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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Tuesday 4th December 2012

I’ve been reading the Leveson Report. Actually, that’s not what I’ve been doing. ‘Reading’ may give the impression that I started at page 1 and finished at page 1987. I most certainly didn’t do that and I wonder just how many people have read the report in its entirety. I suspect that those with the luxury of having a large staff set a number of them to read different sections and provide a summary.

So I haven’t ‘read’ the report. Nor have I ‘skimmed’ it by flicking through every page to see what caught my eye. I’m not sure there is a word for the way I approached the report. What I’ve done is to select a number of keywords that could be related to my area of interest and use them to search the four volumes to see what came up. I then read the resulting sections in detail.

Though the media has tended to talk about Leveson’s inquiry as being into phone-hacking, especially those parts of the media that have not been, so far, evidentially linked to the practice of illegally accessing voicemail messages, it was actually examining the much broader topic of the way the printed media (and its related websites) operates generally.

I’ve used this blog a number of times to criticise the way the press reports issues related to psychoactive substances whether by misreporting research or presenting speculation as fact or picking items that, whilst true, don’t give a fair view of an overall situation. My first keyword for searching was, therefore, ‘drug’. The word appears 30 times in the body of the report but only three times is it used in relation to the reporting of stories related to substances classified under the Misuse of Drugs Act. The other appearances of the word relate either to the use of ‘drug’ to mean ‘medicine’ or deal with the treatment of celebrities identified as drug users.

The three appearances related to the substances are in the same paragraph, Section F paragraph 9.48, concerning a story, in March 2011, where changes in sentencing guidelines were misreported by the Daily Mail and the Daily Express as indicative of a softness in dealing with crime. This section of the report is concerned with the reporting of the justice system rather than reporting on drugs.

There are plenty of mentions of ‘science’ but the concern is, mostly, with the misreporting of research especially that which involves medicine. All these concerns, like over-stating the importance of the research, wrongly applying the results to an unrelated situation or distorting the reporting to suit an agenda, all apply to the field of psychoactive substances but I would have thought this large part of the media’s failings would have received more attention.

I moved on from the report to looking at the evidence submitted by individuals and organisations to the Leveson Inquiry. The only directly related submission I found came from The UK Drug Policy Commission (UKDPC) This provides, in just 12 pages, a very useful summary of the approach the printed media takes to psychoactive substances and the people, whether users of researchers, involved with them.

The UKDPC breaks its evidence into two parts; ‘Coverage of harms from drugs, and the impact on public policy’ and ‘Coverage of people with drug addictions: the press and the public’.

In the first part, it gives three case studies; the reclassification of cannabis, the arrival of mephedrone and the sacking of Professor David Nutt. The distorted reporting of the media in all three cases is well documented but the UKDPC’s submission reveals one of the key problems for anyone seeking to criticise the press. Because the UKDPC is anxious to be complete factual in its evidence, it points out that there is no certainty that the reclassification of cannabis and David Nutt’s sacking were the result of press campaigns. The circumstantial evidence is strong enough that one suspects that, if a different topic were concerned, the press would be happy to report that circumstantial evidence as fact. As it is, the UKDPC’s proper restraint enables to press to deny that there is any truth to the matter.

The second part of the UKDPC’s evidence concerns the way the press refers to individual drug users, current or former, and users as a group. The press would not refer to someone as a criminal if their conviction was spent according to the law but it will continue to refer to someone as a user or former user long after that use has ceased. It also, especially in op-ed columns, makes wide use of pejorative terms for drug users.

The UKDPC’s evidence is a first class summary of the problem and submission by other organisations would only have repeated the key points being made but, I fear, the absence of those other submissions may have led the Leveson Inquiry to feel that the UKDPC was a lone voice. There are only three appearances of the words UK Drug Policy Commission, all in footnotes giving reference citations.

I can’t help feeling disappointed that Leveson did not seem to see the importance of the problems with the reporting of drug-related matters. Reporting on a row between two celebrities, the details of which were obtained by illegally accessing voicemails, may cause great distress to the celebrities concerned but misreporting about psychoactive substances may lead to actual harms by, in effect, encouraging use.

Of course, newspapers must be free to employ whoever they wish to write opinion pieces about any topic no matter how barking those opinions may be. But, what, to me, is unacceptable is when similar agenda based thinking is present in what is supposed to be a news story. I’m not sure that Lord Leveson, even if his recommendations were adopted in full, which looks unlikely, has offered anything that will prevent that happening in the future. 

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