Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Government admits there was no evidence to support Eric Pickles' Winterval Tale

Apologies for talking about Christmas in late January, but the wheels of Government are not known for rotating especially quickly.

You may recall that, back in late November, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government Eric Pickles won some easy headlines by demanding that councils stick to calling Christmas Christmas and not allow "politically correct grinches" to declare "War on Christmas" by rebranding it as "Winterval, Winter Lights and Luminos". He added that all three shoud be "consigned to the dustbin of history" forthwith.

The problem is, as numerous people pointed out at the time, no local authority has ever declared war on Christmas by calling it Winterval, Winter Lights or Luminos. All three were umbrella terms for season-long festivals that included Christmas. As Birmingham City Council said of Winterval (which was consigned to the dustbin of history in 1998):
"There was a banner saying Merry Christmas across the front of the council house, Christmas lights, Christmas trees in the main civil squares, regular carol-singing sessions by school choirs, and the Lord Mayor sent a Christmas card with a traditional Christmas scene wishing everyone a Merry Christmas".

In all three cases the tabloids had taken something innocent and sensible and spun it into an attack on Christmas itself. So I wrote to Eric pointing this out and asking him to apologise for making misleading statements.

A month later I received a letter from one of his civil servants. It failed to address any of the points I'd made and simply told me that Eric Pickles thought Christmas was great. So I filed an FoI request asking the department to release the research or data on which Eric's claims were based. Today I received a reply:
"I am unable to provide you with the information you requested as the Department for Communities and Local Government does not hold it. This Department does not carry out research on this matter, and whether and how to celebrate the festive season is a decision for individual local authorities. Mr Pickles was making the point that councils should continue to take pride in Britain's Christian heritage and traditions at Christmas and also reminding them of the potential to boost the high street economy by embracing the spirit of the festival."

It's very clear - there is no evidence of local authorities, politically correct grinches or anyone else attempting to ban, rebrand or declare war on Christmas. The Department has never even tried to find any.

What does this prove? Quite simply, that Eric Pickles isn't that bothered by facts - if it was in the Mail it must be true, so why bother checking something accuracy if it fits the "Common Sense War on Political Correctness" narrative you're pushing.

It would have been bad enough if the made-up "facts" had merely been pumped out by the Conservative Party press office - Eric's Winterval Tale first appeared in one of their press releases. However, two days later the same message was released by the civil servants in the Department for Communities & Local Government press office. Could they not be bothered to check the facts either, or does Pickles - who once claimed to keep a revolver in his desk drawer with which he planned to shoot any civil servant who told him something he didn't want to hear - so intimidate his staff that head of news Michael Winders is no longer concerned about accuracy provided Uncle Eric gets what he wants?

It seems that DCLG is THE department for made-up news right now - earlier this month Eric's deputy Grant Shapps claimed that Manchester City Council was spending £40,000 on a "Twitter Czar" who should be fired before any frontline council workers lost their jobs. The story was complete bollocks, sourced, of course, from the clippings file of the Daily Mail.

And Eric is also believed to have shelled out taxpayers' cash on legal advice after someone in his department - most likely one of his special advisers, Giles Kenningham and Sheridan Westlake - attempted to smear the name of the head of the Electoral Commission.

But don't expect Pickles to get in hot water over his department's lies and smears any time soon - as I said before, his rentaquote "common sense" approach chimes perfectly with the agenda of the Mail, Sun, Telegraph et al, so the mainstream media aren't exactly queuing up to point out his shortcomings.

Monday, 24 January 2011

If the facts don't fit, ignore them

Despite being one of its best sources of online traffic, the Mail really doesn't like Facebook very much. Any story with even a hint of the social networking site's involvement sees Facebook's role blown out of all proportion - it has recently been blamed for everything from murder to paedophilia.

However, it seems the OTT publicity for Facebook is a one-way street. Several of today's papers report on developments in the case of Ann Pettway, who is accused of kidnapping a baby two deacades ago and raising the child as her own. Here's what the Mirror has to say:

News outlets from around the world report that Pettway first made contact with the police via Facebook. Some, like the Mirror, overplay it a little. Many others mention it in passing. The Mail, however, makes no mention of Facebook whatsoever. I wonder why that is.

Monday, 17 January 2011

Misery loves company

It's cold, it's dark, it's raining and it's Monday. All in all, a pretty depressing combination. But wait, this cold, wet, dark Monday morning is worse than every other cold, wet, dark Monday morning we've had recently as it's - officially - the most miserable day of the year.

