Adam Cresswell writes:
The most remarkable aspect of the criticisms of The Australian’s recent Health of the Nation series is that few of the individuals making the comments seem to have read a word of it.
Charles Ornstein, president of the US-based Association of Healthcare Journalists, does at least concede this. For most of the others, including Amanda Wilson, Wendy Lipworth and Gary Schwitzer, the omission is implicit in the points they make.
Does this matter? To borrow a phrase from Gary Schwitzer, you bet it does – for it allows a blurring of two quite separate issues.
On the one hand, there are the overall principles, and whether media organisations can insulate their coverage from the conflicts of interest such arrangements risk creating.
Secondly, there is the more specific question of whether the HOTN series did in fact pander to the commercial or other interests of the drug industry.
These questions appear to have been treated as one and the same. What results is a melange of speculative and unfounded commentary that wrongly implies The Australian and its journalists were either told what to write by Medicines Australia, or recognised on which side their bread was buttered and toed a corporate line without explicit instruction. These implications are completely false.
First, the basics. You would think that any fair discussion about whether a newspaper series had been compromised by sponsors would begin with an outline of what had been printed as part of the series. Strangely, Croakey did not attempt this.
For the record: 12 pages of coverage were published in the Inquirer section of The Weekend Australian for the HOTN series (selected elements of which were later reprinted in the HOTN magazine on 22 October.)
Of these, just one page (published on 27 August) addressed medicines policy. It contained an even-handed account of the affordability challenges created by expensive new drugs that, for all the hope they offered patients, often translated into very slender improvements in patient outcomes. This article was accompanied by a comment from an independent expert, chosen by myself, who argued taxpayers should be paying much less than current practice for a range of generic drugs on the PBS – a policy that is anathema to Medicines Australia, the series sponsor.
And as far as drugs and the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme are concerned, that was pretty much it.
The other elements of the series addressed various systemic strains: the rise of chronic disease and the altered balance of hospital and community care required to cope with this; areas such as mental and dental care that are currently not well provided for; the pressures linked to population ageing, and the difficulties with introducing electronic health records.
It’s not clear to me how any of that is advancing the interests of Big Pharma, yet Croakey is content to quote its various interviewees, many of whom appear not to have read any of it, to make all sorts of criticisms, even contradictory ones.
For example, it is hard to see how Gary Schwitzer could justify asking whether The Australian would continue to “aggressively report on future drug industry issues” had he been aware of what the paper has published. The matter is not in question, as The Australian has already proved it scrutinises the drug industry at least as much, if not more than any other paper. On 30 July, when the HOTN series was already under way (and long before the recent spate of stories on this topic), the paper ran a story that Pfizer, the world’s largest drug giant, was paying pharmacists $7 a time “to enrol patients in support programs in an effort to ensure they keep taking the pills the drug company makes” – potentially earning pharmacists $8000 a year.
This pursuit has continued. On Monday October 10, two days after the series ended, The Australian reported the drug industry had been “paying specialists up to $1500 to sell the benefits of new products to their peers… raising questions about the independence of the medical profession”; while on Thursday 20 October, we ran a story that drug giant GlaxoSmithKline was “leading a push to have drug companies name the doctors they pay to promote drugs”.
Several other claims need to be addressed. Schwitzer also asks this: “Since when do journalists partner with/collaborate with/have commercial agreements with … the drug industry they must cover?” The answer is simple: the journalists don’t. We never have, and we never will – the partnership, as with any advertising deal, was with the advertising department, and the journalists remained free to report as they saw fit. This is no cute hair-splitting, but a crucial distinction on which all newspaper newsrooms rely.
Similarly, Amanda Wilson asks if the series is “just another way to get around the legislation on direct to consumer advertising”. It’s not clear what product she thinks was being advertised, because there wasn’t one.
Finally, another interviewee, Christopher Jordens, wrongly refers to the HOTN series being described as “a consumer initiative” (in fact, the term consumer initiative was applied to the name The Australian Medicines Industry, which is a new moniker adopted by Medicines Australia) and then accuses me of trotting out “the same old story that Australia’s public health system is in ‘crisis’”.
Jordens adds that I’m “willing to tell that story even though the results of the Newspoll survey tell a different story if you view the figures differently”.
Well, lies, damned lies and all that. I can’t actually find a reference in anything I wrote for the series about the health system being “in crisis” – perhaps a headline did, or perhaps Jordens glanced a bit too rapidly at a reference (in the story published on 27 August) to the federal government having itself “fuelled a perception that a crisis is at hand” with regards to PBS sustainability.
Regardless of whether the word “crisis” was indeed used, or the meaning of that conveyed, it’s a stretch to suggest that by making the uncontroversial remark that the health system is under strain, The Australian was furthering a sponsor’s commercial agenda.
To concede the point requires us to accept that not only is The Australian in the drug industry’s pocket, so is anyone else who has described the system as being at crisis point – which would include all 10 members of the former National Health and Hospitals Reform Commission, and Federal Health Minister Nicola Roxon, to name just a few – a conspiracy that ought to be too daft even for Croakey.
Just like Croakey, which it should be noted is partly funded by the Public Health Association of Australia and other interest groups, newspaper pages are indeed for sale – that’s why it’s possible to buy advertising space on them.
But the news content is never for sale, and that remains true even when – especially when – the advertising is the result of a sponsorship deals such as this.