To the Media Who Promoted Faux “Wellness Guru” Belle Gibson​: No, You​ Don’t Get to Criticize Her Lack of Apology

Kylie Willey was suffering the agony of cancer and the sickness of chemotherapy when a friend told her of a true miracle. Sweet, young, and lovely fellow Australian Belle Gibson (below) had recently enchanted national media with her inspiring story of healing multiple terminal cancers by quitting chemotherapy and switching to things that feel “good and nurturing.” 

(Image from 9 News on YouTube)

The 26-year-old’s holistic-lifestyle blog, book, and phone app, all titled The Whole Pantry, advised cancer patients to switch to yoga, meditation, colonics, oxygen therapy, craniosacral therapy (a type of energy-healing head massage), herbalism, and a diet free of dairy, gluten, preservatives, refined sugars, and GMOs.

Gibson was revolutionary in bringing mainstream credibility and appeal to alternative medicine. Respected old literary houses Penguin and Simon & Schuster had published her book, and national journalists and TV anchors agreed her message was true and exciting. Apple had flown her to the U.S. to develop her app, nominated it for App of the Year, and announced its inclusion with its prestigious new Apple watch, driving it to number one in sales with hundreds of thousands of downloads.

Feeling inspired, Kylie bought Belle’s book, The Whole Pantry and downloaded her app.

She looked amazing! So beautiful, healthy — all by refusing chemo. I felt like I’d made such a mistake listening to the doctors. What if I’d been sucked in by a big pharmaceutical conspiracy?’ the 40-year-old recalls.

Belle’s story had a profound effect on the struggling mum, who decided to stop her cancer treatment after reading up on Belle’s materials and story.

‘If Belle could do it, and her cancer seemed as bad as mine, then I could — so I refused chemo,’ Kylie says.

The title of Willey’s story? “Belle Gibson Almost Killed Me: how the fraudulent health guru’s lies could have been fatal.”

A preview of the story was released online yesterday for New Idea‘s newsstand edition, so I don’t know whether her survival was due to good fortune or returning to chemo. (I’ll issue an update later). 

What we do know is that Belle Gibson never had cancer, didn’t heal a thing, lied about her age (she is actually only 23), and perpetrated a hoax on a grand scale that made her a millionaire. And we know that probability suggests there are more Kylie Willeys in the world, not all of whom may have been so fortunate.

I wrote about Gibson here after The Australian investigated her in March, forcing her to admit she never had cancer.

It can’t be emphasized enough: the Belle Gibson phenomenon was primarily a product of the media.  Here was a very young woman without medical training dispensing life-or-death medical advice, promoting homeopathy, opposing fluoridation, and claiming a vaccine gave her cancer. How could so many outlets tout her story without feeling a responsibility to fact-check her claims? As I wrote earlier, there were many clues she had no idea what she was talking about and was quite possibly a fraud. Since then, I’ve seen more, such as her warning against chlorine in water, followed in the next breath by urging people to buy “natural” toilet paper to help save African children dying from diarrhea-related disease.

There’s a darkly amusing moment in one early TV interview with Gibson when Sydney’s Seven News anchor Samantha Armytage compliments her with: “For a person living with brain cancer, might I add, you look incredibly healthy.”

As Vice pointed out,

For the record, primary tumors (those which start in the brain) have one of the highest mortality rates of all cancers. If Gibson’s story was true, she was definitely defying all odds. And yet, no one thought it was strange a girl with this level of cancer was jetting off around the world and living an extremely active lifestyle.

Last week Gibson was interviewed by Australia’s 60 Minutes, and it’s a difficult watch.  Reporter Tara Brown is fierce, presenting documents that confirm Gibson’s lies and asking her if she’s a pathological liar who drove people away from cancer treatments that work. Gibson is distraught but without remorse, insisting that she is the real victim.

Sitting face-to-face with Brown, Gibson teared up as she told how she “lost everything” after her cancer confession came to light.

But Gibson maintained that she didn’t deceive her followers or the public. She argued that she had been deceived. Gibson said she was told by an immunologist and neurologist, ‘Mark Johns’, that she had terminal brain cancer after he diagnosed her using a ‘frequency’ machine in her home several years ago.

“He went to my home and did a series of tests. There was a machine with lights on the front. There are two metal pads, one below the chair and one behind your back, measuring frequencies and then he said to me that I had a stage four brain tumour and that I had four months to live.

