Carrick Graham still gunning for public health researchers

Dirty Politics. Remember that? It seems like a bad memory, a fleeting, nightmarish glimpse into the inner workings of New Zealand politics and the interplay between politicians and the hired guns who do their dirty work.

Carrick Graham
Carrick Graham

As I’ve written before, one of the most disturbing revelations in Nicky Hager’s book Dirty Politics was the coordinated campaign to smear public health researchers advocating evidence-based interventions to cut obesity and smoking and alcohol-related diseases.

Ten months and an election later, has anything changed? Not really, as this month’s North & South magazine reveals. Journalist Peter Newport had to endure “six months of drinking coffee with [Carrick] Graham” to secure an on-the-record interview with the shadowy lobbyist linked last year to some of the most pointed smears published on the Whaleoil blog.

The North & South piece is a fascinating insight into the 43-year-old, who started his career as a cigarette sales rep and still counts Big Tobacco companies among his clients. It also suggests that the Dirty Politics publicity did nothing to temper his appetite for running interference on well-meaning and credible enemies.

Writes Newport:

“There’s no sign of fatigue, it looks more like a limbering up for a main act still in the future”.

The piece reveals that when Newport visited Graham’s Parnell office, he was greeted with “an array of passport-sized photographs, stuck to the wall like a TV cop show operations room, linked by colour thread. These are his current targets, complete with their affiliated organisations and their available budgets”.

The current targets, he adds, are “people linked to the HRC, the Health Research Council. This is the major funder on behalf of central government of biomedical, public health, Maori health and Pacific health research… these are the people Graham is currently being paid to attack”.

At the top of the mosaic is a photo of Boyd Swinburn, Professor of Population Nutrition and Global Health at the University of Auckland. Swinburn has been repeatedly attacked in blogs running on the Whaleoil blog, that Carrick Graham is alleged to have fed to Cameron Slater to run.

So Swinburn is still on the hit list, presumably alongside Doug Sellman, Jim Mann and numerous other respected public health researchers who dare to question Big Food, Big Tobacco and Big Alcohol, who likely form the bulk of Graham’s client list.

Interviewed for the piece, Swinburn uses an oft-quoted line from Gandhi to explain the fight he is engaged in with the likes of Graham:

“First, they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you… and then you win.”

The enemies of the public health researchers are clearly in the fight stage – how long the war continues is anyone’s guess, but knowing scientists, few of them have the stomach for this type of thing. It will be up to Swinburn and others to take the barbs on behalf of their lower-profile colleagues.

We need to support these scientists, now more than ever.

Pick up a copy of North & South, which also has some good commentary in the Carrick Graham piece from physicist and Sciblogger Professor Shaun Hendy, who in his usual pragmatic way pointed out that there needs to be some common ground carved out with Graham and his Big Business backers.

Says Hendy:

“Scientists acknowledge that business and industry should have a voice at the table, but what worries us about this [Dirty Politics] situation is that it wasn’t declared. It was a mechanism to fund what appeared to be a public voice, but scientists are very careful about declaring their interests. Industry should do the same.”

That’s the important thing. Graham’s war is a covert one – we still don’t know all the players who fund him. Newport was stonewalled when he went in search of them and tried to establish how they fitted into Dirty Politics.

On a related note, this great piece from Keith Ng looks at the media’s role in Dirty Politics. Keith appears to be saying that the media failed to gain any traction on Dirty Politics because they remained a “passive observer” reporting the facts revealed, approaching pundits for comment, but never really “forcing the powerful to acknowledge uncomfortable truths and holding them to account”.

 “It’s more than just saying it and walking away.”

That’s pretty much what the media did, unable to get a real handle on some of the issues, including the Carrick Graham smear campaign.

Keith also rightly points out that there was just an absence of natural justice in the whole treatment of the Dirty Politics revelations. People were entitled to coherent explanations, to transparency, to people in power taking seriously the allegations made. Instead they were met with further obfuscation, misinformation and weasel words.

The media reported it all, shrugged their shoulders and moved on. Should they have gone further? Keith thinks so.

