SubScribe: July 2012 Google+

Tuesday 24 July 2012

How bad can it get?

A man down on his luck tries to improve his lot by selling brushes and dusters door to door. He is bused from the Midlands to Essex, where he makes few sales. One evening he's about to pack up and go home, but decides to make one last call. A woman of 50 answers the door, she wants some of his merchandise. They get chatting, but he has a bus to catch and has to rush away; he promises to return.The chance meeting leads to a love affair that lasts 20 years until the woman dies, leaving her devoted partner bereft.
It's a magical story, but not one you'll read in any newspaper. Our salesman has, however, featured in print many times. His daughter is a successful actress. She had a troubled adolescence and her relationship with her 'dad' is a constant theme in the many features that have been written about her in the past decade.

Another father splits with his wife and leaves the family home in Wales to return to his native Australia. Their son becomes a successful sportsman, the father becomes a drunk. There is an attempt at reconciliation. It fails and the father's descent continues until he is eventually found dead in the street with a head wound. The police say he appears to have been assaulted before he died, but they are unable to discover any more. The press in Britain and Australia publish stories about the 'mysterious death' of the sportsman's father.

A respected physicist smashes the glass stratosphere to become America's youngest astronaut. She takes part in two shuttle missions and is preparing for a third when the Challenger disaster brings the programme to a halt. She serves on the presidential inquiry into the catastrophe and remains with  Nasa for a further year before turning to a life in academia and public service. She founds a business dedicated to inspiring young people to develop their scientific and engineering skills. She joins forces with a woman she has known since childhood and they write several books together. When she dies of cancer, her office amends her biography to record her death and the fact that she is survived by her collaborator, who is described as her  'partner of 27 years'. Suddenly the most important feature of this woman's life  is that she was gay.

What is this obsession we have in prying into people's lives, tainting their achievements with snide 'news' stories and features about  relationships that are generally long past, common knowledge, or just plain irrelevant?

Here we are on the day that Lord Leveson packs up his briefcase and a clutch of journalists are  told that they will face criminal charges after the phone-hacking scandal - and still we haven't learnt. Today the Telegraph produces the worst intro I have seen in 40 years of journalism:

In an obituary on her website, Sally Ride publicly outed herself as homosexual for the first time, naming her partner of 27-years as Tam O'Shaughnessy.
Ride's sister and a spokesman for Sally Ride Science, the organisation led by Ride and O'Shaughnessy, later reportedly confirmed that Ride was gay.
I hope it makes it easier for kids growing up gay that they know that another one of their heroes was like them," Sally Ride's sister, Bear Ride, told the Buzz Feed news website.

The piece is bylined 'From Amy Willis, Los Angeles'. You might wish to remember that name.
Ms Willis, above, is the Telegraph's digital editor in Los Angeles, a post she has held since last November. The job apparently involves 'foreign editing and reporting'.
Before that she spent two years as  a content editor on the website, joining from Baylis Media, where she was the Cookham district reporter for eight months. 
That was her first venture into journalism after a year as a sales account  executive at  Euromoney Institutional Investor, which her LinkedIn profile says involved talking to prospective subscribers at major banks and hedge funds. I think that means she was a telesales girl.
To be as fair as I can to Ms Willis, she was in part hampered by the web convention that the most important elements of the story are covered in the head and subdeck:

Sally Ride: America's first woman in space dies aged 61
America’s first female astronaut to enter space has died after a 17-month battle with pancreatic cancer. She was 61.

Ms Willis may be inexperienced, but does she really need to proclaim it - and her own lack of effort - by quoting two websites in the first three pars? And, of course, the biggest sin of all: is there really anyone on the planet (or indeed any alien Ms Ride may have met in space) who thinks the key fact - or, indeed, the 99th key fact - about this pioneering astronaut is that she was a lesbian?
Well, sadly, yes. There are many. If you google Tam O'Shaughessy you'll bring up hundreds of reports of Ms Ride's death, all of which focus on her sexuality.  
The delightful Patriots for America website proclaims 

Faggorty strikes America again: X-astronaut Sally Kristen Ride 1951-2012

Not only obnoxious, but a literal to boot. And then under the ghastly heading it prints the Sally Ride Science biog untainted. Life is full of surprises.

