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The defamation trial that collapsed this month in the Auckland High Court was never about calling people names. It was about a prolonged and concerted effort to discredit public health advocates whose efforts to improve our population’s health conflicted with the commercial interests of the producers, marketers and sellers of unhealthy products.

The three plaintiffs in the case worked to protect New Zealanders from the harms of alcohol, tobacco and unhealthy food. The three individuals accused of defaming them were (1) the CEO of the Food and Grocery Council (NZFGC), an industry lobby group for suppliers to the grocery trade (including alcohol, tobacco and unhealthy food companies), (2) a public relations professional previously employed by British American Tobacco (BAT), who was being paid by both the NZFGC and BAT during the relevant period and wrote some of the defamatory material and (3) the owner–operator of the crude and sensationalist partisan political blog Whale Oil, who was being paid by the PR consultant to post material under his own name. The material central to the legal case was derogatory and abusive. It smeared the reputations of the plaintiffs in posts from 2009 to 2016 that remained accessible to the public until last year. The identity of those behind the posts had been revealed in Nicky Hager’s 2014 book Dirty Politics.1

This case should be an eye-opener for doctors and other health professionals about commercial forces that work against the values and goals of public health, and the covert methods they use to shut down opposition in order to maintain and grow their business of selling products that harm people.

Dirty PR campaigns put a chill on public health advocates and make it much less likely that people with real expertise and an interest in the public good will speak out. For example, reporting of research about alcohol in New Zealand is commonly met with immediate contradiction by industry spokespeople using specious “facts” and patronising rhetoric. Uncritical reporting can then present two sets of assertions as opposing opinions in a “balanced” article.

The unhealthy commodity industries have a range of other strategies for obstructing the adoption of policies to reduce the harm from their products. One of the most direct is their influence on policymakers through establishing and exploiting ongoing relationships, lobbying and getting themselves involved. As yet, New Zealand has very few safeguards to protect policymaking from commercial conflicts of interest—except in the case of tobacco, which is subject to an international agreement. Of interest in this defamation case, the CEO of the NZFGC, Katherine Rich, had also managed to get appointed to the Board of the Health Promotion Agency, despite an obvious commercial conflict of interest.2

The defamation case against Katherine Rich, Carrick Graham and Cameron Slater was taken not only to restore the reputations of the plaintiffs, but to shine a light on the machinations of the alcohol, tobacco and unhealthy food industries in New Zealand and try to clear the air for future public health advocates, and eventually healthier policy.

Effects of the prolonged legal entanglement differed for each defendant. Mr Slater, the Whale Oil blogger, was declared bankrupt in 2019 but proceedings continued against him, and he has since abandoned his defence and “consented to judgement,” which is still in process. Ms Rich and the NZFGC settled the plaintiffs’ claims in 2020 with a confidential payment and repeated denials of involvement. That left only Mr Graham still standing when the trial finally got underway.

In an unexpected move following the opening statements, Mr Graham chose to settle with the plaintiffs, making both a payment and an unreserved apology to Doug Sellman, Boyd Swinburn and Shane Bradbrook and saying the statements he had made against them were “untrue, unfair, offensive, insulting and defamatory.” He explained that he “did so as part of my business and in order to advance the interests of industry” and acknowledged that “the plaintiffs’ work on the harms of tobacco, alcohol, and processed foods and beverages, was undertaken responsibly and in the public interest.”

