Euro 2012, racism and BBC reporting

Something very interesting happened today on the BBC Sport website.

In the morning they reported on the racist abuse directed at the Dutch national team during their open training session in Krakow. They paraphrased Martin Lipton, chief football writer at the Mirror, as saying: “there was a large number of Polish fans involved in the abuse.”

They then directly quoted him as saying: “As they were doing a lap on the pitch around 500 of the local fans started doing monkey chants at the black players.”

This morning’s article no longer appears on the BBC website but fortunately I still had it in my phone’s browser so was able to take a screenshot.

UEFA initially dragged their feet over the incident but, later this afternoon, confirmed there were “isolated incidents of racist chanting” aimed at the players.

Missing from the story this time though was the original quote from Martin Lipton, in which he specifically estimated 500 fans doing monkey chants.

Isolated incidents are a handful of racist idiots in the crowd, not 500 people. Martin’s testimony directly contradicts UEFA’s stance on the matter but for some reason has been dropped from the BBC article.

Other quotes from witnesses, including the Dutch captain, von Bommel, and a journalist from the De Telegraaf newspaper, detail the events but neither give numbers that contradict UEFA’s “isolated incidents” claim.

While Martin Lipton is a single source giving a ball park figure, UEFA is also apparently the only source claiming otherwise, so why has this challenging statement from Martin been omitted?


Susan Greenfield on Channel 4 News

On Friday evening Channel 4 News invited Baroness Susan Greenfield, a neuroscientist apparently, on to the show to discuss whether social media is bad for the brain, a debate prompted by a comment from Twitter’s co-founder, Biz Stone. Greenfield appeared to want to make the point that too much of the same thing alters how the mind works, but this point was lost among a load of waffle.

Her argument veered from simply stating concern that some people ‘abuse’ the technology and miss out on the ‘real world’, to placing some kind of binary on using twitter and giving people hugs, to technology being neutral, to questioning why we need social media at all – arguments which cannot surely be reconciled. So what exactly is Greenfield’s point?

Maybe the scientist could give us something to work with; a published, peer-reviewed paper perhaps?* When the other guest on the show, Mark Henderson, asked for the whereabouts of such work Greenfield, while laughing, hopped to the defensive and accused him of making an ad hominem attack. With no published research though there’s nothing to test against and no reliable evidence to support her claims, so why should we believe them?

Interestingly, Greenfield also couches much of her argument in the language of “suggestion”, saying that she is only “suggesting” that using twitter too much might have a bad effect, which frees her, to an extent, from having to provide anything to back this up.

But nevermind solid research, Greenfield also claimed, somewhat proudly, never to have used social media like twitter or facebook, which rings further alarm bells. I don’t think you necessarily have to be a user of something to be able to research it thoroughly but in absence of research (why should we believe there is any?) and personal experience, why should we take on board your understanding of a phenomena?

Anecdote isn’t rigorous enough to substantiate an argument but at the very barrel-scraping least it can give people an idea of where you’re coming from. When Greenfield has neither data nor anecdote to proffer it’s hard not to conclude that she is actually just speaking from fear and ignorance. Which begs the question, why was the peer even asked onto the show in the first place?

*Greenfield has previous.

Sleeping rough in Hull

A low, square shelter made from various cardboard boxes
Mia puts the finishing touches to our (large) shelter

On Friday night I joined scores of other volunteers across Hull, Grimsby and Scunthorpe to spend the evening sleeping rough. We did so to raise money for the YMCA’s youth homelessness program. At last year’s ‘Sleep Easy‘ event 75 people raised over £15,000 in the region.

I decided to join in this year to try to make a real difference to young people sleeping on the streets, as well as learn more about what life is like when you have no home in the middle of winter. My skating team mate, Mia, also joined me at the City Life Project in Hull, a homeless centre I’d done a bit of volunteering at during the summer. I thought I should share my experience too, not because it’s typical or because I want to claim to speak for people on the street, but to spark some thinking about street homelessness.

It turned out we were sleeping in a bare courtyard rather than on the street itself but it was no less cold and uncomfortable. The previous night had seen snow, which had disappeared, but the temperature was soon below zero and the sky was clear. We had access to a kitchen with tea making facilities and a pan of soup, in case conditions became too dangerous, but we both wanted it to be as realistic an experience as possible.

