Talking about this, it is hard not to appear a conspiracy theorist. There are so many examples, from Australia and round the world, of collaboration in campaigns of disinformation – from Fox News’s attempts to have gullible Americans believe Barack Obama was a Kenyan Muslim to The Australian’s long campaign of climate change denialism. The Murdoch media knows what Lewis Carroll knew: any assertion can be rendered credible by simple repetition.
It sounds more than a little paranoid when you put it like that. And Mike Daube, AO, professor of health policy at Curtin University and director of the Public Health Advocacy Institute, knows that, too. Yet having become intimately acquainted with the modus operandi over the past few weeks, Daube has no hesitation in using the words “global conspiracy”.
What he has found himself caught up in is, he says, “absolutely” a conspiracy – one that stretches from London and New York to Sydney and Melbourne, and then back to Britain and Ireland, France and other places. It is a collusion of politics, big business and media, carefully co-ordinated to spread lies.
The goal of this particular conspiracy, Daube says, is to pressure several governments that are on the cusp of following Australia’s lead and introducing plain packaging of cigarettes, something that could cost tobacco companies billions.
The conspiracy is all the more morally bankrupt, in his view, because the stated aim of plain packaging was not so much to get current smokers to quit – steep increases in tobacco excise were recognised as the best tool for that – but to undermine the cachet of smoking with children and young people who might be tempted to take it up.
That is not to say that every player in the events was a knowing conspirator. Perhaps some were just dupes. No doubt, many were ideologically blinkered. But collectively they served the interests of an industry that kills tens of thousands of people each year. They did what News Corp does so well: repeating and repeating and repeating tendentious non-facts and, along the way, vilifying anyone who dares to gainsay them.
Let’s start at the beginning: June 6, when The Australian ran a page one “exclusive” under the byline of Christian Kerr, the first paragraph of which read: “Labor’s nanny state push to kill off the country’s addiction to cigarettes with plain packaging has backfired, with new sales figures showing tobacco consumption growing during the first full year of the new laws.”
Note, for a start, the first three words: “Labor’s nanny state”. Kerr employs the words “nanny state” so often he might as well trademark them. In one piece written before the last election, for the right-wing IPA Review, Kerr used the phrase no fewer than 23 times as he gave his advice on what Tony Abbott should do to win.
In his blueprint for an Abbott victory, Kerr referred in particular to a couple of manifestations of Labor government nanny-stateism, which he reckoned could be targeted as ineffectual: preventive health measures taken in relation to the tobacco industry through plain packaging, and the alcohol industry, which is substantially owned by tobacco companies, in relation to alcopops.
Kerr did not come to the most recent tobacco story as a non-partisan reporter. He came to it as a long-time political operative – one who has worked for a number of Liberal state and federal politicians – with a long and continuing association with the libertarian lobby group, the Institute of Public Affairs, which has vigorously opposed plain packaging since it was first proposed, and which is substantially funded by tobacco companies and Rupert Murdoch.
It’s worth mentioning, too, that there is a considerable history of crossover at board and senior management levels between the Murdoch empire and Big Tobacco. Murdoch himself is a former board member of the world’s largest tobacco company, Philip Morris. And he has a long association with the IPA. His father, Sir Keith Murdoch, was among its founders. In summary, the author of The Australian’s June 6 exclusive was an employee of two organisations – the IPA and News Corp – which have a long and friendly association with the tobacco industry.
Kerr’s story purported to show that in the year following the introduction of Australia’s world-leading cigarette plain packaging laws, the number of cigarettes sold, and by extension the number smoked, had gone up by 59 million “sticks” – individual cigarettes or their roll-your-own equivalents.
That’s not a big increase – just 0.3 per cent. Still, it would have been a great story, had the data been correct. But its accuracy was challenged immediately in a blog by Stephen Koukoulas of Market Economics, a former senior treasury official and adviser to prime minister Julia Gillard.
As Koukoulas tells it, he came to the issue more or less by accident. A couple of days before the Kerr story was published, he was going through the newly released national accounts figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, looking for something else.
“I was looking at the data on consumption of electricity,” he says, “just to see how the carbon price was working, and I happened to notice the cigarette numbers had fallen. So after the article came out I just did a quick thing for my blog, saying it was wrong.”
Well, that slightly understates it. The Kouk blog said the ABS data made “a mockery” of The Australian’s “fact-less” story. The true picture, he wrote, as revealed by the March quarter ABS numbers, was that tobacco consumption was at a record low, 5.3 per cent below where it was when the plain packaging laws were brought in at the end of 2012.
“It seems like The Australian is pushing, in a high-profile front-page story, baseless information fed to it from pressure groups with a vested interest to sell more tobacco and cigarettes,” wrote the Kouk.
Tough but fair. The same day, spinning off the Kouk Blog, the online site Crikey explored the provenance of the data. Kerr’s story sourced the data to an outfit called InfoView. Crikey called to ask who InfoView might be, and were referred to a spokesman from British American Tobacco. Turns out the source was not in any way independent, but was an outfit set up to collate data provided to it by the tobacco industry.
More significantly, the spokesman for BATA, Scott McIntyre, told Crikey the numbers cited in Kerr’s story had originally been put together for use in a submission to an inquiry commissioned by the Cameron government into the possible adoption of plain packaging in Britain.
