1 June 2010
"£850bn: official cost
of the bank bailout", said the headline of the
newspaper on 4/12/09. It quotes Vince Cable saying these banks
"must be run in the public interest".
But there seems to be confusion about whether (or how much)
the bank bailout is to blame for the level of debt (that's
led to so much hyperbole among reporters and politicians).
This confusion seems to result from mixed messages in the
93 blog has provided me with a good example from the BBC.
The BBC's economics pundit, Tim Harford, quotes a government
figure of only £6bn for the cost of
the bailout, but he says that in addition:
"We as taxpayers have bought lots of shares in banks,
and we’ll make or lose money depending on what happens
to their share price." (PM, BBC Radio 4, 29/4/10)
The transcript of the quote is given here,
and I agreed with the blogger that this reference to buying
"lots of shares" seems to be how Harford refers
to the hundreds of billions (or trillion) pounds cost. So
I emailed Harford a few links (to the Independent
and asked him why he wasn't mentioning the estimated nearly-a-trillion-pound
cost. He replied the same day:
These aren't figures I've seen before. I'll take a look.
But I've not heard anything further from him yet. I find
it surprising that he hadn't seen those figures - they were
well-reported (see also here).
Maybe it was just our imagination,
but as soon as the media started predicting rising unemployment
from the "global economic crisis", we noticed a
surge of negative media stereotyping of the jobless (as if,
perhaps, the "feckless" unemployed, and not the
hardworking bank CEOs, might be to blame for it all).
A typical example was from BBC's Paula Dear, whose report
(about a 43 yr-old woman who "has never had a job")
triggered outrage towards "the lazy sponging scum".
I sent the following email to Dear on 2nd December 2008 (no
reply to date):
Predictably, there's already been an angry
reaction to your BBC piece 'No-one in our house works'.
On web forums people are venting their bile at the stereotypically
depicted "feckless scroungers".
Isn't there a more interesting, original
way of framing the unemployment issue than to show some
woman who has never had a job, and who says things which
are guaranteed to make the "typical Daily Mail reader"
fly into a rage?
It might not be your intention, but this
sort of cliché just stokes up hate. I think there
are many more interesting ways of approaching the issue
- for example, the odd juxtaposition of rising unemployment
and extremely long average working hours.
A good example of how newspapers
recycle old stories to create terrifying new headlines
was provided last year. It's best illustrated by looking at
these front pages of the Daily Mail, Daily Telegraph
The shocking April 2008 headlines actually refer to an alleged
crime that was foiled (and originally reported) back in August
2006. The headline should have read: "FAILED PLOTTERS
FINALLY APPEAR IN COURT", but that's not frightening
enough to sell newspapers. http://tinyurl.com/mail040408
See, also, for other (BBC/ITN) examples: 'Recycled
I've followed the Iraq war death
figures fairly closely (the London Times published
of mine which criticised the government's rejection of the
Lancet 2004 estimates, etc).
Scientific opinion seems to be moving against
the 2006 Lancet study (which estimated 601,000 violent deaths).
There are more peer-reviewed papers casting doubt on Lancet
2006 than corroborating it (see links below). Dr Mark van
der Laan (an authority in the field) writes that the Lancet
study's estimates are: "extremely unreliable and
cannot stand a decent scientific evaluation."
Beth Osborne Daponte (the demographer who produced authoritative
death figures for the first Gulf War) is also critical. She
excludes Lancet 2006's findings when considering the "best"
information available - which, she argues, is provided by
a combination of Iraq Body Count (IBC), the Iraq Living Conditions
Survey (ILCS) and the Iraq Family Health Survey (IFHS).
The latter two studies (ILCS and IFHS) were similar in methodology
to the Lancet surveys, but used larger samples. IFHS (the
most recent of such studies) estimated 151,000 violent deaths
over the same period as Lancet 2006, ie 450,000 fewer than
the Lancet study.
A research paper from the Brussels-based Centre for Research
on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED) estimates the total
war-related death toll (for the period covered by Lancet 2006)
at around 125,000. They reached this figure by correcting
errors in the Lancet 2006 survey, and triangulating with IBC
and ILCS data (the CRED paper precedes the release of the
Anti-war campaigners should note that these blows to the
Lancet study come not from Neocon pundits, but from leading
researchers in the relevant fields. Two of the world's most
prestigious scientific journals, Nature
also ran articles which were critical of the Lancet 2006 study,
and the Lancet journal itself printed several letters
from researchers critical of the study.
Iraq Body Count uses a different methodology than surveys
such as Lancet and IFHS. IBC give a running tally (necessarily
incomplete) of documented, corroborated deaths, which provides
by far the most detailed and comprehensive data available.
