Sunday, July 25, 2010

Establishing the facts on animal experiment labs

I often hear people say that it is the job of a newspaper to be fair and balanced, but of course it's not except when it comes to matters of opinion. When it is a matter of fact, it is the job of a newspaper to ascertain the truth and report it.

Nick Davies in his book Flat Earth News illustrates it with this question: if a council sends two men to mow a meadow and they return with one of them saying they mowed it and the other saying they didn't, what should the newspaper report? If it was fair and balanced, the article might start like this: A row broke out today over whether or not two men had mowed a meadow ... But, of course, that's not how the story should go at all - the newspaper should seek out the truth and put it before its readers. In this case, it is fairly simple to go and check whether or not the meadow has been mowed.

It's not always that easy. Take the row going on over the work by Leicester University to replace the fairly dated facilities that it has for carrying out experiments on animals.

Vivisection is a controversial subject at any time and, unsurprisingly, there is a campaign to stop the building. You can see the website of Stop the Leicester Lab here.

It seems to me that the question of whether or not there should be animal experiments at the university is one of opinion and our coverage should be fair and balanced, allowing both sides of the argument to put their case.

However, within that argument there are some facts and part of what we should try to do is establish the truth about the various claims and counter-claims.

One of the key arguments going on is over the sort of experiments that are carried out in the labs. The campaigners say that the university experiments on dogs and primates. Indeed, their website shows pictures of beagles being operated on. The university, on the other hand, says this is simply not true.

It is often difficult to establish the truth in situations like this because the discussion around vivisection is always carried out with an underlying threat of violence. To be fair to the Stop the Leicester Lab, their website is clear in its call for non-violent protest: 'We ask that supporters hold demonstrations outside their local office and politely contact those listed in complaint of their involvement in increasing animal experimentation and abuse.' However, the history of violence in similar cases elsewhere in the country is enough to mean that the university and those who work there are nervous about publicity.

Despite this, the University of Leicester has allowed one of our reporters to see for himself exactly what goes on in the labs. There were no preconditions put on our visit and our reporter was told that he could choose where he wanted to go and could look wherever he chose.

You can see his report here.

The outcome is that we could find no evidence whatsoever of experiments being carried out on dogs or primates. This, combined with the licence conditions and the statements of the university, leads us to believe that no such experiments are carried out.

This is not a comment on whether or not vivisection is right - but the argument should be based on fact, not exaggeration and scare tactics.