As media storms go, Professor Dame Sally Davies’s admission that she tried hash as a student was no more than a light shower.
In the midst of the silly season with newspapers desperate for the faintest whiff of scandal, corruption and hypocrisy, journalists could muster no more than mild interest in the chief medical officer’s revelation of illicit substance abuse.
Even the Daily Mail, the All-bran of the nation’s moral digestive tract, struggled to squeeze out a bolus of outrage. The story started well enough, with a well loaded headline: “I’ve taken cannabis, says chief medical officer: Britain’s top doctor admits experimenting at university.”
Surely the story would go on to plumb the depths of our disgust with some carefully chosen contrasts between the health dame’s public pronouncements and her private depravity, building towards the inevitable “she must go” climax.
What about some grainy pictures of a zonked future health chief sharing a bong with fellow druggies or some revelations from unnamed “sources” about her prodigious skinning up skills?
The best the Mail’s reporter could offer in a decidedly class C intro was that Dame Sally “had experimented with cannabis three or four times at university but stopped after suffering hallucinations”.
Among other shocking revelations were that she had “deliberately cut down on drinking wine” and that BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour had named her the sixth most powerful woman in Britain, both points guaranteed to raise the blood pressure of the average Mail reader to dangerous levels but likely to provoke little excitement elsewhere.
Other papers barely registered the news. The Guardian irresponsibly chose to write about drugs policy and health issues, casually dismissing Dame Sally’s drug taking as a “fleeting experiment”, while The Independent broke ranks altogether and defended her against what it called “a tabloid frenzy”.
Nevertheless, the incident reveals several lapses of judgment on the CMO’s part, notably the failure to exploit a media opportunity for its full shock value.
So where did she go wrong?
1. She volunteered the information during an interview – it failed to leak from a third party or emerge in an otherwise underhand or embarrassing manner. The first rule of dealing with the media is that you never tell them anything. You let them find out. Otherwise it’s no fun.
2. She didn’t smoke hash but took it in the form of cookies. This is hopeless. Tobacco is sensationally dangerous in a way that eating cake almost never is.
3. She didn’t try to dissemble. Big mistake. Honesty and transparency are of no interest to the media. Compared with Bill Clinton’s failure to inhale or David Cameron’s refusal to discuss the matter at all (a tactic guaranteed to keep the speculation going for ever), Dame Sally’s admission that she tried it, didn’t like it and stopped just looks amateurish. What was she thinking?
4. She continued to make serious points about addiction and health, missing several valuable opportunities to look shifty and defensive. Again, a basic error for anyone hoping to mine the full potential from the story.
Of course, no one cares about 40 year-old misdemeanours. Everyone who lived through the 70s experimented with drugs except Ken Livingstone, who experimented with newts. Unless it happened in a BBC dressing room, it isn’t news.
So Dame Sally emerges from the light drizzle of adverse publicity without a stain on her character and with a disappointingly bland set of press cuttings.
The only disturbing aspect of the story is that it betrays a rather poor grasp of the science behind the drugs. The CMO went off hash cakes, she explains, when she started hallucinating – apparently unaware that getting stoned is a well-known side effect of cannabis.
At least she remembered to chew or the consequences might have been fatal.
-Cookery editor: Julian Patterson http://www.networks.nhs.uk/editors-blog/