How the media is manipulated to not report on key issues
Stewart Fist, 70 Middle Harbour Road, Lindfield, 2070, NSW, Australia.
Many years back, before my conscience began to bothered me, I spent a few years as a public relations consultant with the world's second largest PR company, Hill & Knowlton. In the process, I learned how easy it is to manipulate the media -- we did it on a daily basis.
So I watch developments in this Goebellian industry constantly. And if you look, you'll find that one whole sub-section of public relations is devoted to what they now call Crisis Management.
In America, if your company faces substantial health or environmental problems, you can hire specialist crisis-management corporations with a 'scientific-research' front, which often promote themselves as "Risk Analysis" or "Risk Management" specialists. These people will take over the scientific tasks of independently proving your product/service to be safe -- and they usually save a lot of time and avoid confusion by writing all the scientific report conclusions first.
Fortunately, in Australia, scientific mercenaries of this type haven't surfaced to the same degree (we still import them from the USA when required), with the result that our science is still reasonably well respected around the world as being independent, skilled, and fruitful. In the area of cell-phone and health issues we probably lead the world, except perhaps for the USA (where there are still many very good scientist working in these areas, and where most of the work is still being done).
However, with American research, it is increasingly difficult to know who to believe; a high percentage of the research seems to be designed to have nil results, and these are then loudly trumpeted by industries as proof of safety.
From experience, I also know that crisis Management companies use, as one of their main ploys, the notorious 'scoop' requirements of the media -- their need to be first with a story -- and their total inability to separate the wheat from the chaff. So public relations specialises in confusing these issues with various claims, until both the reporters and the public throw up their hands and go and watch the football.
When the advice is chaotic, psychological survival depends on each person's ability to pretend to themselves that the problems are minor; that "Nobody Knows", or that real problems don't actually exist.
The PR practitioners in Australia are learning fast from their American cousins, however. Within Telstra, after many years of fielding flak, the spin-doctors and some tame scientists are now developing very skilled ways of defusing issues, mainly by the judicial and selective release of information.
Telstra also runs a 'backlist' of technical journalists who, from that point on, only ever get innocuous press-releases telling us that some minor middle manager has been given a new area of responsibility, or that Telstra has a new xxxxx in place at some remote country town etc. Telstra now seems to have a policy of totally avoiding the technical media, so they will favour a general journo, or even a cadet journalist with their key releases if they can.
The Adelaide Hospital research release
In April 1997, either deliberately or accidentally, media manipulation on a grand scale resulted in the effective supression of some very disturbing news about the Adelaide Hospital-based research project looking at the tumour-promotional potential of GSM cellular phones. This work had been conducted over four years, and it found that the likelihood that GSM phones promote tumours was very high, but the news never making any impact in Australia.
Telstra executives had been running around in a semi-panic all week before the official date of publications in the US journal Radiation Research, so journalists all knew that the results must be dramatic. We'd known that this research had been finished and awaiting publication for years -- but the few leaks that did come out, all down-played the significance.
What really alerted us to the importance of the story was the fire-fighting effort. You don't turn out half of the state's fire brigades if the conflagration is just a backyard incinerator. According to some reports, the videoconference probably cost about as much as the research.
The work had been done at Royal Adelaide Hospital in South Australia, with Telstra providing the funds through Dr Michael Repacholi. Dr Repacholi is a well known defender of the cell-phones-are-safe position, but Repacholi had left the project early, handing over to Professor Tony Basten and a small team. However control of the public release of information was taken out of Tony Basten's hands, and controlled by Telstra through the Adelaide Hospital. It was to feature Dr Repacholi, and the other scientists weren't invited. Nor were any other specialist researchers in this area, or even oncologists working for the hospital itself.
Telstra had organised this video-conference, bringing Repacholi in from Geneva, to officially announce the report, but with no video feeds to Sydney or Melbourne where the main national press resides.
Journalists who have been keenly following this work, and writing about it for a few years were not invited. A few general journalists from the national press were also partially briefed, and one medical writer had a leak that said "cell phones were proven safe" by the research. But the pre-briefings were given under embargo, on the undertaking that they wouldn't write about the subject until the Wednesday.
