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.

Friday, 12 November 2010

Mail pervs over a four-year-old

By now we're all pretty used to the Daily Mail perving over underage girls. We're also used to the paper being freakishly over-interested in the comings and goings of pint-sized fashion icon Suri Cruise. But now they seem to be combining the two in a way that is downright creepy:

"Long-limbed Suri"? SHE'S FOUR YEARS OLD, YOU PERVERTS! But there's more - click through to the story and you get this:
"With the same long brunette hair and wide eyes, little Suri Cruise is beginning to look more like mother Katie Holmes every day. The lookalike pair certainly mirrored each other's expressions as they stopped by a local ice cream store in Los Angeles yesterday."
"The lookalike pair"? Just so I'm absolutely clear here, Suri Cruise is FOUR YEARS OLD. Her mother is 31. She has breasts, and hips and other adulty things that her "lookalike" daughter lacks. Despite the Editor's Code being very clear about the fact that you can't run stories about a child simply because her or his parents are famous, there's also a full-length pic of the "long-limbed" Suri on her own. The caption takes things to a whole new level:
"Ballerina beauty: The four-year-old is growing into a gorgeous little girl"
I really don't want to labour the point but SURI CRUISE IS FOUR YEARS OLD. FOUR! I'd tell Uncle Creepyhands over at Associated Newspapers to get a grip on himself, but I get the horrible feeling he already has, and not in the way I'd hope.

Note that at the foot of the story is a little appeal:
Do you have a story about a celebrity? Call the Daily Mail showbusiness desk on 0207 938 6364 or 0207 938 6683
Yes, you too could scale the journalistic heights of the 21st century Daily Mail website (motto: "News is far more important to us than showbiz. News is what drives our site") if you can come up with a scoop as devastating as "Mother takes young daughter for ice cream after ballet class".

PS: Suri Cruise is FOUR YEARS OLD.

Daily Mail Reporter can't read

Daily Mail Reporter is by far and away the paper's most productive journalist, either that or his is just the default name added to stories lifted wholesale from wire services and other publications. Unfortunately he's not very good at something that's generally considered to be a crucial skill for reporters - the ability to read.

The headline on DMR's latest piece is quite clear:

Grieving mother had disability allowance stopped on Remembrance Day… because she got compensation for the death of soldier son
The mother of the youngest British soldier killed in Afghanistan condemned government officials yesterday for using a death-in-service payment to stop her full disability allowance.

For some time now the Mail has been branding anyone living on benefits a workshy scrounger. But despite the fact that the soldier's mother:

"... is unable to work because she suffers from a degenerative and incurable tissue disease called Hypermobility syndrome..."
...the Mail is very much on her side on this one. Unfortunately DMR's literacy problem means the headline and story have both missed the point entirely. Slap-bang in the middle of the page is a copy of the letter sent to the soldier's mother by her local Job Centre. Anyone who is able to read can see that it says:

"I am writing to tell you that from 6.11.10 we have decided to suspend your income support."
Don't get me wrong, it's certainly harsh that Mrs Aldridge could lose benefits because she received a compensation payout following the death of her son. As she says herself, given the choice she'd much rather have her son than any amount of money.

But the letter is quite clear - she's losing her income support, not her "disability allowance". Which makes perfect sense, as disability living allowance is not means-tested. It is paid to "disabled children and adults who need someone to help look after them, or have walking difficulties", regardless of how much money they have. If she's unable to work because of her disability, Mrs Aldridge is probably also eligible for either the employment and support allowance or incapacity benefit, depending on when she started claiming. Income support, on the other hand, is paid to people who have a low income and, crucially in this case, less than £16,000 of savings.

So the headline is wrong, the intro is wrong, and the reference to the woman's disability is irrelevant. Which wouldn't be so much of an issue if it didn't all occur in a story in which the Mail accuses the authorities of being bungling idiots who can't get anything right.

The Mail have now amended their headline and intro to reflect reality. It'll be interesting to see if they also delete the numerous comments underneath the article pointing out the reporter's lazy error.

PWC part II, in which the Daily Mail goes from bad to worse

Yesterday's Mail website write-up of the "female PWC interns" story was bad enough, featuring as it did the full photos of all the women involved with no regard to their thoughts or feelings.

