On the menu tonight… Chicken Cameron.

I’m rather in two minds about the current right-wing feeding frenzy over the Indy’s obvious lifting of material from a Foreign Office press release for an article on ’10 myths about the EU [reform] treaty’.

You see, on the one hand, its not as if the Indy doesn’t have a bit of previous form for slavishly and uncritically lifting material wholesale from press releases and presenting it to its readers as matters of fact – albeit, on previous occasions, without the accompaniment of much waling and gnashing of teeth from right-wing bloggers.

On the other hand, I might have rather more time for the views of [collectively] Guido, Iain Dale, Daniel Hannan, Melanie Phillips, James Forsyth and Roy Greenslade had any one of them actually put forward any single substantive point by way of rebuttal of the content of the Indy’s article [and/or Foreign Office briefing] instead of bleating incessantly about ‘journalistic ethics’ and the failure of the Indy to clearly identify its source material as if to suggest that that, alone, serves as a conclusive rebuttal of the article in question.

Call me picky, if you must, but if you’re going to claim that the Indy’s article (and the FO’s briefing from which it was sourced) is “variously tendentious, disingenuous, misleading and false”, as Melanie Phillips claims, then you might at least take the time and trouble to back up your comments with something more substantial than ‘its from a government briefing so it must be a lie’.

This isn’t – for once – the BBC we’re talking about here. Its a national newspaper, and as with all other national newspapers its under no express obligation to be impartial when publishing what amounts to an editorial article nor, like other newspapers, are the political inclinations of the Independent an unknown quantity, even if it does appear to have vacillated somewhat on the question of whether it does or does not support a referendum on the EU Reform Treaty.

What’s most striking about this whole farrago is not the conduct of the Indy – because, quite frankly, I suspect that if one looks closely enough and carefully enough, one will find no great shortage of examples, in other daily newspapers, of articles that are no more than press releases by special interest groups dressed up as ‘original’ content.

If anyone can stomach doing the research then I’d suggest you start by searching the Daily Mail for articles on immigration and cross-referencing them with press releases by Migration Watch to see what emerges… and I’d also suspect that whatever turns up will already – most likely – have been picked up and covered in detail by Obsolete, Big Daddy Merk, and others.

No the most striking element in all this is the errant hypocrisy of a number of those who have been most vocal in their denunciation of the Indy’s conduct.

Iain Dale, for example, opines that “The Independent is no longer a serious newspaper. It’s not even a “Viewspaper”. It’s a comic.”

Does that mean that Iain, himself, should not be considered a serious political commentator – let alone blogger – on those occasions when its patently obvious that he’s being spoon-fed stories by the “spinmeisters” at Conservative Central Office – as was clearly apparent during the Ealing Southall by-election campaign (much good that it did the Tories) – and where exactly does his castigation of the Indy’s apparent lack of independent thought fit in with his recent comments on one or two [allegedly] internal goings on at the Daily Mail:

There is a growing sense of concern among some Daily Mail writers and editorial executives about their newspaper’s devotion to Gordon Brown. “Some of us are starting to feel we’re writing for a Labour paper like the Mirror,” says one. “The Mail’s coverage of David Cameron’s trip to Rwanda was mad. There was no attempt to give him any benefit of the doubt. The attacks were amazingly skewed.”

…With Mail editor Paul Dacre currently away sick, how much longer can Brown rely on such a free ride from this supposedly conservative paper?

Or how about this, rather more open-ended critique of the ‘independence’ of the press:

This morning’s Press websites are also instructive. The front page of the Daily Telegraph’s site gives only the tiniest mention of the Commons mauling – a small-print steer to Andrew Gimson’s political sketch. The Daily Mail is also distinctly muted in its website coverage. Indeed, I hear there are continuing ructions at the Mail about editor Paul Dacre’s love-in with Brown. A mole who was at yesterday’s editorial meeting at the Mail says that Dacre became extremely angry about criticisms of Brown. How long until the Mail’s owner, Lord Rothermere, decides he’d like David Cameron to get fairer treatment from his paper?

For fairer treatment read ‘why isn’t the Daily Mail on our side and laying into Brown ?’ and more pointedly, ‘why isn’t the Mail’s owner, Lord Rothermere, directing the paper’s editorial stance and policy after the fashion of the newspaper barons of old’.

