Australia's ABC promotes health threats

By Phil Plait | September 19, 2009 5:04 pm

[Update: Looks like The Age got it right though; quoting a scientist who calls the AVN a "vocal fringe group". Nice!]

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation just posted a dangerous and ridiculous article playing up dangers from an H1N1 vaccine, saying "it could be more dangerous than swine flu" itself.

That is utter nonsense. Go read what pediatric doctor Joe Albietz has to say on this.

The ABC article is simply atrocious, and outrageously bad journalism. They quote notorious antivaxxer Meryl Dorey — yeah, her — without barely a nod to reality (just mentioning at the very end that Dorey and her antivax network have been accused of "spreading misinformation", when in fact the truth is far richer than that simple statement). Where is an interview with a real doctor? Where are the actual numbers? Where is the link to research by real scientists showing how dangerous H1N1 is and how we know the vaccine is OK to use?

Nowhere. Shame on the ABC for posting dangerous and misleading stories like this, especially when Australian babies are dying from preventable diseases while antivaxxers go scare-mongering.

Shame on them.

Thanks to Stephanie McNeill for sending me the article.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Alt-Med, Antiscience, Piece of mind

Comments (54)

  1. I can’t believe the media give credence to whack job claims like this, especially if they come from Dorey’s mouth. But then again I should just expect it. Truth no longer matters in the news, only the bottom line.

  2. You can leave comments to the ABC about this article at

  3. Ceryle

    Of course, on the news here in Adelaide (south aus) was the fact that the H1N1 vaccine is now available. Unfortunately for us, flu season is now just about over.

  4. Is Australia’s ABC their version of FOX “news”?

    Man, does this issue ever ruffle my feathers.

  5. Muzz

    It’s bizarrely out of place too. No by-line and no real info. Giving publicity to fringe fearmongerng like that is not usually their style. Strange and disappointing piece of churnalistic long-tail controversy.

    (I would love to see Dorey et al up against the ABC’s impressive cadre of science reporters and investigative journalists. none of them would have had anything to do with this.)

  6. Peter Bowditch, noted Australian skeptic, purveyor of anti-woo, and all around nice guy, has several articles featuring Dorey:

  7. “Is Australia’s ABC their version of FOX “news”?”

    No, they are not that fortunate. ABC is their version of NPR.

  8. Murdats

    this seems to have happened a couple of times recently, which as Muzz said is odd for the ABC, they are usually our only real news source so to see them spreading garbage like this is disappointing

    and Jules the ABC is our version of the BBC (I don’t know what the american BBC is like though, I mean the british BBC)

    after having a look around it seems users can suggest news stories to the ABC, as there is no by line I would say some ill informed journalist said hey this looks good and hit post, so I would say there is a decent chance the AVN wrote the whole thing

  9. I think what has shocked us Oz skeptics the most is that the ABC is often considered our most reputable news source. I normally find it’s reporting balanced and fair (though they have a left leaning which aligns with my own so perhaps there is some bias on both parts ^_^).

    Fortunately the article appears to only made it on to the website where it will probably be only read by well read lefties who should have better sense than to take notices. Here is hoping Mediawatch has some scathing remarks soon on the media’s handling of AVN! Though the last thing they need is any more publicity really.

  10. @Jim Howard What is NPR?

    @Murdats Thank you for the clarification. I am not American, here in Canada we have the CBC which is the Canadian BBC. IMO the CBC is awesome for remaining unbiased. I love watching the CBC especially since there is no censorship from people they are interviewing and you hear swearing on the news. Well that can be said for all Canadian news when it comes to language, but I personally find the CBC to be the least biased in telling the news.

    I am happy to hear that his article is not the norm for the reporting style of the ABC. Thank you again for clarifying my misconception.

  11. NPR = National Public Radio

    A “charity” or 501(c)3 — listener/member supported

    PBS = Public Broadcasting System

    Private, nonprofit corporation, founded in 1969, whose members are America’s public TV stations.

