Dystopia, UK

You just try getting to sleep in an undeclared war zone. Given the noise of helicopters and exploding vehicles, I suspect that there must be a film crew remaking Apocalypse Now outside my house.

The UK media has reported the riots with instant guesses about what’s happening and/or repeats of each other’s copy. The posh papers have been full of instant punditry. Online, these stories have been twat magnets for the far right’s minor army of hangers and floggers.

The BBC site provided a selection of UK riot stories from around the globe. Among the quotes, there were quite a few perceptive ones, such as this from the Chinese Renmin Ribao

“The Olympics will be hosted next year; the security situation in London, which has always been a first-choice site for terrorist attacks, will be even grimmer. British police now face two main problems. First, as the government cuts police funding in order to reduce the deficit, British police will carry out massive layoffs. With insufficient manpower and financial resources, they will inevitably be overwhelmed with problems in maintaining social order. Second, after the News of the World phone-hacking scandal, the credibility of the British police has declined and there is still a very long way to go in rebuilding the credibility of the police and restoring public support, says Qu Bing, Institute of European Studies, China Institute of Contemporary International Relations.”

Obviously, there’s an element of irony there, for anyone who can remember the build up to the Beijing Olympics. But this one from Iran takes the irony biscuit:

Iran called for London police to exercise self-restraint in dealing with protesters in Tottenham, north of London. Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast referred to Saturday night’s massive protests in Tottenham, which came following [the killing] of a young black man by Scotland Yard police and called for the UK government to avoid any police’s harsh treatment with protesters.

Weather news

Here at Whydontyou towers we’re saddened to find that this blog has been updated so rarely in the recent past* that its reign over the realm of Whydontyou has been challenged by an alien blog called ydontyou (which I am buggered if I’m going to post a link to.) It feels like the identity theft that we are all meant to worry ourselves sick over.

In case you’ve ever visited it and think we’ve changed completely, that site has nothing to do with the one true whydontyou blog. (Which – to be fair – has nothing to do with the ancient kid’s tv programme that we stole our name from. Oh bugger, pot -kettle, I fear.) However, I see that the evil usurper is trying to be a blog of random posts by anyone who cares to blog. Which:

a) tempts me to post anonymous posts there (but I won’t because the spacetime continuum could be disrupted by the paradox and some strange singularity would occur.)

b) puts me in mind of the income-challenged real media which seems to be getting ever more desperate keen to replace paid journalistic copy with opinions and photos from anyone who cares to send in free content. (Almost by definition, normally lunatics.)

It was bad enough when the media, overwhelmed by the volume of wikileaks material, asked people to submit their own findings from the mass of data. How lazy can you get? How mean, also, to replace professional researchers with free labour? Even unpaid “intern” researchers hope to make contacts and have something to put on application forms. Public content-providers don’t even get that carrot.

But now it’s the winter. It is strange enough that snow in Southern England has occupied the main headlines on the BBC and Guardian websites for days.

You might expect the media might report the existence of snow on the weather pages and traffic delays on the traffic delay pages and leave news pages to focus on people at risk of death from cold – the homeless, the poor, the very old and very young.

Instead, you get calls for “Your stories and your pictures of the snow” – always for unpaid submissions.

Snow is beautiful in reality and can look beautiful in a picture. Snow is cold.

However, snow as a major citizen journalism project is completely uninteresting. Other people’s snow stories and photos are pretty much like other people telling you their dreams.

You’d be forgiven for thinking nothing serious was happening in the world….

Ffs, surely Cheryl Cole has got a new hairstyle or gained or lost a few pounds. And surely the about-to-be-wed prince-and-princess’s old school and university pals haven’t run out of amusing anecdotes yet? By toutatis, I’ll soon have to google if I need to find out to find out who won Strictly Come Dancing/ the Apprentice/X-Factor/Britain’s Got Talent (insert name of standard tv-celeb news items. Sorry I’m struggling here because my brain fails to distinguish any of these programmes)

Shape up, mass media.

* Even spammers see us as not worth the bother. A desultory spam turns up every week or so. Gone are the glory days of a couple of hundred a day.

