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.


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.

McCanns, Libel and the press

Warning: This is a blog. It is personal opinion. There is no evidence that Kate and Gerry McCann killed their daughter then created a media storm to mask their evil deeds. If you do not wish to read personal opinions please read no further.

Now, generally speaking, I am not the biggest fan of the UK media in general and I am certainly not a fan of tabloid press. I find both the Daily Express and the Daily Star to be offensive, trashy newspapers. Despite this, today I feel sorry for them and, part of me feels there has been an interesting twist in the UK law courts. From the BBC news website:

Madeleine McCann’s parents have welcomed a libel settlement and apology from Express Newspapers for suggesting they were responsible for her death.

In a statement the McCanns said they were pleased that the newspaper group had admitted the “utter falsity” of the “grotesque” stories written about them. [followed by]

The papers said: “We acknowledge that there is no evidence whatsoever to support this theory and that Kate and Gerry are completely innocent of any involvement in their daughter’s disappearance. “

OK, on the surface this seems reasonable and for years the tabloid media has been getting away with printing nonsense stories. However, this has normally been seen as just the way the tabloids print “news”. The idea that they can now be taken to court where I think something interesting has happened.

First off, as a sort of position statement, I think that, while there is no evidence Kate and Gerry McCann actually killed Madeleine there are a few issues that strike me as odd. Not least of these is the very fact the McCann’s felt the need, while under so much pressure to find their daughter, to take out a libel action against the newspapers. There was a risk they could have lost, and if so the “find Maddie” fund would have had to cover their expenses. Even though they have won it brings them no closer to a conclusion to the whole sorry deal. All this, coupled with the very existence of a “family spokesperson” leaves a sour taste in my mouth.

Compare and contrast this with the behaviour of Shannon Matthews mother when she went missing. In the early days there was no hint of rich benefactors funding a “find Shannon” account, there was no family spokesperson and, with the recent media hints that the mother was in fact to blame, no signs of a libel action. Why is that? Is it because Karen Matthews is pretty much a “working class oik” while the McCanns are upper middle class professionals?

Anyway, before I wander too close to the line at which the McCanns decide to take legal action against this blog (they can have every single penny this blog has earned to date if they really want…), the other ramification of this case is how it may influence others.

Keeping with the topical nature of the McCanns, lets use Robert Murat as an example. Here we have an example of someone who the general media has declared guilty since pretty much day one. In Mr Murat’s case this is not the newspapers making sly allusions that he may be guilty, pretty much everything written about him says he is the “one.” The Daily Mirror even printed an ironic tirade by friends of the McCanns heaping more suspicion on Murat:

Fiona Payne, Russell O’Brien and Rachael Oldfield insisted they saw him outside Kate and Gerry McCann’s flat on the night Madeleine, four, was snatched – despite his denials.

Despite all this, there is not one shred of evidence that Murat was the criminal. Can we expect to see a large scale libel action? (Well no, Murat doesn’t have a huge fund to bankroll such things…).

In fact, pick up any paper any time of the year and you will read articles in which people are made out to be things they are not. Suspects in rape cases are often named (with all the ensuing problems) but I can not recall a single time, when someone was found innocent, a retraction was published.

Using the Mirror as an example, a while ago a children’s TV presenter Mark Speight was implicated in the death of his girlfriend. For the whole time, he was linked in a manner that would make the casual reader assume the weight of evidence was against him, then today they print an article headlined: “Kids’ TV star Mark Speight won’t be charged over girlfriend’s death.” That is it. No huge payout to assist the investigation into her death, no front page apology. Just a short piece to say he wont be charged.

Amazing isn’t it.

At least now, thanks to the McCanns and their tireless crusade for justice, everyone who has a slightly negative mention in the press can use the vast fortunes of rich strangers to fund their legal defence cases…

[Cynical footnote: I sometimes wonder if the legal action was at least partially motivated by the fact the McCanns have pretty much dropped off the media radar, and since the Shannon Matthews case everyone had pretty much moved on – their donations may have even been starting to dry up…]