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Getting at the truth feels a bit treacherous at the moment. Trust nothing that you see or hear for a while. The general election lurks in the middle distance like a black hole, and it’s warping reality around it. We know that going through it can’t lead to anything good[1], but there’s no turning the ship around. We’re sliding inexorably towards it, so all there is to do is marvel at its distorting effects on everything around us.

Obviously any opposition party wants to paint the incumbent government as useless and their reign as damaging to the country, but in doing so they need to be careful not to overshoot their target. Insist repeatedly that Britain is broken, in the face of the evidence that even in the midst of recession Britain is in fact plodding on pretty much as it usually does, and you could find that this breeds more scepticism and resentment than support. Claim that in deprived areas 54 per cent are likely to fall pregnant before the age of 18 when the figure is actually 54 per 1,000, for example, and you risk (a) looking like hapless know-nothing jaw-flapping dinner-party bigots, the kind of chattering-class tossers who wildly piss made-up statistics about the place to give credence to their idiot prejudices, and (b) making the public muse that anyone whose arithmetic is that bad should probably be forcibly barred from getting near anything resembling power. The black hole affects even the simplest readouts.

Meanwhile! As our population gets older, there’s going to be an increasing problem of how to care for the sick and elderly in their own homes. The government consulted on this last year and although several tentative solutions were suggested, the single definite conclusion in the resultant white paper was that under no circumstances could any government realistically offer free care at home for the elderly in England and Wales. By any gauge it was utterly unaffordable, and it would be nothing short of dishonest to offer it to the public.

Then, at last autumn’s Labour party conference, Gordon Brown stunned the report’s contributors—and quite a few of his own people—by announcing that he would legislate for free care at home for the elderly in England and Wales. Just in case there was any doubt what the priority is here, the government are now racing the Personal Care At Home Bill through the parliamentary process with unseemly and cack-handed haste as if it were emergency terrorism legislation, with even less scrutiny than usual. The “consultation” on this particular bill finished yesterday and is due to report soon, but as the bill has already been through the Commons and been through most of its stages in the Lords, it’s safe to suggest that the government aren’t attaching too much importance on what anyone else has to say. The bill has nothing to do with caring for the sick and elderly and everything to do with the black hole up ahead. After all, just because something is utterly impossible doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to curry favour by offering it. If the polls look particularly bad for the government over the next fortnight I confidently expect to see them bang out an emergency Better Weather Bill before the election.

Meanwhile! We’re all going to be murdered in our beds! Or not. It’s the Tories versus their old enemy, numbers, except here at least the story displays some vaguely Machiavellian politicking rather than simply a need for remedial maths training. Shadow Home Secretary[2] Chris Grayling put out numbers “showing” that violent crime had leapt up under Labour. The chairman of the UK Statistics Authority issued a stiff letter the next day pointing out that no they hadn’t, not really the sort of publicity you want when you’re Shadow Home Secretary.

In the mid-1990s, when the Tories were in power, it was suggested to them that the way crime figures were recorded could be changed to reflect the victims’ perceptions of crime. The government at the time swiftly realised that this would probably make the apparent figures shoot up, and so dismissed the idea as a PR disaster waiting to happen. In 2002, however, the Labour government took the admirably ballsy step of allowing this change to go ahead:
Instead of police officers deciding whether an incident should be recorded as a violent crime, the decision was given to the alleged victim. It had the effect of forcing up recorded violence by an estimated 35% in the first year. [Guardian]
So figures from after 2002 can’t be compared with figures from before 2002. But now the Tories, the party that was first introduced to this revised crime-figures system, are doing just that, despite at some level understanding the utter unreality of what they’re saying. Watch this detachment from the world around them increase as we approach the event horizon.

Meanwhile! Gordon Brown was persuaded to talk on prime-time TV about the death of his child. Whoever had this idea, and whether it was conceived in good faith as a last-ditch attempt to present the human side of the Prime Minister to a disenchanted electorate or in bad faith as something infinitely more cynical, the fact is that it escaped no-one that this personal and previously very private tragedy appeared to have been paraded for electoral gain. Brown had never before spoken publicly about those events, and everyone would have understood if he had chosen not to do so until he was out of the national limelight. His decision to talk about it on TV now, however hard he will have found it to genuinely share his feelings on the subject, can only have seemed right as his perceptions and values distorted and warped around him; it cheapened everyone involved.

Everyone except, of course, Piers Morgan, which would be physically impossible. If anything vividly illustrates the contention that the reality presented by the media is entirely fictional, it’s the insistence on presenting Piers Morgan to us as anything but a braying, banal, lying, worthless tool. Piers Morgan interviewing the Prime Minister. Piers Morgan guiding us around Dubai. Piers Morgan being called on, and this I’m still trying to wrap my head around, to judge—even in the frothiest of light entertainment settings—to judge a single aspect of another human being. If it’s right that the Space Shuttle has only four more missions and then it’s curtains, can we start nominating people now to man its final flight into the sun? My alternative vote—another last-ditch government innovation dragged into existence by the black hole’s gravitational pull, incidentally—goes to Perez Hilton.

