10 OCTOBER 1987, Page 8


The intelligent woman's guide to analysing the news


Nobody who reads the newspapers can be in any doubt that the news sections are full of material which has been put there by the publicity departments of various organ- isations — from the great departments of state to commercial firms and single-issue lobbies — with an interest in selling the story printed. In fact, if one rules out those parts of the 'news' which emanate from staged events — press conferences, courts, Parliament, party conferences and the like — in addition to those parts of the 'news' which come from ministerial hand-outs, green and white papers, government re- ports, specially commissioned surveys and the rest, it is amazing how little real news there is left. People complain that the vulgar newspapers place undue emphasis on sex and crime, but sex and crime are pretty well the only things which happen in urban society. I am not even sure how much sex really occurs nowadays, which may explain its news-value.

But the newspapers have to fill their pages somehow and it is this, more than any sinister conspiracy, which makes them vulnerable to the bogus information being pumped out by pilgerites of every hue, as well as by lobbyists, ministerial press de- partments, book publishers, commercial pressure groups and exhibitionists seeking publicity.

Just occasionally the veil is lifted when one pressure group, ministerial press de- partment or whatever collides with another. Then we are allowed to see just how the news is manipulated. Such an event seems to have occurred last week, when most newspapers carried the 'news' that an influenza epidemic, such as the one which killed 18 million people at the end of the Great War, was on its way. In more responsible newspapers, we learned that scientists feared that a flu epidemic like those of 1967/8 and 1978 might be due about now, on the principle that they seem to crop up every ten years or so. This was scarcely news, of course. Popular newspap- ers preferred headlines which made the item relevant to the lives of ordinary people: '9 Million at Risk of Killer Flu'.

Then on Sunday, the Observer carried a story which claimed that the flu epidemic scare was a pack of lies. Dr Joan Davies, deputy director of the Public Health Laboratory Service at Colindale, said there was 'no evidence to suspect that we are about to face an epidemic'. A DHSS spokesman revealed that 'the activity of the flu virus has been quite low in the southern hemisphere during the last six months, their winter, and we have not seen any signs in this country at all yet'.

In other words, predictions of a great epidemic have no foundation whatever. What had happened? The Observer's Annabel Ferriman traced the 'origin of the flu scare to a medical organisation called the Influenza Monitoring and Information Bureau, which issued a press statement claiming, untruthfully, that Britain had suffered a flu epidemic every ten years since 1855, and warning that while ten million people were at risk from the disease, only 1.6 million were vaccinated every year.

Needless to say, the Influenza Monitor- ing and Information Bureau was set up and is paid for by three drug firms manufactur- ing flu vaccine. So far, this is all standard procedure. Next the stupid newspapers take up the story, announce the pandemic as imminent, and every Lunchtime O'Ba- cillus in business starts screeching for the government to spend more money on flu vaccine. If the drug firms are really lucky, the cause will be taken up editorially by the Mirror and pilgered into a great scandal of government neglect, complacency, etc. Generally speaking, government depart- ments enjoy spending money as much as the rest of us, and are quite happy to play along. What went wrong on this occasion, and why did the DHSS spill the beans?

Two explanations occur to me. In the first place, the DHSS does not actually want a whole lot of flu vaccine which would be useless in the event of another epidemic, since epidemics now occur only when a new strain of virus emerges which is resistant to the existing vaccine. Second, there are other things it wants to spend the money on much more — its own pay and work conditions in particular. It is hard enough to persuade the DHSS to spend any money on medical equipment, so urgent is the need of its employees for shorter working hours, longer holidays, better pay, new layers of administrators and more colleagues to share the fun. To expect the DHSS to spend many millions of pounds on vaccine it did not want was therefore unfair and unreasonable. Much as we all enjoy spending other people's money, some ways are even more enjoy- able than others. It was one of those rare moments when a halt had to be called, and as a result a tiny part of the veil was lifted.

In earlier articles I voiced my suspicion that the great Aids hysteria was being helped along not only by religious fanatics anxious to put a stop to all sexual activity outside wedlock (and much inside it, I dare say), but also by the drug companies who benefit from the vast sums made available for research.

The DHSS is particularly concerned to put brakes on the Aids scare, partly because many of its employees are indeed a little worried by the disease and would be quite happy to see it shunted off into special units, partly because it means more money and more money means more administrators, shorter working hours, lon- ger holidays and all the things the National Health Service needs most. So we have had no statements from the Public Health Laboratory, nor the DHSS, pointing out that it is almost impossible to catch Aids from normal heterosexual intercourse, that the predictions of a pandemic are wildly exaggerated.

In fact, I was delighted to see in the same number of the Observer that carried Annabel Ferriman's exposure of the bogus flu scare, an interview with the Oxford Aids Liaison Officer which shows that this particular scare is still set to run and run. `By the end of the century, no one in Oxford will be unaffected by Aids or HIV infection unless urgent action is taken,' said Carl Miller, the Aids Liaison Officer concerned, interviewed by Michael Davie. The urgent action involved recruiting more Aids Liaison Officers and, above all, spending more money.

Carl Miller is unquestionably a sincere and admirable young man. I would not have missed the interview for anything.

"Students are easy to entertain," he said, "but they're resistant to education. . . . The fact is that it is now necessary for someone to talk quietly and sensibly about how to put on a condom."' Almost all editorial opinion in the lower reaches of the press seems to demand the Government to take action and spend more money on something or other. It is all sincere, and almost all disinterested. My only point is that whenever we see news- papers demanding further government spending in whatever field, we should ask ourselves who put them up to making these demands, and why.