Thursday, 30 July 2009

Another wonderful day in the Mail

The Mail is today taking credit for being one of the papers whose excitable coverage of the 'Police banned from wearing Union Jack badges in support of our brave troops' story got the 'decision' reversed. Yesterday, the Mail, along with the Express and the Telegraph reported that yet more shocking political correctness gone bonkers had been behind a story about Met officers being told they weren't supposed to be wearing 'Support Our Soldiers' badges.

I'd link you to the original Mail article, but in accordance with their Dicking Around With Our Stories After We've Published Them Because The Internet Is Like A Big Etch-A-Sketch policy, they've just inserted the 'embarrassing U-turn' bollocks into the story. It's now entitled Scotland Yard DROPS ban on officers wearing Union Flag badges backing our troops, where yesterday it was called "Banned, the police Union Flag badge that backs our troops", as the URL and my IE title bar still indicate.

Of course, this leads to the story being an even worse mess than the original was. The original gave a lot of prominence to the idea that the ban was in place because someone had complained it was offensive. This was, and still is, backed up in the article by the line "The banning order is thought to have followed a complaint that the symbol is ‘offensive'". This entirely unconvincing claim, backed up by no official confirmation and not even a made-up quote, is flatly contradicted by the stated reason, which was as follows:
"The Metropolitan Police has a dress code policy to clarify the dress standard expected from all staff whether they are wearing uniform or plain clothes.

"The Met wants to ensure that everyone projects a smart and professional image in support of delivering a quality service.

"The dress code states only the approved corporate badging may be used and only on clothing authorised by the Clothing Board."
That quote was in the Mail yesterday, but has been removed in favour of the more recent statement after new Commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson (the new, more tabloid-friendly successor to Sir Ian Blair) made a special exception:
'The Met has a dress code policy which states that only approved corporate badging may be used.

However, on this occasion, the Commissioner has decided to intervene.

'He feels strongly that these are exceptional circumstances and the Met should be openly showing their support for British troops currently serving abroad.
Indeed, it's also contradicted by the new introduction to the article, which states that the badges "fell foul of a blanket ban on non-regulation clothing". So where did the suggestion that there was a complaint come from? The Met have never mentioned a complaint, and none of the papers that have covered it and repeated the complaint theory have done anything to back it up. I ask this question rhetorically, of course. With the complaint angle it's another brilliant PC PCs Gone Mad story; without it it's a rather flaccid tale about a fairly reasonable regulation with no particularly serious consequences getting some patriots riled.

Elsewhere in the Mail, Rosie Boycott uses some ad hoc speculation about a woman's tragic suicide as a starting point for a kind of weird essay about the state of Britain, which seems to gently imply that maybe women shouldn't be having careers and babies at the same time. One wonders if she's hoping her employees read it and take the hint, given that a year ago she was writing about how terribly worried she was that she might have to pay maternity pay to one of her employees. Given that rampant speculation seems to be the order of the day, I therefore have no problem inferring that perhaps the "incredibly attractive young woman in her 30s called Sarah" who works for Boycott has just got herself a serious boyfriend. Don't do it, Sarah! Not only will you cause your boss financial problems, you'll probably wind up throwing yourself off a bridge!

Meanwhile, Anna Pasternak strikes another blow for feminism in Is there even ONE straight, kind, solvent single man in his 40s left in Britain?. I've double-checked and that is indeed the title of an article in a national newspaper, and not someone's Facebook status or the title of a drunken Livejournal entry. In it, Pasternak expresses her horror at finding herself still single despite having been on a 'handful' of dates. Rest assured, dear reader, that this is nothing to do with Pasternak herself. No, Pasternak has reached the conclusion that there ain't no good men after some painstaking research, which has mostly revolved around talking to her similarly single friends on a "detox holiday in Morocco" where they "bonded over our inability to find our male match". Some of these women are unfathomably still single despite being "well-educated and successful (including bankers, a lawyer, a top fashion buyer, a media executive and an art historian)".