Unlike the surveys, it doesn't use statistical extrapolation
to provide a "total" estimate of deaths. Another
difference is that IBC counts only violent civilian deaths,
whereas IFHS and Lancet include combatant as well as civilian
deaths in their estimates. IBC's count of violent civilian
deaths is currently approaching the 100,000 mark.
While the scientific debate continues over which epidemiological
survey (Lancet, ILCS, IFHS, etc) offers the most useful estimate,
IBC's database demonstrates, beyond all debate, that the Iraq
war and occupation is a bloodbath, a slaughter of unimaginable
horror. Meanwhile, most people in the UK seem to put more
effort into their local "Neighborhood Watch" than
into holding Blair, Straw, Hoon, Campbell, etc, to account.
Other relevant research:
6 February 2008
Nick Davies, in Flat Earth
News, claims that journalists' reliance on packaged
PR (government or corporate) is due to the lack of time journalists
have available for investigative work. This, in turn, is due
to downsized staff combined with upsized demand for space-filling
content. Every story requires a "frame", and the
PR industry knows how to frame a story so it's media-ready
– a product to fit the market.
Readers of Lakoff, Chomsky, McLuhan, Postman, etc, know that
this doesn't tell the whole story. But it does provide a starting
point for a useful type of "institutional analysis".
It may even lead to "deep" insights into the economic
framing of "efficiency" and its effects on emerging
"independent" media (more on this in a future article).
Davies' book also seems to offer a wealth of details –
the essential "raw data", without which any "media
analysis" would be too abstract.
Questioning the status quo has always required time. That's
why I find publications such as the Idler more subversive
than most "radical" political movements –
and it's why I find Paul Lafargue (author of The Right
to be Lazy) more interesting than his father-in-law,
Karl Marx. Changing your thinking requires time away from
economic demands of work and "productivity". Chomsky
pointed out that you can't undermine conventional pieties
in a 15-second soundbite – you need more time. But you
need more time, also – much more – to arrive at
a state in which you are capable of undermining your own thinking.
And what else do we require from journalists – mainstream
or "independent" – with whom we fundamentally
We develop semantic reflexes at an age when we're unequipped
for intellectual self-defense. We form semantic grids ("worldviews"),
metaphorical representations of "reality" based
on social programming ("education", etc). These
require much time and effort to "undo", even assuming
we have the inclination to undo them. Journalists inhabit
a concentrated info-world in which the Great Work of undoing
and reframing has serious consequences – particularly
if "success" (conventional career development) correlates
with the "right" semantic reflexes.
The unfortunate punchline is that non-career ("independent")
journalists, bloggers, etc, are affected by the same economics
of time – unless they're financially independent (eg
well-off). This probably explains, in part, the complete lack
of originality in most "independent" media, despite
its freedom from corporate ownership. Copy-n-pasted "news"
and recycled ideas (predominantly sub-Chomskyan) seem to be
the rule – and I say this as someone who still sees
the utopian promise of the internet.
In other words, the "churnalism" which Davies writes
about ("churning" out copy on a "news"
production line) is characteristic of both "mainstream"
and much "independent" media. Behind it is a "deeper"
set of constructs shared by both – the Western "economic"
framing, common to both Marx and Adam Smith; the cognitive
underpinning which unites two opposing sides in their encoding
24 October 2007
The BBC's top-level decisions
on which news stories to cover, and which to avoid,
affect everything from BBC1 TV and BBC radio to Ceefax.
On a lower rung of perceived importance in media terms, Ceefax
nevertheless provides a useful "resource" in that
it lists, on a single page, the trickle-down outcome of those
On 22/10/07, Ceefax included the following in its short list
of headline news stories:
Woman filmed drop-kicking kitten
Attacker of elderly man sentenced
Man detained over stabbing death
Rise in repeat violence charges
Nine arrests after fatal shooting
That's five stories on domestic crime out of a total of twenty-one
supposedly covering all major news for the whole planet.
And the first three aren't even news. Or, rather, they're
old news. The woman abused the kitten back in January.
The attack of the elderly man occurred last December. The
fatal stabbing happened in May 2006. But because they were
very gruesome crimes, the BBC re-reports them months later
(eg during sentencing).
The fourth listed the "rise in repeat violence"
is quite an obscure item. Judge for yourself whether
it warrants listing among the day's major stories:
The number of violent criminals who were freed under
community supervision and then charged with a further serious
offence jumped last year by 36%.
In 2006/7, 83 offenders supervised by probation and
other agencies in England and Wales were charged with offences
such as murder, manslaughter and rape.
