John le Carre lashes out at capitalism
lnp3 at SPAMpanix.com
Mon Dec 18 17:53:14 MST 2000
The Vancouver Sun, December 16, 2000
Le Carre "sickened" by crimes of unbridled capitalism
John le Carre's latest novel, The Constant Gardener, begins with the murder
of Tessa Quayle, the wife of a British diplomat in Nairobi, who fell foul
of a pharmaceutical giant. She was about to expose the cynical use of
Africans as guinea pigs. She died.
Here, in an interview with The Spectator offered to The Vancouver Sun, the
author explains why he is enraged at the behaviour of multinational drugs
companies, and why, as he puts in the novel's postscript, "by comparison
with the reality, my novel was as tame as a holiday postcard."
By John le Carre
Undated - From my very first book to this one, my central characters -
whether we're talking about George Smiley or Justin Quayle in The Constant
Gardener - have been forced to ask themselves what they owe to Caesar and
what they owe to their consciences. Or so it seems to me now, with the
bland assurance of hindsight. In The Constant Gardener the search for a
solution reaches its summation. I seem to have written' what the Germans
would call a Bildungsroman - a novel of searching and growing up. And the
recipient of that education, and ultimately its victim, is Justin Quayle,
where in some earlier books it might have been George Smiley.
Times have changed since the Cold War but not half as much as we might like
to think. The Cold War provided the perfect excuse for Western governments
to plunder and exploit the Third World in the name of freedom, to rig its
elections, bribe its politicians, appoint its tyrants, and, by every
sophisticated means of persuasion and interference, stunt the emergence of
young democracies in the name of democracy. Which is why many influential
people in the United States, and in Russia too, would like nothing better
than to put the clock back. Bush versus Putin? They'd love it. So would
Wall Street. No more damned ecologists to worry about: this is war. Arid no
more arms control. Let's go for it. And while they did this - whether in
South-east Asia, Central and South America, or Africa - a ludicrous notion
took root that we are saddled with to this day. It is a notion beloved of
conservatives and, in my country, New Labour alike. It makes Siamese twins
of Tony Blair, Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W.
Bush and that rich liberal Oil Boy supposedly converted to conservation, Al
Gore. It holds to its bosom the conviction that, whatever profit-driven
corporations do in the short term, they are ultimately motivated by ethical
concerns, and their influence upon the world is therefore beneficial - and
so God help us all.
In the name of this deluded theory, we look on, apparently helpless, while
rainforests are wrecked to the tune of millions of square miles every year,
native agricultural communities are systematically deprived of their
livelihoods, uprooted and made homeless, protesters are hanged and shot,
the loveliest corners of the globe are invaded and desecrated, and tropical
paradises are turned into rotting wastelands with sprawling, disease-ridden
mega-cities at their centre.
And of all these crimes of unbridled capitalism - some of them, like the
present oil war in central Sudan, bordering on genocide - it seemed to me,
as I began to cast round for a story to illustrate the argument, that the
pharmaceutical industry offered me the most eloquent example. I might have
gone for the scandal of spiked tobacco, deliberately designed by Western
manufacturers to cause addiction - and cancer - in communities already
plagued with AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria and pover- ty on a scale few of us
can imagine. I might have gone for the oil companies and the impunity with
which Shell for instance triggered a vast human disaster in Nigeria,
displacing tribes, polluting their land and causing an uprising that led to
kangaroo courts and the shameful torture and execution of very brave men.
But the pharmaceutical world, once I entered it, got me by the throat and
wouldn't let me go. It had everything: the hopes and dreams we have of it;
its vast, partly realized potential for good, and its pitch-dark underside,
sustained by corporate cant, hypocrisy, corruption and greed. And it is not
only the obvious sins that the pharma giants have to answer for: the
dumping of inappropriate or out-of-date medicines on people they reckon
won't know the difference; the arbitrary overpricing of their products,
underpinned by the draconian exercise of patent rights. It is not the
deliberate widening of a drug's specifications at whatever cost to the
patient in order to broaden its sales base - so that, for instance, a drug
that in Britain or the U.S. would be prescribed only for extreme cancer
pain is represented to Africans as a simple headache cure. It is not even
the suppression of contra-indications and side-effects, and the repeated
campaigns, supported by the U.S. government, to halt the manufacture of
generic drugs by countries that can't afford inflated Western prices. When
the Thais wanted to manufacture their own generic drugs, for instance, the
U.S. state department threatened to impose sanctions on the import of Thai
No, it's bigger even than all that - and, in the long run, worse. The
pharmas, whether they know it or not, are engaged in the systematic
corruption of the medical profession, country by country.
Do we ever think to ask our GP, when he or she prescribes a drug for us,
whether he or she is being paid by the drug company to prescribe it? Of
course we don't. It's our child. Our wife. It's our heart or kidney or
prostate. And, thank God, most doctors have refused the bait. But others
have not, with the consequence, in the worst cases, that their medical
opinions are owned not by their patients but by their sponsors.