Today the hard copy of the paper goes one step further, by putting a name next to each of the women. Note that none of the men involved are named, even though a cursory glance at the email chain would reveal all their identities.

So now the Mail has published private photos of 13 women (the paper cheerily states the photos were ripped from the PWC intranet), confirmed their names and told everyone which city they live in and where they work.

Now they're moving on to travel plans - having got hold of the names, Mail reporter Eleanor Harding has dug out one of the women's Twitter feeds, so the paper can exclusively reveal that she's due to travel to Chicago later this week.

The Mail also gleefully states that one recent Tweet from the woman in question read:
"God I hate my life right now."

Why do you think that might be, Daily Mail?

Thursday, 11 November 2010

"It's so awful we just HAVE to show you how awful it is"

Some numpty at PricewaterhouseCoopers' Irish office is in a spot of bother after he got hold of photos of all the firm's female new recruits, picked out the 13 he found most attractive, and emailed the pictures to his numpty mates with the message "This would be my shortlist for the top 10".

All the numpties involved are now being investigated by their bosses after the email whizzed around the world. As you can imagine, a major multinational like PWC is very aware of the damage such a stunt could do both to their reputation and to the poor women involved, who are likely to be less than happy at the prospect of being ogled and "rated" by cyber-pervs from Dublin to Dunedin*.

As a PWC spokesman told the Daily Mail:

"Our main concern is the impact of this matter on the women who were the subject of these e-mails. We are meeting with them regularly to offer them every reassurance that they have the full support of the firm in dealing with this very difficult issue for them."

It's nice to see an employer taking its duty of care to employees seriously. It's less nice to see the Mail add insult to injury by publishing all 13 photos, both on its homepage and on the story itself. And to really rub salt into the wound, they've even included a clip from the email chain in which derogatory comments are made about one of the women in particular.

The photos look they were copied from staff profiles, which also means the Mail will be breaking all manner of copyright and data protection laws by publishing them. But what the hell, it means they get to publish a bunch of pictures of blonde women!

* Google it.

The Telegraph are at it as well - lots of "isn't this terrible" about the pictures, then all 13 reproduced for your viewing pleasure. And it certainly seems to be doing the trick - at the time of writing it is the most-read story on the paper's website, edging out even Japanese man streams suicide live on the internet and Dick Van Dyke 'saved by porpoises'. It's a very serious paper, you know.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Correlation does not imply causation

It's statistics 101, the most basic thing anyone who looks at numbers for a living needs to remember - just because two variables have a correlation, it doesn't mean that variable A is causing variable B to happen. The number of men wearing hats in Britain has declined since the 1920s, has as overall air pollution in cities. But this does not mean that wearing hats causes pollution. There are other factors in play that need to be taken account of, such as clean air legislation.

It's a very simple concept but one that journalists are forever struggling with, as Ben Goldacre and Atomic Spin never tire of pointing out. The Mail (who else?) have just come up with yet another example:
Teenagers who text up 120 times a day 'are more likely to have had sex, use drugs and drink alcohol'

Teenagers who text 120 times a day or more are more likely to have had sex or used alcohol and drugs than kids who don't send as many messages, according to provocative new research.

The study's authors say they have seen an apparent link between excessive messaging and this kind of risky behaviour.

First things first, the headline is supremely sloppy - it talks about kids who text "up to" 120 times a day (which would include everyone from those who send one SMS a day to those who send 120), when in fact, as the story makes clear, the study talks about kids who text MORE THAN 120 times a day. It's only a minor point, but it just shows that the writers are being rather lazy and doesn't fill you with confidence.

The opening two paragraphs exhibit a clear suggestion that researchers have found a causal link between sending a bonkers number of texts and "risky behaviour". It fits nicely with the Mail's general narrative about no-good young people (see also happy slapping and Facebook). Unfortunately the researchers have found nothing of the sort, as the Mail itself points out in the very next paragraph:
While researchers say they aren't suggesting that 'hyper-texting' leads to sex, drinking or drugs, the study concludes that a significant number of teens are very susceptible to peer pressure and also have permissive or absent parents, said Dr Scott Frank, the study's lead author.
Right. So everything you said in the previous paragraph about researchers finding "an apparent link" between the two factors was actually a great big fib? Do go on, anonymous Daily Mail Reporter:
'If parents are monitoring their kids' texting and social networking, they're probably monitoring other activities as well,' said Dr Frank, an associate professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine.
And that's the final nail in the story's coffin. The causal factor is "permissive or absent parents". Two symptoms of permissive or absent parents are their offspring indulging in risky behaviour AND sending lots of texts becaus their parents aren't sat next to them saying "stop sending text messages every eight minutes, and while you're at it stop having sex". Despite what the headline implies and what the second paragraph states as fact, there is NO link between sending texts and having sex.

