[Note to new readers: for the record, I've had other meltdowns over the offensive content of BBC Breakfast, usually about their treatment of young guests on the show or their poorly-researched and alarmist comments on technology. Here are my previous rants, ordered chronologically:
- Why Grand Theft Auto will turn your children into murderous pimp rapists.
- The English language has been made illegal by children who can only talk in Robot-Speak.
- Wii Fit is trying to create legions of anorexic children by being mean to them.
- Sick-brained Americans want to turn our babies into prostitutes and piercings will make your skin fester.
- Online gaming will either turn you into a dessicated husk like in Tobe Hooper's Lifeforce or will make you disconnect from humanity entirely even though online gaming is all about meeting people... erm....
- Political cartoonists are just big meanies and I hates them WAAAAHHHHH!]
It’s been a while since Shades of Caruso has addressed the aggressive Daily-Mail-esque ignorance of the news-and-Strictly-Come-Dancing info update service known as BBC Breakfast, but then it’s been a while since they’ve been as stupid as they were this morning, probably because Kate Silverton was on there for a while being much more sensible than the other presenters. Oh sure, every so often one of the presenters — usually Bill “Confusion” Turnbull — will treat a teenager like a cross between Charles Manson and Typhoid Mary, or Sian “Disapproving” Williams will bring her withering school-marm-esque Victorian sensibilities to bear on some poor person who thought they were just going on another stage of a PR tour for a book, not a Spanish-Inquisition-style interrogation as to why they are a Satanist in disguise, but these things happen so often that it would get very boring for me (and, of course, for you, dear reader) if I came on here every day and said, “Bill just acted like the atheist he was interviewing was chewing on baby-flavoured gum and masturbating all over their tacky chat-sofa”. Though I have been tempted.
Today, though? Hoooooo-boy. I was struggling to extricate myself from bed while being pinned down by multiple angry cats when Daisyhellcakes started using the profane language she saves for extra-stupid segments on Breakfast. It’s like the Bat-Symbol being flashed over Gotham when she does that. I put my ass into high gear, and 35 minutes later I’d made it downstairs to watch one of the most shockingly biased interviews I’ve ever seen, which can be summed up in the phrase “Concerned Parent Armed With Zero Knowledge But Infinite Outrage Vs. Scientist Making Good Points”. It was the worst kind of interview: one where the interviewer refuses to accept the information given to him by the interviewee, and actively goes out of his way to distort the interviewee’s message in order to quash it.
Before I get into it, here’s the caveat I always have to crack out when I take on Breakfast. Yes, this is not Newsnight. We’re not talking about Mecha-Paxman here. This is not the Today programme with John “Sarcastic Voice” Humphrys, and it’s not even The Politics Show with Andrew “Brillo Pad” Neil (a man I should hate for his terrible behaviour during the News Corp strikes, but would get on my “People I Would Like To Have A Beer With” list). Breakfast is one notch above Richard Littlejohn’s Daily Mail column, which means it’s two notches above Jan Moir’s column. This is where rationality and relevance goes to die, and so my heart bleeds for poor Professor David Nutt from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, who was interviewed by Charlie “Young Bill Turnbull” Stayt after Nutt, during a lecture, criticised the government’s decision to reclassify cannabis as a Class B drug.
Of course, the Daily Mail beat Breakfast to the punch with this article, but to be honest, even though it features a few snide digs and references to outraged comments from drugs campaigners that haven’t actually happened yet — a typical Mail trick to create the illusion of controversy when there is none is to say “His comments are likely to prove explosive” –it’s a bit more balanced than the Breakfast coverage. The Mail even quotes Richard Garside, director of the CCJS, who said, “Professor Nutt’s briefing gives us an insight into what drugs policy might look like if it was based on the research evidence, rather than political posturing and moralistic positioning.” That they put this comment in without making monstering Garside is a real surprise, though yes, it is at the bottom of the article. They’re not going to put something like that in the first paragraph.
