The sleaze disease

How did a ridiculous panic over smallpox descend into a scandal over sleaze?

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

The initial panic was crazy enough.

The UK Department of Health confirmed on 11 April 2002 that it had spent £32million on 30million anti-smallpox vaccines to ‘protect Britain’ in the event of a smallpox terror attack. The Daily Telegraph was quick to warn of the ‘nightmare crisis of suicide terrorists infecting themselves and spreading the disease around Britain’, while the Sun claimed that Saddam Hussein ‘may already have supplies of the virus, which he could use to wipe out millions of people’ (1).

All of this over a disease that poses next-to-no threat to anybody anywhere. Smallpox has been eradicated, and no longer exists as a naturally occurring virus – the last case of natural smallpox was in Somalia in 1977 (2). As for terrorists getting their murderous mitts on smallpox and spreading it worldwide, according to Professor Harry Smith of the Royal Society working group on biological weapons no terrorist group in the world has access to smallpox, and the only confirmed samples are held in secure laboratories in the USA and Russia.

The media reports and the UK government’s anti-smallpox initiative seem to have confused fact with fiction – sounding more like worst-case scenario Hollywood horrors than a cool assessment of the facts. This was captured on BBC News, which illustrated its report on the government’s vaccine stockpiling with a picture of a smallpox-ridden woman looking like death warmed up and the caption ‘Smallpox is a highly infectious disease’ – but the picture is actually a still from the BBC drama Smallpox 2002: Silent Weapon (3).

Before you could say ‘what a poxy panic’, it suddenly turned political. The revelation that the government gave the £32million contract for anti-smallpox vaccines to PowderJect Pharmaceuticals, owned by Labour Party donor Paul Drayson, got politicians and political commentators foaming at the mouth. The Conservatives called for an independent inquiry, with party vice-chairman Tim Collins demanding a ‘proper culture of openness’ (4) – while trade union leader Bill Morris said Labour has ‘got to get a grip. We cannot become a party dependent on big business’ (5).

Even the Guardian, purveyors of many a sleaze story when the Tories were in power, recognised that there is a problem when everything becomes a sleaze issue – running an editorial arguing that ‘we badly need some perspective. By international standards…the standards of British public life are in relatively good order’ (6) (See This sleazy obsession is a scandal, by Mick Hume). If there was any scandal involved in the smallpox story, it was the profiteering from the culture of fear – selling sackloads of vaccines for a virus that people are almost certainly never going to catch.

The obsession with sleaze reflects the death of politics – where the traditional left/right divide and heated clashes over big issues have been replaced by the petty politics of character, personality and cash. And the ‘smallpox scandal’ illustrates how destructive the sleaze obsession can be, how it can hamper politicians’ ability to do anything without facing the ‘sleazy’ accusation – even something that was presented by the Department of Health as ‘necessary and right’ in our ‘post-11 September world’.

Talk about a diseased body politic.

Brendan O’Neill is coordinating the spiked-conference Panic attack: Interrogating our obsession with risk, on Friday 9 May 2003, at the Royal Institution in London.

Read on:

A pox on scientific debate, Sandy Starr

Don’t Panic Button

(1) Papers catch smallpox fever, BBC News, 13 April 2002

(2) See Smallpox homepage, US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

(3) See Smallpox contract stays in spotlight, BBC News, 15 April 2002

(4) Inquiry calls over vaccine contract, BBC News, 13 April 2002

(5) Levy ‘ready to step down’ over cash disclosures, Guardian, 15 April 2002

(6) Culture of suspicion, Guardian, 16 April 2002

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Topics Politics


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