    Both NPR and PBS have broadcast not particularly well-researched programs, so I wouldn’t say the private nature makes them skeptical or science-based.

  12. What is NPR?

    It stands for National Public Radio. It’s partially government-sponsored and has more of a focus on education and culture than American commercial radio. NPR is widely reviled by American conservatives because it often provides depth and context in its news reporting and frequently gets opinions from multiple sides of important issues.

  13. grenangle

    Aunty fail. More often than not the A.B.C. can be trusted to produce and convey an excellent news, information and entertainment service second to none. I can only hope an inexperienced hand has been allowed on the wheel and being the weekend the proper supervision was not provided. You can be sure the ever vigilant army of Aunty watchers and critics are busily messaging Gore Hill (Aunty HQ ) for an explanation and correction. I wouldn’t be surprised if its own show Media Watch doesn’t get on to it.

  14. Matt


    The CBC airs it’s shard of biased garbage too. The Passionate Eye did an absolutly vile report on videogames and their relation to brandon price, the kid that ran away from home and fell out of a tree because his mom took his xbox away. No research, no child psychologists that knew anythign about the effect of video games on kids, and no look at the fact that the kid was clearly depressed, and poorly parented – just an hour long smearing and marginalizing of gamer culture based on stereotypes and pop psychology.

    The episode was titled “Top Guns” as I recall.

  15. Melanie

    This is very poor and uncharacteristic of the ABC. Even worse is that they are following up today with an equally poorly presented poll asking if readers will have the vaccine. Maybe they should do a follow up detailing the disceptively named AVN (that really should be called the Australian Anti-vaccine Network).

  16. Ben

    Never fear, Media Watch will give them the public depantsing they deserve.

  17. Infinite Jones

    The “Stop the AVN” facebook group have already picked up on this, and sent a message to all its members last night:

    Subject: ABC Lets themselves and everyone else down.

    Hi all,

    I am writing to bring your attention to a recent article published by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation which seems to merely echo a blog post by Meryl Dorey. You can read it here:;

    If you find that this article is erroneous, please contact Media Watch here:;

    This article is one of the worst examples of false balance I have ever seen and flies in the face of the ABC’s own standards of reporting. Please help bring it to the attention of the ABC’s own watchdog.

    Daniel Raffaele.

    I emailed MediaWatch last night, saying basically what Phil said in his post and I think all other Australian readers should do the same. Ironically MediaWatch is an ABC show itself, so who knows whether they’ll do anything about it, although if they get to work on Monday morning to find hundreds of emails about it, maybe something will happen…

  18. Sarah

    This is horrible, the ABC are usually regarded as a trustworthy source of information.

    What really annoys me is all the hype of swine flu. To me, it is just another flu, which can be dangerous to immuno-compromised people, as well as the old and young people. But really, I think it is ridiculous the way people carry on about it. At the moment, Hendra Virus is a big problem, yet no one seems to care. I am studying vet science, and one of our lecturers pointed out that over half of the people that have contracted Hendra have died, and the ones that recovered are still not that well. I think only one horse has survived it (I’m not completely sure about that) so it is a very dangerous disease, especially compared to swine flu. Apparently there have only been a couple of people that have died from swine flu here that were not immuno-compromised (all the rest were in some way), so in comparison, swine flu is nothing. I’m not saying it isn’t dangerous, it is, but only to a select group of people that already have underlying conditions.

    I find it very frustrating that the government has stripped a lot of the funding for research into Hendra, but is making these vaccination programs for the country. By now, it seems like everyone has had it, it’s been through all the schools, so most people already have immunity now anyway. And if they had bothered to take proper precautions when they first had outbreaks, then we wouldn’t have it in Australia (the ‘quarantine’ that occurred here was disgraceful).

    For me, the only problem with swine flu is that we can’t do parts of our pig handling pracs in case the pigs contract it. I get the feeling that people might dislike me saying that, but people that are at risk of dying from swine flu (immuno-compromised people) could also quite easily die from any virus or bacterial infection at this point in time.

