Serjeant at the Bar: The danger of experts overreaching during Covid-19

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 US President Donald Trump departs the daily coronavirus task force briefing while walking past Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in the press briefing room at the White House. (Win McNamee, Getty Images)
US President Donald Trump departs the daily coronavirus task force briefing while walking past Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in the press briefing room at the White House. (Win McNamee, Getty Images)

Distinguished professionals who deservedly are recognised as experts in their field should not be using their reputation to overreach by trenching into areas way beyond their expertise. Freedom of expression is a vital constitutional right but it does come with obligations, writes Serjeant at the Bar.


Covid-19 has changed so much including the way conservatives now think of the role of the state and how liberals react to restrictions upon individual freedoms in order to preserve life.

It is not surprising therefore that the scope of freedom of expression has been questioned, viewed particularly through the prism of the way in which the public is informed about the development of the Covid-19 epidemic.

Writing about Donald Trump's political rallies dressed up as the provision of updated information about the virus, PEN America's Suzanne Nossel has written: "The cable networks should stop treating President Trump's news conferences as must-see television with banner coverage. While there’s an argument that anything a President does is newsworthy, these daily sessions risk indoctrinating the media and the public to a false narrative about the course of the pandemic and the efficacy of the federal government’s response.

"Reporters should relay his major points only once they have had a chance to check their veracity, accuracy, and completeness, and to provide essential context. If Trump believes he is entitled to highly visible live coverage, he can earn that right with candid, factual briefings that honestly reflect the dire state of affairs and how it arose.

Ms Nossel goes on to say: "If Trump wants to be on air, he needs to leave the science to the scientists. No president should be opining on treatments or clinical trials other than to announce final decisions made by US health agencies. His ruminations on experimental protocols are speculative and can have deadly consequences. If such medicines are discussed at all, it must be by health professionals who know what they can responsibly say and not say."

The concerns expressed about the Trump pressers have been carefully couched - of course the President has the right to conduct these events as he deems fit.

The question, however, is whether the television networks should cover the entire event without more, or provide some simultaneous context and guidance to the public so as to educate them to understand the outrageous claims, lies and unjustified arguments articulated, or report after the event to fillet the important Covid 19 information provided at the briefing with consequent expert commentary.

It is vitally important to safeguard freedom of speech particularly in a period where authoritarian tendencies are on the rise together with the agenda of securocrats.

But that begs the key question: "do media organisations, without more, allow self-appointed experts to spew fake news about Covid 19 on to an unsuspecting public?

In other words, is there some obligation to provide context when a person is given his or her right of freedom of expression and articulates views that not only confuse the public but could influence some to engage in conduct that could be injurious to their health?

Take the precedent of the HIV/Aids epidemic in South Africa.

When former President Thabo Mbeki was arguing against the scientific consensus on Aids or the Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang was telling the public that beetroot and garlic were a cure, the media surely had a duty to educate the public that this was arrant and dangerous nonsense.

This problem has not been evident in contemporary South Africa where President Ramaphosa's public addresses on Covid-19 have been meticulously based on the best scientific evidence available to him.

But others have not been so careful.

Take the recent debate between Prof (emeritus) Tim Noakes and Dr Nathan Geffen editor of Groundup and one time executive member of the TAC.

Prof Noakes, a world authority on sports medicine opined about Covid-19.

Among the things he said during a radio interview was that the drug hydroxychloroquine may well assist in the treatment of Covid-19 patients.

When pressed on this in a subsequent radio interview, Prof Noakes referred to the work of Dr Didier Raoult a French infectious diseases expert, whom without any supporting evidence, he claimed was the "top man" in the field of infectious disease and is recognised as such in the medical community.

The problem is that the studies that have been conducted by Dr Raoult have been heavily criticised in the medical community.

Further, there are trials that show the exact opposite.

In one such study recently conducted, doctors looked back at medical records for 181 patients with Covid-19 who had pneumonia and required supplemental oxygen.

About half had taken within 48 hours of being admitted to the hospital, and the other half had not.

The doctors followed the patients and found there was no statistically significant difference in the death rates of the two groups - that is the one which was given hydroxychloroquine or the control group and their chances of being admitted to the intensive care unit.

The study also raised important safety concerns about the drug in that eight patients who took the drug developed abnormal heart rhythms and had to stop taking it.

The point of this argument is not to prevent Prof Noakes from opining in public nor to debate the merits of medical evidence.

It is however to suggest that there is an obligation to ensure that reportage that could influence public behavior must be carefully calibrated.

Prof Noakes is a hugely distinguished sports scientist but he is not a virologist.

His reliance on his medical qualifications is the equivalent of a criminal lawyer opining about the intricacies of intellectual property without any experience of this complex field of law!

Regarding remedies for this virus; the media has a clear obligation which goes with its entrenched freedom of expression.

The reason is clear: look no further than Fox News which so often closely resembles the old SABC or PRAVDA.

It has done untold damage to democracy and the idea of reasoned debate, particularly during this crisis.

Here there is no regard for public interest.

There is a second implication: distinguished professionals who deservedly are recognised as experts in their field should not be using their reputation to overreach by trenching into areas way beyond their expertise.

Members of the public will tend to say: "Well, he is a medical specialist so he must know and we should follow".

By all means talk of that which is clearly common cause; that hypertension and diabetes are serious dangers in the Covid context but that is where a non-specialist should stop.

Prof Noakes claims foul when Dr Geffen calls him to account.

However, what Dr Geffen did was to perform a function mandated by responsible media - provide necessary context to controversial claims which affect the public interest.

Dr Geffen may not be a medical doctor but that does not mean that as a trained researcher he cannot conduct the kind of research needed to expose that a non-virologist had overreached himself.

Freedom of expression is a vital constitutional right but it does come with obligations.

- Serjeant at the Bar is a senior legal practitioner with a special interest in constitutional law.

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