Originally published by Maryanne Demasi.
Recently, I presented a talk titled, “Lessons from ABC TV” at a conference hosted by Australians for Science and Freedom on 18 – 19 November, 2023, held at the University of New South Wales, Sydney.
As an organisation, Australians for Science and Freedom stands for:
- Free Speech
- Intellectual and Academic Freedom
- Bodily Autonomy – your body, your choice
- Equality – equality of opportunity, not equality of outcomes
- Search for truth via open discourse and the scientific method
My talk provided insight into media censorship and the “tactical playbook” used by industry to squash dissent and silence its critics.
During the covid pandemic, we heard a lot about the censorship-industrial complex and how government and industry colluded to censor scientists and journalists online.
Today I’m going to talk about my experience as a journalist in mainstream media. You’ll hear about censorship, attacks on dissenting views, and the capitulation to powerful vested interests, which were part of the media landscape long before covid came along. In essence, covid became the great revealer.
For those of you who don’t know, I worked as a TV presenter and producer for Australia’s premier science program Catalyst on ABC TV for over a decade.
ABC TV is a fully taxpayer funded broadcaster – it claims to be frank and fearless in its journalistic pursuit and free from commercial influence – but in this talk, I offer a different perspective.
My case is fairly well-known as it was documented in most of the state and national newspapers. That said, the media coverage of it was very one -sided.
It all began in 2013 – I produced a two-part series on cholesterol and heart disease. The two programs questioned the role of cholesterol as a cause of heart disease and criticised the over-prescription of cholesterol-lowering statin drugs.
It rated highly with audiences over two weeks. It surpassed the ratings for all the programs in that time slot across all TV networks. It reached an audience of 1.5 million each week so, not surprisingly, ABC’s executives were congratulating us on a job well done.
The managing director of the ABC was pleased about the “time-slot crushing ratings performance”. The Head of Factual TV said it was a “much deserved public vote of confidence” in our great journalism, and the Head of TV said that “not only were the numbers outstanding, but more importantly you showed what happens when you land in the national conversation space. It gets people talking and that’s when i reckon we know we’re doing our job”. But the adulation did not last long.
Within days, all three of the major statin manufacturers complained to the network. So did the Heart Foundation, which was criticised in the program for its outdated dietary advice on heart disease, and of course Medicines Australia, the body that represents the Australian pharmaceutical industry.
They said the ideas in the program were “dangerous,” that they were expressed by “fringe experts,” and assured the public that statin drugs were “safe and effective.”
Do those phrases sound familiar? The phrases became a fixture of the pandemic.
One commentator at the ABC went on national radio and claimed that people would die if they watched the program. Australians will recognise this character – Dr Norman Swan – he rose to prominence during the pandemic, making a raft of erroneous claims and false predictions about covid, ranging from the efficacy of face masks, to vaccine safety, to lockdowns.
His comments about my programs sparked a slew of national stories, which accused the programs of killing people, claiming that ABC had blood on its hands, and asking people to sue the ABC if they’d had a heart attack after stopping their statins because of the programs. To enforce the narrative, the School of Pharmacy at Sydney University came out with a study claiming that the programs would be responsible for up to 2900 deaths because around 60,000 people would quit taking statins. Basically, they were accusing us of mass murder.
I was then subjected to a 6-month investigation by ABC’s internal review team, to determine if I had breached any codes of conduct – they had to assess whether the programs were legally sound, factually accurate, and editorially fair and balanced.
The results of the investigation found no factual errors in either of the programs, but in the second program, I was found to have “unduly favoured one perspective over another.” I gave more weight to the view of experts (such as Harvard’s Prof John Abramson and UCSF’s Prof Rita Redberg), that statins were over-prescribed – which was rather ludicrous since the point of the program was to highlight the problem that statins were over-prescribed.
I received a call from the Director of TV to discuss the outcome of the investigation. He said to me plain and simple, which I’ll never forget “I’ve been told to make this go away.” I didn’t fully understand what that meant at the time, but I was about to find out.
Without warning or compunction, the network made a public announcement that it would censor the two programs so that they could never be aired again, it took down a website that was dedicated to supplementary interviews and peer-reviewed papers, and replaced it all with a public apology.
This gave the false impression that we were admitting the programs were misleading. Consequently, I was attacked in the media, I was characterised as “pseudoscientific” and any attempt to defend me was censored. I became the target of an orchestrated campaign to discredit me.
An example of how this campaign played out, was the revelation of leaked documents from a front group for the breakfast cereal and grain industry. They held meetings to discuss how to neutralise my messaging ….Their meeting minutes (which were leaked) showed how they intended to hire “media influencers” to counter the narrative and they even named me as someone to be targeted for “active defence” because I posed a threat to their messaging. I wrote about this for Michael West Media at the time.
I was unable to challenge the criticisms against me. I was effectively silenced by my network and they were cancelling film shoots. They’d send me emails saying that I was not allowed to comment publicly or privately about these issues, or else they would consider it a breach of my employment conditions.
I was told to stop emailing my concerns because my emails could be FOI’d and become part of the public record, so if I had anything to say, I had to do it by phone or face-to-face.
I decided to put my head down and I continued to produce programs that exposed big food, big chemical, big pharma, and big telco and this continued to invite attacks from vested interests. Because of their complaints, I was regularly under internal investigation by the ABC.
Eventually, the pressure for the ABC was too great. We’d spend a huge amount of resources defending the programs. Often it would take longer to defend a program than it would to make it. Because we were on tight budgets, this was simply unsustainable. The ABC made some excuse about trying to restructure the program, and I was put on ‘gardening leave’ for a few months (taken off air) until they decided that they would just get rid of virtually everyone in the unit.
The lessons? Well, I learnt that facts did not matter. This was difficult to stomach since I worked for “factual programming”. As you saw with the cholesterol programs, they were both factually accurate, but because they upset the big end of town, they had to go.
False balance was another problem. They became obsessed with trying to “balance” a program. If I had an expert say that antidepressants caused harm, I’d have to interview another expert to say antidepressants had benefits, just to give the appearance of “balance.” It undermined the experts, and it was sloppy journalism in my view, because we were no longer trusted to make sound editorial judgements about the content of our programs.
Unsurprisingly, it made the network reluctant to expose the pharmaceutical industry and report on drug or vaccine harms. Even though it did not receive drug company sponsorship directly, we still had to deal with their complaints and bad publicity in the media.
The TV network was very focused on ratings – whether it’s a commercial or public broadcaster – they need “bums on seats.” If people don’t watch, it makes it harder for them to justify their existence, so this makes them vulnerable to bending to outside pressure.
And finally, I learnt that the ABC was willing to silence its own journalists in order to appease industry. This had a chilling effect on other mainstream journalists. The message was that it would be career suicide if you tried anything similar. And it seems to be a very effective strategy because I don’t think I ever saw another story challenging statins in the Australian media again.
Since all that happened, I think the standards at the ABC have continued to slip. What was once considered the last bastion of independent journalism, now has the ABC’s own Chairperson Ita Buttrose (pictured below) fronting advertising campaigns for Pfizer during the pandemic.
I think this is one of the more egregious breaches in editorial independence and ethical standards I’ve seen from a public broadcaster, and it’s a shame, because the ABC was once considered a great institution. I’ll leave it there and answer any questions. Thank you for listening.
*According to ASF organisers, videos of all the talks at the conference will be available in the coming weeks.
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