Drowning in False Balance, with Channel Seven News

Over six months ago I wrote about WIN News, and its decision to interview anti-vaccination campaigner, Meryl Dorey, in a segment alerting the community to a Measles outbreak. The interview got all the negative attention it deserved, making it all the way to Media Watch, and the industry regulator, the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA). ACMA is still to deliver its verdict over the interview, which it deemed was worthy of investigation (this is no mean feat).

If we go even further back to Ellen Fanning’s excellent 60 Minutes piece on immunisation, Getting The Point (June 2011), national audiences were introduced to this pair:

Viera Scheibner belittles Bronwyn Hancock (left).

Viera Scheibner belittles her partner Bronwyn Hancock (right).

Here is the transcript, showing exactly what Hancock’s friend and ally thinks of her:

VIERA: [to Hancock] Don’t answer things that you don’t know enough about, OK – don’t answer them. You were drowning. So let’s call a spade a spade.

ELLEN FANNING: Why would she be drowning?

VIERA: Because she hasn’t got the extent of knowledge that I have.

ELLEN FANNING: If she hasn’t got the extensive knowledge, why on earth is she writing these articles on the website?

VIERA: Maybe you have a point then, yes. That’s right. Maybe you have a point there, okay.

Getting the point, indeed. If only Channel Seven News had have got the same point:


The Channel Seven News story was to introduce the roll-out of the new MMRV vaccine, to be given to children at 18 months of age, meaning there will be one less needle for kids. Excellent! Or so you thought. Threaded through the story (which is mostly excellent), is the fear-mongering presence of the unqualified harbinger of death and destruction, the anti-vaccinationist; this time wearing the Bronwyn Hancock mask. What was Hancock’s contribution? This mangled set of word-things-brain-damage:

Convulsions, uh, can occur and they are associated with, um, in some cases with, uh, permanent brain damage.

Permanent brain damage, you say? Let’s have a look at the risks of permanent brain damage from Measles, as compared to the vaccine:

Effects of disease:

1 in 15 children with measles develops pneumonia and 1 in 1,000 develops encephalitis (brain inflammation).

For every 10 children who develop encephalitis,  1 dies and up to 4 have permanent brain damage. About 1 in 100,000 develops SSPE (brain degeneration), which is always fatal.

Side effects of vaccination:

About 1 in 10 has discomfort, local inflammation or fever. About 1 in 20 develops a rash, which is noninfectious. 1 in 1 million recipients may develop encephalitis (inflammation of the brain) [which is even more rarely permanent].

What is particularly interesting to me is Seven News’ decision to include an anti-vaccinationist in a factual story concerning public health. We know anti-vaccinationists are not honest brokers of accurate information. We know they are never qualified to speak on that which they are asked. We know that they feed on and stoke the flames of fear, based on their reckons, not facts. So, why are they sought out? The cynic in me jumps to ratings. But, it is more than that. It is about this incessant need to present bollocks dressed up as balance.

What is really interesting to me is that Bronwyn Hancock was cut from the online version of the story. Why was that? The stories are identical. The YouTube version (above), recorded live, contains Hancock. The official online version does not. Does Seven News already know that they may have botched this one?

In this wonderful instructional video on false balance, Dara O’Briain lays it out simply:


Similarly, if a revolutionary surgery has been proven effective in removing brain tumours, do we seek a balanced view from Andrew, the guy in the video store, who happens to be anti-brain surgery, to counter the views of Professor Mitchell? No, we don’t.

If a diesel mechanic of thirty years experience is advising punters on how best to avoid getting water in their lines, do we turn to Tristan the financial adviser, who happens to be anti-mechanical intervention, to advise us that water is natural and that we should therefore allow our diesel engines to grind to a halt, as nature intended? No, we do not.

Then, why on earth do news programs, who are meant to be our reliable source of factual information, interview people on things they know nothing about, whose intent is to see immunisation rates drop to zero? In effect, these people want to see more children dead, from disease, because that’s how the stronger children survive. How *cough* Darwinian. How very 19th Century.

I urge you to make your thoughts known, to Seven News, here [edit April 7: as per complaints process questions, The segment aired on Seven News Sydney, at 6pm, in Sydney, on March 28 2013].

If you are unsatisfied with the response to your complaint, you may upgrade your complaint to ACMA. Details will be provided by Channel Seven in their response.

About reasonable hank

I'm reasonable, mostly.
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