Our updated reactions to the news/media...

Diary of Distractions latest entries >


16 March 2007
A Channel 5 News report on welfare reforms (affecting long-term unemployed and lone parents) announced that, "overall, 92.8 billion pounds were spent on benefits last year". (Channel 5, 4/3/07).

This figure is incorrect. In 2005-2006, out of a total UK welfare expenditure of £123 billion, only £21 billion was spent on working-age benefits (including Income Support, Job Seekers Allowance, Incapacity Benefit, Statutory Sick Pay, etc).*

A recurring media fallacy is that welfare costs more than other areas of government spending combined. This is typically stated in news stories (as above) about unemployment. The implication is that jobless people are by far the biggest drain on the economy. This error arises from confusing unemployment-related benefits with total welfare spending. Over half of the total welfare budget goes on old-age pensions.

We wrote to the Channel 5 reporter, Jane Dougall:

Dear Jane,

Your report on welfare (Channel Five News, 5.55pm, 4/3/07) quoted the figure of £92.8 billion as the overall spent on benefits last year. Where did you get this figure?

To quote the Department for Work and Pensions [Trends 2000/01-2007/08]: "People of working age - Spending stable at just over £30 billion a year in real terms; most spending is through income-related benefits and Incapacity Benefit. Main reasons for benefit receipt among working-age people are unemployment, lone parenthood and sickness or disability."**

Of course, if you include spending on pensions (£70bn per year [2006–07]) you get a much bigger figure - but your report was about getting people into work, etc, not on looking after the elderly. It would be misleading to include pensions costs in this context. [Email from Media Hell to jane.dougall@five.tv, 14/3/07)

Incidentally, according to the DWP, "benefits for unemployed people account for only 13 per cent of all working-age spending in 2006–07. Lone parent benefits account for a further 23 per cent and incapacity-related benefits 36 per cent. The remainder is made up principally of bereavement, carer and maternity benefits."**


21 December 2006
Banks make billions from illegally charging customers "penalty fees" (for bounced cheques, overdrafts, etc). BBC2's Money Programme (12/12/06) investigated this scam and revealed the following:

You can claim back all the penalty fees you've been charged over the past six years (the legal maximum period for reclaiming). You can also charge your bank interest on this. They may object at first, or offer only a partial refund, but eventually they will cave in, because:

• Under the "Unfair Terms in Consumer Contracts Regulations (1999)" penalty charges have to reflect administrative costs - profiting from them isn't allowed. The banks make an estimated £4.5 billion in profit from such charges each year.

• Penalty charges are often £30 or higher, but the cost of processing overdrafts, bounced cheques, etc, is estimated at between £2.50 and £4.50, depending on the amount of manual intervention. In 80% of cases there is no manual intervention.

Although your bank may initially threaten to defend itself in court against your refund claim, no bank has done so to date. This is because they know they have little chance of winning, and they are petrified of bad publicity. In practice, people determined to be refunded have been fully refunded (in some cases by thousands of pounds).

More details:

How to reclaim your money:

1 November 2006
A new study published by the Lancet claims that "approximately 600,000 people have been killed in the violence of the war that began with the U.S. invasion in March 2003".

This figure was produced by statistical extrapolation from a survey of over 1,800 households, and includes civilians and "combatants". It isn't comparable to the figure produced by Iraq Body Count (approximately 50,000) which represents a running tally of corroborated, media-reported, civilian deaths (and which isn't presented by IBC as the "true" total, since media reports necessarily provide only a sample of overall deaths).

More comparable (in terms of methodology used) is the larger (over 21,000 households surveyed) ILCS survey, which found a much lower number of violent deaths (in an overlapping period – it estimated nearly 24,000 civilian deaths in the first 13 months of the conflict) than is implied by the new study.

Jon Pedersen, research director for the ILCS study, is quoted by the Washington Post as claiming that the Lancet numbers are "high, and probably way too high. I would accept something in the vicinity of 100,000 but 600,000 is too much."

Researchers at Oxford University and Royal Holloway, University of London have argued that the Lancet study's methodology is "fundamentally flawed and will result in an over-estimation of the death toll in Iraq". They claim the study suffers from "main street bias" by only surveying houses that are located on streets which intersect main roads (which would make it unrepresentative of the Iraqi population as a whole).

Also, the team of researchers behind Iraq Body Count has raised some questions about the implications of an estimate of over 600,000 violent deaths. For example, a discrepancy of 500,000 death certificates (between the number the Lancet study implies were issued and the number recorded centrally as having been issued).

On the other hand, twenty-seven academics are signatory to an article in The Age, citing the Lancet's figure of over 600,000 dead as "the best estimate of mortality to date in Iraq". However, the article ignores the larger ILCS study (whose figures – as mentioned above – don't support the Lancet's), and doesn't address the difficulties of validating such surveys in conflict zones (a use they weren't originally designed for).

In short, much of the criticism of the new study seems to warrant further investigation, and probably shouldn't be conflated with uninformed dismissals from the likes of George Bush.

http://tinyurl.com/yygn5z (Washington Post blog)
http://tinyurl.com/ycxyyh ('The Age' article)
http://www.rhul.ac.uk/economics/Research/conflict-analysis/iraq-mortality/ (Main street bias)
http://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/WO0610/S00436.htm (Main street bias)
(Lancet paper, free registration required)
http://web.mit.edu/CIS/pdf/Human_Cost_of_War.pdf (Associated paper by Lancet team)

7 September 2006
A postman was suspended from his job after delivering his own leaflets on how to avoid junk mail. Roger Annies was accused of misconduct (and faced dismissal) for notifying residents of an opt-out service that the Post Office provides on request. His leaflet read:

"As you will have certainly already noticed, your postman is not only delivering your mail; he/she also has to deliver some (anonymous) advertising material called door-to-door items. For the near future, Royal Mail plans to increase your advertising mail [...] You may be interested in reducing your unwanted advertising mail, and reduce paper usage in order to help save the environment. If you complete the slip below and send it to the Royal Mail delivery office, you should not get any of the above mentioned unwanted advertising."

