London talk radio station LBC has been cleared by Ofcom of misleading and scaring audiences about the MMR jab.
The media regulator received 190 complaints about a discussion led by presenter Jeni Barnett about a parent’s right not to give their child the combined measles, mumps and rubella vaccination.
Medical journalist Ben Goldacre drew attention to the 45-minute debate on his blog in February. He described it as “seriously irresponsible”, “beyond parody” and said it revisited “all the typical misunderstandings” about the safety of the jab.
The listeners who complained were concerned that the programme gave an “unbalanced, inaccurate and irresponsible portrayal of the dangers of the MMR vaccine”, Ofcom said in its ruling yesterday.
The complainants argued that the programme might put parents off the vaccination, which could then pose a considerable threat to public health.
Ofcom investigated the broadcast under the part of the broadcasting code which states that factual programmes must not materially mislead the audience and radio stations must not give undue prominence to a particular person relating to public policy.
LBC defended the programme on the grounds that the debate on a parent’s right to choose was made clear from the outset.
The station’s parent company, Global Radio, said the broadcast was based on presenter opinion and Barnett’s personal experiences as a mother – and not expert advice.
It also said that the phone-in included parents and health care professionals who supported the jab and warned against scaremongering.
The broadcaster was cleared by Ofcom, which concluded in its ruling: “It is Ofcom’s view that the programme itself provided enough views to ensure that the programme provided balance overall and, therefore, no undue prominence and no breach.”
But the regulator said that “broadcasters should exercise caution when dealing with medical matters where the issues are as controversial and scientifically based as the MMR vaccination”.
In a Press Gazette interview last October, Goldacre warned that the “incredibly poor quality of British [medical] journalism” was endangering people’s health.
He said MMR vaccination rates had dropped below 50 per cent in London since research by Dr Andrew Wakefield into a possible link between the jab and autism received widespread media coverage in 1998.
Goldacre had posted the full audio of the LBC broadcast on his website but was ordered to take it down by lawyers representing Global Radio, who complained of copyright infringement.