Panic And Blame – The Daily Mail’s Bread And Butter

Alex Gibson,  friend of the MSS and board member of the National Federation of Atheist, Humanist and Secular Student Societies, drops in to offer his thoughts on the ‘great big swine flu pandemic scandal conspiracy’ in  the Daily Mail.

Today’s headline: newspaper accuses pharmaceutical companies of manufacturing the panic about the swine flu pandemic to sell more drugs.

This, of course, is the same newspaper that did its best at the time to report the facts and not create panic with articles such as this, this, this and this. I can’t bring myself to look at the articles that the Daily Express was putting out at the time: if the Mail is the malicious kid at school who spread nasty rumours about people, the Express is the gullible, panicky person he talks to first.

The article, in its rush to expose how Big Pharma leaned on the World Health Organisation to get swine flu bumped up to pandemic status, ignores the fact that swine flu met the WHO’s very basic criteria for a pandemic. Like any good conspiracy theory, it starts to unravel when you actually look at the facts. If there was any pressure from some Tamiflu-selling corporate mastermind it was fairly pointless, since swine flu far and away fit the bill for a pandemic anyway. Avian flu didn’t, and neither did SARS – two glitzy media diseases that you’d think would be ripe for making money.

The real spleen-buster is the Mail complaining that in the UK there have been “just 251 deaths overall”. They sound terribly disappointed by this. Poor show, swine flu. There is, of course, no mention of the UK’s excellent free healthcare services and the fact that worldwide about 13,000 people have died, but that’s not even the important bit.

The real danger of swine flu – as told to us by actual scientists at the time – was not that it was particularly more lethal than flu, but that it was particularly virulent and seemed to be predominantly striking young healthy individuals rather than the young, elderly and infirm. The Mail seems to miss this point completely despite the fact that even a cursory search on the WHO’s website throws up this press release which notes:

“Globally, we have good reason to believe that this pandemic, at least in its early days, will be of moderate severity… Worldwide, the number of deaths is small. Each and every one of these deaths is tragic, and we have to brace ourselves to see more. However, we do not expect to see a sudden and dramatic jump in the number of severe or fatal infections.”

This is fairly typical of science articles in the tabloids: scientists are amazing boffins who create wonderful treatments that evaporate fat and boost our ‘friendly bacteria’ until they make a public health warning, at which point it’s time to panic. When the imagined scare turns out to be fairly minor – just as the scientists initially suggested it would be – the papers take umbrage, puffing up their feathers and squawking loudly about how horrible it was to trick them. I prefer to think that all tabloid journalists have some kind of brain defect that renders them without short-term memory, but in truth they just know that nothing sells papers and breeds loyalty to a newspaper than the panic -blame cycle. They whip people up into a state and then when no threat materialises they cast themselves as great truth-seeking heroes, rooting out the responsible parties and making their readers feel so protected that they forget who it was who got them agitated in the first place.

It’s hard to see how anyone other than the papers could emerge victorious from this. Had the government been blasé about the whole thing and not stocked up on flu medication that would have been an even worse blunder. Raging aporkalypse just around the corner, but the government won’t give you the medicine you need! Practically every line about this story I read, I want to grab the person who wrote it and shake them, shouting “but it was you who created the ‘atmosphere of panic’ in the first place!”

Just like the MMR hoax, swine flu was turned from a moderate, legitimate health concern into a raging apocalyptic panic-fest by the newspapers, who will now proceed to lambast the people who “lied” and talked it up. As ever scientists get the blame, initially because the reality of the situation wasn’t jazzy enough for panic coverage and now because the panic coverage doesn’t match the reality. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the British press. They aren’t the worst though. While that article is a depressing example of today’s ‘quality’ journalism, nothing quite beats the heart-shrivelling horror of the comments below. The worst-rated comment?

“The pandemic was real under the definitions as set down by international scientific standards and vaccination can only be a good thing. Drugs companies are businesses so they are bound to make money but I don’t believe they engineered or influenced the decision making processes.”

Sorry, Phil from Edinburgh. This isn’t the right place for a rational run-through of the facts. This is a newspaper.

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