Tuesday, July 28, 2009 

The summer holidays were here again...

The silly season, in case you haven't already noticed, has begun in earnest. Not that newspapers and news sites aren't normally stocked fully with churnalism, but it just becomes instantly more evident when there's next to no real news around.

In case then you wondering, the Wookey Hole witch is a publicity stunt. Even if they are paying the winner £50,000, that's nothing as to the free advertising they've received and will receive, especially when compared to how much it would cost to take out adverts on the same pages and same size as the stories themselves will appear. Likewise, the BBC story that "Swedes miss Capri after GPS gaffe" is almost certainly a similar piece of churnalism. It's plausible, as anyone could accidentally make a typo on their system and be guided to Carpi instead of Capri, but like the Wookey Hole story it makes for excellent publicity, even if it isn't as unbelievable as the benchmark, the "Cab, innit", girl. Not directly publicity seeking churnalism, but also designed to fill up the pages, is the Coca Cola carbonated milk launch, which is only happening in the US. Why then do we care over here? Because we haven't much choice.

Over in the Sun they don't need so much churnalism because they've bought Amy Winehouse's ex-husband's story, no doubt for a gigantic wad of cash. This is despite the fact that the newspaper on numerous occasions directly blamed Blake Fielder-Civil for Winehouse's descent into drug addiction, and which it is now handsomely profiting from, with such eye-opening exclusives as the fact that Fielder-Civil saved her from an overdose, and that she stole cocaine from Kate Moss's bag. Winehouse herself in fact claimed that Fielder-Civil saved her, as reported by the Sun at the time, except with the added aside by the paper that FC left her in hospital to go and collect another fix. Doubtless though, the Sun was merely misinformed, and reports headlined "Amy's lag hubby has no shame", "Amy and Blake back to worst", "for God's sake, get help Amy!", "Amy stop your brainrotting", and "You should be ashamed Blake" were mistakes, all now rectified thanks to a bulging cheque.

With all this in mind, the Daily Quail has set up a form where anyone can submit a post mocking a specific example of piss-poor journalism, which has this blog's full support.

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Monday, April 20, 2009 

I love the smell of propaganda in the morning...

If it's on the Sun's front page on a Monday, it's probably propaganda. This seems to be a rule of thumb which is well worth following. Previous examples have included claims that al-Qaida fighters in Algeria had contracted the plague (they hadn't) and that Nimrod aircraft flying over Afghanistan had heard Taliban fighters talking in "Brummie and Yorkshire" accents (unconfirmed, possible). Today's, also authored by John Kay, is more easy to trace direct back to source: the MoD have the exact same story up on their website. It's also a hoary old tale which while possibly true, is equally likely not to be:

MIRACLE soldier Leon Wilson told last night how a high-velocity Taliban bullet hit his helmet and missed his head by two millimetres — the thickness of a beer mat.

The Sun further embellishes the story by adding some extraneous detail:

Travelling at 1,000 metres a second, the bullet pierced the left side of his combat helmet, ripped through a forehead pad inside and exited the front without touching him.

At 1,000 metres a second! Not 999 metres a second, or 1,001 metres a second, but an exact 1,000! That's impressive!

A typical tale of derring-do follows on, tedious in its evocation of such heroism and bravery. There are two things that do cast a dampener on the story though.

Firstly, if we are to believe this isn't just an MoD stunt, desperate for some good news from Afghanistan, it isn't as rare as is being made out. Only last July a highly similar story was reported, without apparent MoD involvement, the soldier in that example being David Poderis, also shot through the helmet without being harmed. Secondly, another previous case, reported back in 2003 in Iraq, involving a soldier supposedly shot four times in the helmet and surviving, subsequently turned out to be a prank or hoax, depending on which you prefer, the Sun proudly reporting the soldiers' ingenuity. The author? One John Kay. Is history repeating itself? You decide...

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Thursday, February 05, 2009 

Scum-watch: More anti al-Qaida psy-ops.

On occasion, you fail to see the wood for the trees. Doing my daily pathetic trawl of the Sun's website, I came across Tom Newton Dunn's exclusive "Al-Qaeda in gay rape horror" and just dismissed it as the typical Sun nonsense which isn't worth bothering with or challenging. The excellent jihadica though has joined together the dots:

I would not normally bother with this kind of nonsense were it not for the fact that it sheds light on the recent reports about AQIM’s alleged plague experiments, covered previously on Jihadica. Both stories were broken in the West by The Sun, and both stories relied on Algerian security sources. We are most likely dealing here with an anti-al-Qaida psy-op, and a very poor one at that.

Which I also had covered and dismissed as most likely being complete and utter nonsense. I didn't however note that the story had been officially denied by the Algerians and also the WHO, despite a separate report appearing in the equally authoritative Washington Times claiming that it had been the result of a failed weaponising attempt.

It is indeed, as jihadica suggests, a very poor psy-op. The idea that al-Qaida and its connected franchises have to rape their recruits in order to shame them into becoming suicide bombers is completely absurd; there are, as Iraq and Afghanistan have sadly made all too clear, more than enough willing "martyrdom seekers" without them having to descend to such tactics. This isn't to discount the idea that, like with many other organisations, especially ones where young men spend plenty of time together and are encouraged to become fraternal brothers, even those who thelogically consider homosexuality to be abhorrent, that such relationships might develop, but it doesn't seem very likely. There have been cases where young teenage boys have been suicide bombers, but they still seem likely to be the products of madrasas and careful personal radicalisation rather than sexual abuse.

