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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Tuesday 15th May 2012

There are times when I wish I could have been a journalist, or, at least, been able to think and behave like a journalist. It must be very liberating to not have to behave consistently from one day to the next but, instead, to be able to take your overall prejudices and apply them to contradictory situations.

This blog is going to be about the Daily Mail, undoubtedly the worst example of this ability to ignore logic, but I’ll begin by explaining what I mean with an example from Private Eye, not a publication many would think of as committing the same sins as the mainstream media.

I really wish I’d kept the copy I’m thinking of, not least because the last time I mentioned something I was sure I’d seen in Private Eye someone on Twitter corrected me. This time I’m certain that my memory has not failed me. The edition concerned contained two stories about public transport. In the ‘Rotten Boroughs’ section dealing with local authorities the City of Edinburgh was ridiculed for proceeding with the construction of a tram network when it already had a perfectly effective diesel powered bus fleet. Elsewhere, another city (Nottingham, I think) was condemned for refusing to go ahead with a project to create a tram network in favour of retaining its polluting, fossil-fuel driven buses.

It is that sort of reporting that I have in my sights, today. The only consistency is that whatever authority does must be wrong regardless of the detail of the actual story.

Last year, there was a political storm in a teacup when it emerged that checks on passengers arriving in the UK had been reduced after the head of the Border Agency went beyond the instructions given to him by the Home Secretary. That created the opportunity for plenty of ire from the Daily Mail along the lines of huge numbers of terrorists being able to get into the country unchecked.

The papers thought they might be able to ‘get’ Theresa May, the Home Secretary, but once it became clear that she had acted properly they rather lost interest. Until last month, when staff shortages at Heathrow led to a row about the length of time non-EU visitors were having to wait for entry to the UK. The actual extent of the problem became mired in arguments about data collection methods but the press concerned itself with the ‘something must be done’ angle before the Olympic games.

The UK Border Agency said it had staff undergoing training and it had clear plans for the Olympics but the next story to emerge was the claim, made by unions fighting spending cuts throughout the public sector, that customs checks were being relaxed in order to divert staff to immigration duties.1

Last night, the Daily Mail had a story about what these reduced customs checks mean.2 Under the headline ‘An open door to drug smugglers’ it began its report;

‘Air passengers caught entering Britain with cannabis in their luggage are being let off with just a ‘slap on the wrist’.’

The story was that passengers being found with small quantities of cannabis were having it confiscated and being warned that their details would be kept on the UK Border Agency computer and any further offence would be dealt with more severely. According to the Mail, they should have been arrested and referred to an investigations team that could decide to impose an on the spot financial penalty.

Cannabis sativa, marijuana

Cannabis sativa, marijuana

It shouldn’t take a genius to work out that the time spent by the customs officer in briefing the investigations team would have a knock-on effect in terms of reduced checks on following passengers or the need to transfer staff from immigration to customs adding to the queues. The Mail does not have to follow this logic through so it can just have a paddy about how lightly these ‘criminals’ were treated.

I just called them criminals but the Mail called them ‘drug smugglers’. ‘Drug smuggler’ is a very loaded term suggesting, to me, someone trying to bring large quantities of illegal substances into the country to sell to anyone who wants to buy them.

The Mail doesn’t say exactly what quantity of cannabis was found and the UK Border Agency site doesn’t even have the story in its ‘News’ section but, given that nothing happened beyond confiscation and a warning, I would think the quantity in each case was quite small; perhaps enough to keep the passenger supplied during their visit or even just enough to keep them going until they could find a source of supply.

Either way, it may meet the dictionary definition of ‘smuggling’ but it doesn’t fit the image created by the term ‘drug smuggler’.

Cannabis sativa, marijuana

Cannabis sativa, marijuana

The Mail takes the line that this relaxation of customs controls creates an opportunity for large-scale illegal importation, completely ignoring the fact that large-scale illegal importation has been going on for years.

I’ve saved the best for last. This dreadful breakdown of border controls exposing the country to a tide of illegally imported cannabis because those in authority are totally failing to perform their duties in accordance with the law (and the agenda of the Mail; can you guess which is the more important?) is evidenced by a report covering April and May 2011 that found staff at Gatwick Airport had dealt with four passengers in this way.

What was that? This report covers April and May 2011 and, therefore, has nothing to do with the recent furore over staffing levels and queues.

And four passengers? According to the Associated Press, Gatwick Airport handled 2.72 million passengers in April 2012.3 Now, I grant that includes domestic passengers but given that over 100 million people enter the UK every year I think it’s safe to say that a large part of the 5 million or so people who passed through Gatwick Airport in April and May 2011 were international travellers so getting hot under the collar about four of them is really going a bit far even for the Mail.

I don’t use headings in this blog but, if I did, today’s heading would have been ‘Nothing Happened Yesterday’. That’s because, after seeing the story online where it is impossible to gauge its prominence I was amazed to see, at the newsagent, that this was the page one lead story for today’s Daily Mail. If this is genuinely the most important story from yesterday then, clearly, nothing of significance happened.

Of course, lots of other things happened so what this is is further evidence of what a number of people have noticed. The UK print media is doing whatever it can to make life difficult for the government as a punishment for its temerity in setting up the Leveson Inquiry into press standards.  

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