So is it a legitimate news angle? Someone at the Telegraph must surely be overseeing what Ms Willis is posting online and hence approving of the approach? 
Remembering this is a news story and not an obituary, maybe there is an argument for the line. The obits section will deal with her dazzling career in detail. If this is the only new fact;  if she really did keep her relationship with O'Shaughnessy secret for nigh on three decades, maybe there's a case to be made - although certainly not the crass approach of Ms Willis, since there is no question that Ms Ride 'outed herself'. If a heterosexual scientist had been secretly married to her close collaborator for 30 years, declaring it only after death, that would be a decent tale.
But there's a pesky detail that scuppers that argument: the relationship was widely known.Two thirds of the way down his sober profile of O'Shaughnessy, Connor Adams Sheets of the International Business Times writes:

Though Ride was open about her partnership with O'Shaughnessy, it does not appear to have been a controversial topic. 
The two became partners in 1985 - two years after Ride's history-making Nasa flight - but they first met while playing tennis at the age of 12. They were together until the very end, when Ride died ...after inspiring a nation to dream big.

Isn't it nice to see it put in proper context?

It's just so inconvenient when readers have longer memories than the reporters and editors putting papers and websites together - especially when it interferes with our national sport of Build 'em up; knock 'em down. 
While most of Britain and France was rejoicing as Bradley Wiggins was making history in the Tour de France, Annie Barrowlough was busy digging the dirt on his disreputable dad in Australia. The results of her efforts appeared in Saturday's Times under the heading

Drink, drugs, decline and fall: how Britain's cycling hero lost his father

Barrowclough describes how an Australia Day party ended up with Wiggins's father, Gary, being found dying in the road, having been 'beaten to a pulp'. There are various quotes from neighbours who described hearing shouting and seeing men brawling. Someone even saw Wiggins Snr staggering up the street, but assumed he was drunk.
Gary was also a cycling champion, but he had left the family home long before Bradley showed that he had inherited those genes. The Times piece runs through the estrangement, the father's descent into drugs and drink, and how he tried to capitalise on Bradley's success by inviting him to a competition in Australia before the Sydney Olympics. Bradley came second in his race, the father was furious and that was the end of that relationship.
I'm sure this is just what Wiggins wanted to be reminded of on the final day of the Tour. But you have to admit it's all pretty interesting; interesting enough for most other newspapers - and websites all over the world - to go quarrying in the same mine.
But none of it is new.
Gary Wiggins died on January 31, 2008. By that time Bradley had taken part in two Olympics, had come home from Athens in 1984 with a full set of gold, silver and bronze medals and was in training for Beijing. He was sufficiently well-known for his father's death to be newsworthy. 
The Mail  ran a story headlined

British Olympic cyclist's father found dead in Australia in 'suspicious circumstances'

The Express, Guardian, Times and BBC also covered the story at the time.
The tale of how the final attempt at reconciliation ended in recrimination is documented in Wiggins's autobiography, In Pursuit of Glory, which was published four years ago. Barrowclough acknowledges as much in her Times story, in which she quotes our hero's description of his father:

Most of his days would consist of buying a couple of crates of VBs and steadily drinking himself into a stupor...

And of the competition that was supposed to raise Gary's local standing:

By the end of my race he was surrounded by a pile of tinnies, hammered and telling me what I had done wrong and how he would have won.

Is it news to re-report something that happened four years ago and quote from a book of the same vintage? OK, maybe some people didn't know,  but by that token we could retell every story on a four-year cycle. 
And what of the universal determination to find the grimmest secrets behind the happiest moments? We're in miserable times, yet we seem incapable of taking joy where it is to be had; we have to look for the worst in everything.
The saddest thing to my mind is that 'serious' papers - The Times and the Telegraph - have joined in the game.

It used to be just the tabloids. Take the case of the actress and the brush salesman. There were plenty of dark secrets in that family home: illicit affairs, unwanted pregnancies, delinquency. The parents split up, the mother remarried and the teenage daughter's life continued to be troubled. She grew up referring to her stepfather as Dad. 
When she got her first breaks and good reviews, newspapers started interviewing her and always homed in on her difficult childhood. Once one had published details of her history of abuse, it was there in the cuts for every following interviewer to drag out. And so the story was perpetuated with every new television show, every film, every gala. And every time, the knife went into the heart of the estranged father, who ended up changing his name in an effort to escape.

