Don’t get your legal opinions from randoms on Twitter

Former first minister Alex Salmond has won his legal case against the Scottish Government over its investigation of sexual harassment allegations against him. The government admits it didn’t follow the correct procedures and as a result, its investigation is invalid.

The verdict has nothing whatsoever do to with the truth of whether Salmond actually harassed two women, but that isn’t stopping social media: already on Twitter we’re seeing a few Yes groups portray this as proof that the allegations were groundless (and blocking anyone who tries to explain otherwise). It’s already becoming an article of faith, the saintly Salmond persecuted over untrue allegations.

That isn’t true. This case had nothing to do with the actual allegations; just how they were investigated. Alex Salmond may well be innocent, and of course he is rightly presumed to be innocent unless / until he is proven guilty. But the allegations remain, and Salmond has not been cleared of anything.

Truth takes time

Another day, another admission by The Sunday Times that an anti-trans article by Andrew Gilligan was made up. This time it was the one about women’s toilets in the City of London, in which Gilligan completely misrepresented the Equality Act to scaremonger about nothing.

As I wrote at the time:

I regret to inform readers that noted fantasist Andrew Gilligan has written another article. This week he’s suggesting that the City of London may let trans women use the ladies’ toilets…

…which the City of London has been doing for eight years, because that’s the fucking law.

Gilligan is well aware of the Equality Act 2010 and is reminded of it whenever he writes untrue things about trans people or their allies. He just chooses to pretend otherwise, because he’s a disgrace to journalism.

Six months later…

But of course, the damage is already done: the article, yet another in Gilligan and The Sunday Times’ ongoing campaign against trans women, appeared during the Gender Recognition Act consultation period and helped fuel anti-trans hysteria. Admitting that it was bullshit six months down the line, long after the consultation closed,  is far too little, far too late.

To write one incorrect article about trans women is unfortunate. To do it repeatedly suggests malice.

Update: Paris Lees shares some more mandatory corrections from Mail Online (completely misrepresenting the Mermaids charity, something Andrew Gilligan has previously been censured for too) and The Scotsman (an anti-trans column claiming a hospital has stopped doing gender surgeries when in fact, it is “fully committed” to providing such surgeries.

Writing for people who don’t want to read

Logan’s Run-style euthanasia of ageing columnists probably isn’t an option. 

The editors of N+1 Magazine describe “The New Reading Environment”, where writers and readers are often sworn enemies.

Readers lose patience, and the careful quoting, like snipping coupons with precision, becomes tearing — into lines, phrases, and points. The space grows for misinterpretation, co-optation, and misunderstanding. All it takes is one podcast host with a grudge and a modest following, like an Evangelical pastor of yore, for a small hell to break loose in your mentions. Your authorial control disintegrates. What you wrote is eclipsed by another person’s idea of what you wrote. It’s the reader’s text now — and so are you, an authorial construction, another text to be bandied about. Does anyone enjoy watching themselves get eaten and digested by other people?

It’s very good on the resurgence of the op-ed as “an endless stream of annoying and offensive provocations” by controversialists of limited ability, and its origins in editors’ inability – or unwillingness – to differentiate between the “good” readers and the “bad”. All traffic is good traffic.

FROM THE PERSPECTIVE of the op-ed editors, “good” readers who see through editorial bad faith and express their outrage have become indistinguishable from “bad” readers who don’t, since outrage is a sign of consequence, and both guarantee traffic.

…When questioned about their motives, the editors responsible for all this irresponsible writing rarely answer. They say only that they are acting in good faith: furthering the dialogue, expanding the conversation, exposing their readers to new ideas, inviting everyone to the table.

I’m amused by the ideal of “term limits for columnists”, although personally I’d go for the Logan’s Run approach of compulsory euthanasia for the you-couldn’t-make-it-up crowd. Sadly I don’t run the world so it’s likely that they’ll follow what N+1 describes as “compet[ing] for the attention of aging Americans with the dementia-inducing Fox News.” And sadly, I think the article’s conclusion is correct:

But this is inadequate. Everything about the recent past, and the generalization of the op-ed form across the internet, suggests there is an inexhaustible fund of such figures, a reserve army of op-ed labor waiting in the wings. Twitter has helped turn the internet into an engine for producing op-eds, for turning writers into op-ed writers, and for turning readers into people on the hunt for an op-ed. The system will not be satisfied until it has made op-ed writers of us all.