The Algeria connection does however seem to be the key. Perhaps borne out of the fear that al-Qaida in the Islamic Mahgreb is growing in strength, these stories seem to be meant to further demonise them and nip in the bud any support both within Algeria and the outside world for them. Likewise, the idea that al-Qaida is running out of recruits, as "experts believe", is nonsense. In Iraq maybe, where the jihad has fallen on hard times, mainly as result of the other insurgent groups joining the Awakening councils having became tired of the Islamic State of Iraq's brutality, and where the routes which the foreign fighters came in on have been closed, but elsewhere the Taliban is growing in strength, as is the insurgency in Somalia, both now more favoured among jihadists than Iraq.

Again, we have to question why these stories are being passed to the Sun if indeed they are anything approaching accurate. It seems simply that the Sun's being given them both because they'll print them and because no one else with any sense or with an authority they want to keep will. As we saw with the plague story, none of that bothers the rabid jihadist watchers, or the Muslim-bashers who are inclined to take such accounts at face value, and that may be all that matters.

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Monday, January 19, 2009 

Scum-watch: Terrorists dead? Good! Terrorists dead from plague? Better!

Imagine for a moment you're some sort of security asset. You have a major story: 40 militants linked to al-Qaida in the Islamic Mahgreb (formerly the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat) have apparently died of the plague. Either they were the victims of diseases inherent to living in the middle of nowhere in Africa, where outbreaks of plague are still reasonably regular, or, more frighteningly, they were possibly experimenting with weaponising plague, and were struck down themselves in the process. Whatever the truth, it's still a reasonably big story. Who then do you leak this to? A well-respected newspaper, such as the Times, Telegraph or Guardian? Or, on the other hand, the Sun?

Silly question, really. As you might expect, the report splashed on today's Sun front page reeks to high heaven. All the signs that it's either propaganda or complete nonsense are apparent: firstly, that it's been handed to the newspaper over the weekend, to go in the paper on the slowest and generally least busy news day of the week, Monday. Second, it seems to be based on a single source. Third, it's a story which is completely impossible to verify: you could try talking to government health sources in Algeria and see if there have been any recent cases of plague reported to them or which they're aware of and go from there, but that's a lot of effort, especially for today's churnalists. Lastly, the actual details are sketchy while the background information is remarkably, for the Sun, rather well defined: it hasn't just described them as al-Qaida fighters but correctly as AQIM, it directly names the area where they were when apparently infected as Tizi Ouzou province, and where they apparently fled to, and names their leader correctly, even using his less well-known real name Abdelmalek Droudkal rather than his nom de guerre Abu Musab Abdel Wadoud.

In short, it provides you with everything except actual evidence. It claims that up to 40 were killed by the plague, yet apparently only one body was actually found, and rather conveniently by the roadside, while the others are meant to be in mass graves in Yakouren forest. There are no photographs, and no confirmation of what type of plague the man had died from. The article claims that plague can kill in hours, but this is only true of the rarest form, pneumonic plague, which if not treated within 24 hours of symptoms developing greatly increases the chances of death. Bubonic plague, the most common, can be treated, and due to its longer incubation period of 2 to 6 days and well-known symptoms is often identified in time. While all forms are increasingly rare in the West, there are still usually a few cases each year in the United States, a recent one of which killed a biologist in the Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona, apparently contracting pneumonic plague after performing an autopsy on a mountain lion.

Algeria last had a major outbreak in 2003, where there were a total of 11 confirmed cases and 7 suspected, all of bubonic plague with 2 later developing into septicemia. A later study trapped rats in the area of the outbreak and found 9 of the 95 fleas collected to be infected with Yersinia pestis. Despite this attesting that the country most likely still has such fleas and rats in abundance, especially in the apparent remote forest where the fighters were supposedly training, not to mention the possibility of it spreading from southern Africa where it is even more prevalent, all the far from paranoid self-cast jihad watchers have immediately jumped to the conclusion that this means they just must have been experimenting with plague as a weapon. The Sun has nobly followed-up such speculation in tomorrow's edition, with the paper contacting Dr Igor Khrupinov, of Georgia University, who immediately without the slightest of information further suggests this could be the case.

There are just a few problems with this. Firstly, if al-Qaida was experimenting with biological weapons again as it has very amateurishly done in the past, why would one of the least respected and smallest of its groups have been given the "contract" to do so? Moreover, plague is incredibly difficult to weaponise: the United States never managed it, although the Russians did. Famously, it has been used crudely in the past: first at Caffa and later by the Japanese, who dropped ceramic bombs filled with infected fleas on China in the early 1940s. The idea of weaponising plague, or at least bubonic plague has fallen down the list of feared outbreaks, mainly because of the relative ease with which it is treated. It would cause panic certainly, and some deaths most probably, but nothing on the scale of which al-Qaida would be interested in, especially considering the difficulties in spreading it in the wild. Pneumonic plague would be of more interest, especially if it could be spread by aerosol, but fears of its high infection rate have possibly been exaggerated: a study of an outbreak in Uganda in 2004 found a transmittance rate of only 8%. One of the authors had previously published a paper analysing the risk of person to person infection, which also appears to have come to a similar conclusion. That knocks the idea on the head of "suicide" infected walking around cities spreading the disease merely by coughing, and considering the quick onset of symptoms of pneumonic plague, also greatly reduces the time in which to spread it. That none of those involved apparently sought treatment gives the inclination that they were behaving deviously, but again that's if we believe that there are 40 bodies buried in a mass grave, when only 1 body has supposedly been definitively identified, with again no indication of the plague type.

If there was an outbreak then, and as could have been easily established by using the trusty Occam's razor, the most likely cause would have been our old friend Rattus rattus and his pals the fleas. It doesn't quite answer why they wouldn't have sought treatment, as not all of them would probably have been identified as militants, although they could have been "discouraged" from leaving.