It's true! Eminent miseryologists have decreed - in what is a doubtless a scientifically rigorous and peer-reviewed press release - that the third Monday in January is the glummest day of the year for Britons. Hence this headline in the Mail:

The thing is, it's awfully similar to this headline in the Mail:

...which, as you can see from the dateline, appeared on 1 November last year. I pointed out at the time that there seems to be never-ending line of "most miserable" days in the year, creating a steady stream of opportunities for lazy "how to deal with the most miserable day of the year" features in the national press.

If, like me, you're a tragic individual with no life to speak of, it's all rather amusing. But it also raises a semi-serious point. So much of the mainstream press (especially the Mail) are so suspicious and sceptical about the views of scientists - actual scientists, ones who do science and stuff - when it comes to everything from climate change to mass animal deaths. Yet as soon as someone puts out a press release that announces something trivial is "official" in order to gain free advertising for a product or service, they swallow it hook, line and sinker. Why is that?

Or is there actually an important technical difference between depression and misery?

Friday, 14 January 2011

Mail: give children vaccine that we said would kill them

Today's Mail has a very emotional splash:

It tells the sad story of a three-year-old girl who died after contracting swine flu. Her father, a doctor, believes that the only reason all young children haven't been vaccinated against flu is that it would be very expensive. The paper also carries a strongly worded editorial on the issue, complaining about a lack of reliable and consistent information coming out of government:

"...Parents can’t understand why last year it was necessary to vaccinate their children, but this year it isn’t. They want to know whether decisions are being driven by medical advice or budget constraints. Above all they want to know the real risk to their families. At the moment, they are not getting nearly enough information from Coalition ministers..."

But assuming the Government does a U-turn and suddenly announces that all under-fives need to be vaccinated, how many Mail-reading parents would be willing to have their child jabbed? After all, it's less than three months since the Mail on Sunday carried this scary headline:

The story also ran in the Mail itself a couple of days later. As Atomic Spin pointed out at the time, the truth was somewhat less apocalyptic. Mr Spin also warned that:

"If even one person decides not to get the jab because of this article, that’s one more potential infection this winter. One more potential flu death."
On 25 October last year, the Mail even complained that too many people were being vaccinated against as priority groups were being given the seasonal flu and swine flu vaccines in one jab, with no ability to opt out of having the swine flu element:

"The H1N1 vaccine will be the dominant of three flu strains included in the shot, meaning millions of elderly and vulnerable patients will get it automatically. Yet many people refused to have the swine flu vaccine when it was offered last year because of fears it may cause serious side effects."

It's also worth drawing attention to another piece of Mail doublethink. The splash headline claims that a "paltry £6" is all it would have taken to save the unfortunate girl's life. Of course, this is not at all accurate - the vaccine itself may have cost £6, but administration costs would increase this further and, crucially, she would only have been vaccinated as part of a much larger campaign that would have cost a great deal more. It's interesting to note the Mail's sudden interest in the cost of the jab. It's taking the same line as with various cancer drugs that are not paid for by the NHS because they are too expensive* - "how dare you put a price on the life of a sick child".

But back last summer, that's exactly what the Mail did:

Now I accept that there's a difference between £46 million and £6, but it would be interesting to know at exactly what point the Mail thinks a drug becomes too expensive on the basis of a society-wide cost-benefit analysis, not least because when NICE tries to do the same thing they get crucified by, er, the Daily Mail. And as I said above, the cost of saving Lana Ameen's life would have been much, much higher than the £6 cost of one dose of vaccine.

In conclusion, the Mail thinks that everyone should be given a vaccine that can kill them and that cost shouldn't be an issue but that we shouldn't spend too much on it.

And this is the paper that accuses the Government of not giving out clear and consistent information...

What do scientists know about science, anyway?

FlashForward fans around the world have been watching nervously in recent weeks as the media reported a string of "mysterious" bird deaths. T

he latest batch (300 dead grackles) have turned up in Alabama. As the Alabama News Courier reports, all the evidence points to a massive flock of feeding birds simply being run over by a large truck that killed 1.5 per cent of them, but that doesn't stop Mail Online running this typically Maily headline:

Curiously, the article below the headline is far more restrained than the headline. This is presumably because it has been cobbled together from wire sources rather than written by an actual Mail hack. The entire bottom two-thirds are lifted, unchanged, from a week-old Associated Press report that comprehensively rebuts the idea that something unusual is going on. It cites various sources who explain that mass animal deaths are extremely common (almost daily, in fact) and that we just don't normally notice them.

So why the "what are scientists hiding" headline? Why suggest that the biologists and ornithologists who have been studying this kind of thing for years are wrong, or worse still trying to cover up some greater truth?

