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Archive of previous home page items


Probing the Media

26 March 2007

8 – 2007.006


What is a leading question?


Unaccountably, I have been asleep for the past 18 months over the deficiencies of the media (see earlier items below). Now I have woken up I give you this item.


The Observer 25 March 2007


Christina Odone wrote in the paper about Oxbridge interviews. I put the following on its Comment is Free site under the pen name Pedantissimo-


Christina says ‘It's no wonder the interview fills middle-class parents with dread, petrified lest the inquisitors ask leading questions (“Did your parents go to university?”)’. Did Christina go to uni herself? If so, does she not know that this isn’t a leading question?


A leading question is one that ‘leads’ a witness to the desired response by suggesting the answer.


18 August 2005

7 - 2005.051


We are all guilty


Among the range of splendid characters in the gallery of Peter Simple of the Daily Telegraph was the bleeding-heart sociologist Dr Heinz Kiosk, whose refrain was We are all guilty. There is nowadays much sloppy journalism around, which Peter Simple would have disdained. This is true even of the once respected London Times. One aspect of this sloppiness is the habit of attacking some regrettable feature of modern life on the basis that every reader is guilty of it. This is obviously false, and calculated to infuriate the innocent. Here are some examples.


On 3 August 2005 a sentence on the Times front page read: “The increase in drinking is such that every adult in the country drinks more than a third of a pint of pure alcohol a week.” It is obviously untrue that every adult in the country drinks more than a third of a pint of pure alcohol a week. My wife and I are adults in this country and neither of us drinks any alcohol at all in any week, pure or impure. The same is true of many other adults.


The Times has a Saturday Supplement called body&soul (note the smart absence of spaces and capitals). On 13 August 2005 an item on page 2 of this said-


‘ But what is it about summer holidays that makes us behave as if there wasn’t a risk in the world? . . . The trick is to do new things while being aware of how bad we are at assessing risk and making sure that we take all necessary preparations and precautions’.


My wife and I fancy we are rather good at assessing risk – we’ve had enough practice at it in our combined 160 years.


The Times has a daily Supplement called T2. On 16 August 2005 this had an item saying about a 15-year-old girl giving a 13-year-old boy what used to be known as fellatio, but is nowadays vulgarly called a blow job-


“ You did it, I did it. It is what thousands of teenagers have done, and always will do. It happens every night.”


Actually, neither my wife (she assures me) nor I did it. The latter item also transgressed by being based on a serious mistake of law, which I described in Probing the Media 6.


18 August 2005

6 - 2005.049

The Times (T2 supplement), 16 August 2005


Amazing error by The Times


As is widely known, British sex law was updated in 2003 by the new Sexual Offences Act. While the Bill for that was going through Parliament I was active in proposing amendments. I particularly opposed, without success, the Government’s insistence that normal sexual interchanges between teenagers who were both under the age of consent (sixteen) should not be criminalized. For example I said-


‘It is surely quite wrong that the police and Crown Prosecution Service should be involved at all in such cases. The fact that the CPS might eventually decide that it is not in the public interest to proceed with a prosecution even though technically a crime has been committed is no answer. The existence of this residual CPS discretion should never be used as an excuse for labelling conduct as criminal when truly it is not. The right of any citizen to bring a private prosecution also has to be borne in mind here. This right might be exercised for example by a spiteful neighbour. Nor in such cases is it ‘appropriate to pursue the matter through child protection . . . processes’. This still brands the children’s conduct as criminal, calling for intervention by state services. Such intervention can do immense harm to the children, and is uncalled for.’ [See my 'Briefing on Sexual Offences Act 2003']


In its T2 supplement for 16 August 2005 The Times has fallen into the trap set by the 2003 Act. On the front cover there is a photograph of a boy with his head in his hands and the caption-


‘A knock at the door. On the step, two detectives. They said to my 13-year-old son: “We are arresting you for rape”’.


