Eye blinks

Back before Christmas, Ian Hislop gave an interview to the Simon Mayo show while he doing the rounds promoting the Private Eye annual, and he said a lot of the same things about his publication as Terence Eden did in this comment. The Eye is fortnightly so they have time to decide what’s important rather than being forced to follow the saturation cycle of 24-hour news. The cartoons and gossip draw readers in, but the investigative reporting (In The Back and Rotten Boroughs especially) are the meat of the mag. And it’s a strange and successful combination: Anthony Sampson’s description of the Eye is a really good account of what makes it such a scrappy and admirable institution:

One oddball paper has appeared almost impervious to the hazards and pressures. The fortnightly Private Eye, which was established 40 years ago, looked the most ephemeral of all, with its shoddy newsprint, makeshift headlines and gossipy items. But it survived enemies and libel suits and maintained its eccentric style under only two editors, Richard Ingrams and Ian Hislop, with its bohemian offices in Soho and fortnightly lunches at the Coach And Horses. It was not dependent on big advertisers or big business interests, and it retained its crucial ingredient: it was close to the curiosity and conversation of its readers.

Who Runs This Place?, p. 239

Who Runs This Place? is five years old, so Sampson doesn’t have as much to say about the online threat to papers as a similar writer would now, but I’ve often admired the determinedly aloof strategy of the Eye on the net. They don’t give away their content for free, and despite slight year-on-year drops, they’ve remained the top-selling current affairs title. That’s impressive.

Not everything about the magazine is so inspiring, though. In the Mayo interview, Hislop seemed slightly confounded when asked about MMR. Unlike another commenter (who’s working on a nice webcomic if you click through), the Eye‘s credulous coverage of  Wakefield didn’t put me off the magazine entirely, although it did knock my trust in their other campaigns and causes. Hislop’s line in the interview (audio via Black Triangle) is that the Eye‘s medical correspondent believes there’s no link, there were questions that needed to be asked, there’s nothing else the magazine can add to the debate, and he’s not sorry about the line they took.

I think that’s a pile of balls, and poisonous balls at that. And it’s something that I could tolerate, just about, as an error of over-enthusiastic criticism; but it’s consistent with an alarmingly suspicious attitude to statistics. “A lot of the medical experts who said it [MMR] is absolutely safe were statistitians reviewing other papers by experts which they hadn’t done themselves”, says Hislop, as if that discredits their work. (Here’s Ben Goldacre explaining what meta-analysis is, how it works and why it’s important.) Recently, the author of the Eye‘s Medicine Balls column, MD, has adopted a sympathetic line on complementary medicine in the NHS:

A year-long pilot scheme in Northern Ireland found impressive health benefits for patients offered complementary therapies, so why were it’s findings not released for more than a year? […] The trial wasn’t randomised or controlled […] The fact that the Northern Ireland health board hasn’t released the results in a big fanfare suggests it just doesn’t have the money to extend the service.

Private Eye, “Medicine Balls”, no. 1231

The best way for CAM to get NHS funding is to produce conclusive trial evidence, and the NHS now has a vast GP research database that can be used for randomised observational studies of “real-life” patients, rather than the more artificial environment of controlled trials.

Private Eye, “Medicine Balls”, no. 1232

There’s a typical leap of Eye logic in the first column: despite the obvious positive interpretation (the study hasn’t been pimped to the press because it’s not a proper study), MD suggests that it’s been suppressed to limit expenses. Then in the second column, written in defense of the first after critics like David Colquhoun took a big swing at MD in the letters page, MD proposes something that sounds a bit like a study because it would mean drawing information from a large body of research, but is probably more like mining for anecdotes.

So, if the Eye‘s attitude is that self-reported experience rates above peer-reviewed cumulative data for deciding NHS funding, and there’s no editorial appetite for self-criticism over the MMR debacle, how much confidence are we supposed to have in their investigative work? If I want critical reporting of a medical story, I’m better off looking to the Badscience bloggers

The Eye‘s strategy of holding the internet at a critical distance has worked out ok for them so far, but the increasingly spaced-out alignment of the small ads suggests that they’re taking some of the same hit that’s injured the local press. The Eye is insulated from internet competition – for advertising and for content – to a certain degree by the strong reader community Sampson recognised. But it can’t survive by treating the internet as a refuge of scandal and plagiarism like it does now. It’s true that every magazine has ups and downs over 50 years, but the Eye seems to be  hitting a down patch and not attending to some serious threats at the same time. And if the Eye goes on the blink, who’ll be left to scoop up the rotten boroughs and PFI disasters?

2 thoughts on “Eye blinks

  1. i must admit i’m pretty dissapointed (and similarly alarmed when it comes to his views on statistics) to hear hislop simply shrugging off the mmr debacle like this, i may have jumped ship over the issue but i had held out hope that the eye would be one of the few publications that would be able to honistly admit having made a mistake.
    what is almost more dissapointing however hislop’s statement that there’s “nothing else the magazine can add to the debate”, one of the things the eye always seemed consistantly good at was critisim of the press itself, it’s errors, lazy journalism, conflicts of interest, and hypocracies, many examples of which have come to light (and continue to) in the aftermath of wakefield.
    however if what he says is accurate, then it seems the eye will stay sadly silent on the issues of press respisibility when covering medical stories, and the shameless about-faces that many papers have done over vaccination in the past few months, and this really is a loss.

    (thank you for the webcomic plug by the way)

  2. Nice post. I’ve always liked Ian Hislop, but his comments on MMR are disappointing.
    The Eye’s coverage was poor, Hislop’s remarks about the value of meta analyses are disappointing, and his current position seems to be the same as that of the Daily Mail – something along the lines of ‘mistakes were made, but not by us’.

Comments are closed.