Orders of the Day — B.B.C. Television (Medical Programmes)

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 27th February 1958.

Alert me about debates like this

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Wills.]

10.37 p.m.

Photo of Dr Edith Summerskill Dr Edith Summerskill , Warrington

I want to call the attention of the House tonight to a series of films called "Your Life in Their Hands" which is being shown on television and which, in the opinion of many responsible people, causes distress to the sick and plants the seeds of fear and apprehension in many other people.

It is very important for the House to picture the scene in many houses today of the T.V. set in the little kitchen or living room, and gathered round it are members of the family, including children and, very often, sick people and those nearest to them. There are T.V. sets not only in people's homes; today they are installed in hospitals and institutions of all kinds, and in these institutions viewing is very often entirely uncontrolled.

I understand that it is necessary for producers to ponder how they can present something new to the public. After all, that is the duty of the producer, I presume, and the various people who work with him; they are paid to provide entertainment. But this dramatic presentation of disease in its various aspects is the latest invention of the fertile mind of the T.V. producer, and I do not believe he has given sufficient thought to the effects upon the viewers.

This matter was brought to the attention of the B.B.C. Its defence was to say that its viewers have a healthy interest in disease which it feels it is legitimate on its part to satisfy. My contention is that to have an interest in disease is not healthy unless one is a public health worker. A lay person has only a morbid interest in disease, which these T.V. films are fostering. [Interruption.] I hear an expression of dissent. I would remind the House that when a medical student who already has some pre-medical education first comes in contact with disease in a hospital he imagines that he has every variety of disease.

Let us consider the viewing public. Half our hospital beds today are filled with patients suffering from some nervous disease. One-third of the prescriptions given to patients are in order to allay some nervous symptom, perhaps not a serious condition, but some mild nervous symptom. I believe that this big element in the viewing public should be borne in mind when there is any presentation on T.V.

The films to which I have referred are, in my opinion, fit only for intelligent, well-balanced men and women who take an interest in medical and surgical techniques. I accept the fact that some intelligent men and women went, no doubt, with representatives of the B.B.C. to see these films, looked at them in a rational way, looked at them because they are accustomed to seeing these sights, and said "How very interesting. Yes, these should be very interesting to the viewing public". A surgeon or physician interested in his own technique probably did not think of the other implications, such as how the films might hurt those who were perhaps not so intelligent and not so well informed. The fact is that T.V. today is viewed by a vast number of emotionally unstable people, whose emotions are easily aroused and who identify themselves very closely with the proceedings in these films. On seeing medical films, they think that what they are seeing today may be their fate tomorrow.

Is it entertaining or educational to explain to neurotics what may happen if they pass over the borderline and become psychotic? In this sort of entertainment it is very easy to wear the cloak of respectability because this form of sensationalism is elevated into the scientific field.

We have been told that the patients co-operate. How many patients would refuse? I saw the film on Tuesday night. A woman was taken to have a heart operation. She gave consent to the doctor. Obviously she had to give consent for the operation. She was surrounded by doctors. She was in a serious condition. Would that woman argue? Would she be in a condition to say, "No, I will not be televised during this operation"? Of course not. The sick patient is not in a strong-minded mood to resist.

Others will say the doctors play a part. I agree certain doctors have played a part. I should like to know how many doctors have refused. No doubt those who do play a part are preoccupied with their own speciality and not with the wider implications which should be in the minds of us all.

I would remind the House that the two diseases responsible for the largest number of deaths are the cardiovascular diseases and cancer. The latest figures we have of cancer are for 1956, when 94,354 people died from cancer in this country. I have not all the figures for heart disease, but from coronary alone 74,790 died in this country.

I do not think that to discuss any aspect of these diseases on the screen can do other than distress thousands of sufferers and their friends sitting watching the screen to while away the time. It is said people should be selective, but how many people examine the Radio Times or the daily newspaper announcements of the programmes? They just switch on their television, and sometimes it is on all day.

Are the films educational? It is said that A little learning is a dangerous thing. The only knowledge of the heart operation viewers could have acquired on Tuesday was disturbing. They could not possibly have understood the technical expressions about the pericardial sac, and so on. They were told—this may have been serious—a child with acute rheumatism would not develop heart disease immediately but might develop it in the early twenties. They were shown a woman with swollen ankles as having the first sign of heart disease, when every doctor knows women with swollen ankles go to their surgeries every day but have not got heart disease.

