Friday, 27 March 2009

Only the FSM can save us now!

It's sometimes reassuring to find that it's not only articles in the lowbrow Mail that cause me to want to bang my head on the desk. Yes, it's Guardian time! Enter, stage left, the frequently pointless CiF Belief blogger Andrew Brown, attempting to troll both religion and science at the same time with his usual panache in If God does not exist, we must urgently invent one. First off, some background if you've never read Andrew Brown. He's sort of pro-religion and sort of pro-science, and so his blogs tend to alternate between annoying both camps as he bravely tries to reconcile science and religion with whatever tools he can find (although he's still not as annoying as Mark Vernon).

The other thing to note about Brown is that he bags a lot of angry comments because he isn't particularly adept at getting his point across. He had to enter his comments section on numerous occasions the other day in the entry Why religion can't be just for consenting adults to try and explain what he was getting at when he wrote things like;

But religion is not like that. Any religion is much more a matter of "Yes" and "No" – things that any child can understand, and can't in fact be brought up without
(The premise of his column seemed to be that children can't logically understand religion, so you need to just inculcate it into them in the same way you teach them not to run out in front of a lorry, apparently under the impression that kids remain impervious to any kind of logic until they turn 16).

Anyway, back to today's effort, and Brown starts his column off by setting up and then knocking down an atheist straw man argument that will piss off both camps:

If God won't rescue us from impending doom, as the Archbishop of Canterbury claims, what possible use is it to believe in him? This looks like a knock-down argument, but it turns out to be a swing at empty air.
For background, the Archbishop of Canterbury recently tried to stave off people wondering where the fuck this God guy has got to by saying that he was going to leave us alone to figure out climate change and economic problems by ourselves (see God 'will not give happy ending' - stop sniggering at the back, perverts!). Brown reckons that atheists will try and show this as evidence that believing in God is pointless, which some of them probably will. They shouldn't bother though; if people managed to stay religious despite being hit with two World Wars, the AIDS epidemic, and that fucking Sandi Thom single from a couple of years back, it seems that the belief that God actually cares enough to save us from abject misery isn't a prerequisite for believing he exists.

Brown makes pretty much this point, albeit without the needless swearing and comedy 'incongruous third item in a list' technique I just used, but so far so good. He then goes on to argue that this means religious people therefore have to believe that we can save ourselves. What do atheists believe, then? That we're all screwed and can't possibly do any good? Presumably atheism is basically the same thing as nihilism now. Brown goes on:

So wouldn't we be better to trust to our own powers, and to our rational self-interest? This is where the argument gets interesting: if our rational self-interest were enough to solve the problems of humanity, we would hardly have any at all.
Let's enjoy that last bit again; "if our rational self-interest were enough to solve the problems of humanity, we would hardly have any at all". Hold that thought while you read this bit:

If the global crises facing the world are to be solved, then this will demand something that looks very like a religion. It will be necessary to invent god because organised religions or things very like them are the only ways ever discovered to make millions of civilians co-operate whole-heartedly.
Now let's go back to his previous argument, and replace 'our rational self-interest' with 'religion' and see how it sounds. "If religion were enough to solve the problems of humanity, we would hardly have any at all". Wow, it works pretty much just as well, doesn't it? I'd have more sympathy with this whole piece if it was clear that we'd been led into disaster by thousands of years of a dominant atheist paradigm, but a quick glance across the globe suggests that we're not about to be electing Richard Dawkins ruler of the world any time soon. Did I miss the meeting where atheism killed off religion?

The blog essentially comes down to a false dichotomy; there's rationality and there's religion, only one can save us. People have worked together in the name of God before, whereas by not believing in God you essentially commit yourself to a life of self-interest. Y'know, if you ignore all the examples of altruism in animals, and the history of the ethic of reciprocity, among other things.

So, let's accept for a moment the premise that the non-religious are gonna be too self-involved to convince people that climate change is worth doing something about. How does Brown propose we go about establishing this new quasi-religion in an era of science and education where large numbers of people (like me) have grown accustomed to the idea that you can get along just fine without the need to serve the nebulous interests of an invisible entity that may or may not have a beard and may or may not be a complete bastard? Well, he doesn't. He merely seems to be lamenting that we'd be able to get everyone to work to a common goal if only they all believed the same improbable thing. Well done, you just successfully wasted my time arguing that we could solve climate change by simply doing something completely impossible! If we're just going to make up fantasy solutions to climate change, might I propose that we build a massive metaphysical knife capable of stabbing God with, so we can rough him up a bit in a cosmic subway and threaten him until he comes to help sort out the mess?

