Friday, 31 December 2010

A reply from Eric Pickles (well, one of his minions)

Back at the end of last month I wrote to Eric Pickles after he claimed that "politically correct grinches" at local authorities were trying to airbrush Christianity out of Christmas. The claim was initially made in a Conservative Party press release, with a slightly watered-down version appearing on the Department of Communities and Local Government website shortly afterwards.

Anyway, I've finally had a reply from Eric's department:
Thank you for your email of 29 November 2010 to our Secretary of State, the Rt Hon Eric Pickles MP regarding recent newspaper articles and comments referring to a “war on Christmas”. As I am sure you will understand the Secretary of State receives a vast amount of correspondence and cannot answer it all personally. Consequently, your letter has been forwarded to me to reply.

The Government very much recognises that Christianity has had an immense historic influence in shaping society. Churches make significant contributions in a wide range of areas, such as community development, education, social inclusion and our heritage.

Britain has a proud tradition of religious tolerance within the law. A key part of this tolerance is respect for others beliefs and religious practices and an understanding of how our own practices impact on others. The Government, therefore, takes great pride in recognising differing religious festivals throughout the year.

However, Christmas is a special time for reflection and celebration in this country, and we therefore wish you and your family a very happy Christmas and a peaceful New Year.

Which is all very interesting, but of course doesn't in any way address the main point of my letter - namely that there is no "War on Christmas" and that the three examples cited by Eric were just tabloid scare-stories that have been rebutted many, many times.

I've replied to DCLG with a Freedom of Information request asking to see any evidence that was collated or studied by the department prior to the press release being issued. A response on that is due by late January, so I'll update you all on any progress in a few weeks.

Innocent until proven guilty

The father of murdered architect Joanna Yeates has said he's "relieved" that someone has been arrested in connection with his daughter's death. However, this understandable emotion is as nothing compared to the relief felt by hacks at the Sun when they first laid eyes on the man who, at the time of writing this post, is still being questioned by the police:

The 1981 Contempt of Court Act forbids newspapers from publishing anything that may cause a "substantial risk of serious prejudice" in any future trial. However, that hasn't stopped a great many tabloids (with the Sun usually front and centre) digging up (or making up) dirt about anyone who is ever held in connection with any high-profile crime.

Although the authorities are usually unwilling to take action on such issues (the papers all retain in-house lawyers who make sure such coverage sails on just the right side of the contempt laws), they have had their fingers burned by such "journalism" in the recent past.

Two years ago four national newspaper groups (News International, the Mirror Group, Express Newspapers and Associated Newspapers) paid out hundreds of thousands of pounds in libel damages to Robert Murat, one of the early suspects in the disappearance of Madeline McCann. Eleven newspapers published a series of lies and smears as they sought to portray him as just the kind of person who would be involved in the abduction of the Leicestershire toddler.

I have absolutely no idea whether or not Chris Jefferies murdered Joanna Yeates - as I type this he hasn't even been charged, yet alone tried. But a little thing like the presumption of innocence isn't going to stop Britain's finest journalists telling millions of readers (and potential jurors) the "truth" about the former teacher.

The Sun goes on:

JOANNA Yeates murder suspect Chris Jefferies was last night branded a creepy oddball by ex-pupils, a teaching colleague and neighbours.

Weird-looking Jefferies, 65, who was Jo's landlord in Bristol, taught English at the city's exclusive Clifton College for more than 35 years.

Former students claimed yesterday that the blue-rinse, long-haired bachelor, who police arrested yesterday, used to make sleazy comments and invite them to his home. One recalled: "He was very flamboyant. We were convinced he was gay.

"You didn't want him to come near you. He was very unkempt and had dirty fingernails. He was weird. He was a stickler for discipline and very traditional. He used to get very angry and shout and throw books and pens across the room. He kept repeating words in an odd way."

The student also said of cultured Jefferies: "He loved old English poetry. The way he talked, the way he walked and the way he acted - it was all very strange."

A second student said: "He was fascinated by making lewd sexual remarks. It was really disturbing."

A third added: "It was commonly assumed that he was gay. It was treated as an open secret. All sorts of rumours used to fly around about him."

Another student told how groups of up to ten pupils were invited to Jefferies' home.

The mum of two, who was a 16-year-old boarder at £28,000-a-year Clifton in the 1980s, recalled: "The evenings would take place towards the end of the week, normally a Friday. My parents didn't know I went. The conversation didn't exactly stick to the curriculum. He was very eccentric, odd and could be described as a loner. We all thought it odd that a man his age didn't have a wife and had blue-rinse hair."

None of these comments are attributed to a named individual. There are some positive comments about Mr Jefferies, but these are tucked away at the bottom of the article after two pages of anonymous smears and the utterly irrelevant observation that:
"Jefferies bought a flat in the block where 25-year-old Jo lived from a paedophile who was jailed for enticing a young boy there for sex ... Fellow teacher Stephen Johnston used the ground-floor flat to groom the pupil for three years. Jefferies bought it in 1999."

To round up, the paper wants to leave you in no doubt that Mr Jeferries is a creepy, strange, lewd, angry, dirty, disturbing man who had a habit of inviting groups of boys back to his house - a house where a convicted paedophile once lived. It's pretty clear what conclusions the Sun's "journalists" want you to draw from this.

Yesterday the BBC carried quotes from several neighbours who described Mr Jefferies (note that the Sun loses the "Mr" - something usually reserved for criminals in their crime reports) as a "pillar of the community", but the Sun is too busy trying to smear an (officially) innocent man and titillate its readers to bother giving much room to such unhelpful comments.

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Winterval: the photographic evidence

Despite talking at length about how important transparency is, Eric Pickles still hasn't replied to the letter I sent him back in November asking for evidence to support his claim that "politically correct grinches" were busy banning in Christmas in local authority areas up and down the country. They're supposed to reply within 15 working days - that little landmark came round yesterday.

