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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Tuesday 26th February 2013

Begin by assuming that Kathy Gyngell is an intelligent person and well-versed in the use of the English language. I think that assumption is important because the alternative is that she has no idea of how to present information truthfully. If I couldn’t assume that she is choosing her words and phrases carefully in the hope of misdirecting my opinion that I’d be forced into the sort of ad hominem attack for her sloppy work that I abhor.

So, when Gyngell writes something, as she has on the Centre for Policy Studies website1, you must expect that she has deployed all her craft to gain support for her argument.

The piece is about a poll conducted by Ipsos MORI for Transform Drug Policy Foundation (TDPF) and published last week2 that sought to compare public attitudes to the possibility of reform with those expressed by politicians, especially the Prime Minister. It comes in the wake of David Cameron’s out of hand dismissal of the Home Affairs Select Committee (HASC) report calling for a Royal Commission to examine drug policy.

Examination of the full poll results3 shows the sort of complex reaction you would expect. 60% of respondents believe the law should remain as it is but 67% believe there should be a review of existing policy to see if there is another way of dealing with substance use. When it comes to Cannabis sativa, marijuana, 53% say that, if the law were to be changed, then some form of decriminalisation/legalisation should be adopted. Only 3% say the change should be to legalisation with minimal control.

I could continue this piece by looking at the detailed results and how the apparent ‘at a glance’ contradiction between 60% support for the current law and 53% support for change is resolved but I want to look, in detail, at what Ms Gyngell has to say.

I’d love to be able to go through every word but that would produce a piece too lengthy for anyone to read and, if I select the most egregious examples of Gyngell’s manipulation of language, I’ll be both cherry-picking and shooting elephants. So, I’ll start at the beginning and see how far I get before feeling I’ve made my case.

The second sentence of the piece gives the first example of her manipulation. It reads;

‘Over half the public and a staggering 46% of Daily Mail readers, wrote Ian Dunt on, support the legalisation of cannabis.’

I’ve added the emphasis because it is key. Gyngell doesn’t want to quote directly from the survey so adds the filter of repeating what someone else wrote because there’s always a chance people will assume they were wrong. I should have made that ‘allegedly wrote’ because Kathy rather shoots herself in the foot. Dunt’s brief piece begins;

‘Over half the public - including 45% of Daily Mail readers - now support the legalisation of cannabis, new research suggests.’4

The figure 46% does not appear. So, what we have is Gyngell directly quoting the survey results, where the 46% does appear, but not wanting to acknowledge this.

The very next sentence gets to the meat of Kathy’s piece;

‘The Guardian’s Ian Birrell also confidently stated that a majority of the British public favour cannabis use.’

The piece in which Birrell allegedly made this confident statement is entitled, ‘Legalising drugs would be the perfect Tory policy’5 so it is no surprise that Gyngell is determined to shoot down this heresy as quickly as possible.

 ‘The Guardian’s Ian Birrell’, of course, is intended to convey so much more than just ‘Ian Birrell’. We have to wait until paragraph 39 for the ‘Paragraph 19’ moment where Gyngell acknowledges that Birrell was a speechwriter for David Cameron during the 2010 election campaign.

But that does not give the full picture. On his own website6, Birrell says;

‘- Worked at the top level of national newspapers for more than two decades, holding senior executive positions at The Sunday Times, Daily Mail and Sunday Express before becoming deputy editor-in-chief of The Independent for 12 years, leaving in March 2010.

- Currently contributing editor of The Daily Mail and writes columns regularly in several other papers. Recent articles published in The Economist, The Financial Times, The Times, The Guardian, The Observer, The London Evening Standard, The Daily Telegraph, The Sunday Telegraph, The Mail on Sunday, The Independent, The Independent on Sunday, Prospect, New Statesman and The Spectator.’

‘Writing in the Guardian, Ian Birrell confidently stated’ is perfectly fair; ‘The Guardian’s Ian Birrell’ is a deliberate attempt to prejudice the reader’s response.

So having set our minds against Birrell, what of his alleged statement that ‘a majority of the British public favour cannabis use’?

The full quote is;

‘A new poll out today by the campaign group Transform finds a majority now favour permitting cannabis use’

Rather than ‘confidently stat[ing]’ as Gyngell claims, Birrell is repeating what someone else said. She has move the line to Birrell, of course, because she is always scathing about TDPF so there is nothing to be gained by ridiculing another statement from the charity.

Look closer at the two lines; Gyngell writes ‘a majority of the British public favour cannabis use’ but the original is ‘a majority now favour permitting cannabis use’ (emphasis added).

At the very heart of Gyngell’s position is the claim that any sort of reform would result in an explosion of use. I’ll leave aside all the arguments against that position, today. Removing the word ‘permitting’ is intended to give the impression that a majority of the public would use cannabis if it could.

But the word ‘permitting’ is important. Take the recent debate on equal marriage. Far more people are in favour of permitting same sex couples to marry than would want to take part in such a marriage. People like me are a problem for Gyngell. I believe that cannabis should be available legally in a well-regulated way but I also believe its use should not be encouraged because I, personally, don’t see the point of it.

Gyngell wants to make people believe that chaos is at the door and it is only draconian drug laws that are keeping it at bay.

The final sentence of the first paragraph says;

‘Even the Daily Mail got caught up and reported the poll’s finding that two thirds of the public support a large scale review of our drugs laws.’

Why is that surprising and worthy of condemnation? The existing control regime has been in place for over 40 years and has completely failed in its objective of creating a drug-free world. That objective may be unattainable under any sort of regime but where is the harm in looking to see if there is a better way?

I support a full impact assessment with a cost benefit analysis alongside a detailed examination of possible alternative policies. If such an independent process concluded that the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 is the best we can do, I would accept it. If Gyngell is so sure that the only way to improve present policy is to make it harsher, why is she scared of having that claim examined thoroughly?

I said that attempting to analyse every word would produce an unacceptably lengthy piece and I’ve reached what I think is a good length just on the first paragraph. There are 43 in total so I think you’ll see my point.

It is true that some of them are only a single line but even so a paragraph as simple as the second;

‘How did such a sudden change of public heart come about?’

Is, probably, good for 500 words.


If you enjoyed this you might want to know that Gyngell hasn't changed her ways in two years.


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