Then on Monday morning, the day of the anniversary of the Port Arthur Massacre (many people killed by a lone gunman) which was almost a day of national mourning -- and a day when the media was concentrating on this and the related questions of gun control -- the full details of the report were published in the Hobart Mercury. A couple of other small city newspapers got some brief details also.
Dr Alan Harris, one of the principle researchers, believes that the pre-release, and in fact the video conference, were the result of decisions made by the Royal Adelaide Hospital -- not by Telstra. He says that Telstra were opposed to holding the video conference. I remain unconvinced -- but I have no evidence of Telstra's direct involvement.
This was very effective in killing the interest of the national newspapers in the story -- which is why most Australians still don't know that this story has broken -- or how serious the findings were. This was so effective, that I was unable to get a story in the national newspaper "The Australian", either in the general news pages, or the computer section -- even though I write a column on telecommunications issues every week, and have been writing about this subject for years.
There were apparently some other reasons for this, however -- it wasn't just Telstra's work. The medical section of "The Australian", just two weeks before (April 16th), had been fed a story headlined Mobile phones may slow tumours, and on the day in question the medical writer was Chief of Staff at the newspaper, and wasn't at all happy with running "an old story'.
The Australian government's reaction to the news is well summed up in this release [Dr Nelson is a GP, a government backbencher and on this subject, totally ignorant.]:
The Australian government said that, while the research was a useful contribution, the cancer risk on humans of mobile phones was minimal.
By contrast, a very prominant independent biomedical researcher, with a first class reputation in this field of study, described it to me as a 'Bomb-shell'.
Why doesn't the media run stories about control?
To a very large degree, the research into the safety of cellular phones in most of the world has been controlled for many years by the companies through the CTIA and ETSI in Europe. Defamation threats blocks many of these stories.
However, the problem is mainly that media attention is directed towards public irritation at cellular phone towers (aesthetics) with only some lesser attention to the health issues (unless the towers are on the boundaries of schools).
Also, the issue falls partly into the medical writers field, and partly into the technical section, so since this is a hot potato, it is often left for the other section of the newspaper to cover. I can't get stories on this subject into technical magazines, for the same reason.
However this is a very important area of environmental health, and there are some truly independent people working in the field and a lot of charlatans. To a degree, over-enthusiasm on the part of the anti-cell-phone activists, and some of their more ridiculous claims, have effectively killed the story for newspapers by their constant cries of "wolf".
The facts of the Adelaide Hospital report are these:
Four years ago a team of scientists was funded by Telstra to investigate claimed links between cellular phones and cancer. They finished their evaluation work in the middle of 1995 and the published report of their research in the international journal 'Radiation Research' was due for release two-years later, last Tuesday.
Eighteen months of painstaking work at Adelaide Hospital had turned up probably the most significant and obvious links between an adverse health effects and cellular phones yet. This was one of the most carefully controlled and extensive studies of this kind done anywhere in the world.
Those who don't follow these developments tend to believe that this is a dramatic one-off event, that this evidence just appeared in isolation -- and the companies and their spin-doctors know that, and constantly harp on "the need for more research" or "placing this in context" -- then proceed to NOT DO more research themselves, and treat the findings as if they were totally in isolation from the rest of the evidence.
But in fact, this report follows other fierce bush-fire that have been raging in the cell-phone industry for nearly a decade -- an the evidence keeps mounting. Last year, for instance, Dr Henry Lai and Dr Singh at University of Washington reported enormous increases in double-strand DNA breaks in rat-brain tissue following microwave exposures of only two hours.
The industry largely ignored these findings claiming that the frequencies used were not identical to cell-phones. Which is true, but irrelevant.
The key factor is: How independent is the science and the scientists? Who designed the study? Was it fully blind? What were the controls? Who did the final analysis?
Because of Telstra's involvement, the three scientists who had conducted the Adelaide Hospital research over these years had insisted on a carefully designed research protocol, supervised by the National Health & Medical Research Council (NHMRC) to ensure absolute independence and validity.
The work was conducted at the Royal Adelaide Hospital by Dr Michael Repacholi (who left to take up a job with WHO in Geneva), Professor Tony Basten of Sydney University, Dr Alan Harris of the Walter & Eliza Hall Institute, and statistician Val Gebski of the NHMRC.
