Chris Kenny attacks Paul Barry, Media Watch and the ABC

Last month Chris Kenny used his programme The Kenny Report on Sky News to launch a knee jerk attack against Media Watch and particularly its host Paul Barry.

It would seem that the facts about hydroxychloroquine not supporting the constant praise Donald Trump gave it as a treatment or preventative for COVID-19 did not sit well with Mr. Kenny. He was having none of the notion that these facts and the manner in which the media did or did not report them could be accurately presented on Media Watch.

His frequently personal, highly opinionated attack on Paul Barry fails to present necessary evidence whilst liberally applying the very deception he accuses Barry of. Kenny’s numerous contentions have become somewhat more relevant in light of the WHO suspending its trial of hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for COVID-19 due to safety concerns. [Update: The WHO has resumed the trial of hydroxychloroquine after the study leading to the suspension was retracted by the Lancet. Full update after post]. However first some background on Trump and a review of the Media Watch segment in question.

The COVID-19 pandemic has produced a veritable cornucopia of weird and wonderful personalities making a range of deceptive, dangerous, conspiratorial or just plain wrong claims.

With respect to hydroxychloroquine as a treatment or prophylactic for COVID-19 the evidence and advice has, from the beginning, been clear. Trials were needed to establish if and how the drug should be taken. Within weeks treatment trials revealed serious problems and fatalities whilst warnings about its use as a prophylactic were unambiguous.

In the latter case warnings were more widespread after Donald Trump began to promote it. On March 19th in a White House press briefing Trump demonstrated a grave error of comprehension. Hydroxychloroquine has been used in the treatment and prevention of malaria for decades. Where suitable it is also prescribed in the management of rheumatic diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis and lupus.

In a textbook example of why scientific advisors must be consulted by politicians who comment on health matters, Trump’s error of reasoning was to assume this prior, specific use of hydroxychloroquine meant it was apparently safe for other uses. In a March 19 press briefing he said in part;

Nothing will stand in our way as we pursue any avenue to find what best works against this horrible virus.

Now, a drug called chloroquine — and some people would add to it “hydroxy-.”  Hydroxychloroquine.  So chloroquine or hydroxychloroquine. Now, this is a common malaria drug. It is also a drug used for strong arthritis. If somebody has pretty serious arthritis, also uses this in a somewhat different form. But it is known as a malaria drug, and it’s been around for a long time and it’s very powerful.

But the nice part is, it’s been around for a long time, so we know that if it — if things don’t go as planned, it’s not going to kill anybody.

Five days later after taking a form of chloroquine an Arizona man died from cardiac arrest and his wife was hospitalised. They had ingested chloroquine phosphate which is not a medicinal form of chloroquine.

Despite Trump’s enthusiasm for hydroxychloroquine Dr. Anthony Fauci had urged caution. The day after Trump’s briefing, during his own COVID-19 briefing, Fauci answered reporters who were querying the use of the drug as a treatment. He stated;

The answer is no, and the evidence that you’re talking about … is anecdotal evidence.

Nonetheless, Trump followed by tweeting the drug was a “game changer” and almost a month later on April 14th Trump was still confusing its prior use with presumed general safety [Media Watch – 16 sec mark];

What do you have to lose? They’ve been taking it for forty years for malaria.

That was quite a statement. Particularly given what we know now. Trump announced on May 18th he’d been taking hydroxychloroquine as a prophylactic for a week and a half. On May 20th he announced he would stop his “regimen” in a day or two. However almost a month earlier on April 24th the FDA had warned of the serious side effects of hydroxychloroquine [2]. They cautioned it should not be used outside a hospital or clinical trial.

The need for more research into the potential of hydroxychloroquine was reinforced by authorities from the very early days of Trump’s glowing praise for the drug. On the same day as his “what do you have to lose?” comment, it was reported that a high dose trial in Brazil looking at treatment of COVID-19 was abandoned due to a trend toward lethality.

