Published: 01/07/2004, Volume II3, No. 5912 Page 10 11
Historically, the tabloids have only worried about health if there was a nasty scandal or horror story involved. But, as Mark Gould discovers, things are changing -and It is not all necessarily driven by the need to sell more papers
Fat is a lovely tabloid word.
Obese is pretty good, too. The all-powerful sub-editors, the architects of the look and style of a tabloid newspaper, can have hours of fun with nice snappy words that convey a powerful and simple message.
'One foot in the gravy' was The Sun's splendid front-page headline for its coverage of chief medical officer Professor Sir Liam Donaldson's report in April on the threat posed by obesity.
The story featured cartoon-strip tips on keeping fit such as 'Adjust your shower control to cold and step in. Hopping boosts bone strength. Step out and skip yourself dry.' It also featured an editorial headlined 'Gut reaction', which offered a self-help solution to the problem. 'We are a nation of telly tubbies, and hospitals are full of lardy folk who have damaged their hearts lugging around stones of blubber. If the NHS did not have to deal with the consequences of so much obesity, beds would be freed up and waiting lists would tumble.'
At the start of the Euro 2004 football championships, the paper carried the cautionary tales of two young women's experiences of watching while under the influence.
One woman described how England's defeat by France was made even more unpleasant by viewing 'through beer goggles' after drinking five pints of lager.
The other described how awful she felt after smoking two cannabis joints.
Last week it ran a prominent story in which celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay backed the British Medical Association's call for a ban on smoking in public places.
The Sun, and the rest of the News International stable, is the sworn enemy of the preachy or sanctimonious. So what is it that is making them push the government's public health message in a gently nannying way?
According to an insider, some months ago News International's owner Rupert Murdoch ordered The Sun to run more healthrelated stories. 'No particular reason has been given but he asked to see more health stories as he wants to see a more lively and positive feel to the paper.'
Media watchers feel this is an attempt to claw back credibility from its arch-rival, the newly 'serious'Daily Mirror.
Jane Symons, editor of The Sun's health section, says there hasn't been any diktat from on high and the paper is simply reflecting the fact that the public is now better informed about heath.
'We do not take at face value everything our doctors tell us, ' she says. 'We consult the internet and health sections of papers and magazines.'
Given its reader demographic, Ms Symons says The Sun is in a great position to get across health messages particularly about obesity, diet and exercise. 'We do not try to preach - that is not going to work. [But] if there is a way that we can do it That is entertaining and informative, like the 'One foot in the gravy' headline, we will and that might involve using celebrities and linking in with diet and lifestyle.'
Not surprisingly she says, given The Sun's dedication to 'the celebration of the female form on Page 3', the paper is due to run a series of features promoting breast feeding.
However, even she cannot silence the NHS manager's nemesis, columnist Richard Littlejohn, who, despite evidence to the contrary, regularly screams that there are more bureaucrats than beds in the NHS.
The Department of Health is happy that the tabloids want to promote good health messages like exercise and breast feeding, but a senior media source says it has not had a specific brief to push the agenda - although it has a specific media initiatives unit charged with placing the right messages.
'Last year in his annual report the CMO made obesity one of his target areas and journalists look for stories in those things, ' he says. 'But obesity is something that has worked itself into the forefront of the agenda for a lot of different reasons.'
He feels another reason for a change in the way the tabloids approach health stories came as a result of a massive blunder when the usually astute Sun misjudged its readership.
That was last September when, following complaints from readers, it decided to change its 'Bonkers Bruno' front-page headline, referring to the sectioning under the Mental Health Act of ex-heavyweight boxing champion Frank Bruno.
He said: 'Papers do respond to readers when they get it wrong.
It is a lesson they have learned from the Sun coverage of the Hillsborough stadium disaster (it alleged that drunken Liverpool fans caused the 1989 tragedy).
'The Bruno story is a prime example. He is a sports hero but also a normal working-class man like them. Since then, coverage of his illness and recuperation has been good. It shows that you have periods of acute mental illness but get better.'
Health information company Dr Foster publishes Your Life, the celebrity-driven healthy lifestyle magazine that is distributed through primary care trusts.
Dr Foster research director Roger Taylor says obesity has been a big hit with the tabloids because of the associations with other 'lifestyle' topics like diet and celebrity.
'People tap into this because of all the celebrity associations like the Atkins diet, fitness and so on.
It is an easier story to convey than one that just says stop smoking.
It is also one that people can see all around them and affects them or their families.'
Jill Palmer, the veteran health correspondent who left the Daily Mirror last year after 30 years, says it is hardly surprising that papers are upping the ante on health stories, because in news terms they have a winning formula.
'Things are personal human interest stories, major breakthroughs or potential disasters, ' says the HSJ columnist. She says the Daily Mail provides a master class in this art. Almost every week, headline writers dish up stories offering 'New Hopes' - of perhaps a cure for cancer or heart disease - or 'fresh fears' about flesh-eating bugs, hormone replacement therapy or the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccination.
Ms Palmer says her greatest coup was persuading The Mirror to run five pages on the human genome project. 'What sold it was the editor was interested but they also came up with a great punning headline: 'It is One Small Piece of Man', then there was a gap and graphic of a strand of DNA: 'One giant leap for mankind'. So it used that memorable phrase from the first moon landing to get across how important the human genome project was in unravelling the secrets of DNA.'
Engaging the personal interest of the editor is important. Ms Palmer says that it was in gratitude for saving his life after a heart attack that Stewart Steven, editor of the London Evening Standard in the early 1990s, mounted a Save Bart's campaign when the famous City hospital was threatened with closure.
With health matters getting such positive coverage, there is a cloud on the horizon in the shape of the long-awaited Mental Health Act and its treatment and care for people with dangerous severe personality disorder: the very people who are erroneously branded 'psycho' in the tabloid press.
Paul Corry from the mental health charity Rethink says: 'That is going to be presented to the tabloids as the government protecting the public from mental patients, so that could set things back.' l Spreading the words The Sun along with the rest of tabloid land has its own language and conventions. It is peopled by tubbies, boffins, babes and yobs.
Last week the government's social exclusion unit hosted a press launch of ambitious plans to re-integrate tens of thousands of people with mental health problems into the community and end the stigma and discrimination associated with mental illness.
A Sun reporter threw a spanner in the works when she asked: 'Have you got a smaller, snappier word we can use than people with mental health problems?'
The great and the good scratched their heads.'Service users?' suggested mental health czar Professor Louis Appleby.He explained that the catch-all is of use because there are many kinds of psychiatric conditions and for some people even medical nomenclature like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder are stigmatising.
Health minister Rosie Winterton agreed that words are a problem.'Service users is an uncomfortable phrase. I am not sure your readers would understand what it means.But part of the job of the media is to explain things and tackle stigma and discrimination.'
The reporter looked vexed.How was she going to get a story past her news editor with words in it like 'service user'or 'social exclusion'?
Jill Palmer has a lot of sympathy for the plight of the struggling reporter.'The big problem with anything like that is It is the supposedly PC [politically correct] thing that you must say 'people with epilepsy'These words do not fit in with tabloid design or thinking and you can't get a headline to fit when you use a phrase like 'people with epilepsy'or 'mental health service user' 'It is a terrible thing but a word like 'nutter' does and you can understand, but not condone, why these words get used.You are still stuck with the problem that tabloids use small, simple words so you have to write stories using the rules.'
Ms Palmer says language and idioms are constantly changing and evolving: 'When I started out people used to say words like 'spastic'Of course we would never say those things today.'