Unhealthy obsessions

spiked editor Mick Hume in The Times (London), on mad media disease.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume
Columnist

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Topics Politics

The media is giving too much coverage to scare stories over the alleged risks of the MMR vaccination or SARS, and doing too little to educate the public about the real risks posed by smoking, drinking, unsafe sex or fatty foods. That is the message of yesterday’s report from the King’s Fund, a charity and key player in the public health industry that has flourished under new Labour.

But its diagnosis of the problem is misplaced. Of course, far too much credibility is given to such spurious nonsense as the claim that MMR causes autism. But then, there is far too much moralising, scaremongering, coverage of health issues altogether. Despite living in the healthiest society in human history, we suffer from a sickly obsession with public health risks, real and imagined.

The last thing we need is yet more media sermonising about obesity or AIDS. The authors of Health in the News: Risk, Reporting and Media Influence are happy to see even more headlines about health, so long as these promote awareness about the ‘right’ issues – those which fit the government-endorsed agenda of public health promotion. So they want fewer scare stories about Sars and more about passive smoking. To help broadcasters and newspapers to understand which risks to publicise, the report includes a deaths-per-news-story chart, which ‘measures the number of people who have to die from a given condition to merit a story in the news’. It concludes that while ‘8,571 people died from smoking for each story about smoking on BBC news programmes, it took only 0.33 deaths from vCJD to merit a story on BBC news’.

That certainly says something about the mad media disease spread via the BSE CJD scare. But you sense that some will not be satisfied until BBC news bulletins end with the solemn naming of all who perished from smoking-related diseases that day. For these professionals, ‘public health is not concerned with the medical treatment of individuals suffering ill-health’ – what some of us naively assumed to be the business of the health industry. Instead, public health is largely about ‘behavioural modification’. New Labour’s army of public health professionals want to save us from ourselves by teaching us to make correct ‘lifestyle choices’. Just as they have used the BBC soap opera EastEnders as a vehicle for propaganda about everything from Aids to domestic violence, so some would no doubt like to script the news bulletins.

In the foreword to Health in the News Professor Sian Griffiths, the president of the Faculty of Public Health Medicine, says ‘we all want to safeguard the freedom of the media as well as to improve health’, but ‘the first objective seems to undermine the second’. The implication is that our media are just too free to play a responsible role in health education.

In a free society, however, it should not be the job of newspapers or broadcasters to educate the public about the evils of smoking, drinking or eating, whether in line with the wishes of the King’s Fund or of Her Majesty’s Government. As the report notes with some irritation, media outlets insist on adhering to their own ‘news values’, searching for dramatic new stories. Dog-bites-man stories – or in this case, fags-cause-cancer stories – are simply not news.

This sort of editorial independence is a freedom too far for those who expect the media to act as a subservient arm of the public health industry. When some in the media go off-message over something like MMR, public health professionals complain that they are acting irresponsibly. Yet who helped to create the atmosphere of scaremongering? Since the Aids panics of the 1980s, under both Tory and Labour governments, health authorities have stirred up public panics about exaggerated or unproven health threats ranging from sunbathing to passive smoking, meat to mobile phones.

When this climate of irrationality spins out of control, sparking something like the MMR-autism scare, the authorities respond with an alternative scare about a possible measles epidemic. They have no right to point the disinfected finger about irresponsible behaviour. There are questions to be asked about bigger issues than the coverage given to such a minimal health risk as SARS. Why is so much public discussion today dominated by moral panics about what we eat, drink and breathe? How have our horizons become so lowered that the only vision of a Good Society now on offer is a land of the smoke-free restaurant? When did politics become so pettily intrusive that government agencies think it their business to pontificate on the contents of our children’s lunch boxes? We would be better off with less chatter about public health and more debate about the unhealthy state of our public life.

This article is republished from The Times (London)

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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Topics Politics

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