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Swine flu spin obscures elusive truth

Frantic backpedalling and flat denials are all part of the medical media game.

By Richard Hoey

Frantic backpedalling and flat denials are all part of the medical media game.

In the complex world of medical politics, and the reporting of it, truth is often is a frustratingly elusive concept.

And the bigger the story, the more elusive it becomes, as organisations such as the Department of Health and the BMA frantically spin their webs and attempt to convince us that black is in fact white.

Take Dr Peter Holden's comments to Pulse this week, when asked when the swine flu vaccination programme might be up and running.

‘The August prediction is far too optimistic,' he said. ‘I don't think we will have confidence to deliver both vaccination campaigns until at least six weeks later.'

So, there had been hopes that the vaccine might come on line by the end of August, but now we're looking at six weeks after that, so by the middle of October, right?

And the gap between the hoped-for start date, and the actual start date, could be described, in the common parlance of the English language, as a ‘delay' – yes?

Well, not necessarily, apparently. Because here is a case where it suits both the DH and the BMA to find a way of denying that Dr Holden ever really made the comments, or if he did that they did not mean what they appear to mean.

Within an hour or so of Pulse publishing the story on our website, journalists in the national media were treated to the whooshing sound of frantic backpedalling, and the clammy sensation of a story being dampened down, as both the BMA and the DH denied the vaccine programme was facing delays.

It's obvious why the Government might want to do this. Aiming for one date and hitting another, much later and potentially with swine flu back on the rise, is not something any minister is going to aspire to.

Why the BMA would want to backtrack from Dr Holden's comments takes a bit more explaining. It all comes down to audience.

Dr Holden is quite happy talking to Pulse, within the community of general practice, about the logistical nightmare of running two flu vaccine campaigns at once – and the inevitability of a later-than-hoped start date.

He is apparently less keen to have those comments transmitted across the air waves and splashed across headlines by the less sympathetic national media – perhaps fearful that some journalists might try to claim the delay was GPs' fault.

In a sense that's fair enough, because GPs have already been the victims of a couple of nasty going-overs this week, courtesy of the Daily Mail.

But the fact is that in these modern times, with their websites and their twittering and their instant publication, news on one news outlet will quickly be news elsewhere.

Comments made to one news outlet have to be stood by.

Or else even a man with such a reputation for straight-talking as Dr Holden may find his voice lost in a web of PR spin.

By Richard Hoey, Pulse editor

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