Fox hits out at "personal vindictiveness" of media

Former Defence Secretary attacks "unacceptable" way that the media pursued his friends and family.

Liam Fox has given a statement to MPs in the aftermath of an official report which found he was guilty of breaching the ministerial code.

He stressed that Sir Gus O'Donnell's report had cleared him of the most serious charges, finding that he did not have any financial interest in his professional relationship with Adam Werritty, and that national security was not breached.

While Fox said he accepted responsibility for breaching the code, he hit out at the media. He said it was "unacceptable" that his relatives and friends were harassed, and complained that comments by Harvey Boulton, a venture capitalist Fox met in Dubai, were treated so uncritically. He also said that elements of the press had acted with "personal vindictiveness - even hatred".

Fox may have had a point when he said of his relatives that "we chose this life, they did not". But his rant risked sounding like he was blaming the media for his trials, rather than his own misdeeds. Were it not for the media, these actions would not have been discovered.

The speech seemed to designed suggest that Fox did a noble thing in standing down: "I accept that it is not only the substance but perception that matters and that is why I chose to resign". Regardless of whether national security was breached or not, the point is that Fox violated the rules, which are there for a reason. He -- and others -- must not lose sight of this.

Here's the statement in full:

Two weeks ago I visited Misrata in Libya and I met a man who showed my photographs of his dead children. A few days later I resigned from the cabinet. One was an unbearable tragedy. The other was a deep personal disappointment. I begin with that necessary sense of proportion.

As I said in the House last week, I accept that it was a mistake to allow distinctions to be blurred between my professional responsibilities and my personal loyalty to a friend. I accepted then it was a mistake to attend a meeting with a potential supplier without an official present, and with hindsight I should have been more willing to listen to the concerns of those around me.

I have attempted to be clear and transparent on all the issues raised. I would like to say again that I am very sorry to all my colleagues here in the House and to all those who feel let down by the decisions that I have made.

I have always believed in personal responsibility and I accept the cabinet secretary's conclusions. I am pleased at the explicit acknowledgement that I neither sought, expected, nor received any financial gain that was being widely and wrongly implied.

I also welcome the clarification of the fact that no national security issues were breached, no classified documents made available, and no classified matters briefed. These accusations were also widely made and deeply hurtful.

The ministerial code had been found to be breached and for this I am sorry. I accept that it is not only the substance but perception that matters and that is why I chose to resign. I accept the consequences for me without bitterness or rancour.

I do not blame anyone else and I believe you do not turn your back on your friends or family in times of trouble.

It is, however, unacceptable, that family and friends who have nothing to do with the central issues should be hounded and intimidated by elements of the media, including in this case elderly relatives and children.

It is difficult to operate in the modern environment, as we know, where every bit of information, however irrelevant or immaterial, is sensationalised and where opinions, or even accusations, are treated as fact. It was particularly concerning that Harvey Boulton, present at the Dubai meeting and subsequently the defendant in a blackmail case, was treated so unquestionably.

Last week's media frenzy was not unprecedented, and it happens where a necessary free press and politics collide. But I believe there was, from some quarters, a personal vindictiveness - even hatred - that should worry all of us.

But just as these events can bring out the worst in human nature, they also bring out the best. I have been touched and frankly overwhelmed by huge numbers of letters, emails and calls from friends and stranger alike, in particular from my constituents in North Somerset. It has meant more to me than anyone can know.

I would I would also like to thank my parliamentary colleagues, including those in the cabinet for their strong and generous support. It shows politicians at their best, and I apologise that it may take some time to get round to thanking all of you in person. I am also indebted to my loyal staff for their support, in particular my special advisers who find themselves out of work as a result of my decision.

I will miss the Ministry of Defence and the fantastic people who work there, military and civilian. It has been a life-changing experience and a great honour to work with some of the bravest and best people in our country. I am proud of what we have achieved there in 17 months, and I will help in any way my successor, who I know will do an absolutely excellent job.

I would like to thank my family and friends for their love and support. It is not easy to watch someone you care about being attacked in a very aggressive and prolonged way. We choose this life, they do not.

Of course, I would like above all to thank my wife Jesme, who has dealt with this whole business with her usual grace, dignity and unstinting support.

Finally, it is not always easy to be in public life, but it is an honour. I would like to thank all the party leaders, including the prime minister, who have enabled me to serve on the front bench for 17 consecutive years.

I will give this government my full support as they rescue our economy from the mess we inherited. Most of all, I would like to thank my constituents in North Somerset for giving me the honour to represent them in the House of Commons, and the opportunity to serve.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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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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