Totalitarian science and media politics
Martin J. Walker

"Newspeak was the official language ... The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits ... but to make all other modes of thought impossible. It was intended that when Newspeak had been adopted once and for all and Oldspeak forgotten, a heretical thought should be literally unthinkable." Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell.

The struggle to change the way in which AIDS related illnesses and to create a debate about the nature and reality of HIV, has flared for over ten years. The thinking of the dissidents is discursive and developing while the views of orthodoxy are censorious, closed and ever more deeply mired. Despite small victories dissidents, raising an alternative voice in this field of science is like trying to talk in a polar blizzard. Subjected to a constant bombardment of scientific fact, even the most libertarian of us are likely to be bullied into the torpor of consensus.

The consensus created around AIDS and HIV, their diagnosis and treatment is a virtual consensus, the struggle against it essentially a post-modern struggle; involving at its heart an informational cold war. For the dissident, the enemy is disguised and dispersed, there is no palace of single principle which might be sacked. The fact that it is a battle based in the mind, in culture and in texts, might at first appear surprising when we consider that it is at base an argument over physical illness, over people dying or not dying. However, even the nature of this physical illness, is post-modern rather than modern; covert and multi-centred, rather than evident and causally obvious. According to the orthodox view, the physical body is attacked on a meta level, via the immune system, a kind of body-wide web. And their could be no more post modern phenomena than the virus itself, which cannot be isolated and physically manifest and which, according to orthodoxy is able to constantly reconstruct itself and assume multiple forms that fit the personal, social and historical character of its hosts.

Being aware of these complexities, it comes as no surprise to realise that what is essentially a political conflict-to do with the way society is structured - around the meaning and reality of ‘HIV’ is an uncommonly difficult one. A well developed conflict, such as this, principally between professional medics, medical scientists and mainly positive tested dissidents is inevitably staged in many arenas. But in each of these arenas, science, media or medicine, it has been a David and Goliath battle, a Premier League team against a village green side. Not because the dissidents are less skilled, less intelligent or even less committed but always because we have less power. This imbalance of forces is now commonplace in battles around medical science; a small number of affected individuals take on a multinational drug company; gulf war veterans take on the State, the chemical and pharmaceutical companies; sheep dip affected farmers take on the agri-chemical industry.

To call Joan Shenton a journalist would be to belittle her commitment and reduce her life to a style of presentation. She is more accurately described as a campaigning journalist, a dissident writer and film maker. She began work in the media as a consumer journalist and was gradually drawn to investigating medical treatments and the pharmaceutical industry.

After a number of notable television programmes about medicine, in 1986 she came into contact with the arguments surrounding HIV and AIDS’. Working with Jad Adams and Michael Verney-Elliott she embarked upon what was to become a series of films which unfolded the dissent position of ‘HIV’ diagnosis and AIDS related illnesses. She has been a committed AIDS dissident from that time. Now over ten years later, despite her many awards and her commitment to truth she has become a media pariah. A campaigning writer and film maker in a world of consensual apparatchiks.

The first dissident film about AIDS made by Shenton and her independent production company Meditel, was AIDS The Unheard Voices. Directed by Jad Adams, it mapped out the landscape of American groups who espoused dissenting hypotheses about AIDS. In 1987, when this programme was broadcast, it provoked no adverse reaction. This year, however, was the year that AZT was granted its license, the four or five preceding years of AIDS ‘discovery’ and hegemony were populated by only a handful of scientists whose power in the field had not been clearly established. The orthodox hegemony around HIV and the treatment of AIDS was to be painstakingly erected over the next five years.

