Drug companies are bad – especially when it fits the news agenda

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As the Leveson inquiry into media ethics rumbles on, I have struck my own blow against made-up rubbish. Yes, I just about managed to avoid reading my friend’s copy of Closer magazine at the weekend – it’s one small step for Nell. I reckon Hello might still be allowed because they actually seem to interview celebrities rather than just make up quotes.

But on a more serious note, it will be very interesting to hear evidence at the inquiry about how shoddy reporting affects science. There was a great example of a health story being twisted to fit a particular agenda this weekend in the Telegraph, with the ever so balanced headline ‘Animal test firms given your NHS data’.

Yes that’s right – scientists might actually want to use NHS patient data to find better ways to treat disease and prevent human suffering. It’s outrageous. But what particularly annoyed me was the fact that nowhere in this article was it pointed out that all new drugs are required by law to be tested on animals.

You’d think that would be an important point needed to ‘balance’ the tired old cliche about drug companies being evil. But it seems this article has a particular agenda to push. Forget that anyone being treated on the NHS is benefiting from animal testing. Forget that the very same papers that squeal about ‘personal data being passed to drugs companies’ are also constantly outraged by the lack of ‘cures’ for various diseases and shocked at ‘appalling NHS failures’.

Luckily a couple of commenters laid into this shoddy piece of reporting and the slightly rabid comments it triggered. One said sarcastically, ‘Well that is not an emotive or manipulative headline at all. It is the sort of thing that really gives you confidence in the story below it.’

I also loved this one: ‘I find the level of paranoia in some of these comments truly astonishing. it’s a wonder anything ever gets done in this country, if this is a representative sample, which , thank heaven, I don’t think it is. How anyone can think that stats which demonstrate for example, that out of a population of 50000, there are 5000 suffering from osteoarthritis within the age range of 30-65, infringes their anonymity is quite beyond me.’

It’s really depressing that the Telegraph decided to turn an interesting and encouraging piece of news about patient data into a conspiracy-theorist baiting article about animal research and ‘invasion of privacy’. Sharing some parts of NHS records will bring a mass of data to scientists, helping to boost research and hopefully speed up the development of new treatments to improve health in the UK and elsewhere.

Luckily they (slightly) cleaned up their act later on, acknowledging in a piece published after prime minister David Cameron’s speech that ‘ministers believe that working more closely with the [pharmaceutical] industry – including many more clinical trials in NHS hospitals – will encourage innovation and benefit patients.’

Others are much more (sensibly) optimistic about the whole thing. Bad science crusader Ben Goldacre tweeted, ‘with NHS data we can find out whether things are lifesaving, or killers, with keystrokes.’ He followed that up with another tweet, saying ‘if Cameron’s plans for making trials research easier in NHS are enacted then many lives will be saved. about time too.’

And it’s also about time papers stopped pretending animal research is so controversial. It might superficially appear so, but the vast majority of people in the UK and in the rest of world are quite happy to take drugs that have been tested on animals. If they really want to serve the public interest these publishers would show just how much animal research, and research that relies on patient information, is benefiting us all.

The papers can’t have it both ways – you can’t criticise efforts to kick-start lifesaving research while churning out endless stories about ‘miracle cures’ and ‘scientific breakthroughs’. Strangely, one just can’t exist without the other. It would be a real breakthrough if more of the media could get their heads round this simple fact and tell the public what they really need to hear.

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