Sunday, July 17, 2005

Biting Back, Toothlessly

If you read a newspaper that has a Corrections column, it's absolutely vital that you read the corrections.
The Observer today informs us that an article last week about a headteacher who turned around a failing school was wrong in virtually every respect.
Last week's paper had also said the composer Stockhausen was delighted by the attack on the World Trade Centre and called it a work of art. This would have stayed in my mind forever had I not read today's correction. He said no such thing. He condemned the attack and said it was 'Lucifer's greatest work of art'.

If quality papers like The Observer and Guardian are full of such colossal inaccuracies, how much worse must the tabloids be? And most of the latter don't publish corrections, unless forced to do so for legal reasons.
I wish The Guardian and The Observer would also tell us what action was taken against the staff who failed to check their facts and what they are doing to reduce the level of inaccuracies.
As a blogger I don't have the same degree of responsibility. But I do try not to write things that are factually wrong and do check for typos and spelling errors. Inevitably, some slip through. And checking facts by using Google is notoriously dangerous. Because a fact appears on the first three dozen websites you find doesn't mean it's true. Maybe that's where journalists are coming unstuck today. But as an unpaid blogger writing in my living room I don't have much choice but to use internet searches. I can't ring up Mr Stockhausen or Cabinet Ministers to check if they really said something. But if I found them quoted on The Observer website I would regard that as a reliable source.
Big mistake.


Still with The Observer, Nick Cohen today criticises the BBC for refusing to use value-laden terms like 'terrorist' because one man's 'terrorist' is another man's 'freedom fighter'.
As a critique of moral relativism this is a perfectly legitimate line of argument, whether you agree with it or not.
But I was hoping that, in the interests of balance, Cohen would also condemn the American and British military and their Governments for calling civilian casualties 'collateral damage'.
That he didn't do so may be because he is one of those left-wing columnists (like David Aaronivitch) who strongly supported the Iraq war.
In today's article, referring to Saddam, Cohen says "After 30 years of pitiless rule, he is overthrown by a foreign invader."
If you'd just arrived from Mars, this might suggest there had been a bloodless coup or that the Allies had managed to assasinate Saddam. In reality, of course, Saddam lives. 100,000 innocent Iraqi men, women, children and babies are dead. This fact is conveniently omitted from Cohen's summary of events in Iraq.

I wish that, just once, people like Cohen would say unequivocally that they think the mass slaughter of Iraqi civilians was morally justified. They clearly think that it was so why don't they have the guts to say so openly instead of carefully avoiding referring to it?
Their difficulty is that once you say that killing civilians is a means that is justified by a political end, then you can only criticise those with a different political end or world view who do so by saying that it's all right when we do it but not when others do.
It's true that some Iraqis believe it was a price worth paying. Many of those are expatriates living in Britain and America. Whether the families of the dead think so or whether the dead would have volunteered for self-sacrifice in order to get rid of Saddam we have no way of knowing. Indeed, the Iraqi dead mattered so little that the Allied forces never bothered to count them.

When those of us who take the logically consistent position that killing civilians in any cause is wrong, we are not guilty of moral relativism. It doesn't mean that we think a society run by Muslim fundamentalists (or Christian fundamentalists, for that matter) is as acceptable as a secular, liberal democracy. The moral relativists are people like Cohen who, whilst rightly condemning the London suicide bombers, regard the 'shock and awe' bombing or Baghdad from the air as, at worst, a regrettable necessity.

On a lighter note, I have toothache. The only means of stopping it is not to eat anything, so I've eaten just one bowl of soup in the past 36 hours. But that's no big deal. Many people in Africa would be glad of a bowl of soup every 36 hours. And I might now be able to get into several old pairs of jeans.
Nevertheless, tomorrow I shall visit the dentist. But I have a dilemma. A partial denture, for which I paid nearly £500 only 18 months ago, has fallen apart and now contains only one tooth instead of eight. That's what has triggered the current problem. But do I have a blazing row with the dentist about the denture before he pulls out the decaying tooth? It doesn't seem a good idea to fall out with someone who has the capacity to exact revenge in such a painful way.

Many people make the mistake of being rude to waiters who then spit in their soup. Graham Norton tells the story of how, as a waiter, he pissed in the coffee of a man who had been difficult. But his revenge misfired when another waiter gave the coffee to a different customer.
Years ago when I worked for a railway company we used to put people who had been rude to us into sleeper compartments directly over the wheels so they would have a rickety and sleepless night.
People seem to forget that people in low grade jobs who are unable to hit them or answer back will always find other ways of getting their revenge. And, in my experience, it's usually wealthy, middle class people who make this elementary mistake.
Of course, dentistry is not a low grade job. But it's still a manual, mechanical occupation even though it's physically only about six inches away from brain surgery.

It's a depressing thought that, having been cursed with bad teeth, I've probably spent more hours in the dentist's chair than I have spent having sex. The only consolation is that it's only dentists who have ever used the phrase 'just a little prick'.

Oh, come on......did you really think I'd mention dentists without doing that gag?
You want original material, write it yourselves. I'm off to suck some minestrone through a straw.


At 7:19 PM, Blogger Wyndham said...

If I know one thing in life, it's always, always be nice to people who serve you food in restaurants.

Isn't one of the more famous grauniad typos a review of the opera Doris Godunov?

At 9:46 PM, Blogger cello said...

Mr C and I were so upset about their stance on the war that we gave up the Observer for a token two months. You can see how rubbish our principles are; I missed Monty Don too much to maintain our gesture for long. But yes, yes Willie. Spot on.

I quite like going to the dentists normally. I love lying back and letting someone poke around with sharp implements. I promise that that is actually true, and not a bit of lame innuendo. Anyway, I hope it's not too ghastly tomorrow, Willie. Take some Mozart to listen to. NOT Mahler - or Dylan.

At 9:45 AM, Blogger JonnyB said...


I hadn't seen the correction, as my newspaper disappeared yesterday before I had a chance to read it.

But the original school article rang desperately untrue. I remember reading it and thinking... ???...

At 1:06 PM, Blogger Willie Lupin said...

Wyndham, yes I think that was the Grauniad. One of their other classics was a report of a football match in which every fact was wrong, including the score and the names of the teams who were playing.

cello, the Observer has some excellent writers so their editorial line recently is rather disappointing.

I don't have one of those portable music thingies so I have to lie back and think of England while he's poking my mouth. Actually, he claims to be too busy to see me for two weeks so I'll have to subsist on soup and nurofen or pull the tooth out myself. And this is private dentistry for God's sake.

jonnyb: the gist of the correction was that the school was already hugely successful before the present head arrived so the whole premise of the article was wrong.


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