Loading the Dice:

How to Make Victims Feel Guilty in One Easy Lesson

Soundbites.  I don’t know about you, but I love them. Roll that word around on your tongue for a bit:  Soundbites. Break it down a little: Sound bites. It actually makes some kind of strange sense; and they can be quite entertaining, even though they can as often just be one of those meaningless phrases that you throw out when you have nothing else to contribute to the conversation.

Think of Tony Blair on the death of Princess Diana:

“She was [pause to show how sincere he is, lip a-quiver]… the People’s Princess.”

Now that is a great soundbite.  It doesn’t matter that we now know that he didn’t write it; that it wasn’t spontaneous; that it had been put to him on that morning that this was an emotive and populist thing to say. It worked. That’s all that good old Tony needed to know.

It worked.

Soundbites. In the great American essayist Gore Vidal’s autobiography Palimpsest he talks of when he ran for election in America during the early sixties.  The spin doctors came up with one of my favourite soundbites for him:  YOU’LL GET MORE WITH GORE. As Vidal said himself, he didn’t have a clue as to what they were going to get more of but by hell it sounded good.  They would get more with Gore.

All very amusing and all very harmless since in our hearts we don’t really believe any of that nonsense any more.  We’re a little bit more media savvy these days, aren’t we?  We know that if a politician promises us the moon and the stars on our doorstep when it comes up to the next election, then they don’t really mean anything they say.  We know that there are occasions when, if we read a particularly juicy story in the newspaper, then we better start looking between the lines in double-quick time.

We’re much too sophisticated these days to be taken in by soundbites.  Aren’t we?

But sometimes it’s a little more insidious than that; even a little more damaging.  Look at a recent headline in the Irish Daily Mail. (October 15th.) The article itself takes up roughly seven tenths of the second page and the headline simply says:

€1.4 bn

Now that enormous sum is going to catch you by the eyeball right away; but then it has a sub-heading:  That’s the huge amount Ireland is spending on cancer care…the fifth highest per person in Europe.

[The underlines are in the newspaper.]

Now look at those ellipses…yeah, that’s right: draws you in, doesn’t it?  And then, within the text of the article there are two quotes that are boxed off:  ‘Burden on society’ and ‘Costs could be even higher’.

So before you have even read the piece you feel that there is no need to go further.  Why would you even want to waste time reading it? Sure don’t you have all the information there at a glance?  You have all the key phrases: ‘huge amount’; ‘fifth highest in Europe’; ‘burden on society’.

Not that the text itself will make you feel much better if you are one of those irresponsible people who have had the sheer temerity to go out and get cancer.  The report is from a study published in The Lancet Oncology Journal.  Their credentials are certainly not in question here. However, I would respectfully suggest that the selective manner shown by the newspaper in presenting part of what they have written is. Especially as we are dealing with human beings, not the dry and dusty terminology of statistics.

The study comes from the University of Oxford and King’s College Institute for Cancer Policy in the UK.  I’m impressed already; but then the report says:

Cancer imposes a substantial economic burden on society.  Substantial healthcare costs are associated with its prevention and management. 

“Moreover, some patients are unable to continue working and many rely on friends and family for support during treatment or in the last phases of the disease.  Therefore quantifications of the economic burden of cancer in the EU needs not only an estimation of the costs of cancer to healthcare systems but also an estimation of the lost earnings associated with loss of work—due to illness and death and the cost of unpaid care provided by patients’ friends and relatives.”

OK, hands up. In this case the underlines are mine; but look, you folks who drew the short straw: don’t you know that you are an economic burden on society?

To the Devil with Negativity

Away with this: of course I expect The Lancet to present this kind of thing in a dispassionate manner; but I don’t expect the Irish Daily Mail or any other newspaper to load the dice quite this heavily. And this, mark you, is a newspaper that I admire for breaking stories over the last few years that no one else was interested in touching.  To my mind, it let itself down on this occasion.  Those with cancer and those of their families who are suffering right along with them deserve a damned sight more than throwaway headlines and throwaway soundbites.

But I get too angry about this; so I asked Jennifer Carpenter, the Development Manager of Hand in Hand for her view; and since children with cancer appear to be so under the bloody radar that no one seems to want to talk about it, I think that her stance might just be worth listening to:

“Ireland has the 5th highest spend on cancer in Europe at €1.4 billion. Ireland has the 5th highest rate of incidence but only the 16th highest rate of mortality.  The other European countries cited in the article rate Austria at 18th, Germany at 21st and Finland at 28th in mortality.  Is it not therefore the case that the money spent is worthwhile?

“Ireland shows a lower mortality rate than both the UK and the EU overall.”

Well?  Would such half-optimistic news not sell newspapers?  I think that it would, as a matter of fact. And in the spirit of fairness I would invite the Mail’s Health Editor Petrina Vousden to contact Hand in Hand to give her view on things.  Although, also in fairness,  she may have had little say in the layout of the article—heaven knows I’ve had a few awful experiences like that myself– and unfortunately it’s the layout that lends the piece what I would consider an… unfortunate tone.