“By refusing to put their own judgements as human beings into a story, they create a narrative vacuum, and then they fill that vacuum with people like Jordan Williams. There’s an entire industry of people like him who set themselves up to fill that vacuum, so they can control the narrative for their own private gain, or for the private gain of the people they serve. And they’re invited to do so by journalists.”

Indeed, the vacuum will be filled. Which is why it is important that scientists are able to present the facts to the public, even in the face of sophisticated campaigns to undermine them.

10 Comments

  1. John Small

    That’s a great post Peter – thank you.

    I read you as saying that transparency is a bottom-line critical ingredient we are missing, and that open questioning (Keith Ng – style) would follow naturally from that.

    I fully agree and note that these same points apply other topics as well. Now more than ever we need to support scientists who are not industry funded.

  2. Grant Jacobs

    Sorry that some of my html tags to close italics haven’t worked in my earlier comment, but I hope people can deduce what was intended to be italicised. (Mostly where I’ve quoted Carrick.) Bit annoying.

  3. Peter Griffin

    As your own experience at Canterbury showed Eric, sometimes industry funding is essential to make sure that important research gets done. Nothing wrong with Chairs in Ag science being sponsored by Fonterra or a Fisher & Paykel hi-tech professorship etc – as long as it is disclosed. That’s the point – academics are required to do this – Carrick’s crew don’t and often do their work in secret – no wonder they aren’t trusted.

  4. Boyd Swinburn

    Carrick, for the record, I think that the food industry MUST be involved in action to improve the healthiness of diets and reduce obesity. They are the ones who provide the food we eat and they have a perfect right and important role play in the democratic processes of public policy – such as providing submission on Bills and making public their views on policy. The problem, of course, is that they end up converting their considerable economic power into political power and undermining public policies, often (as you are aware) through covert and bully tactics. There are a thousand examples of this internationally and in NZ.

    This has led to an enormous distrust of powerful industries who become very nasty when their bottom line might be influenced by public-good policies. This in turn has led the very reasonable call for industry NOT to be sitting at the public policy development table when there are clear conflicts on interest.

    We have higher rates of childhood obesity than all European countries and Australia and are fast catching up with the US. The primary reason for the lack of policy actions over the past 2 decades to protect Kiwi children has been the pressure from the processed food industry. Obesity is unacceptably high in our children and it is not their fault, it is society’s. When the processed food industries lift their game to become respected contributors to wider societal goals, then some of the points you make might make sense. Until then, on behalf of the children of New Zealand, i will work very hard to keep from distorting the public policy development processes.

  5. Grant Jacobs

    Carrick,

    A quick preamble first. I’ve a little personal experience with some of the lines of argument you offer above, as they’re familiar to those that write on topics that are (mostly unjustifiably) controversial in public and politics. (Of late, mostly that NZ’s GM legislation wants to be rewritten in part as it currently is being used to effect a ‘ban’ on some products/developments in an unsound and unhelpful way.)

    “It may surprise your readers but I agree with Prof Shaun Hendy, particularly his comment that “… business and industry should have a voice at the table…”.

    But therein lies a significant problem – a thought process within certain sectors of the public health community that business and industry shouldn’t have a seat at the table. They on the other hand, should have free reign on what is right and what is wrong.”

    In leaving aside the main part of Shaun’s words you’re sidestepping the point Shaun raised. Shaun’s point was not who should have a seat at ‘the table’ or something about ‘free reign on what is right and what is wrong’, but about declaring interests. It seems a central point and shouldn’t be avoided in my opinion, but tackled.

    This is not saying that input from business should not happen—Shaun explicitly said it should (and I generally agree)—but that conflicts of interests should be declared.

    How are people to trust what they might offer if they aren’t?

    Similarly it seems fairly straight-forward to me that those that didn’t declare their interests in the ‘Dirty Politics’ approach will (and should) be distrusted, for fairly obvious reasons.

    “Entrenching the view that anyone associated or remotely linked to business somehow cannot be involved in promoting health is also a missed opportunity.”

    This seems a straw man – this wasn’t the view presented, but reads as one erected to serve your own argument.

    “What is abundantly apparent is that a number of academics seem affronted that anyone would actually dare have or offer an opposing view to that of their own. It’s called democracy; and while they may not like it, other people are entitled to express a view.”