On April 14th Science Alert reported in part;

After 11 patients died across both dosage groups, the team halted the high-dose arm of the trial on day six, citing more heart rhythm problems in the high-dose group, and “a trend toward higher lethality”.

Which brings us to the Media Watch segment, Hydroxychloroquine disappoints, of Monday April 27th. You can watch the segment (6.42) and access the transcript here. Or you can listen to the audio below or grab the mp3 file here (© ABC).

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Paul Barry does exactly what one would expect from Media Watch. He reported on findings from VA hospitals in the USA of higher mortality in those given hydroxychloroquine and the drug’s lack of efficacy. He stressed that the study was not randomised and hadn’t been peer reviewed, but was being taken seriously. He also reported on the disappointing trial results from Brazil and presented the well known tweets from Trump and Giuliani. The latter claiming a 100% success rate of hydroxychloroquine against COVID-19 was taken down by Twitter. Viewers were also presented with the chorus of hydroxychloroquine support from Fox News and quotes from Trump.

Shining a light on Australian media Barry quite fairly reported on Sky News Australia. After Dr. Fauci and others had warned hydroxychloroquine hadn’t been adequately tested and may be dangerous Sky reporters cited “Trump Derangement Syndrome” as the cause for US media reporting on the problems with Trump’s claims and the facts about the drug.

Rather than present evidence to support Trump’s claims or efficacy of hydroxychloroquine, Sky News contended that it was hatred of Trump that led to reporting of its dangers. Chris Kenny argued that the “real world clinical assessment of this drug at the moment”, was that doctors and dentists were “putting it aside” for themselves or their family.

Kenny also demonstrated the same grave error of comprehension as did Trump. On April 2nd he was promoting the claims of Dr. Vladimir Zelenko who had published a YouTube video making unverified claims about the efficacy of hydroxychloroquine given with zinc and antibiotics to treat COVID-19. The same method is known to cause cardiac problems.

Chris Kenny informed his viewers;

Now we know this drug is safe. People have been taking it for these other conditions for decades. So this does hold out great hope.

Yet Zelenko’s claims had already been exposed as unproven. Paul Barry noted it was reported on Snopes;

Zelenko’s claims, however, rest solely on taking him at his word: He has published no data, described no study design, and reported no analysis.

Zelenko’s video was rightly removed from YouTube. Kenny “wondered” if this censorship was due to Zelenko signing off his video with over the top praise for Trump. He professed his love, blessings and hope that God protects [President Trump]. It is now known Zelenko falsely claimed the trial he was enthusiastically promoting as successful had FDA approval. This has brought him to the attention of a US Federal prosecutor.

Paul Barry went on to note Alan Jones thought hydroxychloroquine should be “rushed into the front-line”. Again, as with Trump and Kenny we see the same lack of basic critical thought. Yes, Jones argued;

...given the drug has been around for more than 50 years, it’s approved, the data on it is well established it’s perplexing that we don’t instruct the use of the drug now with the monitoring of existing coronavirus cases to see the results.

Barry continued the segment by including a response to Jones from Professor Peter Collignon of ANU in which he warns of the drugs toxicity and stresses the need for more trials. He finished with playing the footage of Donald Trump’s comments about injecting disinfectant.

Chris Kenny seems to have taken great offence at the content of this Media Watch segment, despite what is the demonstrably factual content. On The Kenny Report of March 28th he launched an attack at Paul Barry, Media Watch its researchers and funding, and the ABC itself. He spent seven minutes of his time on air to do so claiming the ABC and Paul Barry had a “bizarre new enemy to attack”. Namely hydroxychloroquine.

You can watch The Kenny Report here and access a summary beneath it. Or you can listen to the audio below or grab the mp3 file here (© Sky News).

