Mad Journalist Syndrome

On the 14th January, Simon Jenkins published an article online at the Guardian’s Comment is Free section entitled: “Swine Flu is as Elusive as WMD. The Real Threat is Mad Scientist Syndrome.”, in which he criticised both scientists and the government for what he saw as scare tactics and misinformation in the handling of the swine flu outbreak. The article annoyed me a little, but I had food in the oven, and as I’m a man who lives on his stomach (to paraphrase Dr. Bruce Banner, you wouldn’t like me when I’m hungry), I forgot about it and went about my merry way.

A week later, the article began to surface from the sea of my subconscious and I grew increasingly irked. I gradually came to realise that it was a much more frustrating article than I had initially given it credit for. The article basically accuses scientists and the government of effectively making up the scale of the swine flu threat in order to scare and distract the public, for reasons seemingly pulled from Jenkins’ nether-regions. At first, I thought: ‘So what? It’s just his opinion’. The whole point of an opinion piece is that it is an opinion, and if people disagree they can leave a comment. But I couldn’t shake it off. What good is an opinion if it’s not informed? Surely if a newspaper is going to print an opinion, it should be more than a knee-jerk reaction? Jenkins was basically using facts to support an already formed opinion. For me, journalism should be a bit more thoughtful than that. Eventually, I couldn’t take it anymore and felt that I had to respond in some way. I’m not the only one. Tom Sheldon responded with his own piece, “Swine Flu Wasn’t Overhyped – Research Meant We Had to Play It Safe”, in the same section of The Guardian a week later. But here’s my belated tuppence-worth anyhow.

Let’s go through it piece by piece (don’t worry, I’ll leave out the boring bits so you won’t abandon me). The secondary headline reads:

“Remember the warnings of 65,000 dead? Health chiefs should admit they were wrong – yet again – about a global pandemic”

Then, in the first paragraph, we get:

“Six months ago… Swine flu was allegedly ravaging the nation. The BBC was intoning nightly statistics on what “could” happen as “the deadly virus” took hold. The chief medical officer, Sir Liam Donaldson, bandied about any figure that came into his head, settling on “65,000 could die”, peaking at 350 corpses a day.”

The inverted commas are Jenkins’ own.

Ok, first things first: health chiefs should admit they were wrong about a global pandemic. Already, Jenkins is misrepresenting the issue as well as just being plain wrong. Swine flu ‘is’ a pandemic. It ‘is’ global. What exactly is he wanting the apology for? That not enough people died? He then goes on to complain about the BBC and the chief medical officer telling us what could happen due to the Swine flu outbreak, as if informing the public of possibilities is somehow dishonest. I for one want to know how serious Swine flu could be. If it turned out to be extremely deadly, like some flu epidemics throughout history have been (to a terrifying degree), I would be very angry and upset if the government had not informed me of this very real possibility. Knowing the potential threat means we can prepare for that eventuality. If it doesn’t happen, that’s a cause for rejoicing, not attacking government language. Plus, Jenkins seems to forget the grilling the government took when they didn’t respond thoroughly and quickly enough for a BSE outbreak several years ago. A few years later, there was another outbreak of BSE and this time the government responded immediately and comprehensively, with plans already in place. Maybe the outbreak wouldn’t have spread far this time, but they couldn’t take the risk again. Governments prefer to have as easy a ride as possible at the hands of the voters. Of course, they were lambasted for a supposedly disproportionate response, but for them it was a case of choosing the lesser of two evils. One can’t help but think Jenkins would have slammed them either way.

Misusing language seems to be Jenkins’ secret weapon in this article too.  Aswell as the constant inverted commas implying dishonesty without any qualification, we have phrases such as allegedly ravaging, which instantly implies deceit; we have the BBC intoning nightly statistics, which gives them an aura of some kind of street preacher preaching the end of the world, or of the Grim Reaper himself pointing his finger at us through the TV screen and saying “Come with me…”. Sir Liam Donaldson apparently bandied about any figure that came into his head, although how Jenkins managed to get access to the inside of Donaldson’s head, I don’t know. Maybe he has a journalist’s pass? It’s enough to make a Daily Mail columnist blush, let alone a Guardian one. Take away all of Jenkins’ assumptions and emotive language and we’re left with no trace of an argument: it exists only in what Jenkins himself suggests, not in the reality he claims to convey.

The whole article is written in the same way. Paragraph two:

“Donaldson knew exactly what would happen. The media went beserk. The World Health Organisation declared a “six-level alert” so as to “prepare the world for an imminent attack”. The happy-go-lucky virologist, John Oxford, said half the population could be infected, and that his lowest estimate was 6,000 dead.”

