It’s easy for me to go after the tabloids, it doesn’t take a genius to see how the Daily Mail is full of lies or that Fox news distorts the facts to the extend that their consumers are left knowing less than when they started. With the broadsheets it’s a different story. The broadsheets brings with them an air of respectability, a faithful following of educated intellectuals who trust the newspapers enough not to bother checking their sources, which (when you do some research) often fall apart like a year old muffin. First in the firing line is the Independent. This paper is particularly dangerous because like their sworn enemies the redtops, the Independent is predisposed to shameless hyperbole; unlike the tabloids, most people trust what the paper says.
One of the first posts I did on this blog was about how, after a ten year campaign for cannabis legalisation, the Independent made a full about turn and placed a front page apology for their actions based on only a shred of evidence. The Independent got their facts wrong on a grand scale including wrongly reporting that the ACMD were to recommend cannabis be upgraded (the opposite was true) and wrongly reporting the figures for the the increase in cannabis strength by a factor of thirty times!
Recently the Independent have continued their campaign of hyperbole filled drug scare stories with a report about Valium that failed to mention the word “Valium”. The report was littered with glaring errors - (edit: now slightly mitigated after my complaint to the PCC - see my report on the similar Hull Daily Mail article and the Metro article, both taken down after my complaints to the PCC). Of key importance is the fact that the article wrongly reports that Valium is used to treat depression when in reality Valium is an addictive anxiety drug that worsens depression. This is a severe editorial failure because the millions of people who read the Independent and who have easy access to Valium (or already use the drug recreationally) would be likely, after reading the Independent article to use the drug to self medicate if they get depressed. Conversely, the addictive nature of Valium is not mentioned in the article. The report also likens the drug to Speed, something which anyone who knows anything about Benzodiazepines will find laughable. Once again, the report seems to be little more than a reworded press release, this time from a rather spectacularly misinformed police force.
This week the Guardian’s Observer caused somewhat of a storm among the skeptic bloggers after running a fawning article about Burzynski; a controversial cancer doctor in Texas who for the past 30 years has encouraged the parents of children with cancer to send him their children to take part in his “trials”. All for a tidy sum of hundreds of thousands of dollars a pop of course.
Burzynski has never published any peer reviewed research of his findings and his licence is under investigation by US authorities. Rather than tackling his critics with debate or published work he respondents by issuing “cease and desist” libel threats to anyone who criticises him as the Quackometer and Rhys Morgan found out this week. Luckily for Burzynski, the Independent is on hand to send him a few million uncritical hits to add to his army of “placard waving supporters drummed up by PR campaigns”.
In researching this article, I stumbled across the holy grail I was looking for, a rather enlightening piece by one of the Independent’s health correspondent’s Jeremy Lawrence. The “manifesto for failure” is full of choice quotes that explain in detail the pithy reasons given for why journalists don’t bother checking facts. This piece invites the rather spectacular riposte by the target of the article, Dr. Ben Goldacre. Hopefully more of the bloggers that are doing such a sterling job of dismantling the main stream media garbage can get picked up by the major papers. Sooner rather than later please.
UPDATE 06/12/11: THE INDEPENDENT HAVE NOW AMMENDED THEIR ARTICLE FOLLOWING A PCC COMPLAINT (THEY STILL FAIL TO REFERENCE THE FACT THAT THE DRUG IN QUESTION IS ALMOST CERTAINLY “VALIUM”.)
UPDATE 05/12/11: THE METRO HAVE NOW REMOVED THEIR ARTICLE FOLLOWING A PCC COMPLAINT.
The Independent is traditionally seen as the voice of the liberal minded, free thinking left. So why on earth have I picked everyone’s favourite friendly lefty paper for the first bashing? A series of articles in the Independent is arguably a major factor for why today, in England you can be put behind bars just for being found in possession of everyone’s favourite herb. Sound proposterous? How could it be? Is this the same Independent that organised marches to legalise the plant and for ten years campaigned for it’s legalisation. This wonderful campaign was based on the mountain of evidence supporting the case that cannabis is not a causal factor in psychosis and is one of the safest drugs known to man.
So.. What changed?
