I was watching the BBC South Today local evening news yesterday and during the programme there were two similar news reports that were reported in quite different ways.
Firstly there was the tragic story of a man in his mid-forties from Hove in Sussex who had taken the legal drug mephedrone and had subsequently died of a heart attack. The report started by outlining the circumstances surrounding what had happened. It then moved on to a telephone interview with the brother of the man who had died who insisted that the drug should be made illegal. Next up was a clip from Harriet Harman talking in the Commons about how the government would urgently review the legal status of the drug (no explicit mention of making it illegal but long term observers of this government understand the code only too well). Finally there was a quick interview with a chap from a pressure group. I didn't catch the name of the group but it was clearly a pro-prohibition organisation and the chap forcefully made the point that the drug should be made illegal. There was a brief mention of the case of the two men in Scunthorpe who recently died after taking mephedrone (apparently amongst several other drugs they had taken) and then the report ended.
The second news report was about a lady who has been out horse-riding with a friend of hers on the South Downs when a motorbike had driven a bit close to them, her horse had bolted and thrown her off. Tragically she had landed on her head and has been left paralysed. The focus of the report was on how she is suing the man riding the motorbike for damages. At no point was there any link to any other stories in any other part of the country where people have been injured or killed whilst out horse riding. There was no interview with any relatives of the woman calling for horse riding to be banned. There was no government minister shown urgently promising to review the legal status of horse riding. There was also no person interviewed from a "pro horse riding prohibition" pressure group forcefully making the point that horse riding should be banned.
On the surface, these two stories would seem to involve similar circumstances. Both people involved in them were pursuing a pastime that presumably gave them some pleasure. Both ended in tragic results, one in death, the other in severe and life changing injuries. And yet the way these stories were reported on could not have been more different. One of them was treated like a national emergency with legal sanctions being implicitly seen as the obvious and logical next step to "deal with" the causes of the problem. The other one was seen as a tragic accident with no question that there is anything wrong with the activity itself being pursued.
As Professor David Nutt pointed out last year, horse riding is statistically more dangerous than taking ecstasy and yet the more dangerous activity is perfectly legal and respectable whilst participating in the other can get you put in prison with your life prospects ruined. It feels very much like mephedrone is about to be put into the same category.
As a footnote, I was so annoyed by the coverage of the first story and the blatant bias shown in the reporting (reporting about how some people think a drug should be made illegal is a political position and yet nobody with a non-prohibitionist outlook was interviewed or any sort of opposing view shown) that I put a call into the BBC duty log. I expect the reporter would not have even thought that they were being biased but they were. Lots of people in this country do not think that prohibition has worked or is working and the idea that even more currently legal drugs are likely to be put under control of criminal gangs is a terrible mistake in my view. I am far from alone in thinking this.
In the future, the BBC should balance their reporting on this subject by including the views of for example some of the excellent people at Transform Drugs Policy Foundation or Release. Or how about Professor Nutt himself, the former head of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs?
The BBC needs to be much more even handed about reporting politically charged subjects like reform of the drugs laws.