Saturday 21 May 2011

This is the way the blog ends: not with a bang but a whimper

Regular visitors (both of you) may have noticed that this blog has been a little quiet of late. I’ve been busy with my actual job (the one that pays the bills) and have also been seeing a bit of the world, so haven’t really had time to keep it updated. And that’s part of the reason I’ve decided to take a break from this blogging thing for a while. I’m going to carry on tweeting (@PrimlyStable) as it takes much less time and effort, and I like the immediacy and interactivity of it all. But I no longer have the time or effort to devote to keeping the blog going with anything approaching regularity.

It’s been a fun year or so, and I’d like to think that I’ve provided some entertaining and thought-provoking articles. One post even managed to bring in 12,000 readers on one day , which would be considered a decent-sized crowd at a League Two football match (although that was mostly down to getting RT'd by the mighty Ben Goldacre).

High points included getting the PCC to rule that Richard Littlejohn was a liar and getting the Department for Communities and Local Government to admit that Eric Pickles’ claims about councils banning Christmas were not based on anything more than a tabloid urban myth.

But these were simultaneously low points, too. The PCC refused to uphold the complaint against Littlejohn because, astonishingly, they said he lied so often his readers wouldn’t assume he was telling the truth about anything, and that lying was actually just a rhetorical device.

And despite repeated letters and complaints (most of which I didn’t publish here) DCLG refused to retract Pickles’ claims and the minister himself keeps tweeting cheerfully away about openness and transparency and how Labour used to make things up just to get headlines.

So that’s the main reason I’m giving up. I’m sick of getting angry about what journalist and politicians say, pointing out the errors and nothing ever changing. I’m sick of the omerta-like code among the national press that prevents them ever criticising each other for fear of having their own dirty washing aired in public. I’m sick of the fact that a man can get paid hundreds of thousands of pounds a year for writing that prostitutes deserve to be murdered and that a woman hasn’t really been raped if she wasn’t violently beaten up by a stranger in the process.

In the words of Chris TT - who really deserves to be known as a supremely talented singer-songwriter rather than just that guy who started that #iamspartacus thing - “the Daily Mail readers have defeated me”. Why should I spend hours carefully researching the facts behind a story so that a thousand or so people can read it when hundreds of thousands of people, millions even, have already read the Mail’s version and decided that it’s true?

We live in an age where truth is defined by Wikipedia, and where any online argument can be won by providing a link to a story that supports your point of view, regardless of whether that story has any basis in truth whatsoever.

Newspapers demand an end to injunctions so they can delight in publishing sordid details of a footballer’s private life, claiming they must be able to report such information as part of their fundamental right to free speech, their divine mission to bring the truth to the people of Britain. Yet day after day after day the same newspapers publish lies – not opinions I disagree with, not even just wild distortions of the facts, but outright lies.

The same newspapers that insist that self-regulation works and that any attempt to restrict what they publish is unacceptable spent the whole of last Christmas smearing the name of an innocent man who had never even been charged with any crime, let alone convicted. In their rush to get “the truth” about him to the public, they went out of their way to print claims that he was a liar, a pervert, a lunatic, a man obsessed with death.

And once one paper starts behaving in such a way, the rest have to join in for fear of being left behind, of missing out on the story. Tony Blair was widely mocked when he accused the media of behaving like a pack of feral beasts, but I fail to see what was wrong with what he said. Accuracy no longer matters in journalism, only getting their first or at the very least churning out what your rivals have already published so that nobody can accuse you of missing the story.

So what if you’ve accused an innocent man of being a suspected paedophile? So what if you’ve accused a missing child’s parents of murdering her? Everyone will forget about it in a few weeks and you can move on to the next sucker. And in the meantime you can publish an outraged story about a woman who made a false allegation of rape, because isn’t it awful that this poor man has had his name dragged through the mud and shouldn’t she really be sent to prison for doing such a terrible thing?

It’s just the tabloids that are guilty of the pack mentality. Has anyone ever actually learned anything from an interview on the Today programme, apart from the fact that John Humphreys likes the sound of his own voice? Over on Newsnight Paxman has become a parody of himself – fuck finding out the truth, Brand Paxo depends on him sneering at his guests, interrupting, arguing, never actually interviewing them. And waiting in the wings are an army of wannabe Paxmans, all thinking that the pinnacle of journalistic achievement involves asking Michael Howard the same question 3,000 times, all thinking that they’re terribly clever because they know that the first rule of interviewing a politician is to ask yourself “why is this bastard lying to me”, even if he’s not.

Sigh. I’ve just poured all this out in one go. Ijust re-read it and it's a bit ranty. I was going to edit it to make it scan better or make a bit of sense but figured I’d leave it as at it is. Sorry about that.

Thanks for all the nice comments, re-tweets, and general lovelyness over the past 12 months. It all helps me remember that not everyone in the world is a Mail-reading arse.

AND FINALLY... There’s no particular reason why you should be interested in my opinion, but if you are here are 10 simple rules to live by:

  • Visit TabloidWatch, 5CC and Minority Thought on a regular basis. They do what I do, but more often, better, funnier and with less swearing.

  • If a headline has a question in it, the answer is almost certainly “no”.

  • Pineapple juice with psyllium husk helps you lose weight but lacks nutritional value.

  • Admit it, Mad Men jumped the shark around about the time of the lawnmower accident.

  • The phrase “jumped the shark” jumped the shark long before I started using it.

  • Cold weather in northern Europe in the winter is not evidence that global warming is a myth.

  • Never read the Wikipedia entry for “notable alumni” from your secondary school, unless you want to feel like a miserable failure.

  • Edward Is Deadward by Emmy The Great really should be in your record collection (or on your iPod). Her continued lack of international superstardom baffles me, especially at a time when Mumford and Sons are touring stadiums.

  • Dan & Dan’s Daily Mail Song is simultaneously the funniest and most depressing thing on YouTube.

  • Don’t believe what you read in the paper. Any paper. Ever.