What hope is there for humanity when a fashion buyer can't find a man? Pasternak is angry because these men seem to be failing to look past the superficial and seeing her for who she really is:
These men are so adept at sizing you up - your wealth and your looks - that they don't bother to see who you really are. And they don't care that an intelligent forty-something woman like me seeks a spark of recognition, of mutual companionship and respect.
Of course, Pasternak's view of 40-something men is rounded, nuanced and deep:
As far as I can see, they fall into two distinct camps.

There are the overgrown 'kidults' - men who have degenerated into hopeless commitment-phobes and just want to have 'fun' (ie lots of sex) with taut twenty-somethings. They just seem to seek endless couplings, often facilitated by the internet.

Then there are the successful, solvent divorc├ęs who are so determined to find wife number two pronto that they approach dating like a cold business transaction.
Which leads her to the conclusion that it's all the men's fault:
Believe me, in all this it's not a case of us women being unrealistic or fussy. It's our male counterparts who are more exacting, arrogant and demanding than we could ever be, and who have this vile presumption that they are some kind of sought-after prize that we would be so lucky to 'get'.
The article goes on to conclude that some men would prefer to shag attractive young women if they could, which unfortunately the type of men Pasternak is aiming for seem to indeed be able to do. Did I mention that this was in an actual newspaper? I'm thinking of submitting an article about how it takes some women a bit longer to get dressed than men, plus have you ever noticed how a lot of women seem to be more interested in shoes than men (possibly because they have a greater variety of clothing styles than men, who knows?). What's the deal with that?

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

The safety elves strike again

The Express, with its customary sense of understatement, brings us the sad news that kids these days are being prevented from skipping and playing conkers by bloody health and safety madness gone mad, in FOR SAFETY'S SAKE, SKIP THE PLAYGROUND GAMES. Just in case you were in any doubt about why kids these days might not be playing the same games as people did in the sixties and seventies, or were inclined to view it as some kind of multi-faceted issue to do with social changes and an expansion of competing entertainment choices over several decades, the author of the piece can disavow you of your silly notion that things might be 'a little bit more complicated than that' straight away:

PLAYGROUND games are vanishing – because of health and safety rules.
The world is much easier when you know exactly who's to blame, isn't it? Now you don't have to waste your time thinking about it, because a journalist has announced it. Of course, I know what you cynics are thinking; "Pah! Journalists?! Most of them are just basic office drones who are merely required to reformat Reuters articles and pull quotes out of reports and arrange them in such a way as to reinforce their readers' existing prejudices", but don't get hasty, son, because Katherine Fenech is about to drop some science on you clowns. You ready?

Over three-quarters of girls no longer use a skipping rope, compared to 94 per cent of their mothers for whom it was a playtime pleasure.

And just over a third of boys ever play conkers, while 83 per cent of their fathers would have tried their hands.
Statistics for apple-scrumping, riding a penny-farthing and dying of The Plague are not shown, but I'm sure they're in there somewhere. Still, you can't fuck with science, and lord knows I've tried. So, which venerable old institution conducted the painstaking research that led us to the inescapable conclusion that bad health and safety men done gone stole all our fun?

While computer games and other indoor entertainment are partly to blame, many mothers and fathers believe the “cotton wool culture” we live in is also at fault, a study shows.

More than 4,000 parents were surveyed by the makers of children’s juice drink Fruit Shoot for “Big Mothered Britain” – a report on restrictions faced by youngsters.
So it's Fruit Shoot, citing what parents reckon. Not entirely sure that parents are completely objective in this, given that alternative explanations to sinister H&S bogeymen include 'shit parenting', but there you go. It would be interesting to see how many of these parents had kids who are desperate to ditch the football, online Call Of Duty deathmatches and texting each other porn in favour of taking up more rewarding pastimes like hopscotch and hoop-rolling, but were actively prevented from doing so by Government killjoys.

