MD, PhD, FMedSci, FRSB, FRCP, FRCPEd.

I was recently struck by a short notice by the FACULTY OF HOMEOPATHY (FoH):

Following the publicity we got after the announcement of our royal patronage, it seems like a good time to  remind all members of our media policy. If you are contacted by the media, please contact the faculty and get some advice rather than agreeing immediately. We can then decide together if it is something to get involved in and who would be the most suitable person to participate.

The text was an uncomfortable reminder of the moment when, years ago, I received similar instructions. This must have been around 2005 when my relationship with my Exeter peers were beginning to sour. I received an email from the dean of my medical school informing me that, in future, I was no longer permitted to speak directly to the press; all such contacts had to first get cleared by him. I was more than a little surprised. I had never contacted a journalist, but they were phoning me at a rate of 2-3 per week. Invariably, I did my best to provide them with the information they were looking for. Telling them to first clear an interview would, in my view, have been not practical, degrading and a violation of academic freedom and my right to free expression.

Freedom of speech is the principle that supports the right of an individual or a community to articulate their opinions and ideas without fear of retaliation, censorship, or legal sanction. It is a recognised human right. I explained all this to my dean – we had been on very friendly terms until then – but he insisted on his instructions. Crucially, he could not give me an acceptable reason why my freedom of speech should be curtailed in the way he proposed. I tried my best to reason with him, but it was to no avail. In the end, I told him that I would carry on as before, and if he felt like it, he was welcome to discipline me. Eventually, I carried on as before, and my dean took no action.

So, when the FoH tells its members this – If you are contacted by the media, please contact the faculty and get some advice rather than agreeing immediately. We can then decide together if it is something to get involved in and who would be the most suitable person to participate – does it amount to a limitation of their freedom of speech? I certainly think so. Crucially, the FoH fails to provide an acceptable reason for its action. People imposing the restrictions (whether they are governments, employers or anyone else) must be able to demonstrate the need for them, and they must be proportionate.

There simply is no conceivable reason for the FoH to impose or suggest such a restriction!

What are they afraid of?

Perhaps that someone tells a slanderous lie?

Perhaps something as bad as what the FoH’s ‘Simile’ newsletter recently published about me?

A prepublication draft [of the Smallwood report] was circulated for comment with prominent warnings that it was confidential and not to be shared more widely (I can personally vouch for this, since I was one of those asked to comment). Regrettably, Prof Ernst did precisely this, leaking it to The Times who used it as the basis of their lead story. The editor of The Lancet, Richard Horton, certainly no friend of homeopathy, promptly denounced Ernst for having “broken every professional code of scientific behaviour”.

Sir Michael Peat, the Prince of Wales’ Principal Private Secretary, wrote to the vice chancellor of Exeter University protesting at the leak, and the university conducted an investigation. Ernst’s position became untenable, funding for his department dried up and he took early retirement. Thirteen years later he remains sore; in his latest book More Harm than Good? he attacks the Prince of Wales as “foolish and immoral”.

Huuuuuuh, that would be gross!

Yes, they did (had to) publish a full retraction:

In his editorial in the February 2018 issue of simile , Dr Peter Fisher stated that Prof Edzard Ernst leaked a confidential pre-publication draft of the 2005 Smallwood Report to the The Times . The Faculty of Homeopathy accepts that an investigation by Exeter University found no evidence Prof Ernst was responsible for this breach of confidentiality. The Faculty of Homeopathy and Dr Peter Fisher apologise unreservedly to Prof Ernst for this inaccuracy and for any embarrassment it may have caused him and his family.

Given this background and history, I find the note of the FoH to its members bizarre, unjustified and in breach of their right to free expression.

Guys, you are dealing with homeopathy.

There is nothing in it.

It’s not nuclear physics or high diplomacy.

Get real!

Allow your members to say what they think.

Dilute your remedies if you must, but please leave human rights alone.

3 Responses to Freedom of speech in homeopathy: as diluted as the remedies?

  • During the Harper (Conservatives) years here in Canada, there was a government-wide gag order on scientists. There was an uproar, but the PM stood fast. Thankfully, a new government rescinded that order.

    The bad news is that the Conservatives (with a very Trump-like leader who, like Trump, just makes things up and promotes divisive policies) could well make a comeback—an election is slated for October 21. What that means for scientists if the Tories get elected, I haven’t a clue. What I can say, however, is that comparatively speaking, this new guy makes Harper look like a moderate.

  • UK homeopathy hasn’t had a good time with media reporting over the past few years. NHS England issuing guidance on GP prescribing of homeopathy, the end of NHS funded homeopathy (and other things) at Royal London Hospital for Integrated Medicine and Bristol, CEASE therapy, homeoprophylaxis and anti-vaccination idiocy. I can’t remember the last time I saw an uncritical article about some celebrity using homeopathy.

    It’s known that the various homeopathy associations have tried to coordinate public relations activity through the 4Homeopathy group. If media coverage (or ratther the lack of positive media coverage) is anything to go by, they aren’t terribly successful.

    Some of the UK homeopathy associations would appear to be worried that members may say something stupid that hurts the “brand”. And not without reason. Not that the associations care very much when routinely come out with all sorts of nonsense on their websites, on social media, etc. It’s only if they talk to the press that bothers them but I can’t really see any association disciplining a member over if they do.

    It’s interesting to note that the recent media coverage of the Good Thinking Society’s legal action against the Professional Standards Authority (PSA) accreditation of the Society of Homeopaths (SoH) has not drawn any public response from the homeopathy associations. Individual homeopaths are strangely silent too.

  • Raking over coals is not usually helpful, but Dr Richard Horton’s denunciation when editor of The Lancet that Prof Ernst had “broken every professional code of scientific behaviour” contains one fundemental logical fallacy: reports on homeopathy cannot be termed “scientific”, and logically, neither can any response to them.

    Any leak should have been categorised as valid literary criticism.

    And in any event, as stated, Ernst was not responsible for any ‘leak’ there may have been.
    Could have been that Dr Fisher leaked in order to cause trouble. Or a member of Ernst’s department at Exeter did. That’s what trouble makers do.
    How do we know otherwise?
    Was the source ever identified?

    Fisher’s entire career was predicated on the basis that orthodox evidence-based medicine was misguided in overlooking and ignoring the claimed benefits of homeopathy. Sadly, whether he really believed that which he promoted we shall never know.

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