Genius

Facing the dole because of the cuts that have made the IMF so pleased with the Condem government?

(Who knew the IMF had a UK vote? To be honest, I prefer IKEA’s furniture.)

Well, you can now retrain for an easy and rewarding new career as a science journalist, thanks to Martin Robbins in the Guardian who has provided a template for any and every science article you’ll ever write.
This is a news website article about a scientific paper

It’s brilliant.

Eztra: I forgot to mention the links which are pretty funny too.

Oh Emm Gee !1!

OMG! Have you heard? The president of AMERICA has an opinion…. ZOMG!!!!!!111

Seriously. It must be the slowest news day ever. Obviously the media has hit saturation point with war, famine, plague and pestilence so now we have a headline news bulletin which revolves around the President of the USA expressing an opinion about someone.

What the fuck has the world come to for this to be news? Even the BBC has shamed itself by covering it. To death.

In a nutshell, Kanye West was a jack ass and interrupted an award winners speech.  Yeah, big deal. I could just about see that being the news item but the reality is people act like self-centred idiots day in, day out. The fact that some one famous is self-centred is hardly news. Following this frankly uninteresting incident, President Obabma was holding a conversation about it off air, but some ABC staff recorded it and felt the need to post twitter messages about it. Following it becoming “news” ABC have apologised to CNBC and the POTUS and have removed the twitter posts. Obviously this has done nothing to reduce the global spread and the wonders of the interweb mean we can all listen to the President of the USA calling Kanye West a “jack ass.”

Is this really how low our society has sunk? Is the President’s personal opinion about someone’s behaviour genuinely newsworthy? What impact does this have on anyone’s life?

If pushed, I am sure you could easily find in excess of 50% of the worlds population who would call Kanye West a “jack ass” even prior to his MTV awards behaviour. Is that news worthy? If not, why not?

The only thing I can think of is that the worlds news agencies are so overwhelmed by the onslaught from Web 2.0 crap applications that anything which has even a passing reference to them becomes news based solely on its perceived ability to appeal to the yoof market. It is shameful, and certainly goes a long way to explaining why “old media” feels it is under threat from the new media…

Shame on every news outlet that carried this story. Even a cat up the tree would have been more newsworthy.

A fickle master

Seriously, you would think that the government and senior members of the military would know better. These are the people who lead our country and our military and should really know better. The fact they don’t is utterly baffling to me.

I am talking about the way our glorious leaders bend in the wind of public opinion like young saplings. The government is craven in how it panders to the media – ignoring any blatant contradictions and any strange notions of policies or morality. However this is not surprising. Its been almost two decades since the political parties in the UK had “party politics” rather than saying what ever they thought would get them elected. This entire century the UK has been governed by the Daily Mail and the Telegraph opinion pieces rather than any notion of public good.

What is surprising, to me anyway, is how quickly the MOD has fallen into this trap as well. Over the last few years we have seen an infuriating number of retired Generals and former Chiefs of the Defence Staff suddenly come out of the cold to criticise the government. This is annoying, because these are the same General Officers who presided over identical problems without the slightest hint of complaint until they were safely away from the system. This is not exactly living up to their heroic image, but such is life.

Showing a worrying reluctance to learn from the past, the MOD has had some spectacular blunders of late. Sadly, these are not blunders in the normal sense; more an example of how clueless the MOD / Government is when it comes to falling over itself to court the media – without remembering the media will savage it no matter what.

As a result we see, in recent weeks, such oddities as the government going to court to reduce payments to two people who were crippled in the line of duty. Now, in normal circumstances this would be ignored – the government is claiming it is not liable for secondary problems and is trying to reduce the burden on the taxpayer by reducing the payments these people get. This is not a bad thing as any other organisation would do it, and every penny the government has to spend comes from the public. It is not magic money.

