Friday, 8 May 2009

Facts, Littlejohn style

Richard Littlejohn is upset in his latest column, apparently because the Guardian has been mean to him for perpetuating tedious health and safety myths, something he undoubtedly does. Near the end of his column, after a physically painful 'what if Bob Dylan wrote a song about Gordon Brown?' skit which I urge you to skip over at all costs, he launches into a spirited defence of his attacks on what he calls 'elf'n'safety';

This week, the Guardian (who else?) carried a 32-page supplement extolling the elf 'n' safety industry.

Two pages were devoted to denouncing the Daily Mail, in general, and this column, in particular, claiming most of the stories we carry are made up.

Littlejohn takes umbrage with this, and drops a massive evidence bomb to shut up the smug Guardianistas in the next paragraph;

Only yesterday there were absolutely true stories about a helter skelter in Sheffield, which cost taxpayers £90,000, being closed to the public by safety officers
Absolutely true? The Yorkshire Post covered this story without mentioning the words 'health' or 'safety', because it had nothing to fucking do with it. The reason the public can't access the big slide is because it's in a private office building where people work. It's not been 'closed to the public', because it was never open to them. If there's a story here, it's about public money being used to fund something that only benefits the workers of a private office block, not a spurious 'elf'n'safety' one. What's more, the public will actually get to use it at some point, in apparent defiance of the safety elves that live in Littlejohn's head:

Cllr Anginotti promised the council would offer members of the public some opportunity to try out the 85ft (26m) spiral slide over the course of the summer.

She said: "In terms of public access, this summer there will be a free open day at Electric Works for members of the public who wish to try out the slide.

There are times when I'm actually embarrassed for Littlejohn. Here he is, trying to prove his worth as a purveyor of hard-nosed journalistic facts, and yet he crams so much fail into a brief sentence segment you wonder if he's doing it deliberately to generate more criticism he can self-righteously moan about. Sorry to labour the point, but in that brief section of one sentence, which is supposed to prove how good he is with facts he manages to get the following things wrong:
1) it hasn't 'been closed to the public', it was never open to them,
2) it will at some point be open to them, and
3) it has nothing to do with health and safety legislation.

His second example is only fractionally less rubbish:

...and another about a caravan camp banning washing lines because people might decapitate themselves.
The Telegraph covers this. What you can glean from the Telegraph's slightly less rabid (although still anti-H&S) account and the actual quotes from people who made the decision, is the following:
1) Littlejohn's 'decapitation' line is bollocks; the ban is on rotary washing lines, and in so far as it's a health and safety measure it's to do with kids not running into the vertical metal poles which support rotary lines.
2) health and safety is at least a reason for it this time, but there are also two others which Littlejohn would like you to discard; a) they're considered ugly and there's not a lot of space for them and b) the company makes money out of the ban by forcing campers to use its own launderette.

Whether you agree or disagree with the policy, it's telling that that the reality of any H&S concern here is fairly reasonable; kids are encouraged to run around in the fairly confined spaces of the caravan park, and having what amounts to randomly-placed metal poles in the way could cause a problem. I reckon Littlejohn realises that this is slightly too close to sensible, so he invents a ludicrous scenario about adults decapitating themselves so you can go "Yeah, he's right! I've got a washing line and I've literally never beheaded myself! You couldn't make up how elf'n'safety's gone to mad hell in a handcart! Mind how you go!".

He makes two other claims. One of them is kind of true, it's about a policeman who wouldn't sit on a bike for a photo because he couldn't ride a bike, and police rules stop policemen riding a bike on the job unless they've done their cycling proficiency test, largely for insurance reasons in the same way my private company won't let you drive a company van without a licence. It's an entirely pointless story, the irony of it being that it distracts from the genuinely silly real scenario whereby a policeman has been asked to pose on a bike for a 'look at the jolly cycling cop' photo when he evidently doesn't use a bike for his job, and secondly it was largely his own cautiousness and there's no evidence that he'd have been cast out into a like of fire by his superiors if he'd sat on the bike (another cop posed for the photo in his place anyway).

The final example is a Littlejohn classic, in that it appears to be a story that's landed in his inbox, and I can find nothing to support it anywhere:

Across the country, all hospitals have installed alcohol-based, anti-bacterial handwash dispensers to stop the spread of diseases and superbugs.

But St Margaret's Hospital, in Epping, has now removed the dispensers over fears that alcoholics might rip them off the wall, drink the contents and poison themselves.

The hospital was acting on the orders of something called the National Patient Safety Agency.

Talk about foaming at the mouth. Another 'myth', I suppose. You couldn't make it up.
If anyone can find out where he's got this from, let me know. I ask because the body he attributes this advice to is currently in a campaign to educate people about the importance of washing hands, and it seems a kind of big claim for something no-one else seems to be reporting. There's not enough information to judge this story on, the only references I can find come from Littlejohn, but I will say this; complaining about overbearing health and safety regimes IN A HOSPITAL seems like something of a futile effort.

