SIRC Media Watch Archive
Comment and Opinion – April 2000

April 25th 2000. On this day in 1792 Dr Guillotin's much-improved device for executing people was first used in Paris to remove the head of a highwayman. Six years later, in the year of the French Revolution, the same man was to become the head of the very first government public health department. It was clearly no coincidence that the dominant ideology of this time was that coercion in matters of diet and lifestyle were the keys to ensuring the universal health and eventual compliance of the French people, even though dictatorship, and the much extended use of the guillotine, would initially be required to begin such a radical and mechanistic process.

All that, of course, was long ago in history and such approaches to the issue of 'governmentality' in health could never gain credence now, could they?

Naming & Praising update. The latest SIRC Naming and Praising awards – for responsible reporting of health issues – go to Nigel Hawkes at the Times, for his report on a study of smoking and mental decline, and to BBC News Online for their item on Crohn's Disease and vitamin D deficiency. Full story.

The Junk Food Commission. The assault by Tim Lobstein of the Food Commission on children's food makes interesting, but depressing, reading. He accuses manufacturers of 'undermining children's diets' and considers the large majority of products aimed at young people as 'junk' and 'nutritional disasters'. The scientific basis for all of this, however, is not revealed in the press reports. Rather, we are urged to worry about the 'unhealthy' fat and sugar content of children's lunchboxes and to be suspicious of those products with cartoon characters on the wrappers.

Regular readers of SIRC's Articles and Mediawatch pages will be familiar with Mr. Lobstein's approach to scientific investigation. In F.I.T only for the waste bin we reported on his questionnaire survey of attitudes towards genetically modified foods. This involved sampling only people who were already 'friends' of the Food Information Trust – another allegedly 'independent' organisation of which Mr Lobstein is a director. In addition, the questionnaire itself was preceded by a letter providing 'helpful' information about GM foods, such as: "Genetically modified crops are new organisms … and unlike any living thing which has ever grown on this planet. Nobody can be quite sure about the benefits they may bring, or the harm they can do." Full story.

Part of the problem. Model agency representatives and editors of glossy magazines have been invited to have their knuckles rapped at a Downing Street 'summit' on eating disorders. Tessa Jowell has been busy pontificating about the thin ideal promoted by the fashion industry and how this leads to eating disorders among teenage girls and young women. She has clearly paid no attention, however, to the growing body of research evidence indicating that over-zealous health promotion — particularly the kind of moralistic 'healthy weight' and 'healthy eating' campaigns favoured by this Government — also encourages dieting and weight obsessions, and is now widely regarded as a contributing factor in teenage eating disorders (see: Dieting Damage). If she is genuinely concerned about finding a solution to the increase in eating disorders, Ms Jowell must first recognise that she is part of the problem.

Head case study. The reporting of the latest mobile phone scare provides an interesting case-study in media coverage of health and science issues. On 4 April 2000, all of the main national newspapers dutifully covered the Consumer Association report claiming that hands-free mobile earpiece kits increase the amount of radiation channelled into the user's head. More detailed comparison of the news items, however, reveals different approaches to communication about health risks. Full story.