For earlier rants, go to the Rant Archive

Also on this page:
Identity fraud exaggerated
BBC's Sleazy Crime Porn
Establishment TV
"Nothing to hide"?
Government BS
Misleading Vividness
"Flexibility" & "Choice"
Trickle-down economics
True Risk of Burglary
The Working Poor
Spot the Contradiction
Media Scaremongering
Is Your Boss an Asshole?
Criminalising the jobless
Government Plans to Spit

Dissident cop-out on privacy

As Cory Doctorow points out in a Guardian interview, technological and cultural factors are placing personal privacy at ever greater risk. Doctorow says there should be greater social value put on privacy (eg by allowing children more privacy, rather than constantly surveilling them).

But, as one of the comments under Proctorow's interview points out, it's not as if dissident campaigning groups are setting a good example. Quite the opposite. A rather depressing example is given of Corporate Watch (together with a media activist website) showing no regard for the privacy of a private individual... when it suits their purposes (and I suspect they're not alone among activist groups in not respecting the confidentiality of private correspondence).

Perhaps the presumed "justification" is that it's okay to betray someone's confidence if they're "not one of us" (ie have the "wrong" views)? After all, they're on the side of evil, so why not?

It may seem like a relatively trivial error of judgment. But that's no excuse, since even the big injustices and crimes that such groups campaign against are composed, ultimately, of a series of relatively trivial steps – decisions made by human beings. If we don't like the idea of the total demolition of personal privacy by the state and big business, then perhaps we should start by respecting the privacy of others – which includes the confidentiality (unless informed otherwise) of private correspondence. Even when we don't like the views expressed in that correspondence.

Update: I've just had it pointed out to me that someone has expressed a very similar view at the NO2ID website. But my post predates it – hear it first at Anxiety Culture!

Censorship where least expected

Project Censored resorts to censorship?

Our Media Hell message board attracted a lot of debate over Iraqi death estimates. Ever since George Bush announced that the Lancet 2006 study (which estimated 655,000 deaths) was "not credible", many have defended it (including myself). But it's a sign of things going too far when Lancet defenders dismiss practically all criticism of their favoured study as "downplaying" Iraqi deaths.

The more recent IFHS was a similar type of study to Lancet 2006, but with a much larger sample and better quality-control. It produced a lower estimate: 151,000 violent deaths. The IFHS team, like the Lancet team, reportedly risked their lives in conducting the surveys. One IFHS researcher was shot and killed. IFHS was well-received in the relevant fields (epidemiology, demography, biostatistics).

How did Lancet defenders react to a study with a much lower estimate? John Tirman, who commissioned the Lancet study (but who isn't an epidemiologist), dismissed the IFHS estimate as "not credible" – ironically the same words used by Bush to dismiss Lancet 2006.

Project Censored, whose "Top censored story for 2009" is the Iraqi deaths issue, doesn't mention IFHS at all. In fact, Project Censored excludes all research (including five peer-reviewed studies) which contradicts its own headline. There's currently no scientific consensus on the number of dead, but Project Censored presents the highest estimate (from a poll by Opinion Research Business, which wasn't peer-reviewed science) as if it's established fact.

I recommend a well-researched article, which might be uncomfortable reading for some: "Project Censored as Censors".

I've seen the criticism of Project Censored raised on prominent "alternative" media websites and, ironically, censored. The popular community blog, Metafilter, for example, hastily deleted this post (which broke none of its guidelines): http://www.metafilter.com/75790/Project-Censored-as-censors

I conclude, based on much evidence (the above examples are just the tip of the iceberg), that a large section of the "alternative media" is not interested in establishing the death toll through scientific means (which means taking account of all the research – including the studies that tell you what you don't want to hear).

BBC exaggerates driving test identity fraud

The BBC ran a headline story (BBC1 10 O'Clock News, BBC News Online, 23/6/07) claiming massive levels of identity fraud in the driving test system. We queried this with the Driving Standards Agency and found that the BBC were reporting flimsy speculation as fact. The BBC corrected their website after we pointed this out – but the damage had already been done by BBC1's misleading broadcast.

