Science is facing a crisis of democracy. Now more than ever, vitriolic attacks are being leveled at people who debate opposing scientific views. Asking questions that challenge the establishment may be unsettling, but silencing debate and proclaiming that the “science is settled” is not the solution.
Belgian physician Jan Vandenbroucke once wrote, “Without the possibility of open debate, science simply ceases to exist.” As an investigative science journalist, I’ve had first-hand experience with censorship.
For 11 years, I worked for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), a publicly owned TV network whose charter was to maintain editorial independence, the bedrock of journalism. My role as a TV journalist and producer was to investigate science issues and, if warranted, challenge orthodoxies.
My programs were built upon a foundation of exhaustive research, probing interviews, and thorough citations of scientific papers. They were not regurgitations of government advice or press releases; they were assiduous assessments of the evidence.
In 2013, I produced a two-part series called “Heart of the Matter,” which cited evidence challenging the role of cholesterol in heart disease and the overprescription of statins (cholesterol-lowering drugs).
The series aired with huge praise from the public, and it topped the ratings. We were applauded by all levels of ABC management for “superbly presented, provocative and intelligent programs,” for achieving a “timeslot crushing rating performance” and receiving “a public vote of confidence in great journalism.”
But the praise didn’t last long. The drug manufacturers and others with vested interests rallied their forces and went to war. They screamed blue murder, ramping up attacks in the media. We were accused of killing people by the more hysterical types. “People will die” and “ABC has blood on its hands,” they cried.
The media response was swift and disproportionate. Experts did not challenge the scientific merits of our programs; instead they chose to shoot the messengers.
The ABC launched an internal investigation. After 6 months, the panel concluded that both programs were factually accurate but that one section “unduly favoured one side” of the debate, the side that cautioned against mass prescription of statins.
Then, without warning or compunction, the ABC banned the programs from the website. A fully referenced webpage dedicated to extended interviews, scientific papers, and all the evidence to back up our thesis had been censored and replaced with an apology.
ABC executives were quick to disown the programs. Worse, they turned on us. We were instructed to keep our heads down and weather the media storm. We were gagged from making any public comment and threatened that disobedience would be considered “a breach in employment conditions.” We chose to obey their demands for silence, thinking it was the best way to demonstrate our loyalty.
Upon reflection, that was a mistake. We had been publicly wounded with an unfair characterization, which we failed to contest with the necessary strength.
News of the ABC’s capitulation attracted international criticism. Doctors were outraged by the injustice, calling for the programs to be reinstated. Several books were published, referencing the controversy.
I became the subject of attacks by those with vested interests. Secret documents revealed food industry giants initiated “active defence” against me (and others) for challenging their marketing messages.
It manifested in social media attacks, industry-sponsored propaganda by so-called “experts” paid to undermine my credibility, critics’ calls for my sacking, and vexatious complaints about my scientific integrity.
Eventually, our entire team was axed from the ABC. The TV executives who promised to support us, the same people who approved and applauded our programs, were now the ones walking us all out the door.
I am comforted by the knowledge that as scientists, journalists, and researchers, we did our job: We asked the right questions with facts and rigor. That is what sustains us.
Dr. Maryanne Demasi is a well-known investigative journalist whose work on scientific documentaries has been praised by the National Press Club of Australia for exhibiting “excellence in health journalism.”
Demasi earned a Ph.D. in rheumatology from the University of Adelaide in 2004. She currently works as a researcher for the Nordic Cochrane Centre.