Like all scientists, those involved in this study tend to down-play the importance and are desperately trying to hose down any attempts to sensationalise the findings. They will always comment only on their own study, and deal with it in isolation (not in the context of other research). Their press release makes the point that these findings "must be put in context."
This is where most of the confusion arises -- because commentators like myself are more interested in what this study brings to the accumulation of evidence -- in isolation a single study rarely means much at all. But this now adds to many disturbing research findings, and that is something that I cannot ignore.
Professor Basten also suggests that the correlation between animal studies and humans is complex, and that "more focused research needs to be done to resolve that issue". But as one of the other scientists commented to me; "DNA is DNA". His point is that, at the level of disruption of normal cell-growth processes (which are fundamental to cancers), animal and human cells act pretty much alike.
The other fire-extinguishing comment being made by an Australian Telecommunications Association spokesman is that these were mice, specially bred to be susceptible to tumours. He implies that this is highly significant -- but it isn't if you think about it. If you were to experiment on non-susceptible mice (life span two years) it would be hard to test the effects of fifty years of cell-phone exposure. They also comment on the size of the mice, because of its relationship to the wavelength.
How else can you research such potential long-term effects? Strap cell-phones to the heads of 200 orang-outangs, and see what tumours they produce over a life-time of use, perhaps!
This study involved a large number of mice, in a well-controlled research environment -- and I'd rather only wait 18 months for the results, not eighty years, thanks very much.
What makes this study different?
What makes this study especially significant is that the honesty and validity of both the procedures and the scientists are beyond doubt. If your inclination in such matters is towards corporate conspiracy theories, it must be pointed out that the findings were in no way advantageous to Telstra. There can be no question that they influenced the research in any way once the protocols were in place.
However Telstra did have a confidentiality clause in place which prevented the scientists from revealing their findings for a number of years. And I find this disturbing since both the scientists and Telstra are publicly funded.
Also, under the contract, Telstra did have a three month preview of the report before publication, in which to train and activate their fire-fighters. And it obviously used this time to good effect. The CTIA were also advised and jumped into action early -- well before journalists had a sniff of the evidence.
The major lines the cellular phone companies decided to use around the world when dealing with the media were:
See Of Mice and Men for answers to these questions -- none of which are valid.
This was pulsed transmission as from a handset, not the steady transmission of a cell-phone tower, and it revealed a highly-significant doubling of tumour rates in the exposed group. I don't remember any research of a similar sort in the past few years that has shown increases of this order -- although one must remember that these are transgenic mice, especially bred to be susceptible to tumours.
Until late 1996, most governments and all cell-phone companies have been claiming that the safety of their product has been proved -- and that the only possible biological effect of radio frequency transmission is localised body heating.
Every attempt appears to have been made to hose down the significance of this report, however the importance of the finding will not be lost on the international scientific community. This research now places Australia at the fore-front of EMF-health research, and it demands a series of follow-up studies to investigate dose-related responses and near-field effects.
The abstract published on the Internet gives you no feeling that this is an important finding. In fact, if almost appears to be a deliberate attempt to down-play the significance, and it throws up the old cell-phone industry-line-of-confusion, comparing power densities to cell-phone towers (not handsets).
MH Repacholi et al: Lymphomas in Eu-Pim1 Transgenic Mice Exposed to Pulsed 900 MHz Electromagnetic Fields. Rad Res 147:631-640, 1997.
Repacholi nominally lead this team -- and managed to get his name on it as primary researcher. However his main involvement was raising the money from Telstra. After the other scientists became involved, the NHMRC had been contracted to provide oversight, and the research protocols were established, Repacholi left for a new job with the World Health Organisation in Geneva. The work was carried on by the others -- who are each specialists in their fields.
Michael Repacholi is a physicist and has long worked on the safety of nuclear 'ionised' radiation problems both in Canada, and through the Australian Radiation Research laboratory. He has been prominent crusader on the side of "cell-phones are safe" lobby for many years.
It is note worthy that none of the technical or medical press involved in this debate were invited to the Adelaide video conference -- nor were Sydney, Melbourne or Canberra sites made available for viewing. In effect, the rest of the journalists in Australia were deliberately excluded - since such a conference can be easily seen anywhere across the continent via the domestic satellite, and Telstra has conference rooms in all capitals with this capacity -- in use, daily.