Here's our correspondence with the BBC:

Dear Steve [Steve Herrmann, Editor, BBC News Online],

The BBC News page covering driving test identity fraud opens with:

"Tens of thousands of people are paying fraudsters to sit their driving test for them..." http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/6231892.stm

There seems to be no factual basis for this figure. It appears to be a speculative guess by a Driving Standards Agency (DSA) spokesperson. You quote Andy Rice of the DSA fraud team as saying: "We're into the tens of thousands." In the Independent on Sunday (24/6/07), however, Rice is quoted as claiming "There are potentially tens of thousands...". Only "potentially".

We've seen no evidence presented by the DSA to support this figure. It appears to be plucked out of the air, yet the BBC has reported it as fact.

Sincerely,
[Anxiety Culture editor – sent 24/6/07]

We received the following reply, from Pat Heery (UK Editor, BBC News Interactive), 25/6/07:

Thank you for your e-mail of 24 June about our story on the driving test scam. I have spoken to Andy Rice of the Driving Standards Agency for further clarification and have amended our story in the light of this to say "could potentially be in the tens of thousands figure." Thank you again for your e-mail.

The Driving Standards Agency deserves some blame, as they introduced the "potentially tens of thousands" remark based on a feeble premise. [When we originally queried the figure with them, their Press Officer, Pamela Matthews, replied as follows (25/6/07)]:

Thanks you for your enquiry.

We have had over 1100 investigations since 2004 - these are from figures that we keep. We have had cases where individuals have done 250 tests, so potentially there could be tens of thousands (simple maths). Unfortunately, in the coverage the key word - potentially - was scrapped.

Kind regards,

Pamela Matthews
Press Officer

An "investigation" doesn't necessarily imply a crime. If it did, Britain's prisons would be overflowing with convicted terrorists. And we're not impressed with the "simple maths" that led to a misleading news story being transmitted into the heads of millions of BBC1 viewers.

BBC's Sleazy Crime Porn

BBC1's CCTV: You are Being Watched (8/5/07) was advertised as a "documentary on the history of CCTV". It consisted, in fact, mostly of CCTV footage of contemporary crimes – an orgy of extreme violence, damage to property, theft, drug dealing and binge drinking – a "nation caught on camera in the grip of crime and disorder", as the hyperbolic voice-over commented at one point.

A particularly brutal CCTV clip showed a thug viciously kicking and stamping on the head of an injured man. This clip was shown no less than six times by the "documentary" (and, as if to intensify the experience, an uptempo music soundtrack was added to much of the violence throughout the programme).

Documentary? History?

So where was the promised "documentary on the history of CCTV"? We timed the various segments: in total, the hour-long programme contained approximately 7 minutes on the history of CCTV and a further 5 minutes on contemporary CCTV issues (that's being generous – some of this was merely voice-over to alarming CCTV footage). Approximately 50 minutes were given to CCTV footage of crimes being committed, together with shocked reactions from victims, police and CCTV control staff, etc.

The opening segment (over six minutes duration) shows a masked, hooded criminal gang "armed with spades and crowbars" breaking into a house, while the owner (in Spain at the time) helplessly watches the remote CCTV footage on his laptop. He worries – and the viewer is left worrying – about whether his daughter is asleep in the house as it's being attacked (she isn't, as it turns out). This dramatic segment features an ominous horror-style soundtrack to increase the terror. Towards its conclusion (the arrival of the police – the "money shot", in pornography terms), the narrator comments: "Is this the future for us all?"

No place in crime porn for issues

For a "documentary on the history of CCTV", little time is spent on reactions of the public (eg protests) and civil liberties issues. Less than one minute, in fact. The narrator comments: "So far, the majority of Britons seem comfortable with being caught on camera hundreds of times a day". Then there's a quick clip of Professor Martin Gill (University of Leicester), who says: "In truth, CCTV is not a big threat to civil liberties – not on its own. Although of course that is a serious issue to watch when it's not managed properly". That's all we get on these important issues. The emotionally-overwhelming message of the "documentary" is that in a time of ever-escalating crime and threat, our only route to salvation ("relief", porn-wise) is to give the authorities unlimited powers to monitor us all.