Perhaps the biggest problem with all this is that even if we could convince everyone to join hands across the globe under the same religion, we'd still be have some work to do to convince many of them that climate change actually exists. Since the current Bible seems to missing the pages that explain what to do in the event of the build-up of man-made greenhouse gases causing an upward temperature shift, we're going to have to also come up with the authority that it exists, presumably without using actual science since that's incapable of uniting people. Of course, if you want to appoint me as the God figure in our sassy new 21st century religion, I'll be happy to don an ethereal-looking white robe and dictate 'Anthropogenic global warming is hella real, kids, be cool!' to whatever stone-tablet scribes you've got handy. Always like to do my bit, see. I'd also be prepared to work under the noodly appendages of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, if you need someone a bit more photogenic than me.

Monday, 23 March 2009

Hopefully the last Dunblane update ever

In a previous entry, I made the following promise:

If the Express do make a better fist of apologising than the standard 'remove the article from the internet and it's all alright', I'll gladly tip my hat to them though.
Well, yesterday's Scottish Sunday Express did indeed make a (slightly) better first of apologising, and you can read it here. I wasn't pushing for heads to roll or for Paula Murray to be publicly flogged, so I suppose I should be happy, but the nature of the apology leaves a bit of a bad taste in the mouth. It's hugely self-serving, the bulk of it being dedicated to talking about how the Scottish Sunday Express is a 'great newspaper' which has 'enjoyed a long love affair with the people of our nation' and 'established a reputation for crusading journalism'.

The apology does eventually get round to admitting that they 'got it all wrong', which is what we wanted them to acknowledge, but immediately goes back on the defensive by erecting the following enormous straw man; 'It is our belief that nobody was misquoted'. That was never the point. It was suggested that MSP Elizabeth Smith was quoted out of context (suggested, indeed, by Smith herself), but no-one ever sought to claim she didn't say what she said or that the quotes pulled from Facebook weren't accurate, and it was always a side-issue. It was about people being tired of a press which increasingly seems to be losing the ability to differentiate between deserving targets and innocent ones, between stories and non-stories, between scandalous behaviour and the utterly normal boozing of 18-year-olds. Or worse, papers who can distinguish between those things but carry on anyway, expecting to get away with it. As the press rails against ministers for claiming ridiculous expenses using the excuse that they operated within the rules, this was a chance to remind the press that just because it might be legal to publish details of these young people now they've turned 18, that doesn't make it the right thing to do.

Hopefully this will all get put to bed now, but it's been interesting while it lasted. It's got people talking (again) about the relative roles of the mainstream media and bloggers/the internet. It seems that the massive surge in interest in this story over the past week or so online may have played a role in getting an apology of reasonable-ish prominence (it was on page 5 and quite long, rather than buried in the letters pages). We shouldn't overstate the case, but the the petition (currently just past the 10,000 signatures barrier) and the intervention of high-profile folks like Graham Linehan getting the word out probably helped (Linehan certainly helped me at any rate; my comments exploded briefly after he re-tweeted one of my entries). All this is good news for bloggers, and sometimes it's tempting to get overexcited about the role of new media like this. The internet, when mobilised, is proving a great way of organising responses, correcting facts and exploding myths, and the best bloggers are often hugely more entertaining and thorough than their hamstrung mainstream counterparts, partly because we don't have to spend most of our time copying out Reuters reports or talking about Jade Goody when we couldn't give a shit. There are certain benefits to writing for the love of it/because you have something to say, which you can lose to an extent when going professional and having to work to tight deadlines.

That said, most of us don't want to see the mainstream media die (not least because I'd have to find something else to moan about). What we can hopefully achieve is some greater quality control. Maybe, just maybe, more outrages like this might end up with the Paula Murrays of this world doing proper investigative journalism instead of poring over the Facebook accounts of people who were once nearly killed and really ought to be left alone. If there's a message that comes out of the ongoing Internet vs Print Journalism wars, hopefully it will be that journalists need to up their game. Make your USP the fact that you can do better research than the average blogger, or write more eloquently. Uncover the real hidden stories which we don't have time, contacts or ability for, go after the real shitbags, and then write about them in a compelling way. People will continue to pay for quality, so let's have it, and remember that when you try and foist too much shit on people, they will let you know about it.