Donaldson knew exactly what would happen. Implying what? That Donaldson was lying? That the government deliberately created the scare? Grand claims, especially as Jenkins never once provides any evidence to support them throughout the entire article. His description of John Oxford as happy-go-lucky is simply an attempt to malign him in the minds of the readers. Warning of the potential risk is hardly happy-go-lucky, but courtesy of Simon Jenkins we now imagine John Oxford as this glib monster, casually terrifying the public with offhand comments without caring of the consequences. Cheers, Simon. Nice to know you’re treating us like adults.

What is starting to come through quite clearly by this point is the conspiracy theory mentality behind Jenkins’ thinking. He has quite obviously already decided that the BBC and the government have worked together to create the Swine flu ‘scare’, and doesn’t seem remotely interested in providing any proof. He even complains that:

“If anyone dared question this drivel, they were dismissed by Donaldson as extremists.”

So: what the government is saying is drivel, and the good, concerned public are being misleadingly labelled as extremists. No argument or proof here, just assertions; Jenkins is unconcerned with persuasion, preferring instead to hoodwink us with rhetoric. How closely the government and the BBC are supposed to be working together is left a bit vague, as Jenkins often seems to confuse the two as one organisation. They have become the faceless ‘them’ pulling the strings from behind the scenes to scare the public. Maybe it’s just anyone who wears a suit and appears on television that fits the bill for Jenkins. Look out, it’s an authority figure! Beware! Scientists, on the other hand, seem to confuse Jenkins; it is never quite clear whether he blames them as well, or sees them as duped by the same rhetoric. Certainly Jenkins is not a fan of scientists, as he spends most of his articles in the Guardian slagging them off; but he seems to be leaning more toward a buffoonish caricature of them in this one. At one point, he says:

“The “Andromeda Strain” was stalking the Earth, and its first victims were clearly scientists.”

For an article about the government trying to scare people with language, Jenkins certainly loves trying to do it himself. He’s the one referencing science fiction novels about killer viruses, not the Chief Medical Officer. Only a few paragraphs in and we’re already in a state of fear that the government, the BBC and maybe scientists are all out to terrify us to death. Who else can we throw into the mix?

“The government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies sails gaily on, still graced by the presence of Sir Roy Anderson, who happens also to draw a six-figure salary as a non-executive director of GlaxoSmithKline, which made hundreds of millions from the government’s panic.”

Heeeeeeeere’s Big Pharma!

So why all this paranoia and accusations? Does Jenkins just hate everyone? Of course not…

“I accept that anyone can make a mistake, and authority has some duty to err on the side of caution. As Alastair Campbell implied on Tuesday, Iraq might have had weapons of mass destruction, so Blair was right to go to war just in case. But it is reasonable to ask, as the Chilcot inquiry is doing, why precaution on such a colossal and potentially destructive scale was justified when those who questioned the need for it have since been proved right. Is anyone asking about flu?”

I had to grit my teeth to write that. It is probably the most idiotic part of the entire article. So it’s okay to overreact when bombing unseen foreigners, but scaring the public by giving them information on the ‘potential risk’ of Swine flu is somehow out of order? Jenkins’ linking of the two is inane and offensive. Thousands of innocent civilians died because of the Iraq war. No-one died because they got a little frightened about a potential pandemic. Reality seems to have seeped out of the article at this point, and I’ve said all I have to say on this particular piece of stupidity.

After all this scaremongering – on Jenkins’ part, not anyone else’s – we are left to wonder: why? Why would it benefit the government/BBC/big pharma/the lizard people to scare the public? Jenkins references the BSE and SARS outbreaks and implies that the government likes to regularly scare its people in order to distract from other issues:

“The Blair government, and now Brown’s, have proved adept at using scare politics to divert attention from other troubles.”

Okay, cool, Jenkins has stopped preaching and is now putting forward a hypothesis. Great, now we can get to the meat. I wonder what troubles he means, and what his evidence is? Let’s find out…

Ah. It’s just that one sentence. That’s it. That’s the whole argument there. Sorry, I got excited for a moment.

It’s a baseless claim. It’s also worth pointing out that these ‘scares’ Jenkins refers to happened at the time of actual infectious outbreaks. There’s nothing suspicious about them on their own. You have an outbreak, you have a response. The absence of responses would have been much more of a concern. I also can’t imagine what things Jenkins thinks the government was distracting from – and judging by his omission of them in the article I doubt he does either. Governments are always mired in controversy, and there was nothing specific to the times of these outbreaks that needed to be distracted from then than at any other time. Maybe he’s suggesting that the government just responds to whatever’s there at any one time in order to just distract from government in general? If he is suggesting that, maybe he should have let the readers know. What I think he actually is suggesting, however, is that these scares are completely engineered. He constantly quotes statistics throughout the article in an attempt to downplay the severity of the various infectious outbreaks we’ve had over the years, comparing them to government statistics regarding how severe they ‘may’ have been, and pointing out how less severe the reality was. Every time, he seems to forget that the government figures represent the ‘potential’ possibility. The point isn’t that the figures in reality should end up being the same as the prediction. The point is that the prediction COULD have come true, and we need to know these things.