Breakfast, on the other hand, dived in with both Fists of Fury flying. Taking place via super-futuristic vid link, Charlie Stayt quizzed Prof. Nutt — who was in the BBC Bristol studio — about his statement, and the good Professor talked about scientific evidence and popular opinion pointing to cannabis as being a Class C drug rather than a Class B drug, and mentioned that arrest for possession of a Class C drug carries with it the possibility of a two-year prison sentence (I assume for possession of large quantities. Two years for having a half-smoked lump of black in your pocket seems pretty harsh). Fair enough, but nothing was going to stop Stayt. Having got the pleasantries out of the way, Stayt then said:
If I’m looking through — and correct me if I’m wrong — if I look through what you’re saying at this stage, it seems to me one of the things you’re saying is that, effectively, taking LSD, sort of on a given night, is the equivalent of having a beer. [At this moment Prof. Nutt looks a little startled, though I could be misreading his reaction] Now a lot of people think that just doesn’t make any sense. Is that effectively what you are saying?
Prof. Nutt immediately points out that Stayt has started talking about a lecture he gave in July, which has nothing to do with what he did last night. That report concerned population impact of all drugs, both prohibited and accepted by the mainstream, such as booze and fags. Nutt said:
In the UK at present, LSD actually causes very little harm. Because it’s relatively little used it has a low propensity to cause dependence. And so in comparison with other drugs, in particular drugs like alcohol which are very very heavily used with very high levels of dependence and toxicity, the LSD would rank more low… lower because it’s relatively — in population terms — safer.
These comments made by Nutt earlier in the year have followed him around ever since, but then that’s exactly what happens when someone uses an inflammatory but pithy soundbite to describe a series of statistical observations. It’s especially annoying when those stats seem to make so much sense. Anyone who wanders the streets of London between 10pm and midnight will know exactly how widespread alcohol usage is. Where are all the hallucinating fools sitting on the tube and screaming about the gargoyles climbing up their legs or telling everyone around them how connected they feel to The Cosmic Mesh? Okay, they’re at home, probably, but at least they’re not starting fights, accosting women, or falling down escalators. Sadly, Stayt is immune to statistical truth, and continued to ignore Nutt’s findings with studied and insulting insistence:
Yeah, it’s funny though, isn’t it, cuz if you… if you… Say you think about this as a parent, and you think about your child, you’ve got a teenage child, and you think well… I know you’re saying that “LSD, cannabis and Ecstasy are less dangerous than alcohol and cigarettes”. Now, if you ask a parent which of those you want your child experimenting with, I would suspect — and I’m not sure about this — they might say they really don’t want them experimenting with Ecstasy and LSD, and drinks and cigarettes, they might think, is the better of the options, but you seem to be presenting it the other way around!
How many parents out there are saying to their kids, “Right, I’ll let you experiment with one drug of choice, and you can take your pick. Oh shit! Not LSD! Wouldn’t you rather try some nutritious Guinness?” Stayt makes it sound like parents are giving their kids an option of trying just one, and the horror of Nutt’s report is that now kids will be picking LSD instead of booze. Of course, if the findings of the scientific community are right, then this would be a good thing, because — drumroll — it’s less dangerous than alcohol. This finding will not penetrate Stayt’s head, though. LSD is more dangerous than booze, and science has a terribly immoral pro-hallucinogenic bias. Stab science with a big knife because it is so evil!
Anyway, this is how the rest of the interview went, though the transcript sadly doesn’t capture the clarity of Nutt’s responses, nor the sneering and patronising anti-rational questioning by Stayt:
Nutt: [Re: Stayt's last question] Well, that’s precisely why we’re having this debate, because it’s very difficult to give guidance to parents, because these drugs are all very toxic in different ways, and what I am doing is engaging you — and, hopefully, the general population, including parents — in a debate about this. Today… tonight, a child in the UK will die of alcohol poisoning. No one will die of LSD. And that’s the kind of issue that parents should really be taking onboard: what advice do you give to your children when they go out and they drink heavily? Alcohol is currently the biggest, most worrying killer of the drugs that we’re not really grappling with under the Misuse of Drugs Act.
