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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Sunday 6th July 2014

I could easily write many more pieces than I do if I rushed to the keyboard every time Kathy Gyngell wrote something distorting evidence, Peter Hitchens valued his opinion above evidence of any sort or Kevin Sabet wrote – well anything really. And I could try and emulate those people who actually run websites calling out the MailOnline for its every transgression. As we know, they are legion.

The reason I don’t is because it is depressing to realise that there are people who believe the nonsense that gets spouted or, in the case of the Mail, try and either laugh it off or claim that every media outlet does the same and picking on the Mail is some sort of left-wing campaign.

Today, I’ve decided that a piece produced by MailOnline is worthy of attention, not so much because of its egregiousness but more because it is typical of what the Mail does.

Heracleum mantegazzianum, giant hogweed

It is simply a piece about Heracleum mantegazzianum, giant hogweed, and, as such, should be similar to the many other pieces about this plant that are a yearly occurrence in both local and national media.

But that sort of piece would not meet two essential criteria for the MailOnline; items must appear to be newly discovered by the diligent efforts of Mail journalists whose every waking hour is spent finding out things the British public needs to know and that knowledge must be capable of scaring people because frightened people buy newspapers.

Starting with the headline, I have a question; when it says ‘Warning against toxic weed called 'Taliban'’, who exactly calls it that? I could easily have answered that question without doing any further research but, for completeness, I did see what Google had to say about ‘Taliban’ as a term for giant hogweed.

Heracleum mantegazzianum, giant hogweed

As I expected, the first person to call giant hogweed ‘Taliban’ is Lucy Crossley, the journalist responsible for the piece.


‘Giant hogweed, which can reach 23ft high, originates from Afghanistan and Iraq’


Heracleum mantegazzianum comes from the Caucasus region, an area between the Black and Caspian Seas that reaches into Russia to the north and Turkey and Iran to the south. It does not include Afghanistan and Iraq but, just at the moment, the words ‘Afghanistan’ and ‘Iraq’ are much scarier than ‘Dagestan’ and ‘Armenia’.


‘Hastily-introduced rules mean it is now illegal to plant hogweed in the wild’

Those ‘hastily-introduced rules’ come in the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.  Yes, that’s right – 1981.


‘Giant hogweed has taken hold in many areas of the UK and the latest to be hit is the Avon Valley’. This statement is soon followed by a quote, “We have fought against the giant hogweed since 2010” rather undermining the breathless ‘this is new’ tone of the piece.

Heracleum mantegazzianum, giant hogweed

I set out to have a go at the MailOnline only but, in searching for reference to giant hogweed as ‘Taliban’, I found an example of fake news that is almost worse.

The Daily Star decided it needed to get in on the act with a piece that shows just how frequently accidental coincidences can occur because it has very similar phrases to the MailOnline. But the Star felt the need to go two better.

The piece is headlined;

'Brush with DEADLY weed leaves man with agonising oozing sores'

Now even the MailOnline didn’t go so far as to suggest that Heracleum mantegazzianum can cause fatalities. I suppose you could argue that the sort of blistering that occurs in the worse cases, if entirely untreated and left to become infected, could prove fatal but it is a nonsense to call hogweed ‘deadly’ under any reasonable conditions.

Then this ‘news’ story goes on to talk about what happened the Mr Keith Cooper, a man whose extensive burns from giant hogweed exposure were widely reported in September 2013.

And so we find that newspapers invent ‘facts’ if it sexes up a story (after, of course, spending many column inches criticising politicians for doing the same thing), will happily give false information if it makes a story scarier and will recycle old stories as news.

But to avoid a charge of hypocrisy, I must point out that the previous paragraph contains nothing new. I just find that every now and then it helps to point out that the same shoddy activities continue.

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