Stuff any notions of ‘journalistic ethics’ – not that these are generally a big feature of the Mail’s editorialising anyway – Iain’s beef with the Mail is that he disagrees with its current editorial stance and would prefer to see it swing back towards its traditional open support for the Tories (and open hostility towards Labour).

Now, as I see it, you either accept that newspapers are perfectly entitled to their open political biases – as they pretty much always have been but for in times of war – and tackle them on the factual accuracy of their content, or you take the view that the same rules of political impartiality that apply to the BBC and other public service broadcasters, like Channel 4, should become universal across the print media as well, in which case you start laying into national press in its entirety. What you don’t get to do – at least not if you want to retain some semblance of credibility – is pick an choose which newspapers are, and are not, entitled to editorialise according to the preferred political leanings, which is, in essence, what Iain and the others are up to on this occasion.

Much the same goes for ‘Mad’ Melanie Phillips who asserts conclusively that the Indy’s article is – as mentioned previously – ‘tendentious, disingenuous, misleading and false’. In fact the precise quotation is, as follows:

Well, these ‘facts’ are nothing of the kind; they are actually assertions which are variously tendentious, disingenuous, misleading and false. The Indie never can grasp the difference. But the real point is that this government briefing note hasn’t been used as just a ‘source’, implying that the newspaper used it as a basis for its own evaluation and work, but has merely been reproduced — a practice associated with the unfree press in totalitarian societies.

A good example of Phillips’ regard for (and understanding) of facts – as opposed to her own opinions, which is all she’s actually expressing here – is readily evident in her exchange with Ben Goldacre over her support for the now – thankfully – discredited work of Andrew Wakefield on the supposed ‘connection’ between the MMR vaccine and Autism, which you can follow in sequence from these links:

Phillips: MMR: The Unanswered Questions

Goldacre: The MMR Sceptic Who Just Doesn’t Understand Science

Phillips: The Case Against Me Boils Down to Smears and Evasion

And then Goldacre’s final rebuttal from the letters pages of the Guardian:

It is a microcosm of the difficulties in dealing with health scares that I can write 850 words on an anti-MMR diatribe by Melanie Phillips, generate 900 words of letters in return as well as an article by Phillips – all reinforcing her original misconceptions, and raising some new ones. For every unit of energy you put in, you get twice as much back, and so you can never win.

She is still amazed that a critical review of the scientific literature on MMR is critical of some of the literature it reviewed and she still thinks this is evidence of guilt or cover-up in the conclusions of the report. I criticised her for claiming that: “Wakefield’s discovery of autistic enterocolitis as a completely new syndrome has now been replicated in studies around the world as a new and so far unexplained disease in patients with autism.” Her response is to provide references to various speculative research findings on the bowels of people with autism. Such studies exist but few would claim that such early work constitutes wide replication of the discovery of a “new disease”.

I also encourage any readers who are interested in what Phillips considers to be an appropriate source for ground-breaking, peer-reviewed scientific research to look up the Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons on Google and read about this strange esoteric political organisation for themselves.

Having said all that, Melanie Phillips of the Daily Mail has misrepresented and attacked me personally: and so whatever the future may bring, I can die a rounded and happy human being.

Ben Goldacre.

For the record, Wikipedia provides the following as examples of some of the articles that have appeared in the Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons, which Phillips cites as a credible source:

Articles published in the journal have argued that the Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services are unconstitutional, that “humanists” have conspired to replace the “creation religion of Jehovah” with evolution, that increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has not caused global warming, that HIV does not cause AIDS, and that the “gay male lifestyle” shortens life expectancy by 20 years. A series of articles by pro-life authors also claimed a link between abortion and breast cancer; such a link has been rejected by the National Cancer Institute.

Goldacre’s academic background in science is, I should point out, from his biography:

…studied Medicine at Magdalen College Oxford where he also edited Isis, the Oxford University Magazine. He left in 1995 with a First: before going on to clinical medicine at UCL, he was a visiting researcher in cognitive neurosciences at the University of Milan, working on fMRI brain scans of language and executive function, worked at Liberty the human rights organisation, and was also funded by the British Academy to do a Masters degree in Philosophy at King’s.

Phillips, on the other hand, has a degree in English from St Anne’s, Oxford, and is career journalist whose nearest ‘qualification’ for commenting on scientific issues amounts to a stint as the Guardian’s social services correspondent and social policy leader writer and yet she still has the gall the claim that

“Goldacre’s case boils down to evasiveness, ignorance, misrepresentation and smear. Are these really the attributes of a scientific vocabulary? Is this really “evidence-based medicine”?

