Wishing for just a little bit of context

Occasionally a story comes along and the shoddy and dishonest way it is reported really makes me realise why I spend time writing this blog. This isn’t the case of a ‘few bad apples’ but a universal, consistent and poisonous misrepresentation of reality. Spotting the obvious lies is easy, but when a story lingers on in your mind and you dig a little further you realise that a lot more misinformation was contained within it and that different newspapers told different versions; the only thing the tabloids have is that they misrepresent the truth but they do so in many ways.

The story I’m referring to is the news that Rhondda Cynon Taff ‘wastefully’ spent £190,000 on a bridge for Dormice as covered by Richard Littlejohn. At the time I pointed out a number of issues that I had with Littlejohn’s article, mainly his shoddy use of language which actually served to completely negate the point he was trying to make. One thing I didn’t have time to look into was his claim that:

The number of dormice affected by the new bypass is said to be around 60 – which works out at over £3,000 each

Now, the evidence over the years – repeated mistakes, relying on emails from readers as the only base for his columns – suggests that Richard never does any research, so how did he find out this figure? I searched for a while and couldn’t dig the information up, nor could I find the original environmental impact reports on the council website or on the contractors website. However, Richard does read the Mail (it is his only form of research) which does contain the number ’60’ in its report:

A spokesperson for Rhondda Cynon Taf Council also defended the move and said: “Three bridges has been erected for dormice to safely move from one area to the other while new ponds have been dug for the relocation of newts and other amphibians.

“We put up the dormouse brides, along with 60 dormouse boxes, to help get them from one side of the road to the other.”

This is the only reference to Richard’s claim of 60 Dormice I can find and as you can see, it refers to the number of boxes put up in trees to encourage Dormice to use the bridges, it has no relation to the number of dormice in the area. This means Richard has either misunderstood what the 60 boxes meant, or he wilfully lied. Either way, shoddy journalism – also note the sly way he phrases is: ‘The number of dormice affected by the new bypass is said to be around 60’ – clearly he is implying that someone has actually said this number, whereas in reality the only person who has suggested any figure whatsoever is him, and we know he is either blatantly inventing the figure or he has misunderstood a  simple concept because he is so bloody thick.

My final point on Littlejohn’s inane drivel is his insistance that all the council needed to have done was stretch a length of string over the road and be done with it. Well, as the Countryside Council for Wales [CCW] makes clear:

The CCW spokesman said: “Dormice are threatened, hence the highest level of protection afforded to them via the EU Habitats Directive and the special treatment required in this instance. There is a legal requirement – it’s not optional – to provide appropriate mitigation. The EU legislation places on the council an obligation to protect the dormice and RCT are to be commended for their actions in fulfilling their obligations.

The key phrase is ‘provide appropriate mitigation’. If the council constructed Littlejohn’s two poles and a piece of string it would probably have ended up with expensive legal problems and the refusal of allowing the construction to go ahead. Considering the scale of the project £190,000 or around 0.2% of the overall budget seems like pretty good value for money to deal with providing ‘appropriate mitigation’ for wildlife. Furthermore, as far as I can make out the £190,000 also covers the creation of habitat for newts (a series of ponds), grass snakes and rare butterflies, all of which were carefully caught and relocated prior to trees being removed and the earth bulldozed. So again, not a huge expense in the great scheme of things and the end product is a pleasant road to drive down that you can see has lots of works either side to accomodate wildlife that actually add value to the landscape (the road is my commute to work).

It isn’t that this is the worst thing that Littlejohn has written – it isn’t even close – but it’s just the whole shoddy laziness of it all, the cliches being wheeled out for an audience who just want to piss and moan about stuff because they cannot put things into context. Accusing a council of being ‘wasteful’  – as pretty much every tabloid does, including the Daily Mail – is missing the point entirely: they had to spend this money in order to comply with the law and avoid European fines or other expensive legal action. This is ignoring the fact that a £90m project set aside just 0.2% of its budget for environmental concerns, it all gets lost as journalists scrabble around the £190,000 figure and contact the Taxpayers Alliance for a suitably outraged soundbite.

The Sun manages to get it even more wrong:

Environment chiefs in South Wales said the three walkways are designed to protect the area’s dormouse population.

They will allow the rodents to cross the £4.6million Church Village bypass between Pontypridd and Talbot Green.

As above, it is a £90m project so how do the Sun get it so wrong? Well, the writer – John Coles – when copying the story from another news source noticed that the bypass was 4.6 miles long and mistook this for costing £4.6m. Is this really what journalism has come to? One newspaper copying another in an attempt to conform to such a simplistic and utterly depressing outlook on the world?

My one hope is that if readers were just given a more balanced account of the story perhaps they’d  take away a more positive and uplifting message; that somehow, even though humanity seems pretty intent on destroying the world and itself, we do sometimes find the time to take care of our fellow inhabitants, no matter how small or insignificant they might seem to be.

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