I had hoped to wind down in the fortnight leading up to Christmas. I was picturing picnics at the beach, a swim or two in a friend’s pool, some leisurely Christmas shopping, perhaps a movie …
Sadly, I didn’t account for the notorious anti-vaccination campaigner, Meryl Dorey, scoring not one, but two, speaking spots at the Woodford Folk Festival.
The brilliant and talented Peter Tierney (aka Reasonable Hank) first alerted me to this appalling discovery on Friday, 9 December.
Peter’s a member of Stop the AVN. Stop the AVN is a Facebook group which won the Skeptic of the Year award in 2010 for their community activism against the misinformation disseminated by Ms Dorey and her Australian [anti] Vaccination Network.
I support Stop the AVN but I’ve never been particularly active in it. I’m more of an admirer than a member. I know Peter only slightly as a Facebook and Twitter friend. The same can be said of my ‘association’, if any, with the ‘leaders’ of the group: Daniel Raffaele, Wendy Wilkinson and Ken McLeod. They are Facebook friends but, until this past week or so, I doubt if Wendy and Ken, in particular, would have been able to pick me out in a crowd. Daniel might recognise me, but probably wouldn’t be able to say much more about me than, “She’s that atheist writer.”
So, this was really out of my usual area of ‘politics and religion’ and while I’ve ventured into skeptical areas before (homeopathy and Qlink Mobile Phone Radiation Scam) it’s not the area where I’m most comfortable. But, when it seemed that Meryl was venturing on to my turf I began to get stroppy.
I live in the Sunshine Coast hinterland – not all that far from Woodford. Vaccination rates here are already low. Last year an outbreak of whooping cough effected 700 people. This year there’s been a case of diphtheria reported. These are diseases which are preventable and can even be eradicated by immunisation. We know this for a fact – how many cases of smallpox and polio do you hear of nowadays? (And no, Meryl, better nutrition and sanitation didn’t eradicate smallpox, you silly, silly woman.)
This is very personal for me. I have a four year old great-niece and a soon to be born (any day now!) great nephew. Outbreaks of communicable diseases in my area mean an increased risk of our family babies getting ill. Miss Bling is fully immunized, but vaccines aren’t 100% effective (but will almost certainly result in a milder case of the disease should she catch one). It will be some time before Master ‘Lucky’ has all his shots and until then he will be very vulnerable.
When I heard that Dorey was going to preach her deadly message at Woodford I seemed to morph into Mama Bear mode (or should that be Aunty, the Cross-Eyed Bear?).
My first move was to ring the organisers at the Woodford Folk Festival. That was only fair. Surely there had been some terrible mistake. Surely if they knew Meryl Dorey and her Australian [anti] Vaccination Network were the subject of a Public Health Warning from the Health Care Complaints Commission they would never have booked her. I would put things right! I’d just ring them and point this out and they’d say something like:
“Oh, silly us! We booked someone who’s been caught out telling great big hairy fibs to parents! We respect our patrons and, while we know they enjoy vigorous debate on controversial subjects, we would never knowingly engage a speaker who has been proven to base their arguments on false, misleading and biased information which endangers public health.”
Yeah, right. Instead they said: “We’ll get right back to you.”
They didn’t, so I rang them back. I was stonewalled. My background is in PR and marketing. I know a story that has legs. I knew this one had legs. I warned them, “Do something now – not tomorrow, not next week, now – because this is only going to get worse, much worse.”
I don’t think they believed me.
So, having got nowhere with the “Give them a chance to fix it” approach, I wrote a blog post – but somehow, that just didn’t seem to be enough. So, I decided to plant the story with a contact at the Sunshine Coast Daily. A phone call and an email covering the salient points was all it took.
With that success, I figured, (doing my best Tim-Minchin-in-Storm impression) “… in for a penny, in for a pound!” So I rang the health writer at the Courier-Mail and left a message on her voicemail.
“Worth a try,” I thought.
In the meantime, there was lots of lobbying and blog-writing going on behind the scenes. The master of Wikis and Skepticators, Jason Brown (aka A Drunken Madman) started keeping a list (and, in keeping with the season, checking it twice). No prizes for guessing who was the naughty one, Meryl.
I started tweeting to @WoodfordFF about Dorey speaking at Woodford, and soon a twitter storm blew up. It’s been ticking along very nicely for 11 days now with new names popping up every day to join the protest.
