Thursday 28 October 2010

How to take advantage of a parliamentary misunderstanding.

We all know how dearly the Sun loves "Our Boys", even if the feeling is not necessarily mutual. It's therefore hardly surprising that it's instantly leapt to their defence, having apparently been accused by Labour MP Paul Flynn of committing "atrocities in the name of the British people". The problem is that almost every single thing about the report by Tom Newton Dunn in which the claim is made, and the leader comment which accompanies it, is wrong.

WIKILEAKS and a Labour MP were accused of giving the Taliban "a propaganda gift" yesterday by spreading wild smears about Our Boys.

Foreign Secretary William Hague mounted a passionate defence of troops in southern Afghanistan after reports were leaked to the website saying British soldiers had shot at civilians 21 times in four years.

Despite what the Sun says, there has been no new leak to Wikileaks concerning British troops and their presence in Afghanistan. The reports it refers to have in fact been released by, err, the Ministry of Defence themselves, after a Guardian Freedom of Information request based on the incidents first detailed in the US war logs leaked to Wikileaks. Far from being wild smears, these are the MoD's version of what happened; surely the army's own account is more believable and reliable than the second hand one which the US recorded?

The MoD said on each occasion the troops were under grave threat of suicide attack or vehicles being driven at them had failed to stop.

Despite this, anti-war Labour MP Paul Flynn jumped on the statistic to brand the incidents "atrocities".

Mr Hague hit back: "I condemn the unauthorised release of information which can endanger our forces and give one-sided propaganda - a propaganda gift, for insurgents."

He also hailed British troops, saying: "They are the finest any nation could hope to have."

Flynn, as you might have guessed, has done nothing of the sort. The Sun has taken only a half quote and turned on its head, as the Guardian didn't provide a full one in the first place. Here's how it reported his remarks:

The Labour MP Paul Flynn called for an inquiry into the conduct of the units in what he said could be "atrocities in the name of the British people". "Truth has a cleansing function," he added.

Not perhaps the most cautious of statements to make, but also clearly not one where he was directly accusing troops of committing atrocities.

It's pretty apparent then that the statement the Sun has William Hague as making had nothing whatsoever to do with the information released by the MoD. Here's where the misunderstanding seems to have originated from. Hague's comments were made in response to a question from Tory MP Stephen Mosley after his quarterly statement to parliament on the "progress" in Afghanistan, who seems to have confused the Iraq war log release at the weekend with the FoI release reported in yesterday's Guardian:

What is the Foreign Secretary's assessment of last weekend's WikiLeaks reports, which made reference to 21 incidents in Afghanistan involving British troops?

Hague's answer was then a general condemnation and a just as inaccurate one, as he talks of the treatment of detainees, none of which applies to the 21 incidents in Afghanistan. He doesn't correct Stephen Mosley, but his stock condemnation of the release of unauthorised information suggests that he realised his mistake, even if he didn't mention Iraq. Hague's praise for British troops which the Sun quotes comes from the statement, and so has been taken entirely out of context.

Paul Flynn is not referred to anywhere in Hague's statement to the House or the debate that followed. It's clear then that Newton Dunn or someone else, despite obviously reading the report in the Guardian still failed to realise that Stephen Mosley had got the wrong end of the stick. Or did they? After all, the story's nowhere near as good if the information, rather than being leaked, came from the Ministry of Defence themselves. Why not then go along with what was said in parliament, while disingenuously attacking Flynn? This seems to be what the paper's done.

Here's the paper's leader:

AS if facing death from the Taliban wasn't enough, our Forces have to face snipers back home.

Labour MP Paul Flynn accuses Our Boys of committing "atrocities in the name of the British people".

His basis for this slur? Irresponsible and unsubstantiated internet leaks claiming British troops fired on Afghan civilians.

The Defence Ministry insists this would only ever have happened in self-defence when our soldiers came under threat of suicide attack.

Our troops have spent nine years doing their best for Afghan civilians, laying down their lives for them.

As Foreign Secretary William Hague says, these smears are a Taliban propaganda gift.

Ed Miliband should order Flynn to apologise.

The leader then simply takes the same (deliberate) inaccuracies and magnifies them again, further misquoting and taking out of context Flynn's quote, gets the source of the new information completely wrong for good measure, and then finally uses Hague's own mistake to attack the hapless Labour MP further. The only people apologising should be the Sun for conniving in a misunderstanding in parliament in order to attack an MP for quite rightly wanting a proper inquiry into what happened.