However, they're not letting the lack of proof get in the way of repeating the myths in question - in a rather smug response to a written Parliamentary question that was laid yesterday, DCLG junior minister Robert Neill reiterates Pickles' sentiments, saying:

"We should not allow politically correct Grinches to marginalise Christmas and the importance of the birth of Christ"

That said, at least Neill didn't mention Winterval by name. Because I've now stumbled across photographic evidence to support Birmingham City Council's increasingly exasperated rebuttal of the "Council replaced Christmas with Winterval" stories.

Courtesy of the Birmingham Post, here's a snap of a Birmingham City Council promotional poster from December 1998:

The mention of Winterval is so small you can barely spot it - it's tucked away in the bottom right-hand corner. Compare this with the huge CHRISTMAS in the top left. Which is more prominent? Which is given more importance? Does this look much like Christmas is being marginalised?

Yet year after year after year tabloid columnists trot out the lie that Winterval was used to replace Christmas. Now Cabinet ministers are also at it, and are apparently unwilling to even respond to complaints from people who point out the failings in their arguments.

Swine flu is harmless (except when it kills you)

Back in the summer noted medical expert Richard Littlejohn was holding forth on the great Swine Flu Con:

Labour blew £1.2 billion on the swine flu epidemic that never was. A new study says all the money spent on patronising advertising campaigns, vaccinations, anti-virals and face-masks probably saved just 26 lives. Each case cost £46million, which would have paid for six months of cancer drugs for 3,000 patients. And no one can be sure if those 26 people wouldn’t have died anyway. Swine flu claimed fewer lives in Britain than a normal winter flu outbreak. That’s despite hysterical predictions from the ludicrous Liam Donaldson, chief medical officer and Whitehall’s resident Dr Death, that 65,000 people would die.

The Mail itself was also displeased with the Government's handling of the pandemic, stating that millions had been "wasted" on vaccines. The TaxPayers' Alliance even weighed in, calling the whole thing a "hugely expensive farce".

Of course, back in the summer of 2009 the Mail was chief among the tabloids in stirring up panic with apocalyptic predictions of death and disaster. And now, in the winter of 2010, guess which paper has this headline:

You guessed correctly, it's the Daily Mail. The same paper also notes that:
The Government has also been accused of doing too little to prevent the spread of flu, such as using adverts to remind people to wash hands or catch sneezes in tissues.

Yes, those would be the "patronising advertising campaigns" that predatory paedophile Richard Littlejohn was complaining about six months ago.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Just look at how disgusting it is!

Somewhat predictably, the Mail is still trying to whip up outrage about a TV programme that was broadcast four days ago. Today's splash, updated online this afternoon, goes like this:

Paul Revoir, fresh from making up a story about another TV programme, tells us that Ofcom has received around 1,000 complaints, with ITV also receiving a thousand. Even assuming there's no crossover that makes 2,000 complaints from the reported 20,000,000 viewers - one for every 10,000 viewers.

2,000 complaints is also just a tenth of the number who complained to the PCC about a certain newspaper's columnist when she tried to smear the name of a recently dead singer. The Mail was strangely unoutraged when the PCC failed to take action over that one...

But in the Mail's coverage of the X-Factor there's really only one number that counts - and that's the SIX (count 'em) still from the show so you can see just how OUTRAGEOUS and unsuitable for children it all is. Underneath the pictures is a boxout with some quotes from Mail readers:

How thoughtful of the Mail to share with us the pictures of the "soft porn" dancer so that young girls everywhere can have something to aspire to.

Monday, 13 December 2010

The Mail's secret love for Facebook

I think I'm on pretty safe ground when I say that the Daily Mail hates Facebook.

Over the past 18 months the Mail has blamed Facebook for murders, falsely claimed that Facebook provides a safe haven for paedophiles, alleged that Facebook is behind a massive nationwide crimewave, blamed Facebook for an outbreak of syphilis, said Facebook is responsible for rising insurance premiums, accused Facebook of causing riots at parties, and this being the Mail and the natural order of things needing to be maintained, said that Facebook gives you cancer.

So it took me a while to stop giggling when I read the following paragraph in Press Gazette's coverage of recent speech given by Martin Clarke, publisher on Mail Online:
"Emphasising the importance of social media for the marketing of news websites, Clarke said that 10 per cent of Mail Online's UK traffic now comes in via Facebook, making it the biggest source of traffic for the site after Google."

So remember boys and girls - social networking might give you an STD, turn you into a rioter and make you an easy target for kiddy-fiddlers, but you can't argue with its potential for driving traffic figures.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

At last! Man stands up against... um... what, exactly?

The Archbishop of Canterbury is mad as hell, and he's not going to take this anymore!

Yes, Dr Rowan Williams has used an interview with the Radio Times to take up arms and defend Jesus's birthday from the War On Christmas. As the Daily Mail reports:

The Archbishop of Canterbury yesterday defended Christmas against attempts to suppress it in case it offends people of other faiths. Dr Rowan Williams said those who try to ban Nativity plays and carol singing do not understand how people of all religions love the Christmas story and respect its message.

Of course, you'd be worried if the head of the Church of England didn't stick up for his congregation's second-favourite* religious festival. But of course neither he nor the Daily Mail has got any evidence that Christmas needs defending. There's just a vague mention of:

"secular campaigners and public authorities who marginalise Christianity"

No names are named. No examples are given. We don't even get that greatest of Fleet Street Christmas traditions, a mention of Winterval. But that doesn't stop Dr Williams, who usually comes across as a relatively sensible, rational individual, complaining about:

"The weary annual attempts by right-thinking people in Britain to ban or discourage Nativity plays or public carol-singing out of sensitivity to the supposed tender consciences of other religions fail to notice that most people of other religions and cultures both love the story and respect the message."

