The majority of serious journalists around the world have written about swine flu on the basis of what we know, building their stories on those old-fashioned things, "facts" and "evidence". But many British journalists have opted for hysterical speculation over cool-headed analysis, in response to a disease which the Guardian madly describes as an "assassin" that poses a "threat of unknown magnitude".
Swine flu has not only made a few hundred people sick – it has also exposed a deeper sickness in the British media, much of which seems more interested in sensationalism and simplification than in seriousness.
British journalists, more than any others, have talked up swine flu as a product of the "monstrous" meat industry and "inhumane" factory farming.
The first known human victim of swine flu hailed from the town of La Gloria in southern Mexico, which is also home to Granjas Carroll de Mexico, an intensive farm with 1,000,000 pigs (the victim, a five-year-old boy, has since recovered). Yet as the Columbia Journalism Review points out, "there is no evidence of a direct connection between the farm and the swine flu virus".
Indeed, there are, presently, some good reasons to doubt any such connection: at the time of writing, two weeks into the outbreak, the Mexican authorities have not found a single pig infected with the flu virus in Mexico, far less at the Granjas Carroll farm. And none of the workers at the farm has thus far fallen ill.
More to the point, there is as yet no evidence that humans contracted this strain of flu from pigs – whether by eating pork or handling the beasts themselves. As Dick Thompson of the World Health Organisation says: "There is no association that we've found between pigs and the disease in humans."
But who needs evidence of pig-human association when factory farms make such a convenient, heartstring-tugging bogeyman? British journalists have ignored what is known and have taken an imaginative leap into the unknown, writing skewed, simplistic, titillating tales about the "evil" meat industry threatening all of humanity.
"Life-threatening disease is the price we pay for cheap meat", declared Johann Hari in the Independent, demanding that we shut down intensive pig farms and other "virus factories" before "they shut down even more human lives".
Mike Davis in the Guardian claimed that swine flu "lays bare the meat industry's monstrous power". He described the virus as a "genetic chimera probably conceived in the faecal mire of an industrial pigsty". Given that this is the writer who four years ago described avian flu as a "viral asteroid on a collision course with humanity" (avian flu actually killed 216 people), we should probably take his rants with a cellar or two of salt.
Henry Porter, writing on his Guardian blog, said "terrorism is not the only mega-threat" – there is also swine flu and the other bugs which, he claimed, are "the results [of] factory farming". Such casual, ill-thought-through links between intensive farming and human disease are rife in British media outlets.
The Daily Mail sent a reporter to La Gloria to write about the pig farm as if it were a concentration camp – "except that the inmates are pigs". "The smell is so awful that I start to vomit", the Mail reporter said, at this possible "Ground Zero of swine flu".
News reports in the British media have also asserted – rather than investigated and proved – a link between intensive pig farms and swine flu. A headline in the Times declared "Mexico outbreak traced to 'manure lagoons' at pig farm"; a headline in the Independent said "For La Gloria, the stench of blame is from pig factories".
The Columbia Journalism Review, the respected US journal on all things media-related, described those two headlines as "grossly misleading" and "sensationalistic".
Indeed, American media-watchers have been disturbed by Britain's coverage. The CJR says that where most American newspapers have, as decent media outlets ought to, remained "sceptical and restrained" on the pig-farm hypothesis, British journalists have been "jumping to conclusions".
Helen Searls, executive producer at Feature Story News, an international news agency based in Washington DC, has found that some of the more hysterical green bloggers in the US have had to rely on speculative British media coverage to back up their conspiracy theories about pig-farming and flu: "Not for the first time, environmentalists over here are using the British press to validate their own worldviews."
Of course questions should be asked about conditions in factory farms, and of course questions should be asked about the potential health consequences for humans. But rather than being genuinely inquisitive and open-minded, too many British hacks have given us simplistic, unfounded morality tales about "evil" factory farms and "vulnerable" humanity. They are effectively telling "good lies": stories light on evidence, but heavy on cheap moralising.