The Minister in answering Questions yesterday gave the impression people were quite undisturbed by this series and had made no protest. I can only say that one mention of this debate in the Daily Telegraph brought certain letters to me which should convince the Minister that he should take action immediately of an advisory character. I am going to quote four of these. I am not quoting letters from individual patients to harrow the House. I am taking letters in a responsible fashion which I believe will impress because they represent groups. I am having to hurry because time is limited and the hon. Gentleman the Member for Edinburgh, West (Sir I. Clark Hutchison) has asked me if he could have a few minutes to take part in the debate.

I must, first, quote this letter as representing the attitude of the close relative of one of the patients. He says: I write to record the facts of the distressing incident in my home as a consequence of the B.B.C. television programme from the Christie Hospital.In February, 1956, my wife was seen by a surgeon, who made a diagnosis of Carcinoma of the breast with secondary deposits in the axillary lymph nodes following the one and only presenting symptom—a sharp pain deep in the chest wall. Immediate surgery was suggested, to be followed by a course of deep X-ray therapy. Statistics were produced and she submitted to the suggested line of treatment She has always known that she had secondary deposits and whenever we have discussed the prognosis I have always been able to leave her with no doubt in her mind that because the dissection had been carried out so skilfully she now came into the category of first degree cancer and that the 50 per cent. 5-year cure rate now applied to her.On Tuesday night the B.B.C. left no doubt that the 5-year cure applied only to those people of the first degree category and did not appertain in those cases which were more complicated. You will, I have no doubt, appreciate what a cloud all this can form over a patient faced with this situation, and though all propaganda for early visits to the general practitioner should be pushed to the utmost. I cannot help thinking that a good deal of unnecessary distress can be caused by people who are so imbued with statistics that the human touch is overlooked. That is the point I want to stress—the human touch has been overlooked in this search for novelty by the television people.

The next letter is from an ear, nose and throat surgeon. Incidentally, all these people are complete strangers to me. This surgeon is attached to a number of hospitals. These are busy people, but they have taken the trouble to write these letters. He says: I was interested to read in this morning's newspaper of your intention to criticise the television showing of cancer cases to the public. I sincerely hope you will get much support in this.A few weeks ago of the 40 new patients that I saw in my ear, nose and throat outpatients clinic eight were cancerphobia cases. Yesterday a girl of 20 attended my house with a similar condition, wanting reassurance.This is a mental illness which is steadily on the increase, and I am firmly convinced that education of the public in matters of this nature does more harm than good.Please do not acknowledge this letter. I quote next a letter from a chemist in a very busy area of London, and we all know how busy chemists are. I shall be only too happy to show the Minister these letters. He says: I notice that you are to introduce a debate in the House on Thursday regarding the advisability of the B.B.C. series on hospital practice. I thought that the following incident may help you to make a point.A woman came into my pharmacy last week with what appeared to be the symptoms of laryngitis—loss of voice, etc., and asked my advice. Her concluding words were, I thought, most significant. She said, 'I am terribly worried about it after seeing that programme on cancer on the T.V.'Surely one in thousands, that programmes of this nature could turn into either hypochondriacs or, worse still, neurotic cases. I have one from a rector, who gives the name of his rectory. He says: The weak must be protected. I am chaplain to a mental hospital where there is one T.V. room and programmes are rationed. But another mental hospital I know well has 30 T.V.s and no supervision over viewing—to the distress of the weaker patients. When the Minister was answering a Question in the House yesterday, he said that there was no indication that people were concerned about this. In the Library was the Evening Standard of yesterday's date. I think everyone will agree that those who contribute to the Evening Standard are fairly sophisticated men. In large type, the article says: I Never Want To See This Again On T.V. This is an article by the T.V. critic of the Evening Standard and it describes "Your Life in Their Hands". It says: It increased tenfold my admiration for the ironlined stomachs of the surgeons—but it turned mine completely.It was gruesome in the extreme, and I never want to see anything like it on television again. It also served to put me right off stuffed sheep's heart for the rest of my life.'Your Life in Their Hands' is the otherwise excellent series about hospital life that has angered the British Medical Association. The series ought never to have been made, says the B.M.A., who think it will only encourage the morbidly curious among the viewers. On last night's showing. I think the Association has a point there. I am afraid it just wasn't my stomach's night last night. Before the affair of the heart I was treated to close-ups of the feet and swollen ankles of a rheumatic fever patient. I have given these four quotations, and I think the Minister will agree that they are from responsible people. I have not worried the House by reading letters from patients. These are people who are in close association with these matters and who should be respected.