Wednesday 4 May 2011

Littlejohn in "predictable" shock

On Monday afternoon I was pottering around on the internet, having a look at the various reactions to the death of Osama bin Laden, and tweeted this little prediction:

Littlejohn's first post-OBL column appears today. I could go on about the way he equates a mass-murdering terrorist living near a military academy in Pakistan with some non-mass-murdering non-terrorists building a mosque near a military academy in England, but I figured it would be more fun to cut to the chase:
"From what we can gather, there was no British involvement in this operation, which is probably just as well. Judging by the rules of engagement now imposed on our armed forces, if we’d tracked down Bin Laden we’d have had to read him his human rights, assign him a Legal Aid lawyer, cook him a religiously appropriate dinner and hand out nicotine patches to any of his lieutenants trying to give up smoking and suffering withdrawal symptoms."
Does Richard 'Cloaca' Littlejohn have a single original thought in his tiny little mind? How much, exactly, is the Mail paying him to either recycle his old columns and books or spew out cliches as predictable as this?

Friday 15 April 2011

Mail locates bottom of barrel, gives it a good scraping

I'm out of the country for a year or so. I'm somewhere nice and sunny - it's 30C outside right now - and really should be seeing the sights, sipping coconuts, that sort of thing. But instead, like a moth to a flame, I find myself drawn to the pages of Mail Online. I just can't help it. Maybe I have some kind of mental problem. And despite not having visited it for three whole weeks, within roughly six seconds of my return to intellectual masochism I'd stumbled across something that made me decide to break my self-imposed blogging moratorium. After I'd banged my head repeatedly against the laptop, obviously.

Now you don't have to have been at this tabloid-watching malarky very long to see a headline like that and instantly think "What are the chances that said ban ISN'T down to health and safety - or even the childish cloacaism that is 'Elf N Safety', something that surely has no place in a serious news story?" And were you to think that, you would of course be entirely correct. In the intro, lazy hack Nick Fagge, perhaps jealous of colleague Steve Doughty's 5CC tabloid bullshit of the month award, makes this bold claim:

Every year the Christians from different churches get together to march a 400-yard route to celebrate Easter. But this year their Good Friday parade has been banned – because it breaches health and safety laws.

This being a Mail health and safety story, Nick is legally required to undermine his own argument within the next few paragraphs. Hence these two sentences:

Previously organisers of the parade in Willesden, north London, had only needed to inform police of their route. But new red tape means they now need permission from Brent Council. Officials said they banned the procession because they were contacted too late to carry out a ‘consultation’ to close the roads.

And just in case you failed to understand that, there’s a handy quote from a council spokesman that spells it out extremely clearly (tucked away at the end of the article, natch):

“Brent Council was not contacted about the march until around a week ago. There is a strict legal procedure we have to follow to issue a traffic order closing roads so people can march in the highway, which includes advertising and consultation, and this takes about five weeks. We are very sorry to say there is now not enough time for us to legally facilitate this march.”

So it’s got nowt to do with health and safety at all – the council simply has rules requiring five weeks advance notice of any planned road closures so that people not involved in an event have time to plan for the road closure. The Catholic priest in charge of the march failed to check with the council five weeks ahead (maybe he forgot when Easter was?) so the road can’t be closed. I suppose you could accuse the council of being a little officious and inflexible, but thems the rules. And they have nothing whatsoever to do with health and safety, despite what the sub claims in the headline and Fagge claims in his intro.

The Mail has been blaming health and safety for everything from stepping stone repair to the non-banning of secret santa to parking arrangements at cheese-rolling events for donkey’s years now, but what makes this story remarkable is the way the paper has elbowed in a second pet theme – Christians being persecuted by authority and treated worse than assorted minority groups. Normally this kind of story has at least a vague basis in fact. But this time round it comes entirely from the imagination of the priest who forgot to give five weeks notice to the council:

Father Hugh MacKenzie, of St Mary Magdalen Roman Catholic Church, said: “The rights of Christians are being overlooked in favour of the rights of Islamic groups and gay rights organisations.”

Wait, what?

“One does wonder whether if it was a homosexual rights or Islamic group the council would have been more flexible, as it doesn’t seem like rocket science to permit us to walk 400 metres. The rights of Christians are just not respected in Britain.”

Riiiiiight. The road won’t be closed because the priest failed to follow the rules, yet this is evidence of the rights of Christians not being respected in Britain? What rights are those then? The right to break the law? The right to be treated MORE favourably than other people who want to organise a road closure?

And is there any evidence that Brent Council has been more flexible with homosexual rights groups or Islamic groups? Anything to prove the claim that the rights of Christians are being overlooked in favour of such people? No, there’s absolutely nothing. It’s just the slightly unnerving ramblings of a disorganised priest. But hey, his outlandish claims chime with the Mail’s ongoing narrative about Christians being treated worse than the minority groups the paper loathes so much, so Nick duly sets out to come up with some rock-solid evidence supporting Father Hugh:

Brent Council hosts a Diwali street celebration every year. Last November it boasted it had held the biggest Diwali event in the country, after more than 60,000 people turned out.

And? Brent has huge a huge population of Sikhs and Hindus, so it’s not much of a shock that they hold a Diwali celebration. But how is this in any way related to the story? Did the council fail to advertise any associated road closures five weeks in advance? Or is the Mail just complaining because the council put on an event aimed primarily at brown people? Oh wait, there’s more:
And in July last year the council appealed to the Muslim community to notify it of any Eid events so it could promote them free of charge. But it did not do the same for other religious festivals.
OMFG! STOP THE PRESSES! Brent Council offered to promote festivities being staged by a minority group so that people from the majority, who may otherwise be unaware, could get involved! BUT THEY DIDN’T ADVERTISE CHRISTMAS!!!!!!! Which is a travesty, because, without the council telling people, NOBODY WOULD KNOW THAT CHRISTMAS WAS TAKING PLACE! Sure, they might be a little confused as to why all the shops were really busy, there were decorations up everywhere and they had two days of work, but without the council telling them what was going on they’d never have any idea that it was all related to an obscure little festival celebrated by a tiny religious group called “Christians”.

If Father Hugh wants to trot out tired lines about being part of a persecuted minority that’s his lookout, but if Nick Fagges wants to call himself a journalist and the Mail wants to call itself a newspaper, they have a duty to seriously investigate whether his claims have any substance. Who knows, maybe just yesterday a group of gay Muslims were given permission to close the M1 for three hours at the drop of a hat – if it happened, Father Hugh has a point and the story has some merit. But based on the facts provided by the Mail, it’s nothing but another attempt to win sympathy for Christians at the expense of other groups, something the Mail is all too happy to collude with. And based on some of the comments from readers, it certainly seems to be working:

Wednesday 16 March 2011

Journalist can't abide people making money from the royal wedding, so gets paid to write 500 words about how awful it is

Mail columnist Sandra Parsons is displeased with the news that the company owned by Kate Middleton's parents is launching a "Royal Wedding scratchcard", prompting this moan:

"Yesterday, I went on to their Party Pieces website to have a closer look at the scratch cards. I typed 'royal wedding' into the search facility and up popped an entire menu of offerings, from 'royal wedding Kate' — which throws up 24 products — to 'royal wedding party products', which brings up a jaw-dropping 1,883 items, an endless array stretching from drink stirrers to invitation holders to cake boxes."