  19. Paul M.

    Shame Aunty, shame. Where’s Dr. Karl when you need him?

  20. Helen

    Can I suggest that all Australians get on the telephone and kick up a stink about it, asking them to remove the article and the poll; if there is no scientific concern then it shouldn’t be there – might want to suggest that all articles submitted are reviewed before they are published.

    Even if the flu season is coming to an end, the virus has not gone, and may very well be around next season too. I’d have the vaccine and hope that everyone else does too.

  21. Naomi

    Aunty, I’m very disappointed with you.

  22. Mick

    Very odd, since the ABC is not normally one to use such sensationalist headlines for stories – not to mention such a one-sided story. Definitely an unusual one.

  23. @Matt Jeebus Murphy! That chaps my biscuits for a whole slew of reasons! I will not get into them here as that is a separate topic but jeez louise!

    And people wonder why I rarely watch news on the television anymore.

  24. Yes, the ABC is usually excellent. Which makes this article, aberration that it is, all the more concerning. I’ve added my complaint, and would encourage all the other Aussies here to do the same.

  25. The “Stop The Australian Vaccination Network” Facebook group has been mentioned, but the URL wasn’t pimped.

    Here it is

    Come and join us. We were all over this yesterday afternoon.

    You can also follow @stopavn on Twitter, and also follow the search term ‘nocompulsoryvac’ for tweets from Meryl and the responses from skeptics – which can occasionally be hilarious.

    Phil – thanks for keeping international visibility on this problem.

    Oh, and a further update before I go: The AVN has been reported to Australia’s Healthcare Complaints Commission. We recently got word that the complaint has advanced to the Comissioner and a result is imminent. The facebook group (and of course members’ blogs) will get updated when the result is in.

  26. Michael Kingsford Gray

    It is both a pity, and perhaps an encouragement, that my action was prompted from the USA, (albeit from the president of the world’s foremost skeptical organisation)
    I just fired off this complaint to the ABC:
    (Do block quotes ‘work’ on this site?)

    The “take-away” message in this outrageously egregious article is bordering on the criminal, if not: outright potentially infanticidal, should readers accept the gist of the felonious message.

    To give the lunatical nut-case “Meryl Dorey” even a second of air-time is to parade your producer’s abject ignorance of the concept of “balance”, and is a travesty of human justice for the vulnerable infants of the world.

    I now expect the ABC to be “in bed” with other selfish deluded transparent frauds, such as the homeopaths & reiki con-artists.
    Except in this particular case, it is innocent non-consensual infants who are doing the suffering and DYING as a result of these self-deluded attention-seeking quacksalvers. And YOUR (the ABC)’s direct complicity and support of same.

    Michael Kingsford Gray,
    Adelaide, South Australia

    We’ll see what effect this flea bite does not have, until I feel need need to escalate my chomp-factor.

  27. BargeArse

    What irks me to the extreme is how the AVN gets away with using the name “Australian Vaccination Network” which, of course, gives them a reputable air and a totally fraudulent and undeserved gravitas. I know we don’t advocate violence anywhere, but if I saw that lying, deceitful, misleading publicity whore Dorey on the street, I’d take my Ping 2-iron to her. What does she want? For all us to walk around in calipers from getting polio? Makes me more embarrassed to be Australian than our woeful rugby team.

  28. brett

    This is exactly the type of journalism that the ABC has sunk to.Those posters saying that this is uncharacteristic of the ABC’s usual standards are channeling the ABC of 20 years ago and must be watching the current programming with rose coloured glasses.The ABC has become terribly partisan and generally sensationalist on just about any issue you care to mention (politics,enviroment, Aboriginal issues etc, etc). All agenda driven these days and as one poster has acknowledged it comes from an increasingly extreme leftist viewpoint.As someone whose view point has always been sympathetic to the left, even I find this strangely annoying.For some reason I want balanced coverage so I can make up my own mind and not be force fed some journo’s agenda–cheers brett

  29. JupiterIsBigTonight

    Unfortunately it wasn’t just on the interweb. M. Corey was broadcast on ABC News Radio yesterday. I was shocked and offended when I heard it on the news with no clarifying view, like “there is a controversy that M.Corey believes Pertussis is adequately treated with Homeopathy”.
    Paul, Thanks for the link to the ABC comment line. I have added my bit too.
    That might almost undo the good work the commercial TV channels have been doing in Prime time because Auntie is much more trusted if not as widely listened to among the younger set.