Before going on to state – tinfoil hats at the ready…

The government and the medical establishment deny the evidence of any such effect. They claim that science has shown there is no case to answer. But it depends on which type of science, and whether it is being used appropriately….

…The connection between this relationship and the MMR vaccine is far from proven. But legitimate scrutiny of the real questions that have been raised are being stifled by the government and a medical establishment that have behaved recklessly and spinelessly, and are busy suppressing all attempts to hold this up to the light.

In short, what she’s peddling amounts to nothing more than a barely concealed conspiracy theory, much as she tries to pull off much the same trick in her comments on the Indy with this line:

But the real point is that this government briefing note hasn’t been used as just a ‘source’, implying that the newspaper used it as a basis for its own evaluation and work, but has merely been reproduced — a practice associated with the unfree press in totalitarian societies.

Actually, the practice that’s associated with an ‘unfree press in totalitarian societies’ is that of the media being either controlled by appointed party apparatchiks or otherwise compelled to report the government line verbatim under threat of closure/imprisonment, not the practice of seeing a government briefing as a bit of no effort copy and being a bit too lazy to rewrite it sufficiently as to make the source rather less obvious.

Skip past the histrionics of these particular group of right-wing commentators over the Indy’s apparent faux pas and the simple and inescapable fact remains that the Foreign Office has put forward what it claims to be ten ‘myths’ about the EU Reform Treaty together with commentaries that purport to ‘set the record straight’ and, as yet, we’ve had not one single word of substantive rebuttal from any of those ‘commentators’ linked in this article, merely a torrent of bitching about the Indy and, in Phillips’ case, a thinly veiled allusion to a conspiracy that doesn’t exist.

And Phillips has the nerve to refer to this overheated, childish nonsense as the blogosphere showing ‘its power to hold the mainstream media sharply to account and inflict real damage to its reputation’.

What a complete and utter load of self-serving, self-aggrandising bollocks.

Actually, as I’ve put this piece together I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m no longer in two minds about this issue.

Yes, the Indy deserves a bit of a public kicking for indulging in a bit of lazy journalism, but it deserve to get that kicking from the kind of bloggers who can put up substantive arguments in rebuttal of the ‘myths’ that the Indy sourced from the Foreign Office’s briefing and not from the MSM’s premier conspiracy theorist and a rag-bag of Tories and Tory supporters who, like their leader, cling desperately to the hope that latching on to the referendum issue – which was only ever a way of Blair avoiding having to lay out a policy on Europe, anyway – will enable them to pull off the same trick and avoid opening up a divisive and painful debate on their side.

Whether you agree or not with the Government’s decision to move ahead with the EU Reform Treaty or trust that its much-trailed red lines will hold up, the simple fact has to be acknowledged that at least – after much delay – the government has take a line on the treated and adopted a clear policy position, unlike Cameron, Hague and the rest of the Tory Party who continue to cling cravenly to the ‘we want a referendum’ line in the hope that that alone will enable them to avoid addressing the issue of Europe by putting forward an actual substantive policy.

Its not the government who’re behaving like cowards here – they’ve taken the decision to rule out a referendum and that it will be for parliament to decide on the ratification of the treaty – and it will be for the electorate to judge them according on that decision and the extent to which it influences their choice of who to vote for when their is a general election.

Rather its the Tories who are still running scared of the propensity for Europe to open up divisions in their own party, divisions that would be all the more damaging to Cameron as they would come from pro-European Tories most closely associated with the very centre-ground that Cameron purports to be trying to capture and, therefore, cast doubts on his credibility as a ‘centrist’.

That’s why the Tory’s only substantive policy on Europe is to demand a referendum – because the only thing they have on the menu is Chicken Cameron.

  • Well I wondered why we were being taken by a roundabout route…and then we learn that you are backing yet another denial of democratic choice over the EU….and asking us to swallow your left wing credentials at the same time!

    Britain is in the EU as a trojan horse for America and Global Capitalism….. and the EU enlargement promoted by Blair is causing havoc in working communities across the UK by overloading us with cheap labour while our third world public services are coming apart at the seams.

    The next development will be to flood us with unskilled labour from Turkey simply because Turkish entry suits American economic and strategic interests….and without any regard for the impact on its faithful stupid old labrador dog of a best friend,Britain.

    Who pays your wages? Could it be the CIA….comrade?

