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Tuesday 16 May 2023

Pretending medical conditions for journalistic clout

I have lately been seeing a lot of understandable pushback concerning the BBC Panorama documentary involving a journalist going undercover to access private diagnosis and treatment for ADHD - for which there are very substantial waiting times in the NHS. This had been described by the ADHD Foundation in their Response to BBC Panorama “Private ADHD Clinics Exposed” as

a poorly researched, sensationalist piece of television journalism. This programme has focussed on a niche issue whilst completely ignoring the broader context, including why there has been a rapid growth in private providers.  Some private providers do provide quality service. We believe the unscrupulous behaviour of some people/organisations in the private sector should be challenged, but it must also be contextualised within the wider environment of our health services.

I am not sure if anyone else was reminded of this, but it recalled to me the 1974 scandal around articles in the News of the World, subsequently published as a book, Babies for Burning, based on very dodgy undercover journalism involving abortion providers. The authors, Michael Litchfield and Susan Kentish, made unsubstantiated claims about the practices of abortion providers, including non-profit organisations such as the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, up to and including offering abortions to women who were not even pregnant. In the course of their investigations, the couple gave themselves out as seeking an abortion for Kentish, who was not pregnant: they had provided themselves with a urine sample of a confederate who was, to lend verisimilitude to their narrative.

The libel case brought by BPAS is substantially documented in their archive at Wellcome:

Much of the content of the book was found to be based on misleading evidence, as revealed in a Sunday Times article, 'Abortion Horror Tales Revealed as Fantasies'. The authors withdrew their allegations against the BPAS in a statement in open court on 18th January 1978. They ‘apologise[d] for any distress and damage’ which their allegations had caused and ‘recognise[d] that BPAS exercises the greatest care in the employment of qualified medical practitioners, and in selecting and training its counsellors.’ There is also documentation of several other separate but related cases[.]

There is also a significant group of files relating to the case in the archives of Brook, as well as Diane Munday's own file among the archives of CO-ORD: Co-ordinating Campaign for the Defence of the 1967 Abortion Act:

Papers, correspondence and press cuttings relating to statements made in the book Babies for Burning (1974) alleging that pregnancy testing agencies deliberately informed women that they were pregnant when they were not. The BPAS claimed that many of the conversations allegedly reproduced in the book were distorted by the authors. 

Litchfield and Kentish were not only found guilty of several instances of libel: they were also guilty of lying to the Select Committee on the Abortion (Amendment) Bill (1975), by submitting to it transcripts which they alleged were a faithful account of interviews and tapes recorded:

I wish, Mr. Speaker, to raise a question of privilege.... Mrs. Diana Munday, of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, has spent 300 hours transcribing the tapes and comparing them with the transcripts produced to the Select Committee. As you may know, Mr. Speaker, apologies have been made to the British Pregnancy Advisory Service and all the allegations against it have been withdrawn.... My point is that the Select Committee was deceived by Miss Susan Kentish and by Michael Litchfield and lies were told to the Select Committee in order to mislead and influence that Committee's conclusions. This is a serious matter.

The case is discussed in Sally Sheldon, Gayle Davis, Jane ONeill and Clare Parker, 'The Abortion Act (1967): a biography', Legal Studies (2019), 39, 1835:

The investigation had a clear impact on early attempts to restrict the Abortion Act. One MP is said to have based his personal research for his 1975 abortion bill on reading the proofs, and others explicitly attributed their support for it to the book. Litchfield and Kentish were invited to give evidence to an important Parliamentary Select Committee, which in turn influenced further measures aiming to restrict the Act.

They suggest that 'While it was without doubt the most important scandal to have engulfed the Abortion Act, more than forty years on, Babies for Burning has been largely forgotten' but that 'the ongoing use of media stings... [has] become a significant and recurrent feature of [the Act's] life'.