Ian Bell's column
seemed to be suggesting that there is some reluctance for the media to
give us the full perspective about the risks of disaster from AIDs or
Bird Flu. I couldn't read between the lines well enough to understand
the form that political pressure was taking though. Perhaps the column
has been censored. Anyway the article also has some interesting snippets
about suggestions of past bouts of press censorship.
Based on an article by Ian Bell from
The Sunday Herald
Years ago, I had my one and only brush with the D-notice system, that
informal arrangement by which the government persuaded the media to
censor themselves. A reporter in my charge with a well-developed
suspicious streak had been spotted crawling through the undergrowth near
a Scottish military installation. Now, here was a retired admiral on the
line asking if I would mind terribly advising the chap on the fine print
in the Official Secrets Act.
My then-editor was on the D-notice committee and had already been
nobbled, so there wasn’t much point in arguing. The story hadn’t come to
much in any case, and all I had to show for it was my own souvenir
folder of D-notices dealing with old and very dull news. Over the years,
though, I’ve wondered about the incident.
Our intrepid hack hadn’t found anything sensational, yet why had a very
posh retired admiral warned us off? Had we missed something, or was the
old boy simply following the habits of a lifetime, and of British
officialdom down the decades? Was he merely justifying his wages or
acting in the country’s best interests? And what would we have done if
we’d discovered fishy goings-on?
Editors face these questions more often than the public probably
realises. To some, in certain circumstances, a duty to the truth can
seem like an excuse for irresponsibility. Another case in point: back in
the 1980s, riots were sweeping England. Officially, nothing much was
happening in Scotland. Unofficially, some of us knew that there had been
serious trouble on some Scottish housing schemes. The papers wouldn’t
touch the story. The authorities had decided that coverage might lead to
“copy-cat violence” – an odd point of view, since the violence was
already happening – and editors had agreed with them.
You could have called it a cover-up; you might equally have called it
common sense. One truth was that Scotland had not been immune to the
trouble; another was that editors did not want to give young people
ideas and add to the trouble.
The tale of Scotland’s struggle with sectarianism followed a similar
pattern for a long time. Why was it a “secret shame”? In part because
editors believed that if they gave prominence to the issue of bigotry
there was a risk, a real one they thought, of importing Northern
Ireland’s troubles to the central belt. Given that this often-feared
development never occurred in any serious way, credit could be claimed
for self-censorship. It remains the case, nevertheless, that Scotland
shied away from the problem of religious hatred for years, in part
because some people chose to be “responsible”.
It cuts both ways. A large part of Africa’s population is being
destroyed by HIV/Aids because the story has been told too slowly and too
late. Why so? Because the victims are black, poor, far away and
suffering from a complex of diseases misrepresented for two decades by a
press keener to talk about gay plagues than about poverty and education.
The media, obviously enough, cannot tell every story. It is a fact of
life, equally, that all governments try to hide the truth from their
populations, sometimes for good reasons, sometimes for bad, and
sometimes because they see no other choice. People know as much, and
expect nothing else. A government without secrets would, in all
probability, be governing badly. So we make a judgement. Was it
necessary to deceive us over the Iraq war? Not in any rational sense. In
fact, if Bush and Blair had simply said that removing genocidal monsters
is always a just cause, a few more people might have supported them.
In a small way, I’ve just tested the proposition. Epidemiologists have
been predicting a devastating influenza outbreak for some time. The 1918
onslaught of Spanish flu may be a dimming folk memory, but it killed
perhaps 50 million people. The pandemics of 1957 and 1967 were slight by
comparison, but many still died. According to some scientists,
unstoppable outbreaks of flu occur on average every 30 years. We’re due,
and “bird flu” – the avian influenza virus known as H5N1 – looks like a
So far, only 50 people have died in southeast Asia and there is no
evidence that the virus can be transmitted from one person to another.
Equally, there is no evidence that the nature of the virus will not
change, making a pandemic affecting perhaps 20% of the world’s
population inevitable. This is a flu against which our bodies have, as
yet, no immunity, and against which we have no vaccines. According to
expert articles published in last week’s edition of the journal Nature,
official planning is inadequate while actual preparations are patchy.
The threat is of a global nature and will need a global response. That
If the experts are to be believed, in any case, this may be the time to
panic somewhat. Professor Albert Osterhaus, the Dutch virologist who
contributed to Nature, is in no doubt: where the pandemic is concerned
it is a matter of when, not if. He is desperate to force governments to
understand the nature of the threat. If H5N1 is mutating now, he claims,
we are in big trouble. He also describes the prediction that 7.5 million
could die as “optimistic”.
You can’t make rules about the truth, least of all in the media. If we
were facing what the biologists call an extinction event, foreknowledge
would be irrelevant. What could you do other than pull the blankets over
your head? In the case of avian flu, according to those who understand
it best, the first problem is one of political will. Even at the risk of
panic, people need information if they are to put pressure on their
It won’t help the cornflakes go down more easily. It won’t help the sun
shine more brightly. For those of us who remember the great nuclear
stand-off of the cold war, it might mean a return to wondering idly
what, if anything, we might do if the worst did happen. But the greatest
glory of journalism is its ability to get politicians off their
backsides. That seems the obvious course now. Where H5NI is concerned,
publish and damn them.