Posted by Compass Youth Group on 8 Jan 2008
Written by Alex Higgins, Compass Youth Member
A strikingly large proportion of headlines in this country begin with the tabloid classic “OUTRAGE AS…” or for variation, “FURY AS…”. That’s because these stories are so easy to write, designed to appeal to, and encourage, near-permanent state of resentment in the readership.
If you ever want to write an “outrage” story yourself, it’s easily done. First, you find a public official who has said something about crime, prisons, immigration, education, drugs, Northern Ireland, civil action lawsuits, motoring, sex, benefits, recycling or whatever will press your readers’ buttons. Then you ring two professionally outraged people – a retired police officer might do, or a Conservative councillor, or maybe the head of an organisation like Parents of Middle England Against Recycling and Speed Limits or something. You ask them, “Are you outraged by this statement?” They say, “Yes, it’s outrageous! It’s barking!” And then you have a news story.
You can try it yourself in the convenience of your own pub. In fact, they probably do.
The Daily Mail lead story of January 2nd is the standard combination of misinformation, one-sided sourcing and accusations of madness as they lay into the Welsh senior police officer, Richard Brunstrom (again). The author Matthew Hickley is extremely selective in the facts he chooses to state, and does not once give anyone with a different point of view a chance to speak (Transform - an organisation campaigning for an end to Prohibition, was ignored when they requested a right of reply). He makes the case for drug Prohibition aggressively under the cover of a news report - and it is astonishing to think that more people don't realise just how propagandistic Mail reporting is.
“Outrage as publicity-mad chief constable says 'ecstasy is safer than aspirin'”
“Notorious chief constable Richard Brunstrom is facing demands to resign after publicly claiming that the illegal rave drug ecstasy is safer than aspirin.”
Not got much of a chance, this guy, has he?
Brunstrom is already an object of fear and hatred due to his aggressive enforcement of speed limits in North Wales and his accompanying public statements. He has previously called for an end to Prohibition laws, and he expresses his views on a blog. His conduct is a legitimate subject for discussion, but the chances of him being given a fair hearing in the press are less than zero.
The ecstasy story allows the Mail to be even more manipulative than usual – since they can ring up the families of young people who died after taking it and use their grief to bolster their argument, in isolation from the merits of the paper's arguments.
The report makes its case like this:
'In his latest bizarre proclamation, he insisted that the drug - which claims almost 50 lives a year - was a "remarkably safe substance". The comments from the gaffe-prone head of the North Wales force infuriated the families of youngsters who died after taking ecstasy.
'Challenged over the well-documented dangers of taking drugs such as ecstasy, he said: "Actually the reverse is the case. Ecstasy is a remarkably safe substance. It's far safer than aspirin." He added: "There's a lot of scaremongering and rumour-mongering around ecstasy in particular. It isn't borne out by the evidence."
Mr Brunstrom claimed that "Government research" showed ecstasy was safer than many other substances, including tobacco and alcohol. When contacted by the Mail and asked to explain that claim, he declined to comment.
Recent figures show that between 1999 and 2004, UK deaths from ecstasy, a Class A illegal drug, rose from 26 to 48 per year - putting them roughly on a par with fatalities from cocaine.'
The trouble with the “gaffe-prone” Brunstrom’s “bizarre proclamation” is that he is right, or at least able to make a strong case, about every single point of fact.
It is hard to compare aspirin and ecstasy directly, and perhaps unwise to, but with a little context it is possible to see why Brunstrom could make his assertion. The Mail does not give any figures for deaths from aspirin and other similar drugs, and insists that it couldn’t provide any, a concession that did not dent their certainty. So here are some from the Guardian a few years back:
“The research showed that between 1996 and 1998, there were 364 deaths as a result of paracetamol or aspirin overdose. This had fallen to 274 in the years 1999 to 2001.”
(The fall in deaths from aspirin overdose came after the government introduced legislation limiting the quantity that pharmacies could sell to one person.)
So as a point of fact, aspirin causes significantly more deaths a year than Ecstasy use (put by the Mail at "almost 50 a year" following recent increases). Such figures might help a reader evaluate the merits of Brunstrom’s argument.
The story gets around the (unmentioned) fact of higher aspirin deaths by arguing:
"Campaigners said his comparison was "absurd", since aspirin is taken for medical reasons and also saves countless lives, whereas ecstasy is illegal and is taken for kicks."
