Blackened roar, massive roar, fills the crumbling sky… No, Australia was not offered ‘millions of doses’

The Federal ALP lodged an FOI request to obtain the documents relating to meetings between the Commonwealth Government and the pharmaceutical company, Pfizer.  There had been reports in the Press–all stemming, it seems, from the ABC’s Norman Swan–that Pfizer had offered Australia a sweet deal to be an early trial site for Pfizer.  The story made absolutely no sense, and everybody from the Commonwealth and Pfizer denied that the story was true.  Despite that, it lived on in folk memory among the extremely online crowd.

The documents obtained by the Federal ALP under FOI were provided to Nine and News Corp media outlets (scroll to the bottom and then work your way up the documents).  Pfizer asked for a meeting with the ‘Minister and/or Departmental leadership’.  The public servant in charge of the whole of government strategy, Liza Schofield, attended the meeting as requested.  After accepting the invitation, Pfizer asked for a non-disclosure agreement to be signed.  Generally (and I speak from a lot of experience here) the practice is not to sign up to non-disclosure agreements for fairly obvious reasons (they can conflict with duties of public servants).  Pfizer said not signing the NDA would be fine: they’d modify the meeting to be at a lower level of confidentiality in response.

Nothing so far is unusual or odd here.  What is unusual is that the word ‘millions’ does not appear in the documents released in this package.

Apparently, in a letter dated 30 June–right at the start of the exchange about having an exploratory meeting–Pfizer wrote to the Health Minister and said:

We have the potential to supply millions of vaccine doses by the end of 2020, subject to technical success and regulatory approvals, then rapidly scale up to produce hundreds of millions of doses in 2021.

And this has caused journos to lose their minds.

Here’s how a bunch of journalists understood that paragraph:

We are offering you millions of doses.

Clearly–clearly –that is not the meaning there but is, instead, about global production capacity.  We have a population of 25 million; why would Pfizer be offering us hundreds of millions of doses in 2021?  The only way to read it the way that journalists have would be to say that the start of the paragraph where they talk about ‘supply’ has absolutely nothing to do with the end of the paragraph when they talk about ‘produce’, which is not how humans normally communicate.

Worse: none of the follow up e-mails are like ‘So, you remember how we offered you millions of doses; did you make a decision about that?’  Instead, the e-mails are about where Pfizer is up to in the process.

Already the think pieces are dropping into print.  The Monthly has already run a piece about how the FOI’d documents prove Norman Swan’s account was accurate despite–and we need to be really clear about this–they don’t and that story was thoroughly debunked.

So let’s turn to the meat of the discussion: misinformation and disinformation.  We’ve had a Senate Committee this week grilling News Corp about the quality of its media.  Fair enough.  But there is a growing sense that, in order to be a savvy or informed media consumer, you express anti-Murdoch sentiments (except when it is critical of the Morrison Government) and happily believe any media outlet that confirms your views of the world.

But it is instead very clear that we have a widespread problem with misinformation and disinformation that extends beyond the Murdoch publications.  Norman Swan’s fairytale about the millions of doses on offer was from the ABC.  The Schwartz Media outlets produce very little but meta-opinions: highly opinionated articles that launder as fact claims from opinion-pieces written elsewhere.  The Shot famously made highly defamatory claims about a journalist’s conduct… but incorrectly thought that the journalist was the source of a document instead of the Victorian Government.  And on and on it goes.

As we start to look towards the upcoming election period, we should all be worried that so much disinformation is in circulation, misinforming people’s intuitions about how they will vote.  We have a large group of left wing people who actively believe and promote horrific falsehoods about the state of politics.  Hell, today we have a campaign from the Extremely Online crowd saying that NSW is ‘stealing’ jabs from other States. If we are intellectually serious about making politics better, we really have to do something about the festering swamp brewing on the online left.

Author: Mark Fletcher

Mark Fletcher is a Canberra-based PhD student, writer, and policy wonk who writes about law, conservatism, atheism, and popular culture. Read his blog at OnlyTheSangfroid. He tweets at @ClothedVillainy

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