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In last months post on government cuts to ABC funding I touched on some points that are relevant to this post. Namely the terminology used by Sky News and Chris Kenny to convince viewers that the ABC has a leftist ideology. This is a bold claim and when attacking Media Watch the onus is on Chris Kenny to present not just peer reviewed evidence, but a scientific consensus based on the same to defend climate change denial and now the efficacy of hydroxychloroquine in treating COVID-19.

What is immediately apparent is Kenny’s frequent attacks on ABC funding. In the seven minutes he refers to taxpayer funding of the ABC and Media Watch five times. It’s difficult to imagine even his most devoted fans simply swallowing that. Each time he repeats a version of viewers being presented with “ideological deceit, deceptive tosh, rot, etc”. Kenny begins by telling his audience that Media Watch, “gets a lot wrong – deliberately wrong”. He continues;

One of the most over-resourced shows on television it uses taxpayers money for an ideological platform. It’s supposed to be a media watchdog standing up for truth, accuracy and the like, but what it does is distort the truth and promote inaccuracies in order to promote its own ideological agenda. This breaches the law of course, it breaches the ABC Charter.

This final claim about the ABC Charter is a calculated low blow designed to create significant problems for the ABC which is presently enduring a three year freeze of funding that began in June 2019. This will cost the ABC $83.7 million over the three years. 800 staff have lost their jobs. Yet most significantly as I wrote last month, the ABC has already stressed that the present cuts threaten delivery of the ABC Charter. Yet Kenny contends he is unveiling an “ideological agenda” of Media Watch. Speaking of which, he continues;

Barry and Media Watch preach global warming alarmism, promote leftist climate policies, defend the ABC and attack anyone right of centre. Especially if they work for News Corp – owners of this station. I’ve detailed their deceptions many times before, and I won’t stop.

He goes on to present a “recent example documented in detail by Andrew Bolt”. This is apparently how Media Watch acquitted the ABC over its “obsessive, biased, unfair, relentless and clearly wrong headed persecution of Cardinal George Pell over many years”. He presents an edited clip of Paul Barry speaking on Media Watch. Barry states;

And did the ABC get their judgements on Pell one hundred percent right? Probably not. Was it a witch hunt and a dark day for journalism? I for one do not think so.

Kenny returns with;

How about that for fairness and courage? What a whimp.

The deception employed here by Chris Kenny to create the bogus impression that Paul Barry is biased in favour of the ABC and against George Pell is highly significant. The out-take is from the lengthy Media Watch segment, Pell – The final verdict. When viewed in its entirety we see Barry is critical of ABC identities and programmes when warranted. We also learn that the story of an investigation into Pell was broken by Andrew Bolt’s own paper, the Herald Sun, in February 2016.

Paul Barry also argued against two respected ABC identities that claimed Pell was not “innocent”. Rather it was found there was insufficient evidence to convict. Barry responded to this as follows;

Technically that may be right.

But the principle of our legal system is you’re innocent until proven guilty. And after a unanimous seven-nil verdict from the High Court, you surely can’t argue that Pell is not innocent of the charges.

There are other examples of Barry criticising the ABC. Such as Louise Milligan and Four Corners for not canvassing Pell’s defence, but rather focusing on those who condemned Pell. Or of Barry citing the ABC’s fairness. ABC’s 7:30 did consider if Pell’s conviction was wrong, interviewing Frank Brennan. When Pell’s first appeal was dismissed The Drum had lawyer Richard Beasley appear and he raised concerns that reasonable doubt wasn’t found.

Over the Pell trial and appeals the ABC gave airtime to a large number of Pell supporters. Added to this must go the number of times his supporters turned down an invitation to appear on the ABC. There are many examples of the ABC’s fairness and bipartisanship with respect to Pell. What stands out is Paul Barry’s dedication to applying the same standards to the ABC as to anywhere else. More so in the spirit of Media Watch he has a right to examine if the Pell case was in the public interest and deserving of in depth coverage. Indeed it was, particularly in view of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. This is what Pell told that Royal Commission;

My own position is that you never disbelieve a complaint. But then it has to be assessed as to see just whether it is valid and true and plausible.

