Saturday, 16 July 2011

Hyperbole: absolutely the worst thing in the history of the human race

“Dan’s coming over later. Said he’d bring beer.”
“You heard about Cath, I take it.”
“No. What about her?”
“She’s won six and half million on the lottery.”

See the problem there? The ante for reacting to any piece of good news, no matter how mundane, has been upped so high that we’ve run out of ways to react to events that are truly out of the ordinary.

The same applies to not-so-good news too, with every minor setback now a “total catastrophe.”

My Twitter timeline has been peppered with people saying how “very sad” they feel about the death of the actress Googie Withers, despite presumably knowing she’d been living in comfortable retirement in Australia, made it to the ripe old age of 94 and has had her life and career remembered with glowing obits in all the papers today.

So how would these people have reacted if a 44-year-old actress had died? That would be “absolutely tragic beyond words”, I expect. But then where is there left to go when you learn of the murder of a child?

(If you happen to think this post is the direst dross you’ve ever read in your entire life, then I am so terribly, terribly sorry I could curl up and die. Possibly.)

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Dirty doorsteps (or why Johann Hari deserves to be harried out of journalism)

In the '50s and '60s, my mum was a Guardian journalist.

That sentence has been spun for maximum impact, although it's essentially true (we'll come back to that in a bit). In fact, she was an old-school reporter - assizes, inquests and children’s page - on the Middleton Guardian, and an occasional stringer for the then-Manchester Guardian down the road. She told me that, as far as she knew, the only other woman reporter ever seen in a coroner's court outside London at the time was one from the Sheffield Telegraph. That was Jean Rook.

My mother's career path followed the only possible route for non-university-educated women back then: start in the typing pool and hope for the best. She eventually got to take letters for (rather than to) the editor, who, having noticed that she had a knack for turning a phrase after she'd knocked his rambling dictation – he enjoyed a drink – into some kind of usable shape, started sending her off to cover the occasional inquest. (He was very much a deep-end kinda guy. "Anything juicy?" he’d ask when she came back in. "Pfft," she’d reply. "Misadventure again. Sorry.")

One fateful day (as she would certainly never have put it), the editor assigned her to cover a Conservative party meeting before some local elections, an event that all the full-fledged reporters had managed to find an excuse to avoid. A local organiser, Mrs (Name Lost in the Mists of Family History), spoke at soporific length about how to get the most out of the chore of canvassing. "At some houses you needn't waste your time," she told the eager faithful after an hour or so of precise leaflet-folding instructions. "You can tell they vote Labour before you even knock on the door. Just look down. If you see a dirty doorstep, you can forget it. Try next door instead."[1]

My mother couldn’t believe what she'd heard. Well, she could, because she'd been taking the whole speech down verbatim in her erm-and-ah-perfect shorthand.

Front-page splash in the paper the next day: LABOUR VOTERS HAVE "DIRTY DOORSTEPS", TOP LOCAL TORY CLAIMS.

Mrs NLMFH rang the editor shrieking that she’d said no such thing. The local party chairman rang the editor, calling for the head of the "recklessly irresponsible young lady" who’d had the temerity to invent such a terrible slur.

The editor stood by his reporter, much as Simon Kelner stood by Johann Hari, except in this case not only was she able to show him her shorthand notes, she’d also had enough nous to take the contact details of a couple of other people who’d heard what Mrs NLMFH had said and would be willing to confirm it.

The local Tories lost the election, my mother was promoted to the newsroom proper and the paper got a healthy blip in its circulation.

The lesson my mother learned that day was one she passed on to me: "Say what you like, and be as shrill and sensationalist as you like, but always, always make sure you’ve got the facts right or it’s back to the typing pool for you, and you won’t get another chance."

It was advice I followed when I worked as an advertising copywriter. Yes, I polished every selling point so hard it gleamed – not unlike a Tory doorstep, in fact – but anyone checking up would find that although it had been spun with Hotpoint-like vigour it would always hold up under scrutiny.

