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: