Media: Doctoring the books

Media medic Vernon Coleman is best known for his views on sex, but what he really cares about is animal rights
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The Independent Culture
With his patterned bow tie, swept-back greying hair and quiet- spoken manner, Dr Vernon Coleman looks every inch the media scientist's media scientist.

Only he is not. Most, he claims, won't even debate publicly with him on TV, the radio or in print now. His trenchant views on scientists in the pay of big corporations, the evils of meat-eating and the non- threat of Aids to the straight community are too much for them, he says.

Not that he is bothered. His role, he insists, is to tell his millions of readers the truth. And as he has just shaken hands to renew the contract for his weekly column in The People, his future as king of the media docs is assured.

Coleman, 52, says he has written at least one column a week since he was 18. He is, however, medically qualified, and was a GP for 10 years. But he tired of NHS bureaucracy and his holistic beliefs clashed with the largely drug-driven Health Service. In any case, he says, he wrote a lot about the dangers of tranquillisers and found himself "getting into lots of trouble". So he packed it in.

He became TVam's first television doctor, then a Daily Star columnist, was poached by The Sun, and then moved to The People in 1993, where his "Casebook" has found a home ever since. He did not try to avoid controversy, though.

"Populism not professionalism" might be his motto. For the uninitiated, "Dr Vernon's Casebook", his People column, is part tried-and-tested tabloid titillation, part anti-Establishment crusade, a curious mix of right-onism and right-offism. A recent "Casebook" sported the headline "I get a naughty thrill giving guys an eyeful", as well as the following on genetic engineering: "Arrogant, ignorant scientists, businessmen who think only of the bottom line and greedy, weak, stupid politicians are a far greater threat to life than Saddam Hussein."

From rows with the Advertising Standards Authority, to being injuncted in the High Court, to being censured by the Press Complaints Commission, he seems to have courted it ever since.

His People column always leads on a sexy issue, but there is method behind this sex-madness, he insists. "The lead letter is nearly always about sex because that gives them a headline to write. The rest of the column is hardly ever about sex. It's a smokescreen. If I wrote a column which attacked drug companies, vivisectors, governments for lying, or genetic engineering exclusively, no one would read it."

He says he writes for the tabloids because it gives him a mass audience of readers who "don't already have their minds made up". Asked to describe his column, though, Coleman stumbles. "It's me," he says, before pausing, then adding: "I suppose I try and write in blood a lot of the time. I suppose a lot of it is violent in that if I get angry about something, I don't try to hide it." Then he points out that there is the straight medical advice which shouldn't be overlooked: "There's quite a lot of tinnitus and piles."

If he didn't have the column, Coleman says he would be reduced to standing in the street with a placard - which he would happily do. But he isn't just a canny campaigner with an interesting take on moral matters. He is a mini-marketing wonder.

Ten years ago, tired of meddling book editors, he set up his Devon-based self-publishing venture. It now has three imprints: European Medical Journal for his monthly health letter; Chiltern Designs for his fiction; and Blue Books for "everything we don't know where to put".

He has written scores of books, spends pounds 500,000 a year advertising them, and claims self-publishing still makes a profit. Then there are his premium- rate phone lines, with titles such as "Oral sex - how to do it". At one stage, he put his name (now trademarked) to some 200 of these. All these ventures are freely puffed in his column: his contracts, he explains, have always specified that he is allowed to do this. The cross-promotion of his works, he says, enables editors to get him cheaply - which, at "not far off" a reported pounds 150,000 a year, isn't that cheap.

It also has a worthy rationale. For example, his advertised sexy phone lines subsidise less popular but more informative lines, such as those on endometriosis or vaccines. The phone lines, he says, don't bring in as much as people think.

The most important subsidies, however, go into his work as a campaigner against animal cruelty - about which he is fanatical. He has just spent six months writing another book on animal rights, and his website - www.vernoncoleman.com - allows you to download much of his work on the subject.

His campaigning, he says, has upset many and led to death threats over the years. "It's difficult not to sound paranoid, but if you annoy a lot of large companies for a long period of time and cost them a lot of money, then eventually they get a bit upset." He admits that editors have asked him to tone it down in the past. "I shout at them. They shout at me. I resign and stamp my feet. I'm terrible - probably the most difficult columnist in Britain to deal with."

He says there are three things in life worth doing: trying to change the world, trying to have fun and trying to make money. "If you can do all three things at the same time, then that's fantastic."

He adds: "Newspapers have vast amounts of money. It liberates them enormously if you help by taking it away. I'm a sort of Robin Hood type."

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