The Media Scaremongering that Never Was

The Daily Mail has an article today about who was to blame for the Swine Flu scare: ‘The pandemic that never was: Drug firms ‘encouraged world health body to exaggerate swine flu threat”. In it they level the blame solely at the feet of the World Health Organisation and ‘profit-hungry drug companies spreading fear’ – using a report by Labour MP Paul Flynn, who investigated the scare for the Council of Europe. According to the Daily Mail:

The report accuses the World Health Organisation of grave shortcomings in the transparency of the process that led to its warning last year.

The MP said that the world relied on the WHO, but after ‘crying wolf’, its reputation was in jeopardy.

The Daily Mail makes it clear that drug companies made billions of pounds as governments stocked up on vaccines, as Paul Flynn notes:

‘There is not much doubt that this was an exaggeration on stilts. They vastly over-stated the danger on bad science and the national governments were in a position where they had to take action.

But how did drug companies succeed in communicating ‘bad science’ and the vast over-statement of the danger of Swine Flu? Seems to me the corporate media played a substantial role, and none more so than the Daily Mail:

People have already pointed out how the Daily Mail wrote an awful lot of articles blaming the ‘state scare machine’ for creating the Swine Flu panic, so pointing out the hypocrisy here is hardly news. However, it is always interesting when the media pick up a report and cherry pick information from it. The full report in this case can be found here [PDF] and includes the following references to the role the media played in communicating the corporate scaremongering:

[in future we need to collaborate] with the media in order to avoid sensationalism and scaremongering in the public health domain [p2]

[the author was worried] by the way in which some of the sensitive issues were communicated by public authorities and subsequently picked up by the European media, reinforcing fears amongst the population which sometimes made objective analysis difficult. [p5]

In future situations posing a serious risk to public health, decision-makers should bear in mind that the precautionary principle can contribute to a general feeling of anxiety and unease in the population and can fuel the media in what becomes a cycle of fear mongering. [p9]

A review is also necessary of the media’s role in fuelling fear and how WHO and how national authorities should handle communications in the future, in particular when applying the precautionary principle. [p12]

WHO [World Health Organisation] itself continues to assert that it has consistently evaluated the impact of the current influenza pandemic as moderate, reminding the medical community, public and media that the overwhelming majority of patients experience mild influenza-like illness and recover fully within a week, even without any form of medical treatment. [p12]

the main concerns regarding the current H1N1 influenza include the proportionality of the response given to the public health threat of H1N1, the transparency of relevant decision-making processes, including the possibility of undue influence by the pharmaceutical industry, and the way in which the pandemic, and the use of the precautionary principle, was communicated to member states’ governments and to the European public at large, also by the media. [p17]

Finally, the rapporteur is very concerned about the way in which the information on the pandemic was communicated by WHO and national authorities to the public, the role of the media in this, and the fears that this generated amongst the public. The rapporteur recommends that a thorough review should be undertaken to ensure that coherent and sensitive communication strategies are prepared and followed in the future by all public health authorities whenever the next major situation arises which poses a serious threat to public health. [p17]

The Daily Mail, of course, fails to make any reference to any of these points, because the media is never self-critical. It always finds someone else to blame – it was the WHO, the drug corporations or governments that created the fear, not the media. If the media admits any culpability at all it tends to use the excuse that they were only ‘passing the information on’, which is just not an excuse.

The Daily Mail has every interest in scaremongering and creating panic because it sells a lot of papers by doing so – and, as we constantly see, if the truth of the matter is less dramatic, scary or shocking, then the truth is simply ignored and the scary version printed. Just the same as when the Daily Mail flicks through a report like this, they ignore the parts they do not want in the public domain and print whatever fits their agenda. Media bias is only partly about what is actually printed, but largely about the huge amount of information that is left out, purposefully buried to maintain media narratives.

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