Famous actress: how my dad abused me

ran the billboard outside the local newsagent one Sunday. Our salesman, who had turned his life round, found a proper job and a stable, happy relationship, was distraught. He was the actress's Dad, and he had his faults, but he wasn't an abuser. The stepfather was.
Indeed, the real father had been reunited with his daughter and they are still in touch.

At least Annie Barrowclough appears to have done some real reporting for her Wiggins piece. But when you're looking for dirt, and you do your research in the cuts file or on the internet rather than actually talking to the people involved, the chances are you'll get it wrong. 
I don't know if they teach that at Baylis media.

Tuesday 3 July 2012

Welcome to the Great British Olympic summer

The flags are out, the bunting's up.  Olympic rings dangle from Tower Bridge and the torch is weaving its way across the country. In southwest London the world's greatest tennis tournament is reaching the nail-biting stage, while across the Channel Bradley Wiggins and Mark Cavendish are busy showing the French the art of cycling. And we're smashing the Aussies at cricket. Doesn't it make you proud to be British?
This is the Great British Summer of Sport. The jubilee summer we've been dreaming of since that magical day in 2005 when we snatched the right to stage the Olympics from under Paris's nose.

It hasn't been a smooth ride from then to now. Within 24 hours, terrorists had blown up chunks of London, killing themselves and 52 people who had been trying to go about their daily business. It's a fair bet that had they struck a couple of days earlier, the Games would not be coming to town this  month.
By the time the Chinese played host in 2008, the world's banking system was in freefall and economies everywhere were wobbling. As David Beckham and Leona Lewis (remember her?) made their entrance on a red Routemaster to see Boris Johnson take possession of the Olympic flag, everyone was at pains to make clear that London would not be emulating Beijing's lavish approach. It would instead -  as on its rescue mission in 1948 -  be the home of the austerity Games.

But we always expected it to be fun, that we would have a joyous summer, what with the Queen celebrating 60 years on the throne and all. The Olympic building programme seems to have gone extraordinarily well, on (revised) budget and on time. The sport may yet be wonderful.
But so many clouds have gathered that some of us might prefer to hide in the back room rather than throw open our doors to world scrutiny. The showcase doesn't have quite as many gems in it as we should like. Indeed, there is so much rusty metal and paste, it's hard to find the sparkle.
We like to believe that Britain is universally recognised for its sense of fair play, honest dealing, ethical business and sportsmanship. Oh, and the best free Press in the world. 
Of course it is. 

That's why our MPs thought it was fine to send us the bill for their bathplugs, duck houses and second homes.
That's why journalists thought it was fine to hack into anyone's voicemail in the hope of some tawdry titbit and why politicians now think it's fine to shackle the entire newspaper industry (but not broadcasting or the web).
That's why bankers thought it was fine to lie and to cheat anyone who wasn't one of them, to pocket millions for themselves while refusing to carry out their job of lending money to keep businesses alive. 
That's why the super-rich and multinational corporations thought it was fine to avoid paying their taxes, after all why should they fund hospitals, schools and handouts for the poor?
That's why GlaxoSmithKline thought it was fine to tell doctors to give their adult antidepressant to minors, even though they knew it might make them suicidal.
That's why Stuart Pearce thought it was fine to deny David Beckham a place in his Olympic football team, even though he is possibly the world's most famous living Englishman and a prime reason for visiting this summer.
Good, eh? Really makes you want to come here, doesn't it?

The news today is sobering, And I don't just mean the resignation of Bob Diamond - the man who told us in January that the time for remorse and apology was over. There are so many people expressing opinions, analysing, making feeble puns from his name, that this blog can add little, other than to say it's nice to see the person at the top accepting responsibility for wrongdoing on their watch - Rebekah Brooks take note. Sadly, we can't take comfort from that as an example of British honour, since Diamond is American. Let's just hope that Barclays has the sense not to appoint its head of corporate and investment banking, above, as his successor. One extravagant name is enough. We can't cope with Rich Ricci.

