The media column - Peter Wilby is immune to bird flu

After emerging from the Orient, bird flu was getting ever closer. By the time it reached Britain we

The most recent flu pandemic occurred in late August 2005. Sorry, that should be the most recent flu pandemic in the pages of the national press: as every schoolchild should know by now, the last real one was in 1968 when, though I was alive and fully conscious (by 1960s standards at least), I had not the slightest idea that any such thing was going on.

For several days this August the papers regaled us with stories of how bird flu, after emerging from the mysterious Orient, had reached Finland. It was getting closer and closer and, once it reached Britain, we would all be goners. The dread disease had killed only 60 or so people in the whole of Asia - where people apparently live cheek by jowl with chickens - but once it reached Britain it would smartly jump species and new Labour was predictably "unprepared".

For the next month, we didn't, so to speak, hear a dicky bird. On ITV Sir Trevor McDonald reported that the equivalent of the population of Birmingham would be struck down every 24 hours and found a bearded man to warn there would be nobody to empty the bins, which is always a specially alarming prospect for the British. The fashionably wobbly camera-work made me dizzy and I was momentarily convinced that I was the first victim. But television, as usual, was belatedly following the newspaper-driven story of August. The papers themselves were largely silent.

Now bird flu is back, coming at us from all directions. Scientists in Atlanta, Georgia, have recreated a virus similar to the one that caused a pandemic in 1918. On 6 October, the Guardian - perhaps anxious to refute allegations that its new design lacks urgency and excitement - splashed over four of its five front-page columns warnings that the virus could escape. Over the following days, several papers reported that the new bird flu had progressed to Romania. Time magazine put "Death Threat" on its cover, with a picture of a chicken that had a determined glint in its eye. The News of the World headlined "Bird flu is closer to home" (that's your home and mine) and helpfully explained that Romania is "just THREE hours away by plane".

By Monday, the Times had a double-page spread, predicting 600,000 UK deaths, curfews, quarantine zones and army intervention "to prevent people from fleeing the cities to reach places of safety". Meanwhile in America - where the Bush administration is, as you'd expect, "grossly unprepared" - "health officials" expect riots at vaccine clinics and "civil unrest" to "sweep the country".

I hesitate to express scepticism since, if these reports are accurate, I could well be struck down at any moment. But I have been wary of killer viruses, and of journalists' grasp of how they go about their business, ever since I shared a building with the People. Its editors were mightily excited one weekend by a tale that MPs had received letters impregnated with the Aids virus. My suggestion that the virus normally lurked in, ahem, intimate parts, didn't stop them splashing on it.

I am also reminded of a New Statesman cover story in November 2003. "Will we survive the winter?" we asked satirically. At that time, the country was facing, according to the papers, drought, power cuts, collapsing sewers and, yes, a flu pandemic.

August, when the first pandemic of flu stories hit the press, is notorious as the silly season. But there is a second, less recognised, silly season, between the end of the party conferences and the return of parliament, and the second pandemic has coincided with that.

I suppose one can't be too careful and I, for one, will stock up on Lemsip and orange juice, but I found myself admiring the stoicism of our ancestors, as recalled in the Daily Mail on 8 October. "It is strange," wrote Tony Rennell in a double-page feature on 1918, "how few contemporary accounts there were of the epidemic . . . millions were dying but the world didn't seem to realise it." Those who failed to spot the story - and so wouldn't merit jobs on today's Mail - included Vera Brittain and George Bernard Shaw.

Reality in the modern era is indeed elusive. Jean Baudrillard claimed that the first Gulf war, in 1991, didn't happen. What he meant was that all we knew of it was a collection of media constructs. In recent days, a number of papers have suggested that David Blunkett's alleged affair with the estate agent Sally Anderson was probably set up by people, including the woman herself, who wanted to make a few quid from the tabloids. We have also learned that Hurricane Katrina, which was reported to have killed at least 10,000 in New Orleans, led to fewer than 1,000 deaths in the whole of Louisiana, and that reports of savagery among survivors, including knifings and child rapes, were almost wholly unfounded.

If we cannot rely on the media for faithful accounts of events that have happened, we should approach with caution their warnings of disasters still to come.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 17 October 2005 issue of the New Statesman, Barack Obama