Call me a cynic, I just can't help the nagging feeling that some of the "80 per cent of parents [who] thought too much officialdom was affecting children’s fun" might have been basing that off what they've read in the papers rather than their own experience. It would also be interesting to see how the actual questions in the "Big Mothered Britain" report were phrased, but for some reason the good folks over at Fruit Shoot seem to have given their pioneering research to the papers in some kind of press release form rather than publishing it in scientific journals (you can see the same story in today's Telegraph and inevitably the Daily Mail).

Still, I can't possibly think of any reason why ROBINSON'S FRUIT SHOOT OOH YUMMY FRUIT SHOOT BUY IT TODAY AND ENJOY THE SHOOTY FRUITY TASTE would have for asking leading questions that might provide newsworthy results for the press, and therefore I do believe it's safe to conclude that elf'n'safety Nazis must be the main reason.

Friday, 24 July 2009

It's the taking part that counts

Richard Desmond talks proudly in his paper The Express of his brilliant decision to bring libel action against dastardly bastardly arse Tom Bower. The article in its entirety:

RICHARD Desmond, Chairman of Northern and Shell, which owns the Daily Express and Sunday Express newspapers, tonight expressed satisfaction at the end of his three week High Court battle against the journalist Tom Bower.

Mr. Desmond said: “I sued Mr Bower for defamation because he made inaccurate and damaging allegations about me, yet he refused to apologise and publish a correction.
"Bower made a series of errors about events and timings and even got the name of one of my newspapers wrong.

"His biggest mistake was in thinking I would not go to court to uphold my reputation and the resulting action has cost many hundreds of thousands of pounds to defend a few ill-thought-out remarks that were not even essential to his book.”

Mr. Desmond concluded: “It was worth it to stand up in court and set the record straight.”
Unfortunately he seems to have forgotten to mention that he lost the case and has to pay an estimated £1.25m in legal bills. Oops! On an unrelated note, I'd just like to express my satisfaction at Cristiano Ronaldo's excellent penalty against Liverpool at Old Trafford in March; beautifully tucked away, and a fitting reward for our domination. It was great to see my team showing Liverpool such grit, determination and skill, and it really shut their fans right up.

My favourite thing about that Express article is that the case was partly about Richard Desmond contesting claims that he interfered with his newspaper's editiorial policy. I think the even-handed and wonderfully non-partisan treatment the Express has given this story conclusively shows this not to be true in any way.

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Swine flu: let's have some anti-hysteria hysteria! Yay!

The great thing about swine flu from a media point of view is that it provides great fodder for columnists as well as spectacular front pages. You can run front pages about how we're all going to die, and at the same time your delightfully world-weary old columnists can write "Pah! Swine flu? It's the new Milennium Bug, load of fuss about bugger-all! Have we all gone soft? During the war..." pieces for that section of the readership that bloody well hate experts and politicians and the nanny state and anything that seems to lack the correct level of British stiff upper lip.

Simon Jenkins in the Guardian isn't letting his notion that swine flu is a load of old bollocks go. Having written two such columns near the start of the outbreak, the fact that the whole bothersome business hasn't gone away yet has motivated him to drop his apparent wisdom on us again, inthe delightful Just two months of swine flu sniffles, and madness reigns.

It seems to follow the same basic format as his previous two, widely criticised, articles which asserted that everyone except a few wise sages like Jenkins had gone bonkers in the flippin' nut. The main problem with Jenkins' writing on this topic is that he seems to put any blame for the apparent hysteria squarely on the shoulders of Sir Liam Donaldson and unnamed 'public officials':

Last week the government's chief medical officer, Sir Liam Donaldson – never knowingly out-panicked – suffered an acute attack of headline deprivation. Nostalgic for the famous "750,000 could die" prediction for avian flu, he decided that "65,000 people might die" of swine flu. He later said the figure was an "upper estimate scenario for planning purposes". He added that his "lower limit" was 11,000 dead. Donaldson knows his media. This week he terrorised ministers gathered in Downing Street's Cobra bunker into conceding his dream, a 2,000-strong department for a "national pandemic flu service".
Brilliantly, the article he links to for the 65k figure points out in its very first line that 65k is a "worst case scenario". It's not clear where Jenkins gets his "lower limit" being "11,000" claim, since the very article he links to says;

