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

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

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Dr Edith Summerskill Dr Edith Summerskill , Warrington 12:00 am, 27th February 1958

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.