Wherever he was on Thursday, Stephen Fenech’s ears must have been burning, but it wasn’t because of harmful electromagnetic radiation from his mobile phone.

Fenech, technology writer for The Daily Telegraph, probably overtook Bolt and Devine as the most talked-about and tweeted-about person in tabloid journalism after his byline appeared on an extraordinary article that raises significant questions about competence, conflicts of interest and journalistic ethics.

Under the headline “Mobile Radiation Shield Released”, Fenech reported on the launch of a product “that’s smaller than a five cent piece but powerful enough to shield us from the potentially harmful electromagnetic radiation generated by mobile phones and other electronic devices”. Based on the accompanying photograph, the device itself appears to be a shiny sticker that is simply stuck to the back of a mobile phone, with no electronic connection to the phone’s workings.

Without pausing to use cautionary phrases such as “according to the manufacturers” or to acknowledge sources of claims, Fenech told readers that the Q-Link Mini, which sells for $48, comes “programmed with naturally occurring frequencies which resonate with our body’s energy system”. There was not even a hint of objectivity, let alone scepticism, as this fearless reporter on matters technological asserted that the device “shields us from exposure to outside stresses and electromagnetic fields (EMFs) which can cause sickness and disease”.

The only acknowledged quotes in Fenech’s article were from a naturopathic physician — who said his tests show that patients’ mobile phones are “weakening them considerably” leading to fatigue and headaches — and the CEO of Q-link Australia.

Although there’s nothing anywhere to indicate that it is anything other than independent editorial content, in many places Fenech’s piece uses language identical to that found in promotional text or the scripts of video voice-overs found on the Qlink website, the URL for which appeared at the end of the article.

Disbelief and anger about Fenech’s piece grew rapidly on Thursday on Twitter and among bloggers. But after posting an initial brief defence of his article on Twitter at 11:01 am – “No it uses scientifically proven technology. Very interesting stuff” — Fenech and the Telegraph went to ground. Fenech has said nothing on Twitter since, despite being the subject of hundreds of mentions. And the Telegraph disabled the comments feature for Fenech’s article online.

The Q-link website is peppered with pseudo-science and phrases such as “human energy system” and “sympathetic resonance technology”. It lists several “scientific” papers that it says support the Q-link “technology”, which includes the flagship Q-link pendant, Q-link armbands and even a USB-powered Q-link device, as well as the new Q-link Mini.

Those references were comprehensively critiqued on Thursday by sceptical blogger A Drunken Madman and found not to have used any accepted scientific method, such as proper controls, objective measurements and endpoints, or “blinding” of investigators and experimental subjects being tested.

An earlier version of the Q-link pendant was deconstructed in the UK and found to contain no working circuits whatsoever.

Readers of The Telegraph are surely entitled to assume that its technology writer has some scientific knowledge as well as a dedication to presenting a critical perspective on new technologies, especially in regard to issues such as health and safety. Yet, Fenech’s approach starts from a position of blind acceptance of what reads like a belief system or faith, with its talk of “subtle energy physics”, “frequencies”, “resonance” and “stress”. And like others, it attracts the usual suspects: Anthony Robbins, Deepak Chopra and Madonna are among those named as users and endorsers of Q-Link products. Bart Cummings is also said to wear a Q-link pendant all the time.

So is Fenech just bad at his job, a lazy hack who’s happy to lift passages verbatim from press releases and promotional material? Is he a gullible and deluded “true believer” who’s been hoodwinked by  its bizarre pseudo-science? Or is there something even more troubling about his relationship with Qlink?

Stephen Fenech is the younger brother of former NRL player and personality Mario Fenech, and co-authored Mario’s autobiography.

It’s remarkable that Stephen Fenech does not acknowledge in any of his pieces that brother Mario promotes the Q-Link pendant, via a testimonial that reads like a scripted endorsement:

“I was tested before and after wearing a Q-Link Pendant and within a couple of minutes all of the stress in my energy system was gone … Less stress, better health, more energy, you can’t ask for much more than that. It’s remarkable how quickly you’ll realise it’s the real deal.”

The other strong Fenech connection on the Q-Link website is Stephen himself. Under “In The Media”, the company provides PDF copies of several newspaper and magazine articles, many of which read like advertorials.

At least twice before, in March 2004 and again in December 2005, Stephen Fenech has written not only uncritical but positively evangelical feature articles about Qlink products, the only disclaimer being acknowledgments that he has trialled and bought a Q-link pendant himself. The Telegraph has also published other pieces that read like advertorials in its health and lifestyle lift-outs.

Fenech’s silence and the unwillingness of The Telegraph to accept comments leaves several serious questions unanswered. Has Stephen Fenech, his family or the Telegraph received payment in cash or kind in relation to this long history of generous and uncritical editorial coverage? And do Stephen Fenech or his family have any proprietary interest or shareholding in the company that promotes Q-link or stand to benefit from any additional Q-link sales?

Lawyers for Apple may also be taking a close look at Fenech’s piece, given that the accompanying photo showed a Q-Link Mini attached to an iPhone with the clear imputation being that iPhones emit “harmful electromagnetic radiation”.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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