It occurred to me over the last couple of days that Johann Hari has fallen foul not only of my mum’s standards as an old-school journalist but also of mine as an old-school copywriter. Because, let’s not kid ourselves, he’s essentially just as much a copywriter, propagandist or PR for Noble Causes as he is a journalist. (In a 2004 interview he said that his view of a columnist's role was "a sort of paid political campaigner for the causes you believe in," which explains quite a lot, really.)

So, if you met your interviewee on the terrace of a hotel beach bar, don’t say it was a Starbucks. If a psychologist is a flaky fringe figure, don’t call him a distinguished social scientist. And if Hugo Ch├ívez said something to someone from Newsweek, don’t claim he leaned forward, patted your knee, shifted in his chair, took a sip of his coffee, looked out of the window and said it to you several years later. Because if you do, when you’re called on it – and some day you certainly will be called on it - you won’t be able to pull that little ring-bound notebook out of your handbag and point to where it says, in perfect shorthand, "dirty doorstep".


1. Or, as Johann Hari might have put it but for reasons best known to himself never did, words to that effect. The notebook and my mum's cuttings scrapbook haven't survived and the Middleton Guardian's online archive doesn't go back that far. Don't think I haven't checked.

Seven Pillars of Bullshit

The aspect of Harigate II - the allegations of sock-puppetry and serial Wikipedia mischief by Johann Hari rather than his now-proven serial plagiarism - that has been most harshly criticised by his apologists is the "cheap", "unfair" and "vindictive" use that has been made of the porn connection. (To cut an improbably long story short, the online trail left by Johann Hari’s mystery Wikipedia champion leads to one other place only: a hardcore story about pimping out a 15-year-old boy that was posted on a gay website.)

I don’t know why bringing this matter up is supposed to be unfair. After all, Hari himself has written at length and in non-condemnatory terms about not only pornography but also incest and gay sex with teens.

In his introduction to a 2006 piece on his website about "bareback" gay porn, Hari downplays (I’m trying hard to be even-handed here and not say "condones") the sexual abuse of male teenagers in these terms:

[G]ay men are right to suspect that while making porn can fuck up the women who are spat out (or swallowed) in its production, it is less likely to have a psychologically dangerous effect on the men who take part. In 1998 the distinguished social scientist Bruce Ring published a thorough study into the difference between the way girls and boys react to sexually abusive or exposing situations. He found that teenage boys who had been abused "reacted much less negatively than women." While girls were usually dreadfully disturbed, most boys suffered "negative effects that were neither pervasive nor typically intense." So the girl your straight mates watch being gang-banged on camera for cash will probably be deeply disturbed by it for years; the boy you watch probably won’t be psychologically damaged for long.

I’m not going to discuss that argument's worth or even its potential for eyebrow-raising, because I’d rather focus on the one part of it that is, at least at first sight, not contentious: the seven words "the distinguished social scientist Bruce Ring published", because five of them are demonstrably bollocks.

Bruce L. Rind (not, perhaps fortunately for him, "Ring") is a psychologist (not a social scientist) who co-authored a certain paper (not, as suggested, wrote and published it alone) in 1998.

So what about the "distinguished" bit, then?

At the age of 59, Rind is still a non-tenured "adjunct instructor", which is roughly equivalent to an assistant lecturer, hired to teach a specific course for a specific period of time. He teaches at Temple University in Philadelphia, which is ranked 132nd in the U.S. News rankings of American universities (although, to be fair, its Psychology graduate programme streaks home in 50th place). And he’s not exactly a wow with his students either. They’ve graded his classes with an average score of 2.5 (“poor”).

The 1998 Rind et. al. paper wasn’t just dismissed by at least four peer reviewers as "scientifically invalid" and roundly disowned by the American Psychological Association; it's the only paper in the history of U.S. scientific literature to have been condemned by Congress. No, not railed against by some school board in Knuckledrag, Kansas – actually condemned by the House of Representatives. To call its main conclusion, that the sexual abuse of adolescent boys is not necessarily harmful, off the mark would be to do it a big favour. What Johann Hari neglects to tell us is that males who were sexually abused as adolescents have been found by subsequent – and presumably equally distinguished – researchers to be three times more likely to turn to therapy for emotional problems and five times more likely to commit suicide than their non-abused peers.