 

Nothing looks as good as money

Amanda Mull has found the secret to perfect skin: be rich.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t moisturise, keep hydrated or stay out of the sun. But the celebrity beauty secrets magazines are so keen to share tend not to include the best-kept secret of all:

You can drink as much water and wear as much sunscreen as you want, but the most effective skin-care trick is being rich.

Rich people look different to the rest of us, because rich people have access to things the rest of us don’t (and don’t do the jobs many of us mortals do, some of which are hardly skin-friendly).

Rich people who are also handsome or pretty have usually been lucky in the genetic lottery too. As Mull writes:

It’s no mystery to beauty editors and writers, as well as the famous women surveyed, that the answer is a combination of youth, genetic luck, and access to expensive products, treatments, and cosmetic dermatology procedures that few people outside their world could ever hope to experience.

If you get plenty of sleep, eat well, drink plenty of water and use skincare products you probably won’t end up looking like a monkey’s scrotum. But you’re not going to look like your favourite Hollywood star either – and the older you get, the more of a difference money, or lack of it, makes.

Writers don’t use words by accident

There’s been a bit of controversy over a new film, Girl, which is about a trans woman. It’s interesting to see how that’s been reported: almost without exception, the trans movie reviewers and reporters who’ve made legitimate criticisms of the film (such as a shocking scene of self-harm they worry might be imitated) have been described as “trans activists”.

One such “activist” is Out.com’s director of culture and entertainment and former Los Angeles Times reporter Tre’Vell Anderson. Anderson is not amused by the New York Times report of the controversy, which described the criticisms as:

trans activists and others who consider its scrutiny of a trans character’s body so dangerous that they urge no one to see it.

That’s a blatant misrepresentation of what people are saying, as well as of the people who are saying it. The criticism suggests that the film may be irresponsible, that it could risk copycat behaviour. Anderson:

The danger in this lies in the message it sends to the little trans and gender nonconforming kids that might stumble upon this film in their Netflix queue at the top of the year and do what kids do: follow suit.

Nobody is demanding the film be banned, or that the filmmaker be silenced. But characterising the critics as “activists” – a pejorative term in this context – is an attempt to silence the critics. Anderson again:

On Wednesday, Erik Piepenburg of The New York Times called the critiques a “firestorm,” invoking language that has long been used to keep critics who aren’t straight white men at bay. Piepenburg referred to us not as critics or reporters, but instead as “trans activists.”

Frankly, this is a thinly-veiled effort to dismiss, ignore, and invalidate perspectives and critiques that differ from those dominated by newsrooms that are overwhelmingly white, cisgender, heterosexual, and male. Asserting that the pushback the film has received, including not making it to the Oscars foreign language shortlist, is the work of “activists,” erases the necessary and effective work of journalists and career film critics. Left in its place is the impression of a host of negligible, pesky, and unfounded opinions, now seen in the nation’s paper of record as extreme and unreasonable.

This is something that happens time and again in mainstream media whenever trans-related issues are reported on by cisgender people: any trans person with an opinion, no matter how well informed, is described as an activist. The people on the other side are never characterised as “anti-trans activists”, even when that’s exactly what they are.

The reason “activist” is pejorative here is because it suggests that, as Anderson explains, “my vantage point… is purely an emotional response and, therefore, must be uninformed.”

This isn’t limited to trans people. People who don’t agree with the status quo are often described as activists,  zealots, militants, extremists. It’s a form of “poisoning the well”, a debating technique that attempts to undermine the other person’s argument before they can even make it.

Anderson doesn’t say that the label of activist is inherently bad, but I’d argue that it usually is used in a pejorative sense. An angry trans person on Twitter isn’t a trans activist; a trans person writing to complain about a newspaper article isn’t an activist; a trans film critic with a nuanced analysis of a film isn’t an activist either. And yet that’s how they’re described in mainstream media reporting. To categorise people as such is to dismiss them, to suggest that what they have to say is worthless.

This can’t be accidental. When you’re a writer of any kind, you know exactly what words mean and the power they have.

The war on observable reality

Little Mix: definitely a thing that exists. And hurrah for that.

There’s an interesting piece by Alex Hern, the Guardian’s tech correspondent, about online fakery. He thought it would ruin the world, but considerably less sophisticated bullshit got there first.