For the purposes of comparison, I typed "royal wedding kate" into the Daily Mail's search facility. I don't know if the 759 results it brought up counts as "jaw-dropping", but I do know that it's more than 30 times as many hits as the Middletons had on their site. The simple phrase "royal wedding" produces 2,679 hits on the Mail's site, which isn't so much jaw-dropping as jaw-falling-off-your-head-entirely-inducing.

And as for those 1,883 hits on "Royal wedding party products", is Parsons really that shocked given that the company in question sells party products, and that a lot of people buy party products for their own weddings? Further inspection suggests that the search engine is returning matches for ANY of the words, not ALL of them - which is why it turns up things like this:

Yes, those awful Middletons. Why can't they stop cashing in on their daughter's wedding with their clockwork train sets and their pink party shoes? I bet on the day of the wedding they'll even sink so low as to try and cash in by producing a 36-page full-colour souvenir supplement about the day...

Monday 7 March 2011

Speechwatching II

Remember last year when I pointed out that Ed Miliband seemed to be drawing inspiration from JFK during his speech at the Labour conference? Well the speechwriter behind yesterday's David Cameron address also seemed to have read a few too many "Great Speeches of the 20th Century" books:

"From Aberconwy in the North, to the Vale of Glamorgan in the South.
From the mountains to the valleys.
The message rang out..."

Or, as Martin Luther King Jnr put it in 1963:

"And so let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire.
Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York.
Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania.
Let freedom ring from the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado.
Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California."

Of course, Dr King's speech was a plea for racial tolerance, equality and justice for all. Cameron's speech was a call for a "No" vote in the AV referendum.

Friday 4 March 2011

Daily Mail headline of the year

For some reason Mail Online doesn't mention in the headline that one of those newspaper websites was Mail Online. Still, kudos to the Northcliffe House massive for actually running this story online, even if they have disabled reader comments "for legal reasons". The other guilty party, the Sun, hasn't found room for the news on its website.

Thursday 3 March 2011

When is a German not a German?

Yesterday a gunman in Frankfurt shot dead two American airmen as they boarded a bus outside the German city's airport. The Mail has, via German paper Die Welt, got hold of a picture of the prime suspect. Here's the headline:

So he's a Kosovan? Someone from Kosovo, right? Which is why the Mail also provides a handy little box-out explaining all about the way Kosovans in Kosovo keep getting recruited by terrorist groups:

But hidden away in the middle of the story is this factoid:

"Uka, whose family come from the northern town of Mitrovica, was born and educated in Germany where his family moved to some 40 years ago."

So this Kosovan Muslim was actually born and raised in Germany a mere two decades after his family arrived in the country.

At least the Mail is being consistent - the paper has previously suggested that second- and third-generation immigrants in this country are not actually British, hence the suggestion that its headline on 29 April should read "Immigrant's grandson marries unemployed woman, moves to lavish house paid for by YOU".

The Mail also has form on this issue in Germany. Ahead of England's catastrophically poor showing in the second round of the World Cup last summer, they came up with this little gem:

There was also a nice little graphic to explain just how foreign those cheating Krauts are:

Close reading shows that of the 11 "foreign" players, six were born in Germany. Boggle-eyed Mesut Ozil is included in the list of foreigners despite being born in Germany to German parents, because his folks "are of Turkish origin". The Mail never got around to claiming that Ashley Cole (father born in Barbados), Emile Heskey (mother from Barbuda, father from Antigua) and David James (father from Jamaica) were "foreigners"...

Friday 25 February 2011

Littlejohn caught lying yet again

Today Richard Littlejohn turns his attention to the census, which isdue to take place later this year. First things first, he's not happy with the fact that it's available in languages other than English (presumably the Welsh can go fuck themselves):
"The form has also been printed in 57 different languages — including Twi, which is spoken in south Ghana; Sinhala, from Sri Lanka; and Tagalog, which is spoken by Bill and Ben the Flowerpot Men."

This sentence annoys me on so many levels. I mean, if you're trying to get an accurate count of how many people there are in a country then surely it's sensisible to ensure everyone can understand the census form? Would Dickie prefer to know only how many English-speakers there are? Then there's the casual racism of the "Tagalog, which is spoken by Bill and Ben the Flowerpot Men". Actually, Dickie, it's spoken by a third of the population of the Philippines - roughly 30 million people. But hey, it sounds funny, right? Like Bongo-bongo land?

Still, he's just giving his audience what it wants. The real issue is that once again Dickie has shown he can't make it through a whole column without using a rhetorical device. By which I mean lying:

The outrageously intrusive 2011 Census weighs a ton and runs to 32 pages. It demands information about everything from skin colour to sexual preference.

Except, of course, it doesn't. The Government and the Office for National Statistics have been quite clear that the census will not contain any questions about sexual orientation. Last year the Lesbian & Gay Foundation ran a petition to try and have such a question included, to which the Government responded:

“The Draft Census (England and Wales) Order 2009, setting out the question topics to be asked in the 2011 Census, has been approved by both Houses of Parliament and is now law. It does not include a question on sexual identity."

On the Today programme earlier this week John Humphries interviewed the man in charge of the census and asked why the Government needed to know whether he was straight or gay, and was firmly and clearly told that the census does not ask such a question.

But since when has Littlejohn let a simple thing like the facts get in the way of a good moan?

Tory MPs strangely quiet on THIS botched evacuation

It's Easter 2010. The sun is shining. The country is already bored to tears with the election campaign. Nick Clegg is about to become humungously popular thanks to the first televised debate between party leaders, and will go on to surf a huge wave of popular support for, ooh, about three weeks before becoming the Most Hated Man in Britain.

