Our (archived) reactions to the news/media...

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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 Generalist.

I find it uplifting, erudite and state-of-the-art. Try it...


14 July 2010
Good article at the Comment Factory, titled How 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 comments which follow the article are also well worth reading.

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.

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!

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).

16 December 2009
"Very careful" Shock and Awe? "Shock and awe" is a doctrine proposed by 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).

More details on Roberts's bizarre statement here:

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, (28/7/09, 21.00)
ITV1 - Send in the Dogs (police & their dogs), (28/7/09, 20.00)
ITV1 - Car Crime UK, (28/7/09, 21.00)
BBC1 - Seaside Rescue (29/7/09, 20.30)
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, 22.35)
BBC1 - Traffic Cops (31/7/09, 20.30)
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) light.

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 Guardian. 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, 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.


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 never asked.

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:

Other relevant research:

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.


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
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?


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

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


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