Within days, his local sorting office received at least 70 completed forms demanding an end to junk mail. A Royal Mail spokesman said: "If we did not deliver unaddressed promotional items then someone else would". (Times, 29/8/06) http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,2-2332337,00.html

8 August 2006
Last year, Tony Blair said: "our system starts from the proposition that its duty is to protect the innocent from being wrongly convicted. Don't misunderstand me. That must be the duty of any criminal justice system. But surely our primary duty should be to allow law-abiding people to live in safety. It means a complete change of thinking." (Our emphasis)

It's true the foundations of the legal system (eg trial by jury) were put in place to protect people from abuses of power. But what does Blair imagine has changed since the system was founded?

He seems to be implying that the threat from crime (but not from authoritarian government) is greater now than at any other time since, presumably, Magna Carta. There's no evidence to support this (even if "terrorism" is included as a subset of crime). On the contrary, scholarly consensus holds that over the long-term, society has become more peaceful, with massive falls in violent crime. For example:

"In Britain the incidence of homicide has fallen by a factor of at least ten to one since the thirteenth century [...] The long-term declining trend evidently is a manifestation of cultural change in Western society." (Ted Robert Gurr, Historical Trends in Violent Crimes, 1981)

"Serious interpersonal violence decreased remarkably in Europe between the mid-sixteenth and the early twentieth centuries."
(Manuel Eisner, Long-Term Historical Trends in Violent Crime, 2003) http://www.journals.uchicago.edu/CJ/039104.pdf

"Personal violence - homicide - has declined in Western Europe from the high levels of the Middle Ages. Homicide rates fell in the early modern era and dropped even further in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries." (Eric Monkkonen, Homicide: Explaining America's Exceptionalism, 2006)

6 July 2006
Knife crime is the latest media-hyped panic. The UK press have reported an "epidemic" of stabbings. The crime figures show something different: no rise in knife killings in the last decade. In 1995 there were 243 murders with sharp instruments; last year there were 236. Over the last decade the average weekly number of knife murders has been four and a half. In the midst of the current panic, there have been no more than four knife murders a week.

Politicians/media didn't reassure the public with these facts. Instead we had the usual hysteria-fest, with political parties competing to be "toughest" on crime. In fact, overall crime continues to steadily decrease, down 43% since 1995 (according to the authoritative British Crime Survey), and is falling in Europe.

Tony Blair recently held a crime seminar in Downing Street. According to reports from dismayed criminologists who attended (as relayed by the Guardian columnist, Polly Toynbee), Blair "seemed to mix together low-level antisocial behaviour with serious crime, terror and other international crime into a single pot of alarm". (Guardian, 9/6/06) http://www.guardian.co.uk/print/0,,329500440-103390,00.html

7 June 2006
Famous "Free Enterprisers" (Part 1). J.P. Morgan (1837-1913) – a famous name in "free enterprise" – started out in business by swindling the US government. The 23 yr-old Morgan bankrolled a scam to buy 5,000 rifles declared dangerous by the US army (they blew up in soldiers' hands) for $3.50 each. These were then resold as "new" (but actually unmodified and still dangerous) to another branch of the army, for $22 each.

After 2,500 guns were shipped, the scam exploded. But Morgan didn't back down in shame, caught defrauding his country. Instead he sued for full payment, and eventually won. The Court of Claims ruled a contract was a contract. (Source: An Underground Education, Richard Zacks)

14 April 2006
After the BBC upheld our complaint about a fundamental error in a BBC report on crime rates, they then misreported our complaint. We'd complained about an incorrect (and scaremongering) claim that violent crime had "significantly" increased (when statistics showed otherwise). This was in a headline BBC1 10 O'Clock news report on latest crime figures.

After a long investigation, the BBC's Editorial Complaints Unit (ECU) ruled that BBC1 news had "breached editorial guidelines" on "truth and accuracy", and that there was "no basis" for claiming a significant rise in violent crime. But the opening to the published summary of their ruling was worded (incorrectly and ineptly, we think) as follows:

"A listener complained that the introduction to a report about measures about gang culture in the Ten O'Clock News (BBC One, 20 October 2005) made the erroneous claim that violent crime had increased significantly."

We pointed out that our complaint had nothing to do with an item on "gang culture" (which was a completely separate item that followed the report on crime figures), and suggested a clearer wording: "A listener complained that the report of the official crime figures..."

The head of ECU said he agreed that the wording was in error to the extent that it shouldn't have included the words "about measures" (which he subsequently removed), but disagreed on the "gang culture" point. See if you can make any sense of what he wrote:

"...it would be wrong to give readers the impression that [our ruling] also related to the report which followed [on gang culture]. I included the information that the report was "about gang culture" to guard against that impression, by making clear that the topic of the report was entirely distinct from the theme of your complaint." (Letter from Head of ECU to Anxiety Culture editor, 10/3/06)

BBC's ruling on our complaint >
Our original complaint to the BBC, and further details >

9 March 2006
According to Mojo magazine (February 2006), the BBC banned a number of songs during the first Gulf War, because "they might cause offence". These included "Walk like an Egyptian" (The Bangles), "Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting" (Elton John) and others.

Some innocuous TV ads were also banned (from commercial channels) – eg a Cadbury's Caramel ad featuring cartoon bunny-rabbit and soldier ants.

It makes you wonder: do the censors (whoever they are) employ some pretty FAR-OUT psychologists to vet all media output?

8 February 2006
The latest official UK crime figures were published on January 26. Violent crime has dropped by 43% over the past decade, according to the British Crime Survey (Guardian 27/1/06). BBC1 10pm News (26/1/06) chose to ignore this, and instead focused on the 11% increase in robberies – due mainly to increased use/theft of iPods, mobiles, etc.

Barry Glassner's book, The Culture of Fear, noted a similar fear-mongering tendency in US media: "Why, as crime rates plunged throughout the 1990s, did two-thirds of Americans believe they were soaring. How did it come about that by mid-decade 62 percent of us described ourselves as 'truly desperate' about crime - almost twice as many as in the late 1980s when crime rates were higher?"