This compares with 61 in 2005/06, Ministry of Justice
Not exactly world-shattering, but it provides the opportunity
for a headline which combines the words "rise" and
Headlines can give misleading impressions and, as we've previously
documented, the distorting effect can be systematic. Combined
with a tendency to re-report
old crimes in sensationalist fashion, they add to the
false impression that crime and violence are continually escalating, creating an overblown sense of fear and urgency
and keeping other, arguably more important, stories
out of the picture and out of mind.
(Attacker of elderly man)
10 September 2007
Politicians and media pressed
the moral panic buttons when James Bulger was killed
by 10-year-olds in 1993. In the Observer newspaper
(26/8/07), Mary Riddell points out that despite the hysteria
(Tony Blair, at the time, warned of "moral chaos"),
the crime was so rare that nothing comparable has occurred
Each time a shocking (but extremely rare) crime occurs, we're
told there's a social crisis. And whenever there's a "social
crisis", politicians perceive a licence for authoritarian
legislation, and news media look forward to bigger audiences.
As a piece in the Independent (13/8/07) put it, "There
[is] nothing quite like bomb alerts, floods, new Prime Ministers
and foot-and-mouth outbreaks - to put a spring in the step
of television news chiefs".
Panic-mongers can apparently rely on human psychology. People
base their fears more on the vividness of events than on the
probability of them reoccurring, according to Michael Bond
in New Scientist (19/8/06). And since the press often
competes in terms of vividness of shocking coverage, our "probabilistic
mapping of the world" seems likely to get distorted.
In logic, the problem is known as the Misleading Vividness
fallacy, in which the occurrence of a dramatic event is taken
to mean that such events are more likely to occur (despite
statistical evidence to the contrary). If you won the lottery
yesterday, it doesn't mean there's now an increased risk of
you winning the lottery.
18 July 2007
Following the recent "attempted
terror attacks", Prime Minister Gordon Brown said:
"It is clear that we are dealing in general terms with
people who are associated with al-Qaeda" (30/6/07). What
isn't clear is how he "knew" this - it was too early
in police investigations to draw such conclusions, and (reportedly)
the police had no intelligence of any group "planning
such an attack on London". (Guardian, 29/6/07; Times,
Former Scotland Yard detective, John O'Connor, commented
that "this was a hopeless, incompetent terrorist attack
[...] so incompetent as to be almost laughable" (CNN,
2/7/07). O'Connor also said (ABC News, 3/7/07): "Two
highly intelligent doctors have acted as street terrorists
in a most inept and crude way. This almost looks like it's
an enterprise on their own."
Only 0.2% of all "terrorism" in Europe (in 2006)
was "Islamist", according to new figures from Europol,
the European police agency. Of the total 498 "terrorist
attacks" across the EU (including Britain), only one
was "Islamist" - a failed plot in Germany. Most
were "separatist", mainly in France and Spain.
According to the MIPT terrorism knowledge base, the total
number of US and UK (including Northern Ireland) fatalities
caused by terrorism in the five years after 9/11 was 74, compared
to 68 in the five years before. The corresponding totals for
Iraq are 15,763 and 12, respectively.
MIPT data: http://www.tkb.org
18 May 2007
Following the endless UK media
coverage on the disappearance of 4 yr-old Madeleine
McCann, I sent the following email [on 17/5/07] to the editor
of BBC2's Newsnight, Peter Barron (his response is
The other night, Newsnight led on the
Madeleine McCann story.
Perhaps the real news is not the fact
of a child disappearance, but of a media which provides saturation
coverage for days (or weeks) on such a story.
Recently, the World Health Organization
announced that road crashes are the leading cause of death
among people between 10 and 24 years. Nearly 400,000 young
people are killed in road traffic crashes every year. Millions
more are injured or disabled.
In contrast, for decades (in Britain)
less than 10 children per year, on average, are killed as
a result of abduction by strangers.
Have you considered running a story
about comparative risks to children? Or about media fearmongering
on child abductions?
Reply from Peter Barron (Editor, BBC2 Newsnight)
As it happens we recently did
a major film about the horrific level of road accidents
globally - I agree it's a hugely important story.
The Madeleine McCann story is
not one that Newsnight has followed in great detail for
the reasons you outline, but in that particular day there
was intense interest in the latest developments and I am
convinced that is what our viewers wanted to hear about
I agree on comparative risks
- it is something we do often on a range of subjects and
will I'm sure do in future.