Science and skeptical blogger, Professor PZ Myers was quick to lend his considerable weight (no pun intended PZ) to the story. Professor Myer’s Pharyngula blog is one of the top-ranking science blogs in the world and read by millions. Not good international publicity for the Woodford Folk Festival.
WIN News saw the article in the Sunshine Coast Daily and contacted the Australian Skeptics asking (I assume) if they could contact me or if they had someone else in the area who could make a comment on camera. I’m barely known to the Skeptics and there was someone much better qualified than me to speak who lived nearby. I enthusiastically agreed that, if she was available, she should definitely do it. But, as it turned out she wasn’t available, and lived a little too far away for the camera crew. So, if it was to be, it was up to me.
And now I need to make another disclaimer. I am a member of the Australian Skeptics but only technically. The Australian Skeptics don’t really have ‘members’ they have people who subscribe to their journal. I’m one of them. But I’m definitely not in the Skeptics ‘in crowd’ – I read their magazine and I had fun, once, at one of their conferences. But I’m not in the same ballpark as real skeptical activists like Dr Rachael Dunlop and Richard Saunders. At the 2010 Skeptics conference (TAM) they were the ones up on stage – I was the anonymous blonde sitting wide-eyed in the audience.
In this case, I just happened to be ‘on the spot’ and the person closest to the television station – it took no special talent to get picked for this assignment!
Neither the Australian Skeptics nor Stop the AVN ‘organised’ the media. This wasn’t an orchestrated media campaign at all. The reason the Skeptics got involved (I suspect) was because I mentioned in the interview with the Daily that I was a member – but stressed that I didn’t represent the Australian Skeptics or speak on their behalf. Nevertheless, Chrys Stevenson a member of the Australian Skeptics got into the paper so, when journos were looking to contact me, they understandably emailed the Australian Skeptics.
It’s probably worth noting at this point that, despite Meryl Dorey’s frequent assertions the Australian Skeptics and Stop the AVN are two entirely different groups. Stop the AVN is not a ‘branch’ of the Australian Skeptics. Certainly the two groups share some members, but not all Australian Skeptics are ‘friends’ of the Stop the AVN Facebook group and not all Stop the AVN supporters are members of the Australian Skeptics.
Probably nothing I say will convince Meryl otherwise, but this story took off because it was newsworthy – not because there is some Big Pharma funded highly-organised hate campaign being waged against her.
I used to work in PR. Bosses and clients always want you to get their story into the news. But, no matter how well you write or how clever you think you are at ‘spin’, if a story isn’t newsworthy there’s little chance of getting it into anything other than a community newspaper – if that. Because this story was newsworthy, it took only some minimal effort from a demonstrably not-funded-by-Big-pharma middle-aged lady sitting on top of a mountain to light the match that set off a firestorm.
That’s the truth and it’s a truth that Meryl and others of her ilk should find very scary. The internet makes community activism easy. It makes having one on one contact with journalists easy. And once someone like Meryl becomes ‘newsworthy’ in a ‘Peter Foster’ kind of way, getting more bad publicity for them is really too easy to take any credit for.
As for the companies and venues that might, unwisely associate themselves with the ‘notorious’ or ‘controversial’, they quickly learn the truth of the maxim, “When you lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas.”
And so, the media circus began. The next thing I knew there was a television crew (of two) at my doorstep and we were down in the vegetable garden filming – much to the bemusement of my next door neighbour’s Christmas guests who must have wondered what the hell was going on!
Here’s the result:
I must say that Daph, my 87 year old Mum, seemed much more excited that her agapanthus were on the telly than her daughter – but then, they are very fine aggies!
The next day both the Australian Skeptics and I got emails from Channel 10. Mine went to the Sunshine Coast Atheists gmail which I check less frequently than my ordinary mail, so the first I heard was another email from the Skeptics. Would I be willing to do another television interview?
There was some discussion about what I would say – my position on the matter was slightly different to the Australian Skeptics’, but not irreconcilably so. I made it clear that if I was going to go on television again, I could only represent my own view and the Australian Skeptics were happy with that and generously gave me permission to say I was a ‘member’ of their organisation, given that interviewers kept insisting that I have some kind of title other than ‘unsuccessful freelance writer’, ‘village dweller’, or ‘local wit’.
The fact is, I had my 15 minutes of fame on television, radio and newspapers back when I was working. It wasn’t a novelty for me, and it wasn’t something I was keen to repeat. That was my ‘old life’. As I said to a friend last night, when you’re a size 24, being on the telly is really one of the last things you wish for!