    As an aside I have discovered a friend has moved to Byron Bay as a maths teacher and naturopath – I haven’t talked to her about her views on Vaccination. Byron Bay is in the area where the alternative set are attracted and the epidemics of vaccine treatable diseases are emerging.
    I hope she is a small voice of reason up there – she atleast has the maths skills to understand the studies.

    Paul M. Here’s a link to one related topic of Dr Karls
    Dr Karl is a good sceptic but he’s certainly not infallible and I’m sure he’d be the first one to admit it !
    Thanks Dr Phil !

  30. fred edison

    @16 Melanie
    Ditto on the AVN being misnamed. Your name for them, the Australian Anti-Vaccination Network, is appropriate and accurately reflects their organizational goal. But it appears their core intent as a group is to misinform the public about vaccines, so I suppose it’s fitting they chose the name of AVN in the spirit of not being upfront and truthful in what they embody. To my knowledge, she’s also worked with the ‘Living Wisdom’ and ‘Informed Voice’ magazines. Not surprising.

    She has endangered the lives of children by telling parents not to vaccinate their kids. We’ve already seen what happened to those Aussie babies from whooping cough, and how their deaths are related to reduced herd immunity. It’s the tip of the iceberg. It will only get worse as people continue to listen and believe what misinformation and scare tactics her group releases in the future. As the number of vaccinated people drop, deaths from preventable disease shall rise.

    What the ABC has done is to take a quote from a fear mongering, seriously misinformed, and publicly harmful woman, and use that as their tease to attract readers to the article. Using Dorey’s quote as an unsupported and evidence absent point of contention, with the proven safety record and disease preventing effectivity of vaccines, is a serious infringement upon any journalistic integrity they have earned thus far.

    Sadly, for those unacquainted with what Dorey represents, they’ll accept her to be an expert on the topic, and go on spreading the gossip about those “harmful vaccines.” And because of their actions, more and more kids will needlessly die or suffer life-long complications from preventable diseases. Deadly diseases that could have been controlled and stopped with simple and safe vaccinations.

  31. John

    “Where is the link to research by real scientists showing how dangerous H1N1 is and how we know the vaccine is OK to use?”

    There isn’t one because H1N1 so far doesn’t appear to be very dangerous at all, and the new vaccine is still somewhat of an unknown quantity.

    The truth seems to be as inconvenient for both pro and anti-vaxxers alike.

  32. Barnesm

    Thanks for the heads up to this, and to the folks who posted where to report and complain.

    It annoys me too as the ABC should be better than this.

  33. Jeremy

    While I agree with the criticisms, it is worth noting that many medical professionals in Australia, especially those working on the swine flu vaccine, feel that the government really is putting lives at risk, both directly and indirectly, by needlessly rushing out the swine flu before normal levels of testing have been carried out. This means that the doses used will not be ideal. Flu vaccines often have mild side effects that could be worse if the dose is too high. It it is too low the vaccine may not work. If either of these things occur, although the immediate damage will not be great, they’ll give a lot of credibility to anti-vaccine groups like the AVN. The government here has deliberately chosen to ignore the advice of scientists (to a degree) because they think it’s politically to their advantage (being strong on health issues). This debate has largely been occurring outside of the public eye because it could result in discouraging people from getting the vaccine. There’s enough testing to show having the vaccine won’t cause any significant damage, so despite the governments terrible response, it will still be better to have it then not have it – but it would have been ever better for the government to delay the rollout until the most effective dose could be determined.

  34. Unfortunately, I have to agree with Brett (@29) – while general programming from the ABC is still excellent, their news service these days leaves a lot to be desired (ever since the previous Howard government scared the crap out of them and ruined their intelligent-left credentials by replacing several of their executives..).

