News Of The Skews
This issue's look at national media skew-whiffery.
Squall 14, Autumn 1996, pg. 14.
Nicholas Saunders is often accused by the media of promoting Ecstasy and of distorting the facts so as to make it appear less dangerous than it really is. He argues those who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones!
Chinese Whispers And The Media
On April 7th this year, The Sunday Telegraph ran a prominent story claiming new research had established that Ecstasy causes "permanent brain injury", based on an interview by their reporter Rachel Sylvester with the Californian researcher, Charles Grob. The article said that Dr Grob had found brain damage by using high-tech brain scans on long term users. Two weeks later the paper published Dr Grob's letter in which he denounced the article as: "a gross distortion and misrepresentation of our research..."
On May 12th The Sunday Times ran a major feature by Olga Craig called ‘E is for Agony’, subtitled: “How many young people are clubbing themselves to death on Ecstasy?” and illustrated by photos of teenagers captioned: “Killed by the Drug Culture”. The centre of the page displayed a quote in large type: “Experiments detected profound effects on the brain, which were confirmed by brain scans in long-term users”.
The text revealed this was based on Dr Charles Grob's work on volunteers! The same article said that Mary Hartnoll (the senior Scottish social worker widely condemned by the media for saying the dangers of Ecstasy had been exaggerated) “has now backtracked, now saying she believes the drug is ‘very risky’”. I wrote to Ms Hartnoll to ask whether she had changed her mind and if so why, and she replied: "I have not changed my mind and restricted myself to clarifying what I had said".
On June 14th, The Independent ran a feature by Glenda Cooper headed: “Ecstasy users risking long term brain damage”. In it she states that "a study in the US, carried out for the Food and Drug Administration, found 'profound' and 'permanent' effects on the brain which were confirmed by brain scans on long term users". Her source was The Sunday Telegraph, she told me, and blamed their cutting system rather than herself.
As it turns out, I had a pretty good idea what was coming. Rachel Sylvester rang me a few days before the article appeared and said she wanted to paint a more positive picture of Ecstasy, and got me chatting about Dr Grob's research in which I took part as a 'guinea pig'. (Perhaps talking to me was her evidence for Ecstasy causing brain damage to long term users!). In spite of her friendly come on, my suspicions were aroused when I only heard the clatter of her keyboard when I mentioned something which might be construed as negative.
Well, every profession has a few bad apples like Rachel Sylvester. But they not only get away with it, what they say is repeated by other journalists like Olga Craig and Glenda Cooper until the lie becomes 'fact'. This may not matter in the rubbish press, but people do believe what they say in the papers mentioned - in fact, I have heard several people, including Mr Betts (Leah Betts’ father) and social workers repeating the new 'evidence' on the BBC. I would like to see such journalists blacklisted, unable to get work on any respectable newspaper ever again.
More recently (June 15th), the British Medical Journal published an editorial entitled: “Ecstasy and Neuro-degeneration”, which argued that Ecstasy was probably more dangerous than generally realised. Although the article impressively cited no less than 12 papers, the research results referred to were all published well over a year ago; it contained nothing new. However, it provided a dramatic example of the dangers of illicit drugs by describing how a contaminated batch of a [different] street drug had caused devastating symptoms similar to Parkinson's disease.
BBC news and nearly every newspaper reported the BMJ as publishing "new evidence" about the dangers of Ecstasy. The Guardian's medical correspondent warned that long term users may suffer from a kind of Parkinson's disease! And on the highest authority; who would doubt the word of the BMJ?
What was not reported anywhere in the media was that the drug Fenfluramine has recently been approved for long term daily use in the USA. This is significant because the main researchers claiming that Ecstasy may cause long term brain damage (on whose research the BMJ article was based), believe that Fenfluramine causes identical damage. Other researchers believe that neither MDMA nor Fenfluramine cause neuro-degeneration, and the US Food and Drug Administration expert committee took their view in approving Fenfluramine. In short, an overview of informed opinion could only conclude that Ecstasy is probably less dangerous than previously realised.
Nicholas Saunders is the author of ‘E for Ecstasy’.
Yet Another Squatting Outrage?
A media typhoon resulted following The Daily Express's recent front page outrage against the squatters who sold the house they’d occupied for 19 years. Under ‘adverse possession’ rules, occupying a property for 12 years or more qualifies the occupants as owners. Shame and outrage screamed The Express.
There was no acknowledgement, as pointed out by Jim Paton from the Advisory Service for Squatters, that all land and property ownership originated in such a way. Or that any property owner who has completely forgotten about a property he owns is a testament to a debauchery of ownership.
Instead the self-perpetuating media agenda whizzed into action. On the day The Express ran its piece, the Advisory Service for Squatters was rung up by Radio 2’s Jimmy Young Show, Carlton TV, Sky Television, the Evening Standard, The Observer, BBC Television, the Sunday Mirror and Talk Radio. The Sunday Times even went so far as to dredge up the original owner who had completely forgotten about the building but was gutted to be told he had missed out on £100,000.
Squall was similarly inundated with media calls that day, the funniest of which came from The Daily Telegraph. They were intending to follow up the story with a feature on “middle class squatters” and wanted us to find them some examples. When asked what ‘middle class squatters’ meant, they replied: “People who earn a high wage and squat for fun.” Squall told them that we might be able to find a refugee, a woman escaping domestic violence or a single parent who squatted but had never heard of a high wage earner who squatted for fun. The Daily Telegraph feature writer then replied that “unfortunately, you know how it is, but this isn’t what Telegraph readers want to read about”. She then asked whether we might instead be able to find a squatter who “earned a wage, was articulate and preferably good-looking”. At this point Squall simply had to point out that whilst we did indeed know many squatters who were articulate and looked great, none of them were likely to offer their lives as fodder for a phoney agenda. The feature never ran.
News Of The Skews - ITV's 'Expert Witness' and its grossly inaccurate portrayal of animal activist Keith Mann - Squall 13 - Summer 1996.