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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Tuesday 3rd September 2013

There was quite a bit of activity on Twitter, yesterday, about the CSJ report I wrote about. I can’t speak for the whole of Twitter, of course, but I can say that my timeline contained little about it that was complimentary and that little concerned the report’s attitude to alcohol.

Prof. Alex Stevens, of Kent University, had some harsh, but wholly justifiable, comments and called it ‘regrettable’ that the CSJ received more media coverage than last week’s report from Release (‘the national centre of expertise on drugs and drugs law’) on racial disparity in law enforcement.

When the report ‘The Numbers In Black And White: Ethnic Disparities In The Policing And Prosecution Of Drug Offences In England And Wales’ was published I wondered about the lack of media attention but I put it down to the fact that the introduction makes it clear that the core data comes from previously published statistics from the Home Office with some additional material gathered by Release via a Freedom of Information Act (FoIA) request to each police force in England & Wales. Since the CSJ report doesn’t even have that degree of new information, I thought I would look again at the Release report to try and see why it made so little impact.

First, an unscientific Google News comparison. At the time of writing, the Release document returns only three results in ‘Google News’ against forty-seven for ‘Centre for Social Justice’ leading to stories about its report. That’s enough to confirm that Release was largely ignored whereas the CSJ received a moderate level of attention.

It would be easy to say that it is just a demonstration of the inbuilt media hostility towards reform organisations but I think there may be more. I commented, on Sunday, about the emotive headline on the CSJ press release launching its report so I thought it would be worth looking at how Release approached this issue.

Its press statement is headlined ‘Racial disparities in drug policing’ with a longer sub-heading saying;

‘Drug Policing Discriminates Against Black And Minority Ethnic Groups Despite Their Lower Rates Of Drug Use, A New Report Reveals.’

That seems to demonstrate the point I was making about emotive press releases. With the CSJ report, the Express, the Star and Sky News looked no further than the press release headline from CSJ for their own;

‘Postmen ‘are unwitting drug mules’ as drug dealing goes online’
‘Postmen are used to deliver the drugs*’
‘Postmen Acting As 'Unwitting Drug Mules'’
*That’s the line Google returns but the Star has now changed its heading.

The lack of attention to the Release report may be no more than this absence of an eye-catching heading to the press release. Or, it could be something more troubling.

For organisations that can’t even bother to think of their own headline in order to at least pretend they have read and understood the document concerned it may be that a headline based on;

‘Racial disparities in drug policing’

Seems a little too close to;

‘Pope is Catholic’ or ‘Bears Defecate in Woods’

The suspicion has to be that, for parts of the media, the notion that blacks receive disproportionate attention from the police is perfectly understandable because ‘everybody knows’ that blacks are more likely to be criminals than whites. And I’m not just attacking the right-wing media here. My fear is that parts of the media that might be expected to dismiss that view are not sufficiently bothered to try and contest it.

The fact that, as the press release sub-heading points out ethnic minority drug use, including the black community, is less than whites’ is possibly considered too hard to sell because of the deeply rooted assumption that the reverse is the case. Back in July, I referred to a piece headed ‘British public wrong about nearly everything, survey shows’ and the extent of drug use and the profile of the ‘typical’ user is almost certainly something else the public is wrong about.

I don’t know what could be done to get the media to pay more attention to important issues surrounding drug policy. I certainly wouldn’t advocate going down the lying headline route used by the likes of the CSJ.

That said, I actually hope that the failure to catch the eye was wholly responsible for the lack of coverage because the other explanation, that media outlets don’t see racial discrimination in policing as worthy of note, says something deeply troubling about society.

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