The Mail, in both headline and copy, implicitly criticises the Archbishop for not defending Christmas sooner. Perhaps he didn't feel the need to before, given that absolutely nobody in Britain is trying to ban or discourage Nativity plays or public carol-singing out of sensitivity to the supposed tender consciences of other religions. But it seems the drip, drip, drip of Winterval bullshit has finally got to him. As the Mail points out:

Several Christian leaders have stood up recently for the religious nature of Christmas. Dr John Sentamu, Archbishop of York, said attempts to ban the mention of Christmas in public were part of a secular drive to push Christianity from public life. Lord Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, said Britain appeared to have become ashamed of Christmas. And on his visit to Britain in September, Pope Benedict spoke of his concern at attempts to discourage Christmas celebrations.

Better-read (not to mention simply "better") media-watching blogs than mine, such as the excellent TabloidWatch, often attract comments along the lines of "If you don't like the Mail etc why do you read them? Just ignore them". But as the also-excellent Press Not Sorry pointed out recently, tabloid tall tales all too often influence real world behaviour.

When it gets to the point where even Lambeth Palace and the Vatican are standing up to criticise something that doesn't actually exist, you know you're in trouble**.

*My secondary school RE teacher always maintained that Easter was #1 for Christians. I'm happy to be corrected by any theologians out there.

**And yes I'm aware that Flying Spaghetti Monster types among you might find that last paragraph a little ironic.


The Daily Telegraph has now joined in with the fun. For its headline the paper makes up a quote from Dr Williams, claiming that he said "stop political correctness taking 'Christ' out of 'Christmas'" when he never said even mentioned the P and C words. And it even manages to score where the Mail failed:

"In recent years some councils have been criticised for attempting to minimise the Christian message of the Nativity. Birmingham launched a “Winterval” celebration, combining multi-faith and secular elements with Christmas."

Do I need to point out (yet again) that more than a decade ago (so not very recently) Birmingham City Council publicised a three-month series of winter events under the banner of Winterval but made no attempt to "minimise" Christmas? Do I need to repeat the statement from a Birmingham official who pointed out that during Winterval:

"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".

Do I need to point out the irony of a newspaper publishing an article complaining about Christmas being "marginalised" but then having a little blob at the end pointing out that quotes are featured in a story contained in the "Christmas edition" of one of Britain's biggest-selling magazines?

Apparently I do.

Monday, 6 December 2010

A letter to the PCC

So you may have guessed that I wasn't too thrilled with the PCC's outright rejection of my complaint about Richard Littlejohn. Based on comments on the blog and on Twitter (not to mention the traffic figures for Primly Stable going through the roof - thanks for your support, everyone!), I wasn't the only person out there who was displeased. So this morning I replied to the PCC case officer. I'm not expecting to hear anything back, but what the hey...

Many thanks for your response.

While I accept that PCC rules mean I have no right to take this further, I have to say I am extremely disappointed with the decision. Essentially the PCC has said it is acceptable for newspapers to publish lies, provided they support the views of the columnist. And that is what Richard Littlejohn did in the column in question – he lied to his readers. To try and claim that he was making an ”amplified statement for rhetorical effect” to make a point about the state not helping people “who do the right thing” is absurd. He lied about the benefits on offer to immigrants and asylum seekers in a story about the plight of a homeless soldier, even though the two cases are entirely separate. This was not a “rhetorical device” in any recognised definition of the term. It was a naked attempt to blame foreigners for the lack of available council housing.

I’m also deeply suspicious of your claim that “readers would be aware that the columnist was not accurately reflecting the government’s policy on the housing of immigrants”. The Mail’s website also contains a news story about Lance Corporal Lance Corporal Craig Baker, the soldier at the centre of this issue. Comments from readers underneath the story include the following:

“He should just have told that council he was an illegal immigrant from Afghanistan....And he would have been housed immediately!!”

“expect no better from Bracknell Forest Council, because they are fast-tracking immigrants to the head of the housing queue ... just the same as all councils throughout Britain are daily doing”

“He should go back to Aghanistan, throw away his British passport and come back as a 'refugee'. Apartment in Mayfair awaits him.”

“Single mothers come on top of the list dont they plus foreigners”

“criag ,you should have lobbed your passport on the way back from afghanistan you would have gone way up the list”

“Why is it that the UK gives housing, benefits and anything else that migrants want.”

“Throw your passport away,make out you can't talk understand English. Answer?, the life of riley!!!!!!!!!!!1”

All of these comments have received hundreds of “positive” ratings from fellow Daily Mail readers, which rather suggests that they ARE NOT aware of the finer points of the government’s policy on the housing of immigrants. What evidence does the PCC have to support its view?

Had Littlejohn compared the soldier’s situation with, for example, a convicted criminal who had been released from prison and promptly housed in local authority accommodation than he may have had some grounds to claim that he was making a point about people who “do the right thing” losing out. But he didn’t. He chose to make something up entirely. To lie. And with this ruling the PCC has said such conduct is perfectly acceptable.

I had very little faith in the PCC’s ability to hold the media to account before this episode. Now I have none. The organisation proudly boasts of its rapid response to the shocking inaccuracy that led to one organisation being called “the first specialist thumb-sucking clinic in London” when in fact it was the second. But it is happy to give the seal of approval to a newspaper that publishes lies in order to whip up racial tensions.

I shall be sending copies of all our correspondence to my MP, along with a request for him to raise the issue of media self-regulation with the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport.

The Curious Case of the Metric Headlines in the Daily Mail

The metric system. Nice easy way of measuring things in units divisible by 10 or, in the words of Grandpa Simpson, "the tool of the devil"?

For many years now Britain's tabloids have been firmly in the latter camp. Despite the fact that every child born in Britain since at least 1979 has been schooled in the use of metres, kilograms and litres, the likes of the Mail, Express and, at the "higher" end of the market, the Telegraph are united in their hatred of all things metric.

It's an "un-British" imposition being forced on us by politically correct lefties and the European Union, quite probably in the name of Elf 'N' Safety. To quote Grandpa Simpson a second time, their attitude has been very much along the lines of: "My car gets 40 rods to the hogshead, and that's they way I likes it!"

