PCC responds to Mac swastika cartoon

You might remember the recent court case in which a gay couple won their discrimination case against the hotel owners who turned them away because they were gay. Daily Mail cartoonist ‘Mac’ covered the story by drawing the two men as burly thugs covered in tattoos, one of which really did appear to be a swastika. It seems that many people complained, and one of the complainants has now added his response in the comments which I will reproduce here:

In regard to the concern that it was inaccurate to depict a gay man displaying a swastika tattoo, the Commission emphasised that the cartoon was depicting figurative characters and not specific individuals. While it acknowledged the assertion made by many complainants that, given the treatment of homosexual people by Nazis, a gay man would not have this insignia tattooed on his arm, it did not consider that readers would be misled by the cartoon into understanding that homosexual people in general had an affiliation or association with Nazism or that they held similar views.

Virtually all of the complainants considered that the portrayal of the couple in the cartoon, and especially the depiction of a swastika, was in breach of Clause 12 (Discrimination) of the Code. The terms of this clause state that the press must avoid making a prejudicial or pejorative reference to an individual’s sexual orientation. However, the clause does not cover general concerns over the discrimination of groups or categories of people. Given that the majority of complainants considered that the cartoon discriminated against homosexual people in general, the Commission could not establish a breach of Clause 12 of the Editors’ Code of Practice.

An interesting response, claiming that the cartoon covered ‘figurative’ characters, rather than specific individuals when the cartoon was essentially coverage of a real case featuring two real human beings. The general thrust of the argument is that you cannot insult an individual’s sexuality, but mocking or discriminating against ‘homosexual people in general’ is not a breach of the code. Which I guess suits the right-wing press just fine. Which of course it would, given that the code is written by newspaper editors for newspaper editors.

The PCC limps on, but for how much longer?

How the media and the rich collude to fight the poor

In August a blog post on Sir Philip Green being a ‘tax avoider’ over on Liberal Conspiracy started quite a long debate in the comments over whether Philip Green was really doing anything wrong. The two sides of the arguments can be summarised as:

  1. Why should anyone structure their business or their self-employed working practice in such a way as to make sure that they maximise the amount they pay in tax? Furthermore, how many ‘Lefties’ on the other side of the debate have themselves voluntarily paid more tax than they are legally obliged to?
  2. Yes, tax avoidance is perfectly legal and no laws are being broken by Philip Green, however, he goes against the spirit of the law and isn’t avoiding tax accidentally but has had to purposefully set up his business arrangements in order to pay no tax.

Sir Philip Green has volunteered to help the government save money, he believes that as a successful businessman he can save the public sector money – and maybe he can. However, I have a fundamental moral objection to Sir Philip Green or any obscenely rich person deciding that they know what is best for the public sector or the economy in general. Last year Sir Philip Green paid his wife a dividend of £1.2bn, which meant he avoiding paying around £285m of tax. Sir Philip Green dares to lecture us on waste, on overspending of ‘bloated’ public services whilst at the same time he considers £925m in one year just isn’t enough for him and he has to set-up his current arrangement to avoid paying tax.

One of the arguments employed by people supporting tax avoidance is that essentially because it is legal rich people are entitled to avoid paying tax, they are entitled to keep more of their profit. Entitlement is supposed to work both ways, but strangely the wealthy chancellor George Osborne (personal fortune of around £4m courtesy of his trust fund according to Wikipedia) thinks that when poor people access an entitlement they are actually making an unacceptable ‘lifestyle choice‘.

When a businessman like Sir Philip Green avoids paying £285m in tax in one year because he pays his profit as a dividend to his wife who lives in Monaco it is good business. When a poor person claims disability or unemployment benefit it is an ‘lifestyle choice’ and a sign that the benefits system is ‘completely out of control’.

Call me a liberal dreamer, but I think that blatant, obscene tax avoidance is a sign that the system is ‘completely out of control’. Sir Philip Green has made a ‘lifestyle choice’. He met an accountant / lawyer and chose to pay his earnings as a dividend in this way to avoid paying tax. It wasn’t an accident, it wasn’t the freak result of his living arrangements, it was the intentional creation of a system that meant he would pay no tax on his profits. His lifestyle choice was to take home over £1.2bn a year rather than the meager £925m he would have been left with had he paid tax.

Benefit fraud is estimated to cost the taxpayer around £1.5bn a year, Green’s personal tax avoidance makes up around 1/7th of this amount. In respect to benefit fraud George Osbourne has declared:

“This is a fight. We are really going to go after the welfare cheats.

“Frankly, a welfare cheat is no different from someone who comes up and robs you in the street. It’s your money.

“You’re leaving the house at seven in the morning or whatever to go to work and paying your taxes – and then the person down the street is defrauding the welfare system.

“This money is paid through our taxes which is meant to be going to the most vulnerable in our society, not into the pockets of criminals.”