Perhaps I should be celebrating because the Mail has actually included all the facts for a change. But instead I'm feeling unreasonably annoyed because, yet again, the paper has twisted the facts to fit its own agenda and stuck in a headline and intro that is totally inaccurate.

Oh well. At least they didn't say that texting gives you cancer.

Does reading the Mail while pregnant harm your baby?

In the latest stage of the Mail's oncological ontology project (in which every item on earth is described as either curing cancer or giving you cancer), pregnant women are warned that taking aspirin while pregnant can give your baby son cancer in later life and also make him infertile.

Can taking aspirin in pregnancy make your son infertile?
Pregnant women who take painkillers such as paracetamol, aspirin and ibuprofen could put their unborn sons at risk of fertility problems, researchers warn ... using the drugs on their own or together may increase the risk of boys having undescended testicles, which can lead to poor sperm quality and testicular cancer in later life.
Quick! Pregnant ladies everywhere, you must throw out all of the painkillers you own or you could be putting your unborn child at risk! Or rather not, as you discover in the final paragraph:

Professor Richard Sharpe, of the Medical Research Council, said: "It is important to say it was prolonged use of painkillers that had the biggest effect. Taking one or two painkillers occasionally for a headache is not going to affect the baby."

In other words, and as explained quite clearly by the study itself, occassional use of a small number of painkillers is not going to cause a problem. So the alarmist headline is totally unjustified - only by dosing up on several different products at once are you going to risk causing any problems at all and I suspect that not many pregnant women knock back over-the-counter medication in serious quantities, for fairly obvious reasons. Mind you, couldn't blame them if they did. Because back in August
the Daily Mail informed us that:

Aspirin during pregnancy could prevent pre-eclampsia in thousands of women, says NHS
Taking aspirin in pregnancy could save thousands of women from developing a condition that can threaten the lives of both mother and baby, say new NHS guidelines.

And that followed on from the Mail's
somewhat similar 2007 declaration that:

Daily aspirin can cut risk of pre-eclampsia
A daily dose of aspirin during pregnancy could cut the risk of a condition developing that threatens the lives of mother and baby
Although I wouldn't relax too much, because the previous year the same Mail hackette
sounded the alarms:

Pregnancy alert over aspirin
Taking painkillers such as aspirin and ibuprofen in the first three months of pregnancy may increase the risk of birth defects, researchers say.

And the year before that, Jenny Hope (for it is she) wanted us to know that the
situation was even more serious:

Painkiller risk for mums-to-be
Taking painkillers such as aspirin in pregnancy almost doubles a woman's chances of losing her baby, claim researchers.
But it's
worth remembering that:

Aspirin can boost fertility
Research shows women on IVF treatment may be able to double their chances of getting pregnant simply by taking aspirin.
So to conclude, according to Daily Mail reports over the past decade, taking aspirin will:
  1. Help you get pregnant
  2. Put you at risk of miscarriage
  3. Reduce your risk of miscarriage
  4. Make your baby infertile and give him cancer

Monday, 8 November 2010

Sunday Express Exclusive: Muslims "do Muslim stuff"

Step aside Woodward and Bernstein, the intrepid Express duo of Jarvis and Bhatia have an "exclusive" that puts your lightweight Watergate "investigation" to shame:

Really? Could that be the relatively well-known ritual called Matam that appears in the papers on a semi-regular basis and which crops up in most secondary RE lessons? The one where people self-flagellate? But what's that you say? Those pesky Muslims are doing their filthy Muslim business IN BRITAIN????!?!?!
ISLAMIC fanatics are mutilating themselves at British mosque in a bloody ceremony carried out only yard from a busy high street.

How very dare they! This is Britain, I don't want their unusual religious habits rammed down my throat!
Huge wooden screens were put up around the mosque to keep the event secret and prevent passers-by on busy Romford Road seeing the bloodletting.

