Thinking of Paul Sheehan as I was yesterday, I cast my mind back to the early 00s. I was working in the Sutherland Shire and reading the Herald every weekend. I have vivid memories of Sheehan’s article about Unique Water in the Good Weekend of April 2002. It pointed to cures for a variety of illnesses. It was even called “the magic water” in the article. All very Oprah and The Secret, really. This feel was underlined by the idea that scientists were sceptical about its properties – heightening its mystical and must-have powers.
I was mildly curious, because after reading the story, I was interested in visiting the factory of the obscure “Bert’s Drinks” in Taren Point, because it wasn’t that far from work. In the next few days after the story, however, the frenzy and the queues to this new Lourdes were huge. Among the number was my boss, who was driving there and waiting hours to get this water, to feed to his sick dog.
Soon enough, this “Unique Water” was at BP service stations, adding to the mystique of the product (as in, why can’t we buy it in shops? Damn you, Coles and Woolies, you just want us to remain sick!). Walking out the door all over Sydney. All thanks to one article written by Paul Sheehan in the Good Weekend, reflecting the power of the media to convince and move.
And then it was gone. Well, not gone, it’s still available – however, we haven’t really been swamped by stories of its miraculous healing properties in the last 9 years. In 2005, however, the story had a curious twist, with this article from the “back streets”, which heightens the mystery and surmising that the whole saga to be a bit of a sham – especially in relation to the spurious claim that were made about the water’s properties. “Nick Possum” makes the suggestion that with the original story, Sheehan “rushed on, and he wasn’t unaware of the dangers”.
Then we had this Herald article by Ben Hills, which tells us in detail about the absurdity of the claims related to the “inventor” of the water. Hills also tells us about the researching efforts by Sheehan here:
Although it did caution that no medical trials had been conducted to test the efficacy of the water, that endorsement by Sheehan – and the five other people, one dog and one cat (deceased) whom he cited in the article as having benefited from the water – was picked up by the TV networks and triggered a gold rush for the manufacturer of what was then called Unique Water.
But this story was not so quick to be published as Sheehan’s original piece. The story of its original non-publication and Sheehan’s part in that drama was also picked up by Media Watch in 2005, which commented on the fact the Herald did not, despite promises to the contrary, publish the Hills story at the time of broadcast -
Journalist Ben Hills is on contract to the Sydney Morning Herald, and has worked for Fairfax on and off for 40 years. But he’s having trouble getting this story in the paper. He says he expected it to appear in the Saturday paper two weeks ago. It didn’t.
The Media Watch transcript also tells us something about Sheehan’s style, when confronted with the reality of a fellow journalist about to cast a critical eye over his work. He wrote an article making dark suggestions about the inventor of Unique Water, in an attempt to distance himself from the original “frenzy” relating to the water. He then made an accusation about Ben Hills – “I’ve complained to the Editor in Chief about an abusive phone call from Ben Hills…” The Hills article was eventually published, but the conduct of Sheehan is revealed for all to see in the Media Watch story.
But Unique Water. Millions of dollars spent by sick people looking for a miracle cure, all inspired by Paul Sheehan. Just where did it go? We know where Sheehan went. He is happily munching on Sonoma bread and writing articles about Muslims “religious cleansing” in the Middle East. And probably not drinking Unique Water.