Monthly Archives: November 2011

Freedom for what? To kill young women?

As regular readers of this blog know, the Daily Mail believe that the vital importance of a free press is an excuse for anything they want to do. The confluence of reporting and commentary is so insidious and malevolent. Many newspapers are guilty but the Mail is the biggest culprit.

For me, one of the best examples of this is in the reporting of vaccine stories. I have written about this before. I wonder if I should apologise for covering old ground, but then as long as the Mail puts real lives are risk by cynically exploiting people’s fears in order to push an agenda and sell newspapers, I think I will feel compelled to respond.

So the current Mail  campaign is against the HPV vaccine: Girl, 13, Left in ‘Waking Coma’ and Sleeps For 23 Hours a Day After Severe Reaction to Cervical Cancer Jabs. Now, you don’t have to be a doctor to begin to doubt the veracity of the headline, simply reading the article itself is a good start;

“But just weeks after she received the third dose of Cervarix in May this year she began to feel exhausted.”

Let’s just cover some facts:

  1. Cevical cancer is caused by a virus (Human Papilloma Virus).
  2. The current vaccine protects against 70% of the strains that cause cancer
  3. By preventing the virus infection, the vaccine prevents the cancer
  4. If you look at the data (also in the article) the vaccine is very safe.

The subject of this article has been diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome. This remains a controversial issue for lots of reasons, not least because despite a lot of research, a cause has not been clearly identified. Therefore to ascribe her symptoms to the vaccine that was given weeks before is a very speculative statement at best.

Lets have a look at the little information panel they’ve included:

Now I assume that they’ve got this data from the MRHA (The medicines and healthcare products regulations agency). On their website I couldn’t find the up to date figures because they don’t publish them routinely but they are available on request. However the initial figures from the first two years are here. The importance of this is how closely vaccine reactions are tracked and recorded. So lets look at the side-effects; 4445 out of over four million vaccines is around one in a thousand reported side-effects. Of those the vast majority were local reactions and rashes. Now I don’t want to underestimate the significance of a sore arm, but I think cancer can be quite nasty too. Allergic reactions are important, because a severe reaction can be very dangerous, but the figures for anaphylaxis are extremely low. The final comment about Guillan-Barre syndrome is also very disingenuous. GBS is a nasty condition but it occurs sporadically and rarely in the population all the time. The important point is that people notice when they occur after a vaccine. If the two really were linked then the rate in the vaccinated population would be higher than the background rate. It is not.

Please remember people, coincidence is not the same thing as causation. It seems that if something occurs around the time of the vaccination, then the vaccine must be to blame.

I firmly believe that the press has an important role to play in keeping the powerful accountable. However, making stuff up and stoking up fear is something very different. I wouldn’t mind but the HPV vaccine will save many young women from a horrible and early death. If the vaccine really is dangerous then we shouldn’t use it. But it’s not. The ever-increasing evidence is that the vaccine is very safe.

I wonder, if in 15 years time someone did a study which showed that cervical cancer was massively more common amongst the daughters of Daily Mail readers, would they publish an apology? No, I thought not.

Here’s a headline for you:

Reading the Daily Mail can cause cancer in your children!

 

AFZ

Trust in the media

YouGov has today published the results of a ‘Trust in the media’ survey and it is bad news for newspapers. The survey found that ‘this summer’s phone-hacking scandal has resulted in media mistrust among members the public’.  Here are some of the results:

  • 64% of UK adults saw TV as the most trusted media outlet
  • 58% said the same about radio
  • 38% trusted newspapers, while 25% thought the same about magazines

Interestingly – given the ongoing Leveson Inquiry – nearly 1 in 5 (17%) UK adults think that they will be less likely to consult newspapers for their current affairs content in 2012. This is also perhaps a result of the ongoing phone hacking investigation; with 58% of respondents saying that the recent scandal has reduced their level of trust in the newspaper industry, while over half (51%) said it had reduced their trust in the UK media as a whole. Perhaps the most damning finding was that:

  • Three in four people (74%) in the UK think media outlets sometimes, or frequently, lie to their audiences
  • Over half – 55% – agree that the content in the UK media has been dumbed down in recent years

If 3 in 4 people really believe that media outlets ‘sometimes, or frequently, lie to their audiences’ then why do newspaper sales continue to hold out fairly well? Perhaps as I suggested earlier: people really are addicted to this kind of news output and newspapers lie because it brings in sales. Remember, newspapers want to earn sales, earning trust is irrelevant if not doing so does not impact on sales.

However, you can safely ignore what I think because ‘blogs are trusted by under one in ten people (9%)’.

Some thoughts on press ‘freedom’

The Leveson enquiry opened today with Lord Justice Leveson feeling the need to reiterate the tired line that a free press is of fundamental importance in ensuring that public figures and governments are held to account. Therefore what he wants to consider is not whether the press needs to have its freedom curtailed in any way, but rather the inquiry should address the question: ‘who guards the guardians’?

Perhaps equally pertinent questions to be asked along the way – and they all seem linked to me -might be ‘who runs the guardians’ and ‘for what purpose’?
This enquiry isn’t limited to phone hacking – after all, that is an illegal practice that the police will be dealing with in a separate criminal investigation – but it is about the wider behaviour of the press. It is, I feel, crucial that the inquiry properly addresses how the newspaper industry seems to apply vastly different standards to the behaviour of those outside the press industry than it does to those working within it.