  • Ah, taking the Kelner argument here, Unity? That’s it: you are not a credible political commentator, you are merely a mouthpiece for the demon Kelner!

    Actually, I might rebuff some of the “myths” if I can be bothered; some of them are distinctly dodgy, the first one especially.

    The real reason why this is not merely bad journalism is because the government has picked 10 myths that it can easily rebut. The Indy has taken those same 10 myths, and failed to address other real concerns.

    I am a bit Treatyed out at the moment, but I shall look at them later…

    DK

  • The real reason why this is not merely bad journalism is because the government has picked 10 myths that it can easily rebut. The Indy has taken those same 10 myths, and failed to address other real concerns.

    Which is where I actually expect bloggers to step in and hold the Indy to account by doing the work that the Indy failed to do.

    Yes, several of the ‘myths’ are eminently rebuttable and one or two are near as damn it completely irrelevant. I don’t recall, for example, anyone claiming we’d have to give up our seat on the UN security council, unless it was one of wilder members of your lot after a heavy liquid lunch sometime during the debate on the constitution…

    What it is isn’t, however, and this is what idiots like Mad Mel are alluding to, is some sort of conspiracy or evidence that the government has leant on the Indy to take sides. FFS, if you’re going to lean on the press to try and sway public opinion then why the fuck would you choose the Indy? You’d at least want to get The Times over on your side, if not the Mail and Sun.

    I know that UKIP are calling for a referendum as well, but the difference between UKIP and the Tories is that UKIP actually has a substantive policy on the EU, where the Tories are hiding behind the referendum to avoid taking a clear position or fear or exposing their own divisions on the issue.

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  • There was a proposal in the original constitution for the EU Foreign Minister to speak at the UN on behalf of EU countries where they agreed a foreign policy. You didn’t have to be a half-pissed UKipper to continue to preddle this drivel though…. Wee Wullie Hague was still batting on about it recently:
    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2007/07/20/neu120.xml

    Can I have just a half of what Jim Evans has been drinking, please.

  • Katherine

    Oh Jim, Jim – “denial of democratic choice over the EU”? I have to say that that just shows your ignorance of democracyand the UK’s form of it. We have something called “representative democracy”, not direct democracy in the sense of referenda on everything.

    If you think that not having a refendum on this particular EU treaty is not democratic, I expect then that you support referenda generally as a way of deciding policy in this country? No? Well then, don’t attack people who don’t agree with the idea of having a referendum on this particular EU treaty as denying democratic choice, because that is, quite frankly, a brainless description of a disagreement over what things should or shouldn’t go to a referendum.

  • redpesto

    Unity, those spilts in the Tories may already be starting to show:

    The shadow foreign secretary, William Hague, is battling to stop a Conservative backbench revolt by Eurosceptic MPs who are demanding a referendum on the new EU treaty, even if parliament ratifies it in the next few months.

    Mr Hague wants to keep his options open and fears a referendum could further damage his party’s relations with France and Germany. Forty Eurosceptics, including former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith, John Redwood, and former shadow Europe minister Graham Brady, are demanding that Mr Hague back the call to commit his party to a post-ratification referendum.

  • Yes Bob and Katherine…and I doubt very much whether I am imbibing or eating half as well as they do at the trough you gobble from!

    We were shoehorned into Old Europe by a publicity campaign financed by the CIA and have had no real say or vote or information about the monumental stitch up ever since.

    Representative democracy my arse!MPs represent political parties whose paymasters are people like Murdoch and the Oligarchs and the USA government….and the laughable centre ground has no relationship to British public opinion….except by being unrelated to it!

    What was EU enlargement about but expanding capitalist influence at our expense?When was it discussed with us

    And when it was discussed with the Irish they sensibly declined the golden opportunity to be flooded with the unemployed of Eastern Europe…so their Yankee master`s made them vote again until they voted the right way!

    Traitors….Bob and Katherine…just let that word resonate with you…because as the solids hit the air conditioning and people ask which side folk were on… as we nosedived into this mess….they may just be using it to describe you…and your friend the Minister of Truth(?)!

  • Yes Bob and Katherine…and I doubt very much whether I am imbibing or eating half as well as they do at the trough you gobble from!

    We were shoehorned into Old Europe by a publicity campaign financed by the CIA and have had no real say or vote or information about the monumental stitch up ever since.

    Representative democracy my arse!MPs represent political parties whose paymasters are people like Murdoch and the Oligarchs and the USA government….and the laughable centre ground has no relationship to British public opinion….except by being unrelated to it!