Stayt: Yeeaahh, well I’m not suggesting that alcohol doesn’t have its problems too. If we talk about cigarettes, for example… Now in relation to cannabis, are you saying there is a link with mental illness or not? Is it just a possibility?
Nutt: [talking over Stayt's last sentence, probably because he's sickened by the level of debate] Oh, cannabis is not good for mental health. Cannabis certainly can make schizophrenia worse if you’ve got it, but what has confused people is this claim that it is the cause of schizophrenia. Well, it contributes to a very small percentage of the cases of schizophrenia, and most people who smoke cannabis do not end up getting schizophrenia or psychosis from it.
Stayt: And do you know, one of the problems is — I’m sure you must be aware of this — there is a possibility that people listening to your sort of train of thought on this… and I know you’re trying to prompt debate, but in the gist of what you’re saying, there will be some people who come away from this thinking, “D’you know what, these drugs — LSD, cannabis, Ecstasy — they’re not so bad, really”, and that might be the message people get from what you’re saying.
Nutt: Well, the message they should get from what I’m saying is that they are bad but they’re not as bad as heroin and crack. That’s why I think it’s really critical that the Misuse of Drugs Act properly represents the global harms of the drugs that are controlled in the Act, because unless the Act is correct, we can’t give the right message.
After which Stayt thanked the Professor and we got to see a shot of co-presenter Susanna Reid looking like she was sucking the world’s biggest Disapproval Lemon. Daisyhellcakes saved her biggest expression of disdain for Stayt’s playacting of a foolish teenager thinking the report was pro-drugs, shouting out, “They’ve trotted out the Hypothetical Idiot!” Long-time readers will know that I’ve railed against the rhetorical use of the Hypothetical Idiot in the past, as shown in the posts I’ve linked to above, because everyone knows that no matter what you do, someone out there (“there” being the mind of an aggrieved and ill-informed paranoid desperate to win an argument by creating numerous straw-men) will use any idea or object to kill themself and millions of others, thus justifying the banning of any piece of information or any object just in case someone uses it as a weapon.
That’s not even the worst part of the interview, though. The moment that enraged me the most was Stayt accusing Nutt of unintentionally promoting the use of drugs by talking about them in a way that could be misinterpreted while deliberately and repeatedly misinterpreting the findings himself. The man is a cretin. Get him off TV now before he further defecates all over the public forum. We don’t need his kind of alarmist, knee-jerk moralising getting in the way of adult discussion when there are plenty of people out there who will think Stayt is speaking from a position of intellectual certainty and superiority simply because he’s wearing a suit on the telly.
Compare his snide interview with the news bulletin coverage just a few minutes earlier, which quotes Nutt’s concern over the reclassification of cannabis potentially leading to an increase in usage. The more transgressive a drug seems, the more attractive it becomes to rebellious teens. Isn’t this obvious? We’re so busy treating teenagers like criminals in waiting without even trying to address the psychology of pubertal and post-pubertal kids, just assuming they’re bound to break the law without considering the societal prejudices and actions that can trigger this behaviour. During the short news piece on Nutt’s lecture is a voxpop from Debra Bell, who runs the website Talking About Cannabis. Mrs. Bell has been chronicling her son’s drug use and rehabilitation for several years now, attracting the attention of the UK press and some angry bloggers. Of course, as this was a voxpop Mrs. Bell’s comments were not challenged at all, and again she seemed oblivious to the psychology of teenagers, thinking that telling them cannabis is bad for you and is frowned upon by the authorities will be enough to make kids reconsider smoking the drugs.
She also seemed to think that Prof. Nutt was actually saying cannabis should be downgraded to Class C because it’s not harmful at all, which is not what he is saying. I get the feeling that the only acceptable way to describe the effects of cannabis is to scream “IT WILL SEND YOU TO HELL AND SATAN WILL SODOMISE YOU WITH A TRIDENT-SHAPED BONG!” Anything less than that is to imply that dope-smoke is little more than fragrant air, and all of those deaths from cannabis usage will be on your hands, mister! Of course, Mrs. Bell was concerned that telling kids the truth about drugs was the most important thing, but her page of “facts” about cannabis features many statistics that have been debunked by Godlike super-genius Ben Goldacre, so she’s the last person who we should be listening to on this subject.
