Catalyst lashed by Media Watch over cholesterol programs

Media Watch, Australia’s leading forum for media analysis and comment, has lambasted the journalism behind the ABC’s recent Catalyst programs on cholesterol describing them as ‘sensationalist and grossly unbalanced’.

Giving up on the search for truth was the title of an article about declining standards of journalism penned by Nick Cater, the Editor of the Weekend Australian, on 2 November. Cater wrote By abandoning the pursuit of truth, modern journalism appears to have fallen for the philosophical error that blights modern academe … The empirical route to knowledge through investigation, observation and reason is rarely respected. Instead, journalists have come to believe knowledge comes through revelation …  Cater was primarily talking about political journalism but his comments rang true in the light of the recent Catalyst programs on cholesterol.

Assessment by Media Watch

Fortunately, some journalists take their profession seriously. MediaWatch was scathing of the quality of the journalism behind the ABC’s Catalyst programs. For those who are unfamiliar with Media Watch, it is an ABC television program that analyses the media for Conflicts of interest, … deceit, misrepresentation, manipulation, plagiarism, abuse of power, technical lies and straight out fraud … Media Watch turns the spotlight onto those who literally ‘make the news’. We also keep an eye on those who try to manipulate the media: the PR consultants, spin-doctors, lobbyists and “news makers” who set the agenda’.

In commenting on the Catalyst programs, Media Watch presenter Paul Barry said Now, Media Watch is not going to take sides in this scientific debate. But looking at the journalism we’re almost as shocked as the doctors. Both episodes of Catalyst struck us as sensationalist and grossly unbalanced; and some of their so-called ‘experts’ had questionable qualifications.

Catalyst journalist Maryanne Demasi claims to have interviewed at least a hundred experts and patients worldwide about their views on diet, heart disease and medications to lower cholesterol, which drew the response from Paul Barry So how did she end up with so many views outside the mainstream?

Highlighting the bias in the Catalyst programs Barry continued But it’s not only the type of expert Catalyst relied on that is a problem. It’s also that the prosecution was given so much more time to make its case. In the two episodes of Heart of the Matter eight witnesses were called to say that cholesterol does not cause heart disease or that statins do not save lives. And they were given nearly 27 minutes. The defence was allowed to call just two witnesses who got just 4 and a half minutes between them.

The rest of the hour was given to reporter Dr Maryanne Demasi. And it’s not hard to see whose side she was on. She obviously agreed with Stephen Sinatra, nodded enthusiastically at Ernest Curtis and liked Jonny Bowden. But she was stony faced when she listened to Professor Sullivan who undoubtedly IS a world expert in the field … and who was appalled by what she eventually broadcast.

Professor Sullivan is a quiet, mild-mannered man but he was obviously incensed by the standards of journalism he had had to deal with. Media Watch stated: In a scorching three page email to Media Watch, which you’ll find on our website, Professor Sullivan accused Maryanne Demasi and Catalyst of:

Overwhelming bias
Serious misconceptions
Incorrect assumptions

And much, much more. Professor Sullivan also told us … the answers I provided during more than 2 hours of interview were largely ignored and omitted … In my opinion, both episodes of the two-part Catalyst program were unscientific, confusing and irresponsibly misleading.

Catalyst has confirmed that Professor Sullivan was only interviewed by Dr Demasi because the ABC TV’s Editorial Policy Unit reviewed the program and advised it was so one-sided it needed to offer a balancing point of view.

The Bergamet connection

I must admit that when I saw the first Catalyst program which focussed on saturated fat and then found out that one of the ‘experts’ interviewed was promoting Malaysian palm oil a penny dropped that commercial interests were involved. But I couldn’t see how this particular vested interest would benefit from the attack on statins in the second program. Colleagues have been doing their own investigations and have revealed that:

• Cardiologist Ross Walker was mentioned in the credits of the Catalyst programs

Ross Walker claims to be ‘… the person who suggested to Maryanne Demasi a few years back that she should look into this issue”. In this article Walker comments on a product called BergaMet.

• Ross Walker is on the Medical Advisory Board of Nathealth Solutions, an Australian company that markets BergaMet, a heart health supplement sourced from Bergamot oranges.

• In a ‘compelling video press release’ created for Nathealth Solutions Ross Walker claims that BergaMet is ‘the best natural option we have for lowering cholesterol’, lowering LDL-cholesterol by 38 per cent.

• A previous advertisement on the BergaMet website claiming that BergaMet was cholesterol-lowering was found to breach four sections of the Therapeutic Goods Advertising Code.

• Two of the ‘experts’ interviewed on Catalyst, Jonny Bowden and Stephen Sinatra, also promote BergaMet. Both appear on a video titled ‘Popular citrus bergamot may be replacing statins with some cardiologists’.

These gentlemen should not be criticised for trying to earn a dollar but Catalyst’s failure to declare obvious conflicts of interest just highlights the poor standards of journalism applied.

Nick Cater can have the last word:

Today’s journalists are content to let competing “truths” collide in he-said, she-said journalism that is as tedious as it is uninformative. It is pick-a-box journalism offering multiple “truths”, none of which is given any more weight than any other.

Image: source


16 thoughts on “Catalyst lashed by Media Watch over cholesterol programs

  1. Dear Bill…I thank you for your excellent reply and explanation of the politics that have been going on in the last couple of weeks. My main concern was and is that quite a few of my clients had stopped their statins without consulting their respective GPs.

    • Pamela, this was the concern voiced by Dr Norman Swan and others. So now we have high risk subjects placed at even higher risk, all because of a television program looking for a ratings boost. The ethics involved are simply outside my frame of reference. Regards, Bill

      • I have had the same problem, as well as many clients who have high cholesterol telling me “this has no impact on my 90% blockages”. The ABC have neglected to think about the impact these unsubstantiated messages will have on the general public and the actions they take to look after their chronic conditions. Thanks, as always Bill, for an intelligent and well researched piece of writing.

    • Hello Leon. Ghee is rich in saturated fats, low in essential fatty acids and vitamin E, and 3-5% of its fatty acids are trans fats. Very hard to recommend. Almost any alternative would be better. Regards, Bill

      • Hi Bill, I looked and looked (pubmed) and couldn’t find a study on ghee showing it increased risk of CVD, they all said the opposite!! Where should I be looking to find proof of your assertion that ‘almost any alternative would be better’ ? Also, I have been avoiding canola and other vegetable and seed oils because I read about how damaging they are! (I use butter, coconut oil, olive oil, macadamia oil now).

      • Hi Bill, I think there is a bit of confusion here. When most people say Ghee they are referring to clarified butter which doesn’t contain trans fats as opposed to vegetable ghee which contains partially hydrogenated vegetable oil in place of ghee because of its lower cost. This vegetable ghee may contain trans fat!! We certainly need to read our labels to make sure we are getting what we want!

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