Meanwhile, the skies over Britain are empty of everything except birds and Icelandic volcanic ash. An estimated 150,000 Britons are stranded across Europe, struggling to get home via taxis, buses, bicycles and ferries. And the Tories are not happy. They think the Labour government has failed to get a grip on the situation and is not doing enough to get stranded Brits home. Shadow transport secretary Theresa Villiers has a lot to say about the issue:

"Those who are stranded abroad need reassurance from the Government that they are doing all they can to help get people home and address the crisis."

"Stranded Britons abroad need a clear assurance from the Government that there is a strategy in place to help them and bring them home, but a number of issues are not clear and we have not had a detailed public statement from ministers [for two days] ... clarity from Gordon Brown and his ministers is essential ... How many British citizens are stranded overseas? Where are they stranded? How many days does the govt estimate it will take them to return home?"

"We saw real concerns with the government's lack of action in terms of taking action to rescue people while the skies were closed. It took them far too long to get their act together on that. We need to ask some searching questions about the judgments made by the government."

"People stranded abroad need to know all that can be done to help them is being done."

Tobias Ellwood, then shadow tourism minister, accused the government of "dithering" in its duty to help citizens stranded abroad.

Fast forward just under 12 months, and instead of volcanic ash there's a cloud of protest and revolution settling across north Africa.

Things are really kicking off in Libya, where around 500 British citizens live. Many other European countries evacuated their people as soon as the fighting broke out, but Britain's response has been less than efficient - so much so that David Cameron has felt the need to apologise and the Daily Mail has branded the whole situation "a farce". Things are so bad that even Richard Littlejohn feels able to criticise the state of affairs.

The ash cloud closed airspace for six days and left up to 150,000 people stranded. It is now seven days since the first protests began in Libya, creating a need to evacuate up to 500 people, but Theresa Villiers and Tobias Ellwood have yet to complain about the PM failing to act quickly enough to help stranded Britons. Could it be that they've realised being in government isn't as easy as it looks from the outside?

Wednesday 23 February 2011

Only telling half of the story

The Mail headline is pretty damning:

Things are equally grim in the story itself:

Up to two in three patients are unhappy with the care they are given on the NHS, an alarming report has found.

Many of those treated by the Health Service complain that they were dehumanised, humiliated and embarrassed by the doctors and nurses who were supposed to be looking after them.

The survey of almost 12,000 patients found that staff were criticised for being rude, arrogant and lazy – too often refusing to treat their patients with dignity or compassion
And only a third of those polled said they were content with the standard of care that they had received on an NHS ward or at a surgery.

Dig a little deeper, however, and it quickly becomes clear that this is just the latest Daily Mail attack on the NHS – an institution the paper has previously criticised both for spending too much on supplies and not spending enough on supplies.

The first port of call is the “alarming report” on which the story is based. It is published by Patient Opinion, an independent website that collates individuals’ experiences of the NHS and passes on their comments to politicians and health service managers. Today’s report is a compilation and analysis of the various comments received by Patient Opinion over the past decade.

Despite what the Mail says, it is not a “survey” and nobody was “polled”. Patient Opinion merely asks patients to come to them with their own experiences – and as even the Mail admits (tucked away at the bottom of the story):

“…since many of its contributors are likely to log on because they are unhappy with their care, it is difficult to quantify exactly what proportion of all NHS patients are similarly disgruntled.”

In other words, people who comment at Patient Opinion are entirely self-selecting. There’s no way of knowing how representative of all patients the site’s visitors are – it’s a bit like trying to get a statistically valid handle on society’s views based solely on the comments left on the Daily Mail website. It’s certainly interesting to see what so many people have to say, but to use it as the basis of a claim that “two in three patients are unhappy with the care they are given” is somewhat more dubious – the claim should be that “two in three patients who use a certain website” are unhappy.

The Mail is also factually wrong when it claims that “almost 12,000 people” were surveyed for the report. As we’ve already seen, the report is not a survey. And, as anyone who bothers to read the methodology of the report will see, its findings were not based on all of the comments received since it launched in 2005:

“The analysis used a sample of 537 accounts from patients and carers. The analysed data was sampled by initially collating: All public postings made on Patient Opinion since February 2008 that had a criticality score of three, four or five; all concerns received prior to February 2008 that were over 500 characters in length, to give the fullest example of patient feedback in this period. This gave us 1,790 accounts, of which 30 per cent were randomly selected, creating a final sample total of 537 accounts.”

The “Our Reasoning” section adds:

“Since February 2008, Patient Opinion has categorised all posts made on a scale of zero to five, with five being the most severe. For this report, the research team selected stories with a severity threshold of three or more, to ensure that the most serious concerns were prioritised. For concerns submitted prior to February 2008, they included entries longer than 500 characters. This gave a dataset of 1,790 stories, with a 30 per cent sample size of 537 stories (from the overall total of 15,605 posted on Patient Opinion in this time period).”
In other words, the researchers deliberately only chose comments from people with more extreme views, with the result being that the study was based on just 537 comments – roughly 3.4 per cent of the 15,605 “stories” left during this period. And it’s entirely possible that the same person commented more than once.

But even if you don’t mind the issues with the report itself, the Mail’s quoting of it is selective in the extreme. Yes, it identifies many problems with the NHS, and calls on health service managers to improve the situation. However, other findings that the Mail couldn’t find room for include:

Out of 11,982 stories posted, 33.1 per cent were positive, 45.6 per cent were neutral and just 21.1 per cent were negative (p9)

79 per cent of the stories on Patient Opinion talk about a positive experience of the health service “indicating that the NHS continues to provide excellent care to patients and their families all over the country.” (p8)

Staff attitudes are the most common aspect of the very best care experienced by patients and their carers (p3)
To Patient Opinon’s credit, they’re open about the fact that the report is not statistically ideal as it based on subjective accounts of individuals’ experiences rather than objective quantifiable data. The researchers are also happy to make clear, on page eight, that that they have deliberately focussed on negative aspects at expense of the positives:

“This report is intended to prompt change and drive improvements. We have therefore focused on examples where improvements can be made within the NHS … There will always be room for improvement though, and this analysis exposes these areas.”
However, all such caveats are missing from the Mail’s coverage. The Mail is also happy to reproduce harrowing accounts from patients who felt they were treated badly. In the report itself, each comment is followed by a response from the NHS, usually expressing horror, apologising profusely and explaining what steps have been taken to remedy the situation so it doesn’t happen again. But of course the Mail can’t find room for these, either.

As usual, if the facts don’t fit the paper’s narrative, they are conveniently ignored.

