How stupid do they think we are?

There’s been a fair bit of coverage of late of one of the Daily Mail‘s more staggeringly cynical actions.  As originally pointed out by the Lay Scientist blog, and subsequently discussed by Graham Linehan on his blog (where I first heard of it), and further highlighted by Ben Goldacre in his ever-excellent Bad Science Guardian column, the Mail has been running two separate campaigns related to the HPV vaccine.  HPV is a sexually transmitted virus that is implicated in the development of cervical cancer, and the vaccine offers protection against the strains of HPV that are responsible for about two-thirds of all cervical cancers.

The English edition of the Daily Mail (and, I assume, the Scottish edition too, although I haven’t verified this) have been running a sequence of scare stories about the HPV vaccine.  In this story, for example, they talk up the risks of the vaccine (albeit without advancing any actual evidence of risk), and a spurious sense of ‘balance’ is provided by those who argue that the vaccine isn’t dangerous, but is unnecessary and wasteful, or that it will encourage risky sexual activity.  To anyone who has even a slight knowledge of the Mail’s editorial policies and journalistic practices, this does not come as a surprise.

What is surprising is that, at the same time they have been expressing disquiet over the UK government’s decision to offer the vaccine to all schoolgirls aged 12, the Irish edition of the Mail has been taking a rather different approach following the Irish government’s decision not to offer the vaccination to girls of the same age:

Today the Irish Daily Mail calls on the Government to reverse the decision to axe the cervical cancer vaccination programme – and roll it out now.

Health Minister Mary Harney promised in August to roll out the scheme for 12-year-olds next year. On Tuesday she announced it was being shelved to save money.

Yet the €10million cost is just 0.7pc of the annual €14billion spend on health in Ireland. And every day the HSE [Health Service Executive – the Irish equivalent of the NHS] haemorrhages millions on advisers and exorbitant bonuses for pen pushers.

It is a very small price to pay to save the lives of 92 Irish women a year and spare around 100 others the misery of cancer treatment and the unimaginable loss of the ability to have a child as cervical cancer treatment so often includes hysterectomies.

Petrina Vousden, ‘A Small Price to Save Many Lives‘, Irish Daily Mail, December 17th 2008.

There’s no ignoring the telltale ‘house style’ in this article.  The sentence about the haemorrhaging of money on advisers and pen pushers is vintage Daily Mail, as is the over-riding sense of an uncaring and inefficient bureaucracy riding roughshod over the concerns of ordinary people.  It’s surprising, then, that the actual conclusions reached on the issue are so very different.

It’s also interesting to note that surprisingly similar data are used to different effect in the two editions of the paper.  This is the London edition of the Mail commenting on death rates from cervical cancer:

each year […] about 940 women die. While this is 940 too many, it equates to less than three deaths per 100,000 of population and does not even begin to compare with the carnage caused by breast or lung cancer.

Isla Whitcroft, ‘Revealed: The Serious Health Concerns About the Cervical Cancer Jab‘, Daily Mail, 2nd September 2008.

Now let’s look back at the article in the Irish edition which argues that €10million is a small cost to save the lives of 92 women a year.  According to Wikipedia, the population of the Republic of Ireland in 2008 was approximately 4.35million, and my back-of-an-envelope arithmetic suggests that these 92 deaths are therefore equivalent to a death rate of around 2.1 per 100,000 of population.  In other words, the death rate here could also be accurately described as less than 3 per 100,000.  It is strange to realise that, as far as the Daily Mail are concerned, the same death rate is an argument against offering vaccination in the UK, while in Eire it is an argument in favour of offering vaccination.

It would be tempting to put this two-faced ability to campaign on both sides of an issue down to the Daily Mail alone, but, as Paper Monitor on the BBC News website pointed out last Friday, The Times have been up to something very similar.

Almost exactly a year ago, that paper was getting itself in a bit of a state about litter, and ran a week long campaign on the issue.  As part of that campaign, the paper specifically welcomed the introduction of new powers that would enable councils to use CCTV to catch and punish those who dropped litter:

Litter is blight. […] littering […] can be curbed through more vigilance and more effective deterrence. New plans to empower councils to use existing traffic cameras to fine registered keepers for any litter thrown from cars are therefore welcome.

Leading article, ‘Stop the Drop: How Hard Can it Be to Rid Britain of Litter?‘, The Times, April 12th 2008.

Those of us of a less reactionary bent might possibly have felt that, annoying as people who drop litter are, it was something of an overreaction for local councils to use CCTV cameras that were originally installed to monitor road safety to identify and prosecute ‘litter louts’.  Certainly, I was very relieved to realise that one of our leading national newspapers had come to the same conclusion, although I was slightly confused when I realised which newspaper it was:

Councils are to have their powers to snoop on the public severely curtailed. Jacqui Smith, the Home Secretary, will signal government plans today to reverse the expansion of the surveillance society amid growing alarm at the extent of official spying.

Councils have used legislation intended to tackle terrorism and serious crime to deal with minor offences such as dog fouling and littering.

Richard Ford, ‘Council Powers to Spy on the Public are Cut‘, The Times, April 17th 2009.

So, in the space of very slightly over one year, The Times has shifted from believing that using CCTV to identify and prosecute petty offenders was ‘to be welcomed’ to believing that it represented  a worrisome ‘expansion of the surveillance society’.

