Are British newspapers totally amoral? Do they not care at all about the effects their stories have on innocent people?
I ask these questions in connection with the story carried both by The News of the World and The Mail on Sunday (and subsequently by just about every newspaper in the world) about the young man who was alleged to have “cured himself of AIDS”. I can imagine the surge of hope that went through the minds of all those millions of people – gay and straight, black and white – who are infected with this virus. At last, a glimmer of hope. A straw to clutch at.
But was it? Or was it just a young man on the make and newspapers desperate for a sensational headline?
Andrew Stimpson’s story is unusual, but in the history of medical testing, not unique. He is an openly gay man with a partner who is HIV positive. He says that he first went for a test in April 2002 after a condom that he and his partner were using split. He tested positive, but it was too early to be certain. He tested again in August that year and got another positive result.
The Daily Mirror informed us that “although he knew there was no cure, he took a daily cocktail of vitamin supplements”. He was being tested regularly, and in October 2003 his test came back HIV negative. He was convinced there was a mistake, and he got his local health Authority, Chelsea and Westminster, to test him twice more, and twice more the tests came back negative.
Andrew then threatened to sue the Healthcare Trust for negligence. There is no doubt that he suffered severe stress after the positive result – as everyone who receives one must.
It was all over the papers now. “Is this the man who holds the secret of an AIDS cure?” In African newspapers the news spread like wildfire. People who have no access to proper treatment must have leapt for joy at the prospect of a non-drug cure.
But within days, the doubts started to kick in. Some papers reported that Andrew was refusing to return to the hospital for more tests, while others were quoting him as saying he couldn’t wait to get back. He wanted to be the cause of a world-shaking medical breakthrough.
The Guardian’s Ian Sample explained: “HIV tests, like any other, can produce false positives, incorrectly indicating that someone has the virus. But in this case it seems unlikely: after testing positive for antibodies to the virus, Mr Stimpson had a second test to examine the amount of virus in his bloodstream. This was also positive, although the viral count was exceptionally low. Two false positives can occur in tandem, but the chances are low.”
Mr Sample said there might be rare genetic mutations that confer immunity on some people, but, again, this was unconfirmed.
Then The Daily Mirror informed its readers: “The clinic that told Andrew Stimpson he had cured himself of the HIV virus yesterday said he may never have had it after all. Chelsea and Westminster NHS Trust said: ‘It is probable there was never any evidence of him having the virus.’ But it admitted later: ‘We don’t know exactly what has happened’.”
Then The Irish Examiner’s Terry Prone cast even more doubt on the whole business. “The hospital believe Andrew may have encountered an HIV virus or two and had a lively immune response that triggered a positive test, but actually infected? Not likely. Certainly not proven. Andrew Stimpson’s 15 minutes of fame constitutes a lot more than a disappointment. It contributes to a watering-down, in the public mind, of the threat of the HIV virus. The head of one of the major AIDS charities in Britain likened the damaging effect of the media coverage of Andrew’s ‘cure’ to the bad outcome of earlier stories promising that a new HIV vaccination was on the way. ‘They led people to believe that a cure was just around the corner,’ she said, ‘when, in reality, vaccine development is at least ten to 15 years away.’”
Mr Prone’s opinion was that Mr Stimpson’s story – sold by him for considerable amounts of cash to the Sunday papers – was irresponsibly handled. It raised not only false expectations among the desperate but had the potential to create lethal complacency among those who are likely to need little persuasion that unsafe sex is OK these days. After all, they reason, a cure is on the way. Maybe only months away.
But a new report from the Health Protection Agency (HPA) shows that the number of people in the UK living with HIV is now around 58,300 – an increase of 5,000 in a year. The agency also recorded a steep increase in other sexually transmitted diseases, such as syphilis and chlamydia.
Nick Partridge, Chief Executive of sexual health charity Terrence Higgins Trust, stated: “It will be the same story year after year unless prevention efforts improve and the recent Government funding to improve sexual health services is spent wisely. We’re at a crossroads – if we don’t concentrate on prevention and access to services for communities now, we will continue to have ever-increasing rates of HIV and the worst sexual health in Western Europe.”