That is of course if we accept the story at all. To return to the beginning, why would the Sun be given such a scoop? One answer might have been pay, naturally, not available from the more respected papers, but it still means that if it is completely false and instead an example of the tabloids being supplied with propaganda, that a significant minority, if not majority, are not going to believe a word of it. Why also has it been supplied now? When we last examined what seemed an almost certainly similar piece of unverifiable propaganda, it came at a time when the war in Afghanistan was going through a rough patch. Likewise, the threat from al-Qaida has been talked down of late, including by the head of MI5 himself. This doesn't suit the agenda of some politicians and security officials, who rely on the continuation of the "war on terror" or whatever name it is now masquearding as for both their own dubious ends and for their own employment. Only last week David Miliband was talking about the phrase "war on terror" being a mistake, something which the Sun itself denounced. It's also doubtless a coincidence that Barack Obama becomes US president tomorrow, and with it new policies on that very same war. Even better if the Sun itself doesn't immediately spin on how they might have been experimenting, with the outbreak being the result of weapons tests; let the jihadist watching blogs and forums do that.

Propaganda or not, the story has of course spread like the proverbial plague itself, all without anyone bothering to check it, although an article in the notoriously accurate Moonie-owned Washington Times is building on the story with another "intelligence source", claiming it was a weapons experiment that went wrong, which is helped by the article referring to the non-existent ricin plot without mentioning it being err, non-existent. Churnalism has done its work again, and because it spreads to more respected sites like the Torygraph, even if the story is based entirely on the Sun's original, it becomes more based in fact that it otherwise would. Either way, it's a good news story. Dead terrorists = good. Dead terrorists messing about with plague = good and SCARY, which is even better. The more you loathe the press, the more you come to respect its potential as a propaganda tool, and this article only furthers that.

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Thursday, January 15, 2009 

Scum-watch: More idiotic blaming of British Muslims

You would have thought that after relying on the dubious claims of Glen Jenvey for a front page lead story, only for it to have been withdrawn less than a week later might have made the Sun's journalists slightly more circumspect in accusing British Muslims of stirring up hate or targeting Jews.

Then you of course remember that you're dealing with the Sun, where few of the journalists in the first place have enough brains or probably the time to make a Google search before taking to slamming their keyboard and banging out another idiotic piece. So it is with today's banner boosting, potentially baseless claim, that "menacing texts sent ... by Hamas supporters" originated in this country:

MENACING texts sent to Israeli soldiers’ families by Hamas supporters were traced to Britain yesterday.

Scores of messages have been sent — warning that Israeli sons fighting in Gaza face slaughter.

Checks of the code from the sender’s number revealed the texts originated in the UK.

British supporters of the Islamic fanatics in the besieged Gaza Strip were assumed to be responsible for the scare tactics last night.

As is usual, the Sun's own story appears to based on one elsewhere, this report from Ynetnews:

After Hamas sent a text message in broken Hebrew to a number of Israeli cellular phones during the first days of Operation Cast Lead, the organization ahs now decided to try its luck in an English message.

"Come on into Gaza. A number of surprises waiting for your sons, the least of which is death. Hamas," read the SMS message received Wednesday by a number of Israelis on their cellular phones.

Attempts to call the phone number from which the message was sent, that appeared to have an British country code, was met with an automated message the number had been disconnected.

Helpfully, Ynetnews provides a grab from the mobile, giving the number from which the message originated, +447624803777, which does indeed appear to be a British number, the +44 being our country code. A simple Google search however quickly reveals that this is not as simple as someone sending out mass messages from a phone which they've then quickly disconnected:

hi all
i am from indonesia,everybody can use that number for sms, pls your try from here

for free sms pls visit my sites
free sms for all

Another site that offered free SMS messages originating from that number was Mobik.com, currently down, as set out here. It seems that the number is just a generic one, meant to confuse people into thinking it's a legitimate number, but is instead just a front, mainly used for mass spamming, as was the case here. A whois for Mobik.com only identifies that the domain is registered with Godaddy, and might well no longer be used. In the comments on the Ynetnews article someone claims to have traced it as an Isle of Man network number, which further distinguishes it as not necessarily being connected with the mainland itself.

In fact, the Sun might well have been cleverer here than first imagined. Their screen grab of a phone with the message has been conveniently cropped so that phone number itself isn't visible, nor the Hebrew lettering underneath it, although it is almost certainly the same source image. It might just have been cropped for space, or for another reason, but the fact that anyone can quickly Google the number and find out that it's been used for spam in the past and debunk the article suggests if not the hack, then a sub-editor might well have looked deeper into it.

The work done, the article goes on, first reporting bin Laden's latest predictable audio message, then reporting the similarly ludicrous claims that Jewish schools are recruiting extra security guards because of the rhetoric from one Hamas leader:

Meanwhile, Jewish schools across Britain are hiring squads of elite security guards after Hamas declared children to be legitimate targets.

Guards are sweeping classrooms for bombs and searching visitors for weapons.

The head of security at North West London Jewish Day School said: “Many of the security staff have served in armies around the world.”

What he in fact said was that as long as Palestinian children were being targeted that Jewish children were legitimate targets also. It was simply the familiar tit-for-tat nonsense which often erupts from leaders in times of war, and about as likely to be acted upon in this country as Kate Winslet giving a short, calm acceptance speech. It's only after all this information about the evil of Hamas and al-Qaida that the Sun finally reports what actually happened in Gaza yesterday:

The Israeli onslaught in Gaza continued yesterday as the Palestinian death toll in the 19-day war soared over the 1,000 mark.

More than 300 victims were children. Thirteen Israelis have died.