I mentioned earlier about how the government was criticised for not reacting swiftly to the first BSE outbreak. I don’t blame the government for acting differently from then on. It is better that we are scared and live, than the government reacts poorly and people die, leaving a government mired in shame. Lives are at stake. The government cannot afford to understate risk to the public. These are decisions that have to be made regarding risks. They are not nice decisions, but we have a government precisely so that those kinds of decisions CAN be made.

The consequences of understatement can be disastrous. We know what epidemics and pandemics can do from history. Jenkins is simply making stuff up that isn’t there in order to attack the government, the BBC and whoever else grabbed his goat that week. It is pure conspiracy theory mentality. In reality, this isn’t about Blair or Brown, or the BBC: this is about practical decision making. He’s criticising the government for doing their job.

The article ends with:

“This is why people are ever more sceptical of scientists. Why should they believe what “experts” say when they can be so wrong and with such impunity? Weapons of mass destruction, lethal viruses, nuclear radiation, global warming … why should we believe a word of it? And it is a short step from don’t believe to don’t care.”

The problem, Simon, is that the “experts” weren’t wrong with such impunity. They weren’t even wrong. This is all in your head. You don’t seem to understand the nature of risk, and of caution based upon that risk. Just because things did not turn out to be as bad as they could have been, does not mean that the wrong decision was made. That is the basic error at the heart of your article.

I can only hope that most of Jenkins’ readers are more discerning than he is.

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  1. #1 by Tom Williamson on February 9, 2010 - 12:42

    I remember fuming after reading this article too. Jenkin’s argument is akin to saying:

    “When we go on a car journey, we are told to wear seatbelts for our own safety. I wore a seatbelt in a car once, and I DIDN’T fly through the windscreen and land on the road in a bloody mess. Therefore, seatbelts are a global conspiracy lead by BIG SAFETY to take our money.”

    Jenkin’s is just so wrong it’s painful.

  2. #2 by Jerry on February 9, 2010 - 12:47

    Good post.

    I like the way he uses the ‘what could happen’ numbers, compares them to the ‘what did happen’ numbers, and then concludes that ‘they’ were wrong – ignoring the response to the ‘what could happen’ numbers by the government to prevent exactly ‘what could happen’.

    So he’s saying that because the government acted and prevented what could happen, the government overreacted, because it didn’t happen.

  3. #3 by Sel on February 10, 2010 - 07:43

    Excellent post Colin. The 1918 flu pandemic killed 50-100 million people (about 3% of the population of the world at the time), targeting young, fit people and is also thought to have been a strain of H1N1. The swine flu, though not nearly as virulent, did target young people and we were lucky it did not mutate into a more aggressive form. Lessons from history are ignored at our peril, and headline grabbing journalists should know better.

  4. #4 by Jonathan B on February 13, 2010 - 00:18

    Well I never did; the “Daily Mail” guilty of shoddy journalism and distortion of the facts to cast the government in a negative light? Who’d have expected that?
    Given that another recent blog entry suggests that the Pope, may, in fact, be a Roman Catholic, can we anticipate a piece in the near future decrying the lavatorial habits of bears in sylvan environments?
    Joking apart, I think you’re right in criticising the Jenkins article; however, there is a wider and more interesting question, which is why the government decided to take precautions against a swine flu pandemic, when it doesn’t give the same attention to other threats. There were significant numbers of preventable deaths in the Winter of 2008-9 for a variety of reasons (‘ordinary’ flu, hypothermia, falls, Norovirus); but the government failed to take many of the steps it could take to address these risks, even though it prepared for the swine flu; I accept that the fact that swine flu proved to be relatively mild in its effects does not mean that the precautions were ill-advised, however, I think that there is a real question as to whether it merited the expenditure committed when there were other ‘competing’ risks to be addressed.
    I think that there is a triangle of the media, government and science and all have to take responsibility in a democracy: the media will invariably act irresponsibly because that is profitable; government can be swayed by the media, but needs to be more honest and braver; it should not lose sight of public opinion, but should also pay proper attention to science. But the scientific community also has an obligation to understand the way that the media manipulates its messages, and the other imperatives for government. As in the case of Professor Nutt, scientists need to recognise that they don’t have a right to dictate policy, but can only to inform it.

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