Here is an opportunity when those who can advise the B.B.C. should give the Corporation their advice. We were told yesterday that the Minister had no power, but I do not think that that is quite accurate. Advice could go from this House to the effect that when any programme of this nature, of any kind, was being considered, the representatives of the B.B.C. should take into account the hundreds of thousands of weak, helpless and inarticulate people who sit and watch and absorb and whose minds are deeply affected by what they see.

I recognise that television is the most powerful medium of propaganda, and it will become more powerful in future. We in this House must see that it is used in such a way that it will only help and not harm.

10.52 p.m.

Photo of Lieut-Colonel Sir George Hutchison Lieut-Colonel Sir George Hutchison , Edinburgh West

At Question Time yesterday, I raised this subject and questioned the wisdom of showing operations on television. It was clear at Question Time yesterday that most hon. Members present felt that there was nothing wrong and that they rather favoured this type of programme. I must, therefore, take due note of the opinion of the majority in matters of this nature. Nevertheless, I still have grave doubts on this matter and find myself in agreement with a great deal of what the right hon. Lady the Member for Warrington (Dr. Summerskill) has said.

Unlike the right hon. Lady, I can speak only as a layman. Therefore, it would be wrong for me to attempt to be dogmatic on a matter involving medical opinion. As a layman, however, I feel that there are certain dangers in the presentation of this type of programme to viewers all over the country. These dangers appear to me to be twofold.

First, the showing of this type of programme may lead a considerable number of lay viewers to imagine that they are suffering from some form of serious disease. As a consequence, it may well be that doctors who are already heavily burdened with work will be faced with a greatly increased demand for tests and medical examinations of one kind and another. I cannot think that this will be helpful to the efficient and smooth working of the National Health Service.

Secondly—and this is much more serious—I believe that the viewing of operations on the television screen may well frighten some people who are in the early grip of a disease and may, in fact, deter them from seeking medical advice. I find myself in considerable agreement with the recent articles in the BritishMedical Journal which emphasise the morbid effects of this type of programme.

There is certainly a great deal of very useful work which can be done by television in informing and educating the public in hygiene and the prevention of disease, and in this respect I commend to the attention of the B.B.C. the letter written by Dr. John Fry in the British Medical Journal on 22nd February. I think, however, that the televising of operations is going too far, and I therefore hope that my hon. Friend the Assistant Postmaster-General and his Minister will give long and deep thought to this matter and will seek further medical opinion on it, because if they do I feel sure that they will find that many doctors are seriously worried about the possible effect of these programmes upon members of the public.

10.55 p.m.

Photo of Mr Kenneth Thompson Mr Kenneth Thompson , Liverpool, Walton

The time left to me is short, and I must therefore abbreviate what I had intended to say. I want to preface my remarks with a few words about the degree of freedom accorded to the B.B.C. in forming its programmes, which is the basis of these discussions. The House is on record many times as wishing to leave the B.B.C. as untrammelled as possible by interference in or supervision over the subjects or treatment of broadcast programmes. I need not detain the House with quotations; they are liberally besprinkled through the pages of HANSARD. That is not surprising, for this House is the repository of all our freedoms—freedom for ourselves and freedom for those over whose lives and affairs we have some influence. That is entirely right. It is a claim of which the House is right to be proud.

What is perhaps more surprising is that although in our corporate entity we leap to the defence of this freedom. particularly for the B.B.C., there are sporadic, reactionary sorties every now and then from some hon. Members who wish to chip away a little of this freedom. now here, now there, because the exercise of it offends some susceptibility, perhaps personal or specialist, but for which it is seemingly thought worth sacrificing an important principle.

My own view—and I know that my right hon. Friend subscribes to it—is that this freedom, perhaps more than any other, is indivisible. Except so far as the ordinary decencies and accepted habits of our society demand self-restraint, it must be complete or it is a mockery, a sham freedom. Taste is the arbiter of the limits beyond which it must not trespass.

Photo of Mr Kenneth Thompson Mr Kenneth Thompson , Liverpool, Walton

Having said that, I acknowledge tonight, as I have acknowledged before, that this honourable House is the forum for debates of opinion and of fact. The right hon. Lady is right to bring here her misgivings and her prejudices.

I want to say a word about the programmes themselves. These are controversial programmes. That description, I think, is not in doubt, although I part very widely from the description of the programmes which the right hon. Lady used, as I part a very long way from her in the disdain, amounting to contempt. which she expressed in her opinion of the viewers and the general public in their capacity either to discriminate in this or, having made a discriminatory choice, to behave like adult citizens when they have done so. That is not my assessment of the capacity of my fellow men and women to judge for themselves and arrange their conduct in the light of that judgment.