On social media, the public is for the first time exposed to the raw firehose of news, with no ability or desire to perform the work of verification, with incentives for sharing the most sensationalist content.

Faced with a race to keep up with the pace of change and an explosion in the availability of new information sources, hoaxes and untruths have gradually infiltrated the pages of even the most respectable journals…

This is an internet-age phenomenon, technology making an age-old problem considerably worse.

The internet has brought us what’s best described as a war on observable reality, and it goes rather like this:

Expert: I have two legs.
Person: No you don't.
Expert: Yes I do. [points] One leg. Two. 
Person: No.

The real version usually has more swearing and personal abuse, but you get the idea.

This isn’t the same thing as having a difference of opinion. This is rejecting observable reality.

Let’s bring Little Mix into this for no good reason.

Little Mix are a pop band. I think they’re very good. You might think they’re absolutely awful. But the fact that Little Mix exist, that they play concert venues, make videos and sell records is a fact. If I were to say that I think Little Mix are brilliant and you were to say that Little Mix don’t exist, you would clearly be a few sandwiches short of a picnic.

And yet many people are denying provable reality, often about much more serious things. Donald Trump’s cry of “fake news!” when he really means “inconvenient news!”, the flat earthers and the moon landing truthers are the most obvious example, but it happens constantly, all over the place. Politicians say things that are provably untrue on air and aren’t challenged on it. Fringe views are given a platform as if they’re legitimate. Blatant falsehoods are circulated as if they’re facts. Propaganda is reprinted.

As Hern notes, this is because gatekeeping has collapsed.

Here’s how it used to work. Big-name American magazines (and some of the publishers I work for) famously use armies of fact checkers who go through entire articles demanding citations: where’s the evidence for this? How can you prove they said that? Which article was this in? If you can’t prove it – and proof requires more than some website by some crank – it doesn’t get published. The UK wasn’t quite so detailed but you still had to get through sub-editors, who were famously unforgiving.

That scrutiny – any scrutiny – is increasingly rare. Women’s magazines run debunked and sometimes dangerous health advice by new-age idiots. Newspapers parrot bullshit by anti-LGBT pressure groups. Radio presenters let politicians tell the porkiest of porkies. TV news politicises real events by using terms such as “migrant crisis” to describe something that’s nothing of the sort.

And because traditional media still has a cachet and some remaining trust, once bullshit makes it into the pages of a magazine or the website of a newspaper, many people think it’s true. Bad information is lent legitimacy.

Commenting on Hern’s piece, journalist and former publisher Adam Banks, posting on Twitter, hit the nail on the head:

Fake news tech isn’t the point. The point is we need media that’s incentivised to explain what’s real and debunk what’s fake, not paid for anything that catches anyone’s eye.

Today we have the reverse, a toxic brew where what feels right is more important than what is right, where what gets clicks matters more than any of its consequences, where the only people getting paid are the ones who can make their readers, listeners or viewers angry or upset instead of better informed. It’s not sustainable, and it’s not valuable.

We get what we pay for. This is what we get when we don’t want to pay at all.

What the world needs in 2019

I’ve posted before that we’re lucky to be alive right now: for most of us the world is a better place than it’s ever been. But it also feels very divided, and some of the world’s worst people are deliberately fuelling those divisions. Sometimes it’s malicious – it’s a lot easier to push through a repellent agenda if the people who would normally stop you are fighting each other instead – and sometimes it’s much more banal, such as the way significant parts of the media have normalised extreme views because outrage gets clicks.

Never mind ABBA, or Oasis. The only comeback I want to see in 2019 is the return of empathy.

Happy New Year. I hope your 2019 is healthy, happy and cares about everybody.

Goodbye, The Pie

We said goodbye to The Pie today. She was 13.

Megan – immediately dubbed The Pie by my wife – was born in 2005 and we got her in early 2006. We were young marrieds, starting a new life in suburbia. For a couple of years it was just the three of us: me, my wife and The Pie, a whole future ahead of us.

Megan was the perfect dog, funny and never fierce, the world’s worst guard dog and our best friend. She became our kids’ best friend too, and was there for them when I was no longer able to be.

Today, as the vet prepared to put her to sleep, we were able to kiss her and rub her tummy and tell her what she always knew but didn’t hear enough: she wasn’t just a good girl. She was the best girl.

