Archive for December, 2007

Daily Mail 'threatens lives'

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When Tony Blair criticised the media back in June his chief complaint was that it was having a ‘seriously adverse’ impact on public life.

The government’s chief scientific adviser has just gone considerably further by accusing the Daily Mail of threatening the lives of 50-100 children as a consequence of the links the paper has drawn between MMR and autism. “My charge there” he said (reported in The Guardian), “is that your [the Daily Mail's] highly successful campaign has potentially led to a situation where we could have 50 or 100 children dying of measles in the UK”.

Johann Hari went further still in yesterday’s Independent by focusing the accusation on Melanie Phillips who, he said, ‘spearheaded the MMR campaign’. ‘From this species of ignorance’ Hari argued ‘has flowed a serious risk of children dying’.

Sir David King’s comments came after the Health Protection Agency last week announced that measles is spreading faster than at any time in the past 10 years ‘sparking fears of an epidemic’ (this quote from the – never scaremongering – Express).

Vaccination currently stands at an average of 85% (it needs to be at 95% to prevent the disease spreading). But this figure is misleading since it disguises the fact that in some areas of the country vaccination levels are much lower.

Yet the Mail should not be the only paper singled out. The Observer ran an astonishingly misleading cover story back in July in which it said new research renewed suggestions of a link (see Ben Goldacre’s ‘The MMR Story that Wasn’t’).

The remarkable thing about the Mail is that not only does it not think it necessary to respond to the Chief Scientists accusations, but it continues – despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary (and evidence that its coverage threatens lives) to suggest a link. Only on Sunday, at the bottom of an article titled ‘£500,000 for boy left fighting for life after being used as ‘MMR guinea pig’, the paper pointed readers to the Mail on Sunday’s ‘expert guide to MMR’.

The ‘expert guide’ (‘Your guide to MMR‘) begins: ‘The MMR vaccination that protects children against measles, mumps and rubella has long courted controversey [sic], since Dr Andrew Wakefield, published research that challenged the safety of the triple jab.’

It then says that though ‘the vast majority of GPs maintain that the vaccination is safe… many parents are still unsure whether the MMR vaccination can be trusted – or whether it does indeed have a link to the rise in cases of autism and bowel disease’. It does not seek to reassure these parents.

After then running through the ‘Pros’, the guide lists the ‘Cons’, including that ‘The MMR jabs have attracted a great deal of controversy in the past 20 years, due to clinical studies linking the vaccine to a number of serious side-effects’ – one of them being, you guessed it, autism.

As a parent, reading this expert guide, it would hard not to come away feeling anxious about giving your child the triple vaccination, and seriously consider paying for single vaccinations, if not avoiding the vaccinations altogether.

I’ll be interested to see if, despite Sir David King’s comments, the Mail keeps its ‘expert guide’ unchanged. Given its silence to date I suspect it’ll still be there come Christmas.

Written by Martin Moore

December 11th, 2007 at 6:34 pm

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Avoiding a bloody revolution

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There’s much to agree with in the NUJ’s ‘Shaping the Future’ report published today, but it is also underpinned by a flawed assumption which, I think, undermines its central message.

The report is absolutely right to emphasise the importance of quality journalism, and the significant erosion of public interest journalism that has come partly as a result of our ongoing technological revolution. And you can sympathise with their criticisms (if not the comrade style language) of ‘short-sighted media employers’. It’s true that, with media changing so fast, many senior media figures don’t seem to be able to see past the end of their nose. Although whether its fair to say they are simply using new technology ‘to reduce costs and boost profits, with the erosion of quality journalism [considered] an acceptable price to pay’ is certainly arguable

But back to the underlying assumption. The report – and presumably the NUJ – conflates journalists with journalism. It assumes that not only is there a clear line between a professional journalist and a non-professional (itself a generalisation that can be challenged) but that journalism can clearly be distinguished from non-journalism. It can’t. Or certainly not on the internet.

- If the same photograph is published on a blog and on the front page of TimesOnline is one journalism and one not?

- When Melanie Phillips published her blog, is that user-generated content or journalism? Is it only journalism if it’s published in the Mail?

- If I write a report of an event I’ve just been to and stick it online – is it journalism?

In its section on ‘User Generated Content’ the report writes:

“The issue of user-generated content is not an issue of technology; it is one of defending quality journalism. This is not to say that all user-generated content is bad or that there are no quality blogs, but professional journalism, adequately funded and resourced, plays a role in society and democracy that needs to be defended.”

This assumes there is one big bucket called ‘user-generated content’ and another called ‘professional journalism’. It’s just not as simple as that anymore. And though I’d entirely agree that public interest journalism ‘plays a role in society and democracy that needs to be defended’, that is not the same as saying ‘professional journalism plays a role in society and democracy that needs to be defended”.

It seems to me that rather than try to erect walls around ‘professional journalism’ we need redefine the role of the journalist and reconstitute the Fourth Estate (which in itself will protect the professional journalist).

The blogs, photos, videos, podcasts are going to be published – to try to stop them would be King Canute-like. Much better to harness some of the remarkable energy of self-publishing and integrate more people and organisations into the Fourth Estate (which means starting by telling them what it is). Channel their energy towards public interest issues. If there’s a bunch of people that really care about local services but believe funding is being terribly misused, help them to investigate it. Give them the raw materials and tools.

In any revolution it’s entirely natural that the old guard will try to defend their ground. But this tends to end bloodily. Much better to work with the revolutionaries – especially when there is a common cause worth fighting for.

Written by Martin Moore

December 6th, 2007 at 12:41 pm

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Should journalists register their interests?

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For some reason I receive emails from PR week – I think because I once went to an event organised by them (Does PR have a duty to tell the truth? – see previous post).

Anyway, the one I got this afternoon was an invitation to a PR Week conference at which I would “discover further insights into what journalists and editors like and dislike and to learn how to best utilise new media channels”. If I went I would learn how to “Achieve Cut-Through And Creative PR” – and specifically how to “manage emotive issues and counter negative headlines in crisis situations”.

“Are journalists actively monitoring social networking sites,” the invitation asks, “and which blogs are they reading on a regular basis?”

The august panel which will help to answer these questions includes Matthew D’Ancona, (Editor, The Spectator), Parminder Bahra (Executive Editor, Times Online), Peter Barron (Editor, BBC Newsnight) and Chris Lloyd (Assistant Managing Editor, Telegraph Media Group).

Of course it’s daft to try and erect some sort of impermeable wall between PR and news media so one shouldn’t be too surprised that both parties share secrets.

But wouldn’t it be nice if journalists were able to register their interests somewhere – particularly where there might potentially be a conflict?

It was something I discussed recently with Michael Cross, and about whether it would be possible to integrate something like this to (funding permitting – which it isn’t right now).

When it’s becoming increasingly difficult to judge the sourcing and motivation behind news stories, it strikes me that the more open journalists are, the better.

Written by Martin Moore

December 5th, 2007 at 5:26 pm

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Still less 'sleazy' than Blair?

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A poll for BBC Newsnight yesterday suggested 57% of the public now think Brown has been ‘tainted by sleaze’ (Newsnight ICM poll reported by BBC). This sounds like a very bad thing.

But look back to 2002 and 60% of the public thought Labour (of which Brown was of course chancellor) appeared ‘sleazy and disreputable’ (YouGov poll reported by BBC).

Three years – and an exceedingly unpopular war – later, Blair fought and won a third election.

Brown is still 3 percentage points to the good and is extricating himself from Iraq. Maybe things aren’t quite so bad for Brown’s Labour after all.

Written by Martin Moore

December 4th, 2007 at 10:24 pm

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