Oh. Still, at least the Express's crack reporting duo has tracked down this enormo-story in double-quick time.
The Sunday Express visited the mosque last week and learned that the ceremony took place last December.

Right. So the mosque didn't tell anyone about the event, took steps to avoid people seeing it and nobody has complained at any point in the ELEVEN MONTHS since it happened? Hang on, there is one "witness", who of course remains anonymous:

"There was blood everywhere ... I was told it was part of a religious ceremony but the anti-western sentiment was clear. If the public had seen it they would have reported it to the police."

And yet the not-at-all-entirely-made-up Express "witness" didn't report it to the police? And what about that "anti-western sentiment"? Any evidence of that at all? No? Oh well. Surely now that the Express have brought this awful, awful abomination to the attention of the authorities, something will be done about it?
Scotland Yard said it was aware of the annual Ashura event at the mosque but had no knowledge of the bloodletting which it said it had no power to ban.

A spokesman said: “If it is on private property and no offence is being committed this is not a matter for the police. The Ashura is an annual community event which has taken place in Newham for many years.”

Newham Council said it had no knowledge of the Matam taking place and the Ministry of Justice said self-flagellation was not an offence.

Hmmm. I think self-flagellation in the name of religion is a bit crackers - and that applies to the Catholics who do it, too - but if you want to do it that's up to you. The Muslims in this story did what they did behind closed doors, on private property, having taken steps to make sure other people couldn't be upset by seeing a rather bloody spectacle. What they were doing is not against the law, the police have known about it for years, and nobody has ever complained.

So what, exactly, is the (page 12 lead) story here? Is this an "exclusive" because no other paper would go near it? Well, maybe the Mail...

Mail "journalist" knows what's important in a story

On Friday five men were jailed for "grooming" and sexually abusing three schoolgirls. Truly horrific stuff. Here's how the Times reported it:
Jail for sexual predators who preyed on schoolgirls
Five "sexual predators" who ruined the lives of three vulnerable schoolgirls were starting jail sentences of between four and 11 years last night.

Fairly straightforward stuff. But look at how the Mail presents the same story to its readers (this comes from the paper itself rather than the slightly different online version):
Jailed, Asian sex gang who preyed on schoolgirls as young as twelve
A gang of Asian "sexual predators" were jailed yesterday for abusing white girls as young as 12.

Alleged "journalist" Paul Sims and whichever sub wrote the headline both think the most important facts in this story are the skin colours of the people involved. Never mind that this is a horrendous story of terrible people doing awful things to innocent children, the Mail has a racial angle to push so lets bring out the dog whistle and put away any notion of decency.

Saturday, 6 November 2010

Phil Woolas, the Daily Mail and staggering hypocrisy

I'm not going to try and defend Phil Woolas, who has been kicked out of the House of Commons after being found guilty of lying about his election opponent and trying to stir up racial hatred in order to win votes. He's always been a bit of a an arse, and it's good to see the law coming down on him like a tonne of bricks.

What I am going to complain about is, predictably, the Mail's staggering hypocrisy in its
coverage of the case. The paper describes Woolas's campaign materials thus:
Evil leaflets that set out to stir up racial tension
Rebecca Camber examines how Mr Woolas embarked on a toxic campaign of lies, smears and dirty tricks to ‘make the white folk angry’ enough to vote for him.
A toxic campaign of lies and smears designed to make white folk angry, you say? Tell me more, Rebecca.

Labour’s ... newspaper-style mailshots ... contained inflammatory headlines such as ‘Lib Dem pact with the Devil’. Other so-called ‘stories’ included ‘Lib Dems in mosque planning permission stitch-up’ and ‘Straight talking Woolas too fair for militant Muslims’.

A picture of extremists holding a sign saying ‘behead those who insult Islam’, taken in London four years earlier, was also used, even though it had nothing to do with the supposed Muslim threat in Oldham.

There was no evidence of a Muslim extremist threat in Oldham or any death threats to Mr Woolas.

So the highlights of the Mail's charge sheet against Woolas (which earns the overall package the headline "Can our MPs sink any lower?") are:

  • That he published "so-called stories" suggesting Muslims had been involved in a planning permission scam
  • That he illustrated a story with a picture that had nothing to do with the story itself.
  • That he lied about the threat Muslims posed to the area.

