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Laurie Penny on why the momentum of the Murdoch backlash must not slow

The Murdoch red-tops are not moral arbiters, they are brutal mercenary machines.

For years, the Murdoch press has manipulated a particular type of moral outrage in order to peddle its propaganda of war and hate. Now, with the scandal of Milly Dowler, the murdered schoolgirl whose phone was reportedly hacked by a detective employed by News of the World, that very same moral outrage has been turned back against News International. It's like an attack-dog finally turning around to savage its abusive master.

It has become clear to the public that the Murdoch red-tops are not moral arbiters. Rather, they are brutal mercenary machines.

They have been permitted to continue these practices by a toothless and impotent Press Complaints Commission which is itself coming under scrutiny as more and more abuses are uncovered. What is startling about the avalanche of other 'revelations' that have followed the Milly Dowler affair is that most of them have been public knowledge for some time.

It was widely acknowledged that the News of the World paid the police handsomely for information; it was known that News International has for some time enjoyed a close working relationship with the Metropolitan police, a relationship that began thirty years ago in Wapping, when News International crushed the print unions with the co-operation of Mrs Thatcher and the Met.

It was also well known, to the point of being dinner-table conversation, that the Murdoch empire has had at least five successive British governments in a headlock, and that Rupert Murdoch and his son wield colossal unelected power in this country, as well as in Australia and the United States.

David Cameron, like Tony Blair before him, has been convinced that the office of Prime Minister is in the gift of the Murdoch empire. This is no longer entirely true - the Conservatives increased their share of the vote by less than 4 per cent and failed to win a majority at the last General Election despite a thundering campaign across News International. But the idea of the Murdochs as kingmakers is tenacious. Yesterday, during a seat-clutchingly irreverent episode of Question Time, it was former Sun journalist Jon Gaunt who put his finger firmly on what everyone knows and few have dared to say, as he described a Murdoch summer party three years ago:

All of what you might call the great and the good were there. All of the Labour cabinet were there, all of the shadow cabinet, it was like being in the court of the Sun King - if you get the joke - and these people do control the country...What we need in this country is a separate judiciary, we need an independent police force...and we need the press and the politicians to be separate as well.

It is not without reason that News International and its sister companies have come to be known as the Murdoch "Empire". Rupert Murdoch is an oligarch in the classic understanding of the term; his extraordinary influence extends across continents, and governments across the world clamour to bring him tribute in the form of lucrative business deals and favours. In the UK, despite the current scandals, the public still have no assurance that the remaining 60 per cent of BSkyB that Murdoch does not currently own will not be handed to him.

What is truly terrifying is how little the strategic amputation of the News of the World, one of the most widely-read English language papers on the planet with a 168-year history, seems likely to damage News International. It is not inconceivable that that this imperial spell will only be broken when the ageing oligarch finally goes to meet his gods.

Right now, the backlash has begun, and it is about far more than Milly Dowler. Her face, plastered all over the tabloids yet again, has given the rest of the press and a few brave politicians enough moral backbone to stand up and speak truth to power, which is precisely what they have allowed themselves to be bullied out of doing for 30 long years.

We have been shown incontrovertible proof, in Shirley Williams' words, of "how corrupt it all is". However the momentous the closure of the News of the World may seem, we must not allow ourselves to be satisfied with it, nor even with a drawn-out public enquiry. The momentum of this backlash must be maintained, and we must demand, at very least, that the BSkyB deal be thrown out.

These oligarchs need, for once in thirty years, to be told "no". They need to understand that the public are not mindless consuming animals who can be manipulated into buying their products and electing their politicians. They need to understand that people, on the contrary, are complex, and decent, and can only be pushed so far.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

Flickr/Michael Coghlan
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Why does the medical establishment fail to take women in pain seriously?

Women with mesh implants have been suffering for years. And it's not the only time they have been ignored. 

Claire Cooper’s voice wavered as she told the BBC interviewer that she had thought of suicide, after her mesh implant left her in life-long debilitating pain. “I lost my womb for no reason”, she said, describing the hysterectomy to which she resorted in a desperate attempt to end her pain. She is not alone, but for years she was denied the knowledge that she was just one in a large group of patients whose mesh implants had terribly malfunctioned.

Trans-vaginal mesh is a kind of permanent “tape” inserted into the body to treat stress urinary incontinence and to prevent pelvic organ prolapse, both of which can occur following childbirth. But for some patients, this is a solution in name only. For years now, these patients – predominantly women – have been experiencing intense pain due to the implant shifting, and scraping their insides. But they struggled to be taken seriously.

The mesh implants has become this month's surgical scandal, after affected women decided to sue. But it should really have been the focus of so much attention three years ago, when former Scottish Health Secretary Alex Neil called for a suspension of mesh procedures by NHS Scotland and an inquiry into their risks and benefits. Or six years ago, in 2011, when the US Food and Drug Administration revealed that the mesh was unsafe. Or at any point when it became public knowledge that people were becoming disabled and dying as a result of their surgery.