Reply from Helen Boaden (Director, BBC News) [12/6/07]:
Thank you for your email and I'm sorry
not to have sent an earlier reply. I'm by no means complacent
that we have always got the tone of our coverage of the
Madeleine McCann story right, but I'm comfortable with our
coverage on this occasion. The piece lasted one minute and
included the information that Mr McCann had visited the
large "memorial" to his daughter. Thousands had
visited the place and sent messages of support. I don't
think that a one minute item running fourth in our running
order qualifies as being part of the so-called "hysteria-fuelled
saturation coverage". However, I realize that you think
appreciate the feedback.
pp Helen Boaden
3 May 2007
Media Hell correlates fear
with authoritarianism in various ways. And so we focus
criticism on fearmongering media (eg in our Fear
Hype section). George Lakoff's deceptively simple Moral
Politics frames (ie "strict father" and "nurturant
parent" metaphors) chime well with this view.
The following excerpt (from Lakoff's Don't think of an
elephant) bears repeated readings. Whereas much political
writing takes a simple-minded idea and makes it sound complex
in order to impress, Lakoff does the reverse condensing
a large amount of research (eg from cognitive science) into
Fear triggers the strict father model;
it tends to make the model active in one's brain. What conservatives
have learned about winning elections is that they have to
activate the strict father model in more than half the electorate
either by fear or by other means. The September 11
attacks gave the Bush administration a perfect mechanism for
winning elections: They declared an unending war on terror.
The frame of the "War on Terror" presupposes that
the populace should be terrified, and orange alerts and other
administrative measures and rhetoric keep the terror frame
active. Fear and uncertainty then naturally activate the strict
father frame in a majority of people, leading the electorate
to see politics in conservative terms. [Don't
think of an elephant, p42]
25 April 2007
BBC2's Newsnight (24/4/07)
provided examples of media as a seamless extension
of political narrative. Firstly, reporter Tim Whewell commented
on a speech by George Bush in a way that merely continued
Bush's own framing of the issues:
makes no sense to tell the enemy when you start to plan withdrawing.
[Were] we to do so, the enemy would simply mark their calendars
and begin plotting how to take over [the] country when we
leave. We knew what could happen next. Just as Al-Qa'ida used
Afghanistan as a base to plan attacks of September 11th, Al-Qa'ida
could make Iraq a base to plan even more deadly attacks".
following Bush]: "It
was in a last ditch attempt to stop those attacks that America
launched its long-awaited surge in Baghdad two months ago.
It succeeded in reducing sectarian violence within the city..."
There's no questioning of Bush's words here Whewell
simply continues the narrative, imports the Dubya-logic smoothly
into BBC commentary.
Secondly, the US political framing of the "Iraq war"
in terms of "winning" and "losing" is
utilised without question by Newsnight presenter Gavin
Esler. US Senator Harry Reid is shown saying the following:
"Winning this war is no longer
the job of the American military. Our courageous troops have
done everything asked of them and more [...] the failure has
been political, it's been policy, it's been presidential"
Esler later introduces an interview with John Bolton as follows:
"When I spoke with the former US
ambassador to the United nations, John Bolton, [...] I suggested
that the senate Majority Leader Harry Reid may well be right
to claim the war is lost"
Esler then questions Bolton: "But
can you explain how this war is now supposed to be winnable
when the facts on the ground don't bear this out"
In a studio debate in an earlier edition of Newsnight
(8/11/06, following Republican losses in mid-term US elections),
Esler asked the following question:
"Do you think the Iraq war can
The framing of the Iraq "war" ("occupation"
might be a more accurate term) in terms of whether it can
be "won" or "lost" implies that the "success"
(or "failure") of the Iraq "war" remains
to be decided. It's the kind of framing used by pro-war
US Republicans, and mirrored by Democrats who oppose the "war"
(but who fall into the trap of using the "win"/"lose"
Journalists such as Whewell and Esler apparently become so
immersed in these narratives that they're unable to question
the whole semantic construct upon which they're based.
16 April 2007
The CBI has conducted yet another
of those polls showing the cost to the country (£1.6bn)
of "suspect" sick days. The average employee took
7 days off sick in 2006, compared with 6.6 days in 2005. Employers
apparently think about 12% of these are "suspect".
The CBI's "director of human resources policy"
is quoted as saying "the culture of absenteeism"
must be addressed. But it's doubtful that the CBI (which represents
powerful business interests) will address a much bigger problem
highlighted by the TUC that each year employees are
giving £23 billion in free labour to their bosses (in
It's also doubtful that the CBI will be addressing the link
between long hours and ill health. For example, a 1996 UK
government report found that people who work over 48 hours
per week have double the risk of heart disease, and a 2002
British Medical Journal study found that people with
stressful jobs are twice as likely to die from heart disease.
(Sources: The Guardian, 10/4/07;
The Money Programme, BBC2, 11 Feb 1996; 'Work stress and risk
of cardiovascular mortality...', British Medical Journal,
19 Oct 2002) http://business.guardian.co.uk/story/0,,2053513,00.html
A Channel 5 News report on welfare
reforms (affecting long-term unemployed and lone parents)
announced that, "overall, 92.8 billion pounds were spent
on benefits last year". (Channel 5, 4/3/07).
