When I was being treated for cancer, a friend used to say to me, “You know you look pretty good – you look like a Facebook cancer fake.”
It was a backhanded compliment that always made me smile. Bowel cancer is no laughing matter and neither was the treatment: radiotherapy and chemo, then surgery, then more chemo, then more surgery. It seems this worked and three years later I’m one of the lucky ones: in remission.
So for me, the tawdry story of Belle Gibson and her lies are a bitter pill to swallow. She got off lightly.
Gibson claimed to have had only months from live due to brain cancer, which was cured after she gave up conventional treatment and used natural remedies.
Based on this fake story, Gibson sold a book and an award-winning app that was snapped up by Apple. She said the money she made went to charity but small donations were made only when doubt was cast on her story. When it all unravelled, Gibson went on 60 Minutes and was reportedly paid $75,000 to talk about her lies.
Action was eventually taken by Consumer Affairs Victoria. In March the Federal Court ruled that Gibson’s deceptive claims constituted unconscionable conduct under Australian consumer law. Last month she was fined $410,000, roughly equal to the profit she made from her scam.
Having not turned up to any of the Federal Court hearings, it’s unlikely Gibson will pay the fines either. She announced some time back that she doesn’t have the money, and her company is reportedly in liquidation.
If she doesn’t pay, Gibson may be imprisoned but this would be for avoiding a penalty and not a punishment in itself.
Despite this, on the day the Federal Court announced Gibson’s punishment, the Andrews government issued a media release that seemed to declare the matter closed and suggested the punishment was appropriate. There was no talk of an appeal.
The Minister for Consumer Affairs, Marlene Kairouz “welcomed the orders”.
“The penalties handed down today,” she said, “send a clear message that we won’t put up with this rubbish, particularly when it stands to affect those battling cancer.”
The minister is wrong. We have put up this rubbish, and it’s likely it affected cancer patients.
Belle Gibson peddled her lies and fake cures for at least three years before action was taken, despite warnings from people who knew her. It’s still unclear why Gibson never faced criminal charges and she was fined less than half the amount that could have been imposed.
Why does she deserve a much tougher penalty?
It takes a special kind of evil to exploit a child’s terminal illness for personal gain, as Gibson did.
It’s also possible that, in the years that she was scamming, seriously ill people fell for her lies and made dangerous decisions about their own treatment as a consequence.
I can understand why logic gives way to panic when people are desperate and facing arduous treatment, or the comfort of non-invasive, “natural” remedies. I don’t forgive Belle Gibson for encouraging it just to make money.
Gibson also cultivated the fiction of being brave and inspiring, and didn’t back away from the accolades that then came her way. Why would she? Cosmopolitan‘s “Fun, Fearless Female” social media award, Elle Australia‘s feature “The Most inspiring Woman You’ve Met This Year” and Apple giving an award for her app all helped build her brand – and her bank balance.
So there’s also a big reality check for the media and publishing figures that took Gibson’s extraordinary claims at face value.
If someone had just asked, it should have been easy to provide proof from the diagnosing doctor, or from the paper trail of scans and tests that cancer patients have. It’s not impolite or awkward to ask for proof. People have to do it every day for mundane things like sick leave and insurance claims, let alone a major publishing deal.
It’s my hope that next time another Belle Gibson appears, our state’s consumer watchdog will act much faster, and the punishment will actually fit the crime.
And as for Belle Gibson? She should volunteer on an oncology ward, and see what it’s really like for people who are suffering in ways she could barely imagine in her wildest fantasies. It’s past time she faced the lies she’s told and the reality of the vulnerable people she preyed upon.
Margaret Fitzherbert is Victorian Shadow Assistant Minister for Health.