Monday 21 February 2011

Mail laments "desperately sad" lack of benefits for immigrants

Earlier this month the Mail's irony meter exploded into a thousand tiny pieces when the paper expressed its shock at a French newspaper daring to criticise British ski instructors taking French jobs. You see, the usual invective about foreigners stealing "our" jobs doesn't apply if the foreigners in question are white and British.

Today the Mail is at it again, attempting to drum up sympathy for Brits who ploughed their life savings into homes in Spain only to see the bottom fall out of the market leaving many in negative equity.

It's sad stuff - nobody wants to see someone suffering like this - but once again the Mail displays extraordinary double-standards. Would we get two pages of sympathetic copy if an Asian Muslim family based in Britain found itself in similar straits?

One paragraph that leaps off the page contains a quote from 62-year-old widow Marian Henderson:
"I’ve looked for work but there just isn’t any. If you go for an interview and there are five Spanish people and one British person, they’ll have the five Spanish first. You can’t blame them, but that is just the way it is. As for help from the government there is nothing. If I was in England I would get help with the council tax and pension credits, but because I am in Spain there is nothing. They don’t hand out anything for free here - it’s terribly depressing."
The Mail describes her plight as "desperately sad" - but isn't this EXACTLY what the Mail wants to see happen in this country? Remember all those front pages demanding British jobs for British workers? The years and years and years of complaints about immigrants receiving benefits paid for by hard-working natives? Doesn't anyone at the Mail realise that the Brave New World the paper is constantly calling for will result in exactly the same "desperately sad" circumstances affecting Brits on the Costa? Would the Mail be at all sympathetic towards a 62-year-old Polish widow living in a house worth half-a-million pounds who couldn't get any benefits and was therefore struggling to get by?

I think we all know the answer...

Schools not ordered to go easy on gypsy children

There are few things the Mail group likes more than a nice "political correctness gone mad" story, and the website of the Equality & Human Rights Commission regularly provides a happy hunting ground for under-pressure hacks on a deadline. Here's today's effort:

"Schools have been told they have to make special allowances for misbehaving pupils from gypsy and traveller families Teachers have been warned they could be taken to task under the Equality Act if they discipline or exclude such children from schools."

I'm sure you'll all be shocked to learn that there's slightly more to the story than this. The source is guidance on the 2010 Equality Act, which appears to have been published last year. It explains what the phrase "you must not discriminate against a pupil by excluding them from school" means, and gives several examples. They include not expelling one misbehaving child because he is a boy while allowing an equally troublesome girl to remain, and not excluding a child because they are autistic. All sensible stuff that even the Mail doesn't have a problem with, which explains why the paper's headline doesn't scream "Schools told to go easy on disabled children".

Journalist Gerri Peev has seized upon the one example that deals with a group the Mail has no time for - gypsies and travellers. The guidance, in full, states:

...the procedures you use for deciding what punishment a pupil will receive and for investigating incidents must not discriminate against pupils with a particular protected characteristic.

For example:
As part of their procedures for investigating and deciding on a punishment, a school arranges for parents or guardians of pupils to come into the school and discuss a course of action with the head teacher. In cases where parents cooperate with the head teacher and are shown to be committed to assisting the pupil to manage their behaviour it is less likely that the pupil will face exclusion.

This procedure may indirectly discriminate against the Gypsy and Traveller pupil whose parents may be less likely to come to the school to speak with the head teacher as they face a range of barriers including a lack of confidence in speaking to school staff and a level of mistrust based on a perception that they are not valued by the school community.

The school reviews their procedures and puts specific measures in place to assist Gypsy and Traveller parents, including an outreach programme with a dedicated member of staff to build trust with the parents so they can get more involved in theschool community and their child’s education. This is good practice which can help avoid indirect discrimination.

Again, it's pretty sensible stuff that boils down to "don't expel a pupil because their parent fails to engage with the school disciplinary process." Nowhere does it say "go easy on disruptive pupils" if they come from gypsy families. Nowhere does it say schools should make "special allowances" for gypsy children. It certainly doesn't warn of terrible concequences if teachers discipline certain children. It simply notes that children from some cultures might have parents who, for whatever reason, are suspicious and distrustful of authority figures and don't want to engage with them, and that it's not fair for a child to be kicked out of school because their parents take this attitude. Nor is there any threat of "action" being taken schools that fail to do this - although you wouldn't know it from the headline.

However, these facts haven't stopped Tory MP Priti Patel (who has taken to sitting next to fellow "anti PC-campaigner" Dominic Raab on the Commons benches) splurting out this ill-informed rent-a-quote garbage:

"I have concerns with the Equalities and Human Rights Commission dictating to headteachers how to run their schools and burdening them with more bureaucracy. There are times when schools do need to exclude pupils to protect the rights of others to learn and headteachers should not be put off making these decisions by the patronising diktats of the Equality and Human Rights Commission. The Commission’s recommendation on travellers only serves to reinforce stereotypes as well as showing that political correctness and the human rights agenda are being skewered further against common sense."

Note that she only manages to get the EHRC's name right the second time around. Had Patel bothered to read the guidance rather than just react to Peev's phonecall, maybe she'd have noticed that it does not do anything she accuses it of. If nothing else, the fact that it is guidance for schools - not an order - knocks down her accusation that it is a "diktat" from the EHRC.

It's bad enough that tabloid hacks churn out this kind of crap day after day, but you'd hope that an MP would be able to engage their brain before commenting.

It's interesting to note one story about the EHRC that doesn't make it into today's Mail - namely the news that the Commission is looking into hotels that advertise themselves as "gay-only". The paper was full of condemnation when the EHRC backed a court case against a Christian hotel owner who discriminated against gay people, but it seems that gay people being targeted by the "politically correct brigade" doesn't fit in with the Mail's worldview that all equality legislation is a bad thing.

Wednesday 16 February 2011

More made-up Jordan news from the Star

More gripping Jordan news from the Daily Star:

Reading the headline and the "What you DIDN'T see on telly last night" teaser, you could be forgiven for thinking that Katie Price and that guy who had that song in the mid 90s and then went on that show in the jungle had a bust-up at last night's Brit awards. One assumes the bust-up took place behind the scenes, as you DIDN'T see it on TV.

The story, however, tells a different, er, story:

KATIE Price dropped out of the BRITs last night, blaming ex-husband Peter Andre.

