The twisted reason the media have waged war on chronically ill and disabled people

This is the second in three articles. You can read the first one here, and the third one will be out in a few hours.

The war continues…

As I discussed in the first article, there is currently a coordinated media war against chronically ill and disabled people who live with myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME, ME/CFS, chronic fatigue syndrome). This is because of patients and supporters’ objections to PACE trial – a study which defined treatment for them.

As I said in the first piece, the ME story has many threads to it. And one of them, detailed below, has far-reaching implications for people outside the ME community. It also shows why, in part, the media have waged this war. Because there’s a lot at risk if it loses.

Far-reaching

Under the NHS, CBT and an “exercise plan” (which is GET, I’ve seen the consultations) is the recommended treatment for Fibromyalgia and Ehlers-Danlos syndromes (EDS). It’s probably applied to numerous other diseases and illnesses, too.

And it is this which forms part of a much wider agenda being pushed by the UK establishment.

Labour’s vision

Welfare “reforms” have been pushed by successive governments, most notably since 2008. The then Blairite New Labour government switched up things at the UK’s welfare (social security) agency, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP). Not least, it introduced the Work Capability Assessment (WCA) for people claiming sickness-related payments. It was effectively saying that a doctor’s sick note was no longer enough to prove that people were entitled to disability and sickness-related welfare. The DWP wanted to check.

As I previously wrote for The Canary, the move was in response to the financial crisis. Blairite New Labour explicitly said so, but framed as if it was helping sick and disabled people. But in reality, it was a two fold approach.

Firstly, it was a way of reducing the welfare bill in line with bank bail-out-induced austerity. Secondly, in tandem with the burgeoning self-employment and ‘gig’ economy, it was part of a response to stave off recession; flooding the employment market with people who’d take any job going because the government had left them with no choice.

The election of the Conservative Party into coalition in 2010 took Labour’s agenda, and cruelly magnified it. It worked.

The betrayal of millions

Between October 2008 and July 2017, the DWP declared at least two million sick and disabled people ‘fit-for-work’. A further two million more withdrew their welfare claims. Millions of people, who previously may well have got sickness benefits, were suddenly magically cured by the DWP. It’s here where PACE trial comes in.

Take a medical trial, part funded by the DWP and conducted by some researchers with links to the private insurance industry.

Mix in an extra-political government agenda of reducing the welfare bill and pushing as many people into some kind of employment as possible (it’s called the Tories “Universal Credit“).

Add to this junk-science theories (PACE) that patients can ‘think themselves’ free of pain, and exercise to improve their symptoms.

Dollop in some media support via the SMC, plus an unquestioning NHS.

Throw in at least 250,000 ME patients, two million Fibromyalgia ones, an unclear number of EDS patients and probably other sick and disabled people along the way.

Force CBT and GET upon them.

Watch them accept it because many of them are the most deprived in society.

Tell all these people that if CBT and GET don’t work it’s their fault, or that their illnesses are ‘all in their heads’.

Tell the ones whose illnesses are ‘all in their heads’ that they’re not entitled to welfare. And tell the ones who are doing CBT and GET it’s proof they’re not that ill. So they’re not entitled to welfare, either.

What are you left with?

A corporatist capitalist’s wet dream. A decreased welfare bill, an increased cheap labour population and some smug ‘researchers’.

Or, as UK MP Carol Monaghan said, probably:

one of the biggest medical scandals of the 21st century.

So it continues

But don’t take my word for it. Because the UK government has got this part of its march to a dystopian future already sewn-up. Now, its moved [pdf, p43] onto its next target group: those living with mental health issues and musculoskeletal conditions and mental health issues.

We’re already seeing the DWP put work advisers into NHS talking therapy settings to get people in mental distress back to work. Or “psycho-compulsion” if you prefer. Last year, the NHS scrapped certain treatments for people living with some musculoskeletal conditions. And the DWP tried (but ultimately failed) to issue blanket guidelines to deny people living with mental health issues certain welfare payments.

But moreover, a certain Professor Wessley has just reviewed the UK government’s mental health laws. His recommendations include letting patients decide their treatments. In other words: ‘if you don’t get better it’s your fault’, or ‘you’re not really that ill, are you?’

The final knife to the heart? The DWP’s new, all-encompassing welfare payment Universal Credit. If you don’t know about it read my history lesson for The Canary here. But it’s essentially a policy to get everyone who can do the smallest amount of work possible, doing it. It’s a policy that’s been over a decade in the making and the linchpin to all of this.

Cui bono?

Cui bono is Latin for “to whom is the benefit?” In the case of PACE trial, there are numerous recipients of all the evil benefits it brings. The government, junk scientists, gig employers and the stock markets to name a few.

But ultimately, there’s no ‘Illuminati’-style conspiracy, here. No single group of shadowy people are having secret meetings deciding all this. It is simply how our system works.

PACE: the thin end of the wedge

You have politicians who support the fundamental notion of capitalism that poverty is built in. They also support the idea of free markets, corporate globalisation and worshipping at those altars. So it is, of course, second nature and involuntary to them that poor, sick and disabled people are disposable; much like the thought processes behind sending people to war.

You have medical professionals like Sharpe and Wessley who are either one of two things: gullible fools, not realising exactly what their primary school science has done. Or, they are utterly complicit narcissists, knowing what they are doing is abusing and harming millions of people – but the glory (and paychecks) are too tempting for them to repent.

You have journalists who fit the above criteria. Or they’re just thick as pig shit. You have the SMC, pretty much in the same categories.

Then you have everyone else: the NHS GPs and consultants, the DWP staff, the charities. All so compliant, so servile, so forelock-tugging and so consumed by the system that they don’t even realise what they’re doing. ‘But I’ve got bills to pay! I can’t possibly rock the boat!’

Connect the dots

Trevor Butterworth, from US organisation Sense About Science (like the SMC but in the US) responded to a tweet I was tagged in, which was discussing the links (see my previous article) between journalists and the SMC. And I’m afraid his assertion is very wrong:

Because PACE, where it comes from and why it’s defended, is the same system, ideology and ultimate disregard for other human beings that defends Monsanto, that defends GM crops, that defends wars, poverty, climate change and everything else.

But ultimately with PACE, you have millions and millions of sick and disabled people. Ones like my girlfriend, who have been so abused and mistreated by the medical profession, the DWP and ultimately the system that she’s almost given up.

A privileged, warped reality

Sharpe doesn’t have to deal with her effective PTSD whenever she has to go to see any NHS professional who automatically presumes she is a ‘hypochondriac’, ‘suffering’ from poor mental health. Thanks in part to PACE trial she was sectioned (locked up in a mental institution) for nine days because everyone believed her illnesses were ‘all in her head’. They weren’t, and she was discharged without a mental health diagnosis.

Wessley doesn’t have to sit and listen to low-down-the-food-chain NHS neurologists tell you the best cure for ME is “psychotherapy”. Nor does he have to explain time and time again that yes, ‘we’ve tried CBT and GET and it made her worse’. After explaining what ME is in the first place, obviously. And getting past the it’s just “Yuppie Flu‘ prejudices.

Neither of these men have to comfort her when she crying her eyes out, day after day, because it’s all too much and she feels she can’t go on constantly fighting classism, both socially and medically. Which is, in essence, what much of PACE trial manifests as. I’ll discuss that in the third article.

Not that either of these men care. If they did, they would have admitted their corrupt, nefarious and down right cruel experiment at the expense of some of the sickest people in society was a sham, a farce and a fraud.

I doubt that will ever happen. So I and millions of missing people will remain “trolls”. Or rather, patients and their supporters who have suffered decades of abuse; the implications of which are almost unimaginably far-reaching.

UPDATE:

In response to a comment from Trevor Butterworth, I am happy to include that Sense About Science and himself have been highly critical of PACE trial. Read more here.

The third article will be out shortly. You can read the first one here

I am no longer writing for The Canary, due to my partner’s chronic illness. You can read about that here. But if you like my work any gifts/donations to keep it going are gratefully accepted below. Thank you.
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The media is waging a coordinated war against chronically ill and disabled people

The UK is currently in the grip of Brexit. But amid this chaos, there is another, more sinister story brewing. It’s that of a group of chronically ill and disabled people, and the all out war against them being waged by medical professionals and the media.

This is the first of three stories. This part deals with the media. The second will deal with the ‘whys’ of the situation. The third will deal with the real-world implications for chronically ill and disabled people.

Myalgic encephalomyelitis

As I previously wrote for The Canary:

Myalgic encephalomyelitis, commonly referred to as ME, is a chronic systemic neuroimmune disease. It affects an estimated 17 million people worldwide and around 250,000 people in the UK. While symptoms vary for every person, people living with it often experience:

 

  • A worsening of symptoms brought on by physical activities, mental activities, or both. Often referred to as post-exertional malaise.
  • Flu-like symptoms.
  • All-over pain.
  • Sleep disturbance / problems.
  • Cognitive impairments.
  • Impairments of the body’s autonomic systems, such as nervous, digestive, and endocrine.
  • Hypersensitivity.

But ME has been fraught with controversy. For decades (and often still to this day), the medical profession has not properly recognised it. People living with ME have been disbelievedstigmatised, given incorrect treatment, or told it’s ‘all in their heads’.

To be clear, within this piece ME is referred to as that, ME/CFS or chronic fatigue syndrome.

You can read my full body of work for The Canary on ME here.

So, this is the disease currently making the headlines.

PACE trial

Also making the news is the so-called “PACE trial”. Again, as I previously wrote for The Canary, the trial:

was a study into treatment for people living with ME. Its results claim that people living with ME can improve their illnesses, and sometimes recover, by having cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and by using graded exercise therapy (GET).

 

The results of the £5m trial, part-funded by the UK Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), were originally published in the Lancet in 2011. But they have been dismissed by many medical professionals and disabled people alike as damaging and ineffective. US government agencies have either downgraded the reliability of CBT and GET or removed them as recommended treatments altogether.

 

In the UK, CBT and GET are still the NHS’s approved treatments under guidelines from the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE). NICE is undertaking a review of this. But this has proved controversial. Because as ME Action UK reported, among the people sitting on the review committee are a co-author of the PACE Trial and other contentious medical professionals.

You can read my full body of work for The Canary on PACE trial here.

Now, over the past few days, there has been a flurry of stories around ME. And all of them are attacking people who oppose PACE trial.

The battle begins

It began with an article on Reuters about why one of the PACE trial researchers and main authors, Professor Michael Sharpe, was quitting his work on ME. It detailed how Sharpe and others were quitting due to being:

on the receiving end of a campaign to discredit their work…

 

Reuters contacted a dozen professors, doctors and researchers with experience of analysing or testing potential treatments for chronic fatigue syndrome. All said they had been the target of online harassment because activists objected to their findings. Only two had definite plans to continue researching treatments.

For me, this article was the beginning of a coordinated campaign against people opposed to the PACE trial. And it is being done by industry “shills”.

Enter the Science Media Centre

If you were wondering what I mean by shill, this may help:

Shill.png

‘Shilling’ for who, you may ask? The science and medical industries’ PR machine, the Science Media Centre (SMC).

It claims to be:

an independent press office helping to ensure that the public have access to the best scientific evidence and expertise through the news media when science hits the headlines

But in reality, this is not the case. Because it is actually little more than a corporate industry spin doctor, promoting the views of people who really don’t have the public’s best interests at heart.

$hilling for corporates

The author of the Reuters article Kate Kelland just happens to be quite involved with the SMC. Credit to Twitter user Carol L. Binks for pointing this out to me:

Kelland has been on board with PACE trial since 2011 – as this Reuters article shows. But she also has form.

She previously was involved in some controversy, over an article she did about chemical company Monsanto’s weedkiller and its trial in the US over its links to cancer. There were rumours she obtained vital documents from Monsanto directly. But for me, it’s also likely that the SMC had a hand in this, given they have been funded by Monsanto in the past and published analysis of the trial. Two out of the three scientists it quoted were effectively supportive of Monsanto, with one declaring a conflict of interest.

Then enter the UK fracking industry, and we have a similar scenario. Kelland pushing the safety to public health of the industry via Reuters on 31 October 2013; the same day the SMC were also promoting fracking.

If you want a double whammy, here’s another article by Kelland backing Monsanto, but with a pro-genetically modified (GM) crops thrust. This time it was specifically about Monsanto’s GM corn. And then you have the SMC also caught up in scandal over its pro-GM line – allegedly to help former UK Prime Minister David Cameron.

So, firstly we are seeing a broad kickback against criticism of PACE trial. This looks to me like it’s coordinated by the SMC. But we’re also seeing an all out war being waged in support of Sharpe.

