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1 June 2010
"£850bn: official cost of the bank bailout", said the headline of the Independent 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 media.

The Dissident 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 money.co.uk) and asked him why he wasn't mentioning the estimated nearly-a-trillion-pound cost. He replied the same day:

Hi Brian,
These aren't figures I've seen before. I'll take a look. Thanks!
Tim

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).

15 January 2009
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):

Dear Paula,

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.

Sincerely,

Brian Dean

14 January 2009
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 and Herald:

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 terrorism hysteria'

25 August 2008
I've followed the Iraq war death figures fairly closely (the London Times published a letter 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 IFHS estimate).

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 and Science, 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.

Published/peer-reviewed research:
http://content.nejm.org/cgi/content/full/NEJMsa0707782
http://www.bepress.com/ucbbiostat/paper237/
http://www.icrc.org/web/eng/siteeng0.nsf/html/review-868-p943
http://www.hicn.org/research_design/rdn2.pdf
http://www.warc.com/LandingPages/Generic/Results.asp?Ref=819
http://www.gdnet.ws/middle.php?oid=237&zone=docs&action=doc&doc=9026

Other relevant research:
http://tinyurl.com/4xsjtl
http://personal.rhul.ac.uk/uhte/014/Mainstreaming.pdf
http://www1.cedat.be/Documents/Working_Papers/[...].pdf
http://socrates.berkeley.edu/~jewell/lancet061.pdf
http://socrates.berkeley.edu/~jewell/LancetNov061.pdf
http://www.mediasceptic.org/scientists_criticize_lancet2006.htm
http://dissident93.wordpress.com/2008/10/20/project-censored-as-censors/

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 disagree?

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 of survival-anxieties.

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 top-level decisions.

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 figures reveal.
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/7056253.stm

Not exactly world-shattering, but it provides the opportunity for a headline which combines the words "rise" and "violence".

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.

Sources:
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/tyne/7056718.stm (Drop-kicked kitten)
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/England/london/7056325.stm (Attacker of elderly man)
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/England/Tyne/7056299.stm (Stabbing)
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/7056253.stm (Repeat violence)
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/England/London/7055814.stm (Nine arrests)

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 since.

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.

http://observer.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,,2156364,00.html
http://media.guardian.co.uk/mediaguardian/story/0,,2160992,00.html
http://news.independent.co.uk/media/article2859343.ece

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, 1/7/07)

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.

Sources, respectively:
http://www.guardian.co.uk/terrorism/story/0,,2114743,00.html http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/uk/crime/article2012237.ece
http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2007/07/02/politics/animal/main3007031.shtml
http://www.europol.eu.int/publications/TESAT/TESAT2007.pdf
http://www.spinwatch.org/content/view/4236/29/
http://abc.net.au/news/stories/2007/07/03/1968221.htm?section=world
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 given below):

Dear Peter,

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?

Sincerely,

Brian Dean

Reply from Peter Barron (Editor, BBC2 Newsnight) [17/5/07]:

Thanks Brian,

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 that night.

I agree on comparative risks - it is something we do often on a range of subjects and will I'm sure do in future.

Best wishes

Peter Barron

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 differently and
appreciate the feedback.

Yours sincerely
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 simple-sounding language:

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:

Bush: "It 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".

Whewell [immediately 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 be won?"

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" framing).

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 unpaid overtime).

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

16 March 2007
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:

Dear Jane,

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 or disability."**

Of course, if you include spending on pensions (£70bn per year [2006–07]) 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 jane.dougall@five.tv, 14/3/07)

Incidentally, according to the DWP, "benefits for unemployed people account for only 13 per cent of all working-age spending in 2006–07. 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."**

Sources:
*http://www.dwp.gov.uk/publications/dwp/2006/dr06/annexa/table2.asp
**http://www.dwp.gov.uk/publications/dwp/2006/dr06/annexb/
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/6416733.stm

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).

More details:
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/business/6169539.stm

How to reclaim your money:
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/business/6170209.stm

1 November 2006
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 produced by 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 designed for).

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.

Sources:
http://tinyurl.com/yygn5z (Washington Post blog)
http://tinyurl.com/ycxyyh ('The Age' article)
http://www.guardian.co.uk/Iraq/Story/0,,1930002,00.html
http://www.iq.undp.org/ILCS/overview.htm
http://www.iraqbodycount.net/press/pr14.php
http://www.rhul.ac.uk/economics/Research/conflict-analysis/iraq-mortality/ (Main street bias)
http://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/WO0610/S00436.htm (Main street bias)
http://download.thelancet.com/pdfs/journals/0140-6736/PIIS0140673606694919.pdf
(Lancet paper, free registration required)
http://web.mit.edu/CIS/pdf/Human_Cost_of_War.pdf (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 was founded?

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)
http://www.historycooperative.org/journals/ahr/111.1/monkkonen.html

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 a week.

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, 9/6/06) http://www.guardian.co.uk/print/0,,329500440-103390,00.html

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 significantly."

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)

BBC's 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, mobiles, etc.

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 Soothing Syrup".

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 fraud"):

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 Hell, 21/11/05]

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, 'Dealing with the complexity of the benefits system'. It found an over-complex system, but no direct link between complexity and fraud.

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 imagination.

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 (Guardian, 12/4/02)
• Business fraud: £14 billion (BBC Radio 4, 'Today', 23/8/01)
• Government fraud in Whitehall: £5 billion (BBC Radio 4 News, 1996)

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/4447948.stm > (Amended BBC report)
http://www.nao.org.uk/publications/nao_reports/05-06/0506592.pdf >
(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:

Dear Mark,

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 crimes).

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 real trends?

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 scaremongering >

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.

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/4232012.stm (MI5 quote)
(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 Independent:

Dear Editor,
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?
Sincerely,

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:

"The response to terror is not to back down and bury our heads in the sand..." (As if the Chatham House report – or anyone else – claims that this is the right response).

"If we Iraqis surrendered to the terrorists in our country, would they stop blowing up our children?" (As if the Chatham House report – or anyone else – suggests that Iraqis should surrender to terrorists).

"Can you imagine how the face of history would have changed if Britain had appeased Hitler?" (As if the Chatham House report – or anyone else – suggests that Hitler, or equivalent, should've been "appeased").

Perhaps what the world needs most right now is a course in basic logic.

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