Meanwhile! Some distance from our black hole, yet worth mentioning here as it is pulled inexorably towards another one that’s opening up on the other side of the world, a huge armed force spends weeks talking up a massive advance against the Taliban so that when it actually advances it finds itself almost unopposed, since many Taliban fighters have paid attention to the news and pragmatically melted away into the civilian population.

This is no surprise to anyone involved, as this is what has happened several times before. As ever, the fighters will bide their time until the occupying force reduces its numbers, before taking up arms again and fighting off what they see as the foreign invaders. For the time being, though, it’s territory gained! A famous victory for Our Boys! Afghanistan made safe! An embedded reporter’s wet dream! Meanwhile the population in the region will hunker down, fearful both of wayward drone strikes and of what will happen when the strike force withdraws following Afghanistan’s own black hole—the election, due to be held later this year, which is the reason why Taliban strongholds needed to appear, however temporarily, to have been subdued. This episode of the Afghan war did not take place.

Meanwhile! “The Prime Monster”! The Sun nails the story of the moment: the Prime Minister is a bully! Okay, so Andrew Rawnsley’s claim that Brown had to be spoken to by Cabinet Secretary Gus O’Donnell over his bullying has been denied by Brown (well, he would say that, wouldn’t he?) but also by O’Donnell himself, leaving the story balancing precariously on Rawnsley’s book alone—and okay, so the story about the National Bullying Helpline receiving calls from staff at No. 10 quickly appeared not only to be crumbling but to have stemmed from, at the very least, friends on the periphery of the Tory party—and okay, so none of the alleged helpline calls actually involved the Prime Minister, making the “Prime Monster” tag seem even more indefensible—and okay, so now there’s no sign of the “Prime Monster” headline on the Sun’s website—and… actually, no, I’m done.

At this point it certainly looks as if a woman who runs a small and questionable “charity”, which exists mainly to direct disaffected staff towards her husband’s HR company, decided to be helpful in the wake of the Rawnsley allegations and go to the BBC with a story that would both aid the party she supports and give her company charity a decent dose of publicity. However, if what she said was genuine then she breached the confidentiality of the helpline’s callers, and if it wasn’t then, obviously, she’s a big fibber. Either way, she gave the impression that Gordon Brown was at the heart of these allegations, which he wasn’t. If you need confirmation that nothing you’re seeing or hearing at this point is trustworthy, she felt so vilified by the general scepticism about her questionable practices and wonky business arrangements that she is now being represented by Max Clifford.

Whatever actually happened inside No. 10 is likely, for the time being, to get utterly lost in the fog. The story is useful right now only for the way that it highlights how at the moment, more even than usual, you have to be sceptical of everything you’re told as passions rage—and the already febrile online world goes nuts—over the impending election.

So it’s less than reassuring that BBC current affairs staff, already cut back to a minimum and reduced to pretty much parroting any press release that comes their way—hence the unquestioning way BBC News ran the National Bullying Helpline story without the most basic of background checks on the source of its scoop—were told recently by their boss to treat social media such as Twitter and Facebook as “a primary source of information”. This should be fun.
Huw Edwards: The headlines at 10 o’clock: Stephen Fry has cheered up now that he has had some coffee, and the world’s number one trending topic remains Justin Bieber.

Click for CGI WTF.

I hope it’s clear that I’m not suggesting we can normally trust our government and news sources implicitly. It’s always worth keeping an eye on exactly who is telling you what and why. (Dismiss all mainstream news as lies, though, and you just become David Icke. We doctors[3] recommend discernment rather than institutionalised disbelief.) For the next few months, though, I urge heightened caution. We must approach all news as gingerly as a bomb disposal expert and assume that most statistics we encounter are radioactive, and let’s just see what exotic shapes everything gets warped into over the next few weeks.

[1] Offering the rich choice of (in the red corner) more well-meaning but hopeless mismanagement or (in the blue) a fresh bout of nakedly self-interested hopeless mismanagement. #Thiiiiiings… can only get better…” Back

[2] The title “Shadow Home Secretary” sounds terribly grand, and being the official counterpart to the actual Home Secretary can be gruelling work, but ultimately the word “shadow” renders it meaningless. I might as well appoint myself the Shadow Ewan MacGregor, and in the event that he stops being Ewan MacGregor I will be able seamlessly to take over his role. And there’ll be some changes then, let me tell you. Back

[3] I am not a doctor.


( 8 comments — Leave a comment )
Feb. 25th, 2010 11:37 am (UTC)

I was waiting for CGI Gordon Brown to morph into a giant multi-penised demon and lay waste to London, but it didn't happen. Did I buy the wrong DVD?
Feb. 25th, 2010 12:02 pm (UTC)
Urotsukidōji / Labour Party fanfic ahoy! Complete with mapping of the three major political parties onto the World of the Demons, World of the Beasts and World of Men.
Feb. 25th, 2010 12:19 pm (UTC)
Beautifully written.
Feb. 25th, 2010 12:30 pm (UTC)
I came here to say this too - amazing job.
Feb. 25th, 2010 12:52 pm (UTC)
Feb. 25th, 2010 08:37 pm (UTC)
Feb. 25th, 2010 01:10 pm (UTC)
And me. x
(Deleted comment)
( 8 comments — Leave a comment )

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