Despite being fresh in our minds, the case of Belle Gibson is still compelling. A self-styled “wellness warrior” who built a business by hoodwinking millions into believing she had cured terminal brain cancer, Gibson’s fraudulent house of cards was toppled by Age journalists Beau Donelly and Nick Toscano.
In this propulsive read, they provide damning evidence that exposes a multitude of accomplices in the scandal. From Gibson’s fellow wellness advocates to those espousing the benefits of unscientific fad diets, Apple for buying into her nonsense, Penguin for proceeding with publishing it, and, finally, to the hundreds of thousands of social media junkies who swallowed what now seems such obvious bullshit – no one comes out unscathed.
The book works on multiple levels. As journalists, the authors are concerned with the proliferation of fake news. Statistics suggest social media sites such as Facebook have caused indelible harm by providing the weak-minded and gullible with a fantasy life that undermines society. Without Instagram, Gibson might have struggled to establish herself as a snake-oil salesman. The fact that cancer sufferers desperate for any sliver of hope chose her remedy over conventional science speaks volumes about where we are today. Opinion trumps fact. Thoughts and prayers are proffered over solutions. As a result, people die.
Donelly and Toscano’s behind-the-scenes work is especially eye-opening during discussions with Gibson’s mother, Natalie. Verbatim stream-of-consciousness conversations reveal a delusional mind reminiscent of Donald Trump, the poster boy for deception. Natalie’s unhinged attempts at cajoling the journalists into paying for her story show that her daughter is not the only one willing to sell her soul, and her family, for fame. That the price is so high for so many others does not seem to register with Natalie or Belle. Sadly, there is not much in the way of consequence for this behaviour, with Consumer Affairs Victoria being the sole punitive body.
With the proliferation of writers inserting themselves into sensational news stories – arguably a tactic that has accelerated the decaying trust in objective reporting – it is refreshing to read an account by two professional journalists. Donelly and Toscano provide a timely reminder of the power and importance of the Fourth Estate in exposing charlatans such as Gibson who eschew ethics in the pursuit of popularity. JD
Scribe, 336pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 18, 2017 as "Beau Donelly and Nick Toscano, The Woman Who Fooled the World".
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