The madness is this comes at a time when the government have been whipping the public up into a fervour about supporting “Our Boys” who are fighting wars in far away lands. Realising these wars are very unpopular, the government seems to have decided the only solution is to turn every soldier into a hero who deserves our undying support, no matter what they do. This played very well with the media (the Sun’s Help for Heroes has become such a powerful charity that on-duty police officers are allowed to wear its labels and promotional media, can you imagine that happening for any other charity?) but the government – or more properly the Civil Service who run the MOD – has failed to realise what this jingoistic monster will demand. With every service person being seen as the greatest Hero since Gilgamesh, any attempt to due the correct thing by the taxpayer is obviously going to be seen as a grasping act by a degenerate government. The whole deal is muddled even more by some MPs being so obvious about their desire to court the media they will go against both government policy and the taxpayers best interests (*). There is more irony than I can cope with in one sitting over this, but this is what the BBC reports about Mr Joyce:

Writing in Scotland on Sunday, Mr Joyce, parliamentary private secretary to Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth, said that although technically the MoD had a good chance of success, the appeal should be dropped.

So, although the case is sound – and the taxpayer is NEEDLESSLY paying these people money – we should carry on paying because not doing so will be unpopular. This confuses me. Is he saying that we should apply the same standard of payouts to Police, nurses, teachers, bus drivers, pharmacists, dentists, bin men, street sweepers, train drivers (etc)? These are all jobs which are essential to our every day life, more so than the military for 99.99% of the time and where (on the whole) people are paid a lot less than they deserve.

The government are never going to get it right. They are serving that most fickle of masters, the media. The same newspapers that will castigate them for spending one penny more than they should on something will also castigate them for trying to reclaim the said penny if the recipient has “human interest.” The government is a faceless bureaucracy and can never win. Ever.

The Military is no better and, despite the Heroes angle, its no safer from media savagery – simply because it is “part of the government.”

This twist has led to senior Army officers claiming they are incapable of fighting the war in Afghanistan with the current kit and manpower levels – even going as far as claiming we should, as a nation, move to a war footing. Before we go on, lets look at the war in Afghanistan. This is basically small manoeuvre warfare of Battalion size formations. This is not the “Major War” the British Army was geared up to throughout the cold war. It is closer to one of the small conflicts we were supposed to be able to fight two of, while having the resources for a major war left spare. However it seems that decades of defence spending has left the military incapable of fighting any war. Do the military chiefs accept responsibility for this? No, they claim it is down to the government who haven’t spent enough on them… Yet they agreed to the budgets. They furnished government with reports as to how effective they would be in Iraq and Afghanistan. But it is still the civilian governments fault… No, I dont get it either.

“War is a dangerous business” – certainly a truism and, in July 09, the British public were forced to realise this. However, rather than educate the public about what happens in war (one UK news outlet even claimed it was the most bloody conflict since WWII, neatly ignoring Korea, Aden, Borneo etc) and forcing people to realise that any conflict is going to cost lives, the craven military leadership laid the blame on various bits of equipment – mostly helicopters. This was a lifeline for distraught family members, who obviously needed some way to rationalise the loss of their loved ones. However its not the real answer. No amount of helicopters will stop the need for “boots on the ground” to dominate and in any firefight people are likely to die. Helicopters are great moving people from A to B and for providing air support to ground troops but they are not the magic solution people seem to think they are.

This has not stopped the senior officers seeing a chance to get some more toys to play with by claiming they need more helicopters to save lives (tell that to the bomb disposal people…), and they have been somewhat successful. Still this is not enough to placate the baying media. From the BBC News:

Reports in the Daily Telegraph claimed six Merlins – due to go to Helmand in December – did not have Kevlar armour.

The paper quotes senior RAF sources as warning this could prevent the craft’s use in missions against the Taliban.

The moral of the story is you really cant win. Once you enter into a dance with the media, you are caught in a death spiral. Nothing you ever do will be enough. Someone, somewhere in your organisation will have a different opinion (or just say something stupid by mistake) and the media will pounce. When this happens all the good will you generated by doing what the press wanted will vanish and you’ve be savaged again.

Why doesn’t the military and government realise this? Why do they try to grab the tiger by the tail?

(*) It is even more interesting when you think that the traditional Ministry of Defence politics align with the Conservative party, so it is unsurprising that the MOD seems to be having so many PR blunders of late. That the Labour government seems unable or unwilling to take charge and control this is a further indictment of the party and another sign that, sadly, this time next year we will almost certainly have an irritating bastard Conservative PM.