The comments on the story tell their own tale too:

This is truly scary stuff- there are Hamas terrorists in Britain drawing up hit lists of British citizens on British soil. Hamas are animals, and any of their representatives anywhere in the world deserve condemnation in the strongest possible terms.

Israel is fighting our war, a war against extremism and filthy civilian-targeting terrorist groups all over the world. The shocking truth is that nobody in the UK can see that, as they are too busy supporting the most 'fashionable' cause.

The story has now been twisted beyond simply domestic "hate-filled extremists" into Hamas terrorists. The Sun and Glen Jenvey should be congratulated on their spreading of such nonsense.

what do you expected? the UK is not for the British any more. look at what New Labor has done to that place!! I wouldn't live in the UK now if you paid me, and watch everyone leave!!!

We can be grateful for the small mercy that electropleb already has.

Also worth noting this disgusting racism from the Ynetnews comments:

To quote one of the posts in the Hebrew ynet: There is no way an ordinary Palestinian can write without any spelling errors, and certainly not manufacture a phrase like "the least of which", even after many years of studying English. No doubt a native Brit is involved here. But is anyone really surprised of this?

Yeah, Palestinians are obviously so fucking backward that they couldn't possibly master simple English sentence structure; it's simply beyond their grasp.

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Monday, January 05, 2009 

Suicide by churnalism.

As Sim-O notes over on the Sun Lies, the Sun and 12 other newspapers/news sites have been found in breach of clause 5 of the Press Complaints Commission's code over articles reporting the suicide of a man who decapitated himself with a chainsaw, all of which were found to have reported the method used in excessive detail, something of increasing concern due to the apparent number of copycat attempts after similar articles have been published. While I'm hardly one of those people who thinks we shouldn't so much as mention suicide or ways to kill yourself for fear that those that would otherwise live long and happy lives will kill themselves on a whim, what also has been to be kept in mind when publishing such articles is the potential for further distress to those left behind, especially when splashed all over the national press for what is little more than titillation value, so-called public interest or not.

Again though, this is a prime example of churnalism in action. It seems that none of the newspapers had reporters at the actual inquest, which naturally heard forensic detail about how the man had set-up and activated the chainsaw in order to kill himself, but rather that all the information was provided by the Press Association. The PA itself quickly realised that the first report had gone too far in giving a blow by blow account of the exact facts of the case, and issued an edited follow-up. By then though the initial account had been put up across the web, and few seem to have replaced it with the updated version. As Nick Davies argued in Flat Earth News, PA and the other wires are often considered to be authoritative and therefore don't need to be double-checked, even though they themselves are under the same time constraints as their print counterparts are. Likewise, in this instance few of the newspapers bothered to edit the initial report, or even if they did didn't edit it enough to the PCC's liking, which seems to have investigated the reports without an actual complaint being made, presumably because of their own concern about them.

The PCC emphasised the importance of editing in its statement:

However, this was not a sufficient defence [the copy having came from the PA]. Indeed, this case demonstrated the importance of the editing process in removing excessive detail before publication – both online and offline.

Of the 14 articles that were investigated, only the Metro's print version and the one in the Guardian were ruled to have not breached the code. The Guardian's is worth quoting because it seems to sum everything up perfectly concisely, without dwelling on the story:

A man cut off his own head with a chainsaw because he was "irrationally opposed" to leaving his home, which was due to be demolished, an inquest heard yesterday. David Phyall, 50, rigged the machine up with a timer before swallowing painkillers at his housing association flat in Bishopstoke, Hampshire, on July 5, the hearing at Winchester was told. At the time of his death Phyall, who had suffered from mental illness, was the only person living in the 1960s block. Recording a verdict of suicide, coroner Simon Burge said Phyall was "irrationally opposed to moving".

The PCC's adjudication decided "in a difficult judgement call" that the newspaper had "stayed on just the right side of the line". In others, such as the Sun's print version and the Daily Star, it decided that the opposite was the case and that they had included just "slightly too much" detail. None though responded in the way which the Daily Mirror did, which claimed that the method of suicide was so "exceptional" that reporting it was in the "public interest". Perhaps not knowing which battles to fight and which to not, it went on to argue that it didn't believe that copycats were likely, and "also questioned whether the restriction on the right to report inquests in full was practicable for newspapers or consistent with the principle of open justice". The Mirror might have had a point if the PCC were objecting to the details of a murder being reported in such a way, or if it was genuinely restricting the right to report on inquests completely rather than just asking newspapers to show discretion over cases involving suicide or apparent suicide, which are rarely of such public interest that the full details need to be known for justice to be seen to have been done, but it wasn't. Interestingly, the Mirror's Scottish sister, the Daily Record, accepted in good grace that its report had breached the code, "apologised, and acted to make sure that the back bench and night desk were more familiar with the terms of the Code in this area", which seems like a model response.

You could understand the Mirror's response more if its own reporters and editors had been involved in the story other than rewriting or editing it slightly, but they weren't. Surely the fact that the copy had been provided by an outside source, even if one routinely used, meant that it should have come under more attention, especially on a subject where the code is more than clear. Perhaps the reaction was more to do with the fact that the Mirror, along with the Express group and the Independent are the papers which have the fewest resources to work with and so less time to spend on messing around with the wire copy, especially when it is seen as high quality. Indeed, the Express recently made more than half of its subeditors redundant, with the Star having already done similar. Accordingly, the Star was raked over the coals while the paper protested that its sister had edited the story down to just mentioning the chainsaw, as if that was a defence.