The 32-year-old glamour gal withdrew to avoid a row. Kate had a ticket – but organisers made it clear they did not want her there in case she had bust-up with Peter.

She blasted a claim – “the source of which is sadly obvious” – that she would pick a row with Peter, 37, there for ITV2.

But Kate said she did not want to distract attention from the stars “so I will cheer them on in front of my TV”. A pal said: “She has been stitched up.”

A Brits source said: “It was felt best to let her make her own
decision with dignity, rather than face being barred.” Peter, 37, said he was not involved.

In other words, Jordan and Pete DIDN'T have a bust-up at the Brits, because she didn't go. And the reason you didn't see it on TV is because IT DIDN'T HAPPEN.

Other things you didn't see on TV last night included Mumford & Sons being hacked to pieces by an angry mob of Take That fans (fun though that would have been), and Laura Marling delivering an extraordinary expletive-filled racist diatribe aimed at Régine Chassagne while accepting the Best Female Artist award. Strangely the Star neglects to report on these other entirely made-up events.

Tuesday 15 February 2011

Mail takes the gold in talking crap

Why is it that papers so often ruin what could be a potentially interesting story by making stuff up in an attempt to get a shock-horror headline and play to the crowd?

Today's Mail looks at ticketing plans for the 2012 Olympics. They could do a serious investigation, look at how the prices compare to other events, send reporters to Leyton and Stratford to ask locals if they'll be paying X amount to see the events taking place on their doorstep. But instead they come up with this:

."..despite Lord Coe, chairman of the London Organising Committee (Locog), claiming the 2012 Olympic Games will be a reasonably priced, the cost for many seats remains eye-watering. For example, the best seats for the men's 100m sprint final, for example, cost £725 – or about £75 a second if Usain Bolt is running. Cheaper tickets for the event, seen as the highlight of the games, will cost £200."

The most expensive athletics ticket is the one that will let you see the men's 100m final. It costs £725. The men's 100m final lasts for about 9.6 seconds. 725 / 9.6 = £75 per second. The maths stand up, but the context is absurd. £725 is a lot of money, but buying such a ticket for the session in question (the evening of 5 August) will allow you to see the following:


100m semi finals
100m final
400m semi finals
1,500m semi finals
3,000m steeplechase final
High jump qualifying
Hammer final
10,000m victory ceremony
Long jump victory ceremony

100m victory ceremony
400m final and victory ceremony
400m hurldes, round one
Triple jump, final and victory ceremony
Marathon victory ceremony

The session starts at 18:50 and finishes at 21:55, a total duration of 3 hours 5 minutes. Now you could run in to your seat at the moment the gun fires, then flee the stadium as soon as the winner crosses the line. But who is actually going to do that? Stick around for the whole evening and your £725 ticket works out at 6.5p per second.

Still a lot of money, don't get me wrong. But it's nonsense to say it'll cost £75 per second to see the men's 100m final. And despite what the Mail tells you, the cheapest ticket for the evening costs £50 (or 0.45p per second), not £200. In fact the £200 figure quoted in the story is entirely made up - according to the London 2012 website, there's not a single ticket on sale for any day of athletics in any price band that will set you back £200.

There are questions to be asked about the London 2012 price plans. But why does the Mail have to use nonsensical maths and made-up prices in order to address them?

Littlejohn plagiarises self, still gets things wrong

Economic migrant and convicted criminal Richard Littlejohn once again "justifies" his enormous Daily Mail salary by listing a bunch of HILARIOUS "non-jobs" he claims to have found in the Guardian over the past 20 years. But it's eerily similar to the column that he churned out on 28 March last year. For example, last March he wrote:

"When the Government announced plans to encourage people to abandon their cars and walk to work, I predicted that it would spawn a whole new job creation scheme. Within weeks, the Guardian was running adverts for 'community walking coordinators'."
11 months later he managed to come up with:

"When the last Labour government unveiled an initiative designed to encourage parents to walk their children to school rather than use their cars, I joked that within days councils would be hiring legions of ‘walking to school’ officers on thirty grand and a Mondeo. Yet again, I should have known better. The ink was barely dry on that column when dozens of councils did just that. The following week’s Guardian was full of adverts for ‘community walking co-ordinators’ to organise what they dubbed ‘walking buses'."
Original stuff, Dicky. There was also this from last March:

"the old breed of town clerk with a sense of duty has been replaced by 'chief executives' who pretend they are employed to run major commercial organisations and expect to be paid accordingly."
After 11 months of careful pondering, he managed this:

" clerks restyled themselves ‘chief executives’ and demanded private sector rewards."
And the self-plagiarism didn't stop there. The March 2010 column had this:

"There was the great AIDS scare, when no self-respecting council could bear to be without an army of HIV prevention workers. At one stage, I worked out there were more people in Britain earning a good living from AIDS than were actually dying from it."
So what has he turned out to justify his wages this week? Gosh:

"In the 1990s we were all going to die of Aids, so no council was complete without a dedicated HIV unit ... At one stage, I worked out there were more people in Britain earning a living from Aids than actually dying from it."
Last March:

"Take the council threatening to close down burger vans, which don't offer 'healthy options'. What gives them the right to do that? It's none of their business what people eat."
This February:

"There was the ‘healthy options’ officer in Guildford, who tried to ban hamburger vans from plying their trade in the name of fighting obesity ... Where the hell did local authorities get the idea that it was any of their damn business to tell people what to eat? "
And so it goes on. There is one original thought in the piece, where he claims that Haringey Council advertised someone to "teach Asian women how to play hopscotch", something that, despite being utterly bonkers-sounding - has never been reported anywhere else, not even in the Daily Mail. Nowhere on the internet is there any mention of hopscotch lessons for Asian women in Haringey, or of anyone being employed to provide them.

However, in the neighbouring borough of Camden there IS the Hopscotch Asian Women's Centre, which provides support and advice on issues such as domestic violence. Surely even Littlejohn couldn't be stupid enough to think the Hopscotch Asian Women's Centre provided hopscotch lessons to Asian women? Could he? Oh my...


Macguffin from TabloidWatch flagged this post on the Mailwatch forum, where someone suggested that the "hopscotch for Asian women" story first cropped up in a speech by former top Tory Brian Mawhinney back in the mid-90s.

It seems that in a speech to the 1995 Conservative conference, the party's then-chairman entertained the crowd by reeling off a list of "loony left" council policies including, oh the hilarity, the Camden Hopscotch Asian Women's Group. Seems HE thought it was all about teaching Asian women how to play hopscotch too. Littlejohn remembered the sneering attack but didn't bother to find out the truth about what Hopscotch actually does, nor could he be arsed to check which borough the centre was in.

Friday 11 February 2011

Intrusion into grief or shock

Along with several other papers, today's Daily Mirror splash relates the sad story of Jemma Benjamin. The Welsh 18-year-old died in 2009, and yesterday the Aberdare coroner delivered a narrative verdict, which explains that she died from sudden adult death syndrome. SADs is the catch-all term for death caused by the heart failing for no discernable reason.

The press were particularly interested in Jemma's death because she collapsed while kissing a man - some papers have claimed it was her first-ever kiss, some have said the man was her boyfriend, others that he was just an acquaintence. So there are lots of unknowns and variables about this case, but one thing is certain - the Mirror's coverage is a crock of shit:

Yes, that headline really does read "KILLED BY HER FIRST KISS". It gets worse inside, where spread across page 11 is the headline "KISS OF DEATH". For the avoidance of doubt, the cause of death was not recorded as "being kissed".

Quite how this absurd sensationalism will go down with her family, let alone the man who kissed her, we can only speculate. We can also only speculate as to how the Mirror's editors thought these headlines fitted with with the PCC code - both its clause one demand for accuracy and the oft-ignored clause five:

5. Intrusion into grief or shock
i) In cases involving personal grief or shock, enquiries and approaches must be made with sympathy and discretion and publication handled sensitively. This should not restrict the right to report legal proceedings, such as inquests.

Clearly they'd thought better of it by the time the story went online, where the headline is much more sober and accurate.

It's been a busy week for "Killed by..." splashes in the Mirror - just yesterday they had this:

And back on 4 February they went with this:

Is "whacky attribution of death" becoming the Mirror's version of the Express's endless McCann family "stories" and the Star's creepy obsession with Jordan?

Mail + Migrants = MUSLIMS!

So shrieks the headline in today's Mail. The story is based on a press release from MigrationWatch, which itself is informed by a written Parliamentary question from Tory backbencher Priti Patel.

The central claim is that Britain is a "soft touch" for illegal immigrants, because quite a few people who arrive here illegally go on to successfully claim asylum, even though the figures actually show that the number of illegal immigrants refused asylum is more than double the number who were granted it. Oh, and the base figure they use to provide the "one in five" statistic includes people who haven't had their cases heard yet, people who left the country of their own voilition, people who withdrew their claims and people who DIED before their cases were heard. Why IS Britain so bad at deporting dead people?

But the real highlight of the story is the picture chosen by the Mail to illustrate it.

Because as every Mail reader knows, Muslims = illegal immigrants.

Thursday 10 February 2011

My Daily Mail job application

In case you haven't heard already, the Daily Mail is advertising for trainee reporters. Everyone else seems to having a huge amount of fun writing detailed applications explaining exactly why they should be the "lucky" candidate who gets such a job, so I thought I'd join in. But I was a bit rushed for time, so I kept it brief:

Dear Daily Mail,

I hate immigrants, gays, Facebook and life itself. Please can I have a job?

Lots of love,


That's well inside the 200-word limit, so I think I'm in with a good chance.

Tuesday 8 February 2011

Mail complains about "extraordinary attack" on immigrants.

"Foreigners, eh? Always coming over here and taking our jobs. And they don't even learn the language! It's a disgrace."

So goes the standard Daily Mail line on immigration. When it comes to migration, the paper takes a more relaxed attitude. It has even managed to muster outrage at a French newspaper complaining about the number of foreigners going over there and taking THEIR jobs:

The Mail is not at all impressed with a comment piece published by Liberation:

A leading Paris national newspaper today singled out 'The English ski instructor' as the latest threat to French jobs for French people. In a hugely provocative article, Liberation likens the unpopular character to handymen who have flooded the west following EU expansion. 'Europe: After the Polish Plumber, the English Ski Instructor' reads the headline, with the headline suggesting that everything should be done to keep them out.
Just imagine a newspaper running a hugely provocative attack on legal immigrants who just want to work hard for a living within the EU! But it gets worse - the French even expect migrants who want to work there to LEARN THE LOCAL LANGUAGE!

A trained instructor has to wait up to six years to get his first job, and even then they have to master French before being allowed to work in France.
It's a disgrace!

Liberation's story comes in response to EU moves to harmonise the ski-instructor qualification system across Europe, making it easier for people of all nationalities to work in resorts across the continent. As the Mail puts it:

At present it is hugely difficult for British people to become instructors in French resorts, but a proposed EU instructor permit would remove many of the barriers.

Just stop for a moment to imagine what the Mail would say if the EU were to introduce a new, cross-Europe qualification that would allow French people to work in a tightly regulated British industry, even if they don't speak English.

Actually, you don't have to - you simply have to read the stories they've already published about exactly that kind of thing:

Were all of these "extraordinary" attacks contained in "provocative" articles? Or is migration outrage a one-way street?

Monday 7 February 2011

Stable v Littlejohn (part two in an ongoing series)

With a huge, huge hat-tip to Tabloid Watch for doing all the heavy lifting (go there now, read the blog, be amazed, go back tomorrow and be amazed again), this afternoon I pinged off another complaint about Richard Littlejohn to the PCC.

Last time I flagged up a made-up fact in a Littlejohn column the PCC excused him, apparetnly on the basis that he talks so much shit that everyone would know he was just joking about Afghan asylum seekers getting priority for council houses. This time he's based an entire section of his column around something that is simply not true. There's no question that this is a rhetorical device, he's just talking out of his arse.

I've decided that from now on I'm going to go down the PCC route every time Littlejohn lies in one of his columns - not every time I disagree with his view, but every time he publishes something that is simply made up and has no basis in truth.

It may never come to anything. The PCC may continue to claim that Littlejohn is entitled to make stuff up as he's a columnist. But I'm hoping that if I can generate enough paperwork for someone at Associated Newspapers, Littlejohn's bosses may finally get tired and ask him to start basing his columns on something other than his vivid imagination. I shan't be holding my breath, mind...

Here's what I sent to the PCC:

In his column last Friday, Richard Littlejohn criticised the Chief Constable of Suffolk for flying a gay pride flag outside his force's HQ building. The column included the following:

"No one would mind that much, I imagine, if Chief Constable Ash didn’t also ban the flying of the Union Flag outside ‘his’ police stations — presumably on the grounds that it’s ‘racist’. He is a sworn servant of the Crown, who has pledged allegiance to the monarch. Yet he refuses to fly the Union Flag even on the Queen’s birthday — or any other special occasion, for that matter."
This is demonstrably untrue. As a Suffolk police spokeswoman stated during an Anglia TV bulletin last week:

"This is not accurate. Both flags are flown from our headquarters."
You can view the clip online here:

Further, the Suffolk Constabulary Policies & Procedures policyon the Use and Maintenance of Police Buildings reads:

"11.1 Police Headquarters and other stations with facilities for raising flags will fly the Union Flag on the following dates and on any special occasion notified: 6 February Accession of Her Majesty The Queen;19 February Birthday of Prince Andrew;10 March Birthday of Prince Edward; 21 April Birthday of Her Majesty The Queen; 23 April St George's Day"
And, as reported on the TabloidWatch blog, one individual who contacted Suffolk police about the "ban" on the Union Flag was told:

"...we would like to clarify that Suffolk Police, like every other force in England and Wales, does hoist the Union and St George Cross flags on appropriate days of the year. On other days, the force flag flies outside police stations and at force headquarters, but it is at the Chief Constable’s discretion as to when and if other flags are hoisted. There has never been any ban on flying the Union Flag on Suffolk Constabulary buildings as has been reported."
Littlejohn's claim that the Chief Constable had "banned" the flying of the Union Flag had no basis in truth, and is therefore a breach of sections 1(1) and 1(3) of the Editor's Code:

i) The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information, including pictures.

iii) The Press, whilst free to be partisan, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact.
Although Littlejohn's overall column was a piece of comment, the inaccurate and misleading claim regarding the alleged "ban" on flying flags was clearly presented as a fact.

"Fuelling xenophobia"

Former Tory spin doctor Amanda Platell (who achieved the impressive feat of getting fired as editor of the Daily Express for not having high enough standards) used her column in Saturday's Mail to look at last week's Transatlantic Trends survey. You may recall that it found that Britain topped the league table for intolerance of immigrants, and noted that the average Brit thinks there are three times as many foreigners living here than there actually are.

Platell chose to ignore this finding, instead concentrating on the claim that "two thirds of Britons see immigration as a problem".
Is it any wonder that a poll this week found that two-thirds of Britons see immigration as a problem, not an opportunity for this country, when we have cases like that of the woman known only as ‘ZH’? She is the failed Tanzanian asylum seeker who continually lied to officials, but who has now been allowed to stay in Britain because she has had two children in the 15 years she has been here.
Of course, political correctness gone mad etc. But Platell - herself an Australian citizen who has come over here and taken a job that could have otherwise been done by a British spin doctor-turned columnist - actually has a little bit of sympathy for ZH's kids, and concedes that it wouldn't be fair to throw them out of the country where they were conceived (by a British father), born, and raised. That's because the problem in this country isn't all down to immigrants like ZH and Plattell:
Surely the real villains here are the hand-wringers on the Left who established a legal system which allows transparently fraudulent asylum seekers to stall and appeal for so long that it becomes impossible to deport them. In so doing, they have only fuelled xenophobia against the many legitimate immigrants who have helped enrich British life.

Now, there may be a kernel of truth in this - too many politicians (of all sides) have made life easy for the likes of the BNP by refusing to address the fears and prejudices of voters who have misconceptions about the impact of immigration on this country. But where do those fears and misconceptions come from in the first place? From where do the BNP and EDL forums copy and paste a steady stream of stories that support their views? Where can you reliably go to get stories about immigrants that are at best gross distortions and at worst totally untrue?

Could it possibly be from a certain right-of-centre daily newspaper whose name rhymes with "fail" and that at the time of writing has more than 5,600 stories on its website that contain the word "immigration"?

Friday 4 February 2011

Cause and effect

An international poll, details of which are published today in the Financial Times but have yet to pop up elsewhere, shows that Britain tops the league table of anti-immigrant hostility.

The study, carried out by a group of international bodies including the UK's own Barrow Cadbury Trust, found that almost half of Britons think there are "too many foreign-born people in this country". In other European countries this figure averaged three in 10, and in the USA - where there's been a huge amount of anti-immigrant rhetoric from the Tea Party - it was just a quarter.

The FT goes on:

"Britons were also more likely to think foreign arrivals damaged “national culture” [and]some 70 per cent of British people think their government is doing a “poor job” of tackling the issue."
So far, so depressing. The interesting stuff is further down, where it becomes clear that, in the FT's own words, public opinion seems "out of step with reality":

"When asked to guess how many people in Britain were foreign-born, the average UK response was three in 10. When told the estimate by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development was in fact just one in 10, more than two-thirds of UK people thought this was either “not many” (36 per cent) or “a lot but not too many” (31 per cent). Just 30 per cent thought it was “too many”. Far more British people than their western counterparts also thought migrants were a burden on public services, even though most research suggests they are in fact a net contributor."
But why do so many people overestimate the number of migrants living in this country? The FT isn't afraid to point the finger:
"Immigration experts blame this on the hostility to foreign newcomers espoused by many British newspapers and the fact that the arrivals from eastern Europe rose so rapidly during the middle of the last decade."
Virtually every day of the week the likes of the Mail and Express provide a drip-feed of scare stories about immigrants that have, as TabloidWatch, Minority Thought, Angry Mob and the rest of the gang regulalry point out, a relationship to the truth that is tenuous at best.

We're repeatedly told that "you can't talk about immigration" without being called a racist. Yet the taboids talk bollocks about it day after day after day, feeding people lies and distortions that lead to the average Brit overestimating the number of migrants living here by a factor of three. And when people are told the true figure, two-thirds of people think that, actually, that's not too many at all.

Newspapers sell copies by reflecting the views of their readers - the Guardian supports student protesters for the same reason the Express hates people who aren't white. But is it too much to ask for papers to at least base their prejudices in fact?

Thursday 3 February 2011

When headlines go wrong

I'd like to think that the Gloucestershire Echo sub responsible for this headline knew exactly what he (or she) was doing. But surely it's too extreme to be done on purpose? After all, as a not-very-wise man once said, you couldn't make it up...

Or maybe Cheltenham Ladies College really is having to diversify in this age of austerity.

Wednesday 26 January 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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