Have the media helped this situation by rushing into print with Mr Stimpson’s unlikely and unchecked story? Or is the British media totally exempt from any moral responsibility?
Usually it is immigrants or people from minority religions who are the subjects of the tabloids’ regular fits of outrage at “political correctness gone mad”. But recently, gay people were on the receiving end when it was discovered that Liverpool register office had removed a painting of Romeo and Juliet and replaced it with a Victorian landscape – apparently so as not to deter gay couples using the office to register their marriages.
The Sun tracked down an old friend from whom we have not heard in yonks – the swivel-eyed rentagob Dr Adrian Rogers. Dr Rogers, described as “ex-director of the Conservative Family Institute” (a deeply influential organisation he used to run from his front room). Dr Rogers delivered his soundbite in time-honoured fashion: “This is ludicrous and the worst example of political correctness. This is an insult to every heterosexual couple that has ever been married at Liverpool register office.”
Call me sentimental, but I think Dr Rogers should put himself up for re-election to the Conservative Family Institute. It hasn’t been the same without him.
There seems to have been a bit of a joust between our two leading agony aunts over the last few weeks to see who can include most gay “problems”.
Dear Deirdre (Sanders) at The Sun and Dear Miriam (Stoppard) at The Mirror have had loads of people writing in with all kinds of complications over sexuality. One day Deirdre had “Hubby has a gay secret” which was from a woman who had discovered that her husband had been having “phone sex” – but with other men, not women.
Over at Miriam’s gaff, an 18-year old lad wrote that he was in love with his brother’s 21-year old flatmate (“I’ve worshipped him from afar for years”). Anyway, in this instance dreams came true and when he caught the flatmate alone one day, they had “fantastic sex on the sofa”. So, what’s the problem? He’s worried his brother might not approve.
Another worried woman wrote to Miriam, saying that her boyfriend of two months “got a bit drunk” and said he once thought he was gay and had even had a same-sex relationship. This, understandably, left her feeling insecure. Miriam’s advice? He might be going through an “experimental phase”, but “if you’re the first woman he’s ever gone out with, you may have justifiable cause for concern.” (I hope this gentleman isn’t sharing a flat with someone who has a gay brother).
Then in The Sun, Deirdre heard from a lady who had landed her “dream job” as a receptionist. Her female colleague was helpful and then invited her out for a drink. They both got tipsy and, as the colleague’s husband was away, they went back to her house and, well – in the immortal words of all letters to agony aunts – “one thing led to another”. Soon they were having “crazy, mind-blowing sex”. The colleague wants to continue seeing our heroine, but there are those pesky husbands to think of. Deirdre advises her not to risk her marriage and “turn your attention to your husband”. She suggests that the woman should read a book called “How to have Great Sex for the Rest of Your Life”. I would think that was simple – keep shagging the colleague.
Miriam has more teenage angst, as a 17-year old tells of his pain at having a secret crush on his best friend. “If I tell him, it could ruin our friendship and I couldn’t bear it if he never spoke to me again. Should I give in to my feelings or bury them?”
Miriam sensibly advises him not to risk it, but to “decide what qualities in him you most admire and go looking elsewhere for a relationship with somebody similar.” That’s sound, but oh, the agony.
Just when you think you’ve got people pigeon-holed, they go and muddy the water. I thought the matter of Michael (Polly) Portillo had been settled. He eventually admitted he’d had gay experiences, but that was “all behind him”. We all thought, yeah, right – Polly should compare notes with Kevin Spacey.
Now The Sunday Mirror has done a hidden camera jobbie on him and leads the front page with the incredulous headline: “Portillo cheating on wife – with a woman!”
Maybe Miriam or Deirdre can offer some assistance.
“Let’s put it this way – Enrique’s mouth appears to be the only big, fat thing he’s got”, – (Ross von Metzke, gossip columnist, after hearing Enrique Iglesias was promoting a line of condoms for the ‘smaller man’)