Media management for dummies

Exhaustive scientific research has now shown that PR people can be replaced by a simple formula. The research indicates that you can always make the national news by inserting a few simple words in any story.

Just combine at least one word from group A with one or more from any other group.

Now go away and form your own PR agency.

Group A – Racing certainties

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Knife crime
  • Health scares and/or Miracle cures
  • Harry Potter
  • Asylum seekers
  • Political correctness (preferably “gone mad”, naturally)

Group B – Floaters
Temporary certainties but time-limited:

  • Michael Jackson
  • Joanna Lumley
  • Swine flu

Group C – Old news
These may not always work, but could come through for you on a slow news day:

  • Gun crime
  • Mobile phones
  • Terrorism
  • Texting
  • McCanns
  • Islamic fundamentalism
  • Christians not allowed to wear promise rings/crosses
  • Princess Diana

Group D – Fillers

  • Richard Dawkins
  • The Pope/Archbishop of Canterbury/Bishop Sentamu
  • Jordan/Paris Hilton/Amy Winehouse/Lily Allen et al
  • Simon Cowell
  • Teenagers’/women’s binge drinking
  • Fatness/thinness/bulimia/anorexia
  • Big Brother/X-factor/Britain’s got Talent/Dragons Den/The Apprentice/I’m a Celebrity, yada yada

Now, as soon as I work out how to claim royalties on this, I’m set to make Max Clifford look like a gifted amateur.

Live by the sword…

For years now, politicians of all flavours have been busy manipulating public opinion and cherry picking how they present information – all with the aim of convincing the largely apathetic voting public to agree with their crackpot ideas. As you can imagine, however, this has its own share of problems.

As an example, today on the BBC Radio 1 news show (*), there was a terrible indictment of just how mixed up people are. Basically, the Prime Minster Gordon Brown is trying to gain some media-credits with his claims that he is “tackling knife crime.” Obviously the PM and current government are unpopular at the moment so here we see yet another example of how politicians no longer have a political view, but will do what ever they think they can to get support from the barely coherent, rabid, tabloid media.

The knife crime panic is a great example of this. All year, we have been subjected to scare stories in the media about how knife crime is on the increase; if you believe papers such as the Daily Mail there are more stabbings than there are people. I am not for one second trying to imply that knife crime isn’t devastating for the victims and their families – but we need some form of perspective. While there were pockets of increased incidents, the chances of Joe Blogs UK becoming a victim was pretty much the same as it always has been.

However, our media-hungry politicians (on all sides) read the building tabloid-frenzy and jumped in early. For months we had debates about how bad knife crime was, and what were the government going to do about it. This was stoked with the public being drip fed “news” each time a cute, innocent kid got stabbed. Each one was delivered in that wonderful way the tabloids have of making their readers think that the one incident they report is just the tip of the iceberg – in reality, when things are so commonplace, the media loses interest in them… Seeing a great chance, the government (and opposition) built upon the general irrationality of people – isolated incidents were blown out of proportion, personal anecdote was given much greater emphasis etc. So far, so typical. This is all politicians have done for over a decade.

Today, the PM tried to deliver his latest great accomplishment.

The PM announced that the new “crackdowns” implemented by Police in high-risk areas had managed to bring down knife crime. Wonderful. I am sure he expected nothing but fanfare… Sadly, the general public are too depressed and gloom-laden to take good news like this. Also, for years we have been indoctrinated into the idea that out microcosm of life is more representative of society than anything else – which means no matter what the PM claims, people think things are getting worse. From the BBC Pages:

The Prime Minister has spoken to Newsbeat after the government said the latest police crackdown was working.

The government says stabbings are down and fewer teenagers are carrying blades in the 10 parts of England and Wales where there’s been a big effort to tackle the problem.

The figures also show under-18s going to hospital for stabs and cuts are down by a quarter and more serious attacks have dropped by a fifth.