It's all part of the Mail's anti-science agenda. From bird deaths to MMR jabs to climate change, the Mail can always be relied on to stand up for the "common sense" man in the street who might not have any "qualifications" or "training" or "experience" but JUST KNOWS that something isn't right. There's always room in science for healthy scepticism, but is there any chance that the Mail could start basing such suspicions on evidence rather than, you know, suspicion?

Thursday, 13 January 2011

More from those charming Mail Online commenters

There's a horrible story on the Mail website right now, telling the tale of a British woman who was gang-raped while in Thailand.

As the anonymous Daily Mail Reporter (most likely some wire service or local paper the story has been nicked from) explains:

A British woman described how she was gang raped for two hours in a Thailand hotel by men who then phoned her mother to demand money.

The 23-year-old claims she was assaulted by a group of Swedes and Thais in a room near Patong Beach, in Phuket, after agreeing to go back for a party.In a sickening phone call, her attackers told her mother back in Britain that they would rape her again unless they received money.

A friend described how the men placed a hood over her head and then laughed as they phoned her mother.

"She had gone back to the room with a Swede," she added. "But inside there were five others, including three Thais. She was raped and then oneof them demanded her mother's phone number. There was laughter as one of the gang members told her mother that unless she sent money, her daughter would be raped again.

"Afterwards she went to find the Embassy official. I don't think she could even remember her attackers and I guess she was drunk."

The woman has now flown home after the authorities concluded that would be "hopeless" to try and prosecute anyone. Awful stuff. So what do the lovely comment-leavers of Mail-land have to say about it?

As I write this, the story has only been online for about 90 minutes. But already this comment has a net "green arrow" rating of almost 400 and is by some way the most green-arrowed

And that's not the only charming message getting the green arrow treatment. There's also this:


And remember, these comments were all moderated by the Mail's online team before posting...

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Fire extinguishers, dangerous actions and Guido Fawkes

Paul Staines, the portly political blogger who would rather be referred to as Guido Fawkes, has gone out of his way to criticise and condemn the muppet* who threw a fire extinguisher off the roof of the Conservatives Party’s office building during the first big tuition fees demonstration. When said muppet was jailed yesterday, Staines gleefully reported:

A good day for justice it seems. Edward Woollard who was revealed as the infamous thug who threw a fire extinguisher off the roof off CCHQ, narrowly avoiding killing a copper, has been sent down for 2 years and 8 months for violent disorder. Just long enough to do an Open University course. The judge said the heavy sentence against Wollard is warning to other protesters not to ‘cross the line’.

Fair enough. Woollard did something stupid and dangerous. He propelled a heavy lump of metal at great speed and with no control, an act that could have led to severe injury or death if someone had been unfortunate enough to get in the way.

However, is Staines really in a good place to comment on this? In 2008 and he picked up his second conviction for drink driving. After spending the afternoon getting pissed he drove off across central London with a blood alcohol level that was twice the legal limit. The police stopped him when they saw his car veering across lanes of traffic.

To put it another way, Staines did something stupid and dangerous. He propelled a heavy lump of metal at great speed and with no control, an act that could have led to severe injury or death if someone had been unfortunate enough to get in the way.

Staines generally does nothing to stop some horrendously offensive and downright nasty comments being posted on his blog by his more window-licky readers. However, in the past 24 hours I’ve tried several times to post a message asking if he agrees that first-offence drunk drivers should be given nearly three years behind bars in order to warn other boozehounds not to “cross the line”, but for some reason the Staines massive keep moderating out my question. Last summer Stained announced that he was introducing some auto-moderation to keep out the worst of the lunatics, but apparently this also picks up on any mention of awkward truths about the blog author.

This week’s Private Eye reports that the Daily Telegraph’s letters editor refused to publish any of the hundreds of pieces of correspondence the paper received from readers who were outraged at the tabloid-style sting on Vince Cable and other Lib-Dem ministers. Interesting to see that Staines’ attitude to criticism is so closely in step with the mainstream “dead tree press” he claims to despise.

*possibly Fozzie Bear, judging by the haircut

Friday, 7 January 2011

Lazy hacks (Austrian edition)

News from the Primly Stable Foreign Service:
SLOVAKIA: A student won £18,000 in damages after an Austrian newspaper mistakenly used her Facebook photo on a story about a murdered Slovakian prostitute with the same name. Lucia Rehakova, from Bratislava, said the image was seen 'all over the country'. The 23-year-old said her teaching dreams were in tatters. The paper will apologise.