Just this morning in the Daily Mail, columnist Peter Hitchens bemoaned the way the evil decimal-based system was being used in reports about the Snowpocalypse:

"The intensifying campaign to force the foreign, unwieldy metric system on the British people continues apace. Broadcasters and newspapers have virtually abolished the yard (still lawfully used on thousands of road signs) and the foot. But their most determined campaign is against the inch. Why do the weather people insist on telling us that 10cm of snow have fallen? Partly, they do it because they are fanatics. Partly because it sounds much worse than 4in. A country halted by 4in of snow sounds – and is – rather pathetic."

You know that when the Mail - and in particular Peter Hitchens - says "broadcasters" he's really complaining about the BBC. In the past he's even FoI'd the Corporation to try and uncover official rules that force Beeb hacks to use metric measurements over imperial ones. But perhaps he should start his crusade a little closer to home. Because also in today's Daily Mail is this headline:

What's that decidedly foreign-looking measure of temperature in the headline? Could it be - gasp! - a metric unit? In the past week there have been many, many more sightings of the metric menace in Mail headlines:

Extra points for the mix-and-match approach in the last one there.

So why is the Mail using the "foreign, unwieldy metric system" in its headlines? Could it be that "minus 7c" sounds, colder, scarier and generally more Snowpocalyptic than a rather pathetic "19f"?

Just in case you can't be arsed to read the comments underneath, I should point out that Hitch's column appeared in the Mail on Sunday yesterday (5 December), not this morning's main paper. However, it was published on the Mail website this morning.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

PCC says it's OK to lie

So after a couple of months of pondering, the PCC have got around to replying to my complaint. You remember the one, where I pointed out that Richard Littlejohn was talking out of his arse when he claimed that "any Afghan climbing off the back of a lorry in Dover goes automatically to the top of the housing list"?

He said this despite the fact that it is simply not true - asylum seekers do not even join the housing queue and illegal immigrants (for fairly obvious reasons) aren't entitled to council houses and benefits at all. So Richard Littlejohn, who likes to portray himself as a man who speaks uncomfortable truths, made something up. He gave false information to his readers. He lied. And he did all this in an article that essentially blamed Afghan asylum seekers for the fact that an ex-soldier who served in Afghanistan couldn't get a council house, thus continuing the Mail's policy of whipping up anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant hatred based on misinformation.

The PCC code is very clear on such matters. Section one, clause one says:
i) The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information, including pictures
And they've gone further on the subject of asylum seekers, issuing a note to editors that says:
"The Commission – in previous adjudications under Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Code – has underlined the danger that inaccurate, misleading or distorted reporting may generate an atmosphere of fear and hostility that is not borne out by the facts."
So obviously after I pointed out that Littlejohn had published inaccurate, misleading or distorted information that generated an atmosphere of fear and hostility that is not borne out by the facts, there was only ever going to be one outcome:

Commission’s decision in the case of Stable v Daily Mail


The complainant considered that the article falsely stated that “Afghans climbing off the back of a lorry in Dover” were given precedence in the allocation of council housing.


The Commission acknowledged the complainant’s concern over the statement; however, it had to consider the remark in the context of the article in which it appeared. The article had been clearly presented as a comment piece, in which the columnist expressed his concern that a soldier who had served in Afghanistan had not been granted a council house. The Commission considered that the columnist had exaggerated and simplified the example of housing immigrants for the purpose of stressing his assertion that the “system of government exists simply to punish those who do the right thing”. It emphasised that the newspaper should take care when using such rhetorical methods of expression that readers would not be misled into understanding that they reflected statements of fact. In this instance, on balance it considered that readers would be aware that the columnist was not accurately reflecting the government’s policy on the housing of immigrants, but that he was making an amplified statement for rhetorical effect. It was therefore the Commission’s view that, on this occasion, readers generally would not be misled in such a way as to warrant correction under the terms of Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Code of Practice.

The covering letter notes that I can't complain about the decision or ask them to reconsider, but notes that they'll forward my letter to the editor. You couldn't make it up.

Now that the PCC has been quite clear that it's OK for journalists to lie for rhetorical effect, I think I'm on safe ground when I say that Richard Littlejohn is a fine, upstanding journalist, the Daily Mail is a wonderful publication whose employees can be proud to work for it, and that the Press Complaints Commission is an effective, relevant and entirely useful organisation that continues to make an excellent case for ongoing self-regulation of the UK media.

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Snowpocalypse Now

I tweeted a link to this last night but thought it was worth sharing with the widest possible audience, not to mention preserving for posterity.

With epic snowfalls reported across the north-east and Scotland suffering its coldest November night since records began, you can't blame local journalists for trying to get a bit of the Snowmaggedon action. Unfortunately over in East Anglia things weren't looking quite so dramatic yesterday lunchtime, so the Norwich Evening News had to resort to this:

I've been checking back all day and there's still no update on whether the icy wall of death has plummeted down onto the innocent shoppers below.

If anyone has other examples of snow-related non-news I'd be delighted to hear about them in the comments.

Monday, 29 November 2010

A letter to Eric Pickles

I've just sent the following letter to Eric Pickles, following his "Winterval" madness over the weekend. I'll keep you all posted about any reply I receive...

Dear Secretary of State,

Several newspaper articles published on Saturday 27 November contained comments from you attacking the “politically correct grinches” who have declared a “war on Christmas”.

Despite your very public commitment to transparency there are no details of your statement on the Department for Communities and Local Government website, so I am forced to assume that you were quoted correctly when you said the following:

“The war on Christmas is over and the likes of Winterval, Winter Lights and Luminous should be in the dustbin of history. It is in councils’ financial interests to draw in shoppers to their town centres at Christmas. Shoppers want to see Christmas lights, Christmas trees, carol services and nativity scenes, and local councils should not hesitate to support them."
As many, many people have pointed out many, many times, the so-called “War on Christmas” is a tabloid invention. For example Winterval – which as it last took place more than a decade ago has already been consigned to the dustbin of history – was not a replacement for Christmas but a series of separate events that included Christmas.