Latest UK crime figures (PDF file): http://www.homeoffice.gov.uk/rds/pdfs06/hosb0306.pdf >

13 January 2006
Former Pope a cocaine-head and corporate product-endorser. It's no urban myth that Coca Cola originally contained cocaine (as well as four times the current level of caffeine). That was back in 1886. The aim of Coca Cola was to duplicate the success of a popular European cocaine-laced wine called Vin Mariani.

Pope Leo XIII endorsed this wine – an advertisement from the time has a big picture of Pope Leo, with the caption: "His Holiness the Pope writes that he has fully appreciated the beneficent effects of this Tonic Wine and has forwarded to Mr. Mariani as a token of his gratitude a gold medal bearing his august effigy." (Source: 'Underground Education' by Richard Zacks).

Cocaine, of course, was legal in those days. As was heroin, the main ingredient of a popular cough remedy, "Dr James Soothing Syrup".

22 November 2005
BBC amends news story after we complain. The Director of BBC News responded to us as follows (after we criticised a BBC report on "benefits fraud"):

Dear Mr Dean

Thank you for your email about our coverage on Friday of the NAO report. The home editor of our news website had some sympathy with your concerns and [has] modified the focus of the online report to emphasise the complexity of the [benefits] system rather than the issue of fraud.
[Helen Boaden, BBC Director of News, in email to Anxiety Culture editor, 21/11/05]

This is about the BBC exaggerating the problem of "benefits fraud" (yet again). Presented with a report primarily about administrative complexity/error in the welfare system, the BBC turned it into a story about fraud (a BBC Radio 4 presenter used the term "scroungers")...

Last week, the National Audit Office (NAO) published a report, 'Dealing with the complexity of the benefits system'. It found an over-complex system, but no direct link between complexity and fraud.

BBC Online's headline was: "Benefit system is 'open to fraud'." BBC Radio 4 ('Today' news, 18/11/05) announced that "nearly £3 billion is lost due to fraud and error". But the NAO report doesn't include the phrase "open to fraud", and the "£3 billion" figure seems to be a figment of a BBC reporter's imagination.

The NAO report is clear:
"In 2004-05, the Department [for Work and Pensions] estimated that [fraud] amounted to around £900 million. There is no evidence to establish to what extent this was due to the complex system." [p10]

Anyway, at least the BBC have now changed their report –
Original headline: Benefit system is 'open to fraud'
Amended headline: UK benefits system 'too complex'

Incidentally, it's worth comparing the cost of benefits fraud (£0.9 billion) to other things:
• Corporate tax avoidance: £85 billion (Guardian, 12/4/02)
• Business fraud: £14 billion (BBC Radio 4, 'Today', 23/8/01)
• Government fraud in Whitehall: £5 billion (BBC Radio 4 News, 1996)

http://www.nao.org.uk/publications/nao_reports/05-06/0506592.pdf > (NAO report, pdf)
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/4447948.stm > (Amended BBC report)

25 October 2005
I sent the following email to BBC reporter Mark Easton after a bizarre BBC1 news report on violent crime (see, also, the related news item):

Dear Mark,

I enjoyed your report (BBC1 News, 20/10/05), but felt that it was another lost opportunity to clarify the reported "increase" in violent crime.

Fiona Bruce introduced your piece by claiming violent crime had "significantly" increased. I regard this as misleading, if not downright false. Your report unfortunately gave no clarification.

The British Crime Survey shows violence down by 7%. Recorded violence, however, has risen due to a new system requiring that police record every minor fracas (one drunken youth hitting two people is now recorded as two violent crimes).

The only "significant" thing about the reported increase in violence is that it reflects no actual increase in violence. The Association of Chief Police Officers and the British Crime Survey agree on this. When will BBC1 news point it out?

Your report graphically depicted the horror of being shot. But it didn't mention that gun crime is stable (ie not rising, with the exception of crimes involving replica guns). Surely this fact is important given the context of the report (ie Fiona Bruce's introductory remarks)?

Public fears over violent crime are increasing. Why is this, when violent crime is actually stable or falling? Could it have something to do with news reports which focus on gruesome (but rare) cases whilst omitting to present the real trends?

I appreciate that your report focused on a side-issue (a youth project to make a video against gun culture). As a self-contained piece on urban culture, I'd have no problem with it. But it was presented as "news" - it was shown as a news report accompanying the news headline about an "increase" in violence.

The effect was bizarre and shocking (especially the graphic simulation of a young girl being shot in the head, complete with spray of blood and resulting panic, in the first few seconds of your report). Can you see how this might be regarded as remote from what most people consider to be "news"?

Latest crime figures: http://www.homeoffice.gov.uk/rds/pdfs05/hosb1805.pdf (PDF)
See, also, our page on media scaremongering >

5 October 2005
The head of MI5 has warned that civil liberties might have to be eroded to combat the threat of terrorism:

"We also value civil liberties ... But the world has changed and there needs to be a debate on whether some erosion of what we all value may be necessary to improve the chances of our citizens not being blown apart."

The chances of not being struck by lightning are so good that we don't concern ourselves with improving them. The chances of not being blown apart by terrorists are similarly good (in most places on earth, including UK and US) – so why the hell "erode civil liberties" to improve them?

Sure, take a few common-sense precautions (like not bombing poor countries, or like not playing golf in a thunder storm), but leave it at that.

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/4232012.stm (MI5 quote)
(Meanwhile, latest US state department figures show terrorism at its lowest level in 35 years: http://www.state.gov/s/ct/rls/pgtrpt/2003/31751.htm)

8 September 2005
The mainstream media doesn't often depict poverty in "developed" nations (US, UK, Europe, etc). In fact such depictions are so rare that many people believe there is no "real" poverty in these countries. If everyone has a TV and phone, how can there be poverty?

The New Orleans media coverage at least shows that TV ownership might not be a good criterion for establishing whether or not people suffer from poverty. In many circumstances, people need spare income. The amount one gets from selling the TV and phone probably won't do the trick.