Great news. It doesn’t really say much about the government policies though. Nothing like enough time has passed to know if this is a long term change or a simple “blip”  in the numbers. Equally, there is no way of knowing if the “massive” (**) increase was a statistical blip. The information provided doesn’t tell us if the crime has simply moved elsewhere, or if this is part of a national downturn in knife crime. It really is a non-news item. There isn’t enough information for the viewer to do anything but rely on how the sparse numbers are spun to the public.

Shocking, but this is how the government have wanted us to interact with news for many a year now. If the public were given all the information that drove national policy, half the crazy things we suffer now would never have survived.

Equally comical, is how Gordon Brown reacted to the predictable nonsense questions. According to the BBC, the text messages from their listeners saying things like “I was stabbed 2 years ago, how has knife crime gone down” were a valid counterpoint to the governments figures. A normal, sane, educated person would have laughed and said “shut up crazy fool.” But this is gold to politicians – they want people to think like this so that future crazy laws can be passed. This lead to a very bizarre exchange:

Newsbeat: The statistics on knife crime say one thing. We’re hearing other things from our listeners.
Gordon Brown: That’s why we want to get knives off the street. I’m not complacent at all. A lot of young people are stopping carrying knives but we’ve got a long way to go. And that’s why today you’ve got all these people from all different walks of life; sports people, from the world of entertainment, from radio, from television, all saying, working with the community groups, no to knives. (blah… blah… blah…)

A touch strange. The PM is saying nothing as an actual response. It is certified 100% content free. Isn’t that nice. That was just mildly odd but it was followed by this:

Newsbeat: The stats that you’ve published today seem to show that knife crime is down. A nurse at Bristol Royal Infirmary says stab wound admissions are going up.
Gordon Brown: What I want to know is how we can actually get knife crime down and how we can make sure it stays down. Making sure it stays down is more policing that’s visible on the streets, a presumption to prosecute if you’re seen to be carrying a knife, tougher police and prison sentences when that happens, shops banned from selling knives to young people and schools and community groups doing an educational process whereby young people are discouraged from carrying knives.

What? Listen to it on the radio. Newsbeat phrase their statement as a question. You can hear the question in the reporters voice. She is expecting an answer. Granted she seems unable to actually ask questions, and just makes statements with a rising emphasis at the end to imply a question, but if you speak English you can hear the questioning tone.  However, our glorious PM ignores it. It is really like he has been asked a different question and Newsbeat dubbed their own over the top of it. Nothing he says bares any relation to the question.

Bizarre.

Are we really in such a disconnected world that any of this makes sense? Do politicians think this is acceptable? Do reporters? (He wasn’t challenged on it).

Equally sad, but much more common, is the idea that the experiences of a nurse at the Bristol Royal has such an insight into national trends that their comments outweigh national reports. Even if they are the person who records every admission (and the cause) they have no idea what is going on in Liverpool, Barnsley, Truro, Southampton (etc.). The national statistics are based on reporting from various sources and show the national trend. Knife crime can go down 90% nationally but still show an increase in a region. That an otherwise well educated nurse doesn’t understand this element of statistics gives me concern over how disease surveillance is carried out.

The BBC mentions the “crime hotspots” that were targeted, and show a reduction:

The 10 knife crime hotspots are London, Essex, Lancashire, West Yorkshire, Merseyside, the West Midlands, Greater Manchester, Nottinghamshire, South Wales and Thames Valley.

Unless the Bristol Royal has moved across the River Severn  into Wales, it is not in that list. It could show a trillion percent increase and the governments figures for the crime hotspots would still be down. This nurse’s experiences may be 100%, but they are irrelevant. The only way this person could have had real impact was if the debate was about knife-crime admissions to the Bristol Royal Infirmary. But it wasn’t.

Still, in this day and age of citizen journalism, no one was going to say this. The nurse’s (and others) comments were treated as valid counterpoints to the report and dutifully skipped around by the PM. Are the BBC’s news reporters really so empty that this seemed reasonable?

Sadly the answer seems to be “yes.” Well done Great Britain, I am so proud.

(*) Please note, this is a link to the current newsbeat page – the actual content I am talking about here may have gone by the time you read this. If you can, though, this is worth listening to. Its almost like they re-recorded the PM and asked him different questions…

(**) For an arbitrary value of massive.