Jennifer went on (since there’s no way of stopping her once she’s started):

“Prevention gets a lot of investment—is this sum included?

“What is the cost of childhood cancer?

“Hospice care costs don’t appear to be included so are we to assume that charity care is not?

“Look at the potential years lost regarding adults versus children.  And another thing:  Cardiovascular disease is the number one killer in Ireland.  Cancer is number two.  So tell me: what is the cost of cardiovascular care?”

Well, Jennifer, I can’t answer that.  I’m a layman in this; but I do know when an article is slanted in such a way as to make those reading it less than sympathetic.  It’s an easy thing to do.  Just keep firing out figures that ordinary people find it hard to get their heads around and you are more than half way to making them feel that in some obscure way they are being ripped off.

And when a constructive, practical charity like Hand in Hand finds itself being undermined—as much as anything by not even alluding to childhood cancer– it doesn’t do us any good.

Much more importantly, though, is this:  It doesn’t do the children and the families who are going through this hellish time any good either.  These people didn’t ask for this to happen to them; and they certainly don’t deserve to be painted as some sort of—what was the phrase again?—‘burden on society’.  That’s not fair; it’s not honest.

And it is damned well not right.

So here are a few radical thoughts for you all:  Forget the pessimism of some newspapers.  The good news is, at long last, our society is beginning to recognise and value the work being done in treating and managing cancer.  Sure, there’s still a fair way to go, but we’re getting there.  And as to children with cancer we have a hell of a way to go in even being recognised; but that’s OK.  With your help Hand in Hand will be doing its best to raise the profile.

The other good news is that our society is continually scoring and achieving goals.  Just one example:  a recent estimation says that 280,000 people, diagnosed between 1995 and 2009, have survived their cancer.

So to the devil with pessimism!  I’m not recommending that people start living in denial; but let’s, whenever possible, accentuate the positive!


Statement from Sebastian Hamilton, Irish Mail Group Editor, in response to the above article….

“27 year on, I can still remember sobbing uncontrollably beside the cold, pale body of my beloved grandfather after he finally succumbed to the vicious brutality of prostate cancer. I can remember the utter horror of seeing my beautiful aunt go in two months from glamorous mother-of-two to looking like an Auschwitz inmate – liver cancer, in her case.

Every colleague, every friend I know has had to endure the horrors and trauma of losing a loved one to this awfulness.

I’ve also seen the upside: an uncle whose prostate cancer was eradicated by laser surgery; my father-in-law, whose oesophageal tumour was successfully treated by the geniuses at St James’; our new Head of Sport, Liam Hayes, who took up his post last week after successfully beating cancer.

It is probably no exaggeration to say that nothing affects our readers more than cancer.

So to suggest that anyone at the Mail would wish to play down the importance of everything to do with this disease, or attack its victims, would be to misunderstand everything about our motivations. Our motivation is to raise issues of public importance so they will be talked about. €1.4bn is a big figure: I am amazed by it. I am also intrigued to know that we spend more than most EU countries on cancer. I want to know why. Is it because we are better at treating it? I hope so. Is it because we are wasteful? I hope not. Should we be spending more on prevention? Maybe. I don’t know the answers: but unless we publish the basic facts, we will never get answers to those wider questions.

The article does NOT say we should spend less on cancer. It does NOT attack cancer victims. I am genuinely saddened and upset to hear that this is how Charley Brady read it. I would have hoped that, acknowledging as he does our track record in standing up for real people and the victims of injustice, he would know that taking such a position is just not in our DNA. But we DO want every penny we spend on cancer to be spent wisely, for the benefit of patients and their families, not bureaucrats: and we DO want our policy-makers (who seem more concerned with money than with people) to know that by failing to treat cancer properly, they are adding not just to the sum of human misery, but they are also costing the State.

Cancer matters to us at the Mail. For the last year, Anne Gildea has recounted her battle with cancer with extraordinary honesty every week in our TV Week magazine. Both TV Week and You magazine ran entire pink issues last month devoted to cancer research, as they do every year. We have campaigned tirelessly for cancer victims who had their medical cards removed – indeed, we are still campaigning for them. The Irish Daily Mail has fought for cancer care programmes like HPV vaccination for school girls, bowel cancer screening and the extension of Breastcheck nationally. Most recently of course was the campaign to get skin cancer drug  ‘Ipi’ funded by the public purse.

I am sorry to hear that one article would make Charley think otherwise: but hopefully, seeing it in context, both he and his readers will understand that we at the Mail are 100% on the side of cancer sufferers and their families – and always will be.”


Following on from the above article I would like to extend my sincere appreciation to the Irish Daily Mail Health Editor, Petrina Vousden, for getting back to me so quickly.  In particular, though, I must give a heartfelt thanks to the Mail Group Editor Sebastian Hamilton.

I maintain my stance that the layout of the Mail article left something to be desired; equally I believe that such an honest, raw, passionate and emotional reply deserves to be printed in full.  Indeed, I think that it can only add to the ongoing and badly-needed debate on the funding (or lack thereof) on children’s cancer.

Charley Brady