Archive for category Not science at all

Not-so-searching journalism

(Hat tip to Press Not Sorry and Trans Media Watch)

Not wanting to be left out by recent events in the papers, The Sun has a leak of its own (and by a leak, I mean a document that’s been freely available online since mid-October): prison search guidelines. The rules cover everything from whether or not to search religious clothing, to the proper use of metal detectors, to when it’s appropriate to search a baby’s nappy; there’re any number of angles The Sun could have taken with its coverage. What does it go for?


The underlying message of The Sun‘s article (and its hastily churned-out sibling in the Daily Mail) is clear: transgender people are supposedly getting special treatment and smuggling weapons/drugs into prison.

The Sun says:

PRISON bosses have been told not to order intimate strip searches on sex swap lags, it was revealed last night.

The new rule has been drawn up by officials working for Justice Secretary Ken Clarke – who has already been slammed for going soft on sentences.

And the “squat” search ban does not only apply to prisoners who’ve had a sex change. Officials have ruled that gender swappers are now exempt even if they haven’t yet had any surgery. Angry prison officers say the naked searches are the only way jails can detect drugs or weapons that prisoners have hidden inside their bodies.

(The Mail’s article is essentially identical – imagine the above put through a de-slanging translator)

Note that they don’t quote any of these “angry prison officers” and that “intimate strip searches” quickly gets replaced by one specific type of search.

The Sun never actually quotes from the “leaked” document, so you just have to take their word that that’s what the guidelines say. Or you would, if prison search guidelines weren’t already freely available online (.doc). The actual advice they give is a little more prosaic:

Where it is suspected that an item has been hidden in or around the anus, a male prisoner must be asked to bend/squat as part of a full search, to enable the officer to visually examine the area more closely.  Female prisoners must not be asked to squat.  The basic principle here is that anyone who is legally a female (from birth or acquired via a GRC) must not be asked to bend or squat neither should anyone who has a vagina (regardless of legal gender).

In fact, search rules for trans people work more or less exactly the same to how they work for cis people. Admittedly, there is an exception – presumably for medical reasons – of trans men who haven’t had GC surgery, but this is an exception for anyone with a vagina, trans or cis; it would be impossible to abuse this to smuggle anything into a prison.

The other rule that The Sun finds “bizarre”?

Male lags who want a sex change can demand to be given a nude search by a woman – while women awaiting a sex swap can demand a male officer. Governors must draw up a “voluntary contract” with all transsexuals before they can carry out a “rub down” or full body search.

And the rules add: “Procedures must be sensitive both to the needs of prisoners and staff and they must remain lawful in order to avoid potential litigation.”

Searches must be lawful? Outrageous!

Anyway, ignoring The Sun‘s mix-up of male and female here, once again all the guidelines actually do is clarify that someone who is legally a woman should be treated like, well, a woman. Since for reasons that should be reasonably obvious, male officers can’t strip search female prisoners, all women must be searched by female officers. It’s not something they “can demand” but a statutory requirement (which means the guidelines go into detail about what effect gender recognition certificates have).

More importantly though, what the guidelines make clear is that it’s important that the prison guards and the prisoner agree if possible, and that the search is carried out with reasonable sensitivity – exactly the same as how a cisgender prisoner should be treated. In other words, trans prisoners receive (at least in theory) the same treatment as everyone else. The Sun and The Mail apparently have a big problem with this.

* “Sex swap”, incidentally, is one of Trans Media Watch’s inappropriate or offensive words to avoid.



Another unwinnable Crusade from the Express

This is the Platonic Ideal of a Daily Express front page.

The idea that the Daily Express would somehow be able to change Britain’s timezone was stupid. The idea that the Daily Express can single-handedly tear Britain out of the EU however is just plain cute. It’s a bit like watching a puppy try to take part in an Olympic marathon. You know it hasn’t a hope in hell of succeeding, but simply the idea that it thinks it can win makes you go “Aww” against your better judgement.

Just as last time, they claimed that 29 million people supported them based on a survey of a few thousand, the Express is once again overstating support for its crusade – which I remind you only started today – by quoting a few Eurosceptics and claiming that they represent a huge groundswell of support … gathering behind the Daily Express Crusade“, and that the Daily Express running a front page piece about how it doesn’t like Europe is “a turning point in the battle to win back Britain’s independence“.