I’m not one who takes illicit substances anyway, but the interview is offensively biased enough that I just have to rail against it, howling into the emptiness like an impotent wolf bellowing at the uncaring moon. This interview was, as if often the case on Breakfast, a fucking debacle. Any attempt to increase the public’s knowledge about any moral issue is treated with disrespect and distrust, with the ill-prepared and incurious presenters relying on willful ignorance and hearsay, Old Wives’ tales and superstition. It’s taken as fact that the BBC’s news operation is the best in the world, but with this carbuncle on its face, how are we to ever take it seriously? I know breakfast TV is meant to be trivial, but treating important issues in this way is making things far worse. They should have a serious journalist in reserve on set, someone who can rush out and present something like this instead of relying on a fellow who, during an undemanding interview with Enid Blyton’s grand-daughter Sophie Smallwood, commented on her work on a new classic Noddy book by saying:
Stayt: It’s a big responsibility, isn’t it. Cuz, obvi… I mean, you knew your grandmother very well…
Smallwood: Well, no…
Stayt: Did you?
Smallwood: I was two years after she died.
Nice work, BBC. This is exactly the guy you need interviewing scientists about their research. (Sidenote: the small feature on Noddy showed a short clip from the recent TV show, which updated the character, and true to form, both Charlie and Susanna regarded it the way a reluctant babysitter regards a soiled nappy.)
Of course, the embarrassing and biased interviews are not the only bad things featured on Breakfast. This morning’s installment also featured the most information-free puff-piece I’ve seen on TV recently: a survey — probably taken in a conference room within Television Centre when someone realised Breakfast was going to run three minutes short one morning — says men are crying at films more often. Cue lots of free-publicity for Up, with “comedy” reporter Tim Muffett — talking to a psychologist about what makes people cry when they watch movies. FYI, according to Dr. Simon Moore:
In terms of the characteristics of a kind of a “sob-film”, or a “weepie” as we might call it, there are technical skills you could use in terms of facial expression, you can use colour. Sound, for example, or lack of it. All these things could, for certain individuals, have an effect, but it won’t happen for everybody.
I’ve always said that Kubrick’s use of white in 2001 is what makes that film such an emotional rollercoaster. I’m sure it was the lovely balloons that made my cry while watching Up, not the emotional connection you feel towards a man who has lost the love of his life after decades of loving companionship. God forbid it would be empathy that causes these emotional responses. It must be brane-science and some kind of subliminal tricksiness! The worst comment made during this most desperate of time-filling fripperies came from Peter Bradshaw, much to my horror. When talking about Up (surely the most emotionally devastating movie of the year), he said:
I was one of those people sobbing away like a baby. It’s all the more sad because you don’t expect it. This is a kind of high-gloss digital family comedy from Pixar Disney. You don’t expect to be moved. You don’t expect to be moved to tears.
He’s got a point. Disney and Pixar have never…
…even tried to make audiences cry before.
::Disclaimer – None of the quotes in this post are fabricated. Not even the “sob-film” one. They have been very carefully transcribed from my Sky+ box, and the idiocy contained within is not my property or my fault. Sorry for foisting it upon my readers, who deserve better.::
ETA, date 30.10.09: As the Mail predicted, Professor Nutt’s comments did indeed provoke outrage, as Home Secretary Alan Johnson has had him removed as head of the Advisory Council on Misuse of Drugs, saying he has created “public confusion between scientific advice and policy”. So, basically, it’s not whether he is right or wrong. He’s just not towing the party line. Pathetic. It’s obvious the ACMD is only there to back up governmental policy with a veneer of scientific authority. Drugs policy in this country continues its backwards march.