Document:Farber reviews Shenton

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Review of Positively False
by Celia Farber

Continuum
Spring 1998


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There are two books in this book: one that unravels, thread by thread, the scientific assumptions, assertions and delusions of the "AIDS establishment" and one that tells a story of human beings, journalists, (in the truest sense of the word) on an Orwellian odyssey into a time in history that can only be described as the End of Reason.

Joan Shenton, sometimes referred as the "den-mother" of the dissidents, inhabits a creative space between journalist, researcher and human rights campaigner, and it is because she so brazenly broke the rules of upwardly mobile mainstream journalism that she has such a compelling story to tell, and so many arrows in her back. Hers is a narrative voice that is all but extinct in our culture: it is the voice of a journalist who reports out of a sense of alarm, with an eye on humanity, rather than "the story" as an end in itself.

Reading the passages that detail Shenton and Meditel's (the independent documentary film company she founded) trial in front of the BCC (Broadcasting Complaints Commission) over whether they had "unfairly treated the subject of AIDS" and been "unfair to [Glaxo] Wellcome", read like cut-outs from the book George Orwell never finished. One feels what must have been the stark terror of Shenton, as the frothing righteous dogs of the AIDS establishment close in on not just her journalism, but more chillingly, her moral judgment. And most infuriatingly, Meditel is never permitted to quantify or demonstrate their scientific argument. With names like "Derek Ogg" and "Duncan Campbell", the enemies of free speech and open scientific debate are so flatfootedly repugnant, one desires to reach through the book and personally throttle them. Instead it is Shenton who gets throttled, time and again, by the besser-wissers of the AIDS-throne, and their wrath only worsens as time progresses through the book, and their cherished assumptions are proved abjectly wrong.

As a first generation American dissident, I was struck by a quality in the U.K. AIDS debate that we thankfully lack here. It is a quality of European formality, of "complaints commissions", and "hearings", and characters like "Lady Anglesey" who Shenton aptly described as being "one of the 'great and the good'". My incredulity hit an all-time high (and I thought I'd heard everything) when the laughable dissident hater and pharmaceutical loyalist Duncan Campbell starts showing the "panel" his own video in which he'd re-interviewed some of Meditel's interviewees, collecting what sounded like minor disgruntlements over how their views had been portrayed. How can somebody be "misrepresented" when they are speaking on camera? The true distortion is the way in which dissident journalists are attacked, no matter what lengths they (we) go to be fair and thorough. What Campbell and his ilk are actually demanding is that journalism cease in the face of AIDS, this "terrible pandemic". When they call Shenton "murderous", it is a fascinating manifestation of projection. Rarely have I read such a vivid portrayal of the true dynamic of organised hysteria that exists between the AIDS and scientific establishment, the pharmaceutical industry, the media, the dissident media, and the so-called activists as in this fascinating and terrifying chapter titled "Fall Out".

Those of us who've been immersed in dissidentia for years are familiar with the arguments against HIV, AZT, the HIV test, and the putative virus itself. Shenton documents the flaws, anomalies, and mysteries with great tenacity and detail. But it is when she tells us stories that Shenton truly comes alive: The man in the Dominican Republic whose wife drinks bleach and dies an agonising death because she believes he has "AIDS" and who after her death, tests negative. The heart-breaking story of Arthur Rhodes, hospital painter, married with a 19-year old son, who pricked his finger after catching a box of used hypodermic needles he'd knocked off a window ledge. Frantic with worry about "the AIDS virus", he kills himself with carbon monoxide poisoning. Shenton has a profound understanding of the scope of the tragedy, and it is illuminated, suddenly and heart-stoppingly, when she allows us to walk with her – through Sub-Saharan Africa, and Berkeley, and London where we meet the real people and hear the real voices that spell out the horror of the modern AIDS machine. Shenton depicts a world darkened by censorship, and when her good-guy characters appear fire-fly like – in the form of doctors, nurses, scientists, and ordinary citizens – one feels a temporary relief...until they vanish again, engulfed by the darkness.

Shenton writes with what I would call classic British elegance and restraint, but the narrative is livened up each time she injects a bit of her personality and wit. "All I could see," complains the African Professor Kassi Manlan whom Shenton bumps into at the AIDS conference in Berlin, "was white women rolling condoms on to big black penises. It is très degoutant." Having had the pleasure of Ms. Shenton's company over the years, I've always regretted that her humour and personality could never be conveyed through the medium of film. I wish she had let it transfuse this book even more, but what is here is delightful. Describing the hostility of the 1993 Berlin AIDS Gonference, she writes, "all we could do every morning was set our faces into a concrete mould and wade through the sea of scowling faces."

And that is precisely what Shenton, with her "boys", (Verney-Elliott, Gildemeister, Adams) in tow has succeeded in maintaining composure under unimaginable and bizarre journalistic duress. She documents the attacks, but not self-pityingly; in the end it is her rabid opponents who wind up pinned like moths to a scientific exhibit of strange human behaviour. Shenton never for one moment relinquishes the pointing stick.

© 1998 by Celia Farber
Originally published in Continuum