With TV, radio, news websites and Twitter all agog with Diamond and how many zillions he'll get as a payoff, you may have missed today's other examples of why - beyond our greedy incorruptible banking industry - we should be proud to be British, 
Like our greedy, incorruptible pharmaceuticals industry.
GlaxoSmithKline has today agreed to pay $3bn in fines for what has been described as the biggest health fraud in American history. A billion of that was for criminal charges relating to three of its best-selling drugs; the other two billion went on civil fines over half a dozen other medicines, including a widely used asthma treatment.
That's an awful lot of money, but we know that Americans deal in huge figures and sometimes they aren't too fond of the Brits (GSK is based in Brentford). Perhaps they're being melodramatic. What did the company do that was so wrong? 
Nothing much really.
They told doctors they could prescribe the antidepressant Paxil for under-18s, when it is intended for adults. What they didn't tell the doctors was that research had shown that teenagers taking the drug were more likely to have suicidal thoughts.
They marketed the antidepressant Wellbutrin as a drug that would spice up your sex life,  help you to lose weight and make it easier to stop smoking. In fact, these were just possible side effects. 
They neglected to tell doctors that diabetics who took their Avandia pills might have a heart attack or stroke, even though they knew that research pointed to an increased risk.

But surely the doctors should have been more diligent in checking out these drugs? Didn't they read the scientific papers, the medical journals? Well, they probably didn't have time. They were almost certainly too busy going on holiday to Hawaii, relaxing in a swanky spa or watching a Madonna gig - all courtesy of the GSK kickback machine.
A machine that has proved its worth: the company has paid $3bn to settle cases relating to these three drugs over the past ten years. In the same period, its income from Wellbutrin was $5.9bn, from Avandria $10.4bn and from Paxil $11.6bn. Great British business, eh?
Just for the record, there is now a new boss at GSK, and he says it's time to move on.

But that's the private sector. We know how to look after people who can't help themselves, don't we? We have a history of providing safety nets, protecting the weak, upholding the rule of law. What's that phrase we keep trotting out? Oh yes, the NHS is the envy of the world.
Quite right. What's not to envy about a health service whose clinical negligence bill for last year was a record £1.2bn, a service that lets a hospital patient die of thirst? 
I know, we think we've heard all that before:  the neglect of elderly patients, demented old souls who have forgotten how to drink. Terribly sad and all that, but what can you do? 
Well, when it comes to dementia we have a terrible record - and not only the repeated cases of dehydration in hospital. A parliamentary report today points to 'shocking delays' in the diagnosis and treatment of dementia, with half of sufferers having to wait a year for a formal diagnosis.
But the chap who died of thirst at St George's hospital, Tooting, was neither old nor confused. Kane Gorny was 22 and perfectly lucid. So lucid that when nurses forgot to give him his medicine, he reminded them. And kept reminding them. And when they took no notice, he dialled 999 and begged the police to bring him a drink. But when the police arrived, they were turned away with the assurance that Mr Gorny was all right. Eventually a doctor appeared on the scene and realised that, far from being all right, Mr Gorny was in a bad way. So bad that he died within the hour.

Thankfully we have mechanisms to look into cases where patients or their families have cause for complaint about their treatment by nurses or midwives. A regulatory body was set up for that specific purpose. But the patients must be patient, it may take a while for their case to be heard. The Council for Healthcare Regulatory Excellence reports today that people are being 'let down' by the Nursing and Midwifery Council, whose prime duty is to protect patients. It has a backlog of 4,500 cases, some going back five years, and in the meantime it is allowing nurses accused - or even found guilty -  of assault, theft and drunkenness to carry on working. 
So that's all right then.

And just look at the way we let youngsters learn to stand on their own feet and go out to earn a bit of pin money, rather than keep them under lock and key in care homes. They can see a bit of the country, too.  
Andrew Norfolk of The Times has shown a great interest in this phenomenon, reporting on it with hideous clarity, and today the Deputy Children's Commissioner has joined in to point to the "shocking evidence of abuse inside the child care system". This is the splash story in The Times today and Norfolk writes on the inside pages about one girl's experience. 
Our girl was taken into care in Essex when she was 12. By the time she was 13 she was on the move, and over the next couple of years she was housed in homes in Northamptonshire, Yorkshire and Greater Manchester. Staff noted that she had a tendency to go missing and that she was sexually forward. Eventually  she ended up in a Rochdale home, which charged Essex £252,000 a year to look after her. That doesn't appear to have been enough money to keep tabs on her and make sure she was safe. She would disappear for a day, a week, a fortnight, selling her body for vodka, drugs and pizza. 
This is Norfolk's harrowing account of how she ended up:

One evening 25 men arrived in cars outside a derelict property where the 15-year-old was lying in an upstairs bedroom. They queued patiently on the stairs and outside the room, each waiting to have sex with a girl who was so drunk that she soon lost count of the number of men she was abused by. 
She finally brought an end to the abuse cycle when she wrote a note and handed it to carers. It read: "Asians pick me up. They get me drunk, they give me drugs, they have sex with me and tell me not to tell anyone. I want to move."