    What was EU enlargement about but expanding capitalist influence at our expense?When was it discussed with us?

    And when it was discussed with the Irish they sensibly declined the golden opportunity to be flooded with the unemployed of Eastern Europe…so their Yankee master`s made them vote again until they voted the right way!

    Traitors….Bob and Katherine…just let that word resonate with you…because as the solids hit the air conditioning and people ask which side folk were on… as we nosedived into this mess….they may just be using it to describe you…and your friend the Minister of Truth(?)!

  • Oh dear Jim Evans, I hope you feel good after that rant but the single fact you cite is highly misleading. The story that the CIA funded the European Movement was already old hat by 1975 and is ringingly denounced in David Butler and Uwe Kitzinger’s book about the 1975 referendum.

  • Obviously that makes everything I said untrue,David,so please excuse me for being able to think for myself in a nation “run” by intellectual giants like yourself!

    Ringing denounciation is meat and drink to opinion formers the world over….but perhaps you can advance a credible explanation for our progress as a nation since 1975? Where was the information,the debate,the encouragement of the public to “get involved”or even a worthwhile debate in Parliament.

    I don`t need what you call facts,Boothroyd,because the evidence of what has been going on is all about us in the wreckage of our society and the relative prosperity of nations like Eire and Spain…countries that couldn`t afford a hole in the seat of their trousers in 1975.

    The trouble with you creepy middle class types is that you imagine we are all as naive and gullible as you….and we are not!
    I suggest you have a peek over your glass of Chablis at the UK Debate website and learn the real facts about Britain in 2007.

  • Unity, excellent piece as ever, If you’re looking for examples of newspapers publishing press releases from pressure groups, check out the Taxpayers’ Alliance website, which has a helpful summary of all of their press releases that have been published by the Daily Express.

  • It’s the media witch-hunt that pissed me off. The Telegraph are similarly inclined to run with abridged press-releases. As are most of them. It’s hypocrisy – but then again, it is the British media.

    What do you expect when they trim the staff yet increase the content?

  • Katherine,

    “We have something called

  • Katherine

    DK, since I don’t speak for the Labour Party, don’t vote for them and generally hold them in the greatest contempt it matters little to me what their manifesto said. With the greatest respect to your views on whether this current treaty is or is not a “constitution”, you must concede that it is not an inevitable view that this treaty is in fact a constitution. To say that is the “only” relevant argument is, well, silly. It is extremely relevant and far from inevitable that your personal view must hold sway.

  • Katherine

    I may well regret getting involved in a “discussion” with our foaming-at-the-mouth friend Jim Evans, but really… “I doubt very much whether I am imbibing or eating half as well as they do at the trough you gobble from”… what the f*ck are you talking about?! What trough is it you think I “gobble from” exactly? Oh do try to answer, because I can guarantee you’ll be talking bollocks.

  • Fancy a bit of bollocks,Katie? Your posts suggest that you can provide your own!Yes,it was a silly thing to write…and I apologise.
    Sitting out here in Worcestershire I feel that Britain is careering to disaster and I imagine people like yourself are indifferent to the scale of immigration and the loss of secure jobs in the shires and are simply playing a game with politcs….which feels like Russian Roulette over here…. where every other person now seems to be a foreigner.
    I may sound mad,Katherine,but it`s because I am drowning…not waving manically!

  • I would respond Katherine but The Miinistry have banned me….for telling the truth!

  • Oops, Jim:

    Something about the post before seems to have activated the spam-trap.

    Will look into it.

  • Do the rest of you contributors REALLY believe that British voters have any significant democratic influence over whether or not we stay in the EU?

    Can you imagine the powers that be in the world allowing us to say “no” to millions of would be immigrants from Eastern Europe or Turkey as the EU expands?

    Has it occurred to you that the qualifying criteria for coming into Britain under our asylum rules probably makes it possible for people traffickers to dump,say, 20 million Nigerians into the UK without us having a hope of returning them to Africa?(Note that I am just refering to one of large numbers of countries with billions (collectively) of potential candidates for “asylum” in Britain!)

    Does no one else feel that Britain has gone mad?Is there anyone left in Britain with an immagination?Or are you all too frightened of the BBC Thought Police to speak out on behalf of your children and grandchildren?

    (And NO…I am not driven to speak out by hatred of other races or of religious groups or foreigners generally…..just by COMMON SENSE !!!)