This figure is incorrect. In 2005-2006, out of a total UK
welfare expenditure of £123 billion, only £21
billion was spent on working-age benefits (including Income
Support, Job Seekers Allowance, Incapacity Benefit, Statutory
Sick Pay, etc).*
A recurring media fallacy is that welfare costs more than
other areas of government spending combined. This is typically
stated in news stories (as above) about unemployment. The
implication is that jobless people are by far the biggest
drain on the economy. This error arises from confusing unemployment-related
benefits with total welfare spending. Over half of the total
welfare budget goes on old-age pensions.
We wrote to the Channel 5 reporter, Jane Dougall:
Your report on welfare (Channel Five
News, 5.55pm, 4/3/07) quoted the figure of £92.8 billion
as the overall spent on benefits last year. Where did you
get this figure?
To quote the Department for Work and
Pensions [Trends 2000/01-2007/08]: "People of working
age - Spending stable at just over £30 billion a year
in real terms; most spending is through income-related benefits
and Incapacity Benefit. Main reasons for benefit receipt among
working-age people are unemployment, lone parenthood and sickness
Of course, if you include spending
on pensions (£70bn per year ) you get
a much bigger figure - but your report was about getting people
into work, etc, not on looking after the elderly. It would
be misleading to include pensions costs in this context.
[Email from Media Hell to email@example.com,
Incidentally, according to the DWP, "benefits for
unemployed people account for only 13 per cent of all working-age
spending in 200607. Lone parent benefits account for
a further 23 per cent and incapacity-related benefits 36 per
cent. The remainder is made up principally of bereavement,
carer and maternity benefits."**
21 December 2006
Banks make billions from illegally
charging customers "penalty fees" (for bounced
cheques, overdrafts, etc). BBC2's Money Programme (12/12/06)
investigated this scam and revealed the following:
You can claim back all the penalty fees you've been charged
over the past six years (the legal maximum period for reclaiming).
You can also charge your bank interest on this. They may object
at first, or offer only a partial refund, but eventually they
will cave in, because:
Under the "Unfair Terms in Consumer Contracts
Regulations (1999)" penalty charges have to reflect
administrative costs - profiting from them isn't allowed.
The banks make an estimated £4.5 billion in profit from
such charges each year.
Penalty charges are often £30 or higher, but
the cost of processing overdrafts, bounced cheques, etc, is
estimated at between £2.50 and £4.50, depending
on the amount of manual intervention. In 80% of cases there
is no manual intervention.
Although your bank may initially threaten to defend itself
in court against your refund claim, no bank has done so to
date. This is because they know they have little chance of
winning, and they are petrified of bad publicity. In practice,
people determined to be refunded have been fully refunded
(in some cases by thousands of pounds).
How to reclaim your money:
A new study published by the Lancet
claims that "approximately 600,000 people have
been killed in the violence of the war that began with the
U.S. invasion in March 2003".
This figure was produced by statistical extrapolation from
a survey of over 1,800 households, and includes civilians
and "combatants". It isn't comparable to the figure
Iraq Body Count (approximately 50,000) which represents
a running tally of corroborated, media-reported civilian deaths
(and which isn't presented by IBC as the "true"
total, since media reports necessarily provide only a sample
of overall deaths).
More comparable (in terms of methodology used) is the larger
(over 21,000 households surveyed) ILCS survey, which found
a much lower number of violent deaths (in an overlapping period
it estimated nearly 24,000 civilian deaths in the first
13 months of the conflict) than is implied by the new study.
Jon Pedersen, research director for the ILCS study, is quoted
by the Washington
Post as claiming that the Lancet numbers are "high,
and probably way too high. I would accept something in the
vicinity of 100,000 but 600,000 is too much."
Researchers at Oxford University and Royal Holloway, University
of London have argued
that the Lancet study's methodology is "fundamentally
flawed and will result in an over-estimation of the death
toll in Iraq". They claim the study suffers from
"main street bias" by only surveying houses that
are located on streets which intersect main roads (which would
make it unrepresentative of the Iraqi population as a whole).
Also, the team of researchers behind Iraq
Body Count has raised some questions about the implications
of an estimate of over 600,000 violent deaths. For example,
a discrepancy of 500,000 death certificates (between the number
the Lancet study implies were issued and the number recorded
centrally as having been issued).
On the other hand, twenty-seven academics are signatory to
an article in The
Age, citing the Lancet's figure of over 600,000 dead
as "the best estimate of mortality to date in Iraq".
