ABC finally concedes that Catalyst was biased

More than six months after it broadcast two misleading Catalyst programs about diet, medication and heart disease the ABC has admitted there were problems with impartiality and has undertaken corrective action. But there is still something fishy about this.

In October last year ABC television’s science program Catalyst ran two controversial programs purporting to expose myths about diet, medication and cardiovascular disease. In the first program Catalyst presenter Dr Maryanne Demasi challenged the role of dietary saturated fat in affecting risk for coronary heart disease and in the second she questioned the efficacy of statin medication. Essentially, the Catalyst program argued that the world’s leading nutrition organisations and cardiovascular researchers had got it wrong over the last four decades.

Heart Foundation outraged

In an interview on the ABC radio program PM, Maryanne Demasi even stated that the Heart Foundation was ‘certainly supportive’ of the Catalyst program’s evidence. In fact, the Heart Foundation was livid, took offence and submitted a formal complaint. They weren’t alone – the ABC received a total of 146 complaints. To their credit, journalists within the ABC, such as health reporter Dr Norman Swan and Media Watch front man Paul Barry, challenged the accuracy of the programs and the standard of the journalism on display, respectively. For more of detail see my two posts on the Catalyst programs here and here.

Results of independent review

Yesterday, the results of a review of the Catalyst programs by the ABC’s Audience and Consumer Affairs Unit were made public and included findings that standards of impartiality had been breached. Here are some excerpts from the review:

It is clear from the reaction to the program that many members of the audience believed that in both episodes, one side of two highly contentious issues was unduly favoured …

In relation to the first program on saturated fat and heart disease:

In our judgement, the quality of the program would have been enhanced if it had more clearly communicated why the National Heart Foundation hold their views. Little substantive evidence was presented to support their perspective and the strength of the evidence that was referred to was doubted in the narration and directly challenged – and often emphatically rejected – by other contributors. Although the program did not explicitly endorse the unorthodox view, the language used by the reporter tended to add weight to the contrarian argument.

In relation to the second program on statins:

Furthermore, by omitting a principal relevant view – held by the National Heart Foundation and other experts – that statins are useful in primary prevention if carefully targeted, the program had the effect of unduly favouring the perspective that statins are ineffective in primary prevention.

In relation to Maryanne Demasi’s statement on the PM program that the Heart Foundation had signed off on the Catalyst program’s evidence:

While the comment was made in a live radio interview, it was nonetheless a misleading oversimplification which failed to acknowledge the clear and important areas of disagreement between the National Heart Foundation and the overall proposition being presented in the programs.

In summing up:

For Catalyst, the core problem identified in this investigation was omission of important information.

Image: source

Corrective action undertaken

Yesterday, ABC Managing Director Mark Scott announced that corrective action had been taken:

• The two Catalyst programs had been removed from the program’s website
• The PM program had added an Editor’s Note to the transcript of its story ‘Backlash against ABC’s Catalyst program questioning heart disease-cholesterol links’
• An appropriate entry had been made on the ABC Corrections page.

The Heart Foundation provided a polite response.

Unanswered questions

I guess the moral of this story is that when you see some misleading information about nutrition and health in the media, do what the Heart Foundation and others did – complain!

But there are still unanswered questions about these Catalyst programs. When the program about saturated fat went to air I thought it was so biased that I was convinced that a commercial interest must be involved, and suggested that it might be the palm oil industry. However, I have since had assurances that this industry was not behind it.

If it wasn’t commercially driven, the whole thing doesn’t make sense. How did a hitherto reputable science journalist, Maryanne Demasi, come up with a bizarre list of poorly qualified ‘experts’ in the United States to be interviewed for the Catalyst programs? And why would a journalist with a PhD accept recommendations about ‘experts’ who had virtually no scientific publications in the relevant field? Wouldn’t that be the first thing to check?

Who pitched this story to Catalyst?

And then there is the issue of cost. Why would the cash-strapped ABC agree to pay to fly Maryanne Demasi all the way to the United States to interview these ‘experts’? How could any responsible manager sign off on such expense?

The whole thing just doesn’t add up.



10 thoughts on “ABC finally concedes that Catalyst was biased

  1. Great news about the findings of the review by ABC, however I think the only way to undo what has been done is to redo it. That is the same journalist, should probably do a remake of the program including interviews with reputable professionals and researchers to show the other side of the story. The findings of a review are of interest to us as professionals but the damage is done and this type of message will only reach the person sitting at home watching the TV for their health education if it is re-made and re-aired.

