Flat White

Who’s woke this pandemic?

3 April 2020

11:00 AM

3 April 2020

11:00 AM

I have one nagging question in the midst of this pandemic: Who died and made the(ir) ABC’s ‘medical expert’ Dr Norman Swan King of Corona — and gifted him with powers of infallibility usually only associated with the papacy? 

Now, don’t get me wrong. Swan is a capable and respected health journalist and broadcaster with decades of experience in communicating health information across various media, a job he performs admirably. He is a qualified physician who has won a range of awards for his work, including a Gold Walkley for his expose of scientific fraud by Dr William McBride. 

But while he may be a doctor his career for the last thirty-plus years has been as a journalist, albeit one with a self-declared interest in pandemics. He is not, I repeat, not, a virologist, immunologist or infectious diseases expert. 

At the moment Dr Swan is Australia’s own Chickenman (“He’s everywhere! He’s everywhere!”).  

The spectre of COVID-19 and his calm, avuncular presence has thrust him into the national spotlight as the ABC’s current favourite talking head. He’s been flitting between radio and TV appearances and helming the highly popular Coronacast podcast, where he answers questions on everything coronavirus-related. He’s even been thrust further into centre stage following news of his own (subsequently negative) test for SARS-CoV-2, but more on that later. 

From the beginning of the crisis, Swan has been advocating far more stringent mediation measures for coronavirus, openly pushing his view that schools should be closed in contradiction of the prevailing actual ‘expert’ medical advice at the time. Unsurprisingly, more draconian measures are the kind that go down well with the ABC’s viewing demographic, and not just the ABC’s. Accolades for Swan across the MSM and social media channels have been gathering pace.  

ABC chair, Ita Buttrose, has been quoted as saying that Swan ‘had risen to the occasion’ and that ‘Norman is a treasure. We are lucky to have him.’ 

The Newcastle Herald said that Swan was ‘perceived as being Australia’s medical voice of reason as the COVID-19 pandemic has swept the nation”. 


Buzzfeed went with a long article that included a quote from Jonathan Swan (a more than capable journalist in his own right but who, just funnily enough, happens to be Dr Norman’s son):  

People in moments like this are looking for not just someone who can give them reporting, but someone who can be a curator and a synthesiser…  People just want someone credible, someone who’s not tainted by partisan politics, and I think he’s serving that role right now. 

Apparently, there was also a social media push to have Swan replace Australia’s Chief Medical Officer, Brendan Murphy. Well, of course, there was, but I’m happy to say that Swan debunked it (although he has replaced his usual smiling, open-necked shirt look for a sober tie and very serious expression).

With all this adulation, woebetide anyone who dares to question Swan’s qualifications or suitability to be trotted out as an ‘expert’ commentator during the pandemic.   

Criticism has come from a range of conservative commentators that the ABC loves to hate, including The Australian’s Gerard Henderson and  Chris Kenny.  Henderson’s piece focused on the difference between the opinions of Swan and Dr Nick Coatsworth, a real infectious diseases and respiratory specialist and newly appointed Deputy Chief Medical Officer.  But we can’t have that. 

The usual suspects like The Guardian, in this story by Amanda Meade, were particularly snarky about this: 

Swan’s forthright views on the initial response to the coronavirus outbreak, which he said must have “really annoyed” the government, have since been the subject of a flurry of attacks from News Corp columnists. 

The Australian’s columnists Gerard Henderson and Chris Kenny, both frequent ABC critics, lined up to pour scorn on Swan’s efforts last week.      

This story also reports that Swan had a conversation with Dr Brendan Murphy, apparently at the behest of the PM (otherwise wittily known as ‘Scotty from marketing’).  I know that you’ll be relieved to learn that:  

Swan said he was not cowed by the government’s irritation at his commentary, and ABC management was highly supportive. 

In an interesting twist, The Guardian’s own Gay Alcorn copped a bit of flak from Swan devotees when she took a turn outside the praise playbook. On Twitter she quite reasonably opined: 

The ABC is quoting Norman Swann [sic]- an excellent presenter/journalist – as an expert, countering other expert views. Please stop! He’s not an expert and shouldn’t be quoted as such in stories like this. Get an expert with a counter view! 

This raised a few hackles, including those of Wendy Bacon, academic, journalist and political activist (no prizes for guessing her political leanings) who shot back: 

I think this is an unusual case @Gay Alcorn. Norman Swan is a qualified medico with decades of research based investigative approach to public health issues. He is way beyond a good health communicator. He’s internationally respected. An expert, I would say.  

So, if Wendy Bacon says it, it must be so. 

Ultimately, Swan managed to inject himself very personally into the crisis with his announcement on Monday that he was being tested for coronavirus. You can read his whole ‘diary of the coronavirus that wasn’t’ here.   

There seemed to be a stark turnaround from Sunday’s entry describing his podcast recording session where ‘It goes well but we all agree that talking about my symptoms would just be a distraction’ to Monday morning’s session with Robbie Buck and Wendy Harmer on ABC Radio Sydney when: 

The talkback with Wendy and Robbie goes well until a caller comments on how I sound congested. 

Expletive. 

I have to be open. 

Yes, I admit, I’ve had symptoms over the weekend and I’m going to be tested straight after this. 

I won’t say that all this attention has gone to Swan’s head but much of his article reads like an Academy Award acceptance speech;  ‘but I couldn’t have done it without (insert your favourite ABC personality or production staff here)’. There’s even a part that’s a mash-up of the carpark scene from All the President’s Men and the torture scene from Marathon Man.   

Really. 

Needless to say, everyone’s sincerely pleased that Swan’s test was negative for  SARS-CoV-2, or whatever the current nomenclature is, and it’s just man-flu. 

Heaven knows where the nation would be without its newly-crowned King of Corona.   

Illustration: ABC publicity photo.

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