Some friendships aren’t forever

Cerian Jenkins is one of my favourite writers, both in her day job as a columnist for DIVA magazine and as a blogger. In The [Other] C Word she’s been blogging about her experiences of cancer treatment, both in terms of the physical effects and the wider impacts on her life.

This post, on friendship, is typically astute. Big life events can have a seismic effect on your friendships, and many of those relationships don’t survive.

In shining a harsh light on the fundamental foundations of relationships I had, up until now, probably taken for granted as unshakeable, I have been granted a rare insight into which special friendships I should invest much of my time and effort into nurturing and which friendships I should accept were not what I had perceived them to be pre-diagnosis.  It allowed me to build upon old connections, and even to create brand spanking new ones.

As Jenkins noted on Twitter, the response to her blog demonstrated that it’s not just the big C: people undergoing gender transition, divorce, becoming parents, experiencing other major life changes or just going travelling have encountered similar changes. I wrote about my own experiences of absent friends earlier this year:

And like every other big step I’ve had to take, I had to do it solo. No wingman to give me confidence. No voice offering assurance that I can do this. No shoulder to cry on when the sheer enormity of it all seems too much.

But Jenkins, like me, has found positive effects too.

…you will be amazed by how right you were about a handful of brilliantly supportive friends, as well as completely blown away by people you would never have expected coming out of the woodwork and proving themselves to be invaluable pillars of strength. I know I have been.

Nowadays, when I look at my wonderfully eclectic group of friends, I am acutely aware of the truth in the words ‘quality over quantity’.  I feel infinitely lucky to know that there are people in my life who will be with me through thick and thin, in sickness and in health; and that they will always be able to rely on me doing the same for them. In truth, I wouldn’t be standing today, let alone still smiling, without them.

Not everybody in your life is going to be there forever. Sometimes friendships will fade; sometimes they end much more abruptly and in ways that may upset you. But rather than mourn the death of friendships that are beyond repair, it’s much better to work on the new friendships you’re making – and if you’re not making them, to put yourself in situations where you can make connections with new people.

Many of those connections will be strictly temporary; some might not last beyond a single day.

But some of them will blossom.

Some of them may turn out to be the most important connections you’ve ever made.

Will those connections last forever? Nobody knows. They might screw it up, or you might.

But equally, they might not, and you might not.

And even if there is a screw-up in your far future, the friends you have now can have a phenomenal effect on your life right now.

With very few exceptions, the people who matter most to me now – the people who pick me up when I’m feeling down, who get me out of my comfort zones and who make me feel the sheer joy of being alive – are people I didn’t know two years ago, or didn’t know as well as I do now. I am a better person, and live a happier life, partly because of people who weren’t in that life just a short time ago.

I love Jenkins’ conclusion.

In the end, the important thing is to be generally kind and to nurture understanding of yourself and those around you, whatever role they choose to play (or not play) in your life.

Green sheep, bendy bananas and boys having periods

It’s Sunday, the day when the UK press likes to post multiple anti-trans articles. I want to look at  one from last week. It’s the story that virulently anti-trans MP David Davies described on Twitter as the “latest example of barking mad trans-activism”: the idea that eight-year-old boys will be told they can have periods.

The story has legs: I’ve seen it turn up in Sky News Australia and the Monserrat Reporter. Talk radio hosts have used it as evidence that “the world’s gone mad” and of “bonkers Britain” and the usual columnists have weighed in to moan about the excesses of trans activism.

Is it true?

Here’s the document the coverage refers to (pdf). It’s a presentation by the neighbourhoods, inclusion communities and equalities committee of Brighton & Hove council on the subject of period poverty, the horrible situation where some students don’t have access to sanitary products because their parents are broke. This has an effect on their education because some of those students stay home when they have their period instead of attending school.

In the 3,000 word document, trans people are mentioned exactly once, in a description of the period positive educational approach. The document notes that:

  • Trans boys and men and non-binary people may have periods.

This is undeniably true: irrespective of how you identify, if you have the appropriate plumbing then you may have periods. And that means you can be affected by period poverty.

This has got nothing to do with any sinister agenda: it’s an attempt at inclusivity. And yet what seems to me like a perfectly rational and humane point – that period poverty can affect students who do not necessarily identify as female – has been used once again to attack trans people, and young trans people specifically. Scoring a political point is more important than any child’s welfare.

What we’re seeing here is an old trick with a new target.