As the recession takes hold and advertisers further desert the print media, more job losses are inevitable. With them will come the further triumph of churnalism, and as newspapers continue to try to appeal across the board and do everything, even more mistakes and complaints with them will be made. The future is, as Peter Wilby argues, the niche - either highbrow or lowbrow, not trying to be both. You can imagine that the Mail and Sun will likely survive, as will probably the Torygraph, Times and Guardian in their current forms, at least for now - the others may well fall by the wayside or go online only, although I can't imagine many seeking out the Star, Express or Mirror websites when everything they do is done elsewhere and almost always better. Before that happens, things will probably deteriorate rapidly, and like with the other victims of the recession outside those being made unemployed at least so far, the papers and their owners will have few others to blame but themselves.

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Tuesday, December 16, 2008 

They've only stolen all our jobs!

What goes through the minds of journalists working on a newspaper when they know that the information they are putting out is either demonstratively false or likely to be found to be demonstratively false? An example, if an obviously extreme one, is provided by Peter Chippendale and Chris Horrie in their history of the Sun concerning the paper's coverage of the Hillsborough disaster:

As MacKenzie's layout was seen by more and more people, a collective shudder ran through the office [but] MacKenzie's dominance was so total there was nobody left in the organisation who could rein him in except Murdoch. [Everyone in the office] seemed paralysed, "looking like rabbits in the headlights", as one hack described them. The error staring them in the face was too glaring. It obviously wasn't a silly mistake; nor was it a simple oversight. Nobody really had any comment on it—they just took one look and went away shaking their heads in wonder at the enormity of it. It was a "classic smear".

No one can on the Daily Star can possibly make the same excuse for today's front page, unless Dawn Neesom is rather more fearsome than she has been made out to be and prepared to use her kick-boxing training against her own hacks,ly Star, Daily Star-watch, Muslim bashing, churnalism, racism, immigration, immigration figures, or Richard Desmond himself was personally involved:

They haven't just taken all our jobs; they've stolen them from out of our hands!

There is instead a rather more simple explanation for the Star's front page, the Express's copy/paste and the similar effort in the Sun, doubtless amongst others: churnalism. As 5cc quickly found out, the origin of these claims is that old favourite of utterly unbiased and completely reliable figures on all matters immigration, Migration Watch. Their press release on the subject has everything that put-upon tabloid hack needs for a quickly cobbled together story; all that has to be added is the huge headline and red lettering.

And, as 5cc explains, it's crap, unsourced or badly sourced like the tabloid stories themselves. As he also points out:

The great thing about this one is that it contradicts its own conclusion with the real reason so many jobs have gone to immigrants in recent years:
The British born working age population also fell during this period, so the proportion in work remained unchanged at 75.4%.
So when the report goes on to say:
These employment statistics are not, in themselves, absolute proof that the employment of British born workers has declined as the result of East European immigration but it is hard to find another explanation.
It looks a bit silly. The other explanation is just one paragraph above.

The journalists responsible for pumping out this bilge in most of the circumstances almost certainly don't agree with or indeed believe it. They just do so because if they didn't they find themselves out of a job. Even so, it does represent something of a continuing campaign by the Star to be the most "outrageous" paper when it comes to tackling such thorny issues as Islam and immigration. A couple of years back you might remember it took a NUJ mutiny for the paper not to run a page 6 "burqa babes special", while more recently it led with "BBC PUT MUSLIMS BEFORE YOU!". In today's paper, apart from the front page splash, there's a similarly doubtless half or not even half-true report about how a "multi-faith area" in Lewes prison had a crucifix removed from it, lest it apparently offend Muslims. The reason for why "the multi-faith space" must supposedly double up for both faiths is made plain in the last independent inspectorate report into the prison:

Worship facilities were very poor. The Christian chapel was at the top of a steep flight of stairs and inaccessible to prisoners with mobility difficulties, the small multi-faith room had been taken over for other use two months previously and Muslim prayers were held in an association area on F wing with no carpet or ablutions facilities. A new multi-faith area was due to be built as part of the rebuild. The coordinating chaplain had identified some basic errors in the design and it was unclear whether it would provide enough room for the number of prisoners expected to want to use it.

The article claims that the "independent board which monitors prisons admitted the Lewes cross was dropped after discussions with a Muslim priest", but if this is a reference to the actual prisons inspectorate, there's nothing on their site to suggest this is the case or contained in the report from over a year ago. It's the apoplexy of Phillip Davies that makes it all slightly worthwhile:

“It’s barmy politically-correct madness no doubt dreamed up by some white middle-class, lentil-eating, sandal-wearing do-gooder.

“This kind of thing does so much damage to race relations because it builds up resentment.”

Doesn't it just? I bet the percentage of the population that read the Daily Star and care about the facilities for different religions in prisons are absolutely fuming. I can't recall whether it was Simon Hoggart or the parliamentary column in Private Eye which described Davies, often mistaken for David Davis, as an "unpopular populist", but for passive aggression on the behalf of the outrageds of Tonbridge Wells who have never heard of him he deserves some sort of prize.

That label of unpopular populism probably applies equally well to the Daily Star itself. After all, anyone really that disgusted or concerned by the twin outrages of uncontrolled immigration and Muslims on the rates must have abandoned the Star a while ago: the Mail or the Express do that stuff without all the distracting women with huge tits in-between. The paper defended itself a while back with the claim that it wanted to give its readers a smile in the morning, and in fairness it's a rare occasion when the paper does go in for such front pages as today's or the one attacking the BBC, far more concerned as it with the tit situation already mentioned.

