Hard News by Russell Brown


Swine flu, terror and Susan Boyle

It was good work for the Science Media Centre to so swiftly contact the America researcher quoted as saying "We think [swine flu] actually began in either New Zealand or China." The researcher, Professor Gus Kousoulas now says he was "misquoted". I suspect he may also have been paying insufficient attention to what came out of his mouth, given that there appears to be no evidence for a New Zealand origin for the current H1N1 virus.

The NZPA story that appeared on Stuff yesterday was based on an Associated Press story based in turn on this story for a Louisiana paper called The Advocate, published more than two weeks ago. It's a puff piece, and a pitch for renewed funding for Louisiana State University School of Veterinary Medicine's Division of Biotechnology and Molecular Medicine, where Gus Kousoulas works.

Meanwhile, perhaps to the surprise of some of its critics (David Cohen advanced the view in NBR recently that only fools and journalists took it seriously), swine flu has not gone away. One estimate suggests that there have been 100,000 cases in the US, most of them mild therefore and unreported. Oddly, there is something to be said for getting swine flu now, in its mild form, in case it follows the pattern of past pandemics (including the disastrous 1918 flu) and comes back in a second, far more virulent, wave.


The murder of Dr George Tiller in Kansas yesterday can only be regarded as American domestic terrorism. The doctor, long a hate figure for anti-abortion groups because he carried out legal late-term abortions, was shot in church during a Sunday service. The suspect arrested has ties to right-wing extremist groups and was busted in 1996 with the makings of a bomb.

Although it's a decade since a doctor was killed, this is far from the first attack carried out by so-called "pro-life" radicals in America; they have occurred relatively regularly for ore than two decades. Tiller's clinic was bombed in the 1980s, and he was shot in both arms in 1993. He was often accompanied by a bodyguard. But it comes at a time when the American right, and the Republican Party with it, is boiling over. Fox News' Bill O'Reilly has mentioned Tiller 29 times since 2005, sometimes comparing him to the Nazis.

Abortions after 20 weeks are rare in the US, and tightly constrained by law; Tiller was one of only three doctors in the country who would carry out such a procedure. Michael Tomasky in the Guardian notes one such case.


I've been following the Susan Boyle story with the interest I'd normally accord a novel media story, but I was shocked last week when it became clear that the British tabloid press that had made her had begun to tear her down. The Sun, essentially, made a market bet that the public had tired of her; inventing the nickname "SuBo" (sounds like "sumo", geddit?) and then ran a story claiming that police had had to intervene after she launched a foul-mouthed tirade at two members of the public outside her hotel. The "two members of the public" proved to be two journalists, who had entered her hotel and taunted her before being removed by police.

Although no one seems game to make the connection, it seems likely that the journalists were associated with The Sun. The paper had picked up on rumours of Boyle's erratic behaviour and guessed, correctly, that it could trigger an incident. If so, it is the most brutal and cynical action I can recall, even by the standards of Britain's tabloid press.

Now, after not winning the Britain's Got Talent final, Boyle has suffered an emotional breakdown and been taken into care at a private clinic.

Such are the perils of sudden global fame. A savvy, experienced performer would have struggled with degree of attention focused on Boyle in the past month: a woman with a learning disability who has lived in a small Scottish town all her life didn't have a chance.

That's not to say these shows shouldn't exist: Boyle, after all, has been trying for just such a break for decades. Why shouldn't she get a chance? And there was something in that televised audition that transcended mere commerce. But the manipulative staging of this whole thing has backfired horribly.

If she wants it, Boyle probably still has a career -- particularly in America, where people cannot understand why the media would build up a star then destroy her inside a month -- and where redemption stories never go out of style. But perhaps that, too, is out of reach. Travelling lonely from one hotel room to another will take its toll on a person in good mental health. For someone ripped out of a much smaller life, and brutalised along the way, it would probably be unbearable.


This week's Media7 looks at a question in journalism for which there is perhaps no good answer: what is on and off the record? What are the implications for subject, journalist and news consumer? The main panel includes Duncan Garner, Jim Tully and Amanda Millar, and I'll also be talking to Bridget Saunders, who suffered what might be called hostile editing in a recent Close Up interview.

If you'd like to come along tomorrow, we'd need you there by 5.30pm at the Classic in Queen Street. Hit Reply and let me know, if so.

Meanwhile, you can catch up with last week's show, which focused first on the reporting of suicide and concluded with an amusing shouting match over the "Big Little City" ad campaign here on our TVNZ micro-site, or here on YouTube.

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