20 July 2005
Today I had a letter of mine published by both the Times and the Independent:

Dear Editor,
Tony Blair dismissed the Lancet report on Iraqi deaths. He also dismissed the LSE report on ID-card costs. He now dismisses the Chatham House report linking the London bombings to the Iraq war. Is it rational behaviour to simply dismiss everything that contradicts one's worldview?

Incidentally, the Times printed my letter quite prominently, in a separate section next to a letter from the Iraqi Ambassador. The latter reads like a catalogue of bad logic – it "argues" that the Chatham House report (which claimed that the Iraq invasion increased the likelihood of terrorist attack in Britain) is "gravely misleading", without saying why. It simply lists the usual "straw man" cliches:

"The response to terror is not to back down and bury our heads in the sand..." (As if the Chatham House report – or anyone else – claims that this is the right response).

"If we Iraqis surrendered to the terrorists in our country, would they stop blowing up our children?" (As if the Chatham House report – or anyone else – suggests that Iraqis should surrender to terrorists).

"Can you imagine how the face of history would have changed if Britain had appeased Hitler?" (As if the Chatham House report – or anyone else – suggests that Hitler, or equivalent, should've been "appeased").

Perhaps what the world needs most right now is a course in basic logic.

4 July, 2005
ID-Card PR – The UK government claims that new biometric ID cards (which require fingerprinting/eye-scanning of the population) will prevent terrorism and benefit fraud. But there's little evidence to support this claim.

According to a recent study by Privacy International (2004), there's no evidence to suggest that identity cards can combat terrorism. Their report states: "The presence of an identity card is not recognised by analysts as a meaningful or significant component in anti-terrorism strategies." Meanwhile, US Department of State (link currently dead – see links immediately below) figures show terrorism at its lowest levels for 35 years.

http://www.state.gov/s/ct/rls/crt/2003/c12108.htm (see the "Year in review" section)
http://www.state.gov/documents/organization/31912.pdf (7.4MB PDF file)

As for benefit fraud, the government admits that false identity represents only a tiny fraction of benefit fraud – only £50 million out of an estimated £2 billion yearly total. (ID cards could cost £19 billion according to recent estimates – nearly 400 times the cost of identity fraud in the benefits system).

http://www.privacyinternational.org/issues/idcard/uk/id-terrorism.pdf (PDF file)
http://tinyurl.com/7vlxp (LSE estimate of ID card cost)
http://www.no2id.net/IDSchemes/faq.php (Good FAQ on ID cards)
http://www.state.gov/s/ct/rls/pgtrpt/2003/31751.htm (terrorism figures)

I sent the following letters to various UK newspapers:
(STOP PRESS: the second letter – on comparative cost of ID cards – was published in the Guardian newspaper on 6 July 2005)

Dear Editor,

The only research ever conducted on the relationship between ID cards and terrorism (by Privacy International, 2004) found no evidence to support the claim that identity cards can combat terrorist threats. Meanwhile, US Department of State figures show terrorism at its lowest levels for 35 years. What is the point of ID cards?

Dear Editor,

The cost of identity fraud in the benefits system is 400 times less than the potential cost of ID cards, according to recent estimates - ie £50 million (DWP identity-fraud estimate) compared with £19 billion (LSE ID-card estimate). Is this good value for the taxpayer?

(For a list of newspaper email addresses, please see our Letters to Newspapers page.)

5 May 2005
Sections of the media (eg BBC and ITN) failed to highlight the following over recent leaks on Iraq:

The Attorney-General's (7/3/03) legal advice to Tony Blair says: "regime change cannot be the objective of military action". (From section 36 of the advice – http://tinyurl.com/9mrmx [693KB pdf])

This is confirmed in a high-level leaked memo published by the Sunday Times: "The Attorney-General said that the desire for regime change was not a legal base for military action." http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,2087-1593607,00.html

And it's confirmed in a civil service briefing paper: "Regime change per se is not a proper basis for military action under international law."

The same briefing paper reveals that Blair had decided on regime change by April 2002: "When the prime minister discussed Iraq with President Bush at Crawford in April, he said that the UK would support military action to bring about regime change."

"What is important is that whatever action we take is done in accordance with international law" – Tony Blair

1 April 2005
An increasing number of top celebrities appear in TV ads, whoring their talents to endorse overpriced crap. Are they short of money or something? The latest is John Travolta flogging Heineken – until it's reported he's teetotal. And Ray Liotta, previously edgy star of films such as Goodfellas – now foolish star of marketing crud.

11 January 2005
A correspondent of ours complained to the BBC that the number of tsunami death-counts reported by the BBC over a few days exceeded the total number of Iraqi death-counts reported since 2003. The BBC's director of news, Helen Boaden, replied as follows:

"I think the real problem is that the estimates of Iraqi civilian dead are so divergent and so open to challenge that we find it very hard to quote them in brief news items."

Well, the claims of Saddam's WMD threat were also "divergent" and "open to challenge", but that didn't stop the BBC reporting such scary claims frequently.

9th December 2004
Neuromarketing is a term for the ways marketers use knowledge of the brain to sell you stuff – and to manipulate you. An example of a neuromarketer is Clotaire Rapaille, head of Archetype Discoveries Worldwide – a marketing consultancy that has some big corporate clients. Rapaille's work involves identifying "unconscious codes" that access the "reptilian brain". He also seems to be involved in political PR. I'm reminded of a line from the political novel, Primary Colors:

"You want to use value words. You connect midbrain, subcortical – you want to hit them down in their lizard brains... where they don't think – where they just, y'know, react..."

Here are a few interesting interviews with Rapaille:
http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/persuaders/interviews/rapaille.html >
http://www.onthemedia.org/transcripts/transcripts_050704_wizard.html >

11th November 2004
Official accounts say it took several armies, $100 billion and thousands of civilian deaths to remove a national leader (Saddam Hussein).

Official accounts also say it took one man, unaided and with a budget of $1 (for bullets), to remove a national leader (JFK).