Which leads us to probably the best, most likely unintended juxtaposition of the gorgeous pouting Danielle Lloyd with the headline next to her. Lloyd, for those with slightly shorter memories, was one of those along with the single-monikered Jade and S Club 7 reject Jo whom bullied Shilpa Shetty on Celebrity Big Brother. Lloyd's most well-known contribution, apart from asking in the thickest in both senses of the word Scouse accent whether "those people who eat with their hands are Indian or from Chi-nah", was that Shetty "should fuck off home". Unlike Jade, who had to develop cancer before she could be successfully re-admitted to reality television, Lloyd continued in her furrow, much thanks to the readers of Zoo and Nuts not being too picky when it comes to the ideological status of the women they one-handedly admire the aesthetic beauty of. After all, doesn't Lloyd's success in her work suggest that as yet those filthy foreigners haven't managed to steal the jobs of our hard labouring British glamour models? Isn't that something to proud of, that the Daily Star promotes home-grown talent regardless of the foreigners' insidious attempts to thieve such jobs? British boobs for British men, and nothing but the best shall do!

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Wednesday, October 08, 2008 

Locked up myself and forced to eat journalism.

More quite brilliant examples of the high standards of British journalism via the Press Complaints Commission:

Complainant Name:
Resolved - Mr Iain Harris v Love It

Clauses Noted: 1

Publication: Love It


Mr Iain Harris complained that the magazine had used an inaccurate front page headline for an article in which his wife described her struggles with anorexia. It stated: “Locked up by my hubby and forced to eat”. In fact, his wife was sectioned under the Mental Health Act via a process that was controlled by a consultant, a GP and other medical staff.

The complaint was resolved privately by the parties, including through the magazine sending a letter of apology to the complainant, accepting that he had not behaved in any way improperly as to his wife’s sectioning and that the process was under the control of properly qualified medical staff.

But apart from that the story was true, right? Doubtless his wife was paid for her story; he by the looks of things has ended up with a big fat zero.

Love It! is owned by News International, and is handily summarised by its sadly vandalised Wikipedia page, which ought to be saved for posterity:

Love it! is a weekly magazine produced in the UK. It was launched on February 7, 2006 by News Magazines Ltd, News International's magazine division.

Entering into the so-called real life category, it is aimed at women aged 18-35 who have about two brain cells, combining inspirational real-life stories, sick stories about child abuse and rape with those on fashion, beauty and sex, including an advice column from a so called 'sexpert'.

The magazine has been heavily promoted by The Sun, News International's daily tabloid newspaper (Now there's a surprise!). Each week an article is lifted from the forthcoming magazine and published in The Sun to coincide with its release.

The Sun itself has also been heavily featured by the PCC of late:

Complainant Name:
Stonewall Scotland

Clauses Noted: 1

Publication: Scottish Sun


Ms Christina Stokes, Communications Officer at Stonewall Scotland, complained that an article which claimed that the organisation had been consulted in regard to new NHS uniforms was inaccurate and misleading.


Report: 77

Homophobia it seems is more acceptable above the border, or at least the Sun's hacks think so.

Complainant Name:
Resolved - Mr Mickey Morris v The Sun

Clauses Noted: 1

Publication: The Sun


Mr Mickey Morris complained that an article on the newspaper’s website had inaccurately claimed that his son Lee, a paratrooper, felt safer fighting in Afghanistan than in his previous job as a male stripper.


Report: 77

Ah yes, now I remember why the Sun calls itself the forces' paper and why the likes of ARRSE love it so.

Complainant Name:
Resolved - Mathew Shaw v The Sun

Clauses Noted: 1

Publication: The Sun


Mathew Shaw of Reading (who was not complaining as a representative of Robert Mugabe) complained that the newspaper had published an online article which featured photographs of a “palace with 30 bedrooms…where no expense was spared” and alleged that it belonged to Robert Mugabe. The complainant said the claim that the house belonged to Mr Mugabe was an urban myth.


The newspaper initially provided an article from the Daily Telegraph which it said featured the same house and made the same claim in respect of Robert Mugabe. The managing editor also said a Zimbabwean correspondent had confirmed the information.

The complainant provided evidence to dispute the claim that the house featured was the same as that which appeared in the Daily Telegraph. He contended that the house was in fact used on the movie set of the film Beethoven’s 4th (set in the US). He provided stills from the film which showed a “remarkable resemblance” to the house in the article. The newspaper thanked the complainant for drawing the issues to its attention and, given the nature of the evidence he had provided, it removed the article from its website.

The complainant considered that the newspaper might have published a correction or apology on the point but decided to resolve the matter on the basis of the removal of the online article.

Report: 77

You have to hand it to the Sun: more or less admitting that your article was pilfered from the Torygraph is a novel defense. It must be true, it was in the Telegraph, a serious newspaper! Still, who knew that Robert Mugabe lived in the same house as a fictional dog?

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Tuesday, September 30, 2008 

On knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing.

For all the undoubted benefits that the internet has brought, one of its most malign effects has been on the state of journalism in this country. The big bloggers can moan all they like about the dead tree press, but without the dead tree press those self-same bloggers would have far fewer stories to write about. For that, without question, is what the MSM does: it provides the facts; the bloggers provide the views, very rarely indeed breaking stories, or at least stories that penetrate into the mass media.

More on which in a moment. Something that can also be linked to the rise of the internet, but more resultant on the multi-channel digital/satellite/cable boom and the decline in advertising is today's announcement
by ITV that it will be cutting an astounding 430 staff working in regional news. Just last week Ofcom rubber-stamped this apparent inevitability, disregarding completely a slight thing like the public interest. ITV is to condense its 17 separate news regions down to just 9, with the massive area which was previously the Border region, Tyne Tees North and Tyne Tees South to be"rationalised" into one, with those in the Borders region not unreasonably protesting vigorously about the likely outcome. Additionally ITV will only have to give over 15 minutes a week to regional programming in England, or a derisory 13 hours a year, all part of an attempt to save £40 million a year.