But our other public services are OK, aren't they? Our Olympic visitors will see the great British bobby, the Changing of the Guard?
Up to a point. Remember this is austerity Britain, so there are cuts everywhere. The Metropolitan Police says today that it is confident that all will be fine for the Olympics - but when everyone's gone home and nobody's looking, the police budget will shrink by 13% in an effort to save £2.4bn by 2015. That means hundreds of police stations will close, and you can bet your life there will be fewer bobbies on the beat.
The Army, too, is getting smaller. The Changing of the Guard is safe, since the Household Cavalry appears to have escaped the cuts. So have the Paras, the SAS and Marine commandos, but we learn today details of which other great regiments  are to be merged or disbanded. The aim is to get rid of 20,000 soldiers and reduce the Army to a fifth of its strength. Just what the boys in Afghanistan want to hear over their breakfast.

So here we are. Our public services in disarray, the economy in recession,  high streets struggling to survive in a never-ending Sale season, half the country's workforce desperate to find a job or taking tranquillisers to help them deal with the stress of the one they have. We all need a lift. 
The Olympics, according to a Lloyds bank report today, will give us just that. 
Well we know we can trust the banks, so what does Lloyds have to say? That the Games will create 62,000 jobs and boost the economy by £16.5bn with extra tourism and higher consumer spending.
Excellent. The only trouble is, that benefit will be accrued by 2017 and half of it will come from projects that have already been started - such as building the Olympic Park. And it seems a little less wonderful when set against the cost of staging the competition (anything from £11bn to £24bn, depending on which  set of rules you use) and a national debt of more than £1trn.
Hmmm. Was it such a great idea after all?  If not, someone will have to pay the price -  but who?

Oh yes, of course, it's obvious. Beckham brought the Games here. He must pay, rather than take, the penalties.
Stuart Pearce explained today why Beckham had been left out of the Great Britain squad, or rather why he hadn't been invited in. 
No one told Pearce who to pick. He was focused on winning, he had to think only of the football, there was no room for sentiment. Nor was there room for Beckham on the coaching side - all seven places had been taken.
Pearce was, however, told who not to pick, starting with those who'd played in the Euros. So no Carroll, Wellbeck, Walcott, Oxlade-Chamberlain (the only under-23s). Then there were those who would rather be on holiday or whose managers thought they needed a rest.
Olympic football, it seems, is too important to leave to the likes of Beckham, who arranged his entire life to be available and fit for this competition and the chance to play one last time for his country. Much better to turn to a player who not so long ago had far more pressing things to do than to represent his country.
Olympic football is so important and popular that it is the one sport for which you can get tickets virtually every day, including the Great Britain matches. You can even get into the final for 65 quid. It's not hard to see why: the standard of play is never going to be anywhere near  that which we can see in our own homes most nights of the week. 
Of course, Beckham wouldn't have been a box office draw. Nobody in the world would have wanted to see him. 
Good to know that at least one person in charge of something in this country can't be swayed by money. Pity he made the wrong decision.

We can berate the corrupt and the sleazy, we can beat ourselves - and others - up for a thousand failings, but some things you cannot control.
We all hoped for a glorious summer. Instead we have had grey skies and rain. We have tried to grin and battle on regardless, turning out to cheer the Queen at her sodden Jubilee pageant and the torch runners as they jog through the gloom. We have put up gazebos and umbrellas to protect us and our soggy sandwiches at street parties. We have been more neighbourly. We have shown that we are still the masters and mistresses of stoicism, of making the best of a bad job.
Maybe the sun will come out later this month. Maybe Murray will win Wimbledon. Maybe we'll beat the South Africans in the cricket. Maybe we'll get a clutch of golds at the greatest Olympics ever seen and restore our national pride with our performances on track, field and in the stands. 
Maybe, just maybe, we'll be welcoming to our Olympic guests, help them when they get lost, rather than try to rip them off; cheer their athletes' achievements as well as our own; try to be patient rather than angry in the traffic jams; remember that jingoism isn't patriotism.
It's a tall order, but maybe we can do it.
Or maybe, with the 'biblical' rain of the past few weeks, God is telling us something about our country and ourselves.