Saddam Hussein's security must've been 100 billion times better than JFK's. Or maybe inflation has been higher than reported since 1963.

6th October 2004
See if you can figure out "free market" economics from the following media snippets:

"Soap. 24p. See, the more we sell the less we charge."
(Tesco soap ad, 17/9/04)

"A rail operator is withdrawing a range of cheap tickets because too many people were using them. Central Rail is ending its cheap day returns... it found they were too popular" (Ceefax, 18/9/04)

1st September 2004
UK Politician Adam Price has launched a campaign to impeach Tony Blair for misleading us over Iraq (http://impeachblair.org). In a BBC Newsnight interview with Price, presenter Gavin Esler seemed determined to dismiss the evidence against Blair as "political differences". I sent him the following email:

Dear Gavin,

In the first 15 seconds, Adam Price mentioned the "compelling evidence" that Blair "misled" the country. You interrupted:

"...You're trying to criminalise political differences – we've gone over this endlessly on the programme... we know the political differences."

Ironically, many see Newsnight reducing a catalogue of factual evidence to the status of "political difference". Take one example: the student thesis masquerading as a dossier – hardly a "political difference". And no "endless" coverage by Newsnight there. Wouldn't you agree there might be a case for impeachment when a government publishes a fraudulent document to support its case for war?

In the inquiries, Blair appointed his own judges and juries. Nothing but respectful sighs from Newsnight. But when someone outside of Blair's circle attempts to hold him accountable, your first question is: "This isn't just a stunt is it?"

3rd August 2004
You don't expect logical argument from politicians, but you expect at least a crude, kindergarten level of logical analysis from the "respectable" media (eg BBC). But apparently that's too much to ask. Tony Blair was widely reported making the following "argument":

"The war removed Saddam Hussein. Removing Saddam Hussein was a good thing. Therefore the war was justified."

Logically, this argument is equivalent to saying: "Robbing a bank helps pay the rent. Paying the rent is a good thing. Therefore robbing a bank is justified".

Maybe Blair could attempt to construct a less flawed argument if pressed (eg add premises/qualifications, insert logical steps on the way to his conclusion, etc). But he isn't pressed. BBC reporters and commentators seem incapable of even the most elementary logical criticism (which is an entirely different matter than issues of so-called "political neutrality", etc.)

22nd June 2004
The glossy mainstream style mag, Sleaze, printed an article of mine about consumer debt. They ruined it by adding their own careless prose (without informing me). Here's the opening paragraph they tacked on:

"As you've no doubt seen in endless weekend supplements and on TV panel discussions, Britain has a "borrowing" problem. Endless facts and figures tell us we're spending too much, while the overall message is that we're greedy consumers who can't stop buying. Thing is, it's not our fault... In fact, our national debt has helped the UK out of potential recession, and guess who's stuck with the bill?"

This confuses "national debt" with consumer debt. It relies on overused journalistic clichés ("guess who's stuck with the bill"). It has unconscious repetition syndrome ("endless" repeated in second sentence). Also, the line "Thing is, it's not our fault" sounds more like a reflexive grunt of defensiveness than an argument.

As if this wasn't bad enough, I didn't get paid (Sleaze's publishing company has gone into liquidation). "Moral": don't be flattered when mainstream publishers approach you.

The Sleaze Debt article (minus their inept editing) >

1st June 2004
Elections due in UK on European issues. Lots of frenzied political campaigning – leaflets through letterbox, etc. At the moment, my thinking on politics/politicians is: "leave me alone". Put a poster up in my window saying: "E-democracy – electrons welcome, politicians unwelcome".

10th May 2004
A "mystery shopper" bought a store's entire stock of Mars bars, costing GBP 2,131 (10,656 bars). The woman took advantage of a "five bars for a pound" offer at a London Woolworths. She was reportedly non-white, and Saddam Hussein is fond of Mars bars, so you'd think that, at the very least, there'd be a terrorist alert. (The Sun, 5/5/04)

7th April 2004
The UK media hypes the "threat" of "asylum seekers" who "crowd" the country. Why would anyone take this more seriously than the monarchy's claim that it shoots deer only to reduce deer overpopulation? I mean, when did deer overpopulation – or immigrant overcrowding – last make you late for work?

When climate change puts half of the Northern hemisphere underwater, we'll all become asylum seekers. How's that for scaremongering one-upmanship?

1st February 2004
Monopoly irony: Ghettopoly, a new game (roll a six, collect $50 "for services your hoe provided") has attracted legal action from Hasbro, owner of rights to Monopoly. But Ghettopoly's UK promoter claims Hasbro stole Monopoly from the Quakers.

Monopoly originated as "The Landlord's Game", created by Quaker Lizzie Magie to promote the ideas of "alternative" economist Henry George – to demonstrate the extortion and wealth-monopolisation inherent in the landlord system.

12th January 2004
Work kills more than war. The ILO* estimates that approximately two million workers lose their lives annually due to occupational injuries and illnesses – equivalent to 5,000 workers dying each day. This is more than double the figure for deaths from warfare (650,000 deaths per year). According to the ILO's SafeWork programme, work kills more people than alcohol and drugs together.
(*ILO: United Nations' International Labor Organisation, 24/4/02)

14th December 2003
Development of the Eurofighter aircraft (a UK/European military project) went over budget by £30 billion, with a total cost of £50 billion. It's a decade overdue – some defence experts say it's already an obsolete "dinosaur". The total cost to UK taxpayers was £20 billion – approximately £1,000 per household.

These large sums mean little without comparison, so compare the yearly cost of "Jobseekers Allowance" (unemployment welfare) for the whole UK: £2.3 billion (latest government figure).

(Source: 'Eurofighter: Weapon of Mass Construction', BBC2, 11/11/03)

26th October 2003
It's reported that Rupert Murdoch meets Tony Blair regularly, visiting Downing Street at least every 6 months. Murdoch's empire includes UK newspapers The Times, Sun, Sunday Times and News of the World. Newscorp Investments is Murdoch's main holding company in the UK. Its accounts reportedly show profits of billions since 1987, yet it has effectively paid no tax in the UK since 1988 – receiving tax rebates in some years that have cancelled out payments in others.

