Drugs policy and the government: the hazard of outrage

talk_to_frankOutrage and hazard are often disproportionate, and governments can be as lousy at calculating risk as any stats-challenged individual. Government advisor Professor Nutt recommended a policy of honestly evaluating the harm caused by  intoxicants –  a policy which would logically extend to decriminalising or reclassifying many illegal substances (including cannabis, ecstasy and LSD) which are less dangerous than socially-acceptable substances like alcohol and tobacco. And he got fired for it.

In his letter dismissing Nutt, home secretary Alan Johnson explained that:

I cannot have confusion between scientific evidence and policy and have therefore lost confidence in your ability to advise me as Chair of the ACMD.

Government, in other words, refuses to bend its expression of outrage through the legal system to conform to the objective hazard. This misdirection is unjust and dangerous: resources are aimed at punishing people for selling and possessing substances which are basically inoffensive, while the black market in illegal drugs fosters violent crime.

Prof NuttBut maybe it’s a mistake to imagine that a government would be primarily concerned with a hazard to the people it represents. For the ruling party, the biggest hazard is outrage itself – and drugs policy really gets the outrage gushing.

With comment from The Sun (“NUTTY Professor David Nutt, the government’s chief drug advisor, must have been on the wacky baccy again!”), The Indy (with Richard Ingrams taking in a Moir-ish view of Steven Gately) and The Mail (“Our drug-corrupted political and media elite view Professor Nutt as a hero because he helps them excuse their own wrongdoing”) all lining up to say that Professor Nutt was a Danger to our Youth, it looks like Johnson made a pretty solid political decision.

Evidence based policy would be nice, but why would any minister want to sit in line for that sort of outrage? Johnson might not be interested in formulating a drugs policy based on risk – but he’s demonstrated great acumen in recognising a danger to himself. The press wanted Nutt, and if they hadn’t got Nutt, they’d have moved on to Johnson. That’s an objective risk, and firing Nutt was the consequence of rational self-interest.

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2009. Illustration © Beau Bo d’Or, 2009.

Naming names

Let’s say you’re a senior public official with a critical role in the judicial system. Someone like a judge. And let’s say you did something really, seriously bad – so bad that you were found guilty of misconduct. You know, misconduct in the administration of law and punishment with the power to demolish lives through one bad decision. You’re this person, but no one will ever find out who you are:

[Leader of the presiding three-member tribunal] Marks and his colleagues said that if barristers had known about the behaviour which had led to the reprimand, they would have used the information to try and get an adjournment of hearings or “in some cases an application that the judge in question not hear the particular case.

“This clearly has adverse implications for the public and for the administration of justice generally,” they said.

Marks also said judges could also experience “intrusive” and overblown reporting by the media of their misconduct. This could “cause an undermining of authority generally and thus prejudice any further employment prospects of whatever sort in the wake of a reprimand”, they added.

They were “impressed” by the Ministry of Justice’s argument that judges were entitled to a “reasonable expectation of privacy”.

The Guardian, 15 June 2009

I am going to stick my neck right out here and say that, whatever implications there are in getting a judge with a proven track record of incompetence thrown off of a case, they’re probably good ones as far as justice is concerned. But, you know, reasonable expectation of privacy, people have a job to do, and it’s hardly fair if they get the press all over them every time they slip up, is it?

Oh…

In the first case dealing with the privacy of internet bloggers, the judge ruled that Mr Horton had no “reasonable expectation” to anonymity because “blogging is essentially a public rather than a private activity”.

Coming down in favour of freedom of expression, the judge [Mt Justice Eady] also said that even if the blogger could have claimed he had a right to anonymity, the judge would have ruled against him on public interest grounds.

The police officer, the judge said, had argued that he should not be exposed because it could put him at risk of disciplinary action for breaching regulations with his disclosures.

But Mr Justice Eady criticised that argument as “unattractive to say the least”.

He added: “I do not accept that it is part of the court’s function to protect police officers who are, or think they may be, acting in breach of police discipline regulations from coming to the attention of their superiors.”

The judge added that there was “much force in the argument that any wrongdoing by a public servant, save perhaps in trivial circumstances, is a matter which can legitimately be drawn to the attention of the public by journalists. There is a growing trend towards openness and transparency in such matters.”

The Times, 16 June 2009

Keep up, people: judges are private individuals, bloggers are public, judges serve the public, and wrongdoing by public servants needs to be exposed, except when the wrongs are being done by judges, in which case it’s much better if nobody knows who they are. Sorted? Good, because apparently that head-pounding contradiction is the law now.

More on this from 853, Random Acts Of Reality, Chicken Yoghurt, and Anton Vowl.

Who you gonna call?

The decision by Ian and Dawn Askham (the Scottish couple infected with the world’s sexiest variant of flu) to retain Max Clifford’s publicity services troubles Ivor Gaber, professor of journalism at the University Of Bedfordshire. It troubles him so much he went on PM last week to talk about it in a head-to-head with Clifford:

This is a matter of major public interest and I think it is legitimate for the public to want to know from Mr and Mrs Askham, ‘What did it feel like, what were you symptoms, where did you catch it?’ and I am very uneasy – not just about this particular case but the precedent it is setting – that issues that ought to be in the public domain, that you shouldn’t have to buy a particular newspaper to find out about, are being monopolised and are being sold to the highest bidder.

This is overstating the value of the Askhams and the power of the Clifford by quite a lot: there’s nothing they can tell about their experience that’s more in the public interest than the information which epidemiologists and doctors can supply, and there’s nothing they can say in an exclusive that won’t be carried by every media outlet at the next print run or broadcast. But he’s got a point – anything which restricts the freedom of the press to ask important questions is conceivably a bad thing for reporting. I read Ian Hislop and Alan Rusbriger’s evidence to the select committee on culture, media and sport and nod my thoughtful little head at their concerns about the suppressive effect of a possible privacy law.

But, despite a series of interesting high court rulings on the matter, there is no privacy law as yet. And maybe, suggests PM presenter Eddie Mair, hiring Clifford is the best way for the couple to protect themselves from the extreme interest of the press. Gaber disagrees:

The media’s not this hungry beast waiting to spit people out if they’ve got a story to tell. I can’t imagine that there’d be a newspaper or TV or radio station that would want to take Mr and Mrs Askham to the cleaners. They’d wanna help them tell their story. […] When we’ve got issues like this where there are members of the public who are caught up in matters of major public interest, they don’t need media protection.

This, by the way, is a media including the same organs that libeled someone who happened to be nearby when a child went missing, dug out discrediting stories on victims of police brutality, pillaged Facebook to tell their readers how shameful teenagers are, and, when they can’t turn up the information they’re hoping for, turns to wiretaps and computer monitoring to find it. You know, that old trustworthy media. Clifford’s counter-argument was that the subjects of a story deserve to see some of the financial benefit their story will bring to the press. Maybe they do. But until there’s some kind of buddy system to help people negotiate unexpected press interest – or, I don’t know, a regulatory body that does its job – Clifford is maybe the best investment you could make in a situation like the Askhams’, however much he offends your journalistic ideals.

Smearing people is wrong (mostly)

I don’t know about you, but in all the coverage of the unappealing McBride/Draper Smeargate nonsense, at least one thing was reassuringly clear: the press is totally, completely opposed to harmful insinuations that damage the reputations of public figures. Well, obviously, there’ll be times when newspapers report unsubstantiated and embarrassing allegations about the shadow chancellor’s wife – or, as you might say if you were feeling uncharitable, repeats and publicises them, making them even more destructive. But what are newsrooms supposed to do apart from churn out this sort of thing?

And then there are some times when it’s just really, really important to come up with something bad to say about someone. In the interests of balance. Like, say, if that someone is Nick Davies, author of a study of the endemic distortions and corruptions in the British press, and you happen to be a journalist on one of the distorting and corrupt papers. Then it’s basically essential that you ring him up and tell him you’re going to publish some “grotesque sexual smear” about a wife he doesn’t even have. Otherwise, how are you going to defend the honour of your paper as a reliable organ of responsible newsgathering?

Then, there are the people who might not have actively attacked your newspaper, but have somehow slighted you. Such as Nicola Fisher, who employed Max Clifford to represent her after being twatted in the face by riot police, and went on to give interviews to the Northern And Shell newspapers. With Nicola sitting on the front covers of the Star and the Express, it would be frankly remiss for Sun and the Mail to fail to say something nasty about her.

It can be something really simple: just drawing attention to the Clifford connection and throwing some scare quotes on phrases like “victim”, “hit” and “anti-capitalist” goes a long way to suggest that Fisher might really just be a violent opportunist who’s drawn on the baton-bruise with eyeliner. Or you could go big like the Mail and put together a balls-out character assassination:

Mail attack piece on Nicola FisherThat extract appears in search results for “Nicola Fisher” on the Mail website, although if you click on the link it redirects to the index, suggesting that the story has now been withdrawn. Not that it matters: the story did its bit to spike the opposition’s exclusive, and it set the tone for the reporting on Fisher, which includes beautiful examples like this column in the Yorkshire Post from Bill Carmichael, setting up Fisher as a punchable harpy. “If anyone ever deserved a good slap, this woman certainly did”, says Carmichael, pleased that law and order is free to do the important work of, um, silencing people he disagrees with by hitting them.

Smearing, then: totally harmful to the body politic and a dangerous exploitation of journalism. Just imagine what the papers would be saying about Osborne, Davies and Fisher if one of them had been involved in anything as disgraceful as smearing.

Avast ye, Google

Pirate Bay trial ends in a guilty verdict, after the prosecution dropped half the original charges and rephrased the remainder to fit in with an understanding of how the site actually worked. It’s a qualified victory for the music industry, and the comment from the International Federation Of The Phonographic Industry (“It would have been very difficult to put on a brave face if we had lost, but this verdict sends a strong educational and deterrent message”) is wringing with relief. Guardian blogger Jack Schofield wonders if Google will be next, and is quite keen that it is: “Still, it would be interesting to see Larry Page, Sergey Brin and Eric Schmidt jailed as well.”

There’s quite a high-powered crowd of media people who seem to share Schofield’s interest:

Rupert Murdoch accused Google in a speech of “stealing copyrights.” Wall Street Journal Managing Editor Robert Thomson called Google and other aggregators “parasites or tapeworms,” charging Google and other unnamed aggregators with the crime of “encouraging promiscuity” (managing to combine fear of Google and fear of sex, in what could be a model platform for the Republican Party in 2010).

The Big Money, Death a la carte

For people who publish the news, Murdoch and Thomson don’t seem to read an awful lot of it: the track record of efforts to prosecute the sharing of copyrighted information is supremely lousy. Taking down file-sharing individuals and facilitating websites hasn’t stopped other individuals and new websites from using the same technology (and more ferociously), and since text is even easier to copy and transmit than music and movies, it’s even less likely that squeezing a search engine will have any permanent effect.

And what about that “educational message” the IFPI was so pleased with? The hope of copyright holders is to teach their potential audience that everything they read, see or hear has to be paid for: it’s an incredibly mean message and one that’s totally opposed to the nature of culture and information. Like almost everyone, I’ve exchanged CDs and mixtapes, loaned books and DVDs, shared newspapers – because when something is exciting or important, you want to share it. There’s an obvious quantitative difference in digital reproduction, but qualitatively, it feels like sharing and not stealing. By trying to stick a price on everything, copyright holders risk sucking the value out of their own product.

I blame the software

The PCC is a pretty scary institution. “Nothing makes editors scream louder than when they know a complaint is going to go to a formal adjudication”, says outgoing PCC chairman Sir Christopher Meyer: “I tell you, this really concentrates the mind – to be named and shamed in their own newspaper.” So, when the PCC tells a newspaper to do something – like, say, removing an excessively intrusive and graphic story from their website – you’d expect the terrified publication to comply.

Well, obviously that didn’t happen. But I bet the PCC has got some eyewatering punishments in place for those recidivists who fail to comply. I bet they fine the hell out of anyone who’s guilty of that sort of thing. So, I emailed to find out and this is the PCC’s description how the case proceeded:

The Daily Telegraph piece was initially removed when the Commission investigated the matter.  It reappeared due to a software error and has now – following our contact with the paper – been removed once more.

Software errors do happen, and maybe that really is how the Telegraph‘s article came to be available on the internet even though the PCC requested that it be removed. But if I was an editor in the process of withdrawing something potentially harmful from circulation, I’d probably try pretty hard to ensure it was permanently erased: partly from wanting to repair the original error, and partly because I’d expect an extraordinary bollocking if I didn’t comply. Apparently, that didn’t come into the Telegraph‘s thinking – reasonably enough, it seems, because the PCC aren’t going to do anything about it.

Eye blinks

Back before Christmas, Ian Hislop gave an interview to the Simon Mayo show while he doing the rounds promoting the Private Eye annual, and he said a lot of the same things about his publication as Terence Eden did in this comment. The Eye is fortnightly so they have time to decide what’s important rather than being forced to follow the saturation cycle of 24-hour news. The cartoons and gossip draw readers in, but the investigative reporting (In The Back and Rotten Boroughs especially) are the meat of the mag. And it’s a strange and successful combination: Anthony Sampson’s description of the Eye is a really good account of what makes it such a scrappy and admirable institution:

One oddball paper has appeared almost impervious to the hazards and pressures. The fortnightly Private Eye, which was established 40 years ago, looked the most ephemeral of all, with its shoddy newsprint, makeshift headlines and gossipy items. But it survived enemies and libel suits and maintained its eccentric style under only two editors, Richard Ingrams and Ian Hislop, with its bohemian offices in Soho and fortnightly lunches at the Coach And Horses. It was not dependent on big advertisers or big business interests, and it retained its crucial ingredient: it was close to the curiosity and conversation of its readers.

Who Runs This Place?, p. 239

Who Runs This Place? is five years old, so Sampson doesn’t have as much to say about the online threat to papers as a similar writer would now, but I’ve often admired the determinedly aloof strategy of the Eye on the net. They don’t give away their content for free, and despite slight year-on-year drops, they’ve remained the top-selling current affairs title. That’s impressive.

Not everything about the magazine is so inspiring, though. In the Mayo interview, Hislop seemed slightly confounded when asked about MMR. Unlike another commenter (who’s working on a nice webcomic if you click through), the Eye‘s credulous coverage of  Wakefield didn’t put me off the magazine entirely, although it did knock my trust in their other campaigns and causes. Hislop’s line in the interview (audio via Black Triangle) is that the Eye‘s medical correspondent believes there’s no link, there were questions that needed to be asked, there’s nothing else the magazine can add to the debate, and he’s not sorry about the line they took.

I think that’s a pile of balls, and poisonous balls at that. And it’s something that I could tolerate, just about, as an error of over-enthusiastic criticism; but it’s consistent with an alarmingly suspicious attitude to statistics. “A lot of the medical experts who said it [MMR] is absolutely safe were statistitians reviewing other papers by experts which they hadn’t done themselves”, says Hislop, as if that discredits their work. (Here’s Ben Goldacre explaining what meta-analysis is, how it works and why it’s important.) Recently, the author of the Eye‘s Medicine Balls column, MD, has adopted a sympathetic line on complementary medicine in the NHS:

A year-long pilot scheme in Northern Ireland found impressive health benefits for patients offered complementary therapies, so why were it’s findings not released for more than a year? […] The trial wasn’t randomised or controlled […] The fact that the Northern Ireland health board hasn’t released the results in a big fanfare suggests it just doesn’t have the money to extend the service.

Private Eye, “Medicine Balls”, no. 1231

The best way for CAM to get NHS funding is to produce conclusive trial evidence, and the NHS now has a vast GP research database that can be used for randomised observational studies of “real-life” patients, rather than the more artificial environment of controlled trials.

Private Eye, “Medicine Balls”, no. 1232

There’s a typical leap of Eye logic in the first column: despite the obvious positive interpretation (the study hasn’t been pimped to the press because it’s not a proper study), MD suggests that it’s been suppressed to limit expenses. Then in the second column, written in defense of the first after critics like David Colquhoun took a big swing at MD in the letters page, MD proposes something that sounds a bit like a study because it would mean drawing information from a large body of research, but is probably more like mining for anecdotes.

So, if the Eye‘s attitude is that self-reported experience rates above peer-reviewed cumulative data for deciding NHS funding, and there’s no editorial appetite for self-criticism over the MMR debacle, how much confidence are we supposed to have in their investigative work? If I want critical reporting of a medical story, I’m better off looking to the Badscience bloggers

The Eye‘s strategy of holding the internet at a critical distance has worked out ok for them so far, but the increasingly spaced-out alignment of the small ads suggests that they’re taking some of the same hit that’s injured the local press. The Eye is insulated from internet competition – for advertising and for content – to a certain degree by the strong reader community Sampson recognised. But it can’t survive by treating the internet as a refuge of scandal and plagiarism like it does now. It’s true that every magazine has ups and downs over 50 years, but the Eye seems to be  hitting a down patch and not attending to some serious threats at the same time. And if the Eye goes on the blink, who’ll be left to scoop up the rotten boroughs and PFI disasters?