These are controversial programmes. Indeed, the British Medical Journal. which has already been quoted tonight, acknowledges that there are two schools of medical opinion about them, leaving aside the opinion of the general public. I hope that it will not come as a revelation to the right hon. Lady to learn that, as far as I can judge, after close examination of the situation, her side of the medical argument is not unanimously supported by the rest of the medical opinion available either to the B.B.C. or to my right hon. Friend.

As my right hon. Friend said yesterday in answer to a Question by my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, West (Sir I. Clark Hutchison), the Royal College of Surgeons, the Royal College of Physicians and the College of General Practitioners have all expressed themselves as being in favour of the presentation of programmes of this kind. Since the appearance of the programmes, those colleges have expressed themselves as being in approval of the continuation of this very series which is now in dispute between the right hon. Lady and the B.B.C. Since seeing the programmes, the Royal College of Nursing has expressed its approval of them.

The right hon. Lady was able to quote a number of letters. I hope that she will not think it objectionable of me to tell her that the B.B.C. has also been the recipient of some letters since these programmes began to appear. Out of the 422 letters which the B.B.C. had received up to this afternoon, 400 were in favour of the programmes and 22 against. All the Corporation's viewer sampling—so far as we can accept that as having the appropriate amount of precision—shows that the viewers are nine out of ten in favour of the continuation of this kind of programme rather than an interruption of it at the behest of those who think it wrong.

The right hon. Lady was able to quote a newspaper correspondent who expressed himself as having been troubled by the programme. I ought to tell her that I have with me a very large number of clippings from newspapers all over the country almost entirely in support of the B.B.C.'s policy in presenting this kind of programme.

The medical opinion which the B.B.C. was able to sound, both before the presentation of the programme and afterwards, is largely in favour of the B.B.C.'s policy and contrary to the view expressed by the right hon. Lady.

It is true that for its own reasons the B.B.C.—the Corporation must be the judge—did not consult the British Medical Association. I do not think that my right hon. Friend is called upon to express an opinion on the rights and wrongs of that. In these things the B.B.C. must have its complete freedom until it acts in some outrageous way, and so far there has never been any need for my right hon. Friend or any of his predecessors to feel that there was a danger of that.

The Corporation did not consult the B.M.A. Supposing it had consulted the B.M.A. and supposing that the B.M.A. had expressed the opinion which now appears in the journal of the Association, was the B.B.C. then to allow the British Medical Association to have the power of veto—because that is what it would mean—over its proposals? Is the British Medical Association to be able to decide what is good for the public and what is not? Is it the B.M.A.'s judgment on which we are to rely rather than the judgment of these other distinguished medical authorities? The right hon. Lady will see, when she considers this matter, that she would be placing both the British Medical Association and the British Broadcasting Corporation in an impossible position.

My own opinion, and I am happy to say that my right hon. Friend subscribes to it, is that the programmes are courageous and have been presented with great professional skill by the medical and surgical people involved—and all are to be congratulated—and with great professional skill by the programme producers themselves. I have seen some of the programmes and have greatly admired what I have seen. I believe that they will do good rather than harm, although there may be some neurotic or hypochondriac who will react badly to what is done—that applies to some other films and presentations on the B.B.C.

On the whole, if one person is advised by these programmes to seek early opinion on a suspected or feared condition and if one life is saved or one illness shortened, then the B.B.C. will have cause to congratulate itself not only on its courage, but on the success of the whole series of programmes. If that happens, the B.B.C. will be able to claim that it has been instrumental in putting understanding in place of fear, information in place of mystery and guidance where there was only doubt.

11.5 p.m.

Photo of Mr Tony Benn Mr Tony Benn , Bristol South East

In the remaining moment, I want to dissociate myself from the views expressed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Warrington (Dr. Summerskill) and to explain that, although she spoke from the Front Bench, her views do not represent Labour Party policy. I agree very strongly with what the Minister has said. Possibly the B.B.C. under-rates the power of television, and that is a problem which the whole community has still to face.

Television is such a tremendous power in the community that all hon. Members and members of the medical and other professions are very worried about its impact. But it would be disastrous if we were to seek to limit the freedom of the broadcasting authorities in matters of this kind, and even more disastrous if we were to limit output of television programmes to the level thought suitable to a mental patient in a mental hospital which had a television set.

I welcome the way in which television has stripped off the mystique that surrounds medicine and stripped off the mystique which surrounds politics and presented to the people the information on which they can reach an independent decision about political, medical and other matters. I hope that one day, before too long, this country will see a commission set up to examine the impact of television on our society. I believe that such a commission will show that the effects of television have been almost entirely beneficial.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at seven minutes past Eleven o'clock.