Saturday, 21 March 2009

These kids may not be guilty now, but give them time!

Time for a complete non-story which is nevertheless an interesting indication of the way the Mail's sensationalism and dog-whistling gets their readers angry at shit that the articles technically don't say. The story is Boy aged TWO is youngest Briton to be threatened with an Asbo after he is accused of verbally abusing adults. It takes a whopping 23 paragraphs before we get to the police confirmation that the letter threatening the two-year-old with an ASBO was sent to the wrong address by mistake.

He added: 'Having conducted a review of these incidents, it now transpires one of the households has been incorrectly identified to ourselves as having children who may have been responsible.

'It has since been brought to our attention that the letter sent in error was received by a family with a child of two years of age, this was clearly not intended and we apologise for any distress this may have caused.'

So, it's essentially the perennial "Man wrongly sent £6billion phone bill!" fluff piece, except the headline and the structure of the article is done in such a way that the casual reader might be forgiven for thinking it's actually one of the Mail's even more perennial "Kids are running riot in the streets, only Littlejohn can save us now!" scare stories. And heck, it seems to work if the comments are any guide. The charming A.Hiscox writes:

Nice to see that the mum has a different surname to her youngest child and both the mum and the youngest child have different surnames to the current partner. No mention of the older two's surnames, but I wouldn't be surprised if there was another surname there too!
Actually, the article gives the surname of the youngest child as Poyser, which is in fact the same surname as her mother's partner, so he's clearly living with both his parents, but his mother hasn't changed her name because they're not married. The commenter has no evidence at all for his assertion that the other kids are born to different fathers, but, y'know...c'mon...chavs innit?!?! John G from Lancashire doesn't fuck around and gets straight to whatever he thinks the point is:

what the hell is wrong with this country
No time even for a question mark, this shit is too urgent! Helpfully, he gets an answer from Lou in Derbyshire:

what is wrong with this coountry is that it is ruled by children, the vast majority of them are horrible hooligans with parents who just ignore them. They are unable to discipline them and therefore they grow up with no fear or respect.
Elizabeth from London doesn't know if these kids are innocent or guilty, but they clearly will be one day:

3 kids at the age of 24??? Great, and of course she isn't working and living off the state...I can believe that those kids are trouble already, and if they are not yet, they will definitely be in the future!!!
Someone living in France cuts through the boring complexity of social issues and makes a devastatingly strong and original point which should shame us all into action over whatever the problem is here:

You couldn't make it up! What has happened to 'Great Britain'? It seems that it has totally lost it's "Great".
The dangers, there, of getting your impression of what Britain is like from the pages of this rag. The excellent thing about that one is that you could copy and paste it into about 80% of Mail stories and it would make about as much sense.

The comments, sadly, continue largely in this vein; a couple of people pointing out that it was a mistake and the kids have done nothing wrong, getting lost in a sea of self-righteous posturing and sanctimonious finger-wagging from the Mail readers, who have a go at the mother for letting her kids do things they haven't done, provide advice about how she should get them in line whether or not they're out of line, and generally lament the collapse of society. Perhaps the bleakest comment is one from Donna in Edinburgh. Unlike some of the others, she appears to have actually read and understood the story, and yet she sweeps the 'not actually true' detail aside;
...yes the letter was a mistake. But I bet you the children are not as Innocent as she makes them out to be.
You know, I try not to to criticise Mail readers too much, because I feel most of them are just badly let down by the warped interpretation of Britain their paper gives them, but sometimes they really don't make it easy to sympathise.

Monday, 16 March 2009

Paula Murray's booze shame

Sorry to keep banging on about this Express story, but Paula Murray really is the git that keeps on giving. Via the ever-excellent Tim at Bloggerheads: Paula Murray, drunken hack, mocks dead and makes light of underage drinking. Seriously, you owe it to yourself to read that and witness the boozy photos and drunken status updates.