– Revelation, ABC, 2 April, 2020

Thus Chris Kenny’s attack against Paul Barry with respect to Cardinal George Pell and purported ABC bias is without foundation. More so, Kenny has deceived his viewers by using a Media Watch clip out of context. The significance of this rests not least on the accusations of deception Kenny goes on to make against Paul Barry.

Kenny moves on to hydroxychloroquine, claiming the ABC and Paul Barry “don’t like the bloke who speaks positively about it”. Despite the evidence of hydroxychloroquine dangers outlined above, Kenny contends the ABC and Barry are, “actually lining up against drugs that are being trialled around the world. Why? Because the US President hopes they’ll work. I kid you not the left have become that nutty over Donald Trump”.

Kenny contended bias by omission because Paul Barry didn’t include two Australian trials, one of which is currently looking at the prophylactic application of hydroxychloroquine. Kenny made much of the fact he would be speaking to that trial’s lead investigator Professor Marc Pellegrini of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research in Melbourne. Unfortunately for Chris Kenny it’s not at all clear why ongoing trials support his contention that hydroxychloroquine should be considered safe or that Barry is misleading viewers.

At the time it was known the subjects – all healthcare workers – would be well, fit and rigorously assessed prior to entering the prophylactic trial. To fast forward, recently after the WHO stopped the hydroxychloroquine research of the global Solidarity trial on COVID-19 patients SBS reported that Prof. Pellegrini stated;

The WHO Solidarity trial is worlds apart from what we are doing. Understand that it’s very, very different.

On May 20th Clinical Trials Arena reported;

Pellegrini said: “COVID SHIELD is gold standard in its design as a multi-centre, randomised, double-blind study.

“The trial is focused on our frontline and allied healthcare workers who are at an increased risk of infection due to repeated exposure caring for sick patients. Our aim is to help these people stay safe, well, and able to continue in their vital roles.”

The trial will recruit 2,250 participants who will receive hydroxychloroquine or a placebo tablet over four months.

The other QLD study was part of a national trial looking at both hydroxychloroquine, and lopinavir-ritonavir (a combination treatment used to treat HIV) in the treatment of COVID-19. There were no available results at the time and Paul Barry was not hiding the truth. The focus of his Media Watch segment was media. Not a discussion of various hydroxychloroquine trials.

Well before Kenny went to air the FDA warned of severe heart problems in patients given hydroxychloroquine. Still Kenny attacked Media Watch researchers and bemoaned their funding claiming Barry selectively omits items if they don’t fit “his thesis”.

Kenny worked hard to whip up anger over taxpayer funding of the ABC. He returned to his comment that the real world clinical assessment of hydroxychloroquine was that health professionals were “putting it aside”. This was because he knew that Paul Barry’s “large research team” had received this correspondence from the Pharmaceutical Society of Australia. In it the PSA president notes that there has been an unprecedented demand for hydroxychloroquine following some promising data on the treatment of COVID-19 and Trump’s support of the drug.

It goes on to mention reports from pharmacists that doctors are prescribing for doctors and their families, as are dentists. Non-medical prescribers are prescribing bulk amounts. There is no mention of conclusive data supporting treatment of COVID-19. Key parts of the correspondence include;

If this medication does indeed have the efficacy that we would desire against COVID-19 then it needs to be prescribed and used judiciously. […]

Our strong advice to pharmacists at this point in time, until further advice is available, is to refuse the dispensing of hydroxychloroquine if there is not a genuine need, and that need is for those indications for what it is approved for – inflammatory conditions or the suppression and treatment of malaria. […]

The only way this [treatment of patients who genuinely need the drug] is possible is for prescribers to not write prescriptions for this medicine as a ‘just in case’ measure and for pharmacists to refuse the supply outside of these indications at this point in time.

