Mark Sergeant on the Society’s response to the Leveson Inquiry; and more

The only way is ethics

Mark Sergeant on the Society's response to the Leveson Inquiry

The phone hacking scandal dominated the headlines for several months (as I reported in the September ‘Media’ page), and in the aftermath David Cameron established the Leveson Inquiry to review the culture, practice and ethics of the UK press ( Lord Justice Leveson, the Chairman of the Inquiry, will specifically examine the links between the press and the public, police and politicians. A range of witnesses will provide evidence, under oath and in public, including newspaper reporters, management, proprietors, policemenand politicians of all parties.

Lord Justice Leveson began hearing evidence on the 14 November with a statement that ‘The press provides an essential check on all aspects of public life. That is why any failure within the media affects all of us. At the heart of this Inquiry, therefore, may be one simple question: who guards the guardians?’

The Inquiry will make recommendations on the future regulation of the UK press. The focus will be on maintaining the freedom of
the press while at the same time ensuring they observe the highest ethical and professional standards.

The Inquiry itself will be composed of four interlinked modules. Module 1 looks at the relationship between the press and the public and looks at phone-hacking and other potentially illegal behaviour. Module 2 examines the relationships between the press and police and the extent to which that has operated in the public interest. Module 3 reviews the relationship between press and politicians. Module 4 debates recommendations for a more effective policy and regulation that supports the integrity and freedom of the press while encouraging the highest ethical standards.

In December, the British Psychological Society made a submission to the Leveson Inquiry ( Members of the Society who contributed to the submission were: Dr Carole Allen (President), Dr Cynthia McVey, Professor John Oates, Dr Ceri Parsons, Dr Sinead Rhodes and myself (Dr Mark Sergeant). The Society’s submission primarily relates to Module 1 of the Inquiry, the relationship between the press and the public, although some of the evidence is also relevant to Module 4 on media ethics.

The Society’s submission echoes a submission by the Science Media Centre ( thata substantial amount of the UK media coverage of psychological issues, and science stories more generally, is accurate and balanced. This is due to the skill and dedication of the specialised health and science journalists employed in the national press. Indeed a few years ago I had the pleasure of working with the Science Media Centre, as part of a British Science Association media fellowship, through which I had the opportunity to meet the majority of these specialised journalists. Regardless of the publication they worked for, they were all professional individuals committed to the accurate and responsible reporting of health and science stories. However, the decision about what material makes
it into the papers, and the way that it is presented, is usually taken by the editorial team who are primarily concerned with circulation figures.  
There are implications arising from the occasionally overly simplistic and sensationalised reporting of psychological topics. For example, a 2010 article published in the Daily Mail entitled ‘Depression? It’s just the new trendy illness!’ ( advised suffers with depression to ‘Get a grip, girls!’. The combination of a sensationalised headline and insensitivity has the potential to be highly distressing to those diagnosed with depression.

A reply under the article by Paul Jenkins, chief executive of the Rethink Mental Illness charity, highlights some of the potentially misleading claims.

In addition, the Society’s submission to the Leveson Inquiry highlights the need to consider the ethical well-being of individuals involved in broadcast media. It is presumed that members of the general public who willingly become involved with the broadcast media, especially those which fall under the category of reality TV, are aware of the consequences of such exposure. However, such individuals may not be explicitly aware of what is expected of them nor fully appreciate the potentially negative outcomes, particularly if they are psychologically vulnerable. These issues can particularly arise in programmes where there is some review of an individual’s lifestyle or life choices,
where the friends and family of such an individual can become the focus of media activity. The Society has issued advice to psychologists who may be advising production companies and broadcasters (via

In short, the Society called on Leveson to consider that psychology-related stories should be reported in an accurate and balanced way, considering the psychological implications of news and features, both for the individuals involved and for the general public. Furthermore, the Society supports the view of the Science Media Centre that there should be a change to the Press Complaints Commission rule stating
that only an individual scientist can complain about an inaccurate story.

The scientific community must be able to make complaints about inaccurate articles which damage the public interest. This would allow professional bodies, such as the Society, to support their members more fully.

The master of illusion 

There are some fantastic science journalists out there who regularly write about psychology. A special mention should go to Hannah Devlin, who has in the past worked for the Oxford Centre for fMRI and who has recently been appointed Science Editor for The Times. But this month I would like to highlight the prolific and talented Ed Yong, who blogs at Discover magazine under the banner ‘Not exactly rocket science’.

A piece by Yong for Nature in December serves as a great exemplar (see Yong travelled to Stockholm to meet neuroscientist Henrik Ehrsson, who uses mannequins, rubber arms and virtual reality to create body illusions ‘to probe, stretch and displace people’s sense of self’. The storeroom in Ehrsson’s lab is stuffed with mannequins, disembodied dolls’ heads, fake hands, cameras, knives and hammers. ‘It looks like a serial killer’s basement’, writes Yong.

‘The other neuroscientists think we’re a little crazy,’ Ehrsson admits.
As Yong writes, the feeling of body ownership is so ingrained that few people ever think about it – and those scientists and philosophers who do have assumed that it was unassailable. ‘Yet Ehrsson’s illusions have shown that such certainties, built on a lifetime of experience, can be disrupted with just ten seconds of visual and tactile deception. This surprising malleability suggests that the brain continuously constructs its feeling of body ownership using information from the senses – a finding that has earned Ehrsson publications in Science and other top journals, along with the attention of other neuroscientists.’

Headsets, cameras or fake body parts are used to fool the eyes, and synchronous strokes and prods add a tactile clincher. In 2007, Ehrsson reported that he had used such props to convince subjects that they had left their own bodies. A year later, he convinced them that they had acquired a new one, and, in his latest trick, that they had jumped into a tiny Barbie doll.

Ehrsson thinks such illusions depend on ‘multisensory’ neurons. ‘We think these circuits are important, not just for representing external objects, but representing your own body and the boundary between your body and the world.’

Yong does a superb job of explaining these complex procedures and what the resultant illusions actually feel like, as well as the scientific and practical implications of the research. ‘Ownership illusions could help people to take control of entire alien bodies, both virtual and robotic,’ he writes, ‘in a way that would afford a finer degree of control than the joysticks and other controllers used to steer robots and avatars today.’

He concludes: ‘It sounds far-fetched, but so does most of what Ehrsson has achieved so far. “We’re working on it,” he says. “Then again, it might be impossible.”’ Yong always conveys the sense of wonder and possibility that characterises great science, and great writing. We are lucky to have such talented eyes surveying our discipline. JS

Media - Curiosity

Music is a form of media that doesn’t get  a lot of attention in these pages, despite  its clear capacity to reflect psychological themes. With this in mind, I would like to bring your attention to a long-running project by electronic musician James Kirby under the moniker ‘The Caretaker’, who attracted numerous reviews recently for his album ‘An empty bliss beyond this world’.

Initially inspired by the haunted ballroom scene in the Stanley Kubrick film The Shining, The Caretaker has shifted attention onto the brain’s function in recalling memories. Inspired by research by neurologist Brandon Ally suggesting that Alzheimer’s patients are better able to recall information when it’s placed in the context of music, ‘An empty bliss…’ tackles amnesia and is built entirely from layers of sampled pre-war parlour-room 78s. It’s psychedelic, beautiful, melancholy and intriguing, and as one review says: ‘Kirby isn’t just making nostalgic music, he’s making music that mimics the fragmented and inconclusive ways our memories work.’

The Caretaker’s previous releases include the monumental ‘Theoretically pure anterograde amnesia’. Definitely worth a listen, via

Media training

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