Indeed, an official statement from Birmingham City Council published by the Guardian earlier this year pointed out that the Winterval event:

“was a promotional campaign to drive business into Birmingham's newly regenerated town centre. It began in early November and finished in January.”
Surely this is exactly what you are asking councils to do? The council statement continued:

"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".
This really doesn’t sound like a “War on Christmas” to me.

In 2008 Oxford City Council ran a two-month series of winter events, going under the banner of “Winter Lights”. Again, Christmas played a huge part in the season-long event. At the time, Oxford City Council issued the following statement:

"Oxford City Council has not 'banned Christmas' and has not banned the use of the word 'Christmas'. The Council has not even considered doing either of these. Oxford City Council will celebrate Christmas 2008 in the same way as it has celebrated all previous Christmases: we will have Christmas trees in the Town Hall and in Broad Street, the Lord Mayor will host a Christmas reception for community workers and will hold the annual Christmas Carols event, and we will be sending out Christmas cards.”

As before, if the council wanted to declare war on Christmas it chose a rather half-hearted way in which to do so.

The idea that Luton Council had tried to rebrand Christmas as Luminos to “avoid offending Muslims” has also been comprehensively rebutted and rejected. As with Winterval and Winter Lights, Luminos was the umbrella term for a series of events that included Christmas. Six years ago Luton Council issued the following statement, which is still available on their website:

Luton Council has reacted angrily to national newspaper claims that it has "cancelled Christmas" for fear of "offending Moslems". Reports in The Sun led to scores of people ringing the town hall to complain last Friday. But council officials dismissed the story as "utter nonsense", saying that the town's traditional Yule time celebrations were in full swing during the run-up to the holiday.

Explained an exasperated council leader David Franks: "The Sun decided to re-run an old yarn about a highly successful 'Luminos' weekend festival three years ago. We had started with a Friday lantern procession to mark Diwali and ended as usual with the traditional switching-on of the town's Christmas lights on Sunday. In between, there was a funfair in the town centre as an added attraction to Christmas shoppers.

"Everyone had a great time, apart from some sections of the media deciding we had "cancelled" traditional festivities. The reports were nonsense then and we were most annoyed to see The Sun repeat the lie three years later."

During the morning the Sun's error appeared in print, town hall staff were flooded with angry emails and telephone calls from misled members of the public. Said a council spokesperson: "We were able to pacify residents when we told them the story was wrong but we're worried that there still some Sun readers who believe this garbage. We have written to the newspaper pointing out their error but have heard nothing so far."

There is no evidence that any local authority in England and Wales has EVER attempted to “ban” Christmas, and the most basic online research shows that the three examples you cited over the weekend are nothing more than tabloid invention. They are simply not true.

With this in mind, can I ask when you will be making a public apology for making misleading and inaccurate statements to the press?

Alternatively, if you have any evidence to support your claim of a “War on Christmas” launched by “politically correct grinches” I would very much appreciate it if you could share it with the wider world. I’m sure your oft-stated commitment to openness and transparency will make such a release nothing more than a formality, but in case you need a nudge in the right direction I should point out that the Ministerial Code states:
“Holders of public office should be as open as possible about all the decisions and actions that they take. They should give reasons for their decisions and restrict information only when the wider public interest clearly demands.”
I think it would be hard to argue that there’s a public interest defence in not explaining exactly what you were thinking when you made this statements, so I look forward to hearing from you in the near future.

Merry Christmas,

P. Stable

Friday, 26 November 2010

More Mail Fail

The Daily Mail - whose readers may not agree with what someone says but will fight to the death for their right to say it - is predictably outraged after a Muslim (gasp!) artist put together a (pretty crappy) piece of work based around the London bus that was destroyed by the 7/7 bombers.

The story goes like this:

"A Muslim artist has sparked outrage with his depiction of the ripped-apart bus destroyed in the 7/7 terror attacks.

"The artwork shows four angels flying above the bombed number 30 bus - the same number of Al Qaeda terrorists who took part in the atrocity which left 52 commuters dead and maimed hundreds more on London's transport network.

"Also seen are scores of ghostly souls shooting from the bus, which was travelling through Tavistock Square when it was devastated by suicide bomber Hasib Hussain."

The paper hasn't bothered to check whether the four angels are supposed to depict the four bombers, they're just assuming that because the artist is a Muslim who said he "wants to shock people" his work must be a "tribute" to the murderers. Nor has the nameless journalist managed to find anyone who is "outraged" - the only third party quote comes from the father of a woman who died on the No 30 bus, who (understandably) says the artwork is "upsetting".

All typical Mail stuff, but not on its own worthy of comment. However, there is one aspect of the story that we can't let pass. As further proof that the man behind the picture is some kind of Al-Qaeda sleeper agent, the paper tells us that:

"The artist has also used photo trickery to write the message 'Outright terror... bold and brilliant' on the side of the bus."

Photo trickery? Or just "a camera"?

As has been noted many, many times one of the sad ironies of 7/7 was that the side of the bus was carrying an advert for the film The Descent. An advert that included a quote from a review in Total Film magazine. A review that said:

That's right, the evil Muslim Terrorist Artist has cunningly used, er... reality in order to make his work more shocking. How very dare he.


Closer inspection of the story reveals there's even more to this than meets the eye. The BBC's coverage concentrates purely on the fact that using am image from 7/7 is controversial. The full quote given by the artist reads:

"What I'm trying to do is to make anyone that has a faith, a belief, or an idea they hold close to their heart to think about the impact of these ideas when they leave their heads. I wanted to jolt people into seeing the results of these thoughts put into action. It is a grotesque thing that happened. The inquiry is to establish the facts and find out out what happened and to make sure something like this doesn't happen again and that is partly what my image is trying to do. It is meant to make people think about the effects of faith." (emphasis added by me).

