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Editor's blog 11th February 2009: Good science, Bad Science, stupidity and the MMR vaccine

Good evening. I'm sorry I have been around a bit less frequently of late (various bits and pieces happening off stage, where they shall remain). I just need to have a little say on a big issue.

Many of you will already have seen or heard about the legal shenanigans between LBC radio station and Dr Ben Goldacre of the fantastic Bad Science column and website (www.badscience.net). You will certainly have seen the Sunday Times' recent news report on the interesting practices of the triple vaccine terminator Dr Andrew Wakefield (http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/life_and_style/health/article5683671.ece).

LBC are owned by the fantastically-named Global Media - implying that their HQ is inside a volcano, with fat white cats in the boardroom. Which on a moment's reflection, sounds rather like the UK banking sector.

LBC have one of those controversialist presenters called Jeni Barnett. Jeni Barnett appears to be a tad on the scientifically illiterate side, and recently 'did' MMR and vaccination on her radio programme. Ben Goldacre (and other fine NHS bloggers, including NHS Blog Doctor - www.nhsblogdoc.blogspot.com - and Dr Grumble - www.drgrumble.blogspot.com), subsequently  showed her broadcast on these crucial topics up for the irrational and opinionated nonsense that it flagrantly was.

In so doing, Ben Goldacre hosted or linked to an extract of around 25% of the broadcast on his site to illustrate in context the serious and dangerous stupidity being broadcast. LBC are now threatening and / or attempting to pursue legal action against Goldacre, claiming breach of copyright.

To sue him successfully, LBC will need to prove consequential loss. LBC will need to be very confident that the portion of the JB show used represents unfair use. Their case is, as best can be seen from here, remarkably weak. Once in this hole of their own quasi-litigious making, they have clearly and spectacularly failed to stop digging.

My £50 is available to help Ben Goldacre defend any legal action (and should he so wish, to counter-sue LBC for malicious and vexatious prosecution), and I hope yours will be too. If you require any proof of Ben Goldacre's good faith, have a look at his most recent post discouraging people who have been personally abusive to Ms Barnett: http://www.badscience.net/2009/02/do-not-abuse-jeni-barnett-personally/

Feeding time at The Human Zoo
That is not altogether the point. There is a valid point about whether it is worth getting terribly exercised about the kind of controversialist, 'speak your reckon' media for the stupid - which LBC, in my opinion, very clearly is. The stupid, the simplified, the prejudiced and the expert-fearing sell pretty well in media terms. Sad, but true.

The question is one of influence. The question is perhaps one around our expectations as a society of a commercial broadcaster, whose responsibility to their shareholders is to maximise value. You can almost pick the topics that are regularly discussed in these media - the 'dog whistle' topics that attract the passionate prejudiced who will make 'good radio'. Ahem.

On those rare schadenfreude occasions in my younger, drunker days when I really felt a strong urge to listen to people making utter cretins of themselves, then my preference used to be for TalkSport's The Human Zoo (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Human_Zoo_(radio)). Interestingly, if you read to the end of the Wikipedia piece, you will find that Clive Bull's late-night radio show used to have a 'live to air' section. Guess what station? That's right, LBC. Apparently, they've tried to go upmaket since.

Clive Bull, who is still on air at LBC, is most famous for the regular on-air phone calls he received from the late Peter Cook, in his drunk and depressed period. Cook usually phoned the Clive Bull Show posing as Sven from Swiss Cottage, a depressed Norwegian searching for his runaway wife and who was also obsessed with fish.

Big and not clever
LBC's slogan is 'London's Biggest Conversation'. In the case of this Jeni Barnett broadcast, it might be big - far bigger than the controversialists are comfortable with the second it's not on their terms - but it's certainly not clever.