Tears, shame, smoking and PR

Chrissie Swan and her management have attracted massive media attention in the aftermath of photos of her smoking being published. AAP/Tracey Nearmy

The past week has seen a torrent of news coverage about Chrissie Swan, who “confessed” to smoking while pregnant with her third child. The confession was followed by myriad commentators and op-eds criticising her inevitable critics.

Chrissie Swan is a media celebrity and radio presenter who came to prominence as a runner-up in Big Brother. She has previously attracted media attention around obesity, including a stint promoting Jenny Craig.

She reportedly attracted “vicious online comments” after she posed for media photographs with her apparently overweight children. At the time, she tweeted about criticisms that “the easiest thing to do is not read them at all. I never do”.

Some of the recent media comments about Swan were generated by Ian “Dicko” Dickson, a 2UE presenter, and also a director of the Watercooler talent + media, which is responsible for managing both Chrissie Swan’s affairs and (its “pet project”) the Channel Ten television program “Can of Worms”. Swan presents the show.

It seems safe to conclude that Swan enjoys media attention, is not unhappy about a touch of controversy, and is content that those involved with her management play up debates involving her.

Unravelling the precise sequence of events in the last week is difficult, given that much of the information seems to have come from Swan, those associated with her management, or media involved in purchasing and promoting photographs of her. That said, the story appears to have started when Swan was photographed smoking while pregnant with her third child.

Smoking is declining rapidly in Australia, and has fallen in pregnant women; but smoking in pregnancy remains a concern, particularly among young women from disadvantaged backgrounds, and with low educational attainment.

Swan apparently attempted to buy the photographs, but was unsuccessful. She then took to her radio program where “she emotionally broke down” as she “tearfully confessed” to what she called her “shameful secret”. She has described herself as a “not really smoker”.

I never smoked at home and I never smoked around my family. I’d just sneak a few here and there… Mainly I would do it in the car…when I was certain that I was alone.

Nonetheless, her emotional “confession” attracted monster media coverage.

Reaction from health experts asked for comment was empathetic, supportive, and careful to avoid demonising Swan. My comments, initially reported in the Sydney Morning Herald, then more widely, started:

One of first things I want to say is it’s really important that we recognise (that) for many people smoking is addictive. For some people it is very hard to quit, and so I think great credit to Chrissie Swan for speaking publicly about her concern…I do think it’s important she does look forward now and not back - and doesn’t blame herself for things going wrong..It would be awful if she felt angst every moment of the day.

Others took a similar line, noting, as I did, the range of GP and other services and supports available to people who want help quitting. No health groups or experts of whom I am aware attacked or condemned Swan.

Chrissie Swan during her stint as a Jenny Craig ambassador. AAP/MarkComms

But the story ran and ran. Headline after headline: Leave Chrissie Swan and other pregnant women alone; Pregnant women who smoke are easy targets for the morality police; and When we attack Chrissie Swan, we’re essentially attacking ourselves.

Then, the op-eds and columns. In Lay off Chrissie Swan for smoking while pregnant, a Tasmanian sociology lecturer writing on this site even wrongly claimed that efforts to reduce smoking in pregnant women have been ineffective, using a 2001 US polemic as the source. And others made claims such as Chrissie should be supported, not shamed.

So, who are the critics? And what does the “tide of public criticism” comprise?

Some websites have attracted silly and unpleasant comments from the kind of people who make silly and unpleasant comments on websites. There’s nothing new about trolls: anyone in the public eye is aware that there are nasty people out there who write nasty things from the anonymity of website commentary.

And even the quickest scan through website comments on Chrissie Swan shows that she has fans and critics aplenty, hardly surprising for someone whose rise to celebrity status started with Big Brother.

But that’s it. Website trolls only.

Meantime, “Dicko” Dickson, from Ms Swan’s management group, told his radio audience that she was willing to pay up to $10,000 for the photographs. And media now report that her final offer was $53,000, but that Women’s Day paid $55,000. The editor of this publication has claimed that the photographs “are currently dividing the nation”, and that the episode has “sparked one of the most significant debates in women’s health in years”.

Swan has ensured the story keeps running with a hyperbole-laden article in the Sunday papers that includes lines such as, “I realised the whole of Australia would want to hang me…”.

Smoking in pregnancy exposes both mother and child to substantial risks, and it would clearly be better for both Swan and her child if she were not a smoker. It also appears that her dramatic “confession” and tears were sparked by a press photographer, rather than concern to get health messages out.

Quite what a “not really” smoker is, how much Ms Swan “really” smoked, and how much help she sought in quitting will probably remain mysteries forever. At the end of the day, a photographer is $55,000 richer; Woman’s Day will promote more coverage to recoup its investment; and some commentators have attacked Swan’s critics, generally without noting that these are bottom-feeders from often spiteful websites.

Health organisations continue to encourage all smokers to quit. Those who need help can call the Quitline (13 78 48), go to assorted websites, or talk with their GP. Meantime, Swan and her management have attracted massive media attention, which for them may be the most important outcome of the episode.

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