webofevil: (Default)
Getting at the truth feels a bit treacherous at the moment. Trust nothing that you see or hear for a while. The general election lurks in the middle distance like a black hole, and it’s warping reality around it. We know that going through it can’t lead to anything good[1], but there’s no turning the ship around. We’re sliding inexorably towards it, so all there is to do is marvel at its distorting effects on everything around us.

Obviously any opposition party wants to paint the incumbent government as useless and their reign as damaging to the country, but in doing so they need to be careful not to overshoot their target. Insist repeatedly that Britain is broken, in the face of the evidence that even in the midst of recession Britain is in fact plodding on pretty much as it usually does, and you could find that this breeds more scepticism and resentment than support. Claim that in deprived areas 54 per cent are likely to fall pregnant before the age of 18 when the figure is actually 54 per 1,000, for example, and you risk (a) looking like hapless know-nothing jaw-flapping dinner-party bigots, the kind of chattering-class tossers who wildly piss made-up statistics about the place to give credence to their idiot prejudices, and (b) making the public muse that anyone whose arithmetic is that bad should probably be forcibly barred from getting near anything resembling power. The black hole affects even the simplest readouts.



Meanwhile! As our population gets older, there’s going to be an increasing problem of how to care for the sick and elderly in their own homes. The government consulted on this last year and although several tentative solutions were suggested, the single definite conclusion in the resultant white paper was that under no circumstances could any government realistically offer free care at home for the elderly in England and Wales. By any gauge it was utterly unaffordable, and it would be nothing short of dishonest to offer it to the public.

Then, at last autumn’s Labour party conference, Gordon Brown stunned the report’s contributors—and quite a few of his own people—by announcing that he would legislate for free care at home for the elderly in England and Wales. Just in case there was any doubt what the priority is here, the government are now racing the Personal Care At Home Bill through the parliamentary process with unseemly and cack-handed haste as if it were emergency terrorism legislation, with even less scrutiny than usual. The “consultation” on this particular bill finished yesterday and is due to report soon, but as the bill has already been through the Commons and been through most of its stages in the Lords, it’s safe to suggest that the government aren’t attaching too much importance on what anyone else has to say. The bill has nothing to do with caring for the sick and elderly and everything to do with the black hole up ahead. After all, just because something is utterly impossible doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to curry favour by offering it. If the polls look particularly bad for the government over the next fortnight I confidently expect to see them bang out an emergency Better Weather Bill before the election.



Meanwhile! We’re all going to be murdered in our beds! Or not. It’s the Tories versus their old enemy, numbers, except here at least the story displays some vaguely Machiavellian politicking rather than simply a need for remedial maths training. Shadow Home Secretary[2] Chris Grayling put out numbers “showing” that violent crime had leapt up under Labour. The chairman of the UK Statistics Authority issued a stiff letter the next day pointing out that no they hadn’t, not really the sort of publicity you want when you’re Shadow Home Secretary.

In the mid-1990s, when the Tories were in power, it was suggested to them that the way crime figures were recorded could be changed to reflect the victims’ perceptions of crime. The government at the time swiftly realised that this would probably make the apparent figures shoot up, and so dismissed the idea as a PR disaster waiting to happen. In 2002, however, the Labour government took the admirably ballsy step of allowing this change to go ahead:
Instead of police officers deciding whether an incident should be recorded as a violent crime, the decision was given to the alleged victim. It had the effect of forcing up recorded violence by an estimated 35% in the first year. [Guardian]
So figures from after 2002 can’t be compared with figures from before 2002. But now the Tories, the party that was first introduced to this revised crime-figures system, are doing just that, despite at some level understanding the utter unreality of what they’re saying. Watch this detachment from the world around them increase as we approach the event horizon.


Meanwhile! Gordon Brown was persuaded to talk on prime-time TV about the death of his child. Whoever had this idea, and whether it was conceived in good faith as a last-ditch attempt to present the human side of the Prime Minister to a disenchanted electorate or in bad faith as something infinitely more cynical, the fact is that it escaped no-one that this personal and previously very private tragedy appeared to have been paraded for electoral gain. Brown had never before spoken publicly about those events, and everyone would have understood if he had chosen not to do so until he was out of the national limelight. His decision to talk about it on TV now, however hard he will have found it to genuinely share his feelings on the subject, can only have seemed right as his perceptions and values distorted and warped around him; it cheapened everyone involved.