“At the time, I believed I was having radio therapy. When he gave me medication, I was told it was oral chemotherapy and I believed it.”

60 Minutes has not been able to find any record of a ‘Mark Johns’.

After the interview, Gibson handed over her medical records to 60 Minutes which showed that she had a brain scan at the Alfred Hospital in Melbourne in 2011, two years before she started to market her sob story… [and] that she had a 40-minute consultation with a neurologist there who told her that her brain scans were clear.

It’s a ludicrous mess that should have sent up warning flags from day one. The media has since exploded with theories about what makes Belle tick — depression and other mental disorders, childhood trauma, self-esteem issues, often laced with sympathy.  But it seems to me she openly handed us the real key with these words that have been largely passed over by other writers covering the interview:

I’ve not been intentionally untruthful. I’ve been completely open when speaking about what was my reality and what is my reality now… It doesn’t match your normal or your reality.

I don’t know if it takes experience in skepticism, Humanism, or naturalism to see the problem with those words, but what a dramatic example of why we need to keep speaking out about the potential harm in New Age talk of “my reality” and “my truth” which we’re expected to unquestioningly respect.

While the media is tut-tutting Gibson’s lack of remorse, what’s far more interesting to me is their own lack of remorse.

Take the Sydney Morning Herald, whose headline was “Belle Gibson on 60 Minutes: don’t expect an apology.”  The paper condemns her roundly:

The Whole Pantry founder’s declaration that “I have lost everything” is also a far cry from the truth to the cancer sufferers and fans she callously deceived for her own personal gain. Gibson’s reputation may be in tatters, but she has not lost anything she was entitled to in the first place.

She is 23 years old, she is healthy, and astonishingly, she has not been held to account.

It is unknown whether Penguin Publishing and tech giant Apple — both who saw dollar signs in Gibson’s against-all-odds survival story but didn’t bother to check whether it was actually true — will take legal action against her.

But where is the Herald’s apology for profiting from promoting her phone app?

Five years ago Belle Gibson was told she had a brain tumour that could kill her within four months. Today the tumour is still there, under often personally challenging treatment, and Gibson has founded and is running a Melbourne-based iPhone/iPad app company with a global audience.

The app, The Whole Pantry, came out of 25-year-old Gibson’s determination not to be crushed by her cancer… [and] offers advice on yoga and holistic medicine.

They also praised her in a story about her “triumph:”

The 25-year-old Melbourne mother was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer back in 2009 when she was given three months to live. Shortly after, she gave up on chemotherapy and radiation therapy and chose to change her diet and lifestyle.

Late Apple co-founder Steve Jobs delayed conventional treatment for nine months when he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, preferring to use alternative remedies. He died in October 2011. The subject is close to Apple’s heart.

It was downloaded 200,000 times in the first month, rating as number 1 in the Apple App Store, and has stayed popular ever since. It has now been chosen by Apple as one of the first few featured in the Apple Watch.

In April, the Herald even ran a piece criticizing her critics, asking “Does public shaming serve any good purpose, or is it a hateful mob response to loathsome behaviour?”

Where’s the remorse from the Sydney Daily Telegraph for its November Sunday Magazine profile of her that escalated the frenzy, with her claim of cancer healing but that a vaccine gave her a stroke and brain cancer?

Instagram is full of inspirational quotes, but few ring as true as those posted by @Healing_Belle’s Belle Gibson.

Gibson was 20 when her current health issues began. She believes she had a reaction to the Gardasil HPV cervical cancer vaccine.

Gibson experienced vision, memory and walking problems, then had a stroke. Subsequently she was diagnosed with malignant brain cancer, and given four months to live. Two months into chemotherapy and radiotherapy she passed out on a Melbourne hospital lawn…

She says her doctors thought she was mad when she gave up conventional treatment in favour of alternatives including herbalism and craniosacral therapy…

A year after eschewing traditional medicine, Gibson, a vegetarian who doesn’t eat dairy, gluten, preservatives, refined sugars or GMO foods, again confounded medical experts.