The most optimistic scenario set out is based on only 5% of the population falling ill and 3,100 dying.
Jenkins continues with a tirade against Donaldson for having the temerity to qualify these apparent predictions;

Some spuriously exact statistic, such as 65,000 or 31% or 0.1, is dressed up with mights, coulds and other pseudo-qualifications.
It's not clear exactly what constitutes a "pseudo-qualification", because those all seem like actual qualifications to me. To Jenkins, Donaldson is a scaremonger, even when he says things like "We can't give an estimate of deaths from this virus yet. We don't know enough about it". Of course, Donaldson does nothing of the sort. He was at pains to point out that 65,000 is the absolute worse case scenario, and that the authorities had to plan for that. There's been a running theme throughout the swine flu coverage of government and WHO officials making fairly reasonable, even-handed statements about the potential risks, only for the media to splash the scariest-sounding bit in their headlines. It's understandable, but what bothers me is that people like Jenkins should know this. But no, it's easier to just pretend Donaldson et al are running round like Chicken Little telling us the sky is falling in.

I mean, why bother trying to write a sensible piece, when you could just write smarmy comebacks like this?

The head of the Royal College of General Practitioners announces that "at its worse [sic], the pandemic will hit 30% of the population, of whom 0.3% might die". I suppose they might, or perhaps might not.

Well, yes. They might or might not. That's the thing with risk assessment, it has to predict possible scenarios in the future by its very nature. The government and the health service know this, but they have a duty to plan for the worst. The media, on the other hand, really ought to have a duty to inform people about the risks in a measured way, but dang, that ain't no fun. Jenkins is having none of it though, and bravely argues that we should really stop worrying about the actual existing, unpredictable but clearly spreading swine flu, and instead ensure we're not diverting funds from preventing nuclear attacks from an unspecified source:

I would like to know how many people will die of heart attacks, meningitis, MRSA and delayed cancer treatment while health politicians play Whitehall games with flu. Many people might indeed die of flu, but they might also die of a nuclear attack, an asteroid strike or a dozen other diseases and accidents now receiving lower priority.
It'll be interesting to see how long Jenkins keeps this up. When no-one in Britain had died of swine flu, he shrugged off the inevitable headlines about swine flu's entry into Britain as "Two Britons are or were (not very) ill from flu", pointing out that "Nobody anywhere else in the world has died from this infection and only a handful have the new strain confirmed". Now that a number of people have died, he...oh wait, he's still shrugging it off;

And all this is over a condition correctly diagnosed by a Dulwich 12-year-old during the initial outburst of hysteria in May as "like a cold". Whitehall empire-building has been reduced to a nationalised sniffle
Yes, that 12-year-old got it mildly and didn't die. The vast majority of people who get it won't die. It's a bit more than a sniffle, but even Sir Liam Donaldson's gravest prediction had the mortality rate at an absolute worst-case 0.35%. Citing a single anecdote from two months ago while 30 other people in Britain have since died seems to miss the point just a tad.

The most baffling thing is that Jenkins doesn't seem to be getting the same coverage as me.

The information that 28 out of the 29 "killed so far by swine flu" had other potentially life-threatening conditions was rarely mentioned.
Again, the very article Jenkins linked to regarding the 65k figure indeed mentions "underlying health complications", a phrase that's been persistent throughout the media coverage since the beginning. Today's articles about the 30th British victim all say this, with the Guardian, the BBC, Reuters, the Mirror, the Sun, the Times and everyone else all quoting Scottish health secretary Nicola Sturgeon, who said:

"As we have seen in previous cases, this patient was suffering from underlying health conditions and her death should not cause alarm among the general population.

"Fortunately, for the vast majority of people who have H1N1, they will experience relatively mild symptoms and make a full recovery."
The scaremongering witch! This is pretty typical of the reporting though; the underlying health complications are always reported somewhere (since they're usually in the AP/Reuters articles everyone copies) and always stressed by spokespeople where appropriate. The reality is, though, that "underlying health complications" doesn't fit well with snappy headlines, whereas "65,000 deaths" does.