When this story broke, I went looking for Murray's Facebook profile, on the off-chance that she might have been so mind-numbingly stupid as to have left pictures of herself boozing on there. My ninja Facebook skillz are somewhat lacking, it seems, and I turned up nothing, but the wait has proved worth it, because Tim has struck absolute journalistic hypocrisy gold. Seriously, the quality of the 'pwnage' here is extraordinary. To recap, Paula Murray, the journalist who wrote the now-infamous story chastising Dunblane survivors for 'boast[ing] of drunken nights out' uses her Facebook as a repository for drinking photos (including one of her making a SICK GAG about introducing a CHILD to drink) in the exact same way as everyone else on the planet. This is the equivalent of me having a go at people for having a liberal and slightly sanctimonious media-watching blog, or being in a largely unregarded one-man bedroom post-rock band.

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Paula Murray/Dunblane update

Man, I need to really work on coming up with snappier blog titles. Anyway, just a quick update for anyone that came to my previous entry a day late and found they couldn't access the article I was wittering on about. That's because the article was removed yesterday, presumably in response to people unsurprisingly complaining to the PCC about the almost Kelvin MacKenzie-level survivor-baiting nonsense that Murray so artlessly crapped onto the page. If, like me, you have some kind of weird compulsion to read things you know in advance are going to make you want to wallop your own balls with a meat tenderiser, then you can still read cached versions of it like this one (thanks to Adam Bienkov for that link).

It'll be interesting to see what happens, although my hunch is that if any kind of apology is forthcoming it will be of the weaselly 'sorry for any offence caused' variety, and buried somewhere deep in the paper. Though it wouldn't surprise me if they merely apologised privately to the families and never mentioned it again. As an example of the kind of resolution you can expect from the PCC, here's a broadly similar complaint about Express insensitivity from a member of the public:


Mr Tim Fuller complained that the newspaper had insensitively and inaccurately reported the death of a family member, who had, apparently, sadly taken her own life. He was concerned that the newspaper had wrongly suggested that her death was connected to an “internet cult” and had included personal information about her and her partner.


The complaint was resolved when the newspaper apologised to him, removed the article from its website and circulated a legal warning to its journalists on the issue of reporting suicide.
If the Express do make a better fist of apologising than the standard 'remove the article from the internet and it's all alright', I'll gladly tip my hat to them though. (UPDATE 14/04/09: meant to update this earlier, but in the interests of full disclosure there was indeed an apology of sorts, covered here)

Monday, 9 March 2009

It's The World's Greatest Newspaper, you know

Hey, y'know who I reckon have been given an easy ride for far too long? The little kids who didn't die in the Dunblane massacre! For thirteen years the media (perhaps troubled by the fact that the kids were five years old when Thomas Watt Hamilton walked into their school and shot 16 children and a teacher dead before turning the gun on himself), has let them get away with not acting in the way people who nearly got killed when they were five should act. Fortunately, thirteen years on these little bastards are 18 and it's now basically alright to name and shame them in the papers, as one brave journalist for the Scottish edition of the Daily Express has finally done in ANNIVERSARY SHAME OF DUNBLANE SURVIVORS. (Update 11/03/09: the article has been deleted; you can currently read a cached version here)

Step forward Paula Murray, courageously exposing the shame these teenagers are now bringing on, well, all of us, by carrying on like a right bunch of teenagers. Murray has broken the media's wall of silence to reveal some shocking truths:

A number of the youngsters, now 18, have posted shocking blogs and photographs of themselves on the Internet, 13 years after being sheltered from public view in the aftermath.
Thirteen years which clearly should have spent deep in self-flagellation, for having the audacity to have nearly (and in some cases actually) been shot as kids by a man with a selection of pistols and revolvers. Doesn't it just make your blood boil? Not the child-shooting, I mean, that was ages ago, I'm talking about the kids he failed to finish off:
But now the Sunday Express can reveal how, on their web-based social networking sites, some of them have boasted about alcoholic binges and fights.

For instance, Stewart Weir – who was hit by a single bullet and watched in horror as his classmates died – makes rude gestures in pictures he posted on his Bebo site, and boasts of drunken nights out.
I can hear the liberals moaning already. "But...but...what bearing should getting shot at by a man on a gun rampage at primary school have on how we view these apparently fairly standard Bebo activities, except perhaps to make us grateful that they've gone on to lead relatively normal lives?" they cry. Well, I don't know either, but if a Scottish hack for The World's Greatest Newspaper says it's bad, then buddy, you better believe it. I mean, rude gestures. Is there any real moral difference between this rude-gesturing teen scumbag and the man who opened fire in a school, murdering sixteen kids? It would be splitting hairs really. It gets worse, if you can imagine such a thing;
The social network site of Mark Mullan is equally eloquent as he states he is “up fur anyhin”. On his biography he asks to be called “God” and says he lives “fur the weekend, that sounds so sad but am 18 so suck ma b*ws.”

