Modified Truth

Channel 4 has hired a charlatan to make its science programmes

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 16th March 2000

In October 1998 a television producer named Martin Durkin took a proposal to the BBC’s science series, Horizon. Silicone breast implants, he claimed, far from harming women, were in fact beneficial, reducing the risk of breast cancer. Horizon commissioned a researcher to find out whether or not his assertion was true. After a thorough review, the researcher reported that Mr Durkin had ignored a powerful body of evidence contradicting his claims. Martin Durkin withdrew his proposal. Instead of dropping it, however, he took it to Channel 4 and, astonishingly, sold it to their science series, Equinox.

To help him make the programme, Durkin hired Najma Kazi, a highly respected TV researcher and producer who was previously a research biochemist. After two weeks she walked out. “It’s not a joke to walk away from four or five month’s work,” she told me, “but my research was being ignored. The published research had been construed to give an impression that’s not the case. I don’t know how that programme got passed. The only consolation for me was that I’m really glad I didn’t put my name to it.”

But the programme was broadcast, in May last year. Silicone implants, it insisted, appeared to reduce the incidence of breast cancer. Women claiming that their operations had caused severe health problems were dismissed as cranks, malingerers and compensation chasers. The researchers who believed that there was a problem were accused of practising “junk science”.

Mr Durkin has often been accused of taking liberties with the facts. In 1997 he made a series for Channel 4 called “Against Nature”, which compared environmentalists with Nazis, conspiring against the world’s poor. No one would suggest that green claims should not be subjected to critical examination, but the people he interviewed were lied to about the contents of the programmes and given no chance to respond to the accusations the series made.

The Independent Television Commission handed down one of the most damning verdicts it has ever reached: the programme makers “distorted by selective editing” the views of the interviewees and “misled” them about the “content and purpose of the programmes when they agreed to take part.” Channel 4 was forced to make a humiliating prime time apology. After the series was broadcast, I discovered that the assistant producer and several of its interviewees worked for the right-wing libertarian magazine masquerading as “Living Marxism”, which has just been successfully sued by ITN. All the arguments Against Nature made had been rehearsed in LM.

So what do you do with a director with a record like this, who has brought your channel into disrepute, who has misled both his contributors and his audience? If you are Michael Jackson, the head of Channel 4, you commission him to make more programmes.

On Monday, Channel 4 will broadcast a 90-minute Equinox programme about genetic engineering, made by Martin Durkin and called, appropriately enough, “Modified Truth”. Already it appears that the programme-making has suffered from Mr Durkin’s characteristic approach. “I feel completely betrayed and misled”, reports Dr Mae-Wan Ho, a geneticist Durkin interviewed. “They did not tell me it was going to be an attack on my position.”

Neither Martin Durkin nor, extraordinarily, Charles Furneaux, the commissioning editor of the science series Equinox, has a science background. They don’t need one, for science on Channel 4 has been reduced to a crude manifesto for corporate libertarianism.

When Michael Jackson arrived at Channel 4, he cancelled a series called Global Raiders, on which a quarter of a million pounds had already been spent. It would have examined the adverse impacts of big business around the world. Since 1989, according to the research group 3WE, Channel 4 has reduced its international factual output by 56 per cent. Holiday programmes have boomed, but “ecological programming now appears to be virtually extinct”.

The station, in other words, is censoring not just a few ideas, but entire subject areas. Serious coverage of science, the environment, the developing world and, above all, abuses of corporate power, has been all but stamped out. The Mark Thomas Comedy Product is a glowing exception, but I suspect it is allowed on air only because it makes people laugh.

Perhaps intellectual honesty is too fusty, too boring, for the chic, post-modern Channel 4. But perhaps there is something else at work, perhaps we should question whether senior staff have come to identify themselves with the companies providing their revenues, and are, as a result, seeking to modify the truth. If so, then it is hardly surprising that they have handed so much work to a charlatan.