    This misrepresentation/misunderstanding is one I’m familiar from personal experience. Several points here:

    In my experience what academics/researchers (not all researchers are academics!) actually object to is not that others have different views – they expect others to. Academics are quite familiar with people having different views: it’s the norm within academia, never mind the public sphere!

    What objections are usually about is having evidence dismissed out-of-hand, or through political actions. Doing that ‘disallows’ evidence from being presented that policies might be built on, so that policies might be formed from an understanding of the topic at hand, rather than created from anecdotal ideas, rhetoric and/or vested interests.

    I think that’s a pretty understandable thing to object to. I’d like to think most people would think this ought to be objected to.

    On another note, there is an issue with how a few academics come across in the public sphere. That’s not a matter of the content, but presentation, and one science communicators and scientists working in the public sphere (like myself) are familiar with.

    From personal experience this line of argument you’ve presented is often used in an attempt to dismiss what might be said from research. That has the effect you describe but in the opposite manner, swopping researchers for business people.

    Both parties have contributions to make, but interests must be declared and discussions should be transparent for them to be constructive – i.e. no behind-the-back stuff.

    I’d personally like to see a more open form of democracy, as I suspect this is part of this issue. Behind closed doors makes some of the nonsense we’ve seen more easily done.

  6. Peter Griffin

    Carrick, I think most public health researchers will agree that business needs to have a seat at the table – but they have been burned so many times when they’ve presented the evidence and the industry has successfully lobbied for the status quo that they are understandably jaded.

    But what makes things worse and reinforces the feeling that they are embattled is when it emerges that people like yourself are actively working, sometimes covertly, to undermine them.

    Displaying a mosaic of targets on your wall Nick Naylor style and proudly showing it off to the media isn’t actually doing the researchers or the clients you represent any good.

    You are not appearing in a Hollywood movie. This is real life, there are real people involved here and major public health policy decisions at stake.

    Time to grow up and dispense with the Dirty Politics tactics. Let the evidence be heard and tested and work constructively and transparently with scientists to actually address the issues in a way that are good for public health but won’t see your clients regulated out of existence.

  7. carrickgraham

    Dear Peter,

    I read your post ‘Carrick Graham still gunning for public health researchers’ Sciblogs, 13 May, with interest. The post warrants a response.

    It may surprise your readers but I agree with Prof Shaun Hendy, particularly his comment that “… business and industry should have a voice at the table…”.

    But therein lies a significant problem – a thought process within certain sectors of the public health community that business and industry shouldn’t have a seat at the table. They on the other hand, should have free reign on what is right and what is wrong.

    Sadly, it is becoming an all to common feature in public health research commentary, including by Prof Boyd Swinburn, that labelling so-called ‘Big Business’ as the vector in the ‘disease’, and that ‘they’ can’t be trusted, is not helpful in finding solutions to public health issues.

    Entrenching the view that anyone associated or remotely linked to business somehow cannot be involved in promoting health is also a missed opportunity.

    Further, this positioning demonstrates a significant misunderstanding of the businesses within the supply chain, particularly within New Zealand, that may manufacture products public health researchers express concerned about.

    The framing and lumping in of manufacturers as ‘Big Tobacco’, ‘Big Alcohol’ and ‘Big Sugar’ may be music to the ears of other researchers and gain media headlines, but such commentary does little aside from creating barriers to engagement and identifying possible solutions.

    Regulators want to see solutions that work for all parties, not just for one group. Public health researchers should not be affronted that manufacturers want to have a say on regulation that impacts on their business. They, like everyone else, have every right to be engaged in the political process.

    Yet time and time again we see the framing of lobbying by companies as somehow ‘wrong’ while political advocacy under the guise of ‘informing decision makers’ by public health researchers is perfectly acceptable.

    What is abundantly apparent is that a number of academics seem affronted that anyone would actually dare have or offer an opposing view to that of their own. It’s called democracy; and while they may not like it, other people are entitled to express a view.

    While approaches may vary, comments like “enemies of public health researchers” will do little aside from reinforcing the view that the war is only just beginning.

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