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Monday 08 November 2010

A Collective unease

Posted in: HIV
By Jay Bennie - 29th June 2010

As the NZ AIDS Foundation works towards creating an online version of the country's main publication for HIV positive people, the huge majority of whom are gay and bi men, questions are emerging regarding whether the Foundation is the right publisher for Collective Thinking.

Underlying this unease are suspicions voiced to that the quarterly magazine has become somewhat less of a forthright and independent publication by and for HIV positive people and more of a 'house publication' which intentionally or not reflects the NZAF's own culture and agendas.

Right up front it has to be acknowledged that these suspicions have been brought to us by people who don't want to put their names publicly to their questions and who seem unconvinced that taking their concerns directly to the Foundation will achieve anything. In a small country with a small gay, bi and HIV positive population all who voiced their concerns about Collective Thinking say they feel constrained by their dealings with the NZAF on other levels.


Started in 1988 by a Wellington-based collective of men living with HIV, Collective Thinking, or CT for short, has more recently washed up on the shores of the NZAF because, it advises, the nation's HIV peer support groups could not reach consensus on who else should publish it. CT is published with funding provided by the Ministry of Health. Like all publishers the NZAF is saddled with legal responsibility for CT and therefore must exert some control over its contents regarding editorial accuracy, quality and target readership. But it's the issue to issue editorial independence and direction which are being questioned. approached CT co-editor, Jack Dragicevich, asking to discuss the relationship between the editors and the Foundation and some specifics which had been raised with us regarding CT's minimal coverage of issues surrounding the most far-reaching HIV story of 2009, the Glenn Mills tragedy. Dragicevich says neither he nor his co-editor, Chris Banks, a past communications specialist at the NZAF, are at liberty to comment on the publication they create as "we are in effect in the position of private contractors to the NZAF" and their contracts include "legally binding confidentiality clauses." Dragicevich directed questions to the Foundation.

Rachael Le Mesurier
Collective Thinking, according to the Foundation's Executive Director Rachael Le Mesurier, is a newsletter for people living with, or affected by HIV, for their supporters and health professionals with an interest in HIV. "Since 2005, the editorial position for CT has been sub-contracted to ensure HIV positive people’s input. Currently there are two sub-contracted editors, one of whom is living with HIV."

Le Mesurier underscores the status of Dragicevich, who is HIV positive, and Banks by stating that neither are NZAF employees. Who are they accountable to? "The contract they have is with the NZAF," is the initial response. Asked for clarification she says the pair's contracts are managed by the NZAF's Director Positive Health Services. Those contracts specify "deliverables, such as one lead article, local news, international news, etc."

The direction of each edition of Collective Thinking is developed by the co-editors, according to the Foundation. "The NZAF Director Positive Health Services is available to assist with sourcing information and any contacts; for example the insurance company cited in the edition on life insurance or clinicians who may contribute to articles on treatments."

"The NZAF has a commitment to its readers to ensuring that CT has a balance of articles that covers issues related to men, women and children living with HIV, their families, health professionals, and other organisations," says Le Mesurier. Certainly the Glenn Mills affair raised many issues directly relating to people with HIV.

Gay writer and one-time past editor of CT, John Catt, is surprised the publication didn't address issues made topical by the Mills affair such as disclosure fears, imbalances of power in sexual relationships, loss of erections with condoms, or the sudden re-appearance of HIV positive people as a controversial public issue. "Collective Thinking should be a forum for HIV positive people to get information, to share information and which covers in depth the issues which affect HIV positive people from time to time, " he says.

"As an editor," says Catt, "one expects to have a certain degree of autonomy." Although his brief editorship under the NZAF was some years ago, "I never experienced any problems with veto-ing back then."

So who decides what to put in and what to leave out of the country's best-resourced and widest-distributed HIV Positive people's publication? CT's editors "decide in consultation with the NZAF Director Positive Health Services on the content of each issue," advises Le Mesurier "to ensure there is balance and the articles are relevant to the different readers of CT." She says the co-editors write the copy and send it to NZAF communications staff who check it "for grammar, consistency, spelling, punctuation, word count and any other aspect relating to the NZAF style guide, etc."

The NZAF communications staff then send the checked copy to a designer, it is returned for final proofing, then printed and distributed.

Le Mesurier is adamant that decisions on which articles to use, which news stories to cover, or which pieces to develop into features are made solely by the co-editors. "The NZAF genuinely tries not to over-represent an NZAF viewpoint in the articles in CT but if any readers feel this is not the case feedback is always welcome and appreciated."


But it wouldn't take reader feedback to note that in the fourteen months and counting since the Mills affair became a contentious public talking point CT only acknowledged the matter twice. Once in a brief item acknowledging the upswing in requests for tests at HIV testing clinics, but with the NZAF being remarkably reticent about characterising the people asking for tests or even quantifying the up-swing. Body Positive, the HIV Positive people's peer support group also quoted in the item, was much more forthcoming. Dragicevich's editorial in the same issue gave a quick and thoughtful rundown of his perspective on the issues raised and then... silence.