We began by unloading the car of cardboard taken from a supermarket and cobbled together a shelter with little plan other than to include a thick floor, some walls and a roof. It took some time to build as we bent and taped cardboard into a large square box. If we’d have needed shelter quickly we’d have been well and truly caught out. Furthermore, we were privileged to have use of a vehicle to bring all the materials in. Out on the streets such a luxury would be out of our reach.

To keep warm I had on long johns beneath my jeans and a shirt, jumper, hoodie and weather proof jacket, along with scarf and gloves. Despite wearing three pairs of socks, including some made from thick Icelandic wool, my toes still tried to detach themselves from my foot as the cold set in.

We later decided to take a little walk to warm up and pass some time. The moment you sit or stand still is the moment the cold really takes hold. Surrounded by other campaigners we had plenty of conversation to keep ourselves entertained but this was another luxury. Were I on my own what would I do? I’d have no mobile with access to twitter or text messages and newspapers don’t last long.

We climbed into our sleeping bags around 1am. Our shelter was ramshackle and the gaps in the cardboard let an icy draught tease its way inside. No matter how I shifted my body the cold left its touch somewhere. Always exposed was my face and my nose still feels cold, like sun burn. I tried sleeping with my scarf pulled across my face but it only stifled my hot breath and felt suffocating, so I made do with the fresh air tickling my nose and making it run constantly.

Saying that, I was generally quite ‘warm’. Not comfortably so, but I never felt like I was at risk of slipping into hypothermia and I rarely shivered. The cardboard floor did a good job of insulating us from the cold concrete but we had gone a little overboard with it, packing it a few inches deep.

After an hour I woke to notice the roof was sagging and I became acutely aware of the precarious state of our shelter. It looked as those we’d shifted in our sleep and pushed one of the walls aside. With the roof hanging low I began to feel claustrophobic but afraid to move lest the whole thing collapse.

At this point I also noticed the din of revellers in the city centre. Their voices carried through the still night and became an irritant. When some of the voices turned aggressive I was thankful to be in a secure yard, conscious that sleeping on the street could make you an easy target for drunk thugs. I’m not much of a fighter and I try to find my way out of trouble, such as when the police kettle or charge at demonstrations, by staying alert. Sleeping on the street means letting go of any control over yourself and that, to me, is unthinkable.

Sleep itself was intermittent and I often stirred with my body crying to change position when my boney hips rubbed on the floor or my knees, tucked into my stomach, began to ache. Confined by the space there was little I could do to find comfort but when I noticed Mia had moved around slightly I was elated to be able to stretch my legs just a little bit.

Around 4am I felt a pang in my bladder. Drinking tea earlier in the evening to keep warm had come back to haunt me as the diuretic plyed its trade inside me. Finding relief would mean waking Mia to be able to leave our box and I resolved to hold it in. Fortunately, again, we did have a toilet available, but what if we’d been doing this ‘properly’?

Tea was the best thing we had to warm us up but that requires heat. You can’t plug a kettle in in a shop doorway. More than once I thought it’d be nice to have a tot of whisky but alcohol had been barred. In such freezing conditions I can see how people turn to alcohol or stronger substances to stave off the cold. Addictions among people who are homeless tend to begin after somebody loses their home, contrary to much popular opinion.

Morning was greatly welcomed despite the lack of proper sleep, though I think this feeling stemmed more from knowing it was over than an eagerness to get up and about. The temperature had fallen further still, or at least felt like it, which made packing my sleeping bag a challenge for my exposed finger tips.

After we left Hull was covered in a blanket of snow that’s been well reported in the media. I’ve no idea how people who are homeless know what weather to expect or how to prepare for it. I’m not sure Mia and I could have coped either: we had black bin bags to ‘waterproof’ our shelter but I doubt it could have handled the weight of rain or snow.

That’s just one of many questions this experience raised for me. Despite being a tough night in freezing conditions I still had some comforts, including access to a toilet, running water, a kettle, warmth and, perhaps most importantly, good company. If I’d have been alone on the street it would have been so much harder. I can see how the practical side of sleeping rough probably gets a bit easier with experience, but the effect on mental health must also be corrosive as time goes by. I only did it for one night and always knew there was an end point at which I’d be going home.

I’ve never appreciated a bed and a roof over my head as much as I did on Saturday night, especially as the snow continued to fall outside. This weather has been sensationalised by the national media as a “snowpocalypse” with various superlatives thrown its way, prompting excoriating criticism from people perplexed that a whole country can grind to a halt in a few inches of snow. For many though, such conditions really can be dangerous, as evident in the deaths across Europe in the past week.

