a campaign to enable a very expensive very dubious “treatment” as if it were just a gripping story.

Pritchard then explains that desperate parents are desperate, and then rebukes critics for not getting that.

And this is the point that is being lost in the vitriol that is flying around the internet. Undoubtedly, the Observer was wrong not to have included criticism of the treatment. A simple check with Cancer Research UK would have revealed the depth of concern about it and, no question, that concern should have been in the article, but because it was absent doesn’t mean that the paper was promoting the treatment, as some have suggested (“pimping” it, as one science writer so crudely tweeted).

Oh brilliant; great job of accepting responsibility. “Wull we didn’t promote it.” Really? By telling a gripping human-interest story about it? That’s a very Pontius Pilate sort of view of media influence.

I’ll leave the last word to the deputy editor. “We had no intention of endorsing or otherwise the treatment that the Bainbridge family have chosen for Billie. The focus of the article was the extraordinary campaign to raise money for the course of action that the family, after careful consideration of the benefits and risks, had decided to pursue. It is a story of courage and generosity involving thousands of people. Of course, it is entirely legitimate to raise issues about the Burzynski clinic as a number of readers have done, and we should have done more to explain the controversy that it has provoked. But some participants in the debate have combined aggression, sanctimony and a disregard for the facts in a way which has predictably caused much distress to the Bainbridge family.”

I feel like doing a Basil Fawlty – “Oh I see, it’s my fault is it.” “”Oh I see, it’s the bloggers’ fault is it.” Pointing out the dubiousness of a dubious “treatment” which is really a trial which has been in progress since 1977, with no success so far – that’s aggression and sanctimony, is it.


  1. Grammar Merchant says

    Quite possibly one of the weakest “mea culpa” admissions I’ve seen in a while. I think (genuine) journalist Kathryn Schultz would call this a “Wrong But” moment.

  2. emily says

    My brother has terminal cancer, and my father was looking into the Burzynski clinic. I had my doubts about it, but these blog posts have been invaluable to us. Thank heavens for a free internet populated with people who care for truth.

  3. nanceconfer says

    “A simple check” — but they didn’t even do that much.

    How about a follow-up article interviewing grief-stricken and now financially ruined families who fell for this “treatment” ruse? That should make a pretty “gripping, human-interest story.”

  4. Ewan Macdonald says

    Loving the little “won’t somebody PLEASE think of the family” at the end. As if the sanctimonious, aggressive bloggers had knives out for the people who were trying to save a loved one. Literally everything I’ve read on this topic has focused on the clinic itself, or the newspaper. Not a word has been said about the family. The Observer’s trying to shield itself behind them is shameful.

  5. A. Noyd says

    “Human-interest”?! As if.

    They admit they’re selling a “story of courage and generosity involving thousands of people.” We’re supposed to go “aww” and not actually care about the inconvenient fact that Burzynski’s treatment is a scam and the paper’s story of generosity is, at its core, one of greed and exploitation in which they’re colluding, whether unwitting or not. That’s not in the script, after all. Staying on script is clearly the most important thing.

    That kind of callous using of people, of sacrificing real lives for a feel-good story, is “inhuman disinterest.”

  6. says


    Argh; very sorry to hear that, Emily. But good that the blogging has been useful. Lots of genuinely expert opinion in all that blogging, of course – Orac, Anthony Cox, David Colquhoun, etc. I think the Observer wanted to make it sound like nothing but a lot of noisy amateurs.

    Bad Observer. No cookie.

  7. Erp says

    To be exact we are thinking of the family and don’t want to see them swindled (which as far as I can see is what the B. clinic does though UK laws probably doesn’t allow the Guardian to print that) as well as lose their child.

  8. Joven says

    Its like running a human interest story about generosity and come-together-ness of a community, as many residents of a small town pool all their savings together in a bid for economic recovery by paying the bank’s fees to secure a Nigerian prince’s money in America, while getting a nice piece of it for their generosity.

    We’re just supposed to go, “gee, good for them, its nice when a community works together.”

    Any attempt to say it MAY possibly not be on the up and up means you want that small town to be consumed by the desert and its residents sent to debtors prison as their children are sold into slavery in Singapore.

  9. says

    …having looked more closely at the Observer piece, I’d have to choose “wilfully mendacious”. The sentence

    But some participants in the debate have combined aggression, sanctimony and a disregard for the facts

    is a carefully constructed way of throwing mud at the skeptic side, while maintaining an air of generality. If such allegations of dishonesty were made against named skeptics, they would be blatantly libellous.

  10. kosk11348 says

    Wow. When the Observer first said they were looking into the concerns of the many people who contacted them about this treatment, I fully expected them to publish a comprehensive critique of the Burzynski clinic. Instead they sound like Michelle Bachmann backtracking from her claim that vaccines cause retardation. “I’m only repeating to you what someone else said! I’m not responsible if it’s factually untrue!”

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