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The media wails about money wasted on Tamiflu – but we were the ones who demanded it

This isn't the only time that screeching headlines have led to bad decisions
  • @oliver_wright

“Ministers blew £650m on useless anti-flu drug,” screamed the Daily Mail.

“The Government wasted half a billion pounds on anti-flu drugs”, thundered The Guardian.

Even The Independent was not immune from the slightly hysterical condemnation. “£600m of taxpayers’ money “down the drain on virtually useless flu drugs” was the headline in last Thursday’s paper.

This rage was directed at the decision back in 2005 to stockpile the drug Tamiflu at the height of the public fears over bird flu.

But reading those headlines last week, at the back of my mind was a nagging thought.

I seemed to remember it was us – the media – who were largely responsible for creating the clamour to buy those drugs in the first place – despite scepticism, even then, over their effectiveness.

“Government leaves UK defenceless against flu threatening to kill 500,000,” wrote The Independent on Sunday back then.

“Drugs needed to fight a threatened bird flu pandemic will not be available for at least a year, leaving Britons dangerously exposed to the potentially lethal virus,” wrote the Mail.

So in effect the press is now condemning the last Labour Government for doing something that the press was itself clamouring for. Talk about hypocrisy.

Thankfully such extreme examples are rare. But there are many cases of Governments making bad policy decisions, at least in part, due to media clamour.

Take two examples. As a sop to the right-wing press after the last election the Government pledged to reduce net inward migration to the UK to below 100,000 by 2015.

But more than half of all inward migration to the UK comes from EU nationals (which the Government can’t control), returning UK nationals, and the right of certain family members to settle here.

So in order to try and meet the target, the Home Office has resorted to counter-productive restrictions on immigration from outside of the EU.

As a result companies now find it much harder to get work visas to bring in overseas staff to the UK, while the number of non-EU students studying at British universities has fallen. It doesn’t seem like a very smart tactic to win David Cameron’s “global race” but it did make for good headlines at the time.

Or – in a similar vein to Tamiflu – take the Government’s much-vaunted £400m Cancer Drugs Fund. This was the Conservative’s response to a succession of emotive front-page newspaper stories about patients being denied certain treatments for cancer because they were deemed to be too expensive by the National Institute for Clinical Excellence.

Under the scheme, patients can be prescribed drugs even if they are not recommended by NICE as long as they are signed off by a doctor.

But the reason NICE was set up in the first place was to fairly allocate limited NHS resources on the basis of proper clinical evidence. To sidestep NICE may have pleased the media but it is bad policy and a bad use of tax-payers money.

There are many more examples over the years: the Dangerous Dogs Act, ID Cards, restrictions on the cultivation of GM food, a failure to rationalise hospital services.

The truth is that most policy decisions in Government involve difficult judgements and, unlike newspaper headlines, are rarely simple or black and white. A good politician will listen to the roar of the press – but ignore it if the evidence suggests that their case is simplistic.

But equally a good newspaper or journalist should admit when we get things wrong and certainly not blame politicians for doing things which we ourselves advocated.

So on Tamiflu it is very much mea culpa. Now we need to learn from it.