However, the article ignores the larger ILCS study (whose
figures as mentioned above don't support the
Lancet's), and doesn't address the difficulties of validating
such surveys in conflict zones (a use they weren't originally
In short, much of the criticism of the new study seems to
warrant further investigation, and probably shouldn't be conflated
with uninformed dismissals from the likes of George Bush.
(Washington Post blog)
('The Age' article)
(Main street bias)
(Main street bias)
(Lancet paper, free registration required)
(Associated paper by Lancet team)
7 September 2006
A postman was suspended from his
job after delivering his own leaflets on how to avoid
junk mail. Roger Annies was accused of misconduct (and faced
dismissal) for notifying residents of an opt-out service that
the Post Office provides on request. His leaflet read:
"As you will have certainly already
noticed, your postman is not only delivering your mail; he/she
also has to deliver some (anonymous) advertising material
called door-to-door items. For the near future, Royal Mail
plans to increase your advertising mail [...] You may be interested
in reducing your unwanted advertising mail, and reduce paper
usage in order to help save the environment. If you complete
the slip below and send it to the Royal Mail delivery office,
you should not get any of the above mentioned unwanted advertising."
Within days, his local sorting office received at least 70
completed forms demanding an end to junk mail. A Royal Mail
spokesman said: "If we did not
deliver unaddressed promotional items then someone else would".
(Times, 29/8/06) http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,2-2332337,00.html
8 August 2006
Last year, Tony Blair said:
"our system starts from the proposition that its duty
is to protect the innocent from being wrongly convicted. Don't
misunderstand me. That must be the duty of any criminal justice
system. But surely our primary duty should be to allow law-abiding
people to live in safety. It means a complete change
of thinking." (Our emphasis)
It's true the foundations of the legal system (eg trial by
jury) were put in place to protect people from abuses of power.
But what does Blair imagine has changed since the system
He seems to be implying that the threat from crime (but not
from authoritarian government) is greater now than at any
other time since, presumably, Magna Carta. There's no evidence
to support this (even if "terrorism" is included
as a subset of crime). On the contrary, scholarly consensus
holds that over the long-term, society has become more peaceful,
with massive falls in violent crime. For example:
"In Britain the incidence of homicide
has fallen by a factor of at least ten to one since the thirteenth
century [...] The long-term declining trend evidently is a
manifestation of cultural change in Western society."
(Ted Robert Gurr, Historical Trends
in Violent Crimes, 1981)
"Serious interpersonal violence
decreased remarkably in Europe between the mid-sixteenth and
the early twentieth centuries."
(Manuel Eisner, Long-Term Historical
Trends in Violent Crime, 2003) http://www.journals.uchicago.edu/CJ/039104.pdf
"Personal violence - homicide
- has declined in Western Europe from the high levels of the
Middle Ages. Homicide rates fell in the early modern era and
dropped even further in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries."
(Eric Monkkonen, Homicide: Explaining
America's Exceptionalism, 2006)
6 July 2006
Knife crime is the latest media-hyped
panic. The UK press have reported an "epidemic"
of stabbings. The crime figures show something different:
no rise in knife killings in the last decade. In 1995
there were 243 murders with sharp instruments; last year there
were 236. Over the last decade the average weekly number of
knife murders has been four and a half. In the midst of the
current panic, there have been no more than four knife murders
Politicians/media didn't reassure the public with these facts.
Instead we had the usual hysteria-fest, with political parties
competing to be "toughest" on crime. In fact, overall
crime continues to steadily decrease, down 43% since 1995
(according to the authoritative British Crime Survey),
and is falling in Europe.
Tony Blair recently held a crime seminar in Downing Street.
According to reports from dismayed criminologists who attended
(as relayed by the Guardian columnist, Polly Toynbee),
Blair "seemed to mix together low-level antisocial
behaviour with serious crime, terror and other international
crime into a single pot of alarm". (Guardian,
7 June 2006
Famous "Free Enterprisers"
(Part 1). J.P. Morgan (1837-1913) a famous name
in "free enterprise" started out in business
by swindling the US government. The 23 yr-old Morgan bankrolled
a scam to buy 5,000 rifles declared dangerous by the US army
(they blew up in soldiers' hands) for $3.50 each. These were
then resold as "new" (but actually unmodified and
still dangerous) to another branch of the army, for $22 each.
After 2,500 guns were shipped, the scam exploded. But Morgan
didn't back down in shame, caught defrauding his country.
Instead he sued for full payment, and eventually won. The
Court of Claims ruled a contract was a contract. (Source:
An Underground Education, Richard Zacks)
14 April 2006
After the BBC upheld our complaint
about a fundamental error in a BBC report on crime rates,
they then misreported our complaint. We'd complained
about an incorrect (and scaremongering) claim that violent
crime had "significantly" increased (when statistics
showed otherwise). This was in a headline BBC1 10 O'Clock
news report on latest crime figures.
