Telling stories – the press, prisons & porkies

A couple of weeks ago I discussed a couple of depressingly negative stories in the Dundee Courier about meals in prison. I also criticised populist reporting of complex issues that aims for emotional triggers rather than trying to promote understanding and debate. Of course I didn’t expect anything to improve.

While these issues were fresh in my mind the Daily Mail, in its usual style, waded in with a “soft touch scandal” story about prisoners at the Castle Huntly open prison being allowed to pay for fly fishing classes given by an external charity. The scheme is part of the rehabilitation programme and doesn’t cost the taxpayer anything. Nevertheless, the Mail chose to introduce the story with the dishonest headline, “sentenced… to a day’s fishing”. Sorry, but where is the evidence that the lessons were part of the judicial sentence, or even compulsory? The article isn’t on-line, so here’s a picture of the story. Click on the image if you want to see it in a larger size.

Castle Huntly prisoners fly fishing - Daily Mail story

Castle Huntly prisoners fly fishing – Daily Mail story

Doubtless the Mail would defend their headline by saying they didn’t mean the words to be taken literally, and that it highlighted valid public concerns. Well, that’s a characteristically weasely way of claiming that lying is fine to make a point, and that the means justify the end.

How the popular press works – a case study

A worrying aspect of the Mail’s behaviour, and that of the popular press as a whole, is their enthusiasm for selecting and distorting “facts” to suit the story they want to tell. I’ve been meaning to write about this in a slightly different context on my work blog for a couple of years. That followed some stories in the press about irresponsible and time-wasting use of the internet at the Scottish Parliament and the Houses of Parliament at Westminster. The stories had their origins in articles in the Mail on Sunday, which in turn were based on Freedom of Information (FoI) requests to the parliamentary authorities in Edinburgh and London.

My suspicion was aroused by the implausibly large numbers claimed for website visits, and by cavalier and arbitrary switching between different technical terms that are most definitely not synonyms. One of the beauties of the internet is that it is often possible to head off into cyberspace and explore the original sources of stories, then compare them with the published version.

I searched out the FoI requests on which the articles were based. In each case the Mail had requested a list of the most visited websites. Both Holyrood and Westminster had responded constructively, if perhaps naively. They did not hold records of website visits, but they did track the data passing to and fro between web servers. And so they provided informations on those sites that had passed most data, and the server requests, or hits. Each time the FoI response stated that the information requested was unavailable and explained what was provided in response.

Regardless, the journalist on each occasion ignored the warnings and treated server requests as being a synonym for website visits. They are not simply different units of measurement for the same thing, like metres and kilometres. Nor are they different measures that can be converted for comparison, like kilometres and miles. They are quite different, like grapes and apples. There is no basis for conversion or comparison.

The journalist duly wrote articles screaming about the appalling number of times that staff in the parliamentary buildings visited websites unrelated to their work. What he did was equivalent to you asking how many apples I have for lunch. I reply “I don’t have any oranges, but I have a bunch of 30 grapes”. You then scream “Christie’s got 30 apples, that’s so greedy!” Is that responsible? Is it even honest?

This is the story about the Scottish Parliament. It’s no longer available online, so here’s a PDF copy (opens in a new tab). Here is the story about the Houses of Parliament.

The analogy of apples and grapes is apt. If anything it understates the difference between visits and hits. Hits will be bigger by maybe two orders of magnitude. One of the main concerns of the articles was the number of visits to Facebook, which is a real data hog and is designed to build pages with many server requests. Loading a single page can trigger scores of requests. You can see them at the bottom of the browser window; a bewildering sequence of apparent gibberish flashing by as the browser assembles the page from many different servers. Facebook also refreshes pages, even if the user doesn’t click. Boom! There’s another skipload of hits… and another… and another.

The Westminster story made great play of huge numbers of visits to a website for people who are looking for extramarital affairs. This website received up to “289 Westminster hits a day”. So that sounds like one person with a problem. Sorry, that’s a feeble story. The assertion that the dodgy website “had more hits in December from parliamentary computers than the official websites for the Treasury, Ministry of Justice and Department for Education” is quite meaningless. You can’t compare numbers of hits for different sites without knowing an awful lot more aout how the sites are built. It’s like saying 100x is bigger than 10y when you don’t know the values of x or y.