Inside, the ‘Cover story’ has shriek headlines: OUR SON, A MALICIOUS GIRL AND RAPE THAT NEVER WAS. The headline is wrong. In law (though not in common sense) there was a rape, and their son committed it.

The report says: ‘But this supposed rape victim was a 15-year-old girl who had given an ill-advised blow job to a 13-year-old boy . . .’ It is the 2003 Act that is ill-advised. It says this was rape because the girl was too young to give effective consent. In allowing his penis to be enclosed by her mouth the boy committed rape because he intentionally penetrated the mouth of another person with his penis when she did not consent (because her actual consent was ineffective). Section 1 says so.

Admittedly section 1 says it is only rape if the defendant does not reasonably believe that the ‘victim’ consents, but that does not save the boy. He may have believed that the girl consented, but his belief was not reasonable because he is taken to have known she was under age so that her consent was ineffective. This is absurd of course, but under our system ignorance of the law is no excuse.

For two pages The Times mistakenly rampages on about ‘the rape that never was’, thus gravely misleading its readers.. Obviously it should have got a lawyer to vet this sensational story about the criminal law. Oddly enough the T2 supplement contained the weekly Law section, but this story was not in it.


5 July 2005

5 - 2005.038

Times Body&Soul 2 July 2005


Hilly Janes edits the Times Saturday supplement they call Body&Soul (removing the spaces is thought by these shallow minds to make the title snappier). On 2 July Hilly gave us an editorial setting out all the goodies she has planned for eager readers. She asks for what she fashionably calls ‘feedback’ so I sent in the following.


Hilly may be a good editor but she strikes me as a very poor writer. What she is editing is ephemeral journalism: tomorrow’s chip wrapping. Her exaggerated style makes it appear she rates it slightly above the level of the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám.


Fear not, she says about the absence of a regular writer. Fear is a serious matter, and doesn’t enter into that sort of thing. Her bit of the paper “is now one of the best-loved sections”. Best-loved? Hilly reminds me of those silly advertisements which talk about loving your car. Again Hilly, love is a serious matter. We don’t bestow it on things like tomorrow’s chip wrapping.


Then we have what she calls “food coverage”. I cover my food with things like butter and jam, but not so Hilly. The one who does the covering for her, Jane Clarke, is “brilliant”. This puts Clarke in the same league as Brillat-Savarin, the noted gourmet chef. Well I wonder about that.
Hilly can’t quite master the grammar. She writes-


“ If you’d like a greener lifestyle [covered with mould perhaps?] but can’t quite get your act together, our new Eco-Worrier column, by Body&Soul writer Anna Shepard, will point the way.”


The fact is that Anna Shepard will point the way anyway, whether or not I’d like a greener lifestyle. The stated condition preceded by “if” simply doesn’t apply. That’s grammar Hilly.


Finally, I feel a little bit captious about the idea that a mere newspaper column will accomplish the considerable feat of “helping me to get out more”. If dire threats from my GP won’t do it I doubt if Hilly’s newspaper feature Breathing Space will impart the necessary propulsion. Over-stated again. Bad writing.


To sum up, I think, Hilly, that a little more realism is called for. Let’s come down to earth, shall we? Then your precious section might become a bit more worthy of spending a little bit of our precious time on.

8 June 2005

4 - 2005.034

Today, 26 May 2005


Ever since James Naughtie said on the BBC Radio Four Today programme just before the 2005 general election that he hoped ‘we’ (meaning the Blairites) would win the election I have thought of the BBC as the Blairite Broadcasting Corporation. I first exposed Blair and the Blairites in my book THE BLIGHT OF BLAIRISM, and shall go on doing so whenever I can.


However I am writing now on another aspect of the Today programme, namely its propensity suddenly to abandon serious news and treat us to current affairs snippets, often boring and sometimes very noisy. I am in a sensitive state in the early morning and do not like sudden shocks.