Anyway, duty overcame vanity and, as there appeared to be no-one else close enough to serve, I rode once more unto the breach – or unto the television camera. Here’s the result:
On the same day that Channel 10 filmed, Janelle Miles, the health writer from the Courier-Mail returned my call. We had a good chat and the story went into the paper the next day under the title: “Anti-vaccination activist Meryl Dorey needles opponents of her speaking at Woodford Folk festival.” I suspect Janelle actually wrote a much better article than this, but sub-editing is a difficult art which isn’t always kind to good copy.
During the day I got a tip that the Queensland Health Minister would be making a statement. Geoff Wilson is not my favourite
fundie government minister – but, while he didn’t threaten to pull the government’s sponsorship if Dorey spoke, he did good.
In the meantime, the story was picked up by Mia Freedman’s MamaMia blog and comments (mostly pro-vaccination) started pouring in. Peter Bowditch wrote the article for MamaMia and did a fine job of it. You can read it and its 1,729 comments here: This festival allows dangerous anti-vaxxer to spread misinformation. Why?
In the afternoon I got a tweet from a producer at Gary Hardgrave’s drive-time program on Radio 4BC. She wanted to know if I could speak on air just after the 5pm news. I was in two minds as to whether to publicize this interview – suspecting that Meryl’s ears were now roughly three times the size of Dumbo the elephant’s – but I wanted people to listen in, so I threw caution to the wind. Of course Meryl saw my tweet and rang 4BC demanding an invitation to the party.
Meryl speaking cut down on my air time, but I actually think it was a better interview for having her rabbit on, followed by me coming in at the end to calmly point out that while she sounded credible, she was really talking a great deal of total crap – a fact proven by the HCCC.
Thanks to Ken McLeod – a tireless campaigner against Meryl and the AVN – here’s my part of the interview.
If you really want to hear Meryl you can download the full interview from Skeptimite’s excellent skeptical blog.
At the time of writing, the Woodford Folk Festival organising committee are yet to make a statement about Meryl Dorey’s attendance at the festival. Had I been their PR adviser, I would have told them 11 days ago, after they were alerted to the HCCC ruling against Ms Dorey, that they should quietly cut her loose. It provided a good enough excuse and anyone with an iota of media experience should have given them the same advice I did on 9 December: “This story will take off if you don’t act now.”
Why let a speaker who is essentially a ‘filler’ rather than a ‘drawcard’ for the festival, overshadow the event? A quick risk/benefit analysis would have quickly determined that Dorey was going to be far more trouble than she was worth.
If the Festival commiteee had been pro-active, they could have looked like responsible corporate citizens. Instead they look like rabbits caught in the headlights – stunned and silent as the media B-double bears down on them. And what do they think is going to happen when Dorey speaks? More negative media, more scrutiny of the kinds of quacks and kooks to whom Woodford (unwisely) provides a forum – partially at the tax payers’ expense. Having been given such great media mileage this year, do you think the media won’t be itching for another whacko to make good copy next year? This is the kind of thing that makes sponsors very, very nervous. If I was the marketing manager for a large corporate entity approached to sponsor next year’s Woodford Folk Festival I’d be saying, “No, it’s too risky.”
This can all still be stopped. It would have been better if it was done earlier, but a good PR company could still get rid of Dorey and ‘spin’ the story to make Woodford look good. After she’s spoken, they’re only going to look very, very silly.
The argument that Ms Dorey has a right to free speech has been floating around so let’s deal with it before I finish. The argument is specious. The woman has a website and her own magazine! She is free to speak any nonsense she likes on her own dime. But the Woodford Folk Festival has no obligation to provide a platform for anyone to speak – let alone someone who has a public health warning issued against their organisation! The Festival committee, however, does have an obligation not to damage the brands of its sponsors. And, I think, it does have an obligation not to endanger public health by providing a venue for the dissemination of demonstrably false propaganda.
So, that was wot I done on my summer vacation. It wasn’t quite lazing around at the beach, but there is a certain satisfaction in knowing I can still do the job I was trained to do – no longer to make money for myself and the companies I represented, but hopefully, to help make the world a slightly safer, happier and healthier place for all of us; and for Miss Bling and Master ‘Lucky’ in particular.
Breaking News: ABC radio slams Dorey for speaking off-topic, making disingenuous claims, and providing misleading and unsubstantiated information to the public. Full story here from Reasonable Hank (aka Peter Tierney).