Edit: Now they’re claiming that “99 per cent of people agree we should quit the European Union“, when of course what they actually mean is that 99% of Express readers with a strong enough opinion to ring a premium rate number buried somewhere in the newspaper agree. Via Primly Stable and Enemies of Reason.

Anyway, as you might expect, the Express gets maybe a wee bit overenthusiastic, claiming that unemployment is high in EU because politicians are for some reason deliberately sabotaging recovery with “new job-destroying regulations” and running with a “what have the Romans ever done for us?” argument that “Almost nothing the EU has proposed or enacted has benefited Britain“.

Perhaps the ‘best’ part of the article though is when they move past mangled memories of Black Wednesday and the claims that the only difference between us and Switzerland is EU membership, and move onto history. Now, the Daily Express is always complaining that schools aren’t teaching history properly, but instead twist it to their own ideological ends. Well, I’m sure the Express won’t stoop to that lev…

The creation of the EU is explained by the perfectly understandable desire to avoid further conflict on a continent that had been the scene of two world wars.

But Britain is a land apart: A precious stone set in the silver sea, as Shakespeare so evocatively put it; a realm with a glorious island story stretching back a thousand years, with links to every continent and a language taken up throughout the world.

You know, completely unlike a France, a realm with a glorious story stretching back a thousand years with links to every continent and a language taken up throughout the world.

Or Spain, a realm with a glorious story stretching back a thousand years, with links to every continent and a language taken up throughout the world.

Or Portugal, a realm with a glorious story stretching back a thousand years, with links to every continent and a language taken up throughout the world.

Or the Netherlands, a realm with a glorious story stretching back a thousand years, with links to every continent and a language taken up throughout the world.

Anyway, I’m surprised the Express, usually rather big on the whole remembrance thing, forgets which country suffered massive economic damage as a result of those two world wars, and therefore may have a bit of an interest in preventing another one happening. Here’s a hint, it was us.


Sex lives of the potato lesbians (and everyone else)

Apologies for the title.

“Nosey council chiefs were accused of losing the plot yesterday after applicants for allotments were quizzed about their sex lives”, says the Express today. “A survey attached to the application form asks would-be gardeners about their race, religion and sexual orientation.” Note to “Daily Express Reporter” – sexual orientation ≠ sex life. Knowing whether someone is gay or bisexual or straight tells you no more about their sex life than whether they’re single or in a relationship. Anyway.

City of Lincoln Council bosses are also keen to know if they think lesbians should be allowed allotments, too.

Really? The council was unsure whether or not lesbians should be allowed allotments? Ok, fair enough, if that was true that might be a legitimately scandalous story, though not for the reasons the Express thinks. Of course, it’s not. As ever, none of this story actually holds up to scrutiny.

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Express says dealing with complaints “a waste of money”

The Daily Express finds it risible that the BBC  has a guide telling staff how to deal with complaints. Actually, it’s not the BBC at all, but an entirely independent company subcontracted to run a call centre for TV Licensing, but apparently they’re basically the same thing so whatever. It’s not really a guide to dealing with complaints either, but a general guide for call centre staff, which mentions complaints among the many things they may have to deal with.

Anyway, a guide for dealing with complaints! How bizarre! Of course, we all know the Daily Express never has to deal with complaints ever, so they’re entirely justified attacking the BBC about this.

The Daily Express claims that “Much of the advice in the 964-page book appears to state the blindingly obvious – including warning staff that the words “idiots”, “shambles” or “useless” may mean people are unhappy.”

Well, you can read the book online (warning, massive page) at What Do They Know? (a site which collects Freedom of Information requests) and in fact, much of the advice in the book explains the finer legal points of TV licences – how diplomatic immunity affects TV licensing, for instance* – and a good chunk more of it explains the codes used on the call centre’s various computer systems. Only two pages – 238 and 239 – explain how to recognise a complaint, and do so only for the sake of bookkeeping , so the call centre staff know whether or not they should log a call as a complaint or just a combatively worded question.

The Express also claims “It also includes prepared answers to regular objections to programmes considered offensive“, which since this is a TV Licensing call centre guide, not the BBC complaints department one, seems a bit odd. In fact, there is only a single mention in the whole book of offensive programming: the hypothetical complaint “The BBC is producing poor programmes, some are offensive. I am only going to pay a proportion of the fee“**. Still, never content with attacking the BBC on one front, the Express can’t resist going for the old “The BBC is offensive and out of touch” comment too.