Do they sound like the words of someone who wants to "glorify" the bombings and "pay tribute" to the killers? Even the Sun didn't try and claim that four angles = four bombers (although it did point out that there were four of each), and at least it managed to point out that "Outright terror" was written on the side of the actual bus.

But over at the Mail, they're sticking with the story that the picture is an "angelic tribute" to the bombers, despite there being abosolutely no evidence to back up their claim. And the results in the comments section are fairly predictable:

Weather v Climate

With the sad predictability of an England middle-order collapse, respected scientist Richard Littlejohn is the first columnist to trot out this piece of HILARIOUS commentary:
"It’s late November and parts of Britain are under eight inches of snow. That’ll be the global warming, then."

By happy conicidence, today sees the release of a Met Office report that says 2010 is on course to be the hottest in recorded history. That'll be the global warming, then.

Mind how you go, Richard.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Pretty vacant

Internet bigwigs at the Daily Mail have realised the value of attracting page impressions from the USA, which explains why the paper's website is forever running stories about American reality TV stars who nobody in this country recognises.

Now the site is branching out into domestic US news, with one example being this missing person story:

A huge search was underway today to find a missing ballerina who vanished after returning home to her family for Thanksgiving. Fears are mounting for Jenni-Lyn Watson, 20, who was last seen on Friday by her parents at their house in Liverpool, near Syracuse, New York.
It's a sad little tale, but one that is repeated over and over again across Britain every day, so why the sudden interest from the Mail? Why would the average Mail reader care about this any more than any other story?

The clue is in the headline:

Presumably the massed ranks of ugly missing ballerinas were not deemed worthy of coverage.

Sexy A-Levels Day comes early

For one week each August, the papers all get terribly excited about the latest batch of exam results. Or, more specifically, the opportunity to illustrate a dry story about academic achievement with lots of pictures of tall, thin teenage girls jumping for joy while holding their results slip.

This well-documented phenomenon is not unique to the tabloids - papers of all shapes, sizes and political hues fall for it year after year after year. But today the Daily Mail has, in spectaculaly shameless style, discovered that Sexy A-Levels Day now comes TWICE a year!

Yes, the Mail has put together the definitive collection of "Pictures of attractive teenage girls demonstrating against tuition fees".

The Paul Harris "article" contains no fewer than 11 separate pictures of "young, bright and pretty" girls "going to war", even though three of them show young women trying to stop violence and one of them is of a woman half a mile away from where the protest was being held.

There is also this shocking revelation:

"A group of female friends, maybe aged 16 or 17, put themselves within inches of the police line and began to scream abuse. It wasn’t quite Cheltenham Ladies College, but several of these girls, it emerged, were from respectable schools and decent homes."

Unfortunately the journalist fails to tell us how much their decent homes are worth, surely proving himself unworthy of a position at the Mail.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Nick Clegg condemns "kettling" of protesters (in 2009)

Last April, the police tactic known as "kettling" was in the news after the G20 protests in London. Around that time, Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg took part in the Independent's "Twitterview", in which questions and answers are posted over everyone's favourite microblogging platform.

Here's one exchange:

@Neilglenister What are your thoughts with regards to how the police have handled recent protests? e.g. the G20 protests.

Nick Clegg: Heard first hand from LD MPs at demos, police went OTT. Must now change kettling etc.

One of the Lib-Dem MPs in question was Tom Brake, who wrote a column for the Times in which he attacked the loss of civil liberties in this country:
"Kettling is a tactic that should come under review. At the first sign of difficulty, the police present a wall of riot shields and batons around protesters — the peaceful alongside the problematic — and slowly squeeze them into a tighter space. People are allowed in, but absolutely no one is allowed to leave … It is not surprising that under such conditions an otherwise overwhelmingly relaxed and peaceful crowd can become agitated, then angry, and then violent. The tactic proved misguided and counter-productive. It served to alienate a whole mass of peaceful protesters."

Since then, Nick Clegg has become Deputy Prime Minister and Tom Brake is the Lib-Dems' backbench spokesman on Home Affairs (which includes policing).

This afternoon, the Met police have been using "kettling" against the student protesters on Whitehall. It'll be interesting to hear what Clegg and Brake have to say about kettling now, having seen the police use the tactic against people who were demonstrating AGAINST the Lib-Dems rather than alongside them.

Mail readers: "nothing wrong with murdering gypsies"

A Conservative councillor in North Wales has found himself in a spot of bother after allegedly telling a meeting that Hitler "had the right idea" when it came to dealing with gypsies. As this idea involved sending nearly a quarter of a million innocent men, women and children to the death camps, it's understandable that quite a few people are now calling on the councillor to resign.

Even the Daily Mail's coverage is fairly critical in tone:

Tory mayor faces calls to resign after claiming Hitler had the ‘right idea’ about travellers
A mayor has provoked outrage by allegedly claiming Adolf Hitler had the ‘right idea’ about dealing with Germany’s gipsies.

However, the paper's readers are only furious with one thing - the fact that the councillor is being criticised. Sort the comments in order of "green arrows" and you quickly discover that hundreds of Mail readers think that gassing people to death is a perfectly sensible course of action:

A bit further down there are fewer green arrows but the messages are still getting a positive reaction:

Yes, you read that correctly - according to RP in Daventry, the "great majority" of people in England think that gypsies and travellers should be sent to the gas chamber. And at least 18 readers of the Daily Mail agree. It does make you worry. Although perhaps we shouldn't be suprised - I've pointed out before that many of the Mail's readers are keen on a spot of recreational gypsy-killing.

