Media council favors Valkee, weakens freedom of the press

The Council for Mass Media in Finland has handed out an official notification about misconduct to the Suomen Kuvalehti magazine, part of Otava Media. Valkee Ltd had complained to the council about an article which had analyzed Valkee’s science, much like earlightswindle.com.

The logical conclusion: Valkee’s health claims are bogus. That conclusion was left unchallenged. But the company wanted to present its “dissenting opinion” – i.e. marketing message – along with the criticism.

From the council’s decision:

“the company got very negative publicity from this article [...] because the efficacy of the device manufactured and marketed by [Valkee Ltd] was denied completely. [...] The company was not heard … There are conflicting expert opinions and understandings of the studies regarding the earlight headplugs, and the final truth is not found yet. For these reasons, [Valkee Ltd] had the right to a representation.” [rough translation]

The council thus decided in favor of the so-called Balance bias, a phenomenon which competent journalists worldwide seek to avoid. The textbook example for catastrophic misinformation resulting from a neutral viewpoint was the row about global warming. The media made it look as if the climate skeptics’ points would be actually discussed in the scientific community. Actually, there was, and is, clear scientific consensus. A representation of scientific facts skewed by “neutral” reporting.

Just the same as in the Valkee case: Nobody except company-affiliated persons ever claimed that the device works. So, how could somewhone claim “the truth is not found yet”? The device does simply not work. Efficacy must be proven, not its non-existence.

With the same logic, a documentary about the Apollo Missions would have to include the dissenting viewpoint, that it’s all a NASA fake. This idea, too, was brought up later by crackpots. Does it mean that “the truth is not found yet”?

The Council for Mass Media in Finland is not alone with its uninformed view. Numerous such cases are documented, some sound funny, others tragic. The BBC was attacked for misrepresenting astrology in an astronomy programme. Public discussion about vaccination risks, started by an now-convicted charlatan, led to a drastic fall in MMR vaccination rates in the UK. (Read the excellent BMJ article in full.)

There have been numerous court cases in Europe, where companies tried to stop negative reports with just the same arguments like Valkee Ltd. It reminds very much of a legendary german trial: 40 years ago, the pharmaceutical firm Nattermann, backed by the industry lobby groups, tried to stop reports about the inefficacy of one of its blockbuster drugs. The final decision by the Köln Apellate Court (OLG Köln) had a remarkable rationale:

[the journal] acted with legitimate interest… [In medicine,] it’s crucially important to inform [...] timely about negative findings, to save the patient from possible harm.

If the positive sides [of the product] are brought into prominence by massive advertising, the press has every right to pick negative statements and to cite them, even if the same publication, where the quote is taken from, contains also positive opinions.”

Valkee Ltd has a long tradition of suppressing inconvenient information on the net, and now it takes on the old media. Where’s the actual court decision which gets things right?

update 7.7.2014: there’s a twitter storm going on about this just now. Better late than never. See Longplay.fi and #valkee.

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