Let’s look at News.com.au, Australia’s most popular news website. It described the “wrath of the public” after the 60 Minutes interview and the interviewer who “was clearly fed up with her storytelling” for “market[ing] her sob story to the public for profit and adulation. A separate opinion piece by one of its editors commented

She should absolutely have made a universal apology. To those she gave false hope to, to the people who donated to her cause, to those who took her at her word.

But where is their apology? They repeatedly promoted her for their own profit as well, hyping her book, publishing her claim that a vaccine started her troubles, and writing a gushing profile about her “pure truth”:

If anyone bragged they were a game changer, odds are you’d call them up themselves. But coming from Belle Gibson, it’s pure truth… When conventional medicine let her down, she turned to alternative therapies and confounded doctors…

After two months of chemotherapy and radiation therapy, she gave it up having passed out for several hours alone in a park… and chose to change her diet and lifestyle, including immersing herself in therapies such as salt, vitamin and Ayurvedic treatments, oxygen therapy and colonics.

Now that this outlet has detected a growing public mood of sympathy for Gibson, it’s bizarrely criticizing 60 Minutes for not “protecting” her from backlash due to its story:

So what did Channel 9 do to protect Gibson from the social media fall out? When contacted to ask if counselling had been put in place either prior to or post the interview, the network declined to comment.

The story quotes a psychologist on his overwhelming feeling of sympathy and concern that Gibson was “exploited” by 60 Minutes, who he says should have provided psychological support. What the hell kind of deflection is this? Since when are journalists expected to arrange support counseling for the con artists they interview to protect them from any backlash? Why aren’t they instead worrying about their deficiency in basic journalism?

How about Penguin Books?  Are they remorseful for failing to fact-check before publishing her story? Of course not! they answered. Why? Because they “did not feel this was necessary as The Whole Pantry is a collection of food recipes.” They didn’t mention that their marketing used the hoax story in the beginning of the book and in their blurbs.

What of Apple’s remorse, since people there worked relentlessly to push her into the public eye?  They’ve refused to comment.

Where is Simon & Schuster’s remorse for publishing her book in America, whose shipment was stopped when the hoax was revealed? Or for promoting her bogus claims on their “Tips for Healthy Living” website (now removed but still on Facebook and captured by a caching site) with an utterly absurd pseudoscientific article by Gibson called “Why You Need to Detox Every Day.”

I know this is a stupid question, but… where is the remorse from the holistic community for heralding her claims? In case you were wondering — which I doubt you were — I found no mea culpas there. Here’s a sample of their reactions:

Miranda Partridge, “nutritional medicine practitioner, wellness coach and lifestyle blogger, “ angrily vlogged that “bullying [Gibson] by calling her names doesn’t make us any better than her.” 

Amanda Henham, “holistic clinical nutritionist,” rebutted articles criticizing Gibson’s pseudoscience with this laughable line: “I have a Science degree. Nutritional medicine is not ‘pseudo-science’. Without nutrients, people die.” Well that certainly clears that up; western medicine will have to rewrite its texts with this breaking news.

Reiki holistic healer Shannon, writer for Australia’s  WellBeing, Nourish, and Australian Natural Health, whines: “Gibson may have lied about her own journey, but what is the harm in having people explore other options? …We are our own cures and it’s not for anyone to tell anyone else how to do it.”

In social media, most comments tended toward anger solely directed at Gibson. Almost none took issue with the media’s lack of fact-checking. A great many were upset about the “bullying” and shaming of poor Belle, like these on 60 Minutes’ Facebook page:

  • Shame on you 60 minutes for obviously taking advantage of this girl and being more concerned about your ratings then this girl’s mental health. For Tara Brown to sit there in judgement of this girl was appalling.
  • She would’ve been better off appearing on Dr Phil and get some help instead of the disgraceful judgemental woman she’s being interviewed by on 60 minutes… This interview has potentially made her feel worse.
  • Shame on you 60 minutes. Leave the girl alone …..she’s already hurting.
  • Condescending, negligent and irresponsible… there should have been support and a level of understanding and help provided to her.

It was reported on Friday that Gibson is now being investigated in court by a regional consumer protection agency for marketing products with false claims — both of the cancer and of promises to share the proceeds with charity, which she never did.

MSN Australia asks “at what point do we say enough is enough of the public shaming Belle Gibson will endure?”

I would answer: Now is fine. Not out of concern for Belle Gibson, but to shift the public shaming to your industry, where it might do far more good.

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