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.

Fit and Healthy

What do we assume the phrase ‘fit and healthy’ actually means? Do we assume it is a pretty general phrase used by people who, by and large, consider themselves fairly healthy, or do we take it to mean someone who has been medically verified as having no established health problems and is essentially a model specimen? I ask this because the Daily Mail and Daily Express have picked up the story about the ‘fit and healthy’ 25 year old female Louis Jones who has died as a result of contracting Swine Flu and I wonder if there is anything more to the story.

Naturally the first suspicious thing is that the Daily Mail headline puts ‘fit and healthy’ into inverted commas (the Express doesn’t bother, but probably because the concept is too complex for its readers), implying that this statement might not be entirely true. Reading the Mail article it soon becomes clear that there was an underlying medical condition: she had been diagnosed with Asthma as a child and doctors said that she was more vulnerable to the virus because of this – she died from a blood clot in the lung. The Express also state this in their article, whilst making the link a bit vaguer by adding that it ‘may’ have made her more vulnerable.

So, she wasn’t entirely ‘fit and healthy’ then. In fact, the only reference to her overall physical health prior to contracting Swine Flu is made by her parents, who, whilst they may have know their daughter extremely well, doesn’t make them medical experts to be quoted in the Mail and Express headlines. There is an important message here that cannot be overlooked – and it is the message that the parents are trying to get across to the public – is that even if you think you are relatively ‘fit and healthy’ if you think you have the symptoms of Swine Flu then do contact your doctor because you may not be as fit and healthy as you like to think you are.

A final point on the story and how the Daily Mail reporter works is looking at this article in the Manchester Evening News (which also puts ‘fit and healthy’ into the headline) which was published the day before the Mail article and then try to spot the difference between it and the Daily Mail article. It seems that working for Daily Mail you soon wear out the ctrl-c and ctrl-v on your keyboard.

Shit yourself, Daily Mail reader, Shit yourself

Mass hysteria, odds given as facts, headlines that don’t match the content. At the Daily Mail they do anything to sell more copies.

Swine flu: one in eight forced to take time off sick as pandemic spreads squeals the Hypochondria Tribune a.k.a. Daily Mail today.

As Armageddon creeps in, the paper informs you, “the vast number of people off work could leave many businesses struggling to run as normal and cripple public services and transport over the summer”.

But hold on a minute. If this pandemic is so bad, why is the same paper plastered with “boob-job bikini”, “Michael Jackson’s leg” and “Pamela Anderson’s Playboy catalogue”? And also, I don’t know anyone affected by swine flu. You probably don’t either and nor does your neighbour. So where does this “one in eight” thing come from?

That’s where the puzzled reader decides to delve into the article in order to learn more. Yet the picture that emerges depicts a totally different story and, above all, different verbal constructions.

Because if the headline makes it sound like it’s already happening, the piece by Daniel Martin states that “Almost one in eight workers will have to take time off sick with swine flu in the next few weeks”, and that “chief medical officer Sir Liam Donaldson is expected to announce that 30 per cent of the population is likely to be infected during this first wave of the pandemic”. Will. Expected. Likely.

This morning the BBC reports that the number of people contacting their GP over swine flu-related fears “has jumped almost 50% in the last week” – basically, mass hysteria in its pure form.

As the Daily Mail enjoys a circulation of roughly 2.4 million and a readership of up to 6 million, could it just be that their recent headline “A SORE THROAT- 48 HOURS LATER CHLOE WAS DEAD” may have something to do with the ensuing panic?

Article kindly cross-posted by Claude from Hagley Road to Ladywood. You can read the original article here.