Everyone except, of course, Piers Morgan, which would be physically impossible. If anything vividly illustrates the contention that the reality presented by the media is entirely fictional, it’s the insistence on presenting Piers Morgan to us as anything but a braying, banal, lying, worthless tool. Piers Morgan interviewing the Prime Minister. Piers Morgan guiding us around Dubai. Piers Morgan being called on, and this I’m still trying to wrap my head around, to judge—even in the frothiest of light entertainment settings—to judge a single aspect of another human being. If it’s right that the Space Shuttle has only four more missions and then it’s curtains, can we start nominating people now to man its final flight into the sun? My alternative vote—another last-ditch government innovation dragged into existence by the black hole’s gravitational pull, incidentally—goes to Perez Hilton.



Meanwhile! Some distance from our black hole, yet worth mentioning here as it is pulled inexorably towards another one that’s opening up on the other side of the world, a huge armed force spends weeks talking up a massive advance against the Taliban so that when it actually advances it finds itself almost unopposed, since many Taliban fighters have paid attention to the news and pragmatically melted away into the civilian population.

This is no surprise to anyone involved, as this is what has happened several times before. As ever, the fighters will bide their time until the occupying force reduces its numbers, before taking up arms again and fighting off what they see as the foreign invaders. For the time being, though, it’s territory gained! A famous victory for Our Boys! Afghanistan made safe! An embedded reporter’s wet dream! Meanwhile the population in the region will hunker down, fearful both of wayward drone strikes and of what will happen when the strike force withdraws following Afghanistan’s own black hole—the election, due to be held later this year, which is the reason why Taliban strongholds needed to appear, however temporarily, to have been subdued. This episode of the Afghan war did not take place.



Meanwhile! “The Prime Monster”! The Sun nails the story of the moment: the Prime Minister is a bully! Okay, so Andrew Rawnsley’s claim that Brown had to be spoken to by Cabinet Secretary Gus O’Donnell over his bullying has been denied by Brown (well, he would say that, wouldn’t he?) but also by O’Donnell himself, leaving the story balancing precariously on Rawnsley’s book alone—and okay, so the story about the National Bullying Helpline receiving calls from staff at No. 10 quickly appeared not only to be crumbling but to have stemmed from, at the very least, friends on the periphery of the Tory party—and okay, so none of the alleged helpline calls actually involved the Prime Minister, making the “Prime Monster” tag seem even more indefensible—and okay, so now there’s no sign of the “Prime Monster” headline on the Sun’s website—and… actually, no, I’m done.

At this point it certainly looks as if a woman who runs a small and questionable “charity”, which exists mainly to direct disaffected staff towards her husband’s HR company, decided to be helpful in the wake of the Rawnsley allegations and go to the BBC with a story that would both aid the party she supports and give her company charity a decent dose of publicity. However, if what she said was genuine then she breached the confidentiality of the helpline’s callers, and if it wasn’t then, obviously, she’s a big fibber. Either way, she gave the impression that Gordon Brown was at the heart of these allegations, which he wasn’t. If you need confirmation that nothing you’re seeing or hearing at this point is trustworthy, she felt so vilified by the general scepticism about her questionable practices and wonky business arrangements that she is now being represented by Max Clifford.

Whatever actually happened inside No. 10 is likely, for the time being, to get utterly lost in the fog. The story is useful right now only for the way that it highlights how at the moment, more even than usual, you have to be sceptical of everything you’re told as passions rage—and the already febrile online world goes nuts—over the impending election.

So it’s less than reassuring that BBC current affairs staff, already cut back to a minimum and reduced to pretty much parroting any press release that comes their way—hence the unquestioning way BBC News ran the National Bullying Helpline story without the most basic of background checks on the source of its scoop—were told recently by their boss to treat social media such as Twitter and Facebook as “a primary source of information”. This should be fun.
Huw Edwards: The headlines at 10 o’clock: Stephen Fry has cheered up now that he has had some coffee, and the world’s number one trending topic remains Justin Bieber.


Click for CGI WTF.

I hope it’s clear that I’m not suggesting we can normally trust our government and news sources implicitly. It’s always worth keeping an eye on exactly who is telling you what and why. (Dismiss all mainstream news as lies, though, and you just become David Icke. We doctors[3] recommend discernment rather than institutionalised disbelief.) For the next few months, though, I urge heightened caution. We must approach all news as gingerly as a bomb disposal expert and assume that most statistics we encounter are radioactive, and let’s just see what exotic shapes everything gets warped into over the next few weeks.