$hilling for Michael Sharpe

Both the Times and the Daily Mail have published supportive [paywall] articles about Sharpe’s ‘troll drama’.  And both papers’ parent companies have previously funded the SMC. Meanwhile the assistant editor of the Times sits on the SMC advisory committee.

In the Sunday Times, notorious columnist Rod Liddle wrote a piece [paywall] supportive of Sharpe and critical of the “ME lobby”. That’d be ‘patients’ to the rest of us. It was factually incorrect, littered with contempt and as amateurish as they come. But Liddle, like Kelland, has form, having written a supportive piece on PACE around the time it was released. He was previously editor of BBC Radio 4‘s Today programme, the BBC forcing his hand to leave in 2002. It’s unclear just why Liddle feels so strongly about PACE and Sharpe. But again, we’re back to the Sunday Times‘ parent company previously funding the SMC.

And then, as if by magic, Sharpe appeared on the Today programme on Monday 18 March:

People such as Dr Emma Reinhold noted that the interview was completely one-sided:

But as Stewart pointed out, the SMC admitted [pdf, p4] that it spoon fed (or “seeded” as it’s known in the industry) Tom Feilden, the science and environment editor for Today, a previous story. It wrote [pdf, p4] that Feilden:

won the UK Press Gazette’s first ever specialist science writing award for breaking the story the SMC gave him about the harassment and intimidation of researchers working on CFS/ME. The SMC had nominated him for the award.

Unsurprising, maybe, when you consider one former and one current senior BBC employees both sit as trustees of the SMC.

Also, the SMC included this statement [pdf, p8] in its 2017/18 accounts:

SMC Report Grab 1.png

It did the same [pdf, p7] in 2016/17, although it referred to the “select groups or individuals” as “prejudiced”.

Further to this, Ed Sykes is SMC’s senior press manager and head of mental health and neuroscience. But he was [pdf, p10] also a “non-voting member of the advisory board” of the UK CFS/M.E Research Collaborative (CMRC), a group which historically supported [pdf, p5] PACE trial’s findings. Action for ME, part of CMRC, had been criticised for it’s partial support for PACE trial’s findings, then it’s slowness to keep up with the growing concerns over the trial.

To be fair to CMRC, last year SMC left [pdf, p4] its board and ended any involvement with it. Also, the CMRC recommitted to a biomedical focus on ME. So things there look hopeful.

But still, for me, the current media and medical storm over PACE trial, Sharpe and those critical of it is coordinated. And it’s being done, in no small part, by the SMC. It has blatantly seeded stories to Reuters, the Times, the Daily Mail and the BBC using preexisting contacts and/or it’s network of connections.

For example? This is writer/broadcaster Claire Fox tweeting praise of Sharpe’s appearance on Today programme:

Claire is the sister of Fiona Fox, the SMC’s chief executive. No, really. Then look at who’s been sharing Claire’s tweet. Mark Buckingham, for example – pharmaceutical giant Bayer’s “corporate engagement lead”. Bayer of course are current funders of the SMC.

Meanwhile, Oxford Psychiatry which also retweeted Claire’s tweet has Sharpe as a “principal investigator”.

See what’s happening here, yet? There’s no need for Russian bots. The SMC has a farm of real people acting like them all to itself.

A wider agenda

But why all this fuss? All this effort? Why all this BS?

It probably seems odd that much of the mainstream medical and media community seem so defensive of a trial, whose results have effectively banned in the US.

The situation with ME has many threads to it. Not least among these, in my opinion, is the notion that it is part of a wider pandemic of chronic illnesses worldwide. I’m convinced ME has its roots in virology/immunology. I am also certain it is catastrophically under-misdiagnosed. And I’m also convinced the degradation of our bodies via soil depletion, air pollution, poor diet and more is making humans more susceptible to diseases and illnesses than ever before.

This would be an uncomfortable truth for the corporate, globalised world. As it would throw into question the entire system, and how we structure our lives as a species and as a society. It would also add fuel to the fire over our collapsing, corporate capitalist system. So, diseases like ME are far better left ‘unexplained’. And sick and disabled people left on pharmaceutical painkillers and antidepressants. All that is for another article, though.

But for this thread of the ME story, PACE has implications far beyond people living with the disease.

The second and third articles on this will be published shortly.

I am no longer writing for The Canary, due to my partner’s chronic illness. You can read about that here. But if you like my work any gifts/donations to keep it going are gratefully accepted below. Thank you.
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