The BBC isn't the only channel to produce sleazy crime porn, of course. But only the BBC would present – as a respectable "history documentary" – a combination of pro-surveillance establishment propaganda and gratuitous fearmongering.

Establishment TV

"Good" Authorities vs "Bad" Individuals

BBC1 has broadcast a procession of "fly-on-the wall" documentary series, filmed from the viewpoint of the "authorities", who are shown to be in pursuit of individual wrongdoers (often from "lower" classes). Institutions, government agencies, corporations, etc, don't get portrayed as wrongdoers.

Here's a partial list of such series recently shown on prime-time TV (the vast majority appearing on BBC1):

Sky Cops (helicopter patrols)
Traffic cops
Bailiffs
Car Wars
(Tactical Vehicle Crime Unit)
On the Fiddle
(welfare fraud)
Clampers
(car wheel clampers)
Customs & Excise Cops
The Tube
(London's underground police)
Animal Cops
Airport
(airport police)
Forensic Cops
A Life of Grime
Crimewatch UK
Traffic Wardens
Rogue Traders
Drunk and Dangerous
(police tackling drunks)
Transport Cops
Seaside Rescue
Cops, Robbers and Videotape
Shops, Robbers and Videotape
(variation on a theme)
Girl Cops
War at the Door
(housing officers & RSPCA)
Dumping on Britain
(Environment Agency)
Rail Cops
Cops with Dogs
Cars, Cops and Bailiffs
Motorway Cops
The Planners are Coming
(Planning Police)
Saints and Scroungers (investigating benefits claimants)
Cars, Cops and Criminals (series of hour-long documentaries)
The Lock Up (about officers in custody suite of police station)
Behind Closed Doors (police tackle domestic abuse cases)

"Nothing to hide"?

The UK government's PR on compulsory ID-cards argues: "Nothing to hide, nothing to fear". The logic works both ways: if government has nothing to hide, it shouldn't fear public scrutiny of every meeting and memo.

Why not have 24-hr video monitoring of every government official – including bedrooms and bathrooms? Just to ensure they're not up to anything suspicious. If they've nothing to hide, they've nothing to fear. Or, as a bumper sticker puts it:

Nothing to hide?
Burn your curtains...
It's cheaper than an ID card

Government BS on work & stress

David Blunkett (UK Work & Pensions Secretary) recently announced that going to work "will overcome depression and stress a lot more than people sitting at home watching daytime television."

Let's be charitable and assume Blunkett is merely ignorant of studies linking stress/depression with work (eg a Samaritans survey, in May 2003, found jobs to be the "biggest single cause of stress").

Blunkett's remark about "watching daytime TV" adds to the social stigma of unemployment (this stigma being a main reason, along with financial insecurity, for the stress/depression linked to unemployment).

In wanting to help "ordinary people", Blunkett seems right up there with his government colleague Geoff Hoon, who allegedly uses terms such as "low-life scum" to describe members of the public who get in his way.

Blunkett quote: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/politics/4325664.stm >
See also: Work Hell, our page on the detrimental effects of work >

The 'Misleading Vividness' fallacy

Politicians and media seem hypnotised by the Misleading Vividness fallacy – the belief that the occurrence of a particularly vivid event (eg a terrorist bombing) makes such events more likely, despite statistical evidence indicating otherwise.

The occurrence of a terrorist attack doesn't, by itself, increase the risk of terrorist attacks. Being hit by a meteorite doesn't increase the risk of being hit by a meteorite. The stabbing of Monica Seles didn't make it more likely that tennis players would be stabbed. The occurrence of a particularly gruesome crime doesn't make such crimes more likely. 9/11 didn't increase the likelihood of America being attacked.

The Misleading Vividness fallacy can have destructive effects. Anything from overprotective parents to "erosion of civil liberties" and illegal wars killing over 100,000 people.