P.S. The Sun also does its usual bang up job of promoting the witterings of the friends of Anjem Choudary, this time reporting in depth Abu Izzadeen's remarks on being released from prison. It's this sentence and claim though that catches the eye:

His every word was cheered by a flock including sidekick Anjem Choudary and jailed hate cleric Abu Hamza.

Would the Sun care to explain how Abu Hamza was there cheering him on when he's currently being held at Belmarsh prison awaiting deportation to the United States, or was he allowed out for the day in able to attend? This extra detail is missing from the Daily Mail's report of Izzadeen's release, unsurprisingly.

Whoops! Our bad!

Today's Sun has the following apology:
An article on 15 September reported RMT General Secretary Bob Crow had a union-subsidised home and luxury car.

In fact, Mr Crow's home has never been subsidised by the union and he does not own a car, union or otherwise, and champions public transport.

We are happy to set the record straight and apologise to Mr Crow.
The article in question no longer seems to be on the Sun's website.  However, there still is an article of the same date referring to Crow, but it makes no mention of what the Sun originally claimed.

Monday 18 October 2010

Chocolate liqueurs

I mentioned this on Twitter earlier today, but felt it needed more coverage.

The Sun has an article in which is says that young people can get drunk for half he price of a chocolate bar.

According to the Press Association, the report comes from a group known as "Core Cities". Unfortunately, the report itself doesn't appear to be on their website.*

Leaving this aside, the Sun's article - and, to be fair, those in other newspapers - is misleading for one simple reason: it completely ignores the fact that there is an age limit on buying alcohol.

When it comes to children, you can't just compare chocolate and alcohol on a simple unit price as it does - one is freely available for children to buy, one isn't.

If the Sun is going to complain about underage drinking, it needs to have a go at how they get access to booze.

* If anyone does have a copy of the report, I'd be grateful if you could leave a comment.

Saturday 16 October 2010

How to Respond to Media Myths

This is a cross-post on The Sun - Tabloid Lies, Express Watch and Mail Watch.

When you read the Sun, Daily Mail and the Express over a long-enough period of time, you start to notice a few things.

One thing that crops up regularly are hysterical ranting posts over a few small topics, including the following:
We've noticed that a lot of these scare stories could be stopped by a little research, which we accept that pressed-for-time tabloid journalists, for whatever reason, are unable to do.

Therefore, in the spirit of co-operation, we've decided to help them out by listing great sources of information, thereby saving them valuable time:
There are also a variety of websites which can be used for any "Bloody Foreigners! Coming over 'ere! Takin' our jobs! Takin' our wimmin!" stories*:
There are also more general fact-checking sites**:
Of course, any and all of these lists could also be used by anyone else who wants to know more about the articles which the Sun, Daily Mail and/or the Express publish.

If anyone has any other suggestions as what other sources our tabloid journalists could use, just leave them in the comments.

* Thanks to Tabloid Watch for these particular links
** Thanks to Bloggerheads for these suggestions

Thursday 14 October 2010

The Sun ignores its own successful campaign?

Today the Sun has an article about how someone who died from taking mephedrone AKA meow meow.

To the Sun's credit, it mentions that she took it after it was criminalised.

What it fails to mention is the Sun's role in the criminalisation of mephedrone.

I mentioned this on Twitter and at about 8.25 tried to post the same comment on their article. It - how should I put it - "got lost in moderation":

and at the time of writing hasn't yet been published.

Oddly, one from "Bob24" (date-stamped at 2:06PM, Oct 14, 2010), making a similar point, did get through albeit less explicitly, i.e. the Sun isn't mentioned, just the media generally...

It appears that the Sun is trying to whitewash the effects of it own campaigns. Why though? The Sun demanded an action and it was done. Surely the Sun would want people to know how much it influences government policy?

Friday 1 October 2010

The Wheels On The Bus Don't Go Round And Round

This is a guest post by Tom of BorisWatch and Stable and Principled.


The news that Transport Secretary Phil 'Petrolhead' Hammond announced joyously to the Sun (and the Telegraph), but let's concentrate on the Sun here, his spin team didn't pick that paper out of a hat, after all) is both confirmation that the worst tendencies of tabloid-pleasing populism survive and indeed flourish post New Labour. More pertinently to myself, it screws up my commute. Here's an explanaion of why the insanity exists purely between the eras of Phil Hammond and Tom Newton Dunn.