The closest article comes to actual analysis is another churned out comment from Martin Sinclair of the TaxPayers’ Alliance (of course the TaxPayers’ Alliance commented):

There probably are lots of complaints about the unfair and expensive licence fee but ordinary families would expect that staff can identify an obvious complaint without lengthy guidance and training, at more cost. There might be fewer complaints if the BBC kept costs under control.

I wonder if the TaxPayers’ Alliance was aware that the Daily Express had completely misrepresented the nature of the guide when they churned out that comment? Or that the advice, covering a single sheet of paper in a very large typeface, was hardly lengthy nor costly? Or that the document was actually produced by the outsourcing company Capita, not the BBC itself? Perhaps the TaxPayers’ Alliance has found the key to “keeping costs under control” – don’t waste money looking into a story before shooting your mouth off about it.

* Diplomats are expected to pay the TV licence but if they refuse, or an embassy has unlicensed televisions on its premises, TV Licensing are powerless to do anything about it.

** The suggested reply by the way is masterfully tactful:

The licence fee is not payment for BBC services, it is payment for a legal permission to install and use a television receiver. The full fee prescribed in law is payable regardless of which channels are viewed. We (and the BBC) are not allowed by law to accept any payment other than the prescribed fee for a licence. The BBC do wish to know the views of the public and these can be made to BBC Information, PO Box 1922, Glasgow, G2 3WT.



Daily Mail fails to tell difference between fact and fiction

Daily Mail caption reading "Gun pointed at royal"

Totally not a misleading caption

Today, as every day, the Mail is outraged*, this time about a drama about Prince Harry being taken hostage while serving in Afghanistan. While the recent spate of fictional docudramas based on tragic events happening to real people are often not in the best taste – Channel 4 dramatising of the hypothetical execution of Gary Glitter accompanied by a remix of “Monster Mash” was possibly a bit of a low – that’s not the argument that the Mail uses against the show. Instead, the article takes a turn for the bizarre:


Channel 4 is to show a ‘dramatised documentary’ based on what would happen if Prince Harry were taken prisoner serving in Afghanistan.

The 90-minute film includes scenes showing the prince, played by actor Sebastian Reid, being held behind enemy lines while negotiations are carried out to free him.

The Taking Of Prince Harry shows the prince at one point with an unloaded gun pointed at his face before one of his captors pulls the trigger.

Although Clarence House has not responded to the documentary makers, royalists will be outraged by the programme and the potential risk to the throne.*

“Potential risk to the throne”? I do hope the Daily Mail realises this is a fictional drama; Channel 4 did not actually put a gun to Prince Harry’s face and pull the trigger. In fact, since Prince Harry returned from Afghanistan in February 2008, it’s hard to see what the “potential risk to the throne” may be. The article certainly never tells us.

The best the Mail can come up with is that “it has already prompted concern that extremists may take ideas from the programme” – though who had these concerns is never mentioned, nor why extremists would have to watch the show to have the idea, especially when there are already “reports and stories of jihadi websites saying he should be the number one target“.

According to the article, Prince Harry is not outraged, Clarence House is not outraged, Buckingham Palace is not outraged, the security forces are not outraged – the only people who are outraged appear to be the Daily Mail.

* “Royalists will be outraged” after we tell them a bunch of reasons to be outraged might be more accurate.

Edit! The Mail has altered the article. Now we’re no longer to be worried about Channel 4 shooting fictional Prince Harry. Instead, it now says “Members of the military will be appalled at the sense of defeatism the show is likely to sew [sic] in viewers back home already questioning the value of the war in Afghanistan”, while the headline now reads “Army outraged as ‘distasteful’ Channel Four drama shows Prince Harry taken hostage by Taliban in Afghanistan” (though the article itself still doesn’t back up the claim that anyone is actually outraged). Not much of an improvement, but at least they don’t claim that the show represents “a risk to the throne” (which is a good thing – if the claim was true, that would mean Channel 4 was committing the offence of treason felony).

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Biased about bias

Never let it be said the Mail won’t take any opportunity to attack the BBC. Yesterday it was over left-wing bias*, today it’s over right-wing bias.

The BBC was caught in a political row last night after its boss Mark Thompson was apparently attempting to cosy up to the Government following complaints over Left-wing bias.

The corporation’s director general was photographed arriving at No 10 clutching a memo insisting the BBC is ready to put its coverage of public spending cuts into ‘context’.

The move will prompt claims that the broadcaster is trying to curry favour with an increasingly hostile Coalition Government to preserve its generous licence fee funding.