[1] Offering the rich choice of (in the red corner) more well-meaning but hopeless mismanagement or (in the blue) a fresh bout of nakedly self-interested hopeless mismanagement. “#Thiiiiiings… can only get better…” Back

[2] The title “Shadow Home Secretary” sounds terribly grand, and being the official counterpart to the actual Home Secretary can be gruelling work, but ultimately the word “shadow” renders it meaningless. I might as well appoint myself the Shadow Ewan MacGregor, and in the event that he stops being Ewan MacGregor I will be able seamlessly to take over his role. And there’ll be some changes then, let me tell you. Back

[3] I am not a doctor.
webofevil: (all hail)
On Saturday 18 July the BBC news channel broke some news. It’s worth reproducing the exact wording of its report:

… Mark Worthington reporting there from Belfast. And just as I was talking to Mark, there was some breaking news coming in from the Tour de France. We’re hearing from the French police via Reuters News Agency that one person has died in an accident involving a motorcycle on the Tour de France. I’ve only got this one line at the moment. As soon as I get some more I will bring it to you, because of course the Tour de France itself is bicycles but there are usually motorcycle cavalcades alongside it. I’ve no other detail other than the fact that one person has died, involved in an accident with a motorcycle on the Tour de France, coming from French police. We’ll bring you some more as we get it.
At that moment, what was the point in sharing that lonely floating fact? Who had benefited from those words being spoken? Were the family of the person killed at all better off? Hopefully, they did not learn of their loved one’s death in this manner because they had already been contacted. If they had, though, why was the person’s identity not being released to the media? What’s more, the families of everyone else at the Tour de France had definitely not benefited; without the salient fact of who exactly had been killed, they all suddenly had good reason to panic.

Fans of the Tour de France did not benefit. If the accident had caused the race to be held up, then avid fans already knew about it; if it had not, they didn’t need to know any more details than the rest of us did. And it would be fruitless for even the most defensive journalist at this point to start citing the national interest. So what would it have cost the BBC to have waited a while until it had an actual story to tell?



The only beneficiary from the BBC news channel broadcasting these words was the BBC news channel. On someone’s computer in the office there will be a little chart that displays the number of times that they have broken a story before Sky News. It might not be official—it may not feature the BBC logo or conform to its brand identity guidelines—but it will exist. As a gauge of performance it is worthless, but increasingly it seems to be the only one that the channel pays attention to.

It used to be the case that in some drastic event—in my direct experience, the events of 7/7 and their hastily conceived and mismanaged tribute, 21/7—you would visit Sky News first to hear whatever wild frothing speculation was being sprayed about, and then after a bit you would go to the Beeb to find out what was actually going on. Once, it was Sky that could be relied on to yelp uselessly that “Baroness Butler-Sloss is presumably in her 70s. Certainly of some age, anyway”; now, in its haste to be first to jump on an unidentified death, the BBC is reporting that “the Tour de France itself is bicycles”. There is no intrinsic value to broadcasting an embryo of a story like the one above except, like some maladjusted teenage YouTube commenter, to be able to log it as “First!”.

Now that BBC News has abandoned its post, I find I can no longer rely on it to the same extent. It has fled from the very thing that made it valuable. This tendency, to use an incongruous example, echoes the BBC’s inexplicable decision to abandon its basic Top of the Pops format in favour of a CD:UK clone while CD:UK still existed, which led to TOTP’s speedy demise. Are these decisions being made by the exact same people?

For what it’s worth (£0), I’d like to see BBC News split into three separate channels:

* BBC News for actual news

* BBC News Live for those interminable shots of press conference platforms with no-one on them, shots of doors out of which someone at some point is due to emerge, overhead shots of nothing happening and so on, interspersed with constant unconfirmed “Breaking News” banners

* BBC Have Your Say 24 so that helpful viewer comments from Basil in Altringham or whoever can be safely and permanently quarantined away from actual news items
As it stands, the BBC is fixated on breaking news to a damaging degree. In fact, its very concept of “breaking news” has been utterly degraded; the most footling development becomes a screaming newsflash, as in this banner from its news site on Saturday following the death of the Briton who for a month had been the world’s oldest man:

webofevil: (Default)
When a goalkeeper killed two children in a car accident, I found it a little odd that it was reported on the BBC, among others, under the category of “SPORT”. Similarly, I’m not entirely persuaded that it can be classified as “POLITICS” when David Blunkett is trampled by a cow.

 
webofevil: (Default)
You kids, with your Photoshop. You don’t know you’re born. Time was, if you were compelled to doctor a photo in the national press, you had to do it by hand.