I live basically at Junction 1 on the M4, and work basically at office parks in the Thames Valley corridor, where an awful lot of tech firms set up in recent years due to the proximity of Heathrow and the availability of the kind of big shed architecture you need for open plan offices, warehousing, call centres etc. I thus get to know the M4 rather too well, and in one direction it's actually not too bad, since I'm going out of town in the morning against the flow. Coming back in, it's a different story.

First, a history lesson: the M4 into London has always been three lanes until you get to the Piccadilly Line bridge between Boston Manor and Osterley stations, where it shrinks down to two lanes along the notorious 'M4 elevated section' that occurs with awesome regularity on radio traffic reports. There's a reason for this: the viaduct has no hard shoulders, sharp bends and is rather narrow, which is why it is subject to a 40mph speed limit. Great to pretend you're in the USA for a bit, but as a piece of 21st century road engineering, not so good. Also, it's under constant repair underneath to stop the concrete falling off, which interferes with traffic on the A4. This has been the case since 1973 when all prospects of widening the M4 into London vanished due, ironically, to the activities of grassroots 'Big Society'-style groups in Chiswick and Barnes.

In traffic engineering terms, the capacity of the road is governed not by the 'insane' bus lane but by the capacity of the narrow, twisting elevated section with its two lanes dating from the early 1960. The genius of the M4 bus lane (and it is genius, not insanity, although the Sun is always going to have trouble working this out) is that someone realised that the third lane is therefore essentially redundant tarmac. Here's why:

At peak times the capacity of the elevated section is never going to be enough, so you'll always have jams (and forget widening it, which would cost an genuinely insane amount of money, not least because Thames Valley University and GlaxoSmithKline's expensive new buildings now bracket the viaduct at Boston Manor). Therefore all the third lane ever did was provide people with somewhere to park and emit fumes across Osterley Park, while the merge from three lanes to two actually ate road capacity because the process is inefficient due to being run by the autonomous decisions of people in imperfect communication with each other.

At offpeak times the capacity of the elevated section is enough for the traffic, but crucially this means you don't need the third lane anyway (which is why the bus lane is 24 hours rather than peak hours only).

What the bus lane does is combine the merge from three to two lanes with the lane drop at the previous junction, which has the effect of not eating road capacity at the pinch point*. There was also a reduction in the speed limit from 70mph to 50, increased in 2002 to 60, along with allowing taxis to use the lane.

What was the result of the bus lane's introduction? Well, the TRL report on the scheme (PDF) showed precisely what you'd expect - offpeak journey times (uncontrained by the capacity problems of the elevated section) increased as a result of the speed limit, while peak journey times decreased by an average three minutes due to the removal of the merge - at peak times the traffic rarely gets near 60mph, so the reduced speed limit has no effect. At weekends the lower traffic volumes result in the speed limit becoming the limiting factor again, resulting in slower journey times. Overall, the peak hour reliability improvement more than cancels this out, however.

What, then, is the effect of removal? Well, unless they change the speed limit too the weekends and offpeak journeys will be the same as at present, while with the merge restored to the Piccadilly Line bridge, the peak journey times will extend and become less reliable as the road won't be able to cope as well with perturbations due to the loss of capacity at this point. This, in fact, is precisely what you'd do if you wanted to declare war on the motorist and make my life more miserable.

If you actually wanted to improve matters for motorists you could increase the speed limit and remove the third lane completely. This would result in a dangerous drop in speed limit at the bridge from 70mph to 40mph where the Porsche set (travelling at 90) would be perenially rear-ending people, however, so a graduated change in the limit from 70 to 60 to 40 would be required. Alternatively, the best thing to do for motorists, as with anywhere else in the South East of England, is to encourage them to stop driving. Coaches would be good. You could even give them their own lane.

* Actually, this isn't quite true - you still lose capacity due, ironically, to buses and taxis in the bus lane - this was painfully evident the other day when a row of posh Addison Lee limos using the bus lane, I suspect illegally, forced the two normal lanes including myself to a halt at the merge. The bus lane works best the fewer vehicles there are in it, an insight that you really need to grasp, along with the primary importance of the elevated section, before I'll take you seriously on this. It's therefore also crucial that it's enforced properly, which certainly hasn't been the case recently.

Let's play "Spot the Sun's Apology"

I published this on the Twitter feed last night, but feel that it should get more attention.

The Sun has published an apology for an article it published earlier this year. However, it isn't very obvious where it is.

Try and find it if you can.