  35. Movius

    The ABC *WAS* an excellent source of news. Unfortunately they’ve been trading on their past reputation for some time now. Articles like this one are becoming more common these days though,

    …except on Monday for some reason, where the lead story is usually that 4 corners is on tonight.

  36. Muzz

    You’re wrong brett. The ABC has weathered all accusations of bias levelled against it. This hasn’t stopped the Liberal Party from treating ABC left-wing bias as a baseless truism, however, and repeating it whenever they can.
    If anything this story represents exactly the kind of “balanced reporting” on an issue demanded by Howard and co’s relentless hammering.

  37. Sundance

    It’s just a shame The Chaser’s War On Everything has come to an end. They had a habit of actually researching the segments they ran, and I’m sure they’d rip into the AVN in a way the news services never would :-)

  38. Beast

    Smart people get vaxxed.
    Dumb ones will die out.
    That´s Intelligent Evolution at work.

  39. brett

    Muzz the issue with the ABC is not just one of politics but if you really beleive the ABC has no bias to the left just watch Tony Jones or Kerry O’brien ( no baseless truism here) for a few minutes.Remember four legs good two legs bad but then ofcourse the chickens objected and so were honourary four legs.I dont want news that just reflects my own views i actually like my views challenged by facts not journalistic agenda.In a sense the leaning toward either side of politics is not the whole issue. I want a journalistic style that is as close to neutral as possible, then once I have the facts I can decide for myself.I guess I want reportage of an issue not agenda jounalism –cheers brett

  40. BargeArse

    Muzz & Lee Harrison are living in dreamland. The ABC is a blantantly leftist organisation, and to work there is an excellent springboard for Labour pre-selection (I love how Peter Costello recounted he was hissed by an ABC employee when he went there for an interview). Name me one centrist or right wing commentator they have had in the last twenty years? I think Jon Holmes on mediawatch has remained wonderfully apolitical (but I am sure he has been restraining himself). BUT that is not the issue here – which is sloppy and lazy journalism that gives dangerous idiots like Dorey the opportunity to speak unchallenged (and dont blame the Howard government for that one either)…

  41. Jeff Keogh

    My submission to the ABC reads as follows:

    I was very disappointed to both read the article referred in the link, and hear its counterpart on radio news on Saturday.

    Both the radio report and the article treated the AVN as if they were a legitimate voice on the subject, which is a gross misrepresentation of reality. Even a little bit of research conducted by your journalist would have demonstrated to them that the AVN is an unscientific lobby group with an irrational fear of vaccinations of all kinds. Meryl Dorey is the last person from whom the ABC should be seeking comment on the issue of vaccination.

    The most disappointing thing about the reporting is that the ABC still has the reputation among the Australian public as being a reliable source of news and information. As a result, many people unfamiliar with the misinformation of the AVN will have accepted Meryl Dorey’s statements as those of an informed commenter. She is not, and her crank opinions should not be permitted to muddy the waters with regard to such an important public health issue.

    I’m very disappointed, ABC.

  42. Muzz

    brett, Bargearse; if you have any grounds for these accusations bring them on. As I said, they’ve weathered all claims thus far. You can attempt to divine the political leanings of the presenters all you like. If you have a case that you aren’t being given all the facts so that you will arrive at a ‘left wing’ conclusion to any issues you will just have to prove it.
    Thanks to this kind of guff we have to put up with clowns like Andrew Bolt and Peirs Akkerman quite regularly now. I hope they aren’t your idea of good right wing commentators (I’d be all for some more conservative types who aren’t outright cranks, they do seem to be so hard to find though). I suppose Robert Mann is even too pink these days.
    I’d like to know what you guys would like to see; more snake oil, more climate change denial, more anti-immigrant/aboriginal sensation? (serious question; what’s missing?)
    Like Rod Quantok once said, the ABC couldn’t balance the right wing bias of the mainstream media if it was run by Marx and Lenin.

