Friday, 11 February 2011

My response to Christopher Martyn's 'Observations'

For anyone who may have missed it, the Associate Editor of the British Medical Journal, Christopher Martyn published an 'observation' piece yesterday (bizarrely titled 'lactation wars') seemingly as an attempt to underplay the BMJ's role in generating innaccurate press reportage of the opinion piece. 
Here's a link to most of the article for anyone who isn't a subscriber ;)

In a piece which served only to display his personal arrogance and prejudices he singularly failed to respond to the concerns of UNICEF UK, the World Health Organisation, the LLLI, the Royal College of Midwives, the Food Standards Agency, Baby Milk Action, and a long list of eminient health professionals (those he might be persuaded to consider 'peers') who wrote to express their objections to the publication's contents and the press interpretation of it.  

Instead he chose the well-worn path of trying to blame breastfeeding advocates for making something out of nothing.
“A common mistake when trying to reach a provisional and nuanced conclusion is to underestimate the ability of readers to find an unintended meaning.”
Come, come now Mr Martyn.  I know you got as far as paragraph two (because you quoted it), but did you bother to read the rest of my piece?  From the outset it explains that it's not a reaction to the BMJ publication, but rather to the sensationalist press reaction which followed it
You accuse us blogging simpletons of missing the point  - but I suggest you missed the point of our reaction to it - spectacularly.

I did not - for example - go as far as to blame the BMJ for the distorted headline in the Sun which you so readily dismissed.  However, thanks to you, I will now.

The BMJ were responsible for facilitating a widespread misunderstanding when they took a perfectly legitimate piece of scholarship (one which was - as described in my piece - not even a new debate) and turned it into a press release with this (emboldened) title:

'Is 'breast only' for first 6 months best?'

Any Press Officer worth their salt would have realised exactly how the British Press were likely to react to a Press Release with this title, and therefore the blame for any misunderstandings rests squarely with the British Medical Journal.  The folks at the Sun only had to remove a few words, and they had their headline.

If the BMJ don't want plebs (like us simpletons) to read their publications, then why on earth would they issue a press release the day prior to publication to the dailies drawing their attention to it?  A cynic might suggest they wanted this press reaction - we already know that the publication makes a substantial amount of money from
advertising formula to doctors, and of course, none from breastfeeding.

A shocking allegation of course - perhaps it's not even true - but if the BMJ wants to convince anyone they're impartial they're going about it in a rather strange way.

Surely it's the likes of the Sun newspaper Mr Martyn needs to be criticising for their 'misunderstanding'?  
Has he written to THEM?  Of course not.  He's probably dining in the same club as the editor.

But how is it that we're criticised for being unable to understand the articles, and yet Joe Public (to whom us eejits are married) is credited with enough intelligence to look beyond the front page headline and remember instead the 'faithful prĂ©cis of the original article' beneath? 

Because now I AM confusedAre we stupid or not Mr Martyn?

Well, Mr Martyn might think we're 'complete fools' but I'm not stupid enough to believe that he doesn't have an agenda of his own.

I know Christopher Martyn does consultancy work and research for Abbott Laboratories - the company behind Similac, Pedialyte amongst other formula milks sold in the US as well as many other brands worldwide.  On their UK website they state their aim of becoming 'the UK's premier health care company' - and they produce formula milks specifically for the medical market here in the UK.  I should imagine they never advertise in the BMJ either.

Totally unbiased then. 

But I guess I can understand why Mr Martyn might not realise the impact the BMJ opinion piece and it's subsequent press coverage has had.  After all, how much do you think Mr Martyn knows about breastfeeding?  How many mothers do you think he has helped to breastfeed their babies?  Given his struggle with 'overexplicit' imagery, I would imagine not many.  Therefore he cannot possibly appreciate the reality of mothers who are being advised by their Health Visitors to give their babies solids at a few months old because the 'guidelines have changed'.
Sitting in his study, Mr Martyn might well imagine that Health Professionals will have been able to distinguish between the press headlines and the actual content of the opinion piece...  
The sad thing is it just shows how very out of touch he, and the BMJ truely are.
You could be forgiven for thinking that Mr Martyn's condescending article was written in the 1970's, so patronising is it's tone.  It feels very much like the intention was to belittle all the silly women who dared to comment on things they didn't understand in the hope that they'd have the sense to shut up. 

But this is the C21st - and modern, educated women don't take kindly to such a tone from anyone.    If Mr Martyn thinks 'planet blog' is irrelevant, then both he and the BMJ are very much mistaken.  We're the ones who help the mums the doctors let down - and hence help to protect their health and the health of their babies.  Compare his attitude to that of the US Surgeon General Dr. Regina Benjamin, who invited breastfeeding bloggers and mother supporters BestforBabes to her 'Call to Action' on Breastfeeding just last month.  She clearly doesn't believe planet blog is irrelevant and understands it's ability to play a part in public health, even if Mr Martyn does not.

Even though Christopher Martyn doesn't agree with it, the plebs of this world do still have a right to reply, and a right to disagee, and a right to criticise.  