So who's really losing a sense of perspective here? For me it's people like Jenkins, desperate to downplay all risks, and hyping up the 65,000 figure by acting like it was Sir Donaldson's primary claim, when indeed he knows that the media focus is what made it stick out. Jenkins seems to have adopted a contrarian position here, when the bottom line is, we don't know how bad this is going to be. To take such a committed "bah, storm in a bloody teacup!" stance is just as daft as sticking the 65,000 deaths thing in your headline and panicking your readers. Combatting perceived nonsense with hyperbole of your own (for example, Jenkins' suggestion that Donaldson "terrorised" ministers), isn't fucking helping. It just contributes to a ludicrously unnecessary split between apparently fanatical swine flu believers on the one hand and eye-rolling naysayers on the other. What we need is more articles like Ben Goldacre's from around the time of Jenkins' first piece, which strike the right tone between the extremes. I won't be holding my breath, though. EVEN THOUGH NU LIEBORE WILL PROBABLY TELL US ALL TO START HOLDING OUR BREATH SOON SO WE DON'T BREATHE IN TEH DEADLY PIG FLU ZOMG

Friday, 17 July 2009

A red herring argument about herring: Littlejohn goes meta!

After seeing a couple of examples this week, I want to mention the red herring fallacy. Specifically I'm referring to the technique whereby you try and discredit something by picking out some tiny, seemingly absurd facet of it and ignoring anything vaguely serious that may be connected to it. It may not surprise you to learn that both recent examples come from the mack daddy of the misleading argument, Richard Littlejohn, (the latter of which amusingly is actually about herring).

On Tuesday, Littlejohn directed his rage at those mincing liberal poofters who oppose torture with this little throwaway piece of smugness:

The Not In My Name crowd are so desperate to convict British soldiers of torture they'll clutch at any straw, from fake photos to uncorroborated testimony from hardened terrorists.

At the latest inquiry, which opened this week, it was even claimed that Iraqi prisoners were forced at gunpoint to dance like Michael Jackson. Now that's what I call torture.
Aside from the fact there's no evidence that the people giving testimony were 'hardened terrorists', what Littlejohn's actually discussing here is a single sentence floating around in relation to the inquiry into the death of Iraqi civilian Baha Mousa in Army custody. Now, according to the BBC, Mousa "suffered asphyxiation and at least 93 injuries to his body, including fractured ribs and a broken nose". The stories from these two articles are numerous. Many of the claims may be false, some may be true. But the accusations include that "soldiers had competed to see who could kick them [detainees] the furthest", to use just one example.

Here's how the Guardian (link above) frames the apparently freakin' hilarious Michael Jackson claim:

Some claimed they were urinated on and forced to lie face down over a hole in the ground filled with excrement. Others said their hands were burned with scalding water, or their heads were flushed in a toilet. Elias said: "One man says he was made to dance in the style of Michael Jackson."
To me, that sounds pretty bad, but I guess if you're Richard Littlejohn you just read through all the pissing and burning and covering in shit and start giggling at the incongruous Jacko reference. Fair enough if that's your reaction, I'm not the sense of humour police (not yet anyway), but I do think it takes a special kind of cunt to wave away all the claims that would constitute genuine torture, completely fail to refer to the fact that a man died, and then portray the whole thing as if it were just a jolly good British prank and that these Iraqi ponces ought to man up. The trial is not about making people dance in an amusing way, Littlejohn. Nor is it about the anti-war protesters you irrelevantly bring in. It's about trying to find out whether a man was beaten to death by the Army. Oh, my aching sides.

