Halliday Sutherland

"A born writer, especially a born story-teller. Dr. Sutherland, who is distinguished in medicine, is an amateur in the sense that he only writes when he has nothing better to do. But when he does, it could hardly be done better." G.K. Chesterton.

B.B.C. “Historic Figures” article

RiStock_000000386717Smalleaders of this blog will be familiar with its aims: to recall the life and work of Halliday Sutherland and to provide a resource for historians and researchers.

One article that could have been better researched, in my opinion, is in the BBC’s “Historic Figures” section which included this article: Marie Stopes 1880-1958.

I wanted to write to or e-mail the BBC, however, the only reliable way to contact them was to send the message as a complaint in an online form. Reflecting the constraints of a word limit and an online-box format, it read:

Complaint Summary: No mention of eugenics or racial hygiene [note that I had provided the URL of the article earlier in the process]

Full Complaint: Eugenic ideals were central to the life and work of Marie Stopes, yet there is no mention of this in your article. Her clinic did have family planning aims (spacing pregnancies to allow recovery of health of the mother), but were primarily to support her eugenic aim to reduce the rate at which the working classes and the poor were breeding. Stopes advocated compulsorily sterilization of “the degenerate [and] the utterly wretched in mind and body” in her book “Radiant Motherhood” and also in her submissions to the National Birth Rate Commission (1918-1920). Halliday Sutherland’s opposition to Stopes and the Malthusians grew from his work to prevent and cure tuberculosis which was, as at the time, a big killer (it killed 10% of the British population between 1850 and 1950). His Anti-tuberculosis Clinic in Marylebone and open-air school in Regents Park bandstand were models of Dr R Philip’s work to eradicate this terrible disease. Eugenicists believed hereditary factors were at play. Sutherland disagreed and was offended by eugenic solutions which included compulsory sterilization of the poor. No doubt his Catholicism aligned with his views, but it was not the motivation for his opposition. The article misrepresents the debate that occurred and is a disservice all of the protagonists. It reduces it to a “ho hum, the Catholics have a problem with contraception”. Given where eugenics led, and may lead in the future, this is not merely inaccurate, but a dangerous lie.

On March 22nd, 2014 I received this response:

Thank you for contacting us regarding the Marie Stopes History page on the BBC website. We understand you believe this page lacked information on eugenics. We’ve since forwarded your correspondence to the people responsible for the website. Whilst we can’t guarantee a response from them directly due to the amount of correspondence received on a daily basis, we can guarantee that the issue has been made available to them. We hope you continue to enjoy our services and thank you again for taking the time to contact the BBC.

On March 24th, 2014 I replied:

Thank you for your e-mail. The absence of information on eugenics is not a belief. It is a fact. Eugenic goals were fundamental to the work of Marie Stopes and mention should be made on the “History” page to give an accurate record. I was surprised to read that you cannot guarantee a response from the people responsible for the website. I understand that the weight of correspondence received by them on a daily basis might preclude a response. From my viewpoint, there is no difference between not receiving a response because they have a huge amount of correspondence, and not receiving a response because my complaint has been ignored. How am I to know the difference? This is an unsatisfactory gap in the complaints process. Could you perhaps confirm if my complaint has been considered or if it has been ignored owing to the amount of correspondence received by the authors of the page?

I received this response on April 5th, 2014:

Thank you for your enquiry. Please note that we don’t ignore any complaints or feedback, but do not reply in detail to every email, as the BBC handles over a million audience contacts every year.

We are currently reviewing our factual and learning online offering, including history. Our aim is to create a single consistent user experience – you can read more about the plans here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/internet/posts/Knowledge-Learning-Product andhttp://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/internet/posts/BBC-iWonder-home-page-launched.

For example, we’ve recently started publishing new World War One content, as part of the BBC’s activities around the centenary of the start of the war: http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/0/ww1/25768752

Your comments have been noted and will inform this review.

I sent an e-mail to the BBC to thank them for their response and I look forward to the reviewed material.

To be clear: it is not my intention to continue the battle between Stopes and Sutherland, nor to present an ethical or religious polemic on those events. My aim is for articles that mention Halliday Sutherland and are labelled “history” to be better researched. This is particularly important when coming from an esteemed institution such as the BBC. I hope that Sutherland will be presented in a more sophisticated manner befitting the person, rather than as a clumsily-drawn caricature.

I checked the BBC page on 2nd December 2014 and found this notice at the top of the page: “This page is archived and is no longer updated”.  I guess that’s that then.  I was seeking to have the misinformation corrected, but instead the misinformation has been fixed.  According to this BBC page, it was all about contraceptives…but we know better, don’t we?

One comment on “B.B.C. “Historic Figures” article

  1. Pingback: An article from mediadiversified.org | Halliday Sutherland

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Stopes v Sutherland libel trial 1922-24

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