I'm delighted Mr Martyn chose to respond to us - though I rather think a response to the many critcisms levelled at the BMJ from amongst it's valued 'peers' would have been more appropriate.  
Or perhaps he doesn't have the guts to accuse them of getting the 'wrong end of the stick' too?

There is one thing Mr Martyn and I do agree on, however.

I am a 'fundamentalist'.  I believe breastfeeding is fundamental to good health.


  1. Well said DBM! - a nasty patronising piece from Monsieur Martyn which again does not reflect well on the BMJ - they just keep digging a bigger hole don't they!

  2. I was irritated that he used the word "fundamentalist" and I am SO PLEASED that you turned it around and wore it like a crown. At this point, they're trying to cover their bottoms and act like they're innocent. Good thing that "planet blog" (PAH!) has enough sense to look behind the curtain and show the truth in the words.
    Keep up the fantastic work DMB!

  3. Great post!
    <3 your blog!
    Stopping by from:

  4. Not sure if this is open-access, but BMJ's audience made good points in response to the original biased opinion piece:

  5. You have written of Abbott Labs:

    On their UK website they state their aim of becoming 'the UK's premier health care company' - and they produce formula milks specifically for the medical market here in the UK.

    as if this is something wrong?

    Sadly there are babies, children and adults in the UK who rely on medical formula specifically designed for their needs for their sole nutrition, as they are unable, often due to severe brain damage suffered either at birth or later, to eat or drink enough orally to maintain their bodies energy needs.

    When severe brain damage is suffered then the digestive system in its entirety suffers most: some of these babies can absorb fibre, some can't, some need extra high calorie feeds, some don't, some need pre-digested feeds, some don't. All of these feeds need to be made somewhere.

    All of these children are fed through tubes either going up their noses and down their throats [which have to be inserted by parents] and some through tubes surgically placed in their tummies or lower down the digestive tract.

    Sadly breastmilk, cow, goat, sheep or soya milk, or traditional formula milks are not enough to keep these children and adults alive.

    As a parent of a 5yo daughter who was breastfed until she suffered severe brain damage after illness at 11months old I am glad that there are companies out there making the milk she needs to live and thrive. There was no way I could have pumped enough milk to feed her even had we not been in three different intensive care units in two days in three different blue light ambulances.

    I would ask therefore in future postings that you recognise that for some children medical formula is fundamental to life

  6. Absolutely - these medical formulas have a place - as do those sold over the counter! I am so sorry to read of your situation. There are situations (of course) where a mother needs to supplement. Many of the mums in our group do so for a variety of reasons. I was not trying to suggest that these products aren't important - but I hope you can see my point that someone who is employed by this industry might not be entirely without a commercial interest?

  7. I completely agree that Mr Martyn clearly either has an agenda with his response, or is completely naive as to the power that the mass media has over "general opinion" both conscious and subconscious.

    That the title of the original piece was deliberately provocative, that it was presented to the press as new findings rather than an opinion piece, and the fact that it was unquestionably deliberately sent out as a press release to all media outlets (broadsheet newspapers and tabloid rags alike) is more than enough to render the content of the article irrelevant from the outset. The people with vested interests know this. They're not stupid - they know that gentle nudges have substantial effects over a large enough population. Whether or not the content of the article was "considered and scientific" (although in my opinion, it was not) is largely irrelevant. The everyman does not muse, 6 months or a year down the line, "Yes I read an article about this a while ago in the BMJ that suggested the possibility that...", he says: "Oh yeah... I remember seeing something somewhere that said it's 4 months now not 6."

    That is worth remembering - we not only have to contend with the skewed articles of formula-funded "scientists", we also have to contend with tabloid newspapers who will take already inflamatory article titles and further sensationalise them... and why? Because they want to sell more newspapers.

    All of that said and put to one side, and even completely disregarding the topic of the articles... Mr Martyn is an editor of the BMJ, and has seen fit to throw his toys out of the pram and write a passive aggressive piece insulting and questioning the intelligence of the publications readers, in response to criticism of one article. It's highly reminiscent of the Kathryn Blundell spectactle, when the editor of M&B Magazine entered into "defensive politician" mode to defend the publication, in the absence of reason or consideration. Except this isn't a gossipy baby magazine. This is the British Medical Journal. Which makes it terrifying.

    Carolynn Manlove: I fully understand why you are eternally grateful for the existence of medical formula. Doubtlessly, there ARE babies who wouldn't survive without it, and the fact that the human race is technologically advanced enough to create it is a blessing for many families. However, I feel that the fact that its existence is a good thing and saves lives should not be confused with the manufacturers WANTING to save lives. The good outcomes of what they manufacture are not their motivation for continuing to do so. The motivation is money, purely and simply, and this is what is relevant here. Abbott Laboratories may save lives, but their quest to become "The UK's premier healthcare company" is not driven by a desire to help more people - it's driven by a desire to gain a larger market share, and this is a concern when it comes to vested interests and bias in articles.

    Put another way: The Coca-Cola company doesn't care that you're thirsty.


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