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The mass media does its job. Not.

August 17, 2002

A few months ago, I was asked by a producer from a high-rated investigative television current affairs show to help with a story they were developing about cancer quackery in Australia. It soon became apparent to me that no research had been done and that the producer had no clue about the scale of the problem or even where to start looking. I was asked to make suggestions, so I developed a sketch for a story based on not-a-medical-Dr Hulda Clark. This would have given them everything they needed for a good story. The quack's books are available in many bookshops, so there was the possibility for good visuals and some short interviews with booksellers about the ethics of selling trash, and Clark was suing me at the time, so there was both a local angle and evidence that she could not answer critics other than by trying to shut them up. Clark has several outlets in Australia for her zapper and treatment protocols, but the one that caught my attention was an Adelaide endodontist. Not only had this man received a form of medical training, but he had undertaken postgraduate work to obtain his specialist qualifications. He was just the sort of person who should know better, and was a perfect example of how the authority stemming from one area of expertise could be used to fool people in another context.

I gave the story package to the producer and it was suggested that I should make appointments with the Adelaide dentist and with another Clark product seller in Melbourne (I live in Sydney) and that I should go along to each with a list of symptoms and report on what was said, what recommendations and diagnoses were made, and what treatments were offered. No corresponding suggestion was made about paying for air fares and accommodation, or compensating me for time away from my business, or indemnifying me against any legal action by the quacks. As these people had approached me for help with the story but now expected me to bear all the costs and risks of the investigation, I lost a bit of enthusiasm at this time. It seems that the television program wasn't really enthusiastic either if they had to do any of the work, and I never heard any more about it. As far as I know, no story about cancer quackery has since gone to air on that particular show.

I had forgotten about this episode until this week, when I heard that an Adelaide dentist was under investigation for offering fraudulent cancer cures, a matter compounded by the fact that he was acting outside his area of both expertise and legally-sanctioned scope of practice. One of his claims was that he could cure mesothelioma by extracting asbestos with some sort of electrical device, and he had also had a patient die because she had foregone conventional cancer treatment on his advice. The story sounded familiar, and, sure enough, it was the Clark follower whom I had handed to the television people months ago. Had they proceeded with the story, or even if they had just interviewed the charlatan and given him a fright, that woman could have been alive today. Someone died because someone else was too lazy to do their job. Remember that the television people approached me for help, but they gave up when some real investigative reporting by them was required.

You might ask why I didn't go after the quack myself once I had discovered him. A good question, but I have neither the time nor the financial resources nor the necessary tools, expertise and authority to chase people like this. The police can't do anything until it looks like a serious crime has been committed (which usually means that someone has died) and the various regulatory and corporate authorities can't do much to people who are marginally within the law. Both the police and the regulators are busy enough anyway with the case loads they have now. Exposure is the best way to fight these criminals, both to shut down individual examples and to warn consumers about the risks of dealing with quacks. I can do something with this site, but I can only reach a few thousand people each week and I am severely restricted by Australia's draconian defamation laws. The mass media can reach millions with a single television program or newspaper story and they have the lawyers to vet the stories for legal landmines (and the deep pockets for the times when they get it wrong). Still, there's no point in giving up. One day the news programs will have a story about some sick person deceived by a lying charlatan and there won't be any story on the same day about a cat caught up a tree to take precedence for air time.

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