After a long investigation, the BBC's Editorial
Complaints Unit (ECU) ruled that BBC1 news had "breached
editorial guidelines" on "truth and accuracy",
and that there was "no basis" for claiming
a significant rise in violent crime. But the opening to the
published summary of their ruling was worded (incorrectly
and ineptly, we think) as follows:
"A listener complained that
the introduction to a report about measures about gang culture
in the Ten O'Clock News (BBC One, 20 October 2005)
made the erroneous claim that violent crime had increased
We pointed out that our complaint had nothing
to do with an item on "gang culture" (which was
a completely separate item that followed the report on crime
figures), and suggested a clearer wording: "A listener
complained that the report of the official crime figures..."
The head of ECU said he agreed that the wording
was in error to the extent that it shouldn't have included
the words "about measures" (which he subsequently
removed), but disagreed on the "gang culture" point.
See if you can make any sense of what he wrote:
"...it would be wrong
to give readers the impression that [our ruling] also related
to the report which followed [on gang culture]. I included
the information that the report was "about gang culture"
to guard against that impression, by making clear that the
topic of the report was entirely distinct from the theme of
your complaint." (Letter from Head of ECU to
Media Hell, 10/3/06)
ruling on our complaint >
Our original complaint to the BBC,
and further details >
9 March 2006
According to Mojo magazine
(February 2006), the BBC banned a number of songs during the
first Gulf War, because "they might cause offence".
These included "Walk like an Egyptian" (The
Bangles), "Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting"
(Elton John) and others.
Some innocuous TV ads were also banned
(from commercial channels) eg a Cadbury's Caramel
ad featuring cartoon bunny-rabbit and soldier ants.
It makes you wonder: do the censors (whoever they are) employ
some pretty FAR-OUT psychologists to vet all media output?
8 February 2006
The latest official UK crime figures
were published on January 26. Violent crime has dropped by
43% over the past decade, according to the British Crime Survey
(Guardian 27/1/06). BBC1 10pm News (26/1/06)
chose to ignore this, and instead focused on the 11% increase
in robberies due mainly to increased use/theft of iPods,
Barry Glassner's book, The Culture of Fear, noted
a similar fear-mongering tendency in US media: "Why,
as crime rates plunged throughout the 1990s, did two-thirds
of Americans believe they were soaring. How did it come about
that by mid-decade 62 percent of us described ourselves as
'truly desperate' about crime - almost twice as many as in
the late 1980s when crime rates were higher?"
Latest UK crime figures (PDF file): http://www.homeoffice.gov.uk/rds/pdfs06/hosb0306.pdf
13 January 2006
Former Pope a cocaine-head and
corporate product-endorser. It's no urban myth that
Coca Cola originally contained cocaine (as well as four times
the current level of caffeine). That was back in 1886. The
aim of Coca Cola was to duplicate the success of a popular
European cocaine-laced wine called Vin Mariani.
Pope Leo XIII endorsed this wine an advertisement
from the time has a big picture of Pope Leo, with the caption:
"His Holiness the Pope writes that
he has fully appreciated the beneficent effects of this Tonic
Wine and has forwarded to Mr. Mariani as a token of his gratitude
a gold medal bearing his august effigy." (Source:
'Underground Education' by Richard Zacks).
Cocaine, of course, was legal in those days. As was heroin,
the main ingredient of a popular cough remedy, "Dr James
22 November 2005
BBC amends news story after we
complain. The Director of BBC News responded to us
as follows (after we criticised a BBC report on "benefits
Dear Mr Dean
Thank you for your
email about our coverage on Friday of the NAO report. The
home editor of our news website had some sympathy with your
concerns and [has] modified the focus of the online report
to emphasise the complexity of the [benefits] system rather
than the issue of fraud.
[Helen Boaden, BBC Director of News, in email to Media
This is about the BBC exaggerating the problem of
"benefits fraud" (yet again). Presented with a report
primarily about administrative complexity/error in the welfare
system, the BBC turned it into a story about fraud
(a BBC Radio 4 presenter used the term "scroungers")...
