Anatomy of a Spin: #5 – Continued.

An occasional column devoted to a study of the opinion management industry.

“News Values” – A Fair and Balanced Look at the Jersey Media.

Sorry for getting this post out late – too much work, not enough time.

In this morning’s brief post I suggested we conduct an experiment by examining the opinion management industry in Jersey, this time on a pre-considered basis rather than the customary post-hoc review.

Having already established certain hypotheses and theories concerning the media – or the Opinion Management Industry, to give it its correct description – I thought we should subject our theories to test by experiment. I invited readers to examine the output of Jersey’s news media today, and suggested that we should look at what is reported, what prioritisation was given to different news stories – and in particular, I suggested that we have a think about what was not reported.

A question: do you think the Jersey media has demonstrated a well-evaluated and comprehensive presentation of important news items in its coverage today?

Yeah – you’re there already.

But let us consider the facts – just to double-check our conclusions.

I undertook, an admittedly loose, examination of today’s’ reportage. I haven’t been able to listen to every radio news slot, but I listened to some of the key broadcasts. I watched the local Jersey TV new, and I read the Jersey Evening Post.

Certainly, there were – as we would expect – some legitimate stories of broad public interest in today’s news.

For example, BBC Jersey led its 5.00 pm radio news with a piece on the ‘manufacturing consent’ exercise engaged in by the Jersey Establishment, in which they try to con the Jersey public into agreeing that we need continuing population growth through inward migration “for economic growth” – but in truth to enable the local rentiers and spivs to carry on making vast fortunes from the islands’ accommodation industry through the mechanism of ensuring demand for homes always outstrips supply.

Though – unfortunately – the effect of this piece of reportage was fatally undermined by the presenter introducing it with remarks such as “conspiracy theorists at the ready”. I am a bit out of touch with these things – but last time I looked, the BBC was supposed to be an impartial organisation; not one which begins a package with a denigrating and contemptuous aside towards those who don’t agree with the Establishment Spin – thus prejudicing one side of the debate.

Let us turn now to a story which was partially reported.

The next example is from the Jersey Evening Post – or The Rag, as it is popularly known. It was reported today that the average house price in Jersey is now £435,000 – and that prices had increased to this amount by an annual growth rate of 20%. It was also reported that the cost of, specifically, a three bed-roomed house had grown by around 21% during the last year.

Indeed, the JEP made this story its lead item. So, trebles all round? Great exposure of a genuinely important public interest item?

Err – sorry. Close – but no cigar.

I don’t criticise the particular journalist for this – I know how under-resourced and pressured they are, just as Nick Davies explains in his book, Flat Earth News. But the story was exactly the kind of thing Davies so ruthlessly exposes as commonplace in the British media – it was little more than the regurgitation of headline items ‘copy and pasted’ from a Statistics Department quarterly report.

So – yes, the JEP relayed the statistics to its “product” – or audience, to use the more common description. But obvious and crucial chunks were missed from the reportage of this story; issues of absolutely critical public importance.

For example – is this rate of growth sustainable – and if not, what might the consequences be?

In this kind of story, a little basic mathematics should be used to illustrate what is happening. I know – I can hear the screams now – “who on Earth wants maths in a news story? 90% of people won’t be interested or wouldn’t understand it.”

Well, that would certainly be the average news editor’s response. But unlike such members of the oligarchy, I have always assumed the average member of the public to be a good deal more switched-on than the Establishment ever recognise.

So, by way of providing you with important information you just won’t find presented in the customary Jersey media, let’s do a little calculation.

The statistics report says that the price of a three bed-roomed house went up by about 21% over the last 12 month period. Sure – that’s an alarmingly large sum, so what kind of further examination does it need?

There is a rule-of-thumb that enables the easy calculation of doubling periods of growing systems. Look – even I can understand it – so it must be simple.

Using what is known as the ‘Rule of 70’ we can calculate the doubling period of this house price.

You take 70 – and divide that sum by the percentage growth figure you are dealing with. Thus – we take 70, and divide it by 21.

