The Press and Public Health

What is driving the relentless antivax stance of Britain’s dead tree media and its onlone off-shoots? I ask because it seems to me that Fleet Street is becoming a menace to public health and I am assuming that spreading disease, misery and death does not appear on the mission statement of any newspaper. Although if it does they are complying with it brilliantly.

We have had ten years of the MMR hoax, which has concluded with a measles epidemic and mumps outbreaks. Paul Dacre, Editor-in-Chief of the Mail, is now trying to pretend that the hoax never happened and his journos have moved on to other vaccines. Recently they published a scare story about the cervical cancer vaccine which I fisked here. I also complained to the Press Complaints Commission about it, citing the fact that the story passed off opinion as fact and in general ignored the facts.

The PCC rejected my complaint, in part because they considered the story to be balanced because it said that the Department of Health “insisted” that the vaccine is safe. There are two problems with the PCC’s position:

First, they ignored the facts that without the vaccine hundreds of girls would go on to die of cervical cancer (the cancer that killed Jade Goody) and that more than 99.8% of the girls vaccinated reported no side effects. Second, the word “insist” is a loaded term. It means “keeps on saying” with a subtext of ignoring evidence. Look how the story was constructed: a few girls reporting side effects was given huge prominance and headlined. The vaccine was referred to as the “promiscuity jab” in the text and we have a DoH official “insisting” that the vaccine is safe without giving the evidence that it is safe. The implication being that there is no such evidence. The whoe sub-text of this story is “This vaccine is dangerous and will turn your daughters into sluts but the Government is ignoring the dangers.”

The whole point of the story was to knock the Government. The Daily Hate does not even believe its own propaganda because as Martin Robbins of layscience discovered, the Irish edition of the paper knocked the Irish government for not rolling out the vaccine.

Now they have moved on to the H1N1 vaccine. and just to prove that stupidity knows no political boundaries, the Guardian has run the same story. I could complain to the PCC but it hardly seems worth it, given their previous response. Part of the problem is that it is run and financed by the very industry it is supposed to be regulating. Another is, as jdc has pointed out, that the PCC lacks a member with any sort of expertise in science and is thus incapable of examining a complaint about a science story. I have heard suggestions that since newspapers regard press freedom as a right to print distortions and lies the Government should investigate health scare stories as the PCC is incapable of doing so but this would be a dangerous path to tread. There is always the possibility that there could be a genuine health danger at some point in the future and it would be very bad if the press was unable to properly report on it. There would also be the risk of “mission creep” with the legislation used in circumstances way beyond those originally envisaged.

If the PCC does not want a Government-chilled press it needs to acquire scientific expertise and a backbone and acquire them soon.


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