He adds: “U’ll find one in Dunblane on a friday or saturday night staggerin about down the street or the hills, consumin BUCKFAST (its just good). If u dinny drink till u drop ur no drinkin.”

Mullan was named player of the year by Bannockburn Amateurs youth football team. He suffered major abdominal and pelvic injuries in the shooting.
Some people might scoff and say "a teenager boasting about drinking on the internet, big deal!", but those people forget that literally everything these people do for the rest of their lives must be viewed through the prism of them having bullets sprayed at them when they were five. Is it really appropriate for them to be drinking and trying to enjoy themselves a mere 156 months after an event they were probably too young to understand but will have to live with the rest of their lives?

It's easy to sneer at this story and dismiss it as vile gutter journalism of the most cowardly kind, but there are other factors to take into account. For one, these young men are behaving drunkenly like this in Scotland, a country famed for its sobriety and strong moral objections to drink; a nation where you'll struggle to see citizens enjoying anything stronger than an orange juice and a civilised discussion about quantitative easing on a night out. How awful it must be for Scots to find their teenagers besmirching their puritanical traditions in this way. Let me remind you again; these are kids that once got shot at! It's like they don't even understand that this event should utterly govern their lives for ever more, and that every drink they have is obviously an insult to the dead for some reason.

These kids should stop wasting their lives, and do something positive for a change instead of getting drunk and pissed up on booze. Why can't they do what Paula Murray did, and get a job trawling the internet for things she can use to attack the still-young surviving victims of horrendous acts of violence? Surely the world could use less aspiring youth footballers and more Paula Murrays; people who are prepared to look namby-pamby journalistic notions of 'acceptable targets' in the eye and say "No, I'm going to go after these drunken teenagers for having the temerity to not conduct themselves in the manner which I consider behooves the innocent victims of a past tragedy I fortunately wasn't involved in".

To those teenagers, I say this; put the Buckfast down and think about taking up crusading investigative journalism as a path to redemption. There are plenty more tragedies out there with potential! Okay, Ann Coulter is already bravely taking down the 9/11 widows, but I bet there are probably some babies damaged by the fallout from Chernobyl who don't comport themselves with sufficient decorum in 2009. What are the people who got rescued from the sinking ship during the Zeebrugge disaster up to these days? I bet some of them are a bit sweary. Be creative! With a few seconds on Wikipedia I just found out that three people survived getting wounded in the 2002 Washington sniper attacks; why not find out who they are and then start talking to their neighbours or digging around in their bins? Face it, whether you like it or not, nearly getting killed by a gun-toting madman brings with it certain responsibilties. You owe it to society now to live your lives as paragons of virtue, just like I do, and just like I can only assume the wonderful Paula Murray does. Her ingenuity should embarrass you:

After six years at the Record, Murray says her biggest challenge is learning the 'Sunday way'.

"It's tough to hold on to a good story [for Sunday] because there's the risk someone else in another publication will also get their hands on it," she told

You see? Faced with this seemingly insurmountable problem, she didn't moan, she didn't go out on the lash or use words like 'baws'. She took the professional option, and went for a story so utterly distasteful, so mind-fuckingly self-righteous and so jaw-droppingly morally repugnant that absolutely no other fucker in their right mind would think it was fit to even contemplate, let alone publish. Paula Murray, we salute you.

(Thanks to Anton at The Enemies Of Reason for pointing me to this one)

Update 11/03/09: see following entry here for a bit about the article getting deleted.

Friday, 6 March 2009

Getting Slack with the figures

The Mail today takes a brave and commendable stand in its leader column against the Home Office's 'record of massaging figures'. It's referring to Jacqui Smith setting a new police target for increasing the public level of confidence in the police force. Elsewhere today, the Mail rages against the Government for 'cherry picking' data in what it calls a 'spin row'. So, let's have a quick look at how strong the Mail's commitment to statistical integrity is, huh?