Corporate tax avoidance costs Britain £85 billion a year, according to estimates in the Guardian (12/4/02). That's enough to pay the total cost of unemployment benefits (about £5 billion a year) for 17 years.

16th August 2003
Arnold Schwarzenegger told the Financial Times: "I am more comfortable with an Adam Smith philosophy than with Keynesian theory."

Arnie sounds like the latest in a line of politicians, business-folk and economic conservatives bowing to Adam Smith, without having read his work. I hope "the public" eventually gets the joke, which is that Smith, in many ways, seems like the kind of "whining leftist" that fiscal conservatives (like Arnie) loathe. For example, Smith wrote that markets lead to a type of labour which dehumanises workers. He also wrote of the merchant class "conspiring" against, "deceiving" and "oppressing" the public.

1st August 2003
Road traffic congestion is a major problem. The UK government recently announced that its "solution" is to widen roads. Meanwhile, a survey of British Telecom home-workers estimated that 3,149 miles a year, on average, were saved per person working at home (compared with travelling to the office). Most of these miles would have been by car rather than by public transport.
(Source: MOTORS AND MODEMS REVISITED, a report by National Economic Research Associates)

According to Edmund King, executive director of the RAC Foundation: "If each employee could work from home just one day per week we would see a 20% cut in [road] traffic."

Presumably working from home would also reduce fossil fuel consumption and pollution. Government policy (to repeat): widen roads; ignore reason.

8th July 2003
A UK sex-toys chain recently won a legal battle to overturn a ban on it advertising vacancies in job centres. Since the unemployed must accept any available job (or risk losing their benefits), I foresee embarrassing moments for job centre bureaucrats.

Ironically, the ban was supposedly to protect jobseekers, not bureaucrats, from humiliation. Funny, I always thought the general policy was to create maximum humiliation for the unemployed.

19th June 2003
The inept "historian" Andrew Roberts, in one of his numerous media appearances (does he give sexual favours to TV chiefs, or is he related, or both?), described the war on Iraq as "brilliant". Meanwhile, the Guardian reports that Iraqi civilian deaths may number upto 10,000. "Appalling", "tragic", "criminal" or "brilliant"? – take your pick of adjectives. But maybe I'm misinterpreting Roberts – perhaps he merely thought the soldiers' uniforms were brilliant.

1st June 2003
Bush says "have patience" in the search for WMD, unless it's Hans Blix doing the searching, in which case "have no patience". Rumsfeld suggests Iraq deviously destroyed WMD before the war. Well, that's what he told Iraq to do before the war; that's what Iraq said they'd done before the war; that's what Blix was trying to confirm before the war.

7th May 2003
Many people compare western democracies to dictatorial regimes. This is unfair and unpatriotic. It's true that western governments hold bogus elections, break international laws, start wars, forge intelligence, bug diplomats, broadcast lies and censor the media...

...But they are entitled to, because they're democracies. And dictatorships aren't. That is the difference.

13th April 2003
“Baghdad’s joy at being liberated” (as BBC news presenter Peter Sissons put it) was communicated to the world via TV pictures of "jubilant scenes" accompanying the symbolic toppling of a statue of Saddam Hussein. Baghdad has a population of 5 million; only a few hundred people were involved in the jubilation scenes. A long-shot photo of the event gives a very different impression from the TV hype: http://www.informationclearinghouse.info/article2842.htm

20th March 2003
Hans Blix stated (BBC Radio 4 ‘Today’ 20/3/03) that Iraq cooperated in the inspections process this year. He also stated that no WMD has been found, that US intelligence on WMD was poor and sometimes bogus. He said that lack of accounting of destruction of WMD wasn’t evidence of existence of WMD.

The BBC, believed by many to be politically impartial, has consistently misreported Blix’s reports. More than once I’ve heard BBC news claim that the inspectors report no cooperation from Iraq.

I’ve seen a parade of politicians and media-pundits assert that Iraq has 10,000 litres of anthrax. This ignores and contradicts Blix’s reports, yet is unchallenged by BBC presenters.

A case for war based on endlessly repeated assertions, unsupported by evidence, unquestioned by the media, unmitigated by common sense, unconvincing to most people, and unspeakable to the thousands of Iraqis about to be slaughtered.

5th March 2003
Robert Kagan, co-chair of Project for the New American Century (PNAC – a rightwing think-tank), has coined the slogan “Americans are from Mars and Europeans are from Venus” from his theory about power-loving Americans v. peace-loving Europeans. He argues that we need the “American way” (military might) when operating in the “jungle” (ie the Third World).

It looks like a ‘Mickey Mouse’ theory, yet Kagan is getting a lot of media attention (Guardian article, BBC Newsnight interview, etc).

Of course, it’s not about “Europeans” and “Americans”, it’s about politics. In which case, a better slogan might be: “US politics are from Arse and Euro-politics are from Anus”.

For more about PNAC, see:

8th January 2003
The media seem to use the term “conspiracy theory” to discredit perfectly plausible viewpoints. For example, the BBC described as “conspiracy theory” the belief that US oil interests are behind the war on Iraq.

Meanwhile, the official (but unproved) theory of a link – a conspiracy – between Saddam and al-Qaida is never described as a “conspiracy theory” by the media.

Most of what George Bush says about threats to “our” safety sounds very much like conspiracy theory. The “Axis of Evil” out to destroy “our” “way of life”? Holy shit, call Batman! Or, better, Michelle Pfeiffer in a latex catwoman-suit. You can’t destroy imaginary conspiracies with bombs. You need imaginary FBI agents (Jodie Foster, Gillian Anderson – catsuits optional).

To deal with imaginary military threats, the Pentagon hawks can imagine watching faked footage of “smart” bombs dropping down air-vents while they play with their imaginary genitals.

22 December 2002
Had the following letter published in The Guardian (on 19/12/02):

Dear Editor,
So, no public money to improve pensions, no money for public-sector wage increases, no money for students, precious little money to improve public transport. But didn’t productivity rise dramatically during the technological revolution? Didn’t national wealth soar? So where is all the money going, and what happened to the dream of increased leisure?