Today's example is a tad more boring, but equally disngenuous. Demonstrating his total lack of self-awareness by including the very logical fallacy he's committing in his sub-heading ("Smells like a red herring"), Littlejohn gets a whole eight paragraphs of awful 'imagine that' comedy out of a passing mention by a judge of an apparently ludicrous law:

He [the Lord Chief Justice] drew attention to one law creating a new offence of using a non-approved technique for weighing herring. How many methods can there be for weighing herring? And why just herring? Why not cod, pollack or salmon?
My life is sufficiently boring that I bothered to actually research this claim. In doing so, I found a Mail article (duh) which claimed this law is part of the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006. It isn't. After loads of Google-powered research via a clue in an Independent article, I found myself confronted with the erection-inducing excitement that is the The Sea Fishing (Enforcement of Community Quota and Third Country Fishing Measures) (Scotland) Order 2007. The relevant paragraphs of this are here.

To cut an already far too long story short, what this bit of law actually states is that if an inspector asks questions about how you weigh your fish, you should provide him with information. The purpose of this is to stop fishermen from rigging their weighing scales to give inaccurate readings and thus sneakily break quota limits. It essentially says that you may have to co-operate with an inspector if they decide to check you're not pulling a fast one. Now, that seems to me fairly reasonable, in fact I'd go so far as to see it's a necessary element of having a weight-based fishing quota law. But because it mentions herring and because a judge who's clearly pulled his example from the papers thinks it's just a bit of pointless nit-picking, it's suddenly deemed absurd.

What I'd like to see from journalists really is a bit of skepticism. In the torture example, Littlejohn's clearly just being a dick and knows full well what the trial is about. But in the second one he's using what looks like a third-hand, glib account of a law to dismiss it on the rounds of apparent absurdity. A good rule of thumb would be this; if a claim seems fanciful or absurd, it may be that you've not understood it properly. Why not go and check it? Sadly, that last question is rhetorical. I know why Littlejohn doesn't check things, it's because his column relies on pretending that everyone in any form of power has completely lost touch with reality, and the cheap laughs that he can get out of it from readers who uncritically lap up his shaggy dog stories.

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Differing levels of reality

Sometimes you just have to take your hat off to the Mail; they know what their role is and do it with a certain style. It can be difficult sometimes to be a partisan newspaper; how do you deal with a report that runs contrary to the narrative your readers want to believe? Watch and learn, kiddies, watch and learn...

So the Equality and Human Rights Commission has released a report which finds that;

There is no evidence that new arrivals in the UK are able to jump council housing queues
The BBC's account of this report continues by pointing out that 'the same proportion live in social housing as UK-born residents', that council housing is 'awarded on the basis of need', that 'economic migrants cannot apply for housing for the first five years after settling in the UK', and that 'Just 11% of new arrivals get help with housing - almost all of them asylum seekers' (ie people with literally no way of supporting themselves). It quotes Trevor Phillips and housing minister John Healey both describing the widespread belief, so utterly entrenched in the Mail, that immigrants get priority in council housing, as a 'myth'.

Now, you or I might just decide to ignore this report, but the Mail loves a challenge. So whereas the BBC reports that housing doesn't favour migrants in its headline, the Mail goes, quite brilliantly, with One in ten state-subsidised homes goes to an immigrant family. Now that, folks, that takes balls. Hilariously, this article has the colossal testicular fortitude to acknowledge partway through that the idea that immigrants jump council housing queues is a 'misconception', and yet STILL runs with that fucking headline, and opts for this as its opening gambit:

Nearly 400,000 homes have gone to tenants who were born abroad, the Government's equality watchdog has said.

One in ten state-subsidised homes is occupied by an immigrant family, according to the first estimate of the impact of immigration on social housing

(Incidentally, essentially the same article is hosted on another URL with the even worse headline 'How ten per cent of State housing is taken up by immigrants').

I wonder if Mail writers, particularly headline writers, ever ask themselves if this kind of thing is, y'know, okay? Taking a report, ignoring the conclusion, pulling out irrelevant statistics from it and slapping them in the headline in a misleading way, to back up the very fucking prejudices the report says are without foundation. Indeed, the Mail's article acknowledges all this, and includes many of the facts and opinions which form the basis of the BBC article. It just changes the headline and sticks a wildly context-free, scaremongering figure at the start. The best part of all this is that papers do this kind of thing and then have the sheer audacity to criticise politicians for using 'spin'.