Another problem that the inquiry might like to discuss is that freedom of the press is not as simplistic as the newspapers would like you to believe – or even as Lord Justice Leveson implied during his opening address.

For starters, how can a press truly be free when it has owners able to legally and freely insert their own editorial influence over what a given newspaper prints? How can we call it a ‘free press’ in the truest sense when each newspaper has a clear political alignment and often a very clear corporate agenda that often benefits in the whole the wealthy – and very few – owners of the newspapers?

Freedom in this sense is merely the freedom for anyone to set up their own press as an outlet for their own biased and perhaps blinkered view of the world. Or, it is the freedom for corporations to set up their own press to print propaganda that suits their own business interests. This is not actually a bad thing in terms of absolute freedom goes – as this is exactly what an authoritarian government would want to ban. However, it is a bad thing if such newspapers can get away with printing lies in order to support their own version of the world. Or, equally as bad, printing outright distortion or invasive articles merely to make a profit. How can a newspaper truly be considered free when it has to constantly serve up what the consumer wants?

Although a news purist might find it an odd concept to acknowledge, we expect our newspapers to have a clear bias and this is part and parcel of press freedom: they are free to pick a political side just as they are free to pick one side of a particular debate. However, it does not follow that newspapers should therefore have carte blanche to engage is constant lying or distortion to portray this bias as an absolute truth.

A population should never be in the situation where the line between editorial comment (opinion) and news (generally regarded as a factual retelling of a given event) becomes so blurred as to become meaningless. We should not be in a situation where a democratic population is served a constant diet of dishonest propaganda masquerading as news. The Press Complaints Commission and the Editor’s code of conduct exist so that we should not – in theory – ever be exposed journalists twisting the facts of a story beyond credibility just so that it fits in with the newspaper’s editorial line.

But this is precisely the situation we find ourselves in. Public debate and political discourse no longer concerns itself with what stories are in the news, but rather what propaganda the influential newspapers are currently pushing. We therefore have constant inaccuracies or distortions serving as the basis for public, political debate which serves no-one but the press that created them. Or, at least, given how close some relationships between the politicians and newspaper owners / editors are it does make you wonder if the agreement is rather more mutually beneficial than the press would have you believe.

I think the depressing reality is that at the moment the whole power, weight and influence of the press is only challenged by a handful of bloggers and a small media section in the Guardian. The PCC has shown – repeatedly – that they cannot effectively even blunt the torrent of lies, abuse and invasion that is carried out every day in the pursuit of newspaper sales or a political-corporate agenda.

Newspapers have shown that they are quite prepared to destroy people’s reputations and lies and will pick up the legal bill at the end of it rather than behave decently in the first place. They have also shown that it is no longer about the press admitting to making genuine mistakes – which they are often happy to do – but rather that they are happy to make the editorial decision that lies are now perfectly acceptable to be printed as news – whether it be a front page lead story or a throwaway few paragraphs elsewhere in the newspaper.

The real key – it seems to me – to selling newspapers is to lie and to lie brazenly, repeatedly and in order to stir up as much outrage and hatred as possible. It is this that the Leveson inquiry must deal with, because – quite simply – there is no-one else that can.

Here lies Winterval: 1998-2011?

So, after a lot of resistance – distorted, truth-bending resistance – the Daily Mail have published a correction after Melanie Phillips claimed that:

Christmas has been renamed in various places ‘Winterval’.

Tabloid Watch has charted the great effort the complainant – regular Tabloid Watch reader James – went to in order for the Daily Mail to admit to the simple truth that Winterval was simply a tabloid fiction. As usual the Mail took a month to respond to the complaint – remember the PCC’s slogan is ‘Free, fast, fair’ and that Daily mail editor Paul Dacre keeps defending the PCC as effective – and when they did they argued that:

The nit-picking suggestion that the term “Christmas” refers only to Christmas Day cannot be supported by anyone with a modicum of common sense. And Phillips did not say the term was intended to replace Christmas Day.

Much wrangling later they finally issued in print and online the following apology:

We stated in an article on 26 September that Christmas has been renamed in various places Winterval. Winterval was the collective name for a season of public events, both religious and secular, which took place in Birmingham in 1997 and 1998. We are happy to make clear that Winterval did not rename or replace Christmas.

Amazingly – in what appears to be a first – the Daily Mail website has also added the same clarification to the bottom of the original article as well. The Daily Mail is to be commended for this – they have done the right thing.

There are a few remaining questions:

  1. Will Melanie Phillips acknowledge the correction in her next column with any sort of apology?
  2. Will Melanie Phillips apologise to me for responding to my polite email pointing her in the direction of my essay on the Winterval myth by claiming that my message was ‘as arrogant and ignorant as it is offensive’?
  3. Will she also admit that her claim that my blog post about her was ‘highly defamatory and contains false allegations for which you would stand to pay me significant damages in a libel action’ was complete rubbish – given that her own newspaper has now had to issue a correction on her behalf?
  4. Will Winterval still be repeated by politicians / journalists and so forth in the same way that it always has done following various previous debunkings?

I will always be tempted to refer back to my initial point on the Winterval myth: the most depressing thing about it isn’t neccesarily its longevity, but the fact that the original story was so clearly completely untrue and contained clear statements from the council that demonstrated this. It should never have been born, let alone be fed until it was big enough for politicians and far right groups alike to befriend.

Anyway, if you’re in the spirit for more on this please feel free to read my piece on Comment is Free. Or, you could settle down and read my lengthy essay on the matter.