On Sunday 7th January 2007, the Independent published an article claiming that the Government would soon follow the advice of the Advisory Council on The Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) and upgrade cannabis. This was total nonsense, the ACMD report said the precise opposite.
“Instead of returning cannabis to Class B, the ACMD recommend ‘a sustained public education and information strategy’, aimed at children and young adults (7.2); a review of health services for cannabis dependent people (7.3); measures to protect schizophrenics from exposure to cannabis (7.4); and, ‘a substantial research programme into the relationship between cannabis use and mental health’ (7.5).”
Dr. Russell Newcombe’s analysis of ACMD (2006) Further Consideration of the Classification of Cannabis
No-one could challenge this because the report was not published yet. In fact even the home office’s analysis of the situation published that summer declared that alcohol and tobacco are far greater health concerns (however this report was supressed for a further four years and only released after an FOI request).
“But alcohol and tobacco account for more health problems and deaths than illicit drugs. To many young people this presents problems in understanding the rationale behind controlling drugs such as cannabis and ecstasy when their misuse contributes less overall harm to society than widely available drugs such as alcohol and tobacco.”… “In terms of death, illegal drugs amounted to 1,388 in 2003 compared to about 20,000 for alcohol and 100,000 for tobacco.”
Suppressed (2006) Home office report on drugs, released in 2010 following an FOI request [PDF]
It gets worse..
In the same article the Independent made the groundless claim that cannabis is now twenty times stronger than it used to be. This is not true and has never been supported. Yet they continue to spout this claim, on occasion, through the rampant hyperbole they are famed for lifting the figure up to 30x stronger.
“The ACMD published their report – Further Consideration of the Classification of Cannabis ‘ in January 2006. While focusing on mental health issues, the report also briefly addressed physical health and potency issues. On physical health, they noted that apart from possible respiratory damage among those who smoke cannabis, the main risks are to people with health problems and pregnant women. As regards potency, they emphasised that the purity figures produced from forensic analyses of seized cannabis are beset by methodological problems, and concluded that annual figures for the decade ending 2005 showed no evidence of trends. But when the figures are broken down by different products, they do show a clear rise in potency for sinsemilla (skunk) ‘ from 6% in 1995 to 14% in 2005.”
Dr. Russell Newcombe’s analysis of ACMD (2006) Further Consideration of the Classification of Cannabis
The cherry on the cake
The cherry on the cake came a year later when in true Independent style they went on to issue a front page apology for their ten years of good reporting and went all out in lampooning the evil weed. This was of course picked with both hands by every right wing rag in the business.
In the opinion pages the Independent published even wilder allegations, lifting the amount stronger cannabis had got to 30x, a figure presumerably made up on the spot. As a point of reference, the author really should have known better, in the same article stating…
“I smoked my first joint in the summer of 1968. I was 17 and it was the summer of love…the dope was plentiful and benign. It would come in from the Lebanon, Morocco or Afghanistan and I’d buy it in small lumps which looked and crumbled just like Oxo cubes….Everyone I knew in those days smoked pot and most people I know now have smoked at least once in their lives: some of them now run corporations and political parties, and there is no evidence that smoking pot ever hurt them“
So what happened next?
I don’t need to tell you, it’s the same every time. The tabloids went nuts, rant and rave and caried the story to the grave. The Government caved under their pressure, fired the professors who never even got their voices heard in the first place (the real victims in the story) and promptly upgraded the plant to class B.
The irony of the story is that the main reason cannabis in circulation is now somewhat stronger than cannabis grown naturally is the fact it is illegal. Farmers are forced by the Government to grow specially bred cannabis indoors under bright lights rather than the way nature intended in order to go undetected. This creates a strong motive to grow more of the drug, quicker. Customers don’t complian because it’s in their best interests to buy small amounts so if they get found with it it’s only a misdemeanor.
In reality, few recreational or medicinal users want or need their heads blown off like this, but that is what the media ordered so that is what the government prescribed.
If you need a reliable source for drugs information the ACMD (the group of professors judged by the Government to be the the worlds leading experts on pharmacology before they fired them all for saying what they didn’t want to be heard) have reformed in the form of The Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs. Genunie scientific facts are available on their website drugscience.org. If you are still unsure that our legal system has been conned you would do well to read professor Nutt’s case here.
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