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Public health researchers fighting back against lobbyists

Boyd Swinburn (left) and two other health researchers are pursuing a defamation case against Cameron Slater (right) and Carrick Graham.

Boyd Swinburn (left) and two other health researchers are pursuing a defamation case against Cameron Slater (right) and Carrick Graham.

Public health researchers worldwide have long been under attack from lobbyists for the tobacco, alcohol and junk food industries. Now some are fighting back. Adam Dudding reports.

When Professor Robert Beaglehole was at medical school in the 1960s, everywhere you looked people were having heart attacks. “They were dropping dead in the street.”

Back then, says the cardiologist and veteran public health researcher, there weren’t yet many good treatments available for heart disease, so it seemed obvious to him that he should look at prevention instead: helping people quit smoking; reducing saturated fats in the average diet.

Professor Doug Sellman is an Otago university professor and director of the National Addiction Centre.

Professor Doug Sellman is an Otago university professor and director of the National Addiction Centre.

To do that required changes in public understanding and government policy, so he built a career as a public health scientist, founding Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) in 1982 and later taking big jobs with the World Health Organisation.

Scientific evidence led inevitably to public activism. It also led him into the firing line. The spokespeople from the tobacco industry called him and his colleagues ‘health nazis’, ‘do-gooders’, ‘nanny-staters’. He shrugged it off.

Professor Boyd Swinburn is an Auckland University professor and director of a WHO anti-obesity centre at Melbourne's Deakin University.

Professor Boyd Swinburn is an Auckland University professor and director of a WHO anti-obesity centre at Melbourne’s Deakin University.

A few decades on, the insults are as likely to appear on an attack blog as in a press release, but the name-calling continues.

But last week, a few of the targets decided to fight back.

On Monday, Boyd Swinburn, Doug Sellman and Shane Bradbrook announced they were suing blogger Cameron Slater and PR consultant Carrick Graham, over material posted on Slater’s blog WhaleOil. This, almost two years after the earthquake triggered by Nicky Hager’s book Dirty Politics is a late, and surprising, aftershock.

Shane Bradbrook is a veteran campaigner to reduce smoking among Maori

Shane Bradbrook is a veteran campaigner to reduce smoking among Maori

The trio – Swinburn is aN Auckland University professor and director of a WHO anti-obesity centre at Melbourne’s Deakin University; Sellman is an Otago university professor and director of the National Addiction Centre; and Bradbrook is a veteran campaigner to reduce smoking among Maori – issued a press release on Monday announcing the court action. They’re not yet talking publicly about it but it’s not hard to see what might be bothering them.

For years the Whaleoil blog has described public health advocates as “troughers”, “wowsers” and “bludgers”, and ascribed their opinions to insanity, greed or delusion.

Early on, some scientists were mystified as to why they were targets of Slater’s abusive criticism. It became less mysterious after the publication of Hager’s book, which used the contents of emails hacked from Slater’s computer to show the links between blogger Slater, lobbyist Graham, and industry.

Sellman is a thorn in the side of alcohol manufacturers because of his public comments about the social harm of excessive drinking.

Dirty Politics showed how Graham emailed Slater a post describing Sellman as “mad”, which Slater then posted under his own name. At the time Graham was paying Slater substantial fees. The clear inference drawn by Hager is that liquor industry money was, by indirect means, funding a blog that would attack not just the arguments of a scientist who spoke up against the them, but was willing to attack that scientist’s personal standing.

Beaglehole had seen it all before, here and abroad.

“There is a long history,” he says, “of interference by vested interests in the formulation, execution and implementation of public health policies designed to promote the health of populations.

“The classic example is the tobacco industry, which has lied and distorted the evidence, attacked independent scientists, and paid for tame scientists and front groups to peddle their distortions of the evidence.”

The tobacco industry has the playbook, says Beaglehole, but the food and beverage industries have learnt from them. They’re more powerful because of their size, and they’re more sophisticated.

Auckland clinical endocrinologist and anti-obesity campaigner Robyn Toomath has much in common with Swinburn and Sellman: she’s an expert in her field; she’s called for regulatory solutions to a major health problem and has been attacked by Whaleoil for her pains. A typical post by Slater from April begins, “Robyn Toomath is a health trougher and a socialist. She hasn’t yet met a tax that she doesn’t like.”

Toomath never reads the blog. She’s not suing. But just because she’s not heading for court doesn’t means she think this stuff is harmless.

“It’s a deliberate tactic. It’s not just him being bad-tempered and naughty. It’s a conscious way to undermine you and your credentials. It derails the scientific discourse.”

It seems obnoxious to even ask the question, but is Toomath a “trougher” – Slater’s charming porcine metaphor term for just about anyone who receives public funding for anything?

Well no, says Toomath. And nor are her public health colleagues. When they campaign it’s “in a public-spirited capacity. Doug’s ceaseless campaigning for better alcohol control isn’t something his university is paying him for.”

Toomath’s charity Fight the Obesity Epidemic (FOE) received some funding under the Labour government, but it was for education and data-gathering – “there even a clause that they were not funding us for the purposes of lobbying”.

“The government is not paying us to be advocates, so squandering money doesn’t hold water as a reason to attack us.”