These cuts would not be so bad if there were other organisations that could pick up the slack. The "rationalisation" process however is not just limited to TV, with both the BBC and ITV cutting back on both local and national news, but also to the local press and the wire agencies. Where once local papers ran training schemes, with reporters subsequently spring-boarding to nationals, these have almost entirely dried up. Instead graduates are thrown in almost entirely at the deep-end, on pitiful wages and with excessive, monotonous hours spent in the office, rather than out cultivating the sources which are vital for any reporter to be able to present an accurate picture of their respective patch.
Nick Davies ably describes how this came about in Flat Earth News, with the benevolent families that previously owned the regional press selling out to the "grocers", whose only instinct is to make a profit, endlessly cut costs and make payouts to shareholders. The wire agencies which once had dozens of reporters covering the courts and elsewhere have either disappeared entirely or been cut to the bone, while vast areas of the country such as Greater Manchester are now covered by just five reporters for the Press Association, while Scotland has just 15. It's worth also pointing out that the local journalist and their sources are even further threatened by the prosecution of Sally Murrer and Mark Kearney, ostensibly on the grounds of "aiding and abetting gross misconduct in a public office", but almost certainly because of their role in uncovering the bugging of Sadiq Khan MP whilst visiting Babar Ahmed at Woodhill prison.

In an apparent attempt to add insult to injury, Ofcom justifies the cuts on the basis that it will provide "credible means to sustain quality national and regional news services on ITV1." In other words, ITV was laughing at the regulator which has no clothes: it can't do anything about ITV cutting back, and so provides apologia on the basis that these cuts will allow it to keep broadcasting quality services despite reducing the funds to them. Confused by such contradictions? You're supposed to be. You're also supposed to be glad that this guarantees local programming until 2012, when the digital switchover will be complete and presumably the waste of time and money on such mundane things as local news will be abandoned altogether.

After all, aren't there other things that ITV could cut back on rather than on news production, which provides a undoubted public service? ITV has for example 3 digital channels, which for the most part broadcast block repeats. Possibly the two most notable original productions for ITV2 are
Secret Diary of a Call Girl, the ludicrously shallow, badly acted glamorous prostitute drama starring Billie Piper, and a "reality" show which turgidly and stupefyingly follows around Katie Price (aka Jordan) and Peter Andre as they showcase their mind-numbing stupidity to the world. It makes BBC Three look like BBC Four by comparison. Who knows how much could be saved by shutting down just one or two of these channels, let alone all three, and instead concentrating on just one brand, but the first casualties are always the worthy things that are considered expendable, while the stuff which gets media attention and the one-handed brigade excited are untouchable. ITV could also cut back on its "superstar" pay packets: fittingly, Ant and Dec, stars and culpable in the "fixing" scandals of last year signed up to a £40,000,000 contract, while Simon Cowell has a three-year £20,000,000 deal. Not bad money for humiliating those with delusions of fame with scripted put-downs.

The National Union of Journalists seems to be ready to strike over the cut-backs, but their chances of forcing a rethink are tiny to non-existent. This is the way that both TV and print journalism is going, typified by the thinking of the likes of Richard Desmond who upon buying the Express and Star thought that posts such as health correspondent could be filled by someone getting all their stories off the internet.

The irony is that is exactly what is now taking place, as Davies' rules of production are increasingly followed. You'll have probably noticed it on news sites: the latest decree from on high is to go big with celebrity stories, which draw in massive amounts of hits and and boost sites
up the ABCe tables accordingly. Up until very recently the Guardian website for example punched way above its weight because of its early investment in the internet; since then the Daily Mail has come out of almost nowhere to reach very nearly the highest reaches in terms of hits. This is partially because Paul Dacre famously originally said "bullshit.com" to the idea the internet was the future, something he has since changed his mind over. It's also though because the Mail Online concentrates on celebrity and entertainment stories which can be quickly copied off wire services, and which gain most of their hits from overseas. Seeing this was working, the idea has since been pilfered not just by the other tabloids, but by the likes of the Telegraph as well. Even the Independent is currently running the Britney Spears sex tape story which was the front page splash on today's Daily Star, economic news being far too depressing and boring for paper's demographic. Again, this wouldn't matter so much if other resources were still being placed elsewhere, but increasingly this is where the funding is going.

A case in point was the recent revival of the Satanic panic, this time in Russia.
The Mail, Sun, Times and Telegraph all published the gruesome details of a group which had apparently murdered four other teenagers and eaten some of their remains, having stabbed their victims exactly 666 times. The natural sceptic will immediately wonder about the truthfulness of such claims, and a quick search for an original source proves futile: there doesn't appear to be one, neither a news wire source or one from Russia, so where on earth had they came from? An investigation suggested that the story had in fact originated on that notoriously factual Russian newspaper site, Pravda, but the story has even disappeared from there. Searching Google now still doesn't turn up a Russian source, and searches on the Moscow Times and Russia Today sites also turn up nothing. Wherever it came from, no one actually seems to have done any checking whatsoever other than repeat the claims completely verbatim. After all, contacting the authorities in Russia would doubtless be costly, and if it turned out the story wasn't accurate, that would mean that a sensationalist story that would naturally bring traffic to a website couldn't be published. The changing rules of journalism now in fact mitigate against the original purpose of the craft: to report facts. Ninja turtle syndrome, where if somewhere else is reporting something, everywhere has to report it, is becoming the norm.

One Telegraph hack has become so concerned with what they are now tasked to do that they wrote to Roy Greenslade with their anxieties:

The growth of blogs and online communities seems to be contributing plenty in the way of opinion, of which there's already plenty and not much in the way of facts. This is creating a brand of journalism in which it doesn't really matter if you get things wrong.