In 1989, Meditel began work on The Aids Catch, a film which explained the scientific views of Professor Peter Duesberg, a renowned retrovirologist who was then becoming established as one of the leading AIDS dissident scientists in America. The thesis of the film, that ‘H1V’ was not the cause of ‘AIDS’ and that ‘AIDS’ was not a sexually transmitted disease, set a clear agenda for dissent. When it was shown on Channel 4 the film impacted violently with the view painstakingly shredded into the consensual consciousness by Britain’s leading medical research scientists like Robin Weiss, Richard Tedder and Jonathan Weber- all of whom, by that time had a commercial as well as a scientific interest in the development of ‘HIV’ antibody testing kits.

A number of vested interests complained about the film to the Broadcasting Complaints Commission, The Wellcome Foundation complained that the film was unfair to AZT. Positively Women and the Terrence Higgins Trust, then close to Wellcome, had their complaint presented by Duncan Campbell. The decision of the BCC went partially against Meditel and on nine of twelve counts, they were found by the august jurists - by a stroke of peculiar English usage - to be unfair in their treatment of the subject of AIDS.

The next two programmes attacked the very heart of the consensual view of HIV and AIDS’. AZT Cause for Concern which articulated dissident fears about the dangers of Wellcome’s first AIDS drug, won a BMA award in 1992. The film was desperately attacked by the Wellcome Foundation.

Finally in 1996, Joan Shenton produced AIDS and Africa, which tried to take a measured look behind the hype of pharmaceutical companies and the fiscal demands of developing countries, and realistically assess scientific claims that the projected heterosexual plague which had not materialised in Europe or America was now decimating Africa.

AIDS and Africa turned out to be Meditel’s graveyard. In the assault on the film, all the diverse hegemonic groups welded themselves into one cabal. Says Shenton,

AIDS and Africa earned enormous criticism from the ODA, Linda Chalker and company. The aftermath was vicious, I had calls from the Foreign and Commonwealth office, in which Civil servants screamed down the phone at me.

Alter AIDS and Africa Joan Shenton was frozen out of the media. Although together with Huw Christie, editor of Continuum she had begun work on a programme about the fallibility of testing kits and was to receive development money at intervals from Channel 4 over the next three years for this film, it became increasingly clear that the views which she and Meditel represented were too volatile, too close to the bone, for scientific Orthodoxy to allow them into the information market place.

Determined to keep the dissenting view in the public consciousness, Shenton took a year off filmmaking to write the book Positively False. In her mind and the minds of her publishers, the book was linked to the development money which she had received from Channel 4 for the possible film on testing kits. In 1998, the book came out to a public silence.

During the three years that Meditel had development money for the programme on testing kits, David Lloyd the commissioning editor at Channel 4, who had always supported Meditel, had gradually turned away from the dissident perspective. Rather than see the testing kit programme as a context of personal stories and a way of questioning the whole concept of a Human Immuno-deficiency Virus, Lloyd chose to take an entirely scientistic approach to Shentons qualitative case histories.

We were told that our sample was too small to make any impact. Despite the fact that our tests threw up a series of anomalous results. Because the sample was so small David Lloyd did not want to screen the programme. He was also talking to Richard Horton [editor of The Lancet] at this time and gradually coming to the conclusion that we were wrong and that the orthodoxy was right.

Despite his diminishing sympathy for the dissident view, in August 1998, Lloyd expressed the determination to commission a testing kits film for World Aids day in December that year. Christie worked with Shenton on outlines for the programme which were then discussed with David Lloyd. In September, however, Lloyd succumbed to unspoken pressures and Suddenly ditched the film, telling Meditel that Channel 4 had run over budget for the year.

Having conceded the battle to ditch Shenton’s film, David Lloyd approached the editor of Channel 4 News suggesting that Meditel be given space on the principal evening news programme to pursue the dissident argument. As David Lloyd explained it to Joan Shenton her authored news item on World Aids would be followed the next day with an item putting the orthodox view, both pieces would then be followed that evening by a late night discussion.

For her short news piece, Shenton focused on the public statement made by Eleni Eleopulos, Val Turner, Gordon Stewart, Etienne de Harven and Stephan Lanka, at the 1998 Geneva World Aids Conference. For the first time a group of internationally renowned scientists, officially a part of the World Aids Conference, stated that ‘HIV’ had never been satisfactorally isolated and that tests were unreliable.