In 1990 a British lorry bound for Iraq was searched in Greece and found to be carrying components for a “supergun”. These components had been designed and made by a small British company, a situation that did not seem ever to have troubled the government until the point where it looked as if we might find ourselves looking down the barrel of the thing. Suddenly the administration was busily seizing shipments, along with the moral high ground, and imprisoning the company’s directors. Meanwhile, the Greek authorities imprisoned the unwitting truck driver, Paul Ashwell, for illegal arms importation.

There was a general outcry over here about Ashwell’s arrest, and the Daily Mirror started a campaign to have him freed. This gathered steam and had been front-page news for a while when the Sun belatedly decided that it, too, was concerned about his fate, but it had scarcely allowed itself enough time even to print his name before the Foreign Office succeeded in getting him released. The occasion was subsequently covered by both newspapers:



Yes, this is what was deemed skilful doctoring in a national newspaper in 1990—an alteration considered virtually undetectable by the naked eye. It was a simpler time.
webofevil: (chiraq)
Sky: first to break the news, no matter how embryonic. Remind me why the BBC is so desperate to emulate this style of unchecked babble.
Colin Brazier: (reporting that a second judge is stepping down from the Princess Diana inquest) Baroness Butler-Sloss is presumably in her 70s. Certainly of some age, anyway.

Brazier: "Mum, I told you not to call me at work", etc.
webofevil: (do not cross)
With the debate about the existence or otherwise of Saddam’s WMDs raging fiercely on a previous post (until I unintentionally deleted it, in some kind of spasm), I was delighted last night to unearth my copy of the 19 February 2003 edition of the Evening Standard:


The only other paper to run this story was the Telegraph, although it somehow refrained from using the phrase “SHIPS OF TERROR”. It caused a bit of a stir. Suddenly, in the home straight before we finally went to war—with all the people determined to start it busy claiming they weren’t determined to start it—everything seemed to be going a bit Tom Clancy. Iraqi ships packed with illicit WMDs circling the ocean, ready to scuttle at a moment’s notice? Amazing. Maybe Tony and George were right after all. I missed the TV news that evening, but I didn’t mind; I knew a story this big would be in all the papers the next day, if only so it could be denied.

From that day to this, there hasn’t been a single reference to this story in any newspaper. The Telegraph removed it from its archives the day after publication. The occasional puzzled blogger has made reference to it before, and the text of the Standard article occasionally turns up in conspiracy forums, but that’s the extent of it.

What the hell happened? Was the story entirely made up? Were the Standard and the Telegraph sold a pup they were both then too ashamed to acknowledge? Normally such behaviour would at least merit a passing gloat in Private Eye. Were some naval manoeuvres mistaken for suspicious enemy activity? Was there, after all, some suspicious enemy activity that a Ministry thought it best we pretended not to know about, and so slapped a D-Notice on the offending publications? Was it an early April Fool?

Your suggestions are welcome. Let’s see if we can make this journal the premier online resource for wild speculation about the Iraqi “Ships of Terror”.
webofevil: (Default)
[Sent to BBC News 24. Really, letters to broadcasters, magazines etc should be written in green crayon, but I've found that only makes a mess of your monitor.]

At last! I've found a use for the “send us your emails” slot. Obviously none of this one will be read out on air, and I’m glad: I watch BBC news (and indeed pay for it) because I want to hear news from trained, halfway competent professionals, not just what struck Ted from Surbiton while he was sprawled on his sofa munching Doritos. If I want to hear unformed lumpen opinions from flatulent numpties I'll pop over to the pub. Please keep the news for people who have a clue what they're talking about.

Which ties in with what I’m actually mailing about—the lack of aforesaid news. “Tony Blair might shortly exit this building.” “We’re bringing you live shots of the podium where we expect the press conference to happen in the next five hours.” “We’ve sent our helicopter up in the hope it’ll find something to film before the fuel runs out.” “While we’re waiting for that delayed press conference to begin, here’s a shot of Steve, our vision mixer.”

For God’s sake put this stuff on another feed, even the actual live coverage of press conferences. That's what the digital multi-channel option is for. Please don’t clog the main channel with filler that doesn't count as information. There’s a million things going on around the world right now, none of which are illuminated by an unwavering shot of an empty podium or Downing Street from above. The countdown to the top of the hour features images of scalding beams of NEWS swooshing into TV Centre from correspondents sequestered all over the globe, which contrasts starkly with what often ends up happening during the day: someone told me (I couldn’t bear to sit through it myself) that one of the world cup press conferences was broadcast live for one and a half hours.

