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.