Friday, 6 August 2010

Reading comprehension

Here is a headline from the Daily Mail: "Romanian president praises countrymen for claiming British benefits in attack on 'lazy Westerners'".

Here is the opening line of the article to which that headline is attached, with an important bit emphasised in italics by me:
The president of Romania has publicly thanked the tens of thousands of his countrymen who claim benefits in Britain instead of their own country.
And here are the quotes from the president of Romania on which the headline and opening paragraph are based:
'Imagine if the two million Romanians working in Britain, Italy, Spain, France, Germany, came to ask for unemployment benefits in Romania,' he said. 'So to these people we have to thank them for what they are doing for Romania.'


'In those countries, the social protection is at a level that makes it more comfortable to be unemployed. Romanians do that hard labour for them and to earn better and make more money than they could at home,' claimed President Basescu.
Today's homework assignment is this: find a quote from the Romanian president in that article which support's the headline's assertion that he is praising Romanians for claiming benefits in the UK. I ask because I, a lay person with only A-level English to my name, read those quotes and saw him praising Romanian emigrants for being hard-working and going abroad to earn money through work rather than claiming benefits in Romania, something the article itself later admits.

So, the story is a straight-up misrepresentation of what the man is saying. But wait! I think DAILY MAIL REPORTER done found a loophole!
Romanians workers have flooded into Britain with other eastern European citizens after joining the EU following the collapse of Communism.

When they they arrive the immigrants are immediately entitled to child benefit, Tax Credits and housing support.

After 12 months in Britain they can receive generous income-related benefits like unemployment benefit.
Do you see? The headline wants you to assume that by 'benefits' it means unemployment benefit. DAILY MAIL REPORTER or their sub-editor will know that the word 'benefits' is synonymous with feckless scroungers stuffing their face with chips on the dole. It has a far less powerful association with those benefits which are paid to people who work legally and pay their taxes, such as tax credits. Moreover, DAILY MAIL REPORTER knows that the Romanian president was not praising his fellow Romanians for coming over here and taking all our lovely benefits, but for performing real work. But hey, why let that get in the way of an inflammatory, baiting headline?

UPDATE 10:41 - the Mail has now amended the headline from "claiming British benefits" to the more accurate and fair "doing British jobs" (thanks to the excellent Tabloid Watch for pointing this out). You can still tell what it used to say though, as the URL still reads:

By the time the amendment was made, many people will have read the original story. Among the comments left before the edit were Sue in Sussex observing "what he really means is thank you all for having our degenerates", and one "Hamster" who cries "Dear God, this just gets more ridiculous by the minute. Stop ALL benefits to foreigners - simple". I do hope those two come back to read the new headline...

Word games with Littlejohn

Sometimes I almost admire Richard Littlejohn. Not for his principled opinions, his witty prose, or his charm, none of which exist, but for his ability to move almost seamlessly from any given starting point into one of the subjects he has a stock rant prepared for. You can imagine this as a round on a mediocre Radio 4 quiz game, where contestants are challenged to get from topic A to topic Z in as few words as possible. I think Littlejohn would be good at this. Ask him who he thinks should be in the Ashes squad and he could be bending your ear about New Labour's nightmarish refuse collection system in no time. Ask him where he's going on his holidays this summer and before you know it you'll be slowly losing track of time as he makes what he imagines to be hilarious remarks about gyspies tarmacing driveways and how crazy it is that you can't call a spade a spade any more.

In today's Who wants to be a billionaire? Brits sadly lacking in the 40 super-rich giving away fortunes, Littlejohn manages to deftly turn the feelgood story about some of the world's richest billionaires pledging huge sums to charity into a launching pad for rants about socialism, the BBC and something about sex-change operations.

Littlejohn claims that "Both the BBC and the NHS have brought tremendous benefits", yet he doesn't seem to grasp the point of the BBC and why we have state-funded broadcasting. In his next paragraph he says:
Take the recent squabble over the future of BBC Radio 6, an obscure music channel beloved of a vociferous minority and financed from the licence fee.

Why should the common people be forced to pay for affluent pop stars like Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker to sit in a studio playing their favourite records on the wireless?
The whole point of tax and non-commercial broadcasting is that it doesn't just fund the things you as an individual want. Sometimes your tax money goes to fund hospitals treating sick children, even though they're not your kids! Imagine! The BBC is put in between a rock and a hard place; broadcast things with low ratings and it's all "no-one watches that shit, what a waste of money!". Broadcast populist ratings-chasing nonsense and they're criticising for copying ITV and Channel 4. You can't say you think the BBC does good things one minute and then criticise something like 6 Music, which is exactly the sort of thing the BBC is for. It provides something lots people want, but that would struggle to exist in the same form on a commercial station.

Littlejohn then goes on a rant about US satellite radio and how diverse it is, but the US is a wildly different beast to the UK. 6 Music existed because commercial radio wasn't providing it, as anyone with the misfortune to sit through more than an hour of Xfm's All Kasabian, All The Time playlist will be able to tell you.

Similarly, why should taxpayers also have to fork out for tattoo removal, breast enlargement, fertility treatment and sex-change operations on the National Health Service?
Yes, Richard, because those things are all the same, right? The attitude of some people towards sex-change operations in particular baffles me. It's treated like it's some kind of whimsical choice, like there are hundreds of people waking up thinking "Yeah, I fancy switching gender today!", getting their NHS doctor on the speed dial and wasting a few grand of taxpayer's money for shits and giggles. Does Littlejohn really think it's not a serious medical condition? Does he think that people are making the choice to put themselves through the incredible social stigma attached to a sex change operation in the same way they decide what toppings to get on their pizza? Sadly, I suspect he does, because if you accept that there are serious health issues involved then I don't see how you can treat it in the same way as someone getting rid of an embarrassingly misspelled tattoo they got when they were pissed.
The philanthropists who founded hospitals before the advent of the NHS would never have donated their hard-earned if they thought it was going to be frittered away on such fripperies.
Would they? How can you possibly say that? And how can you not understand that, even if that were true, society's attitudes change over time as our understanding grows?

Littlejohn goes on to complain about taxes on high earners. Might anyone care to speculate as to why? Not that I'm suggesting for a moment that Littlejohn's dazzling columns don't earn every last penny of his upper-six-figure salary! He argues that if we just let the hard-working rich keep more of their money instead of bloody taxing them, they might probably give all their money to us! Even though much of the US philanthrophy he's talking about is going to developing countries rather than getting his bins emptied. I suspect that if British billionaires were beaming on the front of the papers about all the money they've given to AIDS orphans in Africa, he'd be moaning that they weren't doing enough here.

Anyway, I hereby offer this advice to Littlejohn; it's okay if you just want to go on a rant about the BBC, or lefty Islington liberals, or immigration, or how PC has gone mad except you can't say 'mad' any more because of PC gone mad. No-one is coming to you as a serious news source, you're a polemicist. So spare us the sight of you trying gamely to tie your stock rants half-arsedly to a prominent current news story. No-one really cares, and you could use the paragraphs you've saved to squeeze in another mention of what the gays are up to these days.