Journalism union condemns ‘out-dated homophobic tropes’ in PrEP coverage

Illustrated rainbow pride flag on a pink background.

The National Union of Journalists has condemned parts of the media for spreading “out-dated homophobic tropes” in coverage of HIV-preventing PrEP drugs.

Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP) drug Truvada can reduce people’s chances of being infected with HIV by up to 99 percent if taken daily – and is available in a number of countries to at-risk groups including sex workers, gay men, and people in serodiscordant relationships.

Health experts say rolling out PrEP in the UK would be cost-effective if it leads to even a small reduction in HIV infections, as the lifetime cost of just one HIV infection can be up to £380,000.

NHS England had declined to make a decision on the drugs earlier this year, suggesting it was up to local councils – but the High Court this week ruled that NHS England is indeed responsible for commissioning the drugs after a challenge from an HIV charity.

The Daily Mail led with the story yesterday, claiming that the use of the drug represents a “skewed sense of values” because it “encourages” risky sexual behaviour.

The paper claimed that the cost of the “£5000-a-year lifestyle drug” would mean that people would be denied cataract surgery due to the cost of the service, even though NHS England has carried out no official cost-effectiveness assessment of the drug.

The story also cites the price of branded medication. Generic PrEP drugs cost less than £500 a year – a chunk of which would be covered by the standard prescription charge. Even if branded medication is used, the total cost of an initial PrEP rollout is estimated as £10-20 million per year, with money saved in the long term due to the reduction in HIV infections.

Even if branded medication is used, the total cost of an initial PrEP rollout is estimated as £10-20 million per year, with money saved in the long term due to the reduction in HIV infections.

Michelle Stanistreet, the general secretary of the National Union of Journalists, warned about the misleading coverage.

She said: “LGBT NUJ members have contacted the union today in response to the Daily Mail’s front page which chose to regurgitate out-dated homophobic tropes that we had hoped had gone away by now.

“It is not just gay men who are affected by HIV and medicine is not a lifestyle choice.

“It is deeply troubling that the Mail continues to pit members of the public against each other when accessing healthcare – the NHS should be adequately funded by the government so it can care for all of us.”

The NUJ Code of Conduct states: “A journalist strives to ensure that information disseminated is honestly conveyed, accurate and fair. A journalist does her/his utmost to correct harmful inaccuracies.

“A journalist produces no material likely to lead to hatred or discrimination on the grounds of a person’s age, gender, race, colour, creed, legal status, disability, marital status, or sexual orientation”.

The story was also picked up by the Times, who contradictorily reported claims PrEP would lead to “children with cystic fibrosis will be refused a drug to help them breathe”.

Meanwhile, Channel 5’s Wright Stuff reported it as “£20M HIV DRUG FOR GAYS WHO WON’T USE CONDOMS” – though the show’s presenter Matthew Wright insisted coverage was fair and balanced.

Speaking to PinkNews, Labour’s Shadow Health Secretary Diane Abbott branded some of the media coverage of PrEP “homophobic”.

She said: “I am horrified by the homophobic media coverage of the court decision on PrEP.

“If it was any other life-saving drug the media would be applauding the campaigners who won the court victory.

“Instead they are claiming that gay men are taking NHS funding that properly belongs to more ‘deserving’ sick people. And homophobic assertions are made about gay men’s lives.

“It all shows how much homophobia is, just below the surface, in society.”