Science chief: Press fixation with health risk stories is killing children

The Government’s chief scientific advisor has accused journalists reporting scientific issues of risking the lives of up to 100 children and a loss to the country of billions of pounds.

Professor Sir David King, a Cambridge professor who steps down from his Government role in January, singled out the Daily Mail for reporting warnings against parents giving children the combined measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine, and the BBC Radio 4 Today programme for what he sees as an overly sceptical editorial line on genetically modified foods.

Speaking to Press Gazette, King stood by his views made at the innovation, universities and skills Commons select committee meeting earlier this month, where he accused both organisations of running irresponsible and dangerous campaigns on those issues.

He said: ‘I think there is a very clear problem that exists when [the media] reports an issue. Even if there is consensus in the scientific community, it is important for them to find a sceptic. That is a running problem in all sorts of issues.”

King claims that as a result of what he sees as bad reporting, 50 to 100 children might die due to outbreaks of preventable diseases. He also said that the UK could lose up to £4bn in investment and revenue because of journalists’ negative reporting of GM foods.

He accepts that scientific reporting has ‘improved dramatically’in the seven years he has been chief scientist and praised the Mail, Today and others for their regular, reliable reporting. But he warned that ‘papers are more interested in reporting the risk’the public may face in science stories than ‘the truth”.

‘It does take a newspaper to campaign to get better on some issues, and I know that obviously public opinion has gone against GM foods, but 250 million Americans have GM in their diet every day and you’re not likely to read that anywhere.

‘With MMR, where is the responsibility? If you really persuade children and parents not to get the vaccine, and some of them could get ill, is there a sense of responsibility there?”

King said he agreed that Blair’s silence on the issue raised questions, but said that the silence was ‘not a reason to run a campaign”.

A spokeswoman for Today said the programme’s producers did not recognise King’s description of its coverage on GM foods, but declined to comment further.

In response to his comments at the select committee appearance, a Daily Mail spokesman said MMR remained ‘an entirely legitimate subject for newspapers to raise’and highlighted the ‘hypocrisy’of former prime minister Tony Blair, who refused to say whether his youngest son Leo had been given the triple jab.

The Daily Mail spokesman said: ‘Sir David King does not understand the media. Six years ago, the Mail, in common with other newspapers, highlighted the hypocrisy of Tony Blair’s refusal to reveal whether his youngest child had been given the triple MMR jab, following claims by Dr Andrew Wakefield that it was linked to autism.

‘We also focused on the distress of the parents who believed that their children’s autism was linked to MMR, and in our editorials we argued that families should be given the right to ask for single jabs.

‘We believe that this was an entirely legitimate subject for newspapers to raise.

‘As for GM crops – so assiduously promoted by the US conglomerate Monsanto – the Mail, along with Prince Charles, major environmental groups and senior researchers, has vigorously expressed grave concerns about their long-term effect on the countryside.

‘We believe GM is still a matter of huge public concern.”

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