  2. This whole thing angers me so much. I work in a telephonic support service as a dual dietitian, exercise physiologist health coach. I can’t tell you the number of patients I have talked to since that program aired, after watching the ABC program took themselves off Statins. Keep in mind the 30,000 people on the program I work on are frequent flyers into hospital. Being admitted at least 1-2x a year on average, obese and multiple chronic illnesses. They already have a poor knowledge base on how to care for themselves, and after seeing these types of programs get it even more wrong!

    The problem is with these written internet based apologies, is the public does not hear about them and patients continue to run with this misleading advise and risking their health.

    The fact that, no doubt some where along the food chain some one made money out of this some how, or the ABC were doing it for ratings?- is appalling. This type of stuff can kill people!

    Yet journalists keep writing books about sugar being toxic and curing lupus?, doing media stories on diet based topics they have limited knowledge on, putting peoples lives at risk. These people should be held accountable and made to do live TV apologies so that the average punter can see.

    The only thing we can keep doing at the moment is keep defending our stance with nutrition messages, and hope the non- sense just eventually goes away.

    • Hi Gabrielle. I understand that when Catalyst comes back on air that they will mention the offending programs and their removal from the website. I also note that the Managing Director of the ABC has said that these topics may be revisited. This may be code for ‘do it again and do it properly this time’.

      I can understand how a tabloid 6.30 pm ‘current affairs’ program could run stories like these – that’s what they do. But people expect more from the ABC and much more from a science program on the ABC. Catalyst’s good reputation was surely one reason why the program received such good ratings, but that reputation has been squandered now.

      It’s a difficult time for dietitians/nutritionists – outrageous claims about nutrition and health are everywhere. We need to be resolute. Regards, Bill

  3. If it was for ratings – then the ABC achieved their purpose.

    It was the most watched TV show in its timeslot when it aired. This rarely happens for the ABC. How many of the million or so viewers will notice that the program has been pulled from the ABC website?

    • Too true Paul. Only publicity around the recent events will help get the message out. Hence this post! Regards, Bill

  4. This is a very challenging time for dietitians and I am not sure how to move forward. The difficult point for most of the clients I see and I think Bill you have brought this up before is the health messages we want to get across go beyond basic knowledge for most people
    Ie. that inflammatory processes are a significant part of the heart disease/insulin resistance story and that many refined carbohydrates are the one of the major culprit in this.
    However most people struggle to decipher between refined starches and it is often easier to attack a whol nutrient ie sugar or food group (eg. Grains).
    When I read on front page of the daily telegraph that 1 Pete Evans (chef not dietitian), suggests the only move forward is with activated almonds and paleo dieting, I shudder to think, what next?
    My thoughts.

  5. I find this whole issue interesting. My experience as a woman in my 40s with slightly elevated cholesterol and a family history of heart disease is to have one doctor tell me I was ‘very foolish’ because I refused to take a statin and have 2 doctors recommend that I don’t take them. It seems to me that the tide has turned and many physicians and some dieticians are now acknowledging that the last few decades have been characterised by poor nutritional advice. I’m going to keep enjoying my diet which is high in vegetables, high in natural fats (butter, coconut oil, animals fats, olive oil), moderate in protein and low in sugary foods and grains because it is serving me well. Oh and my doctor approves!

  6. Hi Bill,

    The details in the ABC’s independent A&CA report vindicates the reasons why Catalyst presented such important information about cholesterol & statins in the Heart of the Matter episodes.

    You might recall that in the Catalyst Part 2 episode on statins, the withholding of clinical trial data by pharmaceutical companies was thoughtfully highlighted. Looking at the ABC’s A&CA report, pages 30-32 deserve special consideration, especially in the context of some revealing details recently presented to the U.K ‘House of Commons- Committee of Public Accounts’ regarding access to clinical trial information. It’s valuable reading & a link to the House of Commons report is below.

    Report – Access to Clinical Trial Information;

    In regard to the Heart Foundation of Australia, the recent statement on their website about the ABC’s investigation says that it welcomes the findings from the ABC’s Independent Audience and Consumer Affairs Unit (A&CA). I understand that the Heart Foundation is supportive of the report in its entirety, inclusive of the details involving cholesterol that are described on pages 20-27 in the A&CA report.

  7. I read the report .There were many complaints from industry for parts one and two. The report found no breaches of editorial standards in part one and breach of editorial standards for part two.

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