Journalism leaders and researchers have raised concerns about a deal between the pharma industry group Medicines Australia and The Australian, which has led to direct sponsorship of health journalism.

The Health of the Nation series, which has included feature articles and video footage from a roundtable meeting of health policy experts, culminated in a glossy, 24-page colour magazine last weekend.

The series advises readers that it is an “independent project” by journalists, and supported by The Australian Medicines Industry, an initiative of Medicines Australia.

Articles have been accompanied by prominent advertisements for the medicines industry, and the magazine also included journalese-style advertorials featuring the medicines industry.

The “Health of the Nation” dinkus on the newspaper stories included a tagline, “supported by the Australian medicines industry”. While this can be seen as open disclosure, it equally looks like effective corporate branding.

Medicines Australia said the arrangement arose out of meetings between its advertising agency and News Limited’s promotions and advertising teams, which “recognised common interests”.

“News was interested in creating a Health of the Nation series and vehicle to stimulate consideration, discussion and debate about health issues in Australia with its readership,” said a Medicines Australia statement provided when I was researching a BMJ story about the deal.

“Medicines Australia was interested in a communication platform to increase awareness of The Australian Medicines Industry as ‘supporting Australia’s health’ and get Australians thinking about the industry.”

Medicines Australia, which also sponsors health journalism awards run by the National Press Club, would not reveal the value of the deal, saying it was “commercial in confidence”. But it is clearly a sizable investment, especially with the series including a Newspoll.

The Australian’s editor Clive Mathieson says the newspaper has several editorial projects that are being run in co-operation with its commercial team, including another supplement also published on the weekend, The Australian Innovation Challenge, sponsored by Shell and the federal Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research.

“In every one of these projects, we retain full editorial control over the content,” he told me for the BMJ story.

Mathieson was adamant that editorial independence had been maintained in the pharma-sponsored series. “There is no way The Australian would have agreed to any commercial relationship that compromised its editorial independence and integrity. I would defy anyone to think there was any bias in any of that coverage, anything that was overtly favourable to Medicines Australia or the pharma industry.”

But journalists and researchers who are experienced in investigating conflicts of interest in healthcare and medicine (see more of their comments at Croakey) are raising serious questions about editorial integrity.

Gary Schwitzer, publisher of the US-based health journalism watchdog, HealthNewsReview.org, says the arrangement creates concerns about conflicts of interest, and could affect trust in editorial decision-making.

“No matter how you spin it, this is the drug industry influencing public discussions in one more infectious way,” he said. “Journalists should be sniffing out and exposing such deals — not being party to them.”

Charles Ornstein, president of the Association of Health Care Journalists, and a senior reporter at ProPublica (which was responsible for the acclaimed Dollars for Docs investigation in the US) said that keeping a line between advertising and editorial was important for credibility of news organisations.

Traditionally, “reporters didn’t know which advertisers would appear alongside their stories, and advertising sales reps didn’t know what stories would appear in the paper”, he said.

However, Carol Bennett, CEO of the Consumers Health Forum and one of the experts at the newspaper’s roundtable meeting, said she believed editorial content had not been influenced by the sponsorship, and that the series had provided a welcome opportunity to have substantial media space devoted to complex health policy issues.

I am entirely sympathetic to the notion that we need to find new ways of funding journalism, especially if it is to investigate issues that don’t generally get the airing they deserve — such as health policy. But letting the marketing arm of pharma infiltrate the process, especially at a time when publishers are under increasing pressure from advertisers, creates far more problems than it solves.

Health, as is so often observed, is a strife of powerful interests, and pharma already has more than enough muscle without powerful media organisations giving it a further leg-up. Concern about experts’ conflicts of interests is an enduring subject of investigation for researchers and journalists, fuelled by ever-increasing evidence of the adverse impact of such entanglement (as highlighted at Croakey today).

Media organisations and journalists need to be investigating these concerns — not becoming part of the story themselves.

*Declaration: I have an honorary role with an NHMRC-funded study investigating relationships between the media and health-related industries and am a member of the Association of Health Care Journalists

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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