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The BBC – The Unwholesome Truth

Please support this campaign against an unacceptable case of mainstream media misrepresentation. Dr Campbell did NOT "admit on TV that he doesn't have any proof for his findings." The BBC used his words out of context in a shameful betrayal of trust.

A recent BBC Horizon documentary (Clean Eating - The Dirty Truth) misrepresented the views of Prof T Colin Campbell (above) as set out in The China Study. (For more details, see this video response to an interview with the show's presenter, and/or the article below). Regardless of whether you agree or disagree with Prof Campbell's ideas, it is completely unacceptable for the mainstream media to censor them: freedom of information is a vitally important principle in any democracy that we should all make every effort to protect.

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How the BBC put the interests of big business before those of the public

In Horizon “Clean Eating – The Dirty Truth” (BBC2, 19 January 2017, the relevant section starts at about 36 min.), the presenter Dr Giles Yeo set out to investigate the “Clean Eating” food trend by interviewing three key behind-the-scenes figures, including Dr. T. Colin Campbell.

During the interview, Dr Yeo criticised The China Study’s methodology, and Dr. Campbell then appeared to concede that he had made a mistake by admitting that “The China Project by itself is not strong enough to make broad conclusions.” Dr Yeo repeated this statement as part of his concluding summary:

“The China Project by itself is not strong enough to make broad conclusions.” But when Colin wrote his book, he stated (that) plant foods are beneficial, and animal based foods are not. (…) The China Study’s message (…) is not proven.

Dr Yeo has been claiming ever since that he “got Colin Campbell to admit on TV that he doesn’t really have all the proof he needs for his findings”. [1]

Dr Campbell immediately complained to the BBC that his words had been taken out of context. [2] To understand what he meant by this requires a little background information about his research. A key point about this body of work, referenced in The China Study and explained in more detail in the follow-up Whole, is that he and most mainstream scientists employ contrasting approaches to science: wholism and reductionism. Put briefly, “If you are a reductionist, you believe that everything in the world can be understood if you understand all its component parts. A wholist, on the other hand, believes that the whole can be greater than the sum of its parts.” (Whole, p.47). The two contrasting perspectives ideally complement one another, but the Western world has become dominated by blinkered reductionist thinking in recent years, and we therefore urgently need to redress the balance in favour of wholism in all fields, including that of nutrition. Accordingly, a major theme of The China Study is that its findings emerge from a broad and interlinking range of studies and research and do not depend on any single data set such as the China Project, which occupies only a single chapter in the book. While this big picture may not offer absolute proof in a narrow reductionist sense, it does nonetheless very much support Dr Campbell's conclusions.

The real meaning of his remark that “The China Project by itself is not strong enough to make broad conclusions” was therefore that the project can only properly be understood as part of an interrelated whole. He explained this during the interview, but the relevant section was mostly edited out, with the exception of this one remaining remark, which Dr Yeo then used out of context, making it seem like an admission of reductionist defeat.

The BBC are of course free to disagree with Dr Campbell regarding the correct way to interpret scientific data, but THE CRUCIAL POINT IS THAT THEY WERE NOT ENTITLED TO MISREPRESENT HIS VIEWS ON THE MATTER. Such behaviour is a completely unacceptable violation of basic broadcasting standards.

In addition, Dr Yeo’s criticism of Dr Campbell’s use of the proxy method in The China Study was a classic example of reductionist thinking, based on the false assumption that the latter's conclusions depend on identifying proof of linear causation between discrete variables within the China Project data alone, when they are in reality supported by a much larger body of complex and interacting information. The connection between animal protein and cancer, in particular, was a confirmation of the results of early animal studies, which Dr Yeo disparaged as non-transferable, even though as a scientist he would have been well aware that such studies are generally assumed to be relevant to humans. He himself uses them to draw conclusions about human genetics!

Furthermore, Dr Yeo was prejudiced in that he assumed that an argument based on non-whole food, animal-based (NWFAB) research would apply equally well to whole food, plant-based (WFPB) studies. It doesn’t: homogeneous NWFAB research is a very poor source of nutritional insights.

