There are occasions when even television has to be responsible

Click to follow
The Independent Online
WE'RE GETTING used to TV documentaries not telling us the truth. Screen depictions of hopeless learner drivers, cowboy builders, drug runners, now even clampers, are all revealed as being in some way faked. But we can live with those details being untrue. We're not about to make life decisions based on the antics of some car driver, clamper, or even a fake drugs mule we may see on TV.

The trouble is that this relaxed attitude to the truth has spread to parts of television where getting it right does matter. Let us rewind to November 1994. Central TV, taken over earlier that year by the media conglomerate Carlton TV, screened two programmes in its current affairs series The Cook Report. Shown in successive weeks, they detailed a theory on the cause of cot death, or Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).

Cot death strikes fear into every parent, because its causes remain unknown. In the UK about 500 babies a year die suddenly, leaving their families shattered, and new parents anxiously checking for breathing.

The Cook Report broadcast the claims of a Winchester scientist who believed that cot death was caused by a poisonous gas emitted from the interaction of a fungus with fire retardant chemicals, such as antimony and phosphorus, in the baby's mattress. It was a closely-argued theory: seven separate strands of evidence led to the conclusion.

Although the Department of Health had studied and rejected the idea in 1991, the TV coverage prompted uproar. Anne Diamond, the most famous "cot death mother", accused the Government of ignoring evidence. Roger Cook himself advised parents to find out what was in baby mattresses before buying them. Up to 50,000 were withdrawn from sale.

In response, the Government set up an expert panel to investigate the claims. Last week the members produced their final report: it demolished in turn each of the seven planks of the theory.

For example, the "fungus" was a common bacterium found in homes; no acute poisoning was found in SIDS cases. The cot death rate decreased at the time when the highest amounts of antimony were used in mattresses.

This was an unequivocal finding which seemed to mark a good day for science and a better one for parents, since it left one less possible cause for cot death.

I called Central TV, expecting a suitably mollified comment: something along the lines of "We made the programmes in good faith, but we're glad this new work has put those fears to rest." That would have been understandable, respectable even. I expected wrongly.

Central redirected me to Carlton, whose spokeswoman read a prepared statement: "The Cook Report put forward the opinion of respected scientists who did not and do not agree with the findings of the Department of Health ... we believe it's vital for more research to be carried out in the tragic area of infant death."

That was all. No apology. Not even acceptance of error. Even a little smugness at remaining "controversial", at still not agreeing with the Government.

But it is irresponsible to treat matters such as these as though they were political debates: where to herd bickering "experts" into a studio counts as highbrow analysis.

Issues like cot deaths matter. They tear apart peoples' lives. Thankfully, we are moving - however slowly - towards genuine scientific answers. Companies such as Carlton may find the existence of demonstrable truth and falsity an inconvenience when it comes to programme planning.

But simply "disagreeing" with scientific proofs doesn't make you right. It makes you ridiculous, and anyone who can't recognise that doesn't deserve a broadcasting licence.