The (soon to be) Network Formerly Known as the AVN

Just before midnight last Friday night (the 14th of December, 2012), some rather fantastic news broke.

New South Wales Fair Trading (a state government department) had that day issued Meryl Dorey, president of the Australian Vaccination Network, with a letter stating that after investigating several complaints made to the department regarding the misleading nature of the AVN’s name, it is the Commissioner’s opinion that the use of the name ‘Australian Vaccination Network’ by a group of anti-vaccinationists is against the public interest. The Commissioner then directed the AVN to change its name. The AVN have been given until the 21st of February 2013 to lodge an application for registration of change of name. If this is not done, the department may cancel the AVN’s registration, close the AVN down and seize their assets.

The full letter is available here. Thank you to Meryl Dorey for making it available to the public.

Several newspapers have run with this story, news.com.au gave us “Anti-vaccine group ordered to change name”, which the Herald Sun ran as “Minister orders anti-vaccination group to change name”, with added quotes from the president of the AMA, while The Daily Telegraph ran the truncated “Anti-jabs lobbyists warned”. A few highlights:

NSW Fair Trading Minister Anthony Roberts fired a broadside at the AVN, saying the information it provided was a public safety issue of “life and death”.

“This is not a victimless issue, it’s about the ability to stop pain and suffering,” he said.

Mr Roberts likened the AVN’s message to sanctioning speeding.

“People do not have the freedom of choice when it comes to endangering others … it’s the equivalent of saying a bloke can speed down the road and endanger others,” he said.

Mr Roberts said he was prepared for any appeals the AVN might make.

“This is an order, it is not a request,” he said.

“The Australian Vaccination Network does not present a balanced case for vaccination, does not present medical evidence to back up its claims and therefore poses a serious risk of misleading the community,” Mr Roberts said in a statement.

NSW Fair Trading Assistant Commissioner for Compliance and Enforcement Robert Vellar says the AVN’s name had misled parents seeking information.

“People are being confused about the true nature of the information they are being provided on the AVN website, the name is misleading,” he said.

The Northern Star, which is the local paper of the Northern Rivers region of New South Wales (which covers the town from which Meryl Dorey runs the AVN), published “Anti-vaccine group must change ‘misleading’ name. This article contains an unusual point worth noting – they attempted to contact Meryl Dorey for a statement, but she did not return their calls. Given Meryl Dorey’s usual eagerness to engage with the media, this is a strange event indeed.

northernstarheadline20121217

Here is the cover sheet which will be greeting Meryl at her local newsagency this week.
Many thanks to Alison Gaylard and her friend for snapping a photo and sharing it.

Unsurprisingly, Meryl Dorey has reacted quite strongly to the letter from the NSW Fair Trading and subsequent media attention. She published a lengthy post on her blog in response, entitled “Government puts the boot into the AVN, Democracy and the Truth”.

I do not have the time to review the entire post, but some highlights include:

The Department’s open cooperation with the AMA is analogous to them responding to complaints by mining companies about Greenpeace’s name. After all, Greenpeace is not green, nor do they go around looking for peace, therefore, would the Department tell them to change their name too? How about the Cancer Council? Couldn’t someone be misled into thinking that they are FOR cancer? And the Department of Health? Don’t get me started! The Department of Ill-Health would be more accurate in my opinion.

Greenpeace is not green. Say it with me, “Greenpeace is not green”.

A wonderfully skilled wordsmith of my acquaintance, Shellity, has written a poem in response to the above quote of Meryl’s, I heartily suggest you give it (and the rest of her blog) a read: “Nominal”.

As for the statement regarding the Cancer Council, no Meryl, it is highly unlikely that anybody could be led to believe that the Cancer Council were pro-cancer. It is a reasonable assumption though, they they are an authority on the subject and that they provide trustworthy evidence-based information regarding cancer. The same cannot be said for the Australian Vaccination Network with regards to the topic of vaccination.

Later in the blog post, when discussing NSW Fair Trading, Meryl quips that they “might consider changing that name because at least in the present situation, it is extremely misleading!”. I assume that this is a little Merylese bon mot, but it is hard to be certain.

Several paragraphs on is another statement I that would like to address.

Blog overlap

The letter from the Department was handed to my daughter at approximately 11:45 AM and the first article appeared in the Australian media approximately 10 hours ago. But Skeptic blogs started to announce this information approximately one hour before the media did. How do you think they came by this information? I really do wonder. Is there a direct line of communication between the Australian Skeptics, Stop the AVN (SAVN) and government departments? There is a long and open history of collusion between media outlets and various ‘skeptics’ so it is not impossible that they heard about this letter before the AVN had even received it. Is this collusion one of the reasons why these departments have been ‘putting the boot’ into us for the last 4 years at an apparent cost of millions of dollars to the taxpayer? Is the fact that many SAVN members are actually employed by government departments – and use their government email addresses when writing about the AVN and wanting to close us down – cause for concern? I will leave those questions with you to ponder.

