29 April 2009

Swine flu - it may not be that bad, but idiot journos could make it a lot worse

The media is of course full of swine flu this week. Unlike the virus - so far - the coverage is inescapable. By today, we were facing a pandemic of predictions, an epidemic of articles. 

Most of the TV coverage I've seen has been pretty good - Channel 4 News had Liam Donaldson, the Chief Medical Officer, answering questions that had been emailed in by viewers, and it was quite in-depth and all very balanced and non-sensational. The printed and online media, by contrast, has been much more patchy. Most of the broadsheet reports have been OK but some of the columnists and bloggers have lost the plot completely. 

Simon Jenkins in the Guardian delivered an absolute pile of doo-doo today, arguing that panic over the virus is being 'stoked' by governments and the World Heath Organisation to justify increased budgets for disease management. There is a very strong argument for this view with regard to counter-terrorism budgets in the US and UK, but as regards a potential flu pandemic it's a completely ignorant distortion of the truth. Jenkins describes your average flu symptoms - "you feel ill for a few days then you get better." In which case why have 150 people died in Mexico City?

 So far, it is correct that the cases of the illness outside Mexico aren't fatal in the overwhelming majority of cases. But the early indications suggest that this new H1N1 strain of flu is substantially different from the normal seasonal flus which circulate every year. We simply have no idea how bad the impact might be outside Mexico. We might be seeing just the very small tip of a very large iceberg. When only a few people in the UK have been infected, there might well be no deaths at all. But if millions of people are infected, we may see a much higher death rate. As yet there is just no way of knowing. 

Jenkins says "professional expertise is now overwhelmed by professional log-rolling" but in fact the professional response as I have seen it in the media has been very measured and non-alarmist. It is certain sections of the media that are behaving unprofessionally by talking what they know is presumptious bollocks - suggesting that we know there is no risk whatsoever, or a very very minor risk  - whereas in fact we know nothing of the kind. It is sad that Jenkins, who is capable of much better journalism than this, should have dropped his standards so low on this occasion. 

I can't say the same thing about Telegraph blogger James Delingpole, because I have yet to read a single post he's made that isn't absolute crap. This guy wants to be Simon Heffer with a sense of humour. Sadly, he is a cheap punk impersonating an offensive moron. Or maybe he's just an offensive moron. Apparently no-one (except the very weak and infirm and people living in developing countries, for whom it was presumably a matter of social Darwinism anyway) is gonna die of swine flu. It's Simon Jenkins without the brains. One to avoid, methinks. 

And as for Michael O'Leary... this is a guy who shows such utter contempt for the human race that he is probably just a walking bag of nasty viruses disguised as a human being. Please, can someone infect this bastard, and put the rest of us out of our misery?

UPDATE: the day after writing this post I was lucky enough to find that rare thing - a balanced, sensible media article on swine flu by the excellent Ben Goldacre, author of the Bad Science blog. His view? We simply don't know enough to be able to make predictions on the severity of the outbreak or the potential body count yet - and anybody who says otherwise is a fool or a liar. Read this guy rather than the bunch of other duffers I've collected in this post and we might get somewhere...

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I like the irony of the claim that journalists, usually guilty themselves of exaggeration, hyperbole and general sensationalism, are on this occasion making a story out of the alleged exaggeration of the authorities....