It’s sheep we’re up against

Exaggeration and falsification have long been used by newspapers to attack people they don’t like and anything that’s happened since 1953. For example, in 2014 Mail Online readers in Australia finally got a story we Britons have known about since 1986: the evils of politically correct forces demanding children sing alternatives to “baa baa black sheep” because the black bit might be racist.⁠1

It was a real story — a couple of Australian kindergartens had indeed changed the lyrics for fear of causing offence — but it was an isolated incident, just as it was in 1986 when a single nursery (Beevers Nursery in Hackney, London — a private nursery, not a council-controlled one) rewrote the song as an exercise for children and the newspapers went mad.

The English story made the Daily Star and then The Sun and the Sunday World, and then the Daily Mail embellished it by claiming Haringey council, not Hackney, had ordered playgroup leaders to attend racial awareness courses where they were ordered to make children sing “baa baa green sheep” instead.⁠2

As the saying goes, never let the facts get in the way of a good story. It was completely untrue, and Haringey council attempted to sue the newspaper but had to drop the legal proceedings for lack of funds. The Mail version of the story made it to the Birmingham Evening Mail, the Liverpool Echo, the Yorkshire Evening Press, the Birmingham Post, the Sunday People, the News of the World, the Sunday Mercury, the Carlisle Evening News and Star, the Yorkshire Evening Courier, the Ipswich Evening Star, the Sunday Times letters page, the Hendon Times and the Sunday Telegraph.

The story continued to spread, this time with Islington council being blamed, and it turned up in the Economist, the Daily Telegraph, the Daily Express, the Daily Mirror and the Sun. The story was used in political broadcasts by the Social Democratic Party, and it came back from the dead in 1998 in the Sunday Times. Over the next five years it would pop up from time to time in various newspapers. In the two decades since it began, only two newspapers have printed corrections admitting that it isn’t true.

Sheep weren’t the only fabrication. Stories about manhole covers being renamed were invented by the newspapers, as were supposed bans on black bin bags. Other stories about “super-loos for gypsies” or special treatment for gay people were pretty dodgy too. 

According to the Media Research Group of Goldsmith’s College in the University of London, British tabloids ran some 3,000 news stories about such “loony left” ideas between 1981 and 1987; the vast majority were either partially or wholly fabricated and were targeted against the handful of London councils under Labour control.⁠3

Very similar stories were fabricated about the European Union too, most notably by a young journalist called Boris Johnson. Between 1989 and 1994 the Telegraph’s Brussels correspondent filed knowingly exaggerated and sometimes entirely invented stories about supposed EU madness, creating a whole new genre of Europhobic scare stories. Other journalists were appalled, but the stories were very successful and ultimately helped pave the way for 2016’s “Brexit” vote to leave the EU.⁠4

It’s not reporting. It’s propaganda. And it works.

It works because most people remember just the headline — and that headline can have tremendous power. In a series of studies published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, Ullrich Ecker of the University of Western Australia tested the effect of misleading headlines on people’s perceptions on hot issues such as genetically modified crops. As The New Yorker reports:

In the case of the factual articles, a misleading headline hurt a reader’s ability to recall the article’s details… In the case of opinion articles, a misleading headline, like the one suggesting that genetically modified foods are dangerous, impaired a reader’s ability to make accurate inferences. For instance, when asked to predict the future public-health costs of genetically modified foods, people who had read the misleading headline predicted a far greater cost than the evidence had warranted.⁠1

Everybody remembers the headlines about the EU’s bonkers ban on bendy bananas. It was completely invented, but the stories were a key part of a long campaign against the EU that ultimately resulted in the UK voting for Brexit.

Most tabloid stories about trans activists or the sinister trans lobby are fictional too, but by the time they’re fact-checked – if they’re fact-checked at all; there are so many of them few people have the time – the damage is done. Throughout the land, breakfast tables vibrate to the sound of readers harrumphing about political correctness gone mad.

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1 http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2796447/lyrics-baa-baa-black-sheep-changed-kindergarten-teachers-racial-overtones.html

2 Curran, J.; Petley, J.; Gaber, I. (2005). Culture wars: the media and the British left. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. pp. 85–107. ISBN 0-7486-1917-8

3 John Gyford; Steve Leach & Chris Game (1989). “Political change since Widdicombe”. The changing politics of local government. Routledge. pp. 310–313. ISBN 9780044452997.

4 https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/jul/15/brexit-boris-johnson-euromyths-telegraph-brussels