"Flexibility" & "Choice" in working hours

Latest media fairy-tale: that the UK government has blocked European plans to remove our working-hours rights. "British Industrial leaders insist the right to choose working hours is a key part of a flexible economy". (Guardian, 11/5/05).

Here's a different version: The UK government blocked Europe's attempts to protect workers from extended periods of long working hours (since there's overwhelming evidence that it increases health/safety risks). Europe seeks to impose a maximum 48-hour working week taken as an average over a period of 12 months. That last bit is omitted by most UK media reports. (The standard period of measurement is 4 months. The extension to 12 months is a compromise with the UK proposed by Europe, but still blocked by the UK).

Under Europe's plans, a person could work over 48 hours for several weeks (or months) and still fall below the 48-hour average (over 12 months). But this isn't "flexible" enough for UK industrial leaders. No, they want the "flexibility" of having people work over 48 hours per week for months on end, regardless of health/safety risks.

According to the Labour force survey (Autumn 2004, quoted by TUC):
67% of those who usually work more than 48 hours say that they want to work fewer hours.
61% of long hours workers do not receive any overtime pay.
Of the 39% who are paid overtime, 69% say that they want to work fewer hours even if this meant less pay.

Sources:
http://www.tuc.org.uk/economy/tuc-9839-f0.cfm
http://money.guardian.co.uk/work/story/0,,1311215,00.html
http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/story/0,,1498104,00.html
http://www.guardian.co.uk/eu/story/0,,1481501,00.html

Trickle-down Economics

The share of national wealth distributed as wages has fallen from about two-thirds in 1975 to just over half today, with the balance shifting towards rewarding finance-capital. In 1976 the top 50% of UK households owned 88% of total non-housing wealth. Today, they own 99%. In the US, 80% of the fourfold increase in household wealth between 1983 and 1998 has accrued to the wealthiest 10% of households.

Percentage of Americans living below the poverty level who voted in the 2000 presidential election: 38

Number of US counties in which a full-time minimum-wage earner can afford a one-bedroom apartment: 0

Percentage of children born in New York City who are living in poverty: 52 (1999 figure)

(Sources: The Guardian, September 1, 2003; harpers.org)

True Risk of Burglary

I was recently asked by The Idler magazine to do some research on little-known (and surprising) statistics for crime. The figures for domestic burglaries (in England and Wales) interested me:

2001/2002 Recorded burglaries per 10,000 households: 214
2000/2001 Recorded burglaries per 10,000 households: 200
1999/2000 Recorded burglaries per 10,000 households: 220
(Source: British Crime Survey 2001/2002)

That's approximately one burglary per 50 households per year. This confirms a newspaper report (Guardian, 12/7/2002) claiming the average person in Britain is burgled only once every 50 years. And half of all domestic burglaries take property worth less than GBP 500 in total. If you do the mathematics, I think you can see that home contents insurance makes no financial sense (except for insurance companies).

The Working Poor

One of the craziest of all rightwing clichés is the generalisation that poor people are “lazy”, and that “getting off their asses” is all they need do to improve their lot. Unfortunately, this belief underlies a lot of conservative economic policies (in the same way that “God is on our side” underlies foreign policy).

But the figures seem clear: most people living below the poverty line in the UK, for instance, are employed in jobs. The number of people with jobs in the UK has increased since 1980, but the number of people living in poverty has increased from 8 million to 12 million over the same period. Which seems to suggest that jobs are no cure for poverty. In the USA, 40% of those being served in soup kitchens are employed in jobs (after paying the rent, they have no money left for food). Nearly a fifth of all homeless people in America are employed in jobs (source: National Coalition for the Homeless, 1997). Poverty obviously has nothing to do with laziness.

Spot the Contradiction

We’re told that we have a great economy. We’re told that there are great opportunities for everyone. So why are people so economically frightened? Why are people forced to work in dead-end jobs? Why do corporate bosses talk about a “brutal market”? Why are politicians afraid to say anything which might jeopardise their careers? If there is an endless supply of great opportunities, why would it matter to have your career jeopardised? Surely another opportunity would turn up? Why would anybody be afraid?