Going by the time on the blog post announcement on the AVN’s Facebook page, 11:40am on Saturday the 15th of December (the post itself has no timestamp), the “approximately 10 hours ago” statement refers to 1:40am the same day.

I was online when the news broke, it first hit Twitter at 11:29pm on Friday evening. This linked to a paywalled version of the Herald Sun article, “Minister orders anti-vaccination group to change its name”, which refers to the 14th of December as ‘yesterday’ and is dated 12:00AM, December 15, 2012, but evidently went live at least half an hour before midnight.

The skeptic (I find the dramatic quotes quite unnecessary) bloggers who wrote posts about the news did so over the next hour; there’s a satirical piece by Dave The Happy Singer titled “Meryl Dorey to rename the Australian Vaccination Network Stop Stop The AVN” (posted at 12:26am Saturday) and a rightfully pleased announcement from Peter Bowditch on The Millenium Project on Ratbags.Com (posted 1:15am Saturday).

Kate from Stop the AVN has made a timeline graphic here, which helps clarify.

Both Dave and Peter’s blog posts refer to the article on the Herald Sun, which went online almost an hour before Dave’s post was made, giving both bloggers adequate time to write and publish. More to the point, both blog posts directly refer to the Herald Sun article and contain no information that is not included in the newspaper article.

Where then is Meryl getting the idea that skeptic bloggers had the information before the media published it? And is it then reasonable that she extrapolate from this the notion that the Australian Skeptics, SAVN and ‘government departments’ are illicitly sharing information and that the media is also in on the act? It’s a long and rather conspiracy-laden shot, Ms Dorey.

On the subject of unsubstantiated finger pointing, the AVN’s website went down on Sunday and this was the announcement:

blog20121218_01

(The “View all 8 comments link doesn’t reveal further comments when clicked on, three have been deleted – original post here)

Fortunately, the SAVN admins are people of many talents. Here, Dave Singer outlines why it is inaccurate to blame the AVN’s website problem on a DDOS attack:

blog20121218_02

(Original post and subsequent discussion here)

So what next for the AVN from here? I see four options, for them to change their name and complete the appropriate paperwork with all relevant authorities that that would entail, for them to continue with their current name and face being forcibly shut down by NSW Fair Trading, for them to disband in an act of grand martyrdom and for Meryl Dorey to lay low for a while or for them to apply for a right of review of the department’s direction with the Administrative Decisions Tribunal.

Either way, we live in interesting times and I am quite curious to see which direction this will progress in.

Further Reading (and some listening and watching):

Anti-Vac group told to change name – Tracey Spicer and Tim Webster on 2UE Radio discuss the NSW Department of Fair Trade’s decision with phone in guest Anthony Roberts, the Minister for Fair Trade (who is rather critical of the anti-vaccination movement and refers to groups such as the AVN as “nut jobs”). Audio available, I will link to a transcript if I see one about.

AVN ordered to change its name – An article on Australian Doctor’s website (professional credentials and login required to view full article).

Australian Vaccination Network ordered to change it’s name – The media release from the Minister for Fair Trading’s office, also published here on the Australian Healthcare and Hospitals Association’s website.

The AVN Asks – What’s in a Name? – The AVN’s official media release on the department’s direction. I’ll be sure to add links to any news services who run with the story.

AVN’s Meryl Dorey orders NSW Fair Trading to change its name – Another blog post from Dave the Happy Singer

NSW Government orders the AVN the change their name or face closure – A blog post on the Skeptics’ Book of Pooh Pooh

Panellists on ABC’s current events panel show The Drum discuss the AVN in a less than impressed manner. Thank you to Anne Blake for uploading the video.

Anti-vaccination network told to change its name or be shut down – An article on The Conversation by Rachael Dunlop

And now for some Jimmy Rustling of a different kind – And a blog post by landlockedseaotter

David Penberthy: Anti-vaccine set forced to fess up – An opinion piece by David Penberthy appearing in Adelaide Now endorsing NSW Fair Trading’s direction.

AVN – NSW Fair Trading Orders Name Change – Christine Bayne of Diluted Thinking has put together a brilliant run down of the correspondence between the AVN and NSW Fair Trading and the potential liabilities faced by AVN committee members.

I would like to note a special thanks to everyone over at Stop the Australian (anti)Vaccination Network, especially those who have been posting links and information as they’ve come across them. I have been a little overwhelmed recently, trying to work out how to balance university, parenting and getting enough sleep, so my participation and this blog (and the housework) have fallen by the wayside somewhat. I am hoping that after the holiday season is done, I will be able to rest and find the resources to put more time into both SAVN and writing.

If you are interested in supporting SAVN, you are very much welcome to like their Facebook page. SAVN also uses the hash tag #StopAVN on Twitter.

[Edit] 1:45pm 19/12/2012: Added links to the piece in The Conversation and landlockedseaotter’s post to the Further Reading section.

[Edit] 12:00pm 21/12/2012: Added links to David Penberthy’s article in Adelaide Now and Christine Bayne’s post at Diluted thinking to the Further Reading section.

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