Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Friday, 19 March 2010

A tale of two news reports

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

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.


dazmando said...

Ell spotted Mark, horse riding as we know is dangerous and more dangerous than certain drugs. I myself was almost killed by a horse (I will show you the paper report next time I see you)

Duncan Stott said...

Perhaps a fake pressure group should be set up that calls for all dangerous recreational activities to be prohibited.

Call it something like "Parents Against Recreation" and issue a sensationalist press release every time someone is killed or permanently injured whilst enjoying themselves.

Anonymous said...

Haha. Good idea Duncan.

Fun Sponges United

Just Say No to Pleasure

Want Fun, You Are Scum

Oh wait, it's got to have an acronym these days.



Oranjepan said...

Let me take the devil's advocate position.

There is currently no constituency calling for horse-riding to be banned and there is no political agenda to offer support for such a position in parliament. Therefore it would be wholly irresponsible for the two stories to be treated absolutely alike by the media.

However, you do have a strong point that the media reporting of the issue where there is a political agenda at play (the drugs story) was reported in an unbalanced manner unreflective of the relative harms.

Conversely it is possible to argue that the two issues are separated by different parameters of informed consent and as a consequence the moral risk associated with consuming a drug without full awareness of what it will do is not the same as participating in an activity where it is assumed you are in conscious control of your environment.

Therefore while the two are not comparable and shouldn't be treated equally in law, it is a fair question to ask whether they should nevertheless be treated equally (if not alike) in the media.

FWIW adequate safety measures can be adopted in either scenario without resorting to prohibition. Riders wear specialised clothing and are given training, while it would seem product labelling and licensed sale would suffice for the drug (though whether to extend unlimited sale for recreational purposes or keep it restricted to prescription where users can be registered and monitored is another debate entirely).

Malcolm Todd said...

Oranjepan: I'm afraid prescription-only dispensing (the popular "middle way" in drug policy) is a cop-out in this case. The only justification for it in the case of cannabis is that it can be an effective pain-reliever, and in the case of heroin (where prescription is legal already) and crack because they are addictive. There's no medical justification for prescribing a drug that has no known medical benefits (pace the homeopathy lobby), even the reduction of withdrawal symptoms. For mephedrone, it's ban or don't ban. I vote don't ban.

Joe Otten said...

Clearly drug-taking seems much less wholesome than other equally or more risky, but more outdoorsy activities. Perhaps we should try to identify why before claiming some equivalence.

It seems to me quite wrong to operate on the basis that some specific numerical risk of dying or injury is acceptable, but above that, the activity in question should be banned.

I think drugs quite reasonably inspire particular horror because of addiction and because of the way drug addicts can become degraded. This is quite unlike horse riding.

So whether or not prohibition works, it seems quite reasonable to treat drugs and sports as non-comparable.

Jock Coats said...

Poor chap in his forties - I had better watch out!

But you can have some macabre fun with statistics. One of Nutt's own reports on the various bits of research on cannabis harm highlighted one in particular.

Apparently a learned journal published some research that concluded that if you had a spliff in your fifties it made you four times more likely to have a heart attack in the hour following.

Nutt I think pointed out that if you have a half hour after dinner brisk walk in your fifties (you know, what the doctors all recommend) you are four times more likely to have a heart attack in the following hour!

All I can say is that I think I know which sort of activity I would prefer a heart attack to be induced by if it was going to happen!

Oranjepan said...

You've jumped to enough conclusions there for a lifetime.

Legal prohibition is a separate issue compared to bias in media reporting.

In a situation where a ban is to be lifted then it must be replaced with a workable system which doesn't descend into a free-for-all without any protections from the law.

Firstly, criminalisation allows consumer protections to be neglected. This must be dealt with.

Prescription is the established mechanism for providing a balancing check on the supply chain, but this tends to create the assumption in conventional orthodoxy that it could not be adopted in a tailored form.

So I think it is lacking in imagination to suggest medicinal reasons are the only way to justify or allow prescription.

The drugs market is notoriously closed, which is what gives rise to regular 'turf wars' as different supply chains compete for monopoly over the local consumer base. So without the means to limit suppliers' flexibity any transition from the black market to legal sale would be potentially subject to massive distortion - and if public confidence in the conditions of sale aren't met then the law would be unsustainable and quickly overturned.

This is because inherent to law is the provision of a guarantee of minimum standards.

If sale were to be licensed in some form then I personally wonder whether drugs users shouldn't be registered in some form with their locally-licensed dispensary, so that this can be checked against arrest lists and their consumption used either as an aggravating or mitigating factor when they come to be tried.

Initially at least, I think there is a good case for restricting the civil liberty to engage in free exchange of goods and services in order to both deincentivise anti-social and criminal behaviour and also to provide reassurance to the public by organising a statistical measure of the correlation between the consumer behaviour and criminal behaviour (if that means driving under the influence or whatever).

And if this means pre-registering with a licensed dispenser or getting the ok from a state-sponsored licensee in order to have access to the market then I think this is a price drugs-users should and largely will be willing to pay (provided the thresholds for qualification aren't excessive, of course). I do accept however that for a small minority the excitement in drug use will be the russian roulette factor of not knowing whether you are taking rat poison with an infected needle, but I don't think the market should be tailored to their desires.

But to ban or not to ban?

No, the devil is in the detail of how you do it.

So let me state I tend to oppose bans - provided that workable systems can be found and instituted.

Or, to put it more simply, I'm agnostic about drugs - I just want the dealer who sits on the wall of the clinic at the bottom of my road from dusk every night off my street: I don't like walking past a network of tooled-up gangsters afraid of the merest twitch. Wouldn't it be the simplest thing for him to conduct his business from inside the building?

Oranjepan said...

I'm with you if a 'brisk walk' is a polite euphemism for other forms of vigorous activity.

Jock Coats said...

Have you ever seen those poor sad horsey addicts out there at the crack of dawn shovelling shit, sniffing their saddle soap and pulling on their tight knee length boots.

They can easily become withdrawn from human company, anti-social, smelly, paranoid and, in extreme cases, erotically attached to their animals. Some even whisper to them I believe and many are left destitute by the cost of maintaining their habit.

And when they get together in large numbers in a field somewhere, the damage they can do to the countryside with their wild galloping and the noise of their hollering can be astonishing.

It inevitably draws them toward environmentally damaging vehicles and removes thousands of acres of otherwise quality land from providing sustainable local food crops for humans.

But maybe taking drugs outdoors at specially organised festivals and so on, combining chemical stimulation with good wholesome fresh air (and the smell of very cheap grilled meat products) would be a happy compromise?

Jock Coats said...


I personally have little doubt that for certain drugs at least major pharmaceutical, drinks and tobacco companies are tooled up and ready to go with well packaged well documented products.

Such as the cans of cannabis tea you see in Swiss and Japanese vending machines. And I think you would fairly quickly see innovative delivery mechanisms - after all some of the last cocaine sold legally in the mass market was in toothpaste.

I'll have a quarter of those opium chews please, my man!

Oranjepan said...

that's fine, but I wonder about the protection rackets controlling those automated delivery systems - Japan and Switzerland aren't immune from protecting criminal organisations.

I also wonder about the quality of labelling on those 'innovative' products - shouldn't they be categorized parallel to homeopathic remedies to avoid consumer confusion?