Ergo: There is no great economy. There is no endless supply of great opportunities. There is an endless supply of low-paid, long-hours slave-jobs. There is a small minority of financially-secure rich people. Most people are scared.

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Media Scaremongering on Crime

Here we go again. The newspapers are talking about a “wave of crime engulfing Britain”. They are referring to increased levels of street crime. Let’s put it into perspective:

• In the last decade overall crime fell by 20% – a fact verified by the authoritative British Crime Survey.
• Street robbery has risen, but it represents under 2% of overall crime.
• The surge in street crime is largely due to increased numbers of mobile phone thefts, committed against teenagers by teenagers.
• Street crime isn’t widespread – it’s concentrated in less than a dozen urban regions (eg London and Manchester) which account for 82% of all street robberies.
• Street crime in London shot up last year, partly because police were redeployed to protect landmarks after September 11.
• To reiterate: over the last decade, the annual number of robberies rose by 40,000, but the total number of crimes fell by over 1,000,000.

In April 2002, “fear of crime” was the reason given by French political commentators for the rise in popularity of the far right. Daily Mail journalists should probably ask themselves whether they might be causing more damage to society than teenage cell-phone snatchers.

[For an update on crime statistics, see Media scaremongering on crime]

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Is Your Boss an Asshole?

Phil Laut, author of Money is My Friend, gives a psychological explanation of why we hate our bosses: Our parents told us that we shouldn’t take money from friends, and that we shouldn’t take money (or sweets, or puppies, etc) from strangers. That leaves “known enemies” as the only people we can take money from – so our bosses become “known enemies” in our minds.

I find a sociological explanation more plausible: We hate our bosses because of Social Darwinism and the competitive market system. If we’re all at each other’s throats economically, then it’s not surprising that we feel resentful towards those with economic power over us.

An even simpler explanation is that we hate our bosses because they behave like assholes. It probably goes with the job.

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Criminalisation of the Unemployed

Judging from the security guards and CCTV cameras now installed in most (all?) Jobcentres, unemployed people are regarded as dangerous criminals. Careful measures are taken to ensure that the surnames of Jobcentre staff are not revealed to the visiting unemployed people. The rationale for this paranoia is as follows: if the unemployed know the identity of a Jobcentre employee, what is to stop them waging a campaign of terror against that employee? After all, unemployed people are only one step up from terrorists. So, if you want to address a letter to someone at a Jobcentre, you have to address it: “Joe, the bloke who works at the second desk on the right”. Meanwhile, unemployed people have their intimate personal details accessible to thousands of government employees.

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The Structure of Propaganda (parts 1 & 2)

These rants have been combined and replaced by an article in the "Control Systems" series: The Propaganda System >

Government plans to spit in faces of jobless...

The UK government is running a TV campaign against “welfare fraud”, which stigmatises unemployed people by perpetuating a “sponger” stereotype.

Meanwhile, government figures show that welfare fraud is not a big problem. For example, the cost of “fraud and customer error” in Jobseeker’s Allowance was a mere 0.26 billion last year.* Compare this to other big annual drains on public money:

Business Fraud: 14 billion
Internal Government fraud:
5 billion
Cigarette smuggling:
4 billion
Organised crime (estimated):
50 billion
Corporate tax loopholes (estimated):
tens of billions

Welfare fraud accounts for less than 1% of total UK fraud, so why does the government want to make such a big issue out of it?

One answer is that they need a justification for “getting tough” on unemployed people. Welfare fraud provides such a justification. Meanwhile, their tough approach makes people fear unemployment. They need us to fear unemployment so that we meekly accept low-paid jobs. They want us to meekly accept low-paid jobs because 90% of new jobs are low-paid (and because they don’t want to upset the corporate world by doing anything to push wage levels up).

And of course there’s the additional benefit (to them) of directing public hostility away from its natural target (the establishment, the government, the authorities historically the most popular targets of public wrath) and towards a “safe” target instead: unemployed “scroungers”, “drop-outs”, individuals who don’t fit in.

*Source of welfare fraud figures: http://www.dss.gov.uk/publications/2001/index.htm

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