On 26 May 2005 I sent Today the following rude message-


The Today programme, at around 7.45 after discussing the newspapers, always has some silly item that makes me switch off. Today it was the voices of South American tribes speaking their barbarous tongue. It’s not what we want to hear as we struggle to start the day. Please give us sensible news items about things that actually matter to us (not OUGHT to matter).


I was rather surprised to get a civilised reply from a named individual. This led to an interchange in which I learnt something. Today is not, as I had thought, a news programme. It is a news and current affairs programme.


That’s official.

The BBC also put this another way, distinguishing ‘hard’ news and ‘soft’ news. This translates as follows-


Hard news = genuine news

Soft news = current affairs items that are not real news.

Today is both a hard news and a soft news programme. I wish it wasn’t.
This is developed at greater length in Blog FBBB119.


24 May 2005

3 - 2005.031

The Oldie, May 2005


1. The editor Richard Ingrams said (page 3) that ‘as usual a star-studded galaxy’ had attended one of the paper’s functions.

This has two faults of style, as the OED calls them:-

(1) It is tainted by pleonasm, or use of superfluous words. A galaxy consists of stars; that’s what the word means. So it has to be star-studded or it wouldn’t be a galaxy.

(2) It is magniloquent, described by the OED as ‘talking big’ or ‘boastful’.

Comment An editor should set an example.


2. William De’Ath wrote (page 21) ‘a club committee comprised of several golf-playing, white-moustached old colonels . . .’

This confuses ‘comprise’ and compose’. The committee was either composed of several colonels or comprised (that is included) several colonels.

Comment This is a common error, which no professional writer should commit.


3. Someone calling himself Diarmaid Ó Muirithe, who writes a column on English words, said (page 35) that he had never in his life heard the expression ‘He wouldn’t set the Thames on fire’ (some expert!).

A glance at the familiar Brewer would have enlightened this man with the peculiar name.

Brewer tells us that the expression probably originated with a Latin saw (no surprise there).

Comment Why spend nearly half your column on far-fetched musings when, as usual, Mr Ebenezer Cobham Brewer (1810-1897) has the answer?


4. Jonathan Cecil wrote (page 54) ‘As I think Max Beerbohm said, “If you like that kind of thing, then that’s the kind of thing you like”’.

Actually it was Abraham Lincoln, and what he said was: ‘People who like this sort of thing will find this is the sort of thing they like’ (G. W. E. Russell, Collections and Recollections (1898) ch.30).

Comment If you’re not sure, why not look it up – especially when you’re being paid for your efforts?


3 May 2005

2 - 2005.030

Sunday Telegraph, 1 May 2005


Clarence House says that the ST article ‘Camilla hurt by a thousand poison pens’ is untrue. Only 4 per cent of over 25,000 letters were unsupportive.


Euan Blair says the ST statement that Luciana Berger is his girlfriend is untrue. ‘Luciana Berger is not, and never has been, my girlfriend’, says he.


Peter Horrocks, BBC Head of Current affairs, contradicts the ST report ‘Tory fury as BBC sends hecklers to bait Howard’. He says: ‘the slogans you attribute to the hecklers . . . are entirely fictitious’.


Paul Woolwich says last week’s ST report that he quit Channel Four’s Hard News after producers wanted it to be less confrontational is false.


29 Apr 2005

1 - 2005.020

The Times, 25 Apr 2005


Papal installation ceremony

Richard Owen carelessly said the new Pope Benedict XVI was installed in a ‘centuries-old ceremony’. In fact the ceremony has been altered greatly in recent years so as to delete the coronation with the triple crown and in other ways emphasise that the Holy Father is the humble ‘servant of the servants of God’.

Pope Benedict is not ‘smug’

Ruth Gledhill spitefully said Pope Benedict had a ‘smug’ smile when he showed himself on the balcony for the first time. On the contrary his smile displayed humility mingled with incredulity that he had been chosen by the cardinals, coupled with a remarkable friendliness and compassion for all.

The Times, 27 Apr 2005


Laura Peek ignorantly described the Dean of Ripon as a clerk in Holy Order (instead of Holy Orders – there are several of them).