Both Rind and his long-term colleague Robert Bauserman (one of the co-authors on that 1998 paper) have published extensively on what is sometimes whitewashed as "man-boy love", although some researchers refer to it as "intergenerational intimacy", while Rind and Bauserman go one better and oh-so-scientifically call it "age-discrepant sexual relations (ADSR)" instead. One of the journals that they chose to publish their findings in was the now-defunct Netherlands-based Paidika: The Journal of Paedophilia. Here's an extract from that publication’s statement of purpose, to give an idea of where these people were, er, coming from:

[T]o speak today of paedophilia, which we understand to be consensual intergenerational sexual relationships, is to speak of the politics of oppression. This is the milieu in which we are enmeshed, the fabric of our daily life and struggle. [...] It is our contention that the oppression of paedophilia is part of the larger repression of sexuality, and that this repression in general represents an irrational expression of authority in government. The oppression of paedophilia is therefore dangerous in a wider sense than simply to paedophiles.

The same year that they published the paper that Hari so confidently cites, Rind and Bauserman participated as keynote speakers, alongside two members of the editorial board of Paidika: The Journal of Paedophilia, at a pro-paedophilia conference held in Amsterdam. Rind’s address was later published in the International Pedophile and Child Emancipation Newsletter, which must have been nice for him.

But let’s get back to more familiar and probably more comfortable ground for Johann Hari: Wikipedia. It turns out that such a distinguished titan of the social sciences as Dr Bruce L. Rind has a Wikipedia entry of his own that is...oops, he hasn't got one. (I mean, come on, even my distinguished mate the self-published short-story writer has got his own Wikipedia entry). Rind does, however, feature heavily in the entry titled "Rind et al. controversy" about the huge stink that was raised by the very paper that Johann Hari saw fit to cite to bolster his curious beliefs.

So that’s the "distinguished" bit dealt with. (Maybe we should be charitable and assume that Hari’s autocorrect must have been playing tricks the day he tried to write "discredited".)

And there we have it. Of the seven words "the distinguished social scientist Bruce Ring published", only two actually hold up to any scrutiny at all: "the" and "Bruce".

What conclusions might we reasonably draw about the accuracy and fair representation to be found throughout Johann Hari’s journalism based on this analysis of one teeny-weeny fragment of it? I’m not sure, but I’m confident Andreas Whittam-Smith will let us know before too long.

POSTSCRIPT (14 July 2011)
I was under the impression that Hari's bareback-porn piece, which I quote from, had not appeared in The Independent, as I could find no trace of it anywhere other than on Hari's website. (The length of the piece and the amount of "worked-up" detail suggest it was written for publication rather than as a blog entry, so it might be reasonable to assume that it was spiked.) However, I have now learned that the part of the text that I specifically deal with here (from "the distinguished..." to "'...less negatively than women'", i.e. the Rind et al. citation and quoted material) had already been used by Hari with the exact same wording - yes, the misspelled surname and all - in a completely different article, published by The Independent nearly three months before the bareback-porn post appeared on his blog.

Still with me? This may seem like only a minor detail but it's actually crucial. I used those seven words as an example of the sort of thing that Andreas Whittam Smith might consider looking for when he reviews Hari's writings for the newspaper. I now realise that since the seven words did appear in the newspaper, albeit in a completely different context, they fall slap-bang in the middle of the remit of Whittam Smith's investigation.

Perhaps someone reading this might wish to draw his attention to those seven words, because, besides further demonstrating Hari's penchant for distortion and dissembling, they don't say a fat lot in favour of the paper's editorial filtering processes, do they?

I get the feeling it's going to be a long, hot summer for one genuinely distinguished old gentleman of the press.

(Thanks to Damian Thompson of the Daily Telegraph for pointing this out.)