I'm sure you can see where I'm going with this by now, so let's cut straight to the chase. Other examples of so-called newspapers publishing so-called stories along these lines include:

  • The Daily Mail falsely claiming that Muslims had stopped a cafe owner receiving planning permission for an extractor fan
  • The Daily Mail illustrating a story with a picture that had nothing to do with the story itself.

So the question the Mail's editor has to ask himself is, can you possibly sink any lower? Any lower, that is, than the new low you apparently sank to last year.

Also winning a special prize for hypocrisy today is Simon Hughes, deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats. After the Woolas verdict he proudly told the media:

"Mr Woolas has come severely unstuck and I am very pleased for politics and the rule of law that the judges have said so clearly that this was unacceptable."

I'm very interested in what Simon Hughes thinks is unacceptable in an election campaign. He first entered Parliament in a 1983 by-election, where his Labour opponent in the Bermondsey constituency was Peter Tatchell, who is today better known as a human rights campaigner with particular focus on gay rights issues. 

Bermondsey was a traditionally safe Labour seat, but at at time when there were no out gay MPs and homosexuality was nowhere near as acceptable as it is today, Hughes was elected after running a viciously homophobic campaign based almost entirely on the fact that the Labour candidate was gay. Hughes infamously produced leaflets calling himself "the straight choice" for Bermondsey, while male Lib-Dem canvassers went do-to-door with lipstick smears on their faces and stickers saying "I've been kissed by Peter Tatchell".

Hughes, who himself came out as bisexual in 2006, has since apologised and Tatchell has siad he doesn't bear a grudge. But to see Hughes of all people trying to take the moral high ground over dirty tricks in an election campaign is absolutely shocking.

Friday, 5 November 2010

Does Richard Littlejohn know how to use Google?

I only ask because of the final "comedy " item in today's rant-a-thon:

If we’re going to give ­prisoners the vote, why not go the whole hog and let them stand for election. I’m sure there are embezzlers and bent accountants who could do a good job reducing the deficit at the Treasury. ‘And coming up before The One Show, a party political broadcast on behalf of the Yorkshire Ripper'
The thing is, prisoners ARE allowed to stand for election, provided they're serving a sentence of less than 12 months - something that may well cover a fair number of embezzlers and bent accountants.

I was fairly sure that this was the case and took all of three minutes to confirm it via Google. First I looked up the Bobby Sands article on Wikipedia (as surely any serious journalist knows that Sands was elected as an MP while serving in the Maze Prison), from where I followed a link to the entry on the "Anti H-Block Party" (which states that after Sands' election the law was changed to ban people standing if they're serving more than a year behind bars), and after than I Googled up the Electoral Commission's Media Handbook for General Elections (page six) to confirm it.

One hunch, two websites, three minutes.

How much does Richard Littlejohn get paid each year? Is it really so little that he can't afford an internet connection? And are the Daily Mail subs who check his copy too scared to change it, even if it's wrong?

Oh, and even if people serving more than one year WERE allowed to stand, Peter Sutcliffe would still be disqualified becasue section 141 of the the Mental Health Act says you can't be an MP if you've been sectioned for more than six months. Sutcliffe has now been in Broadmoor for 29 years.

Mind how you go, Richard.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Quote of the Day

"Of course, Professor Nutt is entitled to his opinions. But when he dresses them up as science, he is playing a disengenuous and dangerous game."

- Daily Mail leader column.

The Mail has yet to hold forth on whether it is dangerous and disengenuous to claim that age, asbestos, aspirin, babies, baby bottles, being black, bubble bath, candle-lit dinners, childlessness, Chinese medicine, dogs, eggs (free range), Facebook, false nails, the Internet, menstruation, metal, milk, older fathers, pastry, peanut butter, rice, sausages, sex, shaving, soup, space travel, turning on the lights at night to go to the toilet, vitamins, the war in Iraq and Worcestershire sauce give you cancer.

Or whether it's dangerous and disengenous to present the views of a lone "moral" campaigner as a reason to not vaccinate girls against cancer.

Or whether it's dangerous and disengenous to repeatedly ignore the scientific evidence and suggest that the MMR jab causes autism (including a widely read columnist "dressing up her opinion as science").

Or whether it's dangerous and disengenous to fiddle the facts and distort the truth and sometimes just print outright lies in order to make Muslims look bad.

But I'm sure they'll address this in a holier-than-thou editorial in the near future.