Despite the apparent agreement about the three piece presentation, it quickly became apparent to Joan Shenton and Huw Christie, that the editor of Channel 4 News, Jim Gray, was not sympathetic to Shenton’s authored piece. He tried to persuade them to do a straightforward science news item; the idea of a rebuttal the next day, followed by a studio discussion was gradually eroded and was now put forward as a news item followed by a short discussion in the news studio. Joan Shenton continued working on the film. The script had been developed and discussed with two different producers going through three revisions and the film was being made, until two weeks before World AIDS day.

We were on the fourth draft of tile script before Gray suddenly pulled the rug from beneath our feet. We were told that the editor had serious problems with the piece we were working on. We were called in to see him and he said that he had had a tectonic shift’ and suggested that he was feeling ‘very wobbly" I had told him that anyone ringing round to get people to appear on the discussion would get ~a flea in their ear’. I had tried to warn him of the various arguments which were involved and what might happen when he spoke to some of the opposition; ‘Oh we’re used to that’, he said. Despite this, the second producer, a man who always seemed unhappy to be working with us, began ringing round to get other opinions on our film. Orthodox scientists must have been shown the script as well as a number of news department journalists who disagreed with our views.

As quickly as it had been offered, the news item and the serious late night discussion unravelled in an unseemly dishonest dispute, and the apparent independence of the news journalists disappeared. Shenton was accused of showing bias, of taking sides and of ‘sleight of hand. It was said that what she had called a serious science story was of no real importance, she was accused by Gray of using the News programme to ‘settle old scores’.

Up to the last edit, Shenton and Christie remained optimistic about the film being shown. They appealed to David Lloyd, but by then, the best he was able to negotiate was for Gray to use bits from the film in a composite balanced’ news item. Shenton defended the integrity of her film to the last and through Meditel’s lawyers invoked the infringement of moral rights under the Copyright Act, refusing to let Channel 4 disembowel it and use it for their own consensual purposes.

What hurt Shenton more than anything else in this sorry saga of censorship was the unaccountable and undemocratic way that the editor of Channel 4 News behaved. Neither Shenton nor Christie were told what arguments had been put forward against their film. Unable to address the criticisms, or debate the issues, left them impotent.

These contemporary editors are not brave, they are ruled by accountants. They are not used to sticking their necks out. They are not used to journalists who have an independence of mind, it is, after all, in the very nature of good journalism to dissent. They are apparently bright graduates with no imagination.


These news editors are unresolved about how to deal with different views of the news. In the field of AIDS, they have settled for consensus science, it’s the pits and its all we have now. What they don’t want is campaigning journalism on the news, they want to give the public ‘balance’ not tools by which they might change things.

The demonstration outside the ITN new building on Gray’s Inn Road on December 1st was a light hearted affair, organised by Continuum, to draw attention to the withdrawal of Joan Shenton’s film item. The demonstrators milled about in the freezing cold handing out leaflets to media workers entering and exiting the block-wide glass building. Inevitably a rearguard action, the picket was more what the French would call a manifestation than an attempt to stop people entering the building. It was wholly improbable that it would materially change anything, or convince the news hardened apparatchicks going in and out of the building, that the truth about ‘HIV’ was being suppressed.

In the post industrial world science has metamorphosed into totalitarian politics. The apparent facts of science increasingly shape every aspect of our social and cultural life without ever being tested by social models of accountability and democracy. Science, like all other previously undemocratic governing forces creates dissent. Those who are at odds with, but unaccountably subjected to, industrial science have become involved in a new ‘class struggle’ and in turn are subjected to the new censorship, surveillance, political exile and poverty of opposition which are the hallmarks of totalitarian systems. The disenfranchised fringe in contemporary society is composed not lust of the poor and those who hold no stake but also those who rage against the authority of a corrupted industrial science.