Again, it's becoming all too clear at the Telegraph, whose online business plan seems to be centred on chasing hits through Google by rehashing and rewriting stories that people are already interested in. Facts are no longer the currency they used to be.

I don't have a particularly rosy view of the past and I am all too well aware that many of the things I've loved about papers, particularly the craft of putting them together, are becoming obsolete.

But I do worry that without the professionalism of the career journalist, society will be much less well equipped to hold the powerful to account and that serious and intelligent debate will be lost under a global shouting match between anonymous partisan supporters of particular opinions or interests.

As the journalist also relates in a paraphrase of C.P. Scott's quote, comment is cheap but facts are expensive. To pull out and slightly paraphrase another quote, this time one of Wilde's, we are in danger of knowing the price of everything but the value of nothing. As the media becomes ever more "rationalised" around London, those outside the bubble become ever more enraged by media which they find no longer represents them or even tells them anything that they are interested in. All politics may be local, but the news no longer is. There was no golden age, but what is certain is that now is as far away from that as it seems possible to get. As the Telegraph journalist states, this isn't based on parochialism, it's based on the fact that as news retreats every further into the obvious and cheap, while the comment becomes ever louder and brash, we risk completely losing the ability to hold the powerful to account, and fundamentally, democracy itself is and will be undermined. The really depressing thing is that things, especially with the "credit crunch" and the increasing flight of advertising to the web, are only likely to get worse.

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Wednesday, August 06, 2008 

Daily Star journalists in not making it up shocker.

One of my other sad habits other than writing this narcissistic self-abasement is regularly perusing the latest complaints made to the PCC. Ranging from the banal (Lembit Opik is a serial complainer) to the occasionally revelatory, it's instructive of journalism, especially tabloid journalism as a whole. The number of complaints made especially against the Sun and Daily Mail for intruding into personal grief can only be described as staggering.

It can also on occasion add insight into recent news stories. Remember the story last year of the community support officers that did nothing to save a child from drowning which caused a furore? It was only after the hubbub had calmed down that the Greater Manchester Police complained about the coverage in the Star and the Sun, resulting in the clarification that made clear that the community support officers had arrived several minutes after the boy, Jordon Lyon, had disappeared from view, and not before, and that rather than doing nothing to help, they had instead directed other emergency services to the scene, with an officer arriving at the scene within 5 minutes of their getting there. Greater Manchester Police also complained about the actions of journalists on the Daily Telegraph, a case which went to adjudication before it was not upheld.

None of the above however really applies to a case today which caught my eye, involving one of this blog's favourite celebrities, Ms Peaches Geldof.


Ms Peaches Geldof complained, through Swan Turton solicitors, that the newspaper inaccurately alleged that her Wikipedia page had been amended to claim that she was a transsexual, and that she had reacted to this by angrily emailing her friends.


The complaint was resolved when the newspaper published the following apology:

“On March 28 we published an article with the headline, “I’M NOT A TRANNY (AND I’M CERTAINLY NOT HUNG LIKE A DONKEY) SAYS PEACHES”. The article alleged that there had been an update for Peaches Geldof on her online encyclopaedia Wikipedia entry claiming that she was a transsexual, and that she had responded by sending out angry messages to friends to deny the story. We now accept that there was neither any such entry on Wikipedia, and nor was there any of the hysterical reaction by Peaches to the entry as described in the articles. We apologise to Peaches for any distress that the article caused”.

Stories about Wikipedia are easy enough to check because of the history trail which edits to the pages leave behind. We can therefore for instance easily see that someone on the 22nd of March edited her Wikipedia entry to read ''Peaches Honeyblossom Michelle Charlotte Angel Vanessa Geldof'
is a dickhead".

On the day on which the Star reported this amazing news event, we can also see that there indeed were a number of vandalism attacks on Geldof's page. Someone from the IP address (a Sky broadband allocation), changed the opening of the entry to Peaches Geldof -- aka No sense of humour -- and still hung like a donkey & still madly in love with Pablo and Eirah (Ray Charles) Lewis. Later still, someone with the IP address, which resolves to an address used by IPC LTD, a media company, and whom has a long Wikipedia edit history, including a very large number of edits to a page on Andrew Sumner, the current publisher director of IPC's celebrity title, Now, made three separate edits to Geldof's entry. These were variously to put that "Geldof is a man...", "She currently lives in her own little world" and that "She has recently been acting like a spoilt brat."

None of this naturally puts it plainly and clearly that Geldof is a transsexual, which is what Geldof, through her solicitors, complained about. They simply took the main edit to imply that she was a transsexual. Nor does it prove by any means that Geldof had emailed her friends to say it wasn't true or that she was angry about it. The headline "hung like a donkey" though certainly was accurate, and some might come to the conclusion that the Star was rather hasty in apologising for something that clearly had happened, despite the subsequent acceptance that any such edits had been made. It might well have been that Geldof had come into contact with someone from IPC (definitely not Andrew Sumner, surely?) who she promptly pissed off, and they edited her page as revenge and then sent on this "news" to the Star, who promptly embellished it further. It might be that the IPC stuff is just a coincidence and a Star hack noticed while looking for some reason at Geldof's Wikipedia page. It might be that Geldof in fact had been complaining to her friends about someone editing her page, and the Star story was completely accurate but decided to say it wasn't after the complaint just to get on with things.

Geldof has had a history with the Star and the PCC: she complained after two stories last year, one which claimed she was to get married in Ibiza and that her father was angry about it and the other that she had insulted Coleen McLoughlin, both of which the Star apologised for and admitted weren't true. The Daily Star of all newspapers though, in not making a story up and apologising where it may not have been strictly necessary? Who would ever have thought it?

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