In fact, let's start with the legendary James Slack's version of the Smith/police confidence story: Only 38% have any faith in our police... so Jacqui Smith is promising to scrap all their targets. At least, that's how the headline reads now. It used to read like this:


...but for some reason the headline was changed from the national average (46%) to use the single lowest figure for one force (38%, Lincolnshire). Some might say that using the Lincolnshire figure in the headline to say 'Only 38% have any faith in our police', is misleading. Some might say that deliberately changing an accurate headline to a more inaccurate but coincidentally more dramatic one suggests a kind of penchant for sensationalism which doesn't quite square with the Mail's occasional condemnations of politicians and their disgusting spin.

James Slack, it seems, is having a field day with statistics (something which may not be much of a surprise to people who read 5cc's regular posts about him). He lurrrves a good stat, does Slack. His other article today is a masterpiece: A decade of delinquency: Teen robberies, violence and drug crime soar to record levels.

'Record levels' seems to be something of a stretch, possibly because 'record levels' is just something journalists have a habit of throwing into articles in the same way as other people say 'fuck' or 'err...'. So don't be too hard on Slack, it seems to be just a kind of journalistic tic that doesn't actually mean anything. Let's examine these claims by looking at the figures he's taking it from (pdf file).

The headline claims that 'teen robberies' have reached 'record levels'. Slack points out that such robberies have 'surg[ed] by 29 per cent between 2005 and last year to 6,669'. Firstly, it's actually 6,699 (30 higher than Slack claims!), a typo which made it difficult to find, but what's interesting is the 'offence trends' table on page 15 of the report (18 of the pdf). This shows that, while it's true that this is higher than 2004/5 when the report started, it's actually gone down from 6,855 in 2006/7. Now, it seems to me that if robberies are slightly fewer in 2007/8 than they were in the previous year, it might not be quite correct to say that this was a 'record level', unless 'record' can somehow mean 'the second highest out of four data points', which runs contrary to my understanding.

His second headline claim suggests that 'violence' has reached record levels, a claim he expands on in the article:

Offences of violence against the person surged by a fifth from 44,988 to 53,930
Again, true for the two years he's comparing, but with the number-recognition skills gifted to me by my l33t Grammar School education, I can confirm that 53,930 is actually lower than 56,226 (the figure for the previous year, 2006/7). It's also lower than 54,661, which was the figure for 2005/6. So, in the four years recorded by this survey, the 'record levels' figure Slack boasts about in the headline is actually only the third-highest number. Still, if you remove half the data and pretend that most of the time between 2005 and 2007 didn't happen, it's really quite a shocking 'record', eh?

To give him some credit, drug offences for 2007/8 were actually higher than any of the three previous years. Of the 9 categories of offence in that table, only two reached their highest in the most recent year (drug offences and breaches of statutory order), while two categories actually show record lows (motoring offences and burglary). By my reckoning, anyway, that makes the headline claim accurate on one out of its three claims.

Statistics are fucking great fun like that. Here's an alternative headline and introduction to the article you could make from the same figures, which, while being utterly stupid, ridiculously selective with the data, and completely misleading, is still marginally more accurate than the Mail's own effort (as a result of not making two demonstrably false claims in the headline). I've taken the first three paragraphs of Slack's piece and replaced a few words:

A year of tranquility: Teen burglaries and motoring offences plunge to record lows

A decline in crime credited to Labour's 'year of juvenile responsibility' has seen a huge decrease in youth robbery and violence.

The number of offences committed by youngsters aged ten to 17 in the last year was 277,986 - a decrease of 17,143 (5.8%) from 2006/07.

A report from the Youth Justice Board yesterday charted robberies falling by 2.2 per cent between 2007 and last year to 6,669, including just 61 carried out by children aged eleven, a significant decrease from the 73 recorded the previous year.
Picking the right base year for comparison is one of the key weapons in this kind of statistical spin; Slack goes for 2004/5 in this case (the first year the figures were collected), but is there any real doubt that he'd be comparing 2007/8 to 2006/7 if those were the figures showing a massive increase? Of course, after reading this, I find out that it doesn't fucking matter what the figures say. Here's a comment on the Mail article from 'Gjones' in Nuneaton:

I seriously question the accuracy of YJB figures. The YJB's board members are selected by Jack Straw, the Secretary of State. This article picks out the negative statistics, but much of those published in the report show an improvement upon previous years - an improvement I don't believe in.
There you have it. If the numbers show an improvement, it'll be because the figures have been altered politically. This is an interesting claim, because the YJB report itself actually also uses 2004/5 as its base year for a lot of the comparisons in the text summaries rather than doing it year-on-year, which would make the figures look better. Despite this, the comments like Gjones' suggest that people will believe the stats that back up their preconceptions. If the numbers show shit is getting worse, then they're probably right! Which brings us full circle to the Mail's epic bit of win-win bet-hedging in its leader:

[Smith's] apparent conversion followed a shocking poll which showed that fewer than half of us had confidence in the police to deal with crime and disorder.

So from now on, the only target would be to get this approval rating up to more than 60 per cent.

Given the recent Home Office record of massaging figures, it would be impossible to have any confidence in the integrity of the poll next time it is conducted.
Right now the figures on police confidence are a 'shocking poll', one you can confidently use to base headlines around. If it reaches Smith's target levels, we'll know it's bollocks and lies. If it doesn't, its integrity will have been preserved.

Isn't it great to finally read a paper that hates spin?

Monday, 2 March 2009

Hmm, not bad...needs more outrage though!

Another day, Another blow to fatherhood: IVF mothers can name ANYONE as 'father' on birth certificate, yells the Mail in typical style. The first thing to note, of course, is that the headline isn't true. That word in capital letters? You might assume the emphasis is in some way related to the level of truth, but in fact it's the least true word in the title. The HFEA states:

...the woman receiving treatment with donor sperm (or embryos created with donor sperm) can consent to any man or woman being the father or second parent as long as they are not “within prohibited degrees of relationship in relation to each other” as outlined in the law (HFE Act 2008). For example, a close relation such as a brother or aunt.
The Mail eventually concedes this point in the tenth paragraph, meekly retracting the 'ANYONE' of the headline with the line 'The only exemption is close blood relatives'.

The second thing to note is that this isn't actually news. Despite the breathless claim of the opening sentence ("Family values were under attack again last night with the news..."), anyone who had access to a newspaper last May, when the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill was being debated and voted on, would already know about this. It comes into force in a month, no significant votes have been taken recently (it passed its final vote last October), and yet all the papers seem to be covering it over the last couple of days, mostly with the same recycled quotes, presumably because when one news source goes with a story everyone else follows it.

Let's back up a bit here and consider what this 'news' actually means though. Some important points to consider:
1) it relates to people receiving fertility treatment with donated sperm; the resultant children, in cases where the mother is not married, would have no father anyway, so this simply gives the mother the option of appointing a second parent.
2) it can't just be anyone, and that person has to give their full consent. It's not going to be the case that women can now just write 'MICKEY MOUSE LOL!!!' next to 'father' on the birth certificate and suddenly Walt Disney has to keep this kid in nappies.
3) anyone who consents to being nominated as the second parent will have counselling to make sure they understand the implications of what they're signing. For the most part these second parents will be partners of women undergoing fertility treatment, willing to be legally considered the father of the resultant child. Fair enough, right?

Of course, what this glib summary ignores is the massive problem people have with any law that allows non-married people, (or, God forbid, The Gays!!!) to get something approaching the same rights as traditional nuclear families where a man and a woman lovingly hump each other in order to conceive. But what exactly is it that people fear this law will actually change? Do they envisage loving couples conceiving in the normal way, only for the woman to inexplicably go mental, throw the biological father out on the street, and nominate a random butch lesbian they just met as the legal pseudofather? What we have here is a change in the law that allows people receiving IVF to nominate a second carer; if this law didn't come into force, then most of these people would either a) lie on the birth certificate or b) not put anyone down at all. This second, and by far the most likely alternative, would mean *whisper it* she'd be a single mother. (I suppose the almost-heartening implication of it is that the Mail probably now considers single mothers a slightly less nation-destroying social evil than the possibility of gay people somehow being around kids and filling their heads with funny ideas).

Still, let's look at the balanced reaction the Mail gets from a broad cross-section of esteemed social, actually, let's not. Suffice it to say that the next fourteen paragraphs are solely dedicated to criticisms of the bill, including Ann 'Fucking' Widdecombe moaning that it will destroy the 'basic nature' of something or other, Iain 'Iain Duncan Smith' Duncan Smith pointing out how cool dads are, a professor who thinks it's 'social engineering', and a Labour MP suggesting this is 'the state [colluding] with parents to conceal the true genetic identity' of children, apparently oblivious to the notion that children born using donated sperm have long been born without knowing their biological heritage. All in all, seven named critics get to have their say.

