Archive for March, 2007
When Bush sought to justify the war in Iraq, back in 2003, he talked alot about a ‘free Iraq’ in which people would have free speech and where there would be a flourishing free media. In December 2005, in his National Strategy for Victory in Iraq, he was still talking about establishing a ‘free, independent and responsible media’ (p.38).
But we read this week that Iraq’s media is ’90% propaganda’. In an interview for the Press Gazette, Jasim Al-Azzawi, presenter of Al Jazeera’s Inside Iraq, says that many newspapers and magazines are now just propaganda outlets for militias. “They spew nothing but hatred” he says, and that “judged by Western standards they would be closed down immediately”.
The situation appears to be no better in Afghanistan. “Effectively we’ve moved from an open media environment to a state-controlled media environment” the spokesman for the UN mission, Adrian Edwards, told CNN. Edwards is particularly worried about a proposed new law, being debated in Parliament in a few weeks which will, amongst other things, prohibit; the “propagation of religions other than the holy religion of Islam”, stories that “affect the stability, national security and territorial integrity of the country,” and “articles and topics that harm the physical, spiritual and moral well-being of people, especially children and adolescents.” (source: CNN).
Sadly it looks like one of the most positive, obvious signs of Iraqi and Afghan freedom flamed briefly but may now be going out.
Can optimism sell newspapers? Back in the 1930s Lord Beaverbrook thought so and made sure his most popular paper, the Daily Express, always looked at things ‘from the sunny side of the street’. So much so that it was accused (fairly) of misleading the public by downplaying bad news in the build-up to the Second World War.
Still, it seemed to work. At the end of the war the Express was the biggest selling newspaper in the world, with a circulation of almost four million.
Then we have today’s Express, owned by Richard Desmond, with a circulation down to about 750,000. Are the depressing headlines one reason why? A few less-than uplifting front pages from the last six weeks include:
On housing: ‘Home loans set to soar again’ (15-2-07), ‘Scrap new tax on house sales’ (22-2-07), ‘Millions in home tax trap’ (5-3-07), ‘Cost of home loans to soar’ (21-3-07).
On tax: ‘Tax spies to invade your life’ (20-2-07), ‘Blair’s road tax lies exposed’ (25-2-07), ‘Brown’s tax plan to bleed you dry’ (8-3-07), ‘Tax cut: it’s just a big con’ (22-3-07).
Then of course there’s the Diana conspiracy (‘Diana: vital evidence was kept secret’, 20-3-07), interest rates ( ‘Interest rates to go up and up again’ 28-3-07), anti-Islamic polemics (‘Muslims tell us how to run our schools’ 21-2-07) and the weather (‘Wet Wet Britain’ 28-2-07, ‘Stand by for more floods’ 7-3-07).
Is life really that bad? Still, there was one reason to be cheerful, on 19th February the paper splashed with ‘Chocolate can save your life’ (perhaps the regular editorial team were out that night).
The remarkable thing about today’s Leader in the Times (‘Britain’s Hostage Crisis‘) is how isolated it is. ‘In earlier times it [the abduction of 15 British sailors and marines by Iran] would have been an immediate casus belli’ the Leader intones.
Perhaps, but in earlier times it would also have been a clarion call to the media to start poring over maps of the Shatt al-Arab waterway, to begin trying to work out the motivations of Ahmadinejad and to launch into endless predictions about possible outcomes. Instead, we get a fly-on-the-wall description of the lead up to the incident from a journalist on board the HMS Cornwall in the Observer, some decent speculation by Marie Colvin, Tony Allen-Mills and Michael Smith in the Sunday Times, and occasional reports and updates.
On the plus side, this means there has not been the usual ramping up of tension by the media, leaving the government free to negotiate behind the scenes. But, on the other hand, it also means we are deprived of information and analysis about a major international incident which could have significant diplomatic and political repercussions.
Perhaps news organisations think we’re tired of Iraq / Iran coverage. Or maybe they’d rather concentrate on other things (like Northern Ireland). Whatever the reason, ‘The relative inattention’, as Andrew O’Hagan writes in today’s Telegraph, ‘is weird’ (‘Iran? Remember the Falklands Mr Blair’).
What would you do if you discovered a cancer vaccine which could protect young girls against cervical cancer? You’d probably do everything you could to get as many vaccinated as possible. You might even go as far as trying to convince governments to institute national vaccination programmes.
So far, so laudable. But, like everything in life, it’s a little more complicated than this. For one thing, what if it’s not clear that the vaccine offers 100% protection? Or that it’s not certain how long the vaccine lasts? Indeed, what if there’s a good chance that it will wear off by the time girls (who receive the vaccine between 9-12 years old) reach adulthood? Oh, and if you are successful and the government institutes the programme, it will almost certainly mean it cannot afford to run some of its other State-funded cancer prevention programmes (such as screening).
Still, the vaccine could be worth about £2bn a year in revenue, and if you don’t offer it then your competitor (in the case of Gardasil, GlaxoSmithKline) will. So, you swallow hard and then promote it as much as you can – with the help of obliging doctors and celebrities.
In very broad brush strokes, this descibes the position of Sanofi Pasteur MSD, the company that makes and markets the drug Gardasil in Europe right now. We know this thanks to Sarah Boseley from the Guardian. Boseley is one of the few journalists who investigates (and is given the space to investigate) the ways in which pharmaceutical companies push sales of their products, and why it’s not as simple as ‘life-saving drugs good, stingy governments bad’.
No other newspaper is reporting the vaccine in this way. Since 2005 the Daily Mail has been referring to ‘the wonder drug’ Gardasil. The Telegraph has, in the past, suggested the government has been ‘dragging its feet’ over approval of a national Gardasil vaccination programme. While the Times and the Independent have discussed the question of whether providing young girls with the vaccination encourages under-age sex.
It’s more difficult to report the issue as Boseley has, but it helps represent the complexity of the issue and the self-interest involved. It also shows that newspapers don’t have to be PR agents for the drug companies.