What is health?

I’m currently pushing to make one a post a day for at least the first week of this blog, and sadly, the press is not playing along. Despite it being a Saturday – the day when traditionally newspapers pad out their pages with Omega-3 fluff pieces and Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus-esque behaviour studies – the press is quiet on the subject today; presumably because the are enough serious stories out there.

So instead, here’s a little random musing on the papers themselves.

Health is perhaps the only universal subject a newspaper can cover. Not everyone lives in a given area, not everyone has children, not everyone owns a car or uses trains, not everyone shares the political beliefs of the editors. Not everybody pays taxes even, which leaves us just one of the two great certainties: death. As a result, health news is perhaps the greatest lure to bring readers in. Every level of journalism indulges in it, from the 20p gossip magazines with covers full of grotesque medical horror stories to The Observer and The Sunday Telegraph telling parents that if they aren’t filling their children up with superfoods and handmade organic risotto then they might as well be child abusers.

This means that if you’ve got a boring story that probably won’ t get any readers, all you need to do is give it a medical spin, have a mid-level academic or a spokesperson for The Society of Homeopaths give you a nice juicy quote, then stick it in the health pages. Observe:

The Telegraph had an article about how flexible work hours increase productivity. That’s not especially exciting. But when you phrase it terms of stress and family life, suddenly it becomes a health story, and so, consequently, the story gets dropped into their health pages.* Or take this opinion piece about how men should be Manlier Men, and how we can’t talk to each other unless we’re shoulder to shoulder surrounded by ornamental power tools (it also claims feminism has already won and we live in a perfect world where biological determinism is a thing of the past – an idea that I’d have thought the very existence of the article disproves). The health content in that is basically non-existent, but still it’s gone straight into their health section, between articles about care for the elderly and toxic paint.

The Independent meanwhile has a piece about Trafigura – the oil company that dumped toxic waste in the waters of Côte d’Ivoire, then slapped a superinjunction on The Guardian when they tried to report about it. Articles about ongoing court cases, no matter how awful the circumstances surrounding them, tend to be quite dry. So, curiously, this article has not been listed in the environment section, or the business section, or the Africa section, but it has however been listed in health, promoted solely with the quote “Oil-trading company accused of putting ‘self-interest above people’s health’“.

Even better, The Indie also puts every single article about Rio Ferdinand’s injured knee in their health section so that, the last time I checked, the top five health stories were “The armchair guide to Rio’s dodgy knee…“, “Capello turns to Plan B – with England’s hopes pinned on King“, “Gerrard finally gets the chance to fulfil his destiny as captain“, “James Lawton: When a crisis calls for a calm head, there is no one better than Capello” and “Glenn Moore: Ferdinand blow cruel timing for a player who had come of age“. Of those articles, only the first one even discusses Ferdinand’s injury.

By comparison, The Daily Mail, regardless of its other sins, publishes stories that could conceivably be to do with health on its health pages (though a piece about Orlando Bloom’s dyslexia may be cutting it a little fine).** BBC News does even better, keeping its health pages dedicated to scientific stories about medical breakthroughs and political pieces about NHS policy.

I don’t want to say there’s no place for lighter articles in a newspaper – of course there is. But when Rio Ferdinand’s knee is the most prominent story on the health page, it doesn’t exactly inspire confidence that the newspaper takes the rest of its health output seriously.

Incidentally, while we’re still on the topic of The Daily Mail and health, on its unrelenting quest to blame everything on health and safety, human rights or political correctness, The Mail today carries an article with the headline “SLAUGHTER IN THE LAKES: Health and safety rules stopped paramedics treating the injured“. Of course, the “health and safety rules” the article thunders about turn out to be the ones that say paramedics should not be pushed out into the firing line of a gunman, which would seem to be a fairly sensible regulation to me. If you send ambulances or helicopters in and the crews get shot, you haven’t helped anyone. In true Mail style, they claim this has “reignited calls for changes to the law” without ever telling us who, besides The Mail themselves, is demanding this change, before tying it to an entirely unrelated proposal in the Queen’s Speech for “common-sense policing”. Co-opting a tragedy on the flimsiest of excuses to push their retrograde agenda? This would hardly be the first time.

* As a side note, this article is based a paper that hasn’t even been published yet, so I haven’t a clue how much of this is supported by the survey itself.

** I know people who are hardcore working class Labour voters who read The Mail based solely on the strength of its health pages. It’s kind of sad to see how messed up and contradictory it’s made their political views.

Edit: Angry Mob has a good take-down of The Mail‘s article here.

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  1. #1 by wickedday on Saturday, 5th June 2010 - 17:01 UTC

    As you rightly point out, death is the only experience everyone is guaranteed to share.

    But it’s becoming more and more noticeable how media hysteria around health is trying to obfuscate even that. As a culture, we don’t like talking about living wills or end-of-life care and especially not euthanasia.

    I think it’s to do with the illusion of control: people love to believe they can control their bodies (by eating X/doing Y/taking Z) and death is a rather rude reminder that ultimately, we can’t.

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