A spokesperson for CARE, a lobby group entirely devoted to trying to put Christianity into politics, complains 'We are going to get to the point where a birth certificate is not going to be a true statement of anyone's biological heritage', as if current birth certificates are somehow impervious to fraud or deceit. On top of the seven credited complainers, two paragraphs refer to nebulous 'critics', who remain unidentified either because a) their complaints are even stupider than the others, or b) because 'critics' = 'this Mail writer':

Critics said the change would lead to the role of father being downgraded to the one of godfather and warned that the child would be the one to lose out.


Other critics said that Labour's family and benefit policies support and reward single parents at the expense of couples and have sidelined marriage as a lifestyle choice with no value for children.
Under no possible interpretation of the law does this have any bearing on the roles of actual fathers. It affects only people seeking IVF who are not married or in civil partnerships. If you are married, or an actual biological father, this law is entirely irrelevant to you in real terms. How on earth is the role of father 'downgraded'? It reminds me of the similar whines we heard about civil partnerships, as if letting those weird benders commit to each other in some way sullied PROPER marriage. It's an extension of rights, rather than an assault on the rights of the complainers, surely? The whole thing is just being used as an excuse to dredge up old complaints about unmarried and non-hetero folks conceiving, something that's been legal for ages and has nothing to do with this actual law, which if anything will ensure kids have more people looking out for them than before.

What's interesting about the Mail article is that they seem to have deliberately altered this story from previous, less rabid versions, to ramp up the outrage levels to a height befitting a paper that employs Melanie Phillips. I was Googling for some more info on this and stumbled across a previous version that Google had found:


Note how the title (and it's the same article, check the article number, if you click the Google link it redirects to the story I put at the top) has changed from 'Warning on new IVF laws...' to claim that it's 'Another blow to fatherhood...', in order to emphasise how under attack fathers apparently are. The older version similarly does not capitalise the word 'anyone' in its headline, and starts the piece with the rather mundane 'Single women undergoing IVF will be able to name anyone they like as their baby's father on the birth certificate from next month', as opposed to the palpably more dramatic current version, 'Family values were under attack again last night...'. Have you got it yet? Are you upset enough?

Furthermore, as I scanned the comments for dissenting views (they're the ones helpfully marked with a big red down arrow!), I noticed a reader comment referring to Lib Dem MP Dr Evan Harris ("Liberal Democrat MP Evan Harris.. is another idiot politician", the comment from P M Howell in Athens). I know Harris was a proponent of this bill, so I re-scanned the article for a dissenting opinion from him. As of right now, it's not there. A quick Google search reveals that Harris was indeed quoted in the older version, but as the article was modified (intriguingly moving from the 'Science & Tech' section to 'News' along the way), his quote has gone:


If you're interested in what his quote was, you can still find it in more reputable papers, like The Sun:

Lib Dem MP Evan Harris said: “This is a big step and is unlikely to be taken by someone who does not take their responsibilities seriously.”
All of which leaves the Mail's article with virtually no balance at all. The closest it gets is a grudging nod to the HFEA in the final two paragraphs:

The HFEA said it was unlikely for the actual sperm donor to be named on the birth certificate because the sample is normally obtained from a sperm bank.

It added that the welfare of the child would always come first and any person nominated as a second parent would have counselling to ensure they understood the implications.
So, it seems like someone, possibly the piece's original author but who knows, has edited the article deliberately to make it more dramatic, specifically removing at least one dissenting quote as they went. Welcome to the glorious world of the Mail!

Anyway, if you're interested in finding out what people other than the 'Hell in a handcart' crowd think of this, just scan the comments for the red arrows. My personal favourite is the one from Sue, Cheshire, who tells a heartfelt story about how she was encouraged to lie on her birth certificate when she and an unnamed other person tried to artificially inseminate 24 years ago. She speaks of how she didn't want to lie, and after some consideration chose adoption instead. As a result of this personal anecdote, Sue is currently on the receiving end of a -56 vote smackdown from the ever-compassionate Mail readers.