TV accused of sensationalising smallpox story – 1962

With media regulation high on the public agenda, a story from 50 years ago – when Wales was in the grip of a smallpox epidemic – has contemporary resonance.

In March 1962, TV journalists came under fire for their coverage of the smallpox outbreak which had begun in January and spread to the Rhondda valleys in February.  Health officials complained to the broadcast regulator, accusing the ITV station in Cardiff of going for ‘sensationalism at all costs’.  The TV company responded by saying they could be accused of suppressing information had they not covered the stories as they did.

Documents in the files at the National Archives show that the complaint was sparked by coverage of the funeral of Robert Hodkinson, a consultant at East Glamorgan Hospital, who contracted smallpox and died on 6 March.

The Welsh Board of Health complained that a news report on TWW (the ITV contractor in Wales at the time) had caused ‘great emotional distress’ to smallpox patients about to be isolated at the hospital at Penrhys, Rhondda – where the doctor had died.

The board also claimed that a TWW reporter had interviewed the occupant of a house in quarantine and that the interview was broadcast.  They said such broadcasts could undermine the efforts being made to trace all smallpox contacts.

‘If people find they are going to be publicised in what they regard as an unfavourable way in television programmes like this their help will not be forthcoming’, said board Chairman, E K Jones.

‘I must say that the press representatives in general have responded splendidly to our appeals for moderation and the avoidance of alarm.  But in the instances which form the basis of this complaint it seems that the people responsible have gone all out for sensationalism at all costs.’

TWW’s reply (dated 13 March) said the idea of interviewing someone in quarantine had been dropped after consultation with the Board of Health.  It was ‘untrue’  that the reporter had conducted an interview or that it had been broadcast.

As for the footage of the doctor’s funeral and houses in quarantine, the company said: ‘If we had abstained from showing these films, we might well be accused of suppression and under-playing the news deliberately.’

The full correspondence can be read on the Smallpox1962 website.

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About James Stewart

Senior Lecturer in Radio Journalism.
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