Does the NZAF feel CT's coverage of the issues arising from the case has been commensurate with the significance of, or interest in, the Glenn Mills affair as it passed through its various phases? "CT is published three or four times per year and news about this case changed on a week-by-week, sometimes daily basis, so complete and timely coverage of the events as they happened was logistically impossible," Le Mesurier says. "Please remember that the NZAF wanted to have a balanced approach and we believe the coverage was sufficient. It is important to remember that the NZAF has a duty to all people living with HIV and this story had to be handled with sensitivity – the charges are still strictly speaking ‘alleged’ because they were never proven."

"It is also worth noting that provided extensive coverage on an almost daily basis and other media outlets like Close Up and print media covered the story as well," she says. "The NZAF issued several media releases at this time and commented extensively on the case."

Those who feel Collective Thinking, which is not a fast-turn around medium and has time and space for reflection and in-depth backgrounder coverage, is too much a reflection of an overly cautious, even defensive, NZAF public relations policy, also feel that the NZAF was rarely quoted anywhere on the specific implications of the Mills case in the general media.

The Foundation says it was quoted "extensively" in numerous articles and news reports but two reporters involved in coverage of the affair for major national newsrooms feel the NZAF was overly restrictive in the information it was prepared to make available.

Reluctant to put their names to their criticisms of the Foundation as they are still employed by news organisations, they nonetheless wanted their observations made public. "[Peer support group] Body Positive clearly became the go-to contact on this issue," says a senior journalist at the country's biggest newspaper. "Looking back through our coverage, the NZAF wouldn't even say how many people had come in for testing!"

Body Positive, it might be noted, is not funded to deal with media enquiries, unlike the NZAF which has a dedicated communications team, funded by the Ministry of Health. "Rather than shutting down discussion, Body Positive's spokesperson was able to get some educative issues before the public and didn't shy away from the tough issues," says the newspaperman. "All during the hot period of the story it certainly wasn't the NZAF which engaged with anyone... it seemed to have a closed mind approach."

"It was difficult to get anything more than the simplistic 'use condoms and lube' from the NZAF," says a journalist who covered the affair for a mainstream radio network news operation. He is surprised that the NZAF showed no initiative to grasp the issue and use it to pump up public awareness of matters highlighted by the case, within the bounds of normal legal and judicial constraints. "Other organisations see such high-profile stories as a good and free opportunity to get a wider reach and awareness," he says. He believes the Foundation "didn't seem to have a good grasp on what was happening and how to respond to it or use it."

But the Foundation says it commented in significant detail on the case, including aspects such as disclosure, legal issues including the Public Health Act, prejudice and discrimination, anxieties experienced by people connected with Mills, contact tracing, increases in testing and much more.

Real or not, the perception of an 'arms length' attitude by the Foundation in dealing with the Mills situation thus seems to reinforce the concerns of those worried about CT's almost absent coverage of issues arising from the case. What instructions or guidance did the NZAF give the CT editors regarding coverage arising for HIV positive men in the wake of the Glenn Mills affair? "None, other than to ensure that legal obligations relating to media coverage of the court case were met."

"Legal obligations were met... but no one took the initiative," sighs one of the HIV positive men who raised the initial concerns. "Somebody in there needs to get off their arse on this kind of thing... it reinforces to me that the Foundation is totally the wrong environment to be overseeing the publication of CT."


If a group of HIV-positive people formed which was willing, and had sufficient expertise, to oversee and 'publish' the CT publication or proposed website, would the NZAF consider relinquishing some or all aspects of it? A frontrunner for the role might be the newly-formed National Collective of People Living with HIV which represents most of the nation's HIV positive people's peer support organisations. "The NZAF is interested in talking to the National Collective on a range of possible otions including CT and other services - some provided by NZAF and others not," says Le Mesurier.

One of the her concerns is that any future arrangement for the publication of CT should take into account others living with the virus, "because while gay and bisexual men are disproportionately affected by HIV they are not the only people affected by HIV in New Zealand. Women, children and people from New Zealand’s African communities experience marginalisation within an already marginalised group (people living with HIV) so Collective Thinking must address their needs and issues as well."

Le Mesurier says CT also "provides evidence-based and clinically credible information for clinicians and health professionals who provide support and clinical care to people with HIV, and for the friends , family and whānau of people living with HIV."

Significant changes to Collective Thinking, such as "that contracted work being contracted to another organisation," would need to ensure it continues to be "based on what the broad range of HIV positive people, their whanau and their key health professionals believed would be in the best interest of those living with HIV," says Le Mesurier. "So the only ‘condition’ to any change would be a thorough and independent survey of the views of the range of people living with HIV, their whanau, HIV peer support organisations, the Ministry of Health and clinicians."

Jay Bennie - 29th June 2010

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