Diary of Distractions
has now been replaced by our blog, News
30 May 2011 Despite my persistent
optimism over advances in communication
technology, I've found myself trawling the web
less frequently. There's a popular TV show in
the UK called 'Britain's Got Talent',
which I think should be renamed 'Britain's
Got Morons'. To extend the franchise, we
could have 'Internet's Got Idiots'.
In a room full of noisy, attention-seeking
stupid people, it seems difficult to spot the
"genuinely" smart, original, well-informed,
funny individuals - they get little encouragement
from the Moron Majority (and morons seem
the majority, even in many influential media-related,
and potentially wealth-distributing circles).
So I celebrate whenever I discover some obscure,
intelligent gem. Here's my latest discovery
(thanks to a tip from a correspondent): a new
blog titled Overweening
I find it uplifting, erudite and state-of-the-art.
14 July 2010 Good article at
the Comment Factory, titled
to deconstruct our lying media. It
compares three approaches to media criticism:
Frame Semantics, Meta-journalism and
Propaganda Model. It's nice to see
someone in the UK making an enthusiastic case
in favour of the Frame Semantics approach. The
which follow the article are also well worth
26 May 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.
93 blog has provided me with a good example
from the BBC. The BBC's economics pundit, Tim
Harford, quotes a government figure of only
£6bn for the cost of the bailout,
but he says that in addition:
"We as taxpayers have bought lots of
shares in banks, and we’ll make or lose
money depending on what happens to their share
price." (PM, BBC Radio 4, 29/4/10)
The transcript of the quote is given here,
and I agreed with the blogger that this reference
to buying "lots of shares" seems to
be how Harford refers to the hundreds of billions
(or trillion) pounds cost. So I emailed Harford
a few links (to the Independent
and asked him why he wasn't mentioning the estimated
nearly-a-trillion-pound cost. He replied the
These aren't figures I've seen before. I'll
take a look. Thanks!
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
16 December 2009 "Very careful"
Shock and Awe? "Shock and awe"
is a doctrine proposedby military strategist, Harlan Ullman,
whose 1996 book, Shock and Awe: Achieving
Rapid Dominance, recommends"nearly incomprehensible levels of
massive destruction" to paralyse the
will of an enemy. The book cites the atomic
bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki as "successful"
past examples of shock and awe.
Prior to the Pentagon's 2003 shock-and-awe
attack on Iraq, Ullman said: "There
will not be a safe place in Baghdad. The sheer
size of this has never been seen before, never
been contemplated before."
It surprised me to discover recently that Les
Roberts, co-author of the Lancet survey of Iraqi
deaths, has described
the Iraq shock-and-awe campaign as "very
careful". He did so apparently to
defend his study's findings (which suggested
that more civilians died per month during 2006
than in the March 2003 shock-and-awe period).
18 September 2009 I wish more media
critics would pay attention to the "Establishment
TV" phenomenon - the tendency of BBC and
ITV to broadcast (usually in prime time) "documentaries"
which seem little more than PR for various types
of police, "emergency services" and
other authorities. Here are some examples I
noted over a few days in July:
BBC1 - The Truth About Crime,
ITV1 - Send in the Dogs (police
& their dogs), (28/7/09, 20.00)
ITV1 - Car Crime UK, (28/7/09,
BBC1 - Seaside Rescue (29/7/09,
BBC1 - Double Jeopardy (documentary
about man acquitted of vicious attack, and evidence
arguing for his retrial), (30/7/09, 22.35)
ITV1 - Real Crime, (30/7/09,
BBC1 - Traffic Cops (31/7/09,
There's a longer list here
These shows often come across as the state
equivalent of TV ads for banks and insurance
companies - they portray "the authorities"
in a friendly light by showing the human qualities
of their employees. They seem, in a way, to
function as damage-limitation PR. So, Magna
Carta is being dismantled, illegal wars are
fought in your name, video surveillance is everywhere,
your internet activity is monitored, you're
robbed and lied to by government on a daily
basis - but you needn't fear, because the authorities
are essentially friendly and on your side.
When members of the public are shown complaining
in these programmes, they're typically presented
as unreasonable, hostile or slightly insane
- as if you must be mentally disturbed (and
probably a danger to society) if you object
to the way the authorities are selflessly taking
care of you.