To be fair to the Mail's readership, most of the commenters don't explicitly support genocide. They prefer to complain about yet another example of political correctness going mad and how you can't say anything anymore without the thought police locking you up and so and so forth:

And of course someone had to quote Voltaire:

However, cast your mind back a fortnight to 11 November, when a small group of Islamic extremists protested against Britain's armed forces by burning poppies during the two-minute silence. Did the Mail's readers rush to defend the protesters' freedom to express their views, however, abhorent many people found them? Did they fuck:

But perhaps the most interesting reaction was the almost 500-strong net "red arrow" rating to the person who said this:

Freedom of speech: only applicable when we agree with what's being said.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Diana, Kate and yet more Mail hypocrisy

Whatever you think of the royal family, and in particular Dianamania, you can't deny that Charles Spencer's speech at his sister's funeral was a powerful piece of oratory. Let's look at one section in particular:

"It is a point to remember that of all the ironies about Diana, perhaps the greatest was this - a girl given the name of the ancient goddess of hunting was, in the end, the most hunted person of the modern age. She would want us today to pledge ourselves to protecting her beloved boys William and Harry from a similar fate and I do this here, Diana, on your behalf. We will not allow them to suffer the anguish that used regularly to drive you to tearful despair."
In the aftermath of Diana's death and funeral, Fleet Street exercised its usual total lack of self-awareness by attacking the paparazzi photographers they blamed for Diana's death. With Earl Spencer's words filling their sails (and ignoring the bit where he pointed out that the tabloid press were "at the opposite end of the moral spectrum" to his sister) they laid into the evil men on motorbikes who had (literally) driven The People's Princess to her death*.

With one eye on its sales figures and the other on what is arguably Private Eye's greatest-ever front page, the owners and editors of the Daily Mail decided to take a moral lead. They pledged there and then that never again would the Mail purchase or publish photos taken by paparazzi snappers that intruded into the private lives of individuals, regardless of how famous they were.

Thirteen years later, all that is obviously forgotten. We're well-used to the long-lens pictures of famous women going about their daily lives, taking their kids to ballet lessons and so on. Today the Mail even has what is clearly a long-lens pic of a 17-year-old girl sharing a moment with a male friend in a nightclub.

But bearing in mind that the pledge to never again publish paparazzi photos came right after Diana's death, and right after her brother pledged to protect her children from the press intrusion that "used to regularly drive" their mother to "tearful despair", I'd like to know the Mail's justification for publishing this piece of vitally important news:

Yes, that's right folks - Diana's eldest son's bride-to-be went shopping in the town near where she lives! In jeans! And ballet pumps! And there are photos to prove it! Photos from Camera Press, an independent photo agency that specialises in photos of celebrities and royalty! According to well-placed sources, Anglesey is currently crawling with freelance photographers who are all eager to get a potentially lucrative snap of Ms Middleton going about her daily business. And with the Mail providing a ready market for their wares, who can blame them?

*And yes, I'm well aware that she was ACTUALLY driven to her death by a drunk driver and would probably have survived if she'd been wearing a seatbelt, but bear with me here, OK?

Mail gets its knickers in a twist over your cervix

The Mail is so delighted with its latest miracle cancer breakthrough that the story gets splashed across page one:
The £15 cervical cancer test that could save thousands of women's lives
Thousands of women’s lives could be saved by a dramatic improvement in testing for ­cervical cancer. The test delivers overnight results and is vastly more accurate than the smear test which is currently used to spot early signs of the disease, according to researchers.

Potentially excellent news. But why is the Daily Mail so happy about this? After all, just last month the very same paper was up in arms at one health authority's attempts to get girls vaccinated against cervical cancer - a move that, to use the paper's phrase, could save thousands of women's lives. Back then the paper branded it a "promiscuity scheme" that would encourage teenage girls to sleep around. Why does a test that makes it easier to identify cervical cancer not have the same effect?

For reasons I can't begin to understand, the paper seems to believe that it's better for women to get cancer and then have it detected early than not to get it all. It's often said that prevention is better than cure, but it appears that such tried and test logic has no place in the pages of the Daily Mail.

Monday, 22 November 2010

Why you shouldn't follow the Star (or Mail, or Metro, or Telegraph) this Christmas

The managers of a chain of care homes in Devon are the crazy PC bigots du jour after the West Country arm of Guinness Care & Support announced that staff would not get paid extra for working on Christmas Day. In a rather Scrooge-like move, the company has said that it only pays people extra for working on bank holidays; as Christmas Day falls on a Saturday this year, staff who cover it will only get the standard Saturday rate. Those on duty on Monday the 27th (when there actually is a bank holiday) will be paid extra.

It does seem a rather mean-spirited way of doing business, but it is entirely legally correct - unless an individual's contract says so, there's no obligation to pay someone extra for working on Christmas Day if the day itself is not a bank holiday. And looking at it from the employer's point of view, paying people extra to work for four days - the 25th and 26th as they're 'special', plus the 27th and 28th as they're bank holidays - could have been very expensive. Most years they'd only have to pay for two days, after all.

But still, you can see how it would have made for a nice little "Scrooge bosses ban Christmas" story about heartless penny-pinching managers. It'd last for one day, only appear in one paper and would be swiftly forgotten. But unfortunately the company's HR manager, Mick Green, triggered great joy throughout tabloidland when he tried to dig his way out of the hole with this statement:

"We have a strong ethical belief in equality and diversity and are unable to recognise one religious festival over others. Our policy is not to pay extra when staff work during a religious festival. We would like to stress that many of our office-based staff will also be working over the Christmas period in order to support staff in our homes during this busy time."

In a speech last week Theresa May said "equality has become a dirty word" and there's nowhere it's considered dirtier than in the British media. When coupled with its twin sister / civil partner "diversity", it sets alarm bells ringing the length and breadth of Fleet Street.

Metro kicked things off with:

An Xmas bonus? That's not fair!
A chain of care homes is refusing to pay it staff overtime for working on Christmas Day, saying it would discriminate against other religions.

