The New Zealand Press Council has upheld a complaint against North & South's cover article on homeopathy in its July, 2012 edition.

A registered homeopath, Clive Stuart of Tauranga, complained that the cover, the article, its illustration and an accompanying editorial, were highly derogatory, inaccurate and misleading.

He said the article was wrong to say that, "homeopathic remedies have failed every randomised, evidence-based scientific study seeking to verify their claims of healing powers".

In support of that statement, the editor of North & South cited the conclusions of a meta-analysis published in the British medical journal The Lancet in 2005. It had found "weak evidence for a specific effect of homeopathic remedies" and it said this finding was "compatible with the notion that the clinical effects of homeopathy are placebo effects".

Mr Stuart supplied the Press Council with a letter from Dr David St George, Chief Advisor on Integrative Care for the Ministry of Health, who advises the ministry on the development of complementary medicine in New Zealand and its potential integration into the public health system. He was not speaking for the ministry in this case but offering a personal view.

Dr St George believed the statement in North & South's article arose from a misunderstanding of the Lancet study, which had compared 110 published placebo-controlled trials of homeopathy with the same number of published placebo-controlled trials of conventional medical drug treatments. He said most of the 110 homeopathy trials in that study were "randomised, evidence-based scientific studies" which demonstrated an effect beyond a placebo effect.

Dr St George said there was no debate about whether there were scientific studies demonstrating homeopathy's therapeutic benefit but rather, whether those studies were of an acceptable methodological quality.

In the Council's view this distinction was unduly subtle. If the studies are not of an acceptable methodological quality, it would seem fair to say, as North & South did, that "there is no scientific evidence of homeopathy's efficacy". But that would be a statement of opinion in medical research, not an accepted fact. The North & South article presented it as a matter of fact.

North & South declined to respond to the information from Dr St George since the complainant submitted it after the editor had answered his initial complaint to the Press Council and his right of reply. The Council was conscious that in considering a third submission from Mr Stuart it was departing from its declared procedure but having seen Dr St George's information the Council felt it could not close its eyes to it.

It found the article inaccurate in so far as the state of scientific research into homeopathy is not as conclusive as North & South had suggested.

Mr Stuart made a number of other complaints about the magazine's treatment of homeopathy. He said the article featured the views of two critics and only one defender, the editorial stated that homeopaths had advised patients against the MMR vaccine and promoted a homeopathic solution to Aids, the cover lines ("Do you believe in magic? - the truth about alternative medicine") were unfair, as was an illustration inside which appeared to him to be a witch.

He also complained at the treatment of a letter he sent to the magazine for publication. It appeared in the September issue where it was accompanied by a response from a critic of homeopathy, Dr Shaun Holt, who had been quoted at length in the July article.

The Council did not uphold these complaints. It said the requirements of balance are not strictly numerical. The article gave ample space to the chairwoman of the International Council of Homeopathy. The editorial's references to homeopathic advice on the MMR vaccine and Aids echoed criticism in other publications, while the July cover lines and inside illustration simply reflected the attitude the magazine had taken to the subject. Nor was the treatment of Mr Stuart's letter objectionable. It is an editor's prerogative to refer a letter to a third party for an answering view before publication.

The Council said newspapers and magazines are entitled to take a severely critical attitude to any product or practice that claims health benefits but they need to take care that the facts they present are accurate. They need to take particular care in references to medical research. The references in this case were not sufficiently accurate, balanced or fair to homeopathy and its practitioners. On those grounds the complaint was upheld.

Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson, Liz Brown, Pip Bruce Ferguson, Kate Coughlan, Chris Darlow, Peter Fa’afiu, Sandy Gill, Penny Harding and John Roughan.


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