The head of that inquiry, noted paediatrician Sir Cyril Chantler, engaged very closely with all parties to the plain packaging issue in Australia, including the tobacco industry and public health experts such as Mike Daube.
In April he produced his report. It is worth quoting from the media release that accompanied it: “Very strong evidence shows that children who are exposed to advertising or promotion of tobacco products are more likely to subsequently take up smoking. Branded cigarettes are ‘badge’ products, frequently on display, which therefore act as a ‘silent salesman’.”
Sir Cyril rejected the tobacco industry’s claims that “all of its marketing activity, including packaging, aims solely to persuade existing adult smokers to switch brand and never targets children or new smokers”.
In practice, he said, children and other potential new smokers were targeted, and were “susceptible to [the] appeal” of cigarette packaging.
“In the light of these and other considerations he believes that branded packaging contributes to increased tobacco consumption,” the release said.
Now you begin to see why Big Tobacco put its dodgy data in the eager hands of the News Corp myrmidons. Having failed to impress Sir Cyril with it, they were making a last-ditch effort to head off plain packaging in Britain, by spreading the lie that plain packaging didn’t work.
“I have absolutely no doubt,” says Mike Daube, “that the reason this came out when it did was to give the British tobacco companies some cheap headlines to wave in front of the politicians.”
And not just British politicians. Ireland is moving to follow Australia on plain packaging, he notes. France and New Zealand are also heading in that direction. “Once a few more countries adopt it,” Daube says, “then the dominoes really start to fall.”
You have to say the tactic worked. The day after Murdoch’s Australian flagship ran with the Kerr story, Murdoch’s British flagship, The Times, carried the story, under the headline: “Australian anti-smoking laws backfire as sales rise.”
A few days later another right-wing publication, The Spectator, ran it: “Plain packaging has backfired in Australia – don’t bring it to the UK.” The day after that, the mass-circulation London Daily Telegraph also ran with the story.
Not everyone fell for it, though. The Irish Times picked up on the Koukoulas critique in a story bagging the Murdoch press and the tobacco lobby. It was headed: “Smoke and mirrors as Big Tobacco fights Australian plain packaging law.”
On June 16, the ABC’s Media Watch program took up the issue, quoting Daube and Koukoulas and comprehensively debunking The Australian.
“And that caused the whole thing to explode,” says Koukoulas. “It’s been unrelenting ever since.”
Even for one as numerate as Koukoulas, it has been hard to keep count. He cites at least a dozen further attempts by the Murdoch media trying to stand up the Kerr story or attack its critics. Koukoulas’s list includes two editorials in The Australian, in addition to the one that ran the same day as Kerr’s original story; a couple of mentions in the gossip column Cut & Paste; an opinion piece from the IPA’s Sinclair Davidson; and a raft of other pieces from various economic commentators including Judith Sloan, Henry Ergas, Adam Creighton and the Herald Sun’s Terry McCrann.
Much of it has been tediously technical, as Sloan in particular has sought to undermine Kouk’s interpretation of the official data. Some has been howlingly comic.
Ergas, for example, suggested plain packaging “harmed” consumers “as the quality of a product they value is forcibly degraded…” He continued: “…disregarding smokers’ welfare merely allows the nanny state to get away with poorly thought-through interventions.”
It takes a lot to argue that tobacco companies are fighting for the “welfare” of smokers. It takes chutzpah, too, to attack the “political involvement” of Koukoulas and Daube, as did The Australian’s legal affairs editor, Chris Merritt.
Yes, Koukoulas was briefly a staffer for Gillard. But if that is worthy of mention, it is surely worth mentioning that Kerr and Creighton are both former Liberal staffers who, along with Davidson, have long connections to right-wing think tanks funded by tobacco interests.
As for Mike Daube, his last political connection, he swears, was as a member of the British young conservatives in the 1960s. As he rightly points out, if the mere fact of serving as the deputy chairman of the National Preventative Health Taskforce and chair of the tobacco expert committee makes him a political operative, “then everyone who ever served on a government committee must be tainted”.
There is reason to believe that Koukoulas is quite enjoying the fight with those he calls “the C-grade talent at The Australian”. He’s been around politics and the media long enough to develop a tough skin.
But poor old Daube has been genuinely angered by it. Shocked and amazed to be doorstopped in his office by a reporter from The Australian demanding his response to data they refused to show him. Amazed that The Australian would not run his letter rebutting their data and their personal attacks on him.
Through the ordeal of the past couple of weeks, he’s comforted himself by looking at it all in terms of what he calls the scream test: “The more they scream, the more it shows they know they’re losing.” Still, he says: “I’ve not experienced anything as ferocious as this before.”
But he was feeling a whole lot better a couple of days ago, when the Treasury department, which collects data on “per stick” cigarette sales so it can levy excise, decisively entered the debate. Abandoning its previous practice of withholding the information on the basis of potential commercial sensitivity, the department revealed the reality: cigarette sales fell 3.4 per cent in the year after plain packaging was introduced. End of argument. The News Corp-IPA-Big Tobacco conspirators were routed. And Daube is a happy man.
Lewis Carroll and the Murdoch media were wrong. Repetition does not equal truth.