I’m quite baffled as to why Kenny thinks this letter supports the efficacy of hydroxychloroquine or why he thinks Paul Barry should have included it in his segment. Barry did not accuse Kenny of lying about GPs and dentists grabbing a supply of the drug. Rather, the issue is that Kenny believes such rash behaviour by some health professionals is a “real world clinical assessment of this drug at the moment”. The fact is such off-label prescribing is most certainly not a clinical assessment and to tell viewers this, may have serious, dangerous consequences. TGA amendments to hydroxychloroquine prescription give a clear picture now and did so at the time Kenny went to air.

Kenny was also concerned that Media Watch didn’t mention his interviews with the PSA, Peter Doherty and a number with Professor Peter Collignon of the ANU. This is unusual given what Collignon had said on Alan Jones’ breakfast show on April 9th as reported on the very Media Watch segment Kenny accuses of being selectively and deceptively biased. Collignon stated;

The reality is it’s hard to believe why this drug would work. Now, like all other drugs, I think we’ve got to have an open mind and study them. But there’s as many reports showing it doesn’t work as there are, and it’s not a drug that hasn’t got any toxicity. People have already died from heart conditions by taking this drug in inappropriate dose.

Professor Collignon later told Media Watch by email that larger and more definitive studies were needed and that;

I am even more sceptical as more data is coming in.

Yet Kenny omitted this instead telling his audience;

Paul Barry has deliberately hidden and distorted the truth in order to pretend that we have been misleading you. It’s that brazen, that unhinged and it’s done with your taxpayers money.

Kenny also decided to leave out any mention of Vladimir Zelenko despite him being previously mentioned to support Kenny’s claim of left wing bias against Trump, hence bias against hydroxychloroquine. Zelenko has recently labelled negative data on the drug as “garbage”. Nor did he mention Dr. Anthony Fauci or his position on the drug. He does mention Paul Barry’s reporting of Trump suggesting injection of disinfectant. Kenny then observes;

That’s the level at which Barry operates. Like a kid on Twitter he wants to pretend that the President recommends mainlining Dettol. It’s that inane.

Kenny goes on to disapprove of Barry’s salary which he’s paid, “to produce fifteen minutes of deceptive tosh a week”. He’s not happy that, “up to a dozen researchers” are paid either. Research, Kenny contends, that is, “left out if the facts get in the way of [Barry’s] thesis”. He finishes off with more of the same, this time including a taunt;

The ABC spends, what, two or three million dollars a year on this programme of ideological deceit. And then they scream for more funds – more of your taxes. Good luck with that Ita.

Kenny’s performance is really worth watching. The evidence shows that the one omitting relevant material to deceive his audience is Chris Kenny himself despite his proclamations about Paul Barry. He may have a predetermined, erroneous notion of what Media Watch should be and how it should run. Yet given the many deliberate and malicious references to ABC funding and the motivation of Paul Barry it’s a safe bet that Kenny’s intentions are nefarious. He’s lashing out at Paul Barry and Media Watch because the facts aren’t to his liking or his ideology.

The denial of evidence can always have serious consequences and regarding climate change already has. However at the present time with respect to the COVID-19 pandemic orchestrated deception like that presented by Kenny is not only outrageous, but immoral. The fact is that today so much of right wing rhetoric is anti-science and indeed post truth. That Kenny would cling to his anecdotal belief that the efficacy of hydroxychloroquine can be gleaned from it being snapped up by some health professionals is a failure of critical thinking. That he tried to defend this by tacking together various claims that Paul Barry had omitted material he felt supported his belief gives disturbing insight into the logical fallacies he entertains.

There is really no doubt. Hydroxychloroquine has not been shown to be of genuine benefit in fighting COVID-19 as data stands. Hydroxychloroquine should not be used for COVID-19 outside of clinical trials. Donald Trump was wrong to promote it. Sky News journalists are politically motivated in defending Trump.

Chris Kenny is wrong. He failed to present the evidence. Paul Barry and Media Watch are right. The evidence in this case is what the ABC presented.


UPDATE 6/6/2020: