Monthly Archives: April 2011

Dear Peter Hitchens: It does not follow

Peter Hitchens in an small aside in his Mail on Sunday column again linked rampage killings to antidepressants:

Tristan van der Vlis, the Dutch rampage killer who murdered six people last week, is said to have spent time in a psychiatric institution. Was he prescribed antidepressants?

The trouble with this suggested link is that it is not based on any real evidence and is compounded by lots of factors that need to be taken into account – it is not a topic that can be understood without forcing your mind to be as rational as possible. Firstly, a key study:

found an overall trend for any antidepressant treatment to reduce the risk of suicidality in people aged 25 years or above.

In the under 25s, however, there was a non-significant increased risk of suicidal thoughts or behaviour (preparatory actions for suicide or attempted or completed suicide) with antidepressant treatment. When limited to suicidal behaviour alone this increased risk became significant.

But it didn’t speculate about antidepressants leading to rampage killings. This speculation has only been made by the media and by Hitchens on several occasions, it is not based on any evidence and merely relies on the fact that some killers had been prescribed some form of antidepressant (or in this case had merely sought help from a psychiatrist).

Such links are caused by people putting to one side the most blindingly obvious variable that influences the behaviour of anyone prescribed antidepressants: they are depressed. When the media links antidepressants and suicide they seem to ignore the fact that the person was depressed and possibly suicidal before being issued with the medication. The medication may have failed to prevent that person committing suicide, but this is very different to blaming the medication for being the direct cause of suicide.

Likewise, a deeply troubled individual might be given a cocktail of drugs in order to attempt to control their behaviour, but these might fail and that person might end up killing someone or worse, killing many people in a seemingly random act of violence. Again, blaming the medication is to ignore the underlying mental illness that put them at risk of committing such an atrocity and led them to medication in the first place.

Objectively, any medication issued could be a contributing factor – we cannot know how any  individual will respond to any medication given and prescribing doctors might not be aware of other influencing factors not declared by the patient. Treating mental illness is far from an exact science because the patient is often an unreliable narrator of their own mental state and physical symptoms. It is complex, it is difficult and it is not helped by people like Hitchens believing that they’ve made some fabulously insightful link based on nothing more than their own ignorance of compounding factors – even when they are as obvious as they are here.

The truth is we will probably never uncover a satisfactory reason for why individuals commit such acts – and as the protagonists of suicide and rampage killings are usually dead at the end of the event we are reduced to speculation – but such speculation should be clearly labelled as such by all involved. However, the lack of a satisfactory reason for such behaviour should not lead to the vacuum being filled with commentators blaming medication when they have no evidence to make such a claim.

It seems to me that any act of random violence or the decision to commit suicide could be made with or without the differing influence of any medication – the medication is just one of many variables that could play a part in any action. Of course, we can’t ever know this because the protagonist is normally dead so we can’t experiment with the impacts of stopping medication to see whether they still want to commit suicide or not.

Blaming medication is lazy, simple-minded and above all ignores the myriad of complex reasons as to why people end up seeking medical help for a mental illness in the first place. Perhaps if as a society we focused more on well-being we wouldn’t need to write around 23 million prescriptions of antidepressants a year – but then I suppose that’s the kind of airy-fairy liberal wish-wash that Hitchens’ despises. After all, the Daily Mail is clear about what it thinks of depressed people:

Above all, columnists need to understand that we are not rational beings so we have to constantly force ourselves to think rationally. I am sure Mr Hitchens is aware of cum hoc and post hoc arguments as well as knowing what a non sequitur is. I can only appeal to him to re-read his columns with these arguments in his mind so he can clearly see where he is using them and why such arguments constantly undermine his writing.

Double Standards

Ordinarily – when a man has a history of convictions for public order offences (6 between 2002 and 2010) and is finally sentenced for a miserly 70 days after stealing a library book and setting fire to it in the street  before bragging about the incident on Facebook – the Daily Mail would be outraged at such leniency. However, this man happens to be Andrew Ryan and the book he set fire to happened to be the Koran, so the Daily Mail has changed it’s tune. Instead of calling for the return of capital punishment (step forward Mr P Hitchens) they are outraged that he didn’t get treated in the same way as the Muslims responsible for burning poppies a while back. The headline chosen makes the Mail’s stance pretty clear: ‘‘What about burning poppies?': Court outburst of man jailed for setting Koran alight‘ [istyosty link]. The opening paragraph is not subtle:

A man has been jailed for 70 days today after he burnt a copy of the Koran just over a month after a Muslim got away with a paltry £50 fine for a similar offence.

Well, the two punishments reflect the different natures of the offences committed, the only similarity is that something was set fire to. The Muslim the Mail is referring to is Emdadur Choudhury who was part of the Muslims Against Crusades group who set fire to three oversized poppies on 11 November in Kensington. He was fined £50 for offences under the Public Order Act, his actions were not considered a hate crime because they targeted a profession, not a religion. As the BBC reported, it wasn’t as if the judge was pleased with Choudhury’s behaviour or at all condoning of it:

District Judge Howard Riddle said: “The two-minute chanting, when others were observing a silence, followed by a burning of the symbol of remembrance was a calculated and deliberate insult to the dead and those who mourn or remember them.”…

Their actions went “far beyond the boundaries of legitimate protest and freedom of expression,” prosecutor Simon Ray said.

Choudhury, of Hunton Street, was found guilty under Section 5 of the Public Order Act of burning the poppies in a way that was likely to cause “harassment, harm or distress” to those who witnessed it.

Andrew Ryan on the other hand responded to the incident with a hate crime because based on the actions of a group barely able to fill a minibus he stole a Koran from a library and set fire to it in the street whilst ‘shout[ing] abuse about the Muslim faith’. He is also an individual with a history of public order offences ‘including racial chanting at a football match and assault with intent to resist arrest’. His actions were very different to those of Choudhury – which, no matter how offensive they might have been, were aimed at soldiers, a group not denominated by race or religion. If Choudary had been chanting ‘Die Christians die, all Christians will burn in hell’ then he could have been prosecuted for a hate crime. But he didn’t. If he had a history of public order offences the judge might have taken stiffer action. But he didn’t. The only person demonising an entire religious group was Ryan and this – along with his track record – was reflected in the sentencing.

As for the Daily Mail trying to feed the narrative that we have double standards in this country – one rule for ‘them’ (increasingly Muslims) and another for ‘us’ (increasingly just means white people) – it is laughable when the two cases are actually compared. Just because both incidents featured the incendiary burning of an item does not make them equal. I won’t bother screen-grabbing the best-rated comments, but suffice to say they are full of people moaning about how the Muslims get away with everything whilst our poor downtrodden homegrown thugs get locked-up for 70 days.

It’s depressing, dishonest and divisive – just a typical Daily Mail article. Here is a chance to examine why it is that certain sections of British society cannot distinguish between the actions of individuals and the sentiments of religious groups. But instead the Mail just adds more fuel to the fire with this pathetically absurd accusation that Muslims are not treated equally in the eyes of the law. Andrew Ryan will not be the last person convicted of a hate crime against all Muslims precisely because of this kind of coverage.

Daily Mail: the letters

Today David Cameron made a speech about immigration designed to specifically generate glowing tabloid headlines and appeal to the readers who have been systematically lied to about immigration for years. Here are two letters printed in the Daily Mail – one yesterday, one today – that demonstrate the sort of person David Cameron is shaping his immigration policies around:

Joyless Britain

It’s a pleasant evening, so you think you’ll stroll down to the pub for a pint. Then you remember your local has closed and been sold to a property developer. So you decide to take the bus to the next village – but wait a minute, it’s the evening, so there are no buses.

Reluctantly, you take the car, even though it will restrict you to just one pint. But perhaps that’s just as well because at the pub you find a pint of ale now costs more than £3 (and you read recently that it actually costs just 10p to produce).

You buy a pint and are just about to light up, when you remember you’re not allowed to smoke in the pub. You could go outside, but it now looks like rain.

So you stay indoors and share a joke with a friend, but be careful – your joke must be politically correct in case one of the many whingeing minorities overhears you and denounces you, in which case you could possibly be jailed.

You fancy a bite to eat and ask the landlord if he has a pork pie or a sandwich.

‘No,’ he says. ‘But you can have a three-course meal for £20. What do you want, Chinese, Thai, Indian or flambe?’

Making any remark about that would probably be misconstrued as a racist comment by any do-gooder nearby, so you say nothing, drive home – carefully – and read a good book (if you’ve got one because the local library has been closed).

That’s Merry England today.

ALAN CAIRNS, Tadley, Hants.

Jobs for the boys

Here’s my ad for a local government job: ‘Jolly Gym Knickers Officer Required. Frustratedshire County Council is a forward-thinking, newly Tory-controlled council which when under Labour was proactive, multi-cultural, diversity orientated and community paranoid.

‘It seeks to employ a Jolly Gym Knickers Officer who must be white, male, middle-class, healthy, well-built and fully capable of smacking any Socialist or Liberal in the mouth if they so much as mention political correctness in the workplace.

‘Applicants must be of a normal sexual orientation, been born in England and lived here all their lives, with a healthy appreciation of the English sense of office humour, which they should be able to demonstrate by keeping staff supplied with all the latest jokes on religion, sex, culture and race.

‘Duties will include making sure ashtrays are available on every desk. No excuses for stopping work to smoke outside will be tolerated. It will also be the duty of the officer to make sure all suggestions deriving from EU directives must be regarded as anti-English interference.

‘He must also ensure that when the council is in session, the Union Flag is flown and each session is ended by all councillors singing God Save the Queen. Foreigners need not apply.’

Edward A. Walker, Redcar, Cleveland.

We desperately need a better press.

Responsible coverage

Richard Littlejohn has the usual thoughtless throwaway segment at the end of his column today [istyosty.com link], this time he wonders why there has been so little coverage of the shootings in the Netherlands. Richard suspects that it is evidence that the world is anti-American whilst remaining unquestioning of ‘liberal’ democracies such as the Netherlands. His reasoning is that he didn’t see ‘much of the Dutch massacre on tv’, and:

There wasn’t a great fuss made about it in the papers, either. Just imagine if this had happened in the United States.

There would be banner headlines about the ‘Wild West’ and the usual knee-jerk television specials about America’s rampant gun culture.

It’s called responsible journalism:

Still, no situation is too tragic for Littlejohn when he wants to push his own baseless, simplistic and paranoid agenda.

How modern editors define ‘in the public interest’

For those of you not familiar with the Press Complaints Commission’s Editors’ Code of Practice, here is what it says about privacy:

*Privacy

i) Everyone is entitled to respect for his or her private and family life, home, health and correspondence, including digital communications.

ii) Editors will be expected to justify intrusions into any individual’s private life without consent. Account will be taken of the complainant’s own public disclosures of information.

iii) It is unacceptable to photograph individuals in private places without their consent.

Note – Private places are public or private property where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy…

There may be exceptions to the clauses marked * where they can be demonstrated to be in the public interest.

1. The public interest includes, but is not confined to:
i) Detecting or exposing crime or serious impropriety.
ii) Protecting public health and safety.
iii) Preventing the public from being misled by an action or statement of an individual or organisation.

2. There is a public interest in freedom of expression itself.
3. Whenever the public interest is invoked, the PCC will require editors to demonstrate fully that they reasonably believed that publication, or journalistic activity undertaken with a view to publication, would be in the public interest.

4. The PCC will consider the extent to which material is already in the public domain, or will become so.

5. In cases involving children under 16, editors must demonstrate an exceptional public interest to over-ride the normally paramount interest of the child.

So, it would be interesting to see the Mail Online editor justify this ‘story‘ [istyosty.com link] about Billie Piper taking her son to the park – complete with 6 photos, 4 of which contain the 2-year-old child.

It seems to me that the moden editor has subverted the meaning of what is in the ‘public interest’. Originally a story would be in the ‘public interest’ when it had some kind of meaningful impact upon their own lives – i.e. it would be in their personal interest to know the contents of the story. For example, the ‘public interest’ defence is designed to be used to justifiably invade the privacy of politicians. As they are elected by the public it is often deemed in the public interest that voters know as much as possible about who they vote for. I.e. the politician selling themselves as a trustworthy family man who has an affair can expect for this information to be released by the press, his public standing makes it in the public interest – voters want to make an informed decision.

However, the modern editor seems to believe that ‘public interest’ means anything that the public might want to look at and anything that will direct more traffic to a website. Therefore whilst seeing pictures of Billie Piper’s 2-year-old son is in no way defensible under the real meaning of the public interest clause, it is serving up the seeming need for the public to know as much as possible about the mundanities of celebrities. It seems to me that because the PCC is a passive regulator (and regulator is here used in the loosest possible sense) such stories will only be challenged on an individual basis. If Billie Piper simply accepts that this is what being famous entails, then the PCC will not remind editors of the real meaning of public interest, nor the real meaning of privacy. As far as I can tell such invasive journalism is now standard practice because it is never formally challenged by the PCC – see the numerous creepy stories about Suri Cruise as a case-in-point here.

Then again, even if the PCC thought such practice was unacceptable, what action could they take? They are a regulator only in name.

Mail on Sunday apologises to Gordon Brown

The Mail on Sunday apologised last week for its front page story on how Gordon Brown stole the seat of a 7-month pregnant passenger – a headline that bore no relation to the content of the article. You would need to have fairly sharp eyes to spot the apology which appeared in print and online under the heading ‘Gordon Brown':

Last week we published a story headlined ‘The seven months pregnant woman told to give up her British Airways seat…just so Gordon Brown could fly Club Class’ and an editorial.

The flight was overbooked but we accept that neither Gordon Brown nor his staff received any special treatment from British Airways, nor behaved in any way improperly.

We apologise to Gordon Brown and Kirsty McNeill.

It is hard to know why the Mail on Sunday bothered with the story, given that it was proven so demonstrably false by the article that followed the headline. That the editor tagged it an ‘Exclusive’ and put it on the front page as a distraction away from the march against the current PM is laughable. Not to mention that it was also thought worthy on an editorial as well. Just a little reminder of that front page:

The Daily Mail obsession with Nazis

This month so far:

  1. ‘Karen Gillan has a Steve McQueen moment fleeing the Nazis on the set of Doctor Who’
  2. ‘The ‘perfect, pitiless, Nazi': German soldiers’ confessions reveal how troops driven by bloodlust killed innocent civilians for fun’
  3. ‘Hitler sent German U-boat carrying secret agents to terrorise New York during World War Two (but it got wedged off Long Island)’
  4. ‘Revealed: The sketches of Hitler’s official artist who erased his name from files in shame after WWII’
  5. ‘Nazi death camp guard who died before answering charges of killing 430,000 Jews ‘may have been assassinated”
  6. ‘Killer sausages: How the Nazis plotted to fight back after losing the war’

A quick search of the Mail website for the word ‘Nazi’ returns 1399 results. From what I can discover the Daily Mail website was not launched until early 2004, 59 years after the end of World War II. This means the website has averaged around 200 articles per year on the Nazis.

Just pointing this out as I seem to be seeing even more articles on the Nazis recently than is usual.

The unimaginable horror of being Liz Jones

Liz Jones wallows in more self-pity today with an article that is an insult to anyone who actually works for a living (and no, Liz, scribbling a few inanities a few times a week is not work): ‘Seeking a cosy hostel, for 17 cats, four collies… and me‘ [istyosty.com link]. She writes:

I don’t think I can take any more bad news. I’ve had my property on the market since last summer without a single offer, and now stamp duty is set to rise by one per cent on Wednesday for properties like mine. This will further dampen the market and make finding a buyer nigh on impossible.

My house, which I worked for 32 years to buy, is now worth less than I paid for it, despite the fact that I’ve spent more than £300,000 of heavily taxed income doing it up.

If I do ever sell, I will have to pay off my mortgage because the Halifax won’t allow me a new one at a new property, which means I will be left with nothing, after 30-plus years on the property ladder.

So, she’ll be left with nothing. She admits that she spent more than £300,000 ‘doing it up’ which is roughly twice the average price of a house in England, and had she wanted to she could have spent that on a very nice property and have been mortgage free. But no, Liz wants to waste her money just so she can moan that she’s worse off than most of society. In order to display the magnitude of her ignorance Jones argues that instead of pursuing her six-figure-salary career she would now be in a better position had she:

just got pregnant as a teenager instead of studying for exams, and applied for a council flat. At least someone else would lag the roof and fix the guttering.

Just a quick reminder about Liz Jones:

  • Back in 2009 in an article titled: ‘I spend money to fill a hole in my soul… now I’m £150,000 in debt’ it was revealed that Jones ‘blew £26,000 on a bat sanctuary in her garden, her toothpaste costs £9 a tube and her chickens have their own homeopathic vet’.
  • It was also revealed that Jones was ‘one of Fleet Street’s highest paid columnists’ – considering Littlejohn is paid over £800,000 a year, Jones is not poor by anyone’s standards.
  • She also states: ‘ake my wedding. Seduced by all those adverts that kept telling me I was ‘worth it’, I thought, damn it, I’m going to have my special day.I employed Robinson Valentine, couturiers to Camilla Parker Bowles, to stitch me a white cashmere trouser suit at a cost of £2,600.

    I spent £480 on a pair of Bottega Veneta heels I couldn’t walk in. I bought my own wedding ring, and one for my husband. Total: £4,000. I even bought my husband’s made-to-measure suit.

    I hired the exclusive, expensive Babington House in Somerset, every single room, and put all my guests up, free of charge. Cost? £20,000, and that didn’t even include breakfast.

    My florist was the one hired every year by Vanity Fair for its post-Oscars party. Cost? £3,000 (my mum paid half).’

  • And this: ‘I have always given people – friends, relatives, colleagues – inappropriate gifts. When a friend had a baby not long ago, I could have got something in cotton from Gap, but oh dear me no. I went for Brora cashmere and spent £600.I asked the parent of my godson what he would like for his birthday. ‘Oooh, a book. An Xbox 360 game’ – I bought him a £530 garden shed.

    When my marriage was in trouble, I didn’t just tell my husband to sod off, I took him on holiday to Mozambique.

    I should have worried when we got there (via business class on two planes, a private jet and speedboat) that Sven-Goran Eriksson and Nancy Dell’Olio’s names were in the guest book. The bill came to £26,000.’

  • And: ‘I have lived without a fridge for two years, but I have just bought one – ooh, it is lovely, a Falcon, in stainless steel with a water dispenser – for £3,000. It seems I am incapable of going to Comet.As for the clothes: a couple of months ago, I spent nearly £4,000 on a Vera Wang dress. I interviewed a member of Girls Aloud the other day, and found out, to my shame, I spend more on clothes and personal grooming a year than she does. A pop star!’
  • And, finally: ‘The other day, I was in Boots buying cotton wool and my special £8.95-a-tube toothpaste, and the assistant said: ‘There is a two-for-one offer on this. I’ll hang on while you go back and get another one.”But I don’t want two,’ I whined. ‘I can’t be bothered to walk back to the aisle and get another one.’ It is that sort of attitude that has proved my downfall.’

Liz Jones has been paid a fortune that she has simply pissed-away because she openly admits she is financially inept – in her latest article she admits she hasn’t opened bank statements for months – yet here she is again, moaning that her life is really hard. She actually imagines that she would be better off as a single, teenage mother living on benefits. She spent more on a bat sanctuary than a year’s median salary in the UK, and she wants sympathy?

So, having wasted her money and racked-up debt living a life most people in the UK can only imagine, she now asks:

I wonder if privately owned, tax-funded hostels will take four collies and 17 cats?

Maybe, Liz, but I don’t think they would want you.

Bad local journalism becomes terrible national journalism

Sometimes a story is covered accurately by the regional press, only for the national media to step in and distort it to suit a particular media narrative. However, on other occasions the local press are just of guilty of terrible journalism as their national rivals. Today’s example is this story in the Daily Mail: ‘Royal Mail bans deliveries to an entire street over ‘menace’ Jack Russell‘ [istyosty.com link]. The Daily Mail article is quite short, but it makes the ‘facts’ clear:

Don’t let his doleful eyes and soggy whiskers fool you.

For this is the face of a cold-blooded terror, hellbent on tearing chunks from any stranger who dares tread his precious driveway… or so Royal Mail would have you believe.

Meet Rusty the Jack Russell, whose squeaky yap strikes fear into the heart of postal workers throughout Plymouth, in Devon.

He is so fearsome that post chiefs have now banned all door-to-door deliveries to his entire street – after tried to nip one terrified postie.

Barely the size of a cat, Rusty has been branded ‘an unacceptable hazard’ to staff.

They don’t give the Royal Mail a chance to respond – other than quoting a short passage from the letter sent to the dog-owner – and the story seems to be a classic case of churnalism (churnalism.com shows that other newspapers have also picked up the story).

So, a quick Google search finds the original story: ‘Royal Mail stops deliveries to Plymouth street after attack bid by Jack Russell‘, published by This is Plymouth. So, it appears that the Daily Mail article – ‘written’ by Matt Blake – is accurate inasmuch as it faithfully copies the angle put forward by This is Plymouth. However, here we have to accuse Matt Blake of being guilty of one of two things:

  1. He read the This is Plymouth article in full, and left out all of the facts that made this story completely wrong.
  2. He didn’t read the whole story and instead just copied and pasted a few bits before adding lots of fluff about how crazy it is for postmen to be afraid of a tiddly-widdly little dog.

So, Matt Blake is either at best a merely incompetent journalist or at worst a deeply dishonest one. Anyone reading the original story will see that it is a terrible piece of journalism in which the headline is completely misleading. Firstly, yes it does appear that Rusty the Jack Russell had bitten a postwoman:

Police said they have received one report of a Jack Russell attempting to bite a postwoman on Newman Road in Saltash on March 24 – and the street’s mail being suspended.

However, the owner of Rusty admits something else (not covered by the Mail):

Karen said the action comes after problems with Mia. She had ripped a postman’s trousers several months ago, but has since been chained up in their back garden, said Karen.

She added that police and a dog warden visited the house on Thursday and warned them to restrain Rusty as well, or face the animals being taken away. [Emphasis is mine]

‘Mia’ is a Rottweiler – and the family also own a German Shepherd as well. So, although the Royal Mail admit that ‘The dog attacked the postman on the 24th of March and we have now suspended deliveries to the whole of Newman Road’, they also make it clear that ‘The suspension of mail deliveries is a last resort’ and that this ‘This exceptional step has been taken in order to safeguard Royal Mail employees’. The idea that it is a last resort is that they have tried to speak to family to get them to control their dogs, the family has failed and that this last bite from the Jack Russell was the point at which the Royal Mail has had to take this action. It is interesting to see that the owner blames the action on the Rottweiler’s bite, rather than the Jack Russell. It is made clear that this is the case by the owner:

[Karen] added that police and a dog warden visited the house on Thursday and warned them to restrain Rusty as well, or face the animals being taken away. [Emphasis is mine]

Interestingly on the original article are lots of comments from residents of the area siding with the action taken by Royal Mail – as well as lots of criticism of the article – Newman Road is in Saltash, Cornwall, not Plymouth, Devon for one. This one comment sums it up:

dog

So, a family that the Daily Mail would normally describe as ‘feral’ and bad, suddenly becomes OK because they fit into the narrative that the Royal Mail will stop deliveries given the slightest excuse because they’re part of the evil public sector. Not that the Royal Mail are responding to irresponsible dog-owners, much as any Mail reader would ordinarily support.