Whereas the mass societies in the first part of the Twentieth century, induced much of human kind to act as one physical entity, consensus in post-industrial society is manifest by invisible hegemonies of the powerful. These new hegemonies demand no uniforms nor do they ask for us to march in step; they are not made real by May Day parades or compounded by little red books. Consensus in contemporary society is no longer manifest as a collective physical phenomenon and might better called a virtual consensus. Contemporary collective assumptions are, however, as strong, as sinister and even less democratic than their historical counterparts.

Within the game plan of today’s consensus, beneath the cliques of the powerful, we are allowed to think and act as we wish as long as we offer no physical threat to power or question the right of the powerful to construct consensus in our name. Visions of thought control on the model of 1984 appear now to be an unnecessary nightmare. There is no need in contemporary society for the powerful to subjugate the minds of the people as long as the people allow the powerful to construct a virtual consensus.

Together with cancer, in other places Aids represents one of the strongest consensual models - in this case of illness, its cause, diagnosis and treatment - in contemporary society. Scientists have created a model and a language by which we are pressed to understand a certain set of illnesses. There is no discourse, within or without the discipline, about these models and the right of them is enforced by a constant panicking of the consensual herd.

It is this virtual consensus around ‘HIV and AIDS’ which the media reflects. News programmes in particular constantly and authoratitively state assumptive consensus which cannot possibly reflect the diverse views which have developed amongst the affected population. The different view, the view of the ‘other’, is shown on television and raised on the radio, only in ‘deviant’ programmes. This view is always subliminally labelled as one which is going nowhere - "interesting but quite mad, a view which we are obliged to bring you because we live in a democratic society". The truth is quite the opposite, the case for ‘the other’ is always presented reluctantly out of a perverse sense of ‘balance’ because the media is not democratic.

This lack of democracy is very clear in the case of ‘HIV and AIDS’. Joan Shenton is the only person in the country who has been allowed to voice dissenting views about ‘AIDS’ on British television. The orthodox view, on the other hand, with the lionisation of physicians and medical research workers, together with martyred gay men, and still more innocent homosexual victims, is dripped into our consciousness, in ways as disparate as major news programmes, science documentaries, Sunday morning radio appeals, documentary soaps, domestic soaps and Hollywood feature films.

Like almost everything else on television news programmes leave us bereft of control over our own lives. They report with certainty what has happened through the eyes and mouths of the most powerful groups in society. Except for some notable and inevitable exceptions the news is rarely news but a presentation of the virtual consensus decreed by the most powerful. The news is brought to us, like a meal in a restaurant; we question the way it is served only when we find the contents distasteful. News programmes become increasingly more polished at serving us news as if we shared in its making, as if its reports were part of our common history.

In a fast disintegrating post-industrial world, power increasingly only has the media by which to shepherd us along the path of virtual consensus. But like all good prisoners, we ourselves play a significant part in making consensus work. We the public, in all our diversity, have struck a contract with our governors - realising that life is short, we refrain from criticising or disturbing consensus as long as it does not disturb us and we are left alone to be ‘ourselves’.

It is as a consequence of this social contract that we all come to the jaws of consensus alone but shouting our own individual protestations. If AIDS dissidents are to terminally fracture consensus on the issue of ‘HIV and AIDS’ we need alternative media and its access to a wider public. We need to support our film makers, writers and dissident research workers. But as well, we need to shake off the torpor of virtual consensus and respond with physical and collective strategies.


You can obtain a copy (VHS) of the 9 min Meditel feature for channel 4 News by sending 5.00 for handling and your address to Meditel Productions, 172 Foundling Court, Brunswick Centre, London WC 1N 1QE.

 Taken with permission from Continuum Magazine, (vol 5, no 5, Mid-Winter 1999), 4a Hollybush Place, London   E2 9QX

E mail:
Free introductory copies of the mag can be had which contain subscription forms.