COVID & Straw Men

National media are not meeting their obligation to inform the public about grave matters

On February 9th Australia’s SBS TV News ran a short segment that purported to allay some people’s concerns about the COVID vaccine.  I cannot find a recording of the broadcast, but an SBS News article called “The most common myths about the coronavirus vaccine – and why they aren’t true” (Feb. 8) appears to be an expanded version of it.

I can think of few more egregious examples of media bias that shallow and patronizing. It was not investigative journalism, it was not a news item, it was an advertisement — a “promo” — and nothing more.

The concerns raised were mere straw men, such as: the vaccine will give me COVID; the vaccine was made too quickly so must be ineffective; the vaccine is unsafe for older people. It’s usually easy to knock a straw man over, but even that seems to have been beyond them.

In the last instance, for example, it was admitted that one third of people in nursing homes who caught the disease died (or, in the quaintly euphemistic language of medicine, “had poor outcomes”), but added that they would probably have died anyway because of other conditions!  Is that meant to be reassuring? Surely such an argument is reversible:  why have the vaccine at all if it will make no difference? (I note that the on-air response has apparently been edited out of the online version.)

Several “experts” spoke in the segment, but none voiced the slightest doubt about the efficacy of the vaccine. No contrary arguments were presented. It was, as I said above, an enthusiastic promotion in the best tradition of advertising, and nothing more.

The most serious shortcoming was that it failed to recognize, let alone address, the genuine ethical concerns of a great number of thoughtful people who are concerned that the vaccine may either contain or be formulated from human tissue. That is certainly not a straw man, but a serious ethical question that demands an honest response. The avoidance by the SBS of any discussion of the ethical aspect could be taken to imply that there is something to hide. Is there? Why was it not dealt with?

This article by Jacqueline Laing, moral philosopher, lawyer and academic, is simply written and not dogmatic. It recognizes that there are questions to be asked, and helps the reader search for answers. It’s an excellent starting point for the thinking person who wants something better than tweets and sound bites. Another rather more demanding piece by a well-regarded Catholic prelate and moral philosopher, Bishop Athanasius Schneider, addresses morals (click here). Such things are available abundantly, if one looks, but are not easily found: we have become used to the glib and easy narrative of our leaders. Why delve deeper when the mass media offer us the official story, cut and dried? Who has the time? Who can blame us if we buy it all?

The national media are not meeting their obligation to inform the public about grave matters. This is a dire situation. It’s made worse by the emerging certainty that people who refuse to take the vaccine will be penalized. This of course has not been stated in so many words, but the strong publicity given to the need for documentation, for written or electronic post-vaccination certificates, clearly implies that people are going to need certification. In order to do what? Travel? Go to school? Get a job? This is not looking good for people with conscientious objections, however well founded.

I am old enough to recall my school class being taken to get the Salk polio vaccine. At that age I neither knew nor cared whether there were objectors, but I heard of none. I suppose it was compulsory, and a good thing too, we thought, because we had all seen the effects of Polio on dreadfully crippled children. The war had only been over for a decade, and people were probably still inured to obeying government edicts.

But for all the hype, COVID is not as ghastly as polio, or the Spanish ‘Flu, and it has minimal effect on children. Modern expectations demand greater transparency in health and welfare issues. COVID is less dangerous than a failure by government and its agencies to act transparently and respect the intelligence of good and moral people.

I am aware that conspiracy theories are circulating about the vaccine, some of them seemingly extravagant and even bizarre, but failing to address them openly is not only insulting and discourteous, but extraordinarily foolish. The Dawson Centre does not have a position on these, but we do feel bound to ask the questions and to support the right of others to do the same. We deplore the dumbing-down effect of modern mass broadcast media, and insist that liberty and free speech must be actively defended if they are to survive at all. Rod Liddle reminds us that “the real answer to fake news is to rebut with facts, of course – not to ban things from being said.”


David Daintree was President of Campion College (Australia’s only Catholic liberal arts college) from 2008 to 2012. In 2013 he founded and is now Director of the Christopher Dawson Centre for Cultural Studies, under the patronage of the Archbishop of Hobart.

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