My main criticism of all this isn't really about whether or not the stories are true, although I kind of like to know if they are because I'm anal like that. My problem with these stories, like the 'PC gone mad' ones, is that they're such a shit attempt to weave this huge overarching narrative on the basis of thousands of bits of really weak evidence. Man doesn't get on bike? Caravan campers have to abide by slightly restrictive caravan park rules? People not allowed to wander freely round office at all hours and go down a big slide? Individually these things are so utterly banal that they ought to be quirky asides on page 37 of the Pisstown Gazette, not forming the basis for six-figure salary commentators to wave their fists righteously in front of the baying mob.

Littlejohn is unhappy with the Guardian's suggestion that these micro-myths belittle the importance of sensible health and safety policy, but I think that's fair comment. The HSE has gone as far as having a Myth of the Month section to deal with a mere fraction of the never-ending slew of shite the press come out with, concerned that it does indeed detract from the serious work they do. Littlejohn is a prime offender in this regard, and you can see how it might irritate people to have smug twats like Littlejohn take cheap shots based on dubious and in some cases unverifiable anecdata.

On a lighter note, Queen's Trinity Cross medal scrapped... because it's 'too Christian' is good fun. I recommend reading all the stuff about the medal being specific to Trinidad & Tobago, before skimming through the comments to see how many people assumed it was being given to people in Britian, including baffling nonsense like this:

Will we start renaming Charing Cross railway station?
- Adrian, Reading, UK, 8/5/2009 11:37

It is time we stopped pondering to the every wish of Muslims and Hindues who choose to live in Britain. This is a Christian country and as so they should abide by our christian values....
- Elizabeth, Ayrshire, Scotland., 8/5/2009 11:31

This is not about being "unlawful and offensive" to Muslims and Hindus. It's about destroying Christianity in Britain, nothing more or less.
- Renee, Melbourne, Australia, 8/5/2009

When in Great Britain do as the British do has to be the rule. How dare they suggest otherwise.
- Vaj, Savoie, France, 8/5/2009 11:36
It's another of example of the tone of an article combining with the prejudices of the readers to evoke the desired response, despite the facts. Littlejohn would be proud.


In other news, I probably won't post much if anything over the next two weeks, I'm having some time off work to chill with Mrs No Sleep 'Til Brooklands, and since I fully intend to actually enjoy myself it might be nice if I didn't needlessly subject my brain to the mad world of the gutter press for a bit. Woohoo!


  1. Great stuff!

    Although the Pisstown Gazette does actually have some fascinating investigative artcles, y'know.

  2. Damn, I was hoping no-one from Pisstown would be reading...

  3. Great post. But the thing about alcohol dispensers is most likely true. Not as Littlejohn thinks because it's H&S gone mad, but there have unfortunately been cases of alcoholics ingesting the alcohol gel - in the same way they drink aftershave, mouthwash etc. It's sad but it happens. Whether removing the alcohol gel is the right way to deal with it, I'm not sure. But one thing is: Littlejohn neither knows nor cares. The cunt.

  4. Thanks Anton, yes, it's certainly possible that it's true, and didn't mean to imply that it was definitely untrue because I simply don't know. I just couldn't find a source for this particular instance which might have an explanation. I was hoping to find some kind of spokesperson announcing the decision.

    The reason it bothers me is because the problem with these stories is there are lot of details left out which may make you view it in a different light. They may have removed them but made alternative provisions for people to wash their hands, they may have only removed them from certain areas, they may have been removed short-term pending a review after a serious incident, and so on. A lot of Littlejohn's basic H&S/PC-gone-mad claims are indeed true, but it's all the stuff he leaves out that makes the difference.

    Health and safety in a hospital is complicated with all the competing needs of different types of patients, it's an awful balancing act. I don't envy anyone the task of trying to ensure safety in a place that's full of extremely vulnerable people but also has to be accessible enough for anyone to be able to walk in off the street.

  5. Littlejohn generally tends to regard isolated incidents taken completely out of context as unequivocal evidence of a broad social trend.

    I agree, there sometimes is a grain of truth in the H&S/PC gone mad stories, but the context is never explained. Some of them are straightforward fabrications, of course.

    The evidence that PC has any meaningful power must be piss weak if the best its most outspoken critics can come up with is this crap.

    I do wonder, though, why so many editorials and column inches are dedicated to eradicating a curse of modern life, the influence of which is negligible when the evidence is scrutinised properly. What's the agenda here?

  6. I love that 3 of the 4 quotes commenting on the DM article are from people outside England, but their hand-wringing indignation is totally genuine.

    Love it, thanks.