Commentary on the trial has highlighted the persistent questions that remain about the involvement of the Food and Grocery Council in the campaign to smear the reputations of these public health advocates and cause them substantial personal distress for a decade. Some have commented on the weight of circumstantial evidence that the Whale Oil “work” was being done with the knowledge of the funders. NZFGC provided $365,000 to Mr Graham’s company between 2009 and 2016, but the selection of invoices that were made available to the court were very unclear about what the payments were for. There was also considerable vagueness and forgetfulness, and many missing records, in an earlier court hearing,3 and there were emails with the subject line “KR hit” described in Hager’s book.1  Also highlighted was the ability of NZFGC’s CEO to keep her job despite the “opprobrium generated,”4 as well as prolonged and expensive legal issues which, apart from this case, included threatening researchers with legal action for publishing an account of the scandal as a case study. It is suggested that she has kept her job because she is so good at it, as evidenced by the lack of progress on regulating alcohol and unhealthy food in the same period, despite the deepening health crisis and robust evidence about the benefits of population-based interventions.4

Alcohol, tobacco and unhealthy food are responsible for about one third of the overall preventable health loss in New Zealand,5 considerable health inequities and widespread social harm. In their efforts to reduce this burden at its source, Doug Sellman, Boyd Swinburn and Shane Bradbrook have had a high level of tacit or active support from people working in the health sector. We have long understood that individual-level health services can’t radically reduce this burden of harm, and we have run out of capacity to treat people who are affected. What we don’t seem to have fully understood is that, when public health professionals are being attacked for advocating the adoption of evidence-based policies to reduce harm, we need to get in behind them.

Health professionals have louder voices than many others in public debate, and carry with them a generally good reputation. Doctors, for historical reasons, are particularly privileged. However, trust in the medical profession depends on us using this special voice in the interests of population health and being willing to question the motives of those who are obstructive. We need to be aware that industry pushes back hard on public health advocates when their message is a threat to profit, and when that push back is to smear the names of the those working on our behalf we need to provide loud support. People and companies with vested commercial interests in unhealthy commodities have goals which are diametrically opposed to public health regardless of how they choose to present themselves.

Summary

Abstract

Aim

Method

Results

Conclusion

Author Information

Professor Jennie Connor: Department of Preventive and Social Medicine, University of Otago.

Acknowledgements

Correspondence

Professor Jennie Connor, Department of Preventive and Social Medicine, University of Otago

Correspondence Email

jennie.connor@otago.ac.nz

Competing Interests

Nil.

1. Hager N. Dirty Politics. Chapter 7, Cash for Comment, pp 77- 88. Nelson: Craig Potton Publishing, 2014

2. Davison I. Nats accused of health agency cronyism. New Zealand Herald, 28 June 2012. Available at: http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=10815974

3. Murphy T. Implausible deniability in Whale Oil case. Newsroom, 5 March 2021. Available at: https://www.newsroom.co.nz/implausible-deniability-in-whale-oil-case

4. Wilson S. What lies beneath all these ‘dirty politics’(Opinion). Weekend Herald, 6 March 2021.

5. Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation [Internet]. Available at: http://www.healthdata.org/

Contact diana@nzma.org.nz
for the PDF of this article

View Article PDF

The defamation trial that collapsed this month in the Auckland High Court was never about calling people names. It was about a prolonged and concerted effort to discredit public health advocates whose efforts to improve our population’s health conflicted with the commercial interests of the producers, marketers and sellers of unhealthy products.

The three plaintiffs in the case worked to protect New Zealanders from the harms of alcohol, tobacco and unhealthy food. The three individuals accused of defaming them were (1) the CEO of the Food and Grocery Council (NZFGC), an industry lobby group for suppliers to the grocery trade (including alcohol, tobacco and unhealthy food companies), (2) a public relations professional previously employed by British American Tobacco (BAT), who was being paid by both the NZFGC and BAT during the relevant period and wrote some of the defamatory material and (3) the owner–operator of the crude and sensationalist partisan political blog Whale Oil, who was being paid by the PR consultant to post material under his own name. The material central to the legal case was derogatory and abusive. It smeared the reputations of the plaintiffs in posts from 2009 to 2016 that remained accessible to the public until last year. The identity of those behind the posts had been revealed in Nicky Hager’s 2014 book Dirty Politics.1

This case should be an eye-opener for doctors and other health professionals about commercial forces that work against the values and goals of public health, and the covert methods they use to shut down opposition in order to maintain and grow their business of selling products that harm people.