  43. JupiterIsBig

    In Aus, Every Government thinks the the ABC is biased against them – Just ask Keating !
    I think there might be a left (liberal) leaning which naturally comes from trying to foster understanding and multiple viewpoints, and also to expose the obfuscation and bluster of the Conservatives.

    At least it’s not as biased as that ex-Australian in charge at Fox !

  44. Someone in Australia should really consider creating a Meryl Dorey Body Count website.


  45. @Derek
    I thought we wouldn’t have reporting like the CDC but as it turns out (thanks intertoobs) we have the National Notifiable Diseases Surveillance System from the Dept of Health. They produce a fortnightly report here:

    For example, 20000 case of Pertussis for the year to date. 823 cases for the fortnight ending 28 Aug. A national disgrace. So far I haven’t been able to find fatality rates.

  46. @Derek

    Looks like my last post was swallowed by the spam filter.
    [edit] No it wasn’t. Didn’t appear at first – only in moderation now so it will appear eventually.

    I didn’t think we had an organisation like the CDC that would keep track of that sort of thing but it turns out we do. It is called the National Notifiable Diseases Surveillance System run by the Dept of Health.
    So far this year, for example, there have been 20000 cases of pertussis reported. 823 in the fortnight ending 28 Aug. I can’t find up to date death stats… so far.

  47. I see they’ve revised the headline and added a short rebuttal from Prof McIntyre.

    It remains a waste of space.

  48. StevoR

    I second all the comments about the ABC usually being better than this – they host quite a few really good science shows incl. notably Catalyst which recently had a great segment on exoplanets.

    Plus in recent years they’ve given us doco specials like Space Race, The Planets & Space Odyssey among others. Also worth mentioning – although it was on (replayed?) very early in the mornings like 3 a.m.~ish – a few years ago was an excellent planetary exploration simulation doco / SF series with imaginary but plausible and sympathetic robot scientists for kids – Destination Space it was called. They’ve had other science specials esp. on dinosaurs –Walking with Dinosaurs/ Beasts / Cavemen as well.

    I also think that if anything the ABC are more wrong (“conservative”) wing than left wing politically speaking.

    This :

    Like Rod Quantok once said, the ABC couldn’t balance the right wing bias of the mainstream media if it was run by Marx and Lenin.

    by Muzz (41) is also absolutely spot on & wins the thread so far in my book! :-)

    Yeah, I expected better from them – but then we do usually get better from them so I guess this one odd & uncharacteristic lapse can be forgiven – after all who’s perfect? Plus like others here I’m sure Media Watch will give this “story” the dumping-upon it deserves. 😉

  49. Don’t be so sure Media Watch will deal with it. They have 20 minutes to cover all sorts of stories from press to TV. They recently ignored Channel Ten’s credulous promotion of homeoprophylaxis for swine flu, for example, though several bloggers had lodged complaints.

  50. KenD

    I fired off a complaint to the ABC the moment I read the offending article. My complaint made many of the points that others have made in this blog, although I didn’t see the blog until today, three weeks later. The original headline was ‘Vaccine “Could be more dangerous than swine flu”‘, and it was presented in their “Top Stories” section. The headline was subsequently changed, as was the content.

    I have just received a dismissal of my complaint. They don’t regard it as a breech of their charter, and they regard it as fair because they have (separately) published pro-vaccine stories. A couple of gems in their reply were referring to “both sides” of the “controversy”. This is strongly reminiscent of creationists calling for “both sides” of the creation debate to be taught.

    I will be elevating my complaint to the next level, and keep doing so until the outcome is satisfactory.

    Several of the comments in this thread have indicated that this article is not typical of the ABC’s standards. That is true, they have some truly excellent science coverage. In my opinion, that makes it worse. People expect reliable and well-sourced information from the ABC, so their sceptical screens may well be down when reading their bulletins.

    The ABC has form on this issue, though. Earlier in the year they included a link to the Aust Vaccination Network on their Immunisation information fact sheet. It was subsequently removed after protests.


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