News 24 is far better at delivering news at night, when there are fewer distractions, and fewer people awake to speculate at us. Right now, though, I’m watching incredulously as reporters are sent all over the country to try and reach as many people as possible who don't know the first thing about Tony Blair’s intentions about staying in office. Fruitless speculation and pointless helicopter shots of Number 10 do not constitute news. Unless there are plans to change the channel's name to BBC Generally Arsing About 24, why not get on with telling us about other actual news—not just asides about the other couple of top headlines—and then let us know about Blair as soon as you actually know something? No?

I know, I know, that’s not what Sky News does. But some of us are very glad that you’re not Sky News. The Beeb is a different animal. The London bombings last year illustrated how it works: you’d go on to the Sky site first because they’d be first with any scrap of information they had, even if it turned out to be wildly wrong, and then you’d visit the BBC site, which would be more circumspect at first while it checked and verified, but—and this is the important bit—would then be utterly reliable on actual facts.

If it were down to me—and obviously it’s not, it’s all in the hands of people who can use phrases like “delivering outcomes” in cold blood—I’d urgently recommend focusing on the whole “facts” thing, and knock the speculation, the timewasting and the idiot emails on the head.

(I would also, while we’re at it, grab by the lapels and vigorously shake the person responsible for adding the headline to the “spinning world” graphic. “What the hell were you thinking?” is pretty much what I’d yell. “It’s the most crass, witless, unnecessary and potentially offensive thing a news programme has done since ITV played mournful music over slow-motion footage of 9/11.” The newsreader has just said what the headlines are. There is then no need for the words “GAZA DEATHS”, “MASSIVE FIRE”, “SPACE TOO SHORT FOR HEADLI” or whatever to go jauntily scrolling past. I switched on a month ago to see “LONDON BOMBS” as the main headline. “Oh God, not again,” I thought. But it wasn’t another round of incendiaries; instead, it was news about one of last year’s bombers. The headline isn’t just annoying, then, it can also be misleading. Someone’s clearly very proud of it, though, and I have to accept that no-one’s going to change it just because it’s a bad idea.)

On the plus side, the new text format is good, with the ticker far more legible in black and white and the imbecilic BREAKINGNEWSBREAKINGNEWSBREAKINGNEWS in a slightly narrower, less intrusive font. But please, especially in view of your insistence on the use of the phrase “Breaking News” every three damn minutes (honestly, if Sky News told you to jump off a cliff, etc), don’t just give us reporters telling us hopefully that someone important might turn up shortly, or people talking about what they think might one day happen. You can be so much better than that.

Paxo

May. 23rd, 2005 11:20 am
webofevil: (Default)
Time was when I liked Paxman. Even ten years ago, when Chris Morris was already gleefully dissecting him on The Day Today, I still liked his relentlessness and his mannerisms.

Not any more, though. Last week I found myself sending this on an official complaints form to the Beeb in a fit of pique, though I'm not expecting a reply.

NB - I'm fully aware that when Rupert Murdoch (or, more likely, one of his ineffectual idiot children after his death) finally gets his way and Fox News is as entrenched over here as it is in the States, I'll be nostalgic and probably downright wistful about this period of Paxmanism. But not yet.)

Paxman’s interviewing style is getting out of hand. What doubtless began years ago as a crusade to excavate the truth has morphed into a self-aggrandising pantomime that is only going to get worse as he gets older and inevitably turns into a caricature of himself.

Even when he has on a guest whom he clearly respects to some degree, like Irshad Manji the other night, he can't help but come across as faintly disgusted by them, wearily interrupting and interrogating them as if they were a civil servant convicted of embezzlement but refusing to resign.

And in a genuinely combative situation, like the three-party “debate” this evening, he’s proving to be patently useless. When two of the politicians got going on actually debating a point, he spent the entire time interrupting and talking over them until they finally shut up. This was so he could ask the third a biting question he clearly thought was some kind of slam-dunk, a coruscating question so revealing of internal contradiction in the politician’s policy that the guy would be forced to resign his post on the spot. When this failed to happen and the man began civilly to answer Paxman’s question, he was no more than three words though his answer before Paxman started interjecting, barking pointless heckles that he thought backed up his initial “resign now!” point-scorer.

No-one benefits from this kind of exchange. It’s no longer about getting at the truth, it's about making Paxman look like some kind of people’s champion. As such, it’s a waste of everyone's time. His interview technique has become atrophied, obstructive and self-defeating, and frankly he can shove it up his arse.

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