Dirty PR campaigns put a chill on public health advocates and make it much less likely that people with real expertise and an interest in the public good will speak out. For example, reporting of research about alcohol in New Zealand is commonly met with immediate contradiction by industry spokespeople using specious “facts” and patronising rhetoric. Uncritical reporting can then present two sets of assertions as opposing opinions in a “balanced” article.

The unhealthy commodity industries have a range of other strategies for obstructing the adoption of policies to reduce the harm from their products. One of the most direct is their influence on policymakers through establishing and exploiting ongoing relationships, lobbying and getting themselves involved. As yet, New Zealand has very few safeguards to protect policymaking from commercial conflicts of interest—except in the case of tobacco, which is subject to an international agreement. Of interest in this defamation case, the CEO of the NZFGC, Katherine Rich, had also managed to get appointed to the Board of the Health Promotion Agency, despite an obvious commercial conflict of interest.2

The defamation case against Katherine Rich, Carrick Graham and Cameron Slater was taken not only to restore the reputations of the plaintiffs, but to shine a light on the machinations of the alcohol, tobacco and unhealthy food industries in New Zealand and try to clear the air for future public health advocates, and eventually healthier policy.

Effects of the prolonged legal entanglement differed for each defendant. Mr Slater, the Whale Oil blogger, was declared bankrupt in 2019 but proceedings continued against him, and he has since abandoned his defence and “consented to judgement,” which is still in process. Ms Rich and the NZFGC settled the plaintiffs’ claims in 2020 with a confidential payment and repeated denials of involvement. That left only Mr Graham still standing when the trial finally got underway.

In an unexpected move following the opening statements, Mr Graham chose to settle with the plaintiffs, making both a payment and an unreserved apology to Doug Sellman, Boyd Swinburn and Shane Bradbrook and saying the statements he had made against them were “untrue, unfair, offensive, insulting and defamatory.” He explained that he “did so as part of my business and in order to advance the interests of industry” and acknowledged that “the plaintiffs’ work on the harms of tobacco, alcohol, and processed foods and beverages, was undertaken responsibly and in the public interest.”

Commentary on the trial has highlighted the persistent questions that remain about the involvement of the Food and Grocery Council in the campaign to smear the reputations of these public health advocates and cause them substantial personal distress for a decade. Some have commented on the weight of circumstantial evidence that the Whale Oil “work” was being done with the knowledge of the funders. NZFGC provided $365,000 to Mr Graham’s company between 2009 and 2016, but the selection of invoices that were made available to the court were very unclear about what the payments were for. There was also considerable vagueness and forgetfulness, and many missing records, in an earlier court hearing,3 and there were emails with the subject line “KR hit” described in Hager’s book.1  Also highlighted was the ability of NZFGC’s CEO to keep her job despite the “opprobrium generated,”4 as well as prolonged and expensive legal issues which, apart from this case, included threatening researchers with legal action for publishing an account of the scandal as a case study. It is suggested that she has kept her job because she is so good at it, as evidenced by the lack of progress on regulating alcohol and unhealthy food in the same period, despite the deepening health crisis and robust evidence about the benefits of population-based interventions.4

Alcohol, tobacco and unhealthy food are responsible for about one third of the overall preventable health loss in New Zealand,5 considerable health inequities and widespread social harm. In their efforts to reduce this burden at its source, Doug Sellman, Boyd Swinburn and Shane Bradbrook have had a high level of tacit or active support from people working in the health sector. We have long understood that individual-level health services can’t radically reduce this burden of harm, and we have run out of capacity to treat people who are affected. What we don’t seem to have fully understood is that, when public health professionals are being attacked for advocating the adoption of evidence-based policies to reduce harm, we need to get in behind them.

Health professionals have louder voices than many others in public debate, and carry with them a generally good reputation. Doctors, for historical reasons, are particularly privileged. However, trust in the medical profession depends on us using this special voice in the interests of population health and being willing to question the motives of those who are obstructive. We need to be aware that industry pushes back hard on public health advocates when their message is a threat to profit, and when that push back is to smear the names of the those working on our behalf we need to provide loud support. People and companies with vested commercial interests in unhealthy commodities have goals which are diametrically opposed to public health regardless of how they choose to present themselves.