At no point does he talk about tax avoidance in similar terms. At no point does he declare that the tax avoided by Philip Green is ‘our money’, nor does he complain that we are all leaving for work at seven in the morning and paying our taxes whilst Green is elsewhere avoiding his share. Most offensively at no point does he complain that this tax money, avoided by Green and other million / billionaires is ‘meant to be going to the most vulnerable in our society, not into the pockets of billionaires’.

The attacks on ‘welfare cheats’ will be spearheaded by the right-wing press, alongside their normal outrage that even claiming the child benefit and housing benefits that people are legally entitled to are an unacceptable ‘lifestyle choice’. Type ‘welfare cheats’ into Google and you are met with a deluge of outraged newspaper articles – the Daily Mail currently leads the way with 3 articles on the first page. Now type ‘vodafone tax avoidance’. The fact you are now met with a series of links to forums or the occasional blog post speaks volumes about our corporate-friendly media.

If you missed the Vodafone tax avoidance non-scandal,then let the Private Eye fill you in:

WHEN Vodafone bought German engineering company Mannesmann a decade ago for €180bn, it desperately wanted to use the mother of all tax avoidance schemes so taxpayers would subsidise what turned out to be a massively over-priced mistake. The plan was to route the acquisition through an offshore company.

This, however, would potentially fall foul of British anti-tax avoidance laws, and when the company asked the then Inland Revenue to clear the arrangement, it duly refused.

Vodafone went ahead with the scheme anyway and as of March 2009 the Private Eye suggested that they had already moved €15.5bn into the company, avoiding €5bn of tax in the process. However, HMRC had a strong case and were confident that they could get the money back, a case that was strengthened last year when the court of appeal ruled that British laws could conform with European laws. Vodafone were facing a hefty tax bill, but sadly this was not taking into account:

HM Revenue & Customs’ (HMRC) “permanent secretary for tax”, Dave Hartnett, and his customer-friendly approach to big multinationals.

Despite HMRC’s victories, Hartnett moved the case from his specialists and lawyers – dismissed in recent comments to the FT as “very intelligent people” suffering from “a black and white view of the law” – to a dimmer but more amenable group to negotiate with Vodafone’s head of tax, John Connors, who until 2007 was a senior official at HMRC working closely with Hartnett on handling big business.

The fruits of these talks, conducted without consulting HMRC’s litigators and specialists in the tax law concerned on the chance of success in the courts, was a bill for Vodafone of £800m, with another £450m payable over five years and, remarkably, an agreement that the arrangement can carry on into the future with a promise of no challenge from HMRC. The Eye understands that the settlement also swept up several other Vodafone tax avoidance schemes.

The lost tax is reported to be around £6bn and as the Private Eye makes clear: the staff cuts within HMRC are destroying its abilities to fight tax avoidance. In a final insult to human decency the Private Eye points out:

The Tories have further cause to thank Mr Hartnett. As Eye 1136 revealed five years ago, government cuts adviser Philip Green had personal discussions with Hartnett over his tax affairs while legal battles raged over schemes for husbands and wives to share their income for tax purposes. Dividends from Green’s businesses continue to be paid to trusts controlled by his Monaco-resident wife Tina, undisturbed by the taxman.

Doesn’t it seem to you obscene that George Osborne is picking a fight with welfare cheats and cutting benefits for the poorest people in society when the obscenely wealthy pay nothing in tax – legally or illegally – even though they could clearly afford to?

The Media Scaremongering that Never Was

The Daily Mail has an article today about who was to blame for the Swine Flu scare: ‘The pandemic that never was: Drug firms ‘encouraged world health body to exaggerate swine flu threat”. In it they level the blame solely at the feet of the World Health Organisation and ‘profit-hungry drug companies spreading fear’ – using a report by Labour MP Paul Flynn, who investigated the scare for the Council of Europe. According to the Daily Mail:

The report accuses the World Health Organisation of grave shortcomings in the transparency of the process that led to its warning last year.

The MP said that the world relied on the WHO, but after ‘crying wolf’, its reputation was in jeopardy.

The Daily Mail makes it clear that drug companies made billions of pounds as governments stocked up on vaccines, as Paul Flynn notes:

‘There is not much doubt that this was an exaggeration on stilts. They vastly over-stated the danger on bad science and the national governments were in a position where they had to take action.