Dr Yeo portrayed Dr Campbell as a “passionate” vegan advocate, and has spoken since of his firm belief that the whole food plant-based diet is the same as veganism. [3] However, proving veganism was never Dr Campbell's goal during his research. His initial views were in fact exactly opposite to the position he now holds, and his change of mind was due to the scientific evidence alone. Dr Yeo and the BBC will have been well aware that veganism is generally seen as being grounded in ethical rather than scientific objectives.

As a final point, the BBC also chose to omit, without a word of explanation or thanks, an interview with Dr Caldwell Esselstyn concerning his research into the prevention and reversal of heart disease by dietary means, together with testimonies from three of his patients, which required considerable effort to arrange. Dr Campbell later described how Dr Yeo appeared “visibly shocked” when listening to their accounts, as though “he could not believe what he was hearing.” Dr Yeo suggested that the editorial decision to omit this content was because it added nothing new and Dr Esselstyn’s research was small-scale and anecdotal. [4] However, while it may have been small-scale, the research was nonetheless peer-reviewed and the effect size was unique and unusually large. It was clearly not therefore anecdotal or insignificant, and should not have been excluded from Dr Yeo’s investigation.


Shortly after the documentary was broadcast, Prof Campbell complained to the BBC, and received a terse brush-off in reply. My own complaint submitted to the Editorial Complaints Unit resulted in the following response:

You say The China Study was not meant to stand alone or to prove causation. It seemed to me that Professor Campbell’s explanation on this point would have ensured viewers were clear on how he saw the data and the limits of the conclusions which might be drawn from it.

You have pointed to a complaint from Professor Campbell on a number of his works which were not mentioned in the programme. I can see no grounds for concluding this information was so vital to audience understanding of the man or his work that not mentioning it would lead them to an incorrect conclusion.

These statements are clearly unreasonable.

The BBC dismissed the question of any conflict of interest on the grounds that “Dr Yeo does not research drug based cures, but how diets may work to cure obesity” and receives only a small amount of funding from the Helmholtz Foundation, and only potential funding from Sanofi Aventis in the event that promising research is identified. These claims are however factually inaccurate and exceptionally naive at best. Dr Yeo’s faculty page states that he is studying the expression of various genes in relation to obesity [5]. More importantly however, there is a broader perspective that needs to be taken into account. Global Big Pharma companies have for many years now been forming close ties with universities around the world, in a process which has led to a troubling blurring of the lines between the corporate and academic worlds, yet also become normalised to an extent, and recent years have seen a dramatic upsurge in their efforts to build similar links with the UK University sector, and Cambridge University in particular, through initiatives such as the Apollo Therapeutics Fund. Multinationals like AstraZeneca are currently pouring investment money into Cambridge and its University, lured on by the vision of a veritable El Dorado of healthcare (or rather disease-care) product and service development ROIs awaiting in the near future. Given the scale of the organisations involved, it is obviously absurd to focus on Dr Yeo as an individual, and any proper investigation would need to adopt a wider focus, including the film’s motivation and commissioning process. Above all, the significance of potential funding, which in the case of a research breakthrough would be highly lucrative, clearly cannot be underestimated. Yet when I put it to the Complaints Director that his comments were unreasonable and unrealistic, he immediately terminated the discussion by replying that “I do not believe any useful purpose would be served by further debate.”

Ofcom rejected my subsequent appeal on two counts. In relation to Dr Yeo’s criticism of the The China Study, they claimed that they “do not adjudicate on matters of science” - despite being the final arbiter concerning media regulation. In relation to my main point, concerning how Dr Campbell's remark, that the China Project needs to be considered in the round, alongside his and others’ research, was taken out of context, Ofcom replied that “the programme (…) was not a full and forensic examination of all sections of the three nutritional approaches featured.” This demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of the issue on their part. Presenting Dr Campbell’s remark in context would obviously not have required a “full and forensic examination” of his research; the BBC need only have chosen to include, rather than delete, the explanatory comments he offered during the interview.

4 ibid

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