18th December 2002
The Independent and The Daily Express printed the following letter of mine on 13/12/02:

Dear Editor,
The government has overlooked an obvious way to tackle road congestion: give employers financial incentives to allow staff to work from home. If only 10% of office staff worked one day a week at home, we’d notice a significant reduction in road traffic (and pollution).

The Sun (surprisingly) printed another letter of mine on 28/11/02:

Dear Editor,
If Tony Blair thinks we can’t afford the firefighters’ 16% pay rise, maybe it’s time to close the tax loopholes exploited by the super-rich. That should generate around £85 billion (according to previous press reports) – more than enough to fund generous public sector pay rises.

(For a list of newspaper email addresses, please see our Letters to Newspapers page.)

28 November 2002
If anyone is confused with all the economic talk about inflation and deflation, etc (I certainly am), it might help to remember two simple laws: F.L.E.E.C.E. and S.L.E.A.Z.E., which, together, underlie the whole intellectual edifice of conventional economics:

F.L.E.E.C.E. (First Law Explaining Everything Concerning Economics) states:
“Never give the peasants a reason to believe they should be better off than they already are”.

S.L.E.A.Z.E. (Second Law Explaining Apostolic Zeal in Economists) states:
“The more economists obey the first law, the more they get paid”.

16 November 2002
According to a Channel 4 survey, 32% of Britons see George Bush as a greater threat to peace than Saddam Hussein. This kind of “wrong-thinking disrespect” of America’s leader has been criticised by Prime Minister Tony Blair, novelist Martin Amis, and various others. They say that it doesn’t help to portray Bush as a moron. And that we shouldn’t be spreading the following kind of joke:

When Dubya was just a youngster, he went to the chemist and asked the pharmacist, “Sir, can you tell me where the ribbed condoms are?”

The chemist replied, “Son, do you know what condoms are used for?”

“Sure do. They keep you from getting venereal diseases.”

The chemist was impressed. “That’s right, son. Do you know what the ribs are for?”

Dubya paused and then answered, “Well, not really, but they sure do make the hair on my goat’s back stand up.”

(Taken from: http://www.rawilson.com/jokes.shtml)

5 October 2002
We’ve launched a campaign to abolish the Nobel Peace Prize, and to replace it with a Nobel Prize for Minimising Collateral Damage Whilst Militarily Enforcing Peace.

The way it would work is that national leaders could be nominated for the new Nobel prize if their military campaigns (for peace) killed or maimed less than, say, 100,000 innocent civilians. (The exact number would be subject to negotiation by the Nobel panel, nominated world leaders and Mars, the god of war).

Back to top >

17 September 2002
Iraq has agreed to unconditional
weapons inspections, which seems to put “containment and deterrence” back onto the agenda. Containment and deterrence of the lunatics in the Pentagon, that is.

10 September 2002
Tony Blair’s logic goes as follows: “We can’t just do NOTHING, therefore we must use military action”. This is curiously similar to the logic of his welfare-to-work policy: “We can’t have people sitting at home doing NOTHING, therefore we must force people into low-paid shit-jobs”.

It’s a strange inability to see more than two options where thousands exist, and it seems to be a common mental defect among politicians. Perhaps it proves the argument that having your head up your RECTUM on a regular basis is more psychologically damaging than regular cannabis use?

28 August 2002
If President Coke and the Pentagon junta really desire war and environmental collapse, what media-friendly PR message can they put across next (after the failure of the “Evil Saddam” ruse). The answer is simple: the economy is at stake.

War and eco-disaster good for the economy? Sure, why not? There’s a perfectly logical economic rationale. Read any conventional economics textbook – you’ll see that the capitalist economic system is based on the idea of scarcity. In fact, without scarcity of resources, the fiercely competitive, dog-eat-dog capitalist approach would seem absurd. If there’s an abundance of resources for everyone, why be competitive?

We’re now approaching a post-scarcity era (with potentially enough to go around for everyone). That’s a threat to the status quo. For the current economic system to survive, we need to ensure the continuation of scarcity. War and environmental collapse are good ways to guarantee scarcity. It all makes sense, after all.

19 July 2002
Here’s what some US conservatives say about the current corporate scandals (Enron, etc):

“People shouldn’t take political advantage of it”

Strange. After all, the political system – like the market – runs on competition and self-interest. Which means that everyone should always take political advantage of everything. George W Bush, for example, magnificently took political advantage of September 11th. So, Mr Corporate Conservative, don’t knock political opportunism – great nations are built on it.

12th July 2002
According to today’s newspapers, the average person in Britain is burgled only once every 50 years. I’ve cancelled my ‘home contents’ insurance policy. (Guardian 12/7/2002)

5th July 2002
In their campaign to stamp out terror, the peace-loving nations have now bombed (killed) over 5,000 innocent civilians. Each time we bomb some more people, our politicians say:

“Nobody wants civilian casualties, but this is war, and, sadly, the innocent get hurt in war”.

Which, of course, is nothing like an arsonist saying:

“Nobody wants people burnt alive, but this is arson, and, sadly, people get burned when I torch buildings”.

Not that we’d compare politicians to arsonists. Arsonists sometimes take responsibility for their actions.

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27th June 2002
Many Hollywood stars are enlightened. They get paid vast sums for work they love. But they are so free from ego and vanity that they think nothing of SHITTING their talents away on product endorsements. This is spiritual non-attachment in action. Non-attachment to the neocortex; non-attachment to the brainstem.

17th June 2002
Income inequality, the growing gap between the rich and poor, is acknowledged as fact by most people. The disagreement begins over how damaging it is. “Free market” fundamentalists argue that inequality is necessary to the healthy functioning of a market economy. Maybe they should pay more attention to the writings of their own hero – Adam Smith, the so-called godfather of capitalism. Smith argued that only under conditions of equality (not inequality) could a market function efficiently, and that the measure of a properly functioning market would be its tendency to create income equality (not inequality).