When Cooper complained about the pain, a GP told her she was imagining it. Likewise, the interim report requested by the Scottish government found the medical establishment had not believed some of the recipients who experienced adverse effects. 

This is not a rare phenomenon when it comes to women's health. Their health problems are repeatedly deprioritised, until they are labelled “hysterical” for calling for them to be addressed. As Joe Fassler documented for The Atlantic, when his wife's medical problem was undiagnosed for hours, he began to detect a certain sexism in the way she was treated:

“Why”, I kept asking myself, when reading his piece, “are they assuming that she doesn’t know how much pain she’s feeling? Why is the expectation that she’s frenzied for no real reason? Does this happen to a lot of women?”

This is not just a journalist's account. The legal study The Girl Who Cried Pain: A Bias Against Women in the Treatment of Pain found that women report more severe levels of pain, more frequent incidences of pain, and pain of longer duration than men, but are nonetheless treated for pain less aggressively. 

An extreme example is “Yentl Syndrome”. This is the fact that half of US women are likely to experience cardiovascular disease and exhibit different symptoms to men, because male symptoms are taught as ungendered, many women die following misdiagnosis. More often than should be acceptable, female pain is treated as irrelevant or counterfeit.

In another significant case, when the news broke that the most common hormonal birth control pill is heavily linked to a lower quality of life, many uterus-owning users were unsurprised. After all, they had been observing these symptoms for years. Social media movements, such as #MyPillStory, had long been born of the frustration that medical experts weren’t doing enough to examine or counter the negative side effects. Even after randomised trials were conducted and statements were released, nothing was officially changed.

Men could of course shoulder the burden of birth control pills - there has been research over the years into one. But too many men are unwilling to swallow the side effects. A Cosmopolitan survey found that 63 per cent of men would not consider using a form of birth control that could result in acne or weight gain. That’s 2 per cent more than the number who said that they would reject the option of having an annual testicular injection. So if we’re taking men who are afraid of much lesser symptoms than those experienced by women seriously, why is it that women are continually overlooked by health professionals? 

These double standards mean that while men are treated with kid gloves, women’s reactions to drugs are used to alter recommended dosages post-hoc. Medical trials are intended to unearth any potential issues prior to prescription, before the dangers arise. But the disproportionate lack of focus on women’s health issues has historically extended to medical testing.

In the US, from 1977 to 1993, there was a ban on “premenopausal female[s] capable of becoming pregnant” participating in medical trials. This was only overturned when Congress passed the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Revitalisation Act, which required all government funded gender-neutral clinical trials to feature female test subjects. However, it was not until 2014 that the National Institutes of Health decreed that both male and female animals must be used in preclinical studies.

Women’s exclusion from clinical studies has traditionally occurred for a number of reasons. A major problem has been the wrongful assumption that biologically women aren’t all that different from men, except for menstruation. Yet this does not take into account different hormone cycles, and recent studies have revealed that this is demonstrably untrue. In reality, sex is a factor in one’s biological response to both illness and treatment, but this is not as dependent on the menstrual cycle as previously imagined.

Even with evidence of their suffering, women are often ignored. The UK Medicines and Healthcare Regulatory Agency (MHRA) released data for 2012-2017 that shows that 1,049 incidents had occurred as a result of mesh surgery, but said that this did not necessarily provide evidence that any device should be discontinued.

Yes, this may be true. Utilitarian thinking dictates that we look at the overall picture to decide whether the implants do more harm than good. However, when so many people are negatively impacted by the mesh, it prompts the question: Why are alternatives not being looked into more urgently?

The inquiry into the mesh scandal is two years past its deadline, and its chairperson recently stepped down. If this isn’t evidence that the massive medical negligence case is being neglected then what is?

Once again, the biggest maker of the problematic implants is Johnson&Johnson, who have previously been in trouble for their faulty artificial hips and – along with the NHS – are currently being sued by over 800 mesh implant recipients. A leaked email from the company suggested that the company was already aware of the damage that the implants were causing (Johnson&Johnson said the email was taken out of context).

In the case of the mesh implants slicing through vaginas “like a cheese-wire”, whether or not the manufacturers were aware of the dangers posed by their product seems almost irrelevant. Individual doctors have been dealing with complaints of chronic or debilitating pain following mesh insertions for some time. Many of them just have not reported the issues that they have seen to the MHRA’s Yellow Card scheme for identifying flawed medical devices.

Shona Robison, the Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport, asked why the mesh recipients had been forced to campaign for their distress to be acknowledged and investigated. I would like to second her question. The mesh problem seems to be symptomatic of a larger issue in medical care – the assumption that women should be able to handle unnecessary amounts of pain without kicking up a fuss. It's time that the medical establishment started listening instead. 


Anjuli R. K. Shere is a 2016/17 Wellcome Scholar and science intern at the New Statesman

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