Maybe it’s naive of me to be surprised by this.  Newspapers are, first and foremost, businesses, and so they tell people what they want to hear.  The most blatant example of this in relatively recent times was in 1997, when the hard-line Conservative political editor of The Sun, Trevor Kavanagh, was forced to campaign in favour of a Labour victory.  It’s been widely rumoured that this was the result of some Machiavellian deal between Tony Blair and the proprietor of The Sun, Rupert Murdoch, but I think the reality was far more straightforward: a Labour victory was unavoidable, and it was important for The Sun not to be seen to be out of touch with the mood of the nation.  I do think, though, that reverses of the kind displayed by the Times, and the simultaneous campaigning of the Mail, are different.

In an episode of Screen Wipe broadcast last autumn, Charlie Brooker succinctly identified the dilemma faced by modern newspapers.  No-one gets their news from a paper anymore, so the papers have to find some other way of attracting readers, and the long-running campaign is one way of doing this, because it acts as a way of making the readers feel they are part of a cohesive social group.  Charlie Brooker was commenting specifically on the then-current expressions of spluttering outrage against Russell Brand, Jonathan Ross and the BBC, and he pointed out that, had the newspapers been sincere in their desire to protect public figures from salacious gossip, they would have to have been far more critical of themselves than they were of the BBC.  Of course, they weren’t, because the important point for the newspapers wasn’t the apparent substance of the campaign, just the fact that the campaign was taking place at all.

It’s in this light that the two-faced approach of the Mail and the Times has to be seen, I think.  It doesn’t actually matter to the editors and journalists at the Mail whether the HPV vaccine is safe or not, or whether giving it will encourage reckless promiscuity, or save the lives of innocent women.  All that matters is that the Mail can show itself to be a campaigning and crusading newspaper, fighting fearlessly for what it believes against the cruel, incompetent and uncaring state.  And even that only matters because it will encourage readers to part with their daily cash in order to feel part of something that is larger than themselves.  Exactly the same is true of the Times.  The precise balance between the right of the individual to be free from surveillance and the right of the state to punish those who violate agreed standards of behaviour isn’t important.  All that matters is that the Times can say that they have identified a problem with modern Britain, and the authorities are getting it all wrong, and that the paper is the only champion that the downtrodden readers have on their side.

All this is, of course, breathtakingly cynical.  We’re perhaps slightly unaware of how cynical it is because we’ve got so used to politicians behaving in exactly the same way.  David Cameron was advocating less regulation of the City of London until a point just very slightly after the full extent of the consequences of a ‘light touch’ regulatory system became apparent, but now he’d have us believe that he’s been in favour of more regulation all along.  It’s because of these unacknowledged changes of direction (and all parties are equally guilty) that politicians have such a low reputation.  Politicians have been proceeding on the mistaken assumption that we’re all too stupid to notice when they change their minds for years.

Increasingly, newspapers are doing the same thing, and the examples taken from the Mail and the Times in this post are really just symptomatic of that.  This is the stage we’ve reached, and it’s yet another reason why newspapers are dying: journalists are now so contemptuous of the people who buy their papers that they think they can tell us any self-contradictory bullshit and we won’t notice.  They’re wrong, of course, but still, just how stupid must they think we are?

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9 Responses to How stupid do they think we are?

  1. It’s entirely down to the target audience too. The audience for the Daily Mail in Ireland is considerably less conservative than in the UK.

  2. la says:

    I can’t think of another point to add. Well said.

  3. J.Wibble says:

    As Clement Freud wrote in ‘Grimble’, “newspapers don’t lie; they invent the truth”. Then there’s the rewiriting of history and scientific fact to suit the current propaganda train, which brings me dangerously close to my trademark conspiracy theorist ramblings about how 1984 was a warning not an instruction manual. For further flip-flopping references see drinking tea and eating eggs.

    As for how stupid they think we are, the answer is unfortunately ‘very, very’. A cynical person might call this projection, or alternatively a reflection on the fact that much of their readership may well be very stupid. I know two people who regularly read the Daily Mail; one has two degrees and is highly intelligent and articulate, the other is a complete cabbage who, amongst other things, cannot comprehend how 0.25 is less than 0.5. I’d hazard a guess that they’re aiming their baseline at the latter.

  4. Mandy says:

    I think they think that we are as stupid as they are!!! :>)

  5. Lucy McGough says:

    You should write for Private Eye.

  6. aethelreadtheunread says:

    Thanks for all the comments.

    DeeDee Ramona – You’re quite right, i’m sure. I was going to add in something about target readerships, but i decided i didn’t know enough about that not to risk putting my foot in it badly. So thank you for correcting my omission. :o)

    la – thank you. :o)

    J. Wibble – i’ve got to be honest, i’m shocked by the fact you know an intelligent person who reads the Mail. :o) Even if one were of a right-wing persuasion, i would have thought that the constant manipulation and distortion of the facts in support of those opinions would get wearing after a while. But i daresay this is a problem all the papers face, actually, in having to tailor what they write to the people who want to read them.

    Mandy – I know what you mean! :o)

    Lucy McGough – i should write for Private Eye? What have i ever done to you that you should insult me this way…? ;o) But seriously, thank you. :o)

  7. Lucy McGough says:

    You’re intelligent and you have enough dedication to actually research the facts before making your mind up. You’d be good at it.

  8. aethelreadtheunread says:

    Well, that’s a lovely thing to say, thank you. :o)

  9. Charlene says:

    The statistics they use to both support and condemn the HPV vaccine only mention patients who die of cancer. Do the Fail’s editors assume that every cervical cancer patient dies of her cancer, or do they assume that having cervical cancer is no big deal unless the patient dies? Because that’s nonsense: surviving cervical cancer is difficult, costs money, and often robs women of their fertility.

    I wonder, too: is anyone comparing the cost of the vaccine per girl to the cost of the annual Pap smears every girl would have to have from age 20 onward?

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