7th May 2002
We’re told that the UK economy is “successful”. Then the government says it will take 20 years to eradicate child poverty in the UK. Pardon me, but if the economy is really “successful”, we could eradicate poverty now, not in 20 years.

3rd May 2002
Technologically-advanced countries get wealthier and wealthier. But governments tell us there’s less and less money available to spend on public services.

Listening to governments whine: “Oh, there’s no money available to improve hospitals, education, transport...” etc, you’d think that technology was going backwards and that economic output was decreasing.

30th April 2002
The super-rich make vast sums exploiting microfluctuations in international currencies. If currency-market transactions were taxed (at a very low rate, eg 0.2%), it would generate billions of dollars per day – enough revenue to solve many of the urgent problems facing humanity. (Search on: “Tobin tax”).

Closing down offshore tax havens would also generate hundreds of billions of dollars. Why should the super-rich be allowed to avoid paying tax?

Meanwhile, the World Game Institute shows how most of humanity’s social and environmental problems could be solved using 30% of the world’s total annual military expenditures: http://www.worldgame.org/wwwproject/

27th April 2002
Sent a letter to all the major UK newspapers. The Independent printed it yesterday (26/4/2002):

Dear Editor,
One reason for the popularity of the far right in France is public fear about crime. The British media should learn from this that exaggerating the crime problem doesn’t merely sell newspapers – it can have damaging repercussions for society too. When newspapers interpret an increase in cell phone theft as “crime spiralling out of control”, they play a dangerous game of scaremongering.

(For a list of newspaper email addresses, please see our Letters to Newspapers page.)

18th April 2002
Corporate tax avoidance costs Britain £85 billion a year, according to estimates in the Guardian (12/4/02). Many large companies are so clever at exploiting tax loopholes that they pay no tax at all.

Notice how compartmentalised news stories seem. Another story covered this week was “deteriorating public services”. As usual, two options were discussed: (a) better public services (paid for by a general tax increase) or, (b) lousy services (with no tax increase).

Since the above stories were kept in separate compartments, nobody said: “Hey, there’s a third option – if we close the tax loopholes exploited by the super-rich, we can have better public services without general tax increases”.

They can compartmentalise the news, but they can’t compartmentalise our brains.

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7th April 2002
Most people have noticed that private enterprise doesn’t work as it should. News of corporations saved from financial disaster with public money inevitably leads to the question: “Isn’t private enterprise meant to stand on its own feet?”

In addition to publicly-funded bail-outs, most big companies benefit from technological advances/infrastructure funded by public money. They get most of it free. If they didn’t they’d never make a profit in a million years. Given that we, the public, funded technology, isn’t it time that we received the economic benefits – eg much shorter working hours.

24th March 2002
If the warmed-up corpse of Hitler was President of the US, and a lobotomised sheep was Prime Minister of the UK, I couldn’t be less optimistic than I am now.

On the other hand, there are more people on the planet working towards positive solutions for humanity than at any time in history. There are millions of individuals trying to balance constructive optimism with sociological realism, working behind the scenes, trying not to succumb to apocalyptic nihilism or small-minded political/social expediency. I see these people everywhere, except on TV, or in the newspapers, or inside political parties.

9th March 2002
A study by Reed shows that workers are being given fancy job titles instead of pay increases. Examples include:

• Technical Sanitation Assistant (toilet cleaner)
• Optical Illuminator Enhancer (window cleaner)
• Head of Verbal Communications (receptionist)
• Senior Corporate Events Manager (secretary)

Apparently, words like “Head”, “Chief” and “Senior” are being used to appeal to the vanity of workers (and to distract from the appallingly low pay).

28th February 2002
Last year I made a formal complaint to the Independent Television Commission (ITC) about the government’s Welfare Cheats TV advertisements. I claim these ads serve a political purpose (political TV ads are forbidden in the UK). If you haven’t seen the ads, you can download them: http://www.targetingfraud.gov.uk/campaign.htm

The ITC has the power to withdraw ads from TV, so this is potentially a big embarrassment for the government (the ads cost at least 15 million of taxpayer money).

The ITC is still investigating. I will put all the details of my complaint on the Anxiety Culture website as soon as there is an outcome.

Incidentally, while I was researching the ITC’s Code of Advertising Standards, I noticed the following rules:
• “Advertisements must not without justifiable reason play on fear.”
• “No advertisement may exploit the superstitious.”

Hmm... to my mind that would disqualify 90% of TV ads.

11th February 2002
Reality mimicking satire?: George Bush and Tony Blair have been jointly nominated for the 2002 Nobel peace prize for their bombing of Afghanistan (which resulted in the death of at least 4,000 Afghan civilians). The nomination was made by a rightwing Norwegian politician. Downing Street responded with an embarrassed “no comment”. (Guardian, 5/2/2002)

3rd February 2002
Fifty church ministers are planning to live on the minimum wage for Lent, to highlight the problem of low pay. The Anglican bishops and other clergymen say they want to learn what it’s like to live in poverty. Hmmm... Lent lasts for just 40 days. If they’re serious, they should try it for at least two years, without any access to their savings accounts or stock dividends. Otherwise, it’s equivalent to a Conservative politician spending a week on welfare “to show that it’s no great hardship” (which once happened as a TV political stunt).

15th January 2002
During the Gulf war, UK authorities banned various TV content as “inappropriate” during a time of war. One item banned was an ad for Cadbury’s Caramel chocolate bars. This ad – a cartoon – showed marching soldier ants and a sexy, languorous female bunny-rabbit trying to tempt the soldier ants away from their regimented marching with the offer of Cadbury’s Caramel (and a sweet Marilyn Monroe persona). The catch-line was “Take it easy with Cadbury’s Caramel”.

Presumably the unstated message – “lazy sex & chocolate is better than marching to war” – was seen as undermining national security. A Ph.D thesis could probably be written about the various meanings of this ad, but you’d have to be paying very close attention to single it out, amongst all other TV output, as “inappropriate”. Who pays such close attention, and do they have a job description?