Summary

Abstract

Aim

Method

Results

Conclusion

Author Information

Professor Jennie Connor: Department of Preventive and Social Medicine, University of Otago.

Acknowledgements

Correspondence

Professor Jennie Connor, Department of Preventive and Social Medicine, University of Otago

Correspondence Email

jennie.connor@otago.ac.nz

Competing Interests

Nil.

1. Hager N. Dirty Politics. Chapter 7, Cash for Comment, pp 77- 88. Nelson: Craig Potton Publishing, 2014

2. Davison I. Nats accused of health agency cronyism. New Zealand Herald, 28 June 2012. Available at: http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=10815974

3. Murphy T. Implausible deniability in Whale Oil case. Newsroom, 5 March 2021. Available at: https://www.newsroom.co.nz/implausible-deniability-in-whale-oil-case

4. Wilson S. What lies beneath all these ‘dirty politics’(Opinion). Weekend Herald, 6 March 2021.

5. Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation [Internet]. Available at: http://www.healthdata.org/

Contact diana@nzma.org.nz
for the PDF of this article

View Article PDF

The defamation trial that collapsed this month in the Auckland High Court was never about calling people names. It was about a prolonged and concerted effort to discredit public health advocates whose efforts to improve our population’s health conflicted with the commercial interests of the producers, marketers and sellers of unhealthy products.

The three plaintiffs in the case worked to protect New Zealanders from the harms of alcohol, tobacco and unhealthy food. The three individuals accused of defaming them were (1) the CEO of the Food and Grocery Council (NZFGC), an industry lobby group for suppliers to the grocery trade (including alcohol, tobacco and unhealthy food companies), (2) a public relations professional previously employed by British American Tobacco (BAT), who was being paid by both the NZFGC and BAT during the relevant period and wrote some of the defamatory material and (3) the owner–operator of the crude and sensationalist partisan political blog Whale Oil, who was being paid by the PR consultant to post material under his own name. The material central to the legal case was derogatory and abusive. It smeared the reputations of the plaintiffs in posts from 2009 to 2016 that remained accessible to the public until last year. The identity of those behind the posts had been revealed in Nicky Hager’s 2014 book Dirty Politics.1

This case should be an eye-opener for doctors and other health professionals about commercial forces that work against the values and goals of public health, and the covert methods they use to shut down opposition in order to maintain and grow their business of selling products that harm people.

Dirty PR campaigns put a chill on public health advocates and make it much less likely that people with real expertise and an interest in the public good will speak out. For example, reporting of research about alcohol in New Zealand is commonly met with immediate contradiction by industry spokespeople using specious “facts” and patronising rhetoric. Uncritical reporting can then present two sets of assertions as opposing opinions in a “balanced” article.

The unhealthy commodity industries have a range of other strategies for obstructing the adoption of policies to reduce the harm from their products. One of the most direct is their influence on policymakers through establishing and exploiting ongoing relationships, lobbying and getting themselves involved. As yet, New Zealand has very few safeguards to protect policymaking from commercial conflicts of interest—except in the case of tobacco, which is subject to an international agreement. Of interest in this defamation case, the CEO of the NZFGC, Katherine Rich, had also managed to get appointed to the Board of the Health Promotion Agency, despite an obvious commercial conflict of interest.2

The defamation case against Katherine Rich, Carrick Graham and Cameron Slater was taken not only to restore the reputations of the plaintiffs, but to shine a light on the machinations of the alcohol, tobacco and unhealthy food industries in New Zealand and try to clear the air for future public health advocates, and eventually healthier policy.

