Sunday, 11 January 2009

Skip to the end...

Traditionally, the correct way to read a newspaper article written in English is from left to right, and then top to bottom. This ensures that the narrative sequence remains intact and that ideas and information are presented in a logical order. Hopefully you'll already know this, or else I fear the rest of this post might become awfully confusing to you as you flit randomly between words and paragraphs, reading some of them backwards or upside-down or filtering them through a bizarre internal code system which replaces all the nouns with a mental image of a butterfly struggling to extract itself from a spider's web. However, this time-honoured reading order is not always necessary when reading the Daily Mail, and in fact reading their articles from beginning to end is often an effective way of getting entirely the wrong idea about a situation.

If you're interested in attempting to get a balanced, fair view of a story that's being reported in the Daily Mail, I would first of all like to snort derisively at you and say 'Yeah, good luck with that!' in the most sarcastic way possible. But, cursed as I am with the spirit of helpfulness, it behooves me to give you a pointer or two about how to most usefully approach the Mail's intriguing style of prose.

You may as well start at the beginning, with the headline. For this example, we will choose the story Now even police can't object to gipsy camp in picturesque village...because it's racist. Don't concern yourself with what's actually being called 'racist' in the title (objecting, the gipsy camp, the village?), because it really doesn't matter; in Mailworld all of us are being called racist all the time by Gordon Brown's thought police, so the distinction in this case is barely relevant. Next, get a quick overview of the Mail's idea of what is going on by reading the opening two or three paragraphs:

Police have been told they cannot object to a planned gipsy camp in a picturesque village - because to do so would be 'racist'.

Council chiefs have ruled that the local force's professional opinion 'breaches the Race Relations Act'.

The decision meant that councillors considering the planning application were not told how officers had been called to another local camp 109 times in just two years.

The first thing to note is that you've got a claim about an authority there, which ought to be sustantiated by a direct quote later in the article from the council concerned. Now is a good time to look at the things in inverted commas, and then search for them in the rest of the article to find quotes from people who were actually involved with the decision in some way. If, like me, you lead a thrill-packed rollercoaster of a life, and reading the entire article would waste precious seconds/minutes that you could be using to coax frightened cats down from trees by performing awe-inspiring guitar solos on a flaming axe while sexy ladies in the immediate quarter-mile radius of your position begin stripping down to their knickers like you're some kind of buff and sexy Pied Piper of RAWK, a quick way to do this is with a Ctrl + F page search for relevant terms.

Note that both unattributed quasi-quotes here revolve around racism and the Race Relations Act, and then begin your search for words beginning with the root 'rac', and scan anything that comes up for evidence of some jumped-up little Hitler of a council official calling everyone who doesn't immediately want to suck off an ethnic minority or give them flowers a 'racist'. At this point you may notice that there are in fact no quotes from official spokespersons mentioning race, or racism, or the Race Relations Act, or racing, or idiosyncratic Polish-Canadian 'braindance' artist Bogdan Raczynski. Now you're ready to employ the 'skip to the end' technique, which as the name implies, involves merely skipping to the last couple of paragraphs to read the grudgingly-included mandatory quote from someone who actually had some level of fucking involvement with the thing everyone's screaming about. Sure enough, the token official quote at the end reads:

A spokesman for Bedford council said: 'The police objection was treated very seriously.

'Legal advice indicated that the objection was not a material planning consideration and should not be reported to committee. In the light of such clear advice it was considered appropriate to return the correspondence to the police.'

Keen-minded readers who've had their 5-a-day may note that this quote doesn't call the police racist, or any one else for that matter, and makes no mention of the Race Relations Act. It's almost as if the Mail doesn't even have any hard evidence for the claim that the council has deemed the police's apparent objection to be racist! Now, I don't want to suggest that the Daily Mail might be distorting the facts in some way to pander to the long-running narrative it's been feeding its readers about how they're being constantly oppressed by 'political correctness', BUT...actually I just realised I have no way of finishing that sentence.

True to form, a second glance at the article hints at another trusted weapon in the Mail's arsenal; that of conflating two completely different stories in order to beef up that sense of persecution by proving that the same thing is happening over and over again, all the time. It makes reference to an earlier story wherein "nearby Mid-Bedfordshire council labelled more than 3,000 local residents of the village of Stotfold as racists when they objected to a gipsy site", which it reported on using the not remotely inflammatory headline Council disregard objections of 3,000 residents to traveller site as 'they are racist'. The theme is pretty clear; the tyrannical Befordian government thinks pretty much all its residents are bile-dripping racist knuckle-draggers, when they're no doubt largely decent law-abiding citizens doing what's best for their community. Actually, in that story, the council DID use the word 'racist', in a statement which suggested that some of the 3,000 responses it received could not be published in the report because "[t]he Local Government (Access to Information) Act 1985 requires any material which is defamatory or likely to incite racial hatred or contempt, and information the disclosure of which is prohibited by law, to be marked 'confidential' and not disclosed to the public". Of course, it again doesn't cite the Race Relations Act but another bit of wishy-washy, hand-wringing, liberal legislation which was created in 1985 under the famously politically-correct government of Margaret Thatcher.

Again, employing the 'skip to the end' technique on the Mail's second article reveals a curious discrepancy between the Mail's figures and that of the council. The Mail's version:

Council disregard objections of 3,000 residents to traveller site as 'they are racist' [...] while 400 responses would be considered, 3,100 were in some way racist and would be rejected.

And the council's version:

'Only a small proportion (around 5 per cent) of the comments were actually discounted in their entirety. The remainder were taken into consideration, either in whole or in part.'

Let's use the council's figure that 3,500 comments were received, and work out how many 5% of that is, as that's how many were disregarded according to the council itself. My trusty Windows calculator makes it 175. So, was it 175 or 3,000 (or indeed, 3,100) people which Mid-Bedfordshire District Council have tarred with the big 'racist' brush? I'll leave it up to you who to trust. I will say that the Mail's figure is only a mere sixteen times higher than the council's, which by Mail standards actually represents a surprising level of truthfulness (as figures I can't possibly reveal to you but which back up my argument impeccably show).

(By way of a post-script, the proposed camp from the first story was rejected anyway, according to the Bletsoe Residents' Association's amusingly-named website, Support BRA)

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