People can become homeless, which doesn’t necessarily mean living on the street, for any number of reasons. I could write a whole other blog post criticising a failed economic system for perpetuating the conditions that make it possible, but that’s for another time and it won’t address the urgent needs of hundreds of people outside right now. If you are able to then, please donate to your local homeless shelter or even volunteer and help make a difference.

For my friends who don’t support the #N30 strike

A short Facebook note I wrote while en route to a rally in Hull:

I hear a lot of people say that the public sector are lucky and shouldn’t complain while others suffer too, that it’s not fair. They’re right, it’s not fair. It’s not fair that you have poor pay and pensions. We should be fighting to improve your lot too. But this won’t happen if the public sector take a beating – this merely creates a race to the bottom and less likely that your own conditions will improve if your employers can excuse themselves by making comparisons to government employers.

The average public sector pension is something like £6000, not quite gold plated. Many workers already make significant monthly contributions and are now being asked to pay even more, for longer, for a much smaller return. This strike isn’t to ask for more but to protect what they’ve already been promised, which is now at threat from a government who want to make ordinary people pay for the bankers’ folly.

We are not public, private or third sector workers – we are all simply workers. If one group suffers now, we all suffer in the long term. If you fight for your pay and pensions, the public sector will support you however possible. Union law prevents solidarity strikes, a law that helps divide people according to which sector they work in. Don’t let the people who created this mess divide and rule us. We are one. X

Forget about the almost £4bn cuts to funding affordable homes

Where does John Humphreys get his fiersome reputation as an interviewer from?

On this morning’s Today programme he was interviewing Ed Balls. I say inteviewing, it was more like an invitation for Balls to push his five point plan for jobs. At one point Balls effectively blamed youth unemployment on the Tory trashing of the Future Jobs Fund. Disgusting as this policy reversal is, it’s not the only reason for youth unemployment (and Balls knows that) but he was able to get away with this effort at partisan point scoring.

As the conversation moved on to house building and the news that the government will put up £400 million for new developments, Balls quite rightly pointed out the actual £3.9 billion cut in capital funding (pdf, p8) for new builds. Humphreys skirted over this little nugget and conveniently forgot about it when he again tried to press that the £400m is a good thing.

Furthermore, in another segment minutes later in the show about housing explicitly, guests were invited to talk about what the £400m means, for developers little and large. There wasn’t a single mention of the capital funding cut. And this is supposed to be one of our pre-eminent current affairs programmes?

When ‘the markets’ means ‘the 1%’

One thing that’s struck me listening to Radio 4 during my commute is Robert Peston – and other presenters – regularly mentioning “the markets” when discussing the financial crisis.

One thing I don’t hear though is who the markets are. There is no mention of the faces behind the markets. Instead they are treated as detached, abstract phenomena as we hear, on Radio 4 and other news outlets, how the markets “respond”, “fear”, “rally” or are “reassured”.

We’re led to believe the markets are something beyond our control, something to appease and to satisfy. Mainstream journalists fail to ask one of the crucial questions of their trade, one that was drilled into us at university: “who?”

By failing to ask this simple question the markets are stripped of their humanity. They become unstoppable, mystical forces. It’s damned near enough brainwashing.

If we did ask that question, what might we find? That the markets are principally traders (white, male?) in London, Paris, Frankfurt and so on? Or are the markets you and I on the street? Who is it that is being “reassured”? The bankers in their plush City offices or people on the bus home from work in a deprived northern town?

That’s why I now mentally replace any mention of “the markets” or variations of the same on the radio, in the press, on television or online with “the 1%”.

Take this story, for instance:

“Mr Berlusconi has promised to push through another round of reforms to appease the financial markets.”

Which becomes…

“Mr Berlusconi has promised to push through another round of reforms to appease the 1%.”

Let’s try another one:

“The sober economist incongruously nicknamed “Super Mario” received a hero’s welcome in the Italian parliament on Friday as the 1% around the world toasted his expected appointment as Italy’s prime minister.”

And another:

“Chancellor George Osborne said although the eurozone crisis is having an impact on British businesses, the UK must stick to its austerity plan to reassure the 1% about the country’s debt.”

I could go on. I also know it’s very simplistic but, still, it’s something to think about, no?