Last week, the National Audit Office (NAO) published a report,
with the complexity of the benefits system'. It found
an over-complex system, but no direct link between complexity
BBC Online's headline was: "Benefit system is 'open
to fraud'." BBC Radio 4 ('Today' news, 18/11/05)
announced that "nearly £3 billion is lost due
to fraud and error". But the NAO report doesn't include
the phrase "open to fraud", and the "£3
billion" figure seems to be a figment of a BBC reporter's
The NAO report is clear:
"In 2004-05, the Department [for
Work and Pensions] estimated that [fraud] amounted to around
£900 million. There is no evidence to establish to what
extent this was due to the complex system." [p10]
Anyway, at least the BBC have now changed their report
Original headline: Benefit
system is 'open to fraud'
Amended headline: UK
benefits system 'too complex'
Incidentally, it's worth comparing the cost of benefits fraud
(£0.9 billion) to other things:
Corporate tax avoidance: £85 billion
Business fraud: £14 billion (BBC
Radio 4, 'Today', 23/8/01)
Government fraud in Whitehall: £5 billion
(BBC Radio 4 News, 1996)
> (Amended BBC report)
(NAO report, pdf)
25 October 2005
I sent the following email to
BBC reporter Mark Easton after a bizarre BBC1 news
report on violent crime:
I enjoyed your report (BBC1 News, 20/10/05),
but felt that it was another lost opportunity to clarify the
reported "increase" in violent crime.
Fiona Bruce introduced your piece by claiming
violent crime had "significantly" increased. I regard
this as misleading, if not downright false. Your report unfortunately
gave no clarification.
The British Crime Survey shows violence down
by 7%. Recorded violence, however, has risen due to a new
system requiring that police record every minor fracas (one
drunken youth hitting two people is now recorded as two violent
The only "significant" thing about
the reported increase in violence is that it reflects no actual
increase in violence. The Association of Chief Police Officers
and the British Crime Survey agree on this. When will BBC1
news point it out?
Your report graphically depicted the horror
of being shot. But it didn't mention that gun crime is stable
(ie not rising, with the exception of crimes involving replica
guns). Surely this fact is important given the context of
the report (ie Fiona Bruce's introductory remarks)?
Public fears over violent crime are increasing.
Why is this, when violent crime is actually stable or falling?
Could it have something to do with news reports which focus
on gruesome (but rare) cases whilst omitting to present the
I appreciate that your report focused on
a side-issue (a youth project to make a video against gun
culture). As a self-contained piece on urban culture, I'd
have no problem with it. But it was presented as "news"
- it was shown as a news report accompanying the news headline
about an "increase" in violence.
The effect was bizarre and shocking (especially
the graphic simulation of a young girl being shot in the head,
complete with spray of blood and resulting panic, in the first
few seconds of your report). Can you see how this might be
regarded as remote from what most people consider to be "news"?
Relevant crime figures: http://www.homeoffice.gov.uk/rds/pdfs05/hosb1805.pdf
See, also, our page on media
5 October 2005
The head of MI5 has warned that
civil liberties might have to be eroded to combat the
threat of terrorism:
"We also value civil liberties ... But
the world has changed and there needs to be a debate on whether
some erosion of what we all value may be necessary to improve
the chances of our citizens not being blown apart."
The chances of not being struck by lightning are so
good that we don't concern ourselves with improving them.
The chances of not being blown apart by terrorists
are similarly good (in most places on earth, including UK
and US) so why the hell "erode civil liberties"
to improve them?
Sure, take a few common-sense precautions (like not bombing
poor countries, or like not playing golf in a thunder storm),
but leave it at that.
(Meanwhile, latest US state department figures show terrorism
at its lowest level in 35 years: http://www.state.gov/s/ct/rls/pgtrpt/2003/31751.htm)
8 September 2005
The mainstream media doesn't
often depict poverty in "developed" nations
(US, UK, Europe, etc). In fact such depictions are so rare
that many people believe there is no "real" poverty
in these countries. If everyone has a TV and phone, how can
there be poverty?
The New Orleans media coverage at least shows that TV ownership
might not be a good criterion for establishing whether or
not people suffer from poverty. In many circumstances, people
need spare income. The amount one gets from
selling the TV and phone probably won't do the trick.
20 July 2005
Today I had a letter
of mine published by both the Times and the
Tony Blair dismissed the Lancet report on Iraqi deaths. He
also dismissed the LSE report on ID-card costs. He now dismisses
the Chatham House report linking the London bombings to the
Iraq war. Is it rational behaviour to simply dismiss everything
that contradicts one's worldview?
Incidentally, the Times printed my letter
quite prominently, in a separate section next to a letter
from the Iraqi Ambassador. The latter reads like a catalogue
of bad logic it "argues" that the Chatham
House report (which claimed that the Iraq invasion increased
the likelihood of terrorist attack in Britain) is "gravely
misleading", without saying why. It simply lists the
usual "straw man" cliches:
if the Chatham House report or anyone else claims
that this is the right response).
(As if the Chatham House report
or anyone else suggests that Iraqis should surrender
(As if the Chatham House report or anyone else
suggests that Hitler, or equivalent, should've been
Perhaps what the world needs most right now is a course in
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