Effects of the prolonged legal entanglement differed for each defendant. Mr Slater, the Whale Oil blogger, was declared bankrupt in 2019 but proceedings continued against him, and he has since abandoned his defence and “consented to judgement,” which is still in process. Ms Rich and the NZFGC settled the plaintiffs’ claims in 2020 with a confidential payment and repeated denials of involvement. That left only Mr Graham still standing when the trial finally got underway.

In an unexpected move following the opening statements, Mr Graham chose to settle with the plaintiffs, making both a payment and an unreserved apology to Doug Sellman, Boyd Swinburn and Shane Bradbrook and saying the statements he had made against them were “untrue, unfair, offensive, insulting and defamatory.” He explained that he “did so as part of my business and in order to advance the interests of industry” and acknowledged that “the plaintiffs’ work on the harms of tobacco, alcohol, and processed foods and beverages, was undertaken responsibly and in the public interest.”

Commentary on the trial has highlighted the persistent questions that remain about the involvement of the Food and Grocery Council in the campaign to smear the reputations of these public health advocates and cause them substantial personal distress for a decade. Some have commented on the weight of circumstantial evidence that the Whale Oil “work” was being done with the knowledge of the funders. NZFGC provided $365,000 to Mr Graham’s company between 2009 and 2016, but the selection of invoices that were made available to the court were very unclear about what the payments were for. There was also considerable vagueness and forgetfulness, and many missing records, in an earlier court hearing,3 and there were emails with the subject line “KR hit” described in Hager’s book.1  Also highlighted was the ability of NZFGC’s CEO to keep her job despite the “opprobrium generated,”4 as well as prolonged and expensive legal issues which, apart from this case, included threatening researchers with legal action for publishing an account of the scandal as a case study. It is suggested that she has kept her job because she is so good at it, as evidenced by the lack of progress on regulating alcohol and unhealthy food in the same period, despite the deepening health crisis and robust evidence about the benefits of population-based interventions.4

Alcohol, tobacco and unhealthy food are responsible for about one third of the overall preventable health loss in New Zealand,5 considerable health inequities and widespread social harm. In their efforts to reduce this burden at its source, Doug Sellman, Boyd Swinburn and Shane Bradbrook have had a high level of tacit or active support from people working in the health sector. We have long understood that individual-level health services can’t radically reduce this burden of harm, and we have run out of capacity to treat people who are affected. What we don’t seem to have fully understood is that, when public health professionals are being attacked for advocating the adoption of evidence-based policies to reduce harm, we need to get in behind them.

Health professionals have louder voices than many others in public debate, and carry with them a generally good reputation. Doctors, for historical reasons, are particularly privileged. However, trust in the medical profession depends on us using this special voice in the interests of population health and being willing to question the motives of those who are obstructive. We need to be aware that industry pushes back hard on public health advocates when their message is a threat to profit, and when that push back is to smear the names of the those working on our behalf we need to provide loud support. People and companies with vested commercial interests in unhealthy commodities have goals which are diametrically opposed to public health regardless of how they choose to present themselves.

Summary

Abstract

Aim

Method

Results

Conclusion

Author Information

Professor Jennie Connor: Department of Preventive and Social Medicine, University of Otago.

Acknowledgements

Correspondence

Professor Jennie Connor, Department of Preventive and Social Medicine, University of Otago

Correspondence Email

jennie.connor@otago.ac.nz

Competing Interests

Nil.

1. Hager N. Dirty Politics. Chapter 7, Cash for Comment, pp 77- 88. Nelson: Craig Potton Publishing, 2014

2. Davison I. Nats accused of health agency cronyism. New Zealand Herald, 28 June 2012. Available at: http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=10815974

3. Murphy T. Implausible deniability in Whale Oil case. Newsroom, 5 March 2021. Available at: https://www.newsroom.co.nz/implausible-deniability-in-whale-oil-case

4. Wilson S. What lies beneath all these ‘dirty politics’(Opinion). Weekend Herald, 6 March 2021.

5. Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation [Internet]. Available at: http://www.healthdata.org/

Contact diana@nzma.org.nz
for the PDF of this article

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