Peter Griffin, manager of the Science Media Centre (SMC), says personal attacks on scientists are harmful even when they fall short of defamation.

The SMC coaxes scientists into explaining and interpreting the evidence behind a news story.

At the best of times “it’s really hard to get scientists to come out of their shell and talk about controversial issues, so having that kind of vicious attacking and smearing going on is a real disincentive”.

Some experts that we should be hearing from “don’t even speak, because they don’t want to be a target”.

This defamation case, successful or not, will “crystallise” the frustration that a lot of academics felt in the wake of Dirty Politics, when they realised that tactics that made the tobacco and alcohol industries abroad notorious were also happening, albeit on a mini scale, in New Zealand.

Not all scientists like to speak out, but in fact it’s in the job description. According to the 1989 Education Act to be a university academic is to accept the role of “critic and conscience of society”.

In public health especially, it’s a short step from recognising possible interventions, to testing them out, to wanting to see them implemented on a grander scale.

Currently the noisiest public health conversation is around whether we should tax sugar or sugary drinks to fight obesity and tooth decay, but many older arguments are still playing out, decades after they began: plain packaging of cigarettes, marketing of junk-food to children, taxation of alcohol and cigarettes, labelling of supermarket food, sponsorship of kids’ weekend sport by burger companies. And that’s just in New Zealand. Similar issues, and similar attacks on scientists, are going on all over the world.

Since May, UK researchers who receive government grants have been banned from using the results of their work to lobby for changes in laws or regulations. According to the Observer, though the aim of the new law was to prevent NGOs lobbying ministers and ministries with the government’s own money, but senior scientists have said the effect will be to muzzle scientists speaking out on important issues.

Cameron Slater is bullish about his chances against his accusers. He’s been fighting a defamation case against businessman Matthew Blomfield since 2012. In early 2017, he’s due in court to defend himself against a defamation action by politician Colin Craig. In a blog posted on the day the suit was filed, he wrote that he had “become quite comfortable” with being taken to court.

Last week Slater said that of the 31 causes of action made in the claim against him by the health researchers, 14 are too old to be actionable, and the remainder are mostly “hurty-feelings stuff – they’re upset about being called wowsers or bludgers or troughers”.

He says the idea that his blogs have diminished the trio’s public standing are problematic, seeing they’re still regularly called by media for comment on health stories, “and they continue to publish peer-reviewed articles, so their peers obviously don’t think they’re diminished”.

What this is really about, says Slater, is people in positions of power using court processes “to bully and silence critics”.

He says the situation resembles the case in the US of Mark Steyn, a conservative National Review blogger who was sued in 2012 for defamation, after alleging that climate data analysis by esteemed climatologist Michael Mann temperatures was “fraudulent”. The Steyn-Mann case is still dragging on, and Slater says his case, like Steyn’s, embodies important principles.

“It’s part of an ongoing campaign by people who receive public monies and speak publicly about policy and politics and taxes. They want the freedoms to say what they want to say but they want critics or people who challenge them to be silenced.”

Hearing Slater’s characterisation of the clash can be like looking down the wrong end of the telescope, as he inverts the claims of his opponents.

They are the bullies, not him. They are the ones who wish to suppress argument, not him. Health researchers say industry-backed lobbyists are suppressing honest debate, but the way Slater sees it, “I believe in giving people a voice because they are intimidated by these people who come out and attack them. Look at the attacks that Swinburn and Sellman have made against companies like Coca-cola, against Frucor. They think nothing of attaching them in public.” (Some context: Coca Cola Holdings’ New Zealand revenue in the year to December 2015 was $531m.)

Slater is unapologetic about the abusive tone of his blog. “That’s my method … my device is to use humour, to use satire”. People might say he should lift the level of debate and engage with the issues rather than make personal attacks, but that means setting standards” for where the debate should be.

“And once you’re setting standards, that’s where freedom of speech and freedom of opinion are being curtained according to the whims of whoever sets the standards. That’s censorship.”

Much of the news coverage that followed the publication of Dirty Politics focused its revelations about the National government’s willingness to use people like Slater to promote its views and attack its enemies. The chapter about Slater’s attacks on scientists like Doug Sellman received rather less attention.

Last week, Nicky Hager said that when he exposed the links between industry lobbyists and Slater in 2014 he thought “they would look so bad that they would more or less be forced to stop on the spot, but some of the key actors, and notably Carrick Graham, have been publicly unrepentant, and seem to have continued full steam ahead.”

It’s almost two years since the book was released. This lawsuit against Slater and Graham seems unlikely to reach court before next year. Hager might be disappointed that his book didn’t have the impact he expected at the time, but the reverberations aren’t over yet.

Sometimes, says Robert Beaglehole, things take longer than you expect. The anti-tobacco group ASH was set up in 1982. Tobacco’s fallen out of favour in New Zealand, sure, “but who would have thought it would take so long?”

When the science of public health comes under attack, “you have to stick to the evidence”, but you also need to do a bit more than that, even when it gets difficult.

“We have a duty, and that’s to promote and discuss and disseminate the policy implications. Sitting in the lab and not putting your head above the parapet is irresponsible.”

– Sunday Star Times

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