Anyway, I checked the server requests for the page on the Mail’s website with this story and got hilarious results. A single click produced 852 hits, as all the separate tiny components were loaded. Here is the proof. A Mail journalist would have spun that into “Perth blogger visited Mail website 852 times in just one day!”. Unlike a Mail journalist I’ll provide some proof of that claim. Here’s a PDF copy of the test I ran using tools.pingdom.com. Note that the report is 29 pages long. All that junk has to be loaded by the browser when you access the web page. That’s why it can take so long.

So instead of parliamentary staff spending all their time playing on the internet, a more plausible story would have been that they showed worrying little interest in engaging with the modern world via the internet.

a bit of fun

a bit of fun

do you understand the data?

do you understand the data?

Did the journalist know that he was writing misleading rubbish? Well, the FoI responses explained what he was getting. If he didn’t understand the warnings he only needed to do a simple internet search for an explanation of the differences between the terms.

However, that would have spoilt the fun? Fun? Yes. On Twitter he said that the story had been “a bit of fun”. I asked the journalist via Twitter if he was comfortable with his analyses and that he understood the data. He replied that he was confident he understood them. He invited me to email him if I had further questions. One of the Mail articles was reposted on his blog, so I provided a comment there explaining what was wrong. He deleted the comment without responding, and that was the end of the discussion.

Journalism – a tough profession

I do have a good deal of sympathy for that journalist, a young guy trying to make his way in the profession. He wrote this interesting piece about the difficulty of getting started into journalism. There is fierce competition, papers expect young people to work unpaid to get experience, and they prefer them to be trained even before they come to work for free as an intern. It’s brutally tough.

One thing I’ve learnt so far about journalism is that opportunities are few and far between, so when they come along you have to jump at them, grab them by the scruff of the neck and wrestle them to the ground until they’re yours.

The only way journalists are going to get ahead, or even keep their jobs, is to come up with stories that fit; ones that fit the paper’s idea of its readership’s attitudes, and fit the tone the paper wants to set. Journalists have to toe the editorial line. That’s the way it is in all but a few quality papers, and these are read by only a small minority.

So the press will continue to churn out these populist, slanted and essentially dishonest stories. Populist politicians and popular newspapers like to feed off each other. One provokes concern and outrage, which the other exploits. It’s a symbiotic relationship and the roles are inter-changeable.

Scottish Labour and populist politics

I was musing on this when I saw a news item that persuades me things will only get worse in Scotland. Jim Murphy, the new Scottish Labour leader, has appointed John McTernan as his chief of staff. McTernan is a political fixer, an aggressive and populist media manipulator. It’s his style to play to win, and if that means playing dirty then so be it. He was on Tony Blair’s staff, and was widely thought to be the inspiration for Malcolm Tucker, the appalling spin doctor in “The Thick of It”.

McTernan then went to Australia as communications director for Julia Gillard, the Prime Minister at the time. Australian journalists and politicians are hardly delicate wallflowers, but McTernan’s bruising behaviour startled the locals. This clip from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) is darkly amusing.


McTernan’s back in Scotland now, and it’s hard to see Scottish Labour adopting a thoughtful and constructive approach while McTernan is dabbling in the black arts of media spin and manipulation. His style is to create and exploit populist concerns. What about prisons? Any sign of a more considered approach than “lock ’em up” is an open goal for McTernan. “Open goal”? That’s not my choice of words. It was the phrase McTernan used when calling on Labour to attack the Westminster coalition government for being soft on crime.

The Conservatives have no shortage of rent-a-quote MSPs willing to give the press ill-informed quotes on anything to do with Laura Norder. Expect competition from Labour for that patch of low ground. The SNP? Will they go for the high ground while the press and opposition are savaging them for being soft on criminals? I’m not confident.

So don’t expect mature and considered discussion of justice issues, or of any other topic which lacks easy and comfortable answers. It will be more “soft touch scandal” stories, more cynical attempts by politicians to cosy up to the populist press, and more cynical attempts by the press to keep populist politicians in line. The journalists will just do what they believe they have to.

As Humbert Wolfe put it;

“You cannot hope to bribe or twist,
thank God! the British journalist.
But, seeing what the man will do unbribed,
there’s no occasion to.”

I was in prison and you saw the chance for a cheap story

I was disappointed, but not at all surprised, by an article in the Dundee Courier on 16th December 2014. We were invited to be shocked at the lavish fare on offer to prisoners in local jails. The headline and first sentence set the tone.

“Christmas feast for prisoners doing porridge”

Criminals doing porridge in prisons across Tayside will be treated to lavish Christmas meals with all the trimmings.”

Feast? Lavish? All the trimmings? That is not reporting. It is a verdict, that the prisoners are receiving high quality meals, by implication meals of the standard one would expect in a good restaurant and certainly of a higher standard than they deserve. The article is opinion masquerading as reporting.