But how did drug companies succeed in communicating ‘bad science’ and the vast over-statement of the danger of Swine Flu? Seems to me the corporate media played a substantial role, and none more so than the Daily Mail:

People have already pointed out how the Daily Mail wrote an awful lot of articles blaming the ‘state scare machine’ for creating the Swine Flu panic, so pointing out the hypocrisy here is hardly news. However, it is always interesting when the media pick up a report and cherry pick information from it. The full report in this case can be found here [PDF] and includes the following references to the role the media played in communicating the corporate scaremongering:

[in future we need to collaborate] with the media in order to avoid sensationalism and scaremongering in the public health domain [p2]

[the author was worried] by the way in which some of the sensitive issues were communicated by public authorities and subsequently picked up by the European media, reinforcing fears amongst the population which sometimes made objective analysis difficult. [p5]

In future situations posing a serious risk to public health, decision-makers should bear in mind that the precautionary principle can contribute to a general feeling of anxiety and unease in the population and can fuel the media in what becomes a cycle of fear mongering. [p9]

A review is also necessary of the media’s role in fuelling fear and how WHO and how national authorities should handle communications in the future, in particular when applying the precautionary principle. [p12]

WHO [World Health Organisation] itself continues to assert that it has consistently evaluated the impact of the current influenza pandemic as moderate, reminding the medical community, public and media that the overwhelming majority of patients experience mild influenza-like illness and recover fully within a week, even without any form of medical treatment. [p12]

the main concerns regarding the current H1N1 influenza include the proportionality of the response given to the public health threat of H1N1, the transparency of relevant decision-making processes, including the possibility of undue influence by the pharmaceutical industry, and the way in which the pandemic, and the use of the precautionary principle, was communicated to member states’ governments and to the European public at large, also by the media. [p17]

Finally, the rapporteur is very concerned about the way in which the information on the pandemic was communicated by WHO and national authorities to the public, the role of the media in this, and the fears that this generated amongst the public. The rapporteur recommends that a thorough review should be undertaken to ensure that coherent and sensitive communication strategies are prepared and followed in the future by all public health authorities whenever the next major situation arises which poses a serious threat to public health. [p17]

The Daily Mail, of course, fails to make any reference to any of these points, because the media is never self-critical. It always finds someone else to blame – it was the WHO, the drug corporations or governments that created the fear, not the media. If the media admits any culpability at all it tends to use the excuse that they were only ‘passing the information on’, which is just not an excuse.

The Daily Mail has every interest in scaremongering and creating panic because it sells a lot of papers by doing so – and, as we constantly see, if the truth of the matter is less dramatic, scary or shocking, then the truth is simply ignored and the scary version printed. Just the same as when the Daily Mail flicks through a report like this, they ignore the parts they do not want in the public domain and print whatever fits their agenda. Media bias is only partly about what is actually printed, but largely about the huge amount of information that is left out, purposefully buried to maintain media narratives.

The Daily Mail Distortion of Terrance Gavan

I’ve just finished reading Nick Davies Flat Earth news and it is a brilliant book that ends with a chapter on the Daily Mail that I really wish every Daily Mail reader was forced to read. In it Davies describes the Daily Mail selecting stories based on what readers want to read, serving up any distortion that it knows will satisfy its readers: attacks on black people, gays, women, the loony-left, Muslims, asylum-seekers, immigrants, single parents and so on. Likewise, popular stories that did not fit into the narrow worldview of the Daily Mail reader were simply not run – no matter what their inherent news value may have been.

This week the Daily Mail have buried the story of Terrance Gavan – an ex-BNP member (according to the Daily Mail at least) and former soldier given 11 years for making and hoarding a substantial cache of weapons and explosives. Someone like Anjem Choudary for example is constantly attacked by the Daily Mail – pointing out that he is on benefits and digging into his past: ‘Swilling beer, smoking dope and leering at porn [all things that the average Mail reader despises], the other side of hate preacher ‘Andy’ Choudary’. A search for ‘Anjem Choudary’ on the Mail website brings up 80 articles attacking him because he is exactly the kind of target that Mail readers want to go after: he is a Muslim extremist, he is a supporter of terrorism and is clearly someone with a badly distorted view of the world.

However, the same accusations could easily be levelled at Terrance Gavan: according to The Times he told police he was a BNP member (whatever Mail readers may argue in the comments: this is an extreme political party), furthermore he had specifically joined the BNP because he had a ‘strong hostility towards immigrants in this country’ (the words of Judge Calvert-Smith) and had indicated that he had ‘planned to target an address he saw on a TV programme that he believed was linked to the July 7 bomb attacks in London (words of the Times). So here we have someone who was equally linked to extreme political views but someone who had actually manufactured the devices to enable him to carry out attacks, their is currently no evidence to suggest that Anjem Choudary – no matter how unpleasant his views may be – has ever actually tried to manufacture explosives or other weapons.

Yet the Mail reader gets 80 articles on Anjem Choudary and just 1 article on Terrance Gavan (this is the only result a search for ‘Terrance Gavan’ the Mail website yields). It is clear to see the news value of the average Daily Mail reader dictating the coverage that the Mail gives to these two individuals. Davies argues in Flat Earth News that this selective deliverance of news has not only made the Daily Mail the most popular, profitable and therefore powerful newspaper in the UK, it has also made it one of the most distorted in terms of the worldview that it projects.