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.
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?
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.
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.”