Do we ever ask our governments to tell us what cash payments and benefits
in kind are on offer to our doctors from the pharmaceutical companies - the
"seminars" and "training courses" in sunny holiday resorts, with free
travel for yourself and your partner, and accommodation thrown in?
Do we ever ask our corner-street pharmacist when he hands us the latest
new-blue, all-conquering headache cure, why it costs six times as much as a
bottle of Aspirin, and what exactly it does that Aspirin can't do? Mostly
we are simply too diffident, too scared, too lazy, too polite.
Do we ever ask ourselves just why the pharmas have taken to direct
advertising, to us the public, over the heads of the medical profession?
Do we ever stop to wonder what happens to supposedly impartial academic
medical research when giant pharmaceutical companies donate whole biotech
buildings and endow professorships at the universities and teaching
hospitals where their products are tested and developed?
There has been a steady trickle of alarming cases in recent years where
inconvenient scientific findings have been suppressed or rewritten, and
those responsible for them hounded off their campuses with their
professional and personal reputations systematically trashed by the
machinations of public-relations agencies in the pay of the pharmas. In the
Constant Gardener I made an amalgam of these unfortunate cases and called
them Lara. She is a chemical research scientist in Canada - hounded by the
pharma giant that hired her, and by the academic colleagues whose
livelihoods, like hers, depend on its favour.
Multiply those concerns by tens and you begin to understand the corrupting
power of pharmaceutical companies when they operate in emerging countries
and can delegate huge slush funds to local "man- agers" who know how to get
a drug accepted by local officials and ministers. Doubtless there are
companies with clean records. There are even a few genuine heroes among
them. But they are not my subject. My subject - and the subject of The
Constant Gardener - is the dilemma of decent people struggling against the
ever-swelling tide of heedless cor- porate greed, and our own complacency
in letting the corporations get away with it - even, at government level,
helping them to do so in the joint names of profit and full employment.
Perhaps we do indeed need a great new movement, an international,
humanitarian movement of decent men and women, that is not doctrinal, not
political, not polemical, but gathers up the best in all of us: a Seattle
demo without the broken glass.
The mainstream media, I decided as I went on my journey, have failed us
completely, here and in the United States. The subject is just too damned
uncomfortable to handle; too complicated, often deliberately, too
scientific for the layman. Many hacks who should know better have been
lunched, holidayed and bamboozled into silence. Fake nostrums are taken as
gospel. For every new drug that reaches the market, the spinners assure us,
$600 to $800 million have been spent in research and development. Yet the
companies' accounts, where they are visible, rarely support these claims.
And many compounds are acquired by pharmaceutical companies after they have
been partly developed at taxpayers' expense.
When we read that pharma giants have donated their products to the Third
World, we think: so that's all right then. But it isn't. For one thing, the
Third World doesn't want to live on free handouts, and least of all of
drugs that have been superseded in the West. For another, we're not talking
philanthropy but profit, business expediency and market protection.
When a U.S. corporation donates medicines to the Third World, it gets a tax
break, rids itself of the cost of warehousing old stock, and saves itself
destruction costs. It also gets to look like a saint.
Above all - witness the "philanthropically donated" triple-therapy AIDS
cocktail that has yet, in reality, to be donated - their charity heads off
the local manufacture of generic drugs than which, in the eyes of the
donors, there is no greater evil. To call it enlightened altruism is to do
the pharmas a favour.
Book revisits Canadian pharmaceutical scandal
A character in John Le Carre's new novel is remarkably similar to a real
The plot in John Le Carre's new novel The Constant Gardener is based on a
Canadian pharmaceutical scandal.
One of the characters in The Constant Gardener is remarkably similar to Dr.
Nancy Olivieri, a Canadian hematologist and whistle-blower of a drug
Like Olivieri, Le Carre's creation Lara Emrick conducted clinical trials
for a new wonder-drug.
In the fictional version, Emrick was testing a new tuberculosis drug called
Dypraxa, which she later discovers has lethal side-effects.
She blows the whistle on her bosses and suffers professional and personal
"She lives only with the monstrosity of her case and its hopeless
insolubility," Le Carre writes.
Olivieri, a medical doctor at Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children, faced a
similar fate after she was hired by the Canadian pharmaceutical company
Apotex in 1993 to conduct trials for a new drug for patients with the
inherited blood disorder thalassemia.
Olivieri was found by an independent review to have placed herself in a
conflict of interest when she signed a restrictive contract with Apotex but
nevertheless reported her findings.
Emrick was prevented from exposing negative findings because she, too,
signed a "wretched contract."
"I trusted them. I was a fool," the character says.
Both Olivieri and Emrick received anonymous and threatening letters after
they blew the whistle and in real life and in fiction, the writer was
exposed using DNA testing of saliva on the envelope or stamp.
In describing the tribulations of Emrick, Le Carre wrote at the end of the
book, he drew on several cases:
"Particularly in the North American continent where highly qualified
medical researchers have dared to disagree with their pharmaceutical
paymasters and suffered vilification and persecution for their pains."
He added: ".nobody in this story, and no outfit or corporation, thank God,
is based upon any actual person or outfit in the real world."
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