R.RIDLEY-SMITH AGAINST THE LISTENER

The New Zealand Press Council has not upheld a complaint that an article in The Listener about the treatment of sexually transmitted diseases had been inaccurate, unbalanced and bad journalism that required a retraction and apology.

The article written by Gordon Campbell, was shaped around the argument that, in announcing funding cuts and changes in the treatment of sexually transmitted diseases, the Health Funding Authority (HFA) ran the risk of endangering the sexual health of the general public.

It said that the cuts would lessen regular access to the five and specialised health clinics attached to the hospitals in the main cities. A possible effect would be that people needing STD treatment would be forced to use General Practitioners (GPs) or other community services such as Family Planning.

In respect of GPs, the article suggested that embarrassment, fear of disclosure and cost were factors that could deter people from seeking the treatment they needed. As for Family Planning, it would confront an image problem especially since the bulk of its patients were women.

One section of the article dealt with the manner in which the HFA reached its decisions. It outlined the responses given by Glenda Foster, adviser to the HFA’s national office, who observed at one point that the requirement for confidentiality in sexual health services made it difficult for general practitioners to do the work.

Subsequently, the Listener published three letters, one supporting the article, and one from the Family Planning Association saying that it was experienced in treating male as well as female patients. The third was from a Christchurch GP, Lynnette Murdoch, who rejected the view expressed in the article and also by Glenda Foster, that confidentiality in treating STDs was a difficulty for GPs.

It was against this background that Dr R.Ridley-Smith complained, first to the editor of Listener, and then to the Press Council, that Gordon Campbell’s article had been unbalanced and inaccurate in attacking GPs on the grounds of cost, confidentiality and competence. The complainant dismissed the various medical authorities quoted by Campbell in support of his arguments and flatly rejected the contention that the proposed funding cuts would present difficulties. He said that his most serious objection was to Campbell’s failure to quote the views of any GP. He described the article as a piece of bad journalism.

To this, the editor presented an extended and detailed response.

He emphasised that, as a nationally circulating magazine, Listener sought to deal with what it saw as the core issue – the basis on which a specialised service for treatment of STDs might evolve in the future in the light of the cuts made by the HFA.

Listener’s principal concern had not been with the capacity of GP’s to do the job. That issue, it considered, had been decided in the 1970’s when responsibility for STDs was passed to the clinics and specialist qualifications were insisted upon. Now that funding cuts were being made and clinics shut, the dominant issue was what alternative form of specialist care would be provided.

The editor then dealt with Dr Ridley-Smith’s individual complaints. He defended the assertions that concerns over confidentiality and cost could lead people to fail to seek treatment. He provided the evidence on which the writer had relied in questioning the adequacy of training in the treatment of STDs received by GPs. He pointed to other opinion on the likely adverse effects of the HFA cuts. He explained why, in the interests of healthy debate, he had published the three letters to the editor. And he ended with an outline of the special requirements of a feature article in a magazine as compared with those that might be sought in a newspaper or a medical journal. Campbell had found ample evidence to back up the factual assertions that Dr Ridley-Smith had queried. The editor stood by the article.

Dr Ridley-Smith’s reply traversed a good many new issues and rejected the evidence that the editor had supplied. But it greatly enlarged the scope of criticism by declaring that the Listener article was part of an orchestrated campaign aimed at eroding the role and place of GPs.

This assertion, the editor firmly rejected.

The Press Council did not accept Dr Ridley-Smith’s assessments of the article. In his view it was unbalanced because in contained several references to the possible difficulties that could confront STD patients in deciding whether to consult GPs but did not offer comment from any GP. In the opinion of the Council, GPs were incidental, not central, to the article’s main thesis which was that the financial cuts imposed by the HFA put the entire sexual health service at risk.

The article was not written off-the-cuff. A number of authorities were consulted and there were surveys and experts to substantiate its principal arguments. It broke new ground in securing answers about funding from a representative of the HFA and while it voiced anxieties expressed by others in other settings, there was nothing to suggest that it was part of an orchestrated campaign against GPs.

The letters printed in the magazine in reaction to the article were relevant to the issue of imbalance. The representative of the Family Planning Association had challenged the assertion about the treatment of male patients. Dr Murdoch had robustly rejected the contention that confidentiality could be a problem for GPs.

To the extent then, that the article needed to be balanced by other opinion, the letters did that.

All in all, the Press Council considered the Listener article to have been well-written, well-researched and timely, and a valid contribution to public awareness of an issue of current concern.

The complaint was, accordingly, not upheld.

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