Aspirin is certainly taken in a totally different context from ecstasy, it is indeed a life-saving drug and more people take it, more frequently. When aspirin or similar drugs kill it may be from an adverse reaction, but often it is the result of intentional self-harm. Saying that, Ecstasy (or Methylenedioxymethamphetamine, MDMA, to use its proper name) has only recently been used for medical purposes. Its value as a therapeutic drug for treating trauma is still being explored. And Aspirin remains a drug that can kill you, yet is available over the counter from supermarkets for 16p a packet, while Ecstasy is classified as a Class A substance, meriting the harshest punishments available under Britain’s Prohibition laws.
The Mail does not bother to offer the reader any context for assessing the overall risk of taking ecstasy. That’s hard to do, because we don’t know how many people take ecstasy and how often. But estimates range between half a million to a million users every week. Martin Samuel at the Times writes:
"So say there are a ball-park 1.25 million Ecstasy tablets taken each week in Britain. That is 65 million annually and 910 million since 1994, working out as one death every 2,275,000 tablets."
In that context, Ecstasy is indeed “remarkably safe”. The unconsulted UK Medical Research Council puts Ecstasy “on the bottom of the scale of harm”. A Lancet Report of this year, considering all ways in which drugs can harm individuals, including the family and social impact, similarly ranked Ecstasy near the bottom for harm of both legal and illegal recreational drugs.
It's not referenced in the Mail, but you can read it here:
Hickley doesn’t even try to argue with Brunstrom’s quoted claim that alcohol and tobacco kill more people than ecstasy, presumably because it’s blatantly obvious.
It's a mistake to label any drug safe, including strictly pharmaceutical ones, because they will always be dangerous in some quantity or under some circumstances. And we don't know much about the long-term effect of taking ecstasy regularly over a long period (hint - it's probably quite bad for you). But on the Mail's website, directly under the link to the story of the how PC Brunstrom is an idiot, is a story about how doctors recommend alcohol to the elderly. What? No pictures of all the lives destroyed by alcohol? No quotes from those bereaved by alcohol abuse? No invitations to stand by the graves of victims?
Incidentally, the tabloids usually go after Brunstrom over the issue of speed cameras, which he strongly favours - that's why he is "notorious". Traffic accidents, of course, kill thousands of people in Britain each year and are the biggest cause of death among young people. But don't read the Mail for moral consistency.
The Mail then prominently places the portraits of young people who died after taking the drug, and you are meant to deduce from them that Prohibition laws are a good idea, even if they didn't save their lives and may have contributed to some of their deaths.
The question of how Ecstasy deaths actually occur is ignored. Ecstasy, like many things, presents a greater risk to those with serious heart conditions, since it can increase blood pressure. Mixing with alcohol can add to complications. Other deaths are caused by dehydration as dancers who have taken the drug lose body fluids without realising it, or in some cases actually drink water excessively after losing body salts. Simple harm reduction - education, trained staff at clubs, re-hydration - can help prevent these very rare tragedies.
A further risk comes from impurities mixed into the drug – which is an obvious, direct consequence of Prohibition. Since the drug is produced in the criminal, rather than legal economy, there is no way for the government to regulate the contents of a pill. Those deaths could be reduced only by legalising the drug.
The Mail brings on Shadow Home Secretary, David Davis, to wrap up their ill-informed case:
"If you strike the attitudes taken by this particular chief constable, if you thoughtlessly downgrade cannabis, if you treat dangerous drugs as 'no worse than aspirin', you make a gift to the drug dealers and criminals who are destroying the lives of so many young people."
Leave aside the false claims about the risk for a moment - David Davis should know what makes a gift to criminals. It’s taking one of the world’s largest industries, with super-high profit margins, colossal returns on investment and very steady customer demand and then giving it to them on a platter, shutting down any legal rivals just to help them out. That is what Prohibition does.
It is hard to think of a single policy that has been as unremitting a failure as the War on Drugs. Hundreds of billions of pounds and many, many human lives have been poured into an endeavour for decades that has succeeded only in making every problem it is meant to solve significantly worse.
The reason it continues is that every time a politician or police officer suggests that prohibition is a bad idea, they can expect hacks at newspapers as manifestly dishonest as the Mail to shoot them down and serve their readers with misinformation pretending to be news.
There is nothing wrong with opinionated news. Most of the best journalism ever written consists of reporters making passionate arguments, exposing official corruption and wrongdoing, for instance, or telling a tragic story from the victim’s point of view. But it is a different thing to regularly assert contentious points of view, make out that the only people who could disagree are lunatics, deny opposing voices a chance to speak and then present it as a straight news report.
That’s not reporting the news, or even being a crusading journalist – it is outright hackery. And if the Daily Mail ever cut out that, their paper would be reduced to its horoscopes, lifestyle features, contradictory stories about the ways you can get cancer and Nostradamus specials.