The choice of the first word of the article is interesting. Criminals. Yes, prisoners have, by definition, committed a crime. But when should we use that word? While they are engaged in a criminal career? While they are in prison? For the rest of their lives? For the period specified by the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 until the conviction is considered “spent” and the offender is deemed to be rehabilitated? If the latter applies then prisoners serving a sentence exceeding 2.5 years would be labelled as criminals for the rest of their lives.

Labelling “criminals”

So what is the right time to call someone a “criminal”, and is it even a constructive term at any time? Colin McConnell, the head of the Scottish Prison Service said in August 2014 that it is unhelpful to refer to offenders and prisoners as criminals. He argues that such labelling makes rehabilitation harder.

McConnell was speaking at the International Futures Forum, whose website states that “the invitation to visiting speakers is simply to ‘make us think’ about an issue of importance”. Here is how the Herald reported the story.

The Herald’s story is disappointingly slanted and superficial for a quality newspaper. However, what is interesting is the tone of the comments under the story. McConnell is an expert in his field. Right or wrong, he made a serious and thoughtful point that deserves to be treated with respect.

The commenters are pretty well unanimous that McConnell is an idiot, unfit for his job. On the basis of skim-reading a newspaper article, a lifetime of prejudice, and ignorance of the subject, they are utterly convinced that they know better than McConnell. They do not merely hold a balanced opinion. They know beyond doubt that they are right.

Experts and ignorance

Experts are not necessarily right, and they do have to be challenged. But this should be on the basis of evidence, analysis and reasoned argument, not an instinctive reaction based on emotion and ignorance.

The Courier journalist, Jamie Buchan, seemed blissfully unaware of the difficulties and nuances that McConnell has to wrestle with; difficult issues that are hinted at in the title of McConnell’s talk, “21st Century Prison Policy: Humanity, Humility, Forgiveness and Redemption”. Buchan simply launched straight into his piece with the phrase “criminals doing porridge”.

Journalists and politicians should try to provide the analysis and reasoning that an informed debate requires. They should not be searching for populist, emotional triggers that will provoke an angry reaction. At least, that is not what they should be doing if they wish to be responsible. The Courier failed lamentably with that story.

Informed debate and cheap populism

The Courier failed badly again with their follow up on January 2nd 2015.

This is just the sort of story that makes me shake my head in despair at the irresponsibility of the press and populist politicians. Murdo Fraser, a Conservative MSP in the Scottish Parliament, is concerned that more is spent on prisoners’ meals than those of hospital patients.

Are prisoners getting better food than they should? Is the budget for their food out of control? Are the conditions for producing food comparable in prisons and hospitals? Do patients recovering in bed need as much as healthy prisoners? Fraser and the Courier address none of these issues. Fraser admits he doesn’t even know whether or not patients are getting enough nutrition. His concern is merely that the cost of hospital meals is too low. What is his measure for that? Prison meals cost more. NHS suppliers must be delighted. The problem, as he frames it, could be solved simply by the suppliers jacking up their prices.

This is just a cheap and populist attempt to exploit public antipathy towards prisoners and the idea of prisons as a place of rehabilitation rather than strict punishment. Such articles reinforce prejudice and make us more comfortable with our ignorance. Rather than challenging complacency and ignorance by promoting informed debate they close down discussion of the issues by pushing populist conclusions and painting those who expect a more thoughtful approach as naïve fools, politically correct “do gooders”.

Fraser comes out with the classic, populist politician’s justification. This “will not sit well with the public”. Instead of using weaselly phrases like that he should address the issues, acknowledge complexity where it exists, and explain to the public what an appropriate solution might be. That’s your job Murdo! You are paid a good salary and it is not to act like an ill-informed bore pontificating in a golf club bar.

A message for Christmas?

These articles are particularly disappointing at Christmas. This is the time of year when we are reminded of the wonderful gift that we all received but which we don’t deserve; the love of God shown in Jesus, who came to save us all from our failures and failings. Surely as a society we should recognise the humanity of all people, those in prison or not in prison, and allow prisons to mark this event as much as possible, like the rest of us do.

What a pity that a paper like the Courier can’t run a piece about the wonderful work that prison officers, chaplains, medical professionals and other staff do over Christmas to meet the needs of people who find themselves in prison. In Jesus’s words, “I was in prison and you came to visit me”, Matthew 25 v 36. Wouldn’t that have been a more appropriate, and inspirational, message for Christmas?