Sorry that it has taken us a while to put up a response to the broadcast of this show: some really bad MMR/autism science distracted me. Frankly, I found parts of the Food for the Brain/Chineham Green Tonight with Trevor McDonald show pretty disturbing, and the TV coverage of this project raises serious ethical questions. I have real doubts that it was ethical to use footage of vulnerable children in the way is was used – for reasons I will explain below. I therefore won’t be linking to an online version of the show – if broadcasting this was unethical, I would not want to compound this by linking to a version of the show – but I will transcribe relevant segments. I know that millions have already watched the show – far more than would see any video I linked on this blog – but I think it is worth taking a principled (albeit perhaps pretty impotent) stand on this.
When doing research on children, researchers should be very careful to protect their interests: even if young children give consent to particular procedures (for example, to being filmed for prime time TV) this cannot be fully informed consent. As the British Psychological Society’s Ethical Principles for conducting Research with Human Participants puts it:
Research with children…requires special safe-guarding procedures…If harm, unusual discomfort, or other negative consequences for the individual’s future life might occur, the investigator must obtain the disinterested approval of independent advisers, inform the participants, and obtain informed, real consent from each of them.
When judged according to this type of (fairly conventional) criteria for research ethics, the Chineham Green project raises real concerns. I will discuss a couple of these concerns here.
The programme begins by showing some footage of three children, and the mum saying that “they all have learning difficulties at some point”. Soon after, the programme introduces a number of children who will be followed throughout the show: Child A, introduced as having learning difficulties and being hyperactive at home; Child B, who “has attention problems”; and Child C, “who has poor levels of concentration”. All these children are clearly and identifiably shown on screen.
This concerns me: people with learning difficulties sometimes choose not to disclose this to others; however, discussing the learning difficulties of these children on prime time TV may limit the options available in the future. This could therefore be harmful – for example, expose these children to future prejudice.
Further on, the show records children going through a “battery of psychological tests”. Staff – psychologists, I presume – ask children questions such as “do you feel like crying sometimes” and “when they bug you, do you get very angry”. The faces of the children being tested are often visible – along with what are often pretty obvious emotional reactions on the part of the children. Once again, this could be harmful to the children: it could expose them to future prejudice and teasing.
Bringing in the TV cameras therefore raises ethical issues around the effects of this on the children. It may also have seriously biased the results of the Chineham Green project: for example, if you film a young boy while asking ‘do you cry often’, this may well effect his answer. Moreover, the presence of cameras may have influenced childrens’ behaviour in different ways – for example, did they think that eating the ‘healthy’ food provided would help them to get on TV?
Broadcasting the Chineham Green project on Tonight with Trevor McDonald thus raises serious ethical issues, and may have introduced additional biases to the research. Put bluntly, then – I don’t think that this project should have been filmed or broadcast. The broadcast of the project carried risks both for the children involved and for the quality of the research. While Holford describes himself as a “media nutritionist”, this is therefore a case where research could have been done better without the media being involved.