This appears in a couple of papers this morning but I've yet to spot an online version. However, given the tabloid habit of lifting photos from Facebook profiles when someone is involved in a high-profile court case, how much longer will it be until a similar problem occurs here?

Girl with a pearl earring (because the dog still hasn't eaten it)

Today's Metro brings us this great news of worldwide importance:

Blurgh. I can't imagine how much more of this kind of thing we're going to have to put up with between now and the end of April, but if editors want to put it in their papers that's up to them - although as the entire piece is based around speculation from a magazine editor rather than an actual source you have to question its news value.

However, the thing I have an issue with appears in the final three sentences:

"On Sunday, she will be hoping for better luck with her gifts. Last year, her pet cocker spaniel Otto ate a pair of pearl earrings given to her by Prince William. The antiques were recovered only when nature took its course."

But, as TabloidWatch pointed out when the Mail on Sunday first ran this "story" (on page one, no less), it's a load of crap (forgive the pun) as Kate Middleton doesn't have a pet dog.

Still, it's in the Associated Newspapers cuttings file so it must be true, right?

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Winterval spotting (10 days late or 355 days early?)

When the Google Alert first popped up I thought there must have been some kind of mistake. Perhaps the internet was broken? After all, how could even the Daily Mail squeeze a mention of Winterval into this story:

But there it is, tucked away in the 24th paragraph (just next to the HILARIOUS Pugh cartoon):

The rubbish gap has been dubbed ‘Binterval’ after the name Winterval, which was first coined by council chiefs as a politically correct replacement for Christmas.
Quite who has dubbed the rubbish gap "Binterval" remains unclear; the Mail cites no sources and a Google search turns up just one news story containing the phrase, and that's this piece of quality Mail journalism. There ARE plenty of hits for it on a general search and on the blogs, but these all refer to it in
this kind of context:
"According to the USB 2.0 spec, bInterval value for the High Speed Bulk OUT endpoint must specify the maximum NAK rate of the endpoint."
Which means absolutely nothing to me, but clearly isn't about the menace of infrequent rubbish collection.

Still, even if the Mail's intrepid reporting duo HAD found someone outside their own office to dub the snow-and-strike-related delays "Binterval", the name couldn't have been derived from a politically correct replacement for Christmas devised by council chiefs, as no council chiefs (politcally correct or otherwise) have ever tried to replace Christmas with Winterval.

But then you already knew that. And I already knew that. And loads of people already knew that. So why does the Mail keep insisting that the opposite is true?

Honestly, I sometimes wonder why I bother.

Express complains about failed asylum seeker leaving the country

Barely a day goes by without the Daily Express complaining about the Government's failure to eject foreigners from the country, so you think they'd be pleased by the story of Farid Boukemiche, who is currently on trial in Paris accused of helping to finance terrorists.

The 34-year-old French Algerian spent three years on remand in a British jail before the case against him was dropped to avoid a public airing for evidence that could endanger undercover operations in north Africa. In June 2000 he was given a 12-month sentence for possessing false identity documents, but was released because he'd already spent so long in prison.

As today's Telegraph reports, upon his release Boukemiche tried to claim political asylum in the UK but his application was rejected and he returned to his home country, France.

Let's review the facts:

1) Man is convicted of criminal offence, but released due to time served.
2) Man attempts to claim asylum, but claim is rejected.
3) Man leaves country (legally) and returns to his home nation.

The Express should be delighted by this - Boukemiche committed a crime, was convicted, spent time in prison and then left the country. But apparently not:

That's the headline on page 15 of today's Express. But
Boukemiche is not a "fugitive" in any recognised sense of the word. The terrorist case against him in Britain was dropped, he was convicted of another offence, released from prison and left the country legally after being refused asylum.

The story, written by Peter Allen and John Twomey, begins:

A MUSLIM extremist who fled Britain after the collapse of a £3million trial set up a cross-Channel terror network in France, a court heard yesterday.

Again, he didn't "flee" Britain. He left, legally, to go back to his home country after being refused the right to stay here.

Last month the Express (and the rest of the tabloid press) was up in arms about the case of Aso Mohammed Ibrahim, a failed asylum seeker who was allowed to stay in Britain at the end of a prison term that was imposed for running over and killing a 12-year-old girl. A leader comment called it a "truly sickening decision". Columnist Leo McKinstry complained that the immigration authorities showed "characteristic feebleness" when they failed to "kick him out" after his asylum claim was rejected.

But when the system DOES work, when a failed asylum seeker with a criminal record DOES leave the country after the legal system has finished with him, suddenly he becomes a "fugitive" who has "fled the country".

What, exactly, does the Express want the authorities to do with such people?