Why the delays in publishing?
Two years have gone by since the basic statistics were done, but the findings were of such a nature that follow-up work needed to be done with a laboratory in Maryland, USA to confirm some results, then it took four tries to get the work published. The rejections were not on the basis of inadequate science, however, but on purely political grounds, according to those involved. The subject was too hot for many scientific journals to handle.
According to one of those involved, 'Science' magazine rejected publication on the grounds that the report "would cause a panic", and I was also told that three other prominent magazines (including 'Nature' -- and one other beginning with 'Science xxxxxx' [I can't read these notes]) also said, in effect, that they wouldn't touch it with a barge pole. They all used the old ploy of suggesting that further work would need to be done before they would publicise such obviously important conclusions. Yet this was already probably the most comprehensive of its type ever done; and the findings matched other recent work being done elsewhere.
My reporting of the above, which came from three different interviews, seems to have irritated many scientists. They don't like to believe that such political decisions are made in the publication of scientific reports. And all I can say is that I reported what I was told.
I talked to Repacholi in London, during November 1996 about these findings, and he wasn't at all open. However he did say that the findings were "inconclusive and insignificant".
I also independently interviewed by phone, all three Australian-based scientist involved. Two talked to me at great length and in great detail, and one talked to me on a couple of occasions. None of them want their 'private' statements specifically identified -- and only Tony Basten put out a press release.
None of them ever went 'off-the-record' either, but it was clear to me that some information was being given in a 'not-for-attribution' fashion. There was nothing exceptional in this; I find this is the case with most scientists with whom I deal.
However, it is my statement that three journals wouldn't publish for political reasons, and the specific quote about Science, saying it "would cause a panic" which has got up the noses of many scientists and resulted in a few flaming e-mails. They don't like such suggestions circulating.
After this appeared in print, Dr Harris phoned me to make two points:
Obviously there is a bit of confusion between all scientists as to what did actually happen, although this is not a big deal anyway in the circumstances. It is quite understandable why some of these publications would prefer that such a report was published elsewhere.
When I asked him in London, why the two-year delay in publishing, Michael Repacholi denied that they were having peer-review problems (which was the rumour circulating in Australia at the time. He said to me that the problem was 'political', which I took to mean that his vigorous opponents in Australia were doing some sort of pay-back, by not giving his research the thumbs-up.
However, talking to the other three at the time of release gave a different picture. They all said that the work had passed through peer-review at each magazine (one said there were four in all) without problems, but that all rejections had been on 'political' grounds. Two of them offered the information that they had all been astounded by the turmoil they created within the scientific community, and there were some side comments on their reluctance in future to work in such a sensitive area. Two of them used the expression "hot potato" with reference to the publishing company's rejections.
One of the scientists offered the news that Science had said it was "too hot to handle"(I assumed from the context that he was paraphrasing). However, later, he did say that they expressed concern with the phrase: "would cause a panic." (Which I believe was meant to be a close quote of the actual communications.)
Two of the scientists also said that all publications (before Radiation Research) wanted what amounted to a full-replication of the work before they would take the chance on publication -- and this was obviously a bitter pill to swallow, after having done so much work, with such careful controls and protocols.
So I stand by this statement.
The official press release issued by the chairman of the scientific committee, Professor Tony Basten of Sydney University, also leads with gentle fire-extinguisher statement that "In our opinion the findings are valid for this genetically-engineered mouse model, but they must be put in context. Mice and humans absorb energy from these fields differently so we cannot conclude from this single study that humans have an increased risk of cancer from the use of digital mobile phones. More focussed research needs to be done to resolve that issue"
I couldn't agree more on the last point, but nothing done in the last few years with the exception of the Drs. Lai-Singh work in Seattle has more obviously established that cell-phone safety has not yet been proved. There has been evidence accumulating over many years that the long-term effects of radio-frequency exposures may have serious consequences for a small percent of the population, but this has been ignored by the industry and by governments.
The fact that Prof. Tony Basten concluded his release with the statement "For the time being, at least, I see no scientific reason to stop using my own mobile phone," is largely irrelevant. At his age and in his occupation, the potential dangers from increased phone use are probably minimal.
The question is, would be buy his teenage child one?