So wait, has it been caught in a row yet, or not? There’s no mention in the article of anyone objecting to the memo, and the only verification is from an anonymous BBC source.

The claims in this article come from a single partially obscured telephoto shot of Thompson carrying a document written by the head of news Helen Boaden describing a meeting with the coalition’s Director of Communications Andy Coulson (who is incidentally involved in a much larger scandal that the Daily Mail have curiously forgotten to report on). Does the document support the Mail’s claims? Let’s see. Here’s a transcription of the relevant parts of the memo:

For background which may help…. I had lunch with Andy Coulson […]

concerned that we give context to the Spending Review Season (I[…]

Birt…). I said that’s what we always try to do and part of the reason […]

inform the public about the whys and wherefores… though I did exp[…]

a range of voices on all the issues.

Over the summer, we have mostly been driven by news lines and […]

leaked letter from the Justice dept. Phillip Green being brought in, […]

milk being axed and then restored, criticism of the OBR and the […]

the poorest would be hardest hit by the Spending Review implic[…]

tried to put in a broader context.

Does that sound like the BBC trying to “curry favour” with the coalition, or does that sound like the BBC trying to defend their position? They aren’t offering to put its coverage in context, they’re saying “We already do.”

* Despite how the papers tried to spin it, Thompson was only talking about left-wing bias in the 1970s.



Some statistics on the papers and the Press Complaints Commission

This a post I’ve been thinking about for a little while. Since I’ve got jury service starting soon, which will cut heavily into my free time for the next couple of weeks, I’m going to put it up now.

The Press Complaints Commission (PCC) is the watchdog in charge of dealing with complaints about the press. Unlike Ofcom, its broadcast equivalent, the PCC is entirely self-regulating – it is, ultimately, run by the press to moderate the press. Plenty of people have questioned this arrangement, and MPs have called the organisation “toothless“. So how effective is it? Well, nothing will tell us like cold, hard stats.

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Express EU scare story is bullshit shocker

NOW the Express warns readers “Now Brussels wants MOTs every two years“.

ANNUAL MOTs for cars could be scrapped under Brussels-led proposals to harmonise safety checks across Europe.

Bureaucrats want Britain to adopt a system in which MOTs are done only every two years.

That doesn’t make sense – the EU is bringing in these regulations to make roads safer, so why would they stop anyone from having a more regular MOT?

Well, let’s have a look at what the EU actually said (PDF, p. 14).

Member States may: (a) bring forward the date for the first compulsory roadworthiness test and, where appropriate, require the vehicle to be submitted for testing prior to registration; (b) shorten the interval between two successive compulsory tests;

In other words, the four years – two years thing is the bare minimum. We’re still allowed to have our annual MOTs, and in fact, we’re probably making Brussels rather happy by doing so.

So the Express story was nothing but a complete lie. Oh wow, what a surprise.


Just 3418 days before!

The Daily Mail‘s ridiculous claim for today is “Chelsea Clinton’s future father-in-law revealed as ‘one man crime wave’ just days before £3.2m wedding“. By “just days before”, they actually mean “in March 2001”, since that’s when her fiancé’s father, Ed Mezvinsky, was charged with fraud. This isn’t so much “news” as “desperately trying to find anything that will grab readers”, presumably in the vain hope that pictures of young blonde women + wealth + SCANDAL = advertising hits.

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Books! Books! Bullshit!

Johannes Gutenberg downloads the Bible to his prototype Kindle.

Johannes Gutenberg downloads the Bible to his prototype Kindle.

Literature totally counts as science, right? Anyway.

E-book sales outstripping real books for first time, claims Amazon

Really? Really? Bear in mind that there are 3 million E-reader users in all of the USA, and probably fewer than 5 million in the entire world. If this was true, E-reader owners must be reading – or at least buying – hundreds of books a day just to keep up with their more traditional counterparts.

E-book sales have in fact simply outstripped hardback book sales on Hardback books do not make up anywhere near the bulk of book sales by volume, which is what the numbers in the article are based on. Hardback is a prestige format used mostly for books that are likely to win awards, sell extremely well on release, or can be sold to a captive market (*cough*massively overpriced physics textbooks*cough*). It’s also big – i.e., annoying to order online. Paperbacks can be mass produced and stored far more cheaply, and are much more convenient for carrying, which is why they sell by the hundred-thousand, especially at airports and railway stations.

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