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Matt Ridley is the author of provocative books on evolution, genetics and society. His books have sold over a million copies, been translated into thirty languages, and have won several awards.

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Hold the good news

A rare glimpse into how pressure groups try to keep the good news off the front page

One of the themes in my forthcoming book is that there are huge vested interests trying to prevent good news reaching the public. That is to say, in the ruthless free-market struggle that goes on between pressure groups for media attention and funds, nobody likes to have it said that `their' problem is not urgent and getting worse.

The lengths that acid rain alarmists in the EPA went to to prevent the result of the NAPAP study reaching Congress before crucial votes in the early 1990s is well documented, and this was when this phenomenon first dawned on me. But now I see it everywhere.

Journalists rarely challenge pressure groups' claims of urgency and deterioration, because those are the two things that get editors' attention, too.

This week saw a pleasing exception: a newspaper that was prepared to lift the lid on the pessimist cabal.The New York Times ran a front page piece about the worldwide decline in maternal deaths reported in the Lancet. The piece revealed that the Lancet's editor, Richard Horton, had come under pressure to delay the paper lest it reduce funding opportunities for pressure groups.

But some advocates for women's health tried to pressure The Lancet into delaying publication of the new findings, fearing that good news would detract from the urgency of their cause, Dr. Horton said in a telephone interview.

Maternal deaths had been declining steeply till the early 1990s when the improvement stalled -- chiefly because of the African HIV epidemic. It has recently resumed in earnest and is now dropping steeply:

 

 

 

Yet some people did not want you to know this:


Dr. Horton said the advocates, whom he declined to name, wanted the new information held and released only after certain meetings about maternal and child health had already taken place.

He said the meetings included one at the United Nations this week, and another to be held in Washington in June, where advocates hope to win support for more foreign aid for maternal health from Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. Other meetings of concern to the advocates are the Pacific Health Summit in June, and the United Nations General Assembly meeting in December.

This is wrong on all sorts of levels. First, because it shows a staggering arrogance among pressure groups about who should be allowed to know the facts -- almost amounting to attempted fraud. Second, because the way to encourage people to fund projects is to show evidence that they work , not that they are futile and ineffective. One might almost suspect that these groups would prefer maternal mortality to remain high.

Or, as a prominent climate scientist said in another context,

If we want a good environmental policy in the future we'll have to have a disaster.