I have another confession (who knew a blog could be so cathartic?). And in the light of the events of the last few weeks this one may be even more shocking but the truth will out…… I was once a journalist.
Before we go any further I should make clear the scale of my credentials as a journo. Before going to college, I was a cub reporter for Mid Anglia Newspapers Group, writing copy for such weekly publications as the Royston Crow and the Saffron Walden Reporter. There was no phone hacking, although I do remember that I once bought some Jammie Dodgers for my weekly visit to the local police inspector. But, I can assure you this was not intended as a bribe.
Like most other people, I have been amazed by the events of the last few weeks. The speed and scale of the ‘hacking’ story has been breathtaking, and was all the more compelling with the advent of Twitter. It is fascinating that one of the fastest-moving and most intriguing media stories of recent years is about the media – you couldn’t make it up! I believe that here is an opportunity for some positive change to come out of the negative things that have happened. However, I would argue that despite the nefarious means of the few, the media can be a force for good. It is vital, particularly in a land famed for the freedom of its press, that the ensuing debate on the way forward for the media does not lose sight of this.
Last week I attended the Medical Journalists Association Awards. (At this point, I should say massive congratulations to The Prostate Cancer Charity’s Media and PR Team, which was nominated for Health Charity of the Year for the third year in a row)! The purpose of the awards is to celebrate the work of medical journalists working in the mainstream and specialist areas of print and broadcast media. It illustrated to me that we need to be really careful that we do not tar all journalists with the brush of corruption, when in fact many of them see journalism as a vocation to cast light on injustice, educate people, challenge the status quo with a powerful voice and operate with real commitment and integrity. Although the News of the World may have taken their methods too far, there will always be a place in the British media for revealing hypocrisy and inequity.
Little more than five years ago prostate cancer was shrouded in taboo, men reported the worst NHS experience of all common cancers and recognition of the scale of the disease, which as we know kills one man every hour, was shockingly low. Investment in research was also woeful compared to other cancers, and that is putting it mildly.
Today – although many challenges remain in the bid to do for men what has happened so successfully for women’s cancers – there has been some progress. Men’s experience of prostate cancer has improved significantly. Awareness that this disease is the most common cancer in men in the UK has shot up by more than 40 per cent in a decade, in the general population, but also in men over 50, the group we so need to sit up and take note that prostate cancer is relevant to them.
In the absence of concerted paid for advertising, this progress can, in no small way, be attributable to the support of the media. To give one example, when a potentially seismic research study emerged about the Prostate Specific Antigen (PSA) test, the intelligent and balanced coverage, including a front page story in the Daily Telegraph, was one of the drivers of a full review by the National Screening Committee of its utility as the basis of a screening programme. The media can set wheels in motion like nothing else – and do it with the right intention to champion, challenge and improve. Coverage around the disease, and the Charity, whether celebrity driven or research-focussed, increased by more than 150 per cent last year alone. Even more impressive is that fact that our evaluation tells us at least 40 per cent of men over 50 recall seeing something about prostate cancer in the media each quarter – showing it is having an impact. Tales of them making a life-saving visit to a GP following an article on the disease are legion.
We can never rest on our laurels. As well as keeping up the pressure on awareness, enabling men to take control of their health, we need to keep the disease on the media agenda. In a climate where the psychological impact of prostate cancer on men and their families is not fully understood or supported, men still face barriers to having a PSA test and, critically, not enough investment is made in finding a new generation of test which does not put men at such risk of unnecessary and invasive treatments there is a long way to go.
It strikes me that in the new world that will hopefully emerge from the current crisis there is an opportunity to continue to get the message out there. This does mean that we need to work even harder to not only engage with all journalists but to find new ways of making our messages clear, hard-hitting, as well as informative, whether these are delivered as part of a celebrity-backed campaign to design ‘pants’ for us or as part of a headline-grabbing inequity story. We also need to campaign hard, hand in hand with the media, for the improvements men with prostate cancer rightfully deserve.