If you complained to the BBC about these shows,
you'd probably appear paranoid. After all, they
seem pretty harmless on the face of it. But
I wonder sometimes about the cumulative "cognitive
framing" effect - the endless repetition
of a particular worldview, and the virtual absence
of programmes which show "the authorities"
in a less sympathetic (but probably more accurate)
28 May 2009 Corporate tax-cheats
cost you billions. Tax avoidance by big
business continues to cost the public billions
according to an investigation conducted by the
The National Audit Office reported that in 2006
more than 60% of Britain's 700 biggest companies
paid less than £10m corporation tax, and
30% paid nothing. Leading accountancy firms
are charging £500,000 a time to invent
tax-avoidance schemes. http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2009/feb/02/tax-gap-avoidance
Before coming to power in 1997, Labour ran
a Party Political Broadcast attacking corporate
tax avoidance under the Conservative government
and promising repeatedly that "Labour
will close the loophole". At the
time it seemed pretty funny (it starred Stephen
Fry and Hugh Laurie as gloating tax consultants
"Weaver & Dodge"). Doesn't seem
so funny now:
15 January 2009 Maybe it was just
my imagination, but as soon as the media
started predicting rising unemployment from
the "global economic crisis", I 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,
(about a 43 yr-old woman who "has never
had a job") triggered outrage towards "the
lazy sponging scum".
I sent the following email to Dear on 2nd December
2008 (no reply to date):
Predictably, there's already
been an angry reaction to your BBC piece 'No-one
in our house works'. On web forums people
are venting their bile at the stereotypically
depicted "feckless scroungers".
Isn't there a more interesting,
original way of framing the unemployment issue
than to show some woman who has never had
a job, and who says things which are guaranteed
to make the "typical Daily Mail reader"
fly into a rage?
It might not be your intention,
but this sort of cliché just stokes
up hate. I think there are many more interesting
ways of approaching the issue - for example,
the odd juxtaposition of rising unemployment
and extremely long average working hours.
As I wrote in Anxiety Culture #1,
1995 (on the "reframing" of unemployment):
Work is still very much a taboo subject -
try taking a discussion beyond the boundaries
of "employment is good, unemployment
is bad", and you quickly get an anxious
or angry reaction. The simple idea that unemployment
is a natural condition of any advanced technological
society, and that it's not inevitably 'bad',
seems beyond most people. The question, "in
what kind of context, or society, can unemployment
be seen as something good?" is therefore
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
Anti-war campaigners should note that these
blows to the Lancet study come not from Neocon
pundits, but from leading researchers in the
relevant fields. Two of the world's most prestigious
scientific journals, Nature
also ran articles which were critical of the
Lancet 2006 study, and the Lancet journal
itself printed several letters
from researchers critical of the study.
Iraq Body Count uses a different methodology
than surveys such as Lancet and IFHS. IBC give
a running tally (necessarily incomplete) of
documented, corroborated deaths, which provides
by far the most detailed and comprehensive data
available. Unlike the surveys, it doesn't use
statistical extrapolation to provide a "total"
estimate of deaths. Another difference is that
IBC counts only violent civilian deaths, whereas
IFHS and Lancet include combatant as well as
civilian deaths in their estimates. IBC's count
of violent civilian deaths is currently approaching
the 100,000 mark.
While the scientific debate continues over
which epidemiological survey (Lancet, ILCS,
IFHS, etc) offers the most useful estimate,
IBC's database demonstrates, beyond all debate,
that the Iraq war and occupation is a bloodbath,
a slaughter of unimaginable horror. Meanwhile,
most people in the UK seem to put more effort
into their local "Neighborhood Watch"
than into holding Blair, Straw, Hoon, Campbell,
etc, to account.
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
In logic, the problem is known as the Misleading
Vividness fallacy, in which the occurrence
of a dramatic event is taken to mean that such
events are more likely to occur (despite statistical
evidence to the contrary). If you won the lottery
yesterday, it doesn't mean there's now an increased
risk of you winning the lottery.
18 July 2007 Following the recent
"attempted terror attacks",
Prime Minister Gordon Brown said: "It is
clear that we are dealing in general terms with
people who are associated with al-Qaeda"
(30/6/07). What isn't clear is how he "knew"
this - it was too early in police investigations
to draw such conclusions, and (reportedly) the
police had no intelligence of any group "planning
such an attack on London". (Guardian,
29/6/07; Times, 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
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.
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):
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
Have you considered running
a story about comparative risks to children?
Or about media fearmongering on child abductions?
Reply from Peter Barron (Editor,
BBC2 Newsnight) [17/5/07]:
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.
Reply from Helen Boaden (Director, BBC News)
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.
pp Helen Boaden
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
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.