Flu Vaccines, Broadcasting Standards, and the NZ Media – Where freedom of speech reigns, so long as it fits the agenda…

Something a bit funny is going on in New Zealand.

I know, I know, it could be any of many things… but this ‘funny thing’ is one of those ones that seem minor, almost laughable, when you first read about it – but then you take a moment sit back and think about the consequences and implications, and things suddenly aren’t so amusing anymore.doctor-in-medical-gloves-inoculate-the-dangerous-patient

I’m talking about broadcasting standards, so-called, and how they apply (or don’t, as the case may be) to popular television programmes when screening current affairs pieces involving health advice.

On April 18th 2012, at 7pm, Campbell Live (TV3) screened a segment encouraging people to go to their doctor and have an influenza vaccination. The piece was supposedly a ‘balanced’ story, where two journalists had an argument over whether or not to have an influenza vaccine, and decided to find out more information about it. Throughout the piece (well, once or twice) were comments from the general public, courtesy of a ‘vox-pops’ style interview on the street, as well as select comments from their Facebook page, but the majority of information given was from a pair of ‘medical experts’ who were, by their own admission, unequivocally pro-vaccination.

All well and good so far, right?

Well, maybe. The problem is, the ‘experts’ – a Dr John Cameron, from Auckland, and Dr Michael Baker, of Otago University –proceeded to make some of the most ill-informed, nonsensical statements I’ve almost ever heard from so-called doctors about the flu vaccination. Did you know, there’s no chance of you falling sick following the flu jab? That the flu itself makes people suicidal, and ‘messes with your brain’? That you can’t possibly get the flu if you’re vaccinated, and the most you might have in terms of a reaction is a bit of a sore arm? Oh, and of course that the only reason you don’t catch influenza is if you have immunity against it, or you don’t come in contact with it.

Hmmm.

Given that these were the only two ‘experts’ offered in the case, and they both made a range of what were frankly, quite bizarre statements certainly not backed by fact, the overall impression from the story was that influenza is a terrifying illness that can send you loopy and suicidal, there’s no chance of any form of major reaction to the vaccine or that you could contract an illness or fall sick following it (from a virus or a reaction to the vaccine itself), and that if you aren’t immune to it – from the vaccine – then if you come into contact with the virus, you’ll definitely get the flu!

Any dissenting voices were from ‘Joe Public’, rather than a doctor or other health expert, giving the overall impression that the public are needlessly fearful and ill-informed on the matter, and people should listen to the experts and roll up their sleeves.

Balanced indeed.

As we’re so often encouraged to do by those nice little info-boxes aired on TV every now and then, I turned to the Broadcasting Standards Authority (BSA) and the Code of Broadcasting Practice, and laid a formal complaint on the grounds of several of the codes being clearly breached; Standard Four, which involves controversial viewpoints, Standard Five (accuracy of information), and Standard Eight (Responsible programming).

The response to this – after a long delay, due to the volume of complaints they were supposedly dealing with at the time – was fairly disappointing, to say the least.

Essentially, the intention of the reporter and doctors was not to make absolute statements, therefore – regardless of impressions given to the public – it was simply just an opinion piece and therefore subject to free speech and exempt from the standards. Nevermind that the persons making these statements were doctors, touted as experts, and providing expert advice to the public, in such a manner that many may well have run out to their GP for their annual shot of neomycin, gentamycin, formaldehyde*, etc (standard five). Nevermind that their views were broadcast in a way that may well have induced an element of unreasonable panic in the public (standard eight). And nevermind that a lot of what they said were half-truths, exaggerations, or blatant falsehoods!!

Turns out, in New Zealand, you can tell people whatever you like if you’re on television – it’s all just your opinion, whether you’re there as an expert or just as a layperson, and therefore the standards don’t apply.

The response to my complaint is too long to post here, however, here’s the first part of their response (emphasis mine):

The full statement made in the introduction went as follows:

Have you had your flu jab? If not, why not? Vaccinations work. It’s impossible to know how many people die of small pox for example, but it would be well into the hundreds of millions killed by an infectious disease vaccines eliminated from the world. In 1918 between 50 and a 100 million people died of the flu in one year, so are you having your jab? This afternoon we asked you that question on Facebook, here are some of your answers…

In the Committee’s view the statement made by the host was not one that was intended to be an absolute statement meaning that vaccines always work, but one to convey that they have worked, and was qualified with the example of the elimination of small pox. In a wider context, we are of the view that most viewers would at least be aware of a debate surrounding vaccinations and would understand the statement in the context in which it was intended. The reporter responds:

The statement that ‘vaccines work’ used smallpox as an example. The World Health Organisation states that “Following a global WHO-led immunization campaign, smallpox was declared eradicated in 1980. It no longer occurs naturally.” (http://www.who.int/topics/smallpox/en/).

To state that vaccines ‘sometimes’ or ‘don’t always’ work would infer a less than 50 percent success rate, which was not accurate for smallpox, and is not accurate for the influenza vaccine, which is considered by medical experts to be between 65 and 90 percent efficient.

Who said anything about inferring a less than 50 percent success rate? Surely most people going to their doctor and wanting a jab would expect nothing less than, say, a 95% lower risk of contracting it than if they hadn’t had the jab? And who cares what the host’s intention was, if the impact on viewers and implications of what was said was totally inaccurate, ‘opinion’ or not?

I can’t say I’m at all surprised by the outcome of the complaint, or that it wasn’t upheld – what I can say, however, is that we all need to be vigilant about knowing what’s being said in the media and to make sure we do complain, as futile as it may seem. The public has a right to accurate medical information, and when doctors – or anybody else qualified in a field, for that matter – are speaking on a matter of public interest which may affect a person’s health outcomes should they take that expert’s advice, they have a duty to us to give accurate information that doesn’t mislead and that doesn’t encourage an action that can and often does have a serious adverse impact on a person’s health!!

Hurrah for the rather selective excuse of freedom of speech, the oil that keeps the wheel of the propaganda machine steadily rolling along… shame it isn’t applied across the spectrum though, right?

You can read the code here:

http://www.bsa.govt.nz/free-to-air-tv-code/

*Some of the ingredients in this year’s vaccines, courtesy of the datasheets provided by the manufacturers. Viewable at www.medsafe.govt.nz