Silence of the Mice

Yesterday I was on TV. Researchers at the Walter and Eliza Hall institute in Melbourne made a significant breakthrough on HIV, and the media needed someone to be the voice of positive people. In my PLWHA Victoria role, this duty falls to me.

It’s not often that the Australian news media take this much interest in HIV issues at all, and when they do it’s typically bad news, so it was refreshing to see this much interest in a ‘good news’ story. The fact that the news release had the words ‘HIV’ and ‘cure’ in it probably helped (the last time the commercial TV news became interested in HIV science, that news release had the ‘C’ word in it too, so I’m seeing a pattern; from now on all my news releases will have ‘HIV cure’ in the headline).

So I scrubbed up, borrowed a clean shirt (thanks Nathan), and choofed off to WEHI to do my bit for the cause. Here’s the resulting ABC TV News item. Read on over the page for the horrifying truth.

(The Channel 10 version is also available, on YouTube, if you’re really keen.)

TV journalism is my least favourite form of the craft, but I find the process fascinating and I don’t mind doing these tasks when they occasionally come up. As Nöel Coward said, “Television is not for looking at; is for appearing on.”

It also takes a phenomenal amount of time to produce. The two-minute story above took an hour and a half to shoot, and who knows how much longer to edit and produce. Most of this time is consumed by shooting “cutaways” – the shots of researchers looking into microscopes and mucking about with petri dishes, pipettes and so on. All of this is staged, of course, and involves a lot of coloured water. The journos joked a lot about how clichéd these shots are, but I feel for them – what else are you going to do?

If you watched the clip above, you will have also seen lots of cute little white mice, their red eyes observing the camera with curious delight. The news crews asked if they could get some lab mice brought up to the lab so they could film them, and the WEHI people happily complied. It took a little while but eventually the little scamps arrived, in their perspex cage, from the mouse lab, or mouse farm, or mouse house, or wherever it is they keep the mice.

TV news person: Oh, the mice are here. Let’s get some shots of one of the lab assistants working with the mice.

[Lab assistant sits down and starts pulling mice out of, and putting back into the cage. Cameramen ask for the guy to hold the mouse in his hands, let it climb on his arm, etc. Lab assistant duly complies and I'm struck by how docile and compliant the little fellas are.]

Me: If he drops the mouse, will it make a run for it? That could result in some compelling news footage.

Researcher: No, these mice live their entire lives in those cages; they don’t know anything else. If you put them down on the floor, they just sit there, looking confused.

TV news person: OK, we’re just about done with the mice. They can go back to their home in a few minutes.

Researcher: Oh, they won’t be going back. Once they’re taken out of the mouse lab they are contaminated, so these mice will be euthanised this afternoon.

TV news person: [who has turned white with horror] Oh well, I didn’t realise that. But they died for the greater good.

Me: I don’t think the Channel 10 evening news qualifies as ‘the greater good.”

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