Except of course they haven't banned "Christmas bonuses", just the extra rate for people working on the day itself. Metro has absolutely no way of knowing whether staff at this chain of care homes get paid an end-of-year one-off bonus or not. It's a similar story at Metro's Associated stablemate the Daily Mail:

Overtime pay at Christmas axed - it discriminates against the other religions, say care home bosses
A chain of care homes is refusing to pay its staff overtime this Christmas - claiming that it would discriminate against other religions.

Note that Mr Green's statement does not say at any point that "paying people a Christmas bonus would discriminate against other religions." He doesn't even use the words "discriminate". He simply says that the company doesn't pay anyone extra for working on any religious holidays, and Christmas is a religious holiday. But that's not going to stop the media using it to prop up their "other religions are stopping us being Christian" meme. But twisting words in this manner isn't a habit confined to the tabloids, as the Telegraph is keen to prove:

Staff told overtime for Christmas is 'unethical'
A chain of care homes is refusing to pay its staff overtime for working Christmas because it claims the move would discriminate against other religions.

Again, the quote marks in the headline are totally unjustified. Mr Green has not said it's "unethical" to pay a Christmas bonus at all. He mentioned the firm's "strong ethical belief in equality" as the reason for the "not recognising any religious festivals" policy, so it could be implied that paying a Christmas bonus would be a breach of this and therefore could be considered unethical. But it's a pretty big leap and, crucially, is not something that Mr Green actually said. So why put something in quote marks if it's not actually a quotation?

But the prize for most OTT treatment goes to the Daily Star, which manages to trump the competition with this effort:

'We can't upset other faiths'

PC-CRAZY bosses are refusing to pay overtime at Christmas because it will "upset" other faiths.

We then get quotes from "furious" workers who "blast" the move as "political correctness gone mad" all without actually saying they're furious or calling it "political correctness gone mad". And of course the Star have completely made up the quote from the barmy PC bosses - at no point has the company said the overtime rules are in place to avoid "upsetting" other faiths, but this doesn't stop Daily Star "journalist" Paul Robins putting the word "upset" in quotation marks. Twice. But why shouldn't he? After all, just last week the PCC ruled that the Mail had done nothing wrong when it lied to its readers by claiming that a cafe had been forced to remove an extractor fan in case the smell of bacon "offends passing Muslims". With that kind of rigorous approach to truth being encouraged by the industry regulator, why should any journalists trouble themselves with the traditional "not making shit up" part of their trade?

Still, I suppose it's a small mercy that the Star hadn't gone for "Muslims" instead of "other faiths". Also, bonus points to the Star and Metro for using "Xmas" in the headline while trying to claim that Britain is a Christian country and that Christmas is all about religion. Quite a few Christians get somewhat offended by the use of "Xmas" as it removes the "Christ" part of the construction, which is rather important if you're into the religious aspect of the day.

Anyway, it's worth acquainting yourself with the facts of this case now, as I've no doubt that Littlejohn and his cut-price copycats will be flogging this one for all its worth between now and the end of December.

Monday, 15 November 2010

I blame the celebrities

Research by the Royal College of Midwives has found that new mothers are putting their health at risk by crash-dieting in order to emulate the "perfect" figures of celebrities who seemingly shed their "baby weight" within days of giving birth. The Mail is duly concerned:

Celebrity mothers who lose weight quickly after giving birth put pressure on women
Super-slim celebrity mothers are putting women under pressure to lose their baby weight too fast, a report warns. Many feel compelled to crash diet almost as soon as they have given birth, potentially putting their health and well-being at risk. Almost two-thirds of new mothers said they felt a degree of coercion to slim to their original size as soon as possible, a survey by the Royal College of Midwives found. Many said seeing celebrities such as Strictly Come Dancing’s Tess Daly and singer Myleene Klass lose baby weight so quickly made them feel disgusted with their own bodies.
It's not pleasant reading - as the RCM points out, after having a baby women should be concentrating on building up their own strength rather than crash dieting. But from where do new mothers get the idea that they should be losing masses of weight? Could it be the paper that published the following stories in the past six weeks alone?

Model mother Danielle Lloyd smoulders in saucy calendar shoot... just three months after giving birth
Just three months after giving birth and Danielle Lloyd is seen here posing confidently in a series of racy shots for a new calendar. The 26-year-old model, who has a four-month-old son Archie with footballer Jamie O'Hara, has shed more than two stone in the past couple of months.

'Everything goes south when you're pregnant!' Chanelle Hayes shows off post-baby figure after dropping two dress sizes in just THREE months
She only gave birth to son Blakely 13 weeks ago, but Big Brother 8 star Chanelle Hayes has nearly regained her pre-pregnancy shape. The 22-year-old reality star has dropped from a size 12/14 to 8/10 in just a few weeks after enrolling at boot camp and overhauling her diet.

How does she do it? Gisele Bundchen looks slimmer than ever just ten months after giving birth
Most women are happy if they lose even half their baby weight ten months after giving birth.But Gisele Bundchen looked as if she didn't even gain a pound during her pregnancy, let alone lose it quickly.

Danielle Lloyd reveals her post-pregnancy body in monokini and heels just 11 weeks after giving birth
Just 11 weeks after giving birth to her first child, Danielle Lloyd has already regained her model figure. The Liverpudlian model has shrunk back to 9st 7lb and she’s determined to lose even more until she reaches just 9st.Despite gaining over two stone while pregnant with son Archie, it appears the baby weight has quickly fallen off.

A stunning Amy Adams debuts her slender post-baby figure, four months after giving birth
It's been just four months since she gave birth, but Amy Adams has already managed to shed all her excess baby weight.

Back to yummy! Rebecca Gayheart shows off her fat-free figure five months after birth
Rebecca Gayheart may have gained a little bundle of joy, but she has lost the weight that came with it as she showed off her fat-free figure in West Hollywood. The actress stepped out with little daughter Billie Beatrice looking every inch the back to yummy mummy as the 38-year-old has clearly lost all her baby weight after giving birth last March.

And could that paper be the Daily Mail by any chance? Why yes it could.