This gives us the figure of 3.3 reoccurring. Let us call it 3.3 for simplicity.

What does this figure mean?

It means that if you, your family, your banker or your accountant are building financial plans upon this kind of growth – you are betting that the price of a three bed-roomed house will double

Every 3.3 years.

3.3 is the doubling period of a system growing at a rate of 21%.

That 21% growth has yielded a present price for a three bed-roomed house of £470’000, and in 3.3 years – at that rate of growth – it would cost £940,000.

And in another 3.3 years? £1.88 million.

And another 3.3 years? £3.76 million.

You get the picture?

So at these rates of growth, in around 10 years – not long – a three bed-roomed house would cost £3.76 – million.

So this is actually easy stuff that a newspaper could print. And it should be printed – because it’s factual information that equips people to make informed decisions.

But will such decisions be the right ones? Some may look at this calculation and think “yippee, I own a three bed-roomed house, so I’m in the money – big time.” Others might think, “Well, if its growing at that rate, sod the debt burden, let’s sell our every working second to earn the money to pay the mortgage. In 10 years time we’ll be quids-in.”

But others might recognise this growing system – this extraordinary increase in “value” – in purported “wealth” – for what it so clearly is – a bubble. A text-book, manifestly unsustainable, economic bubble. And like all such bubbles – it must burst.

The island of Jersey is gripped by a collective economic delusion – a property-based version of the ‘Tulip Mania’ which gripped Holland in the early part of the 17th century. ‘OK’, you may say, ‘But people are smarter these days – and houses have greater intrinsic value than tulips – houses will always be worth something.’

They may be of some value – but consider the sub-prime collapse in the USA. Suddenly an awful lot of people have a house with, for sure, some ‘value’ – that value just happens to be half of what they signed-up to pay for their particular cardboard McHouse.

So – on the face of it – a well-presented news story. But upon closer examination we discover it’s almost entirely constructed out of press-release ‘product’.

And we discover that crucial aspects of the housing market inflation story are simply not reported – things such as the inescapable physical limits to ‘growth’ and the nature of economic bubbles.

Then there are stories – important news subjects – noticeable for their complete absence. For example, the fact that finally, even hardened capitalist institutions are beginning to face-up to the apocalyptic inevitability of ‘peak oil’, something many of us Cassandra have been warning of for some years.

Then there’s the global financial economy. Don’t you think the fact that the activity which produces at least 85% of Jersey’s wealth is heading towards melt-down just might be newsworthy? The fact that this global “industry” is, essentially, a vast Ponzi scheme – mathematically doomed to crash – perhaps even within in weeks.

Remember, you read it here first.

All immensely important subjects.

‘But’, perhaps you might say, ‘these are esoteric subjects that the average “product” (that’s you and me – the media’s audience) won’t really be interested in. It’s difficult and boring and the media have a commercial imperative to attract maximum audiences.’

Yes – there is a lot of truth in such a statement insofar as the priorities of the media are concerned. What they like is ‘sensation, drama, revelations – the novel and exciting’ – that’s what brings in the punters.

That being the case we have to then remark upon three startling absences from today’s news reportage.

During yesterday’s session of Jersey’s parliament, we debated, and ultimately approved, a proposal that the elected representatives of the people of the island should have access to the minutes of the Corporate Management Board – a kind of council of departmental Chief Executives; the senior civil servants of the island. Naturally, Establishment resistance to this was – bizarrely – implacable. For politicians to have access to the records of these secret proceedings would cause the sky to fall, the Earth to split asunder and the moon careen from its orbit. And I exaggerate only a tiny amount – the speech of the Chief Minister, Frank Walker, wasn’t far short of such pronouncements.

Very occasionally, the States of Jersey gets things right. Notwithstanding the mystifying and desperate opposition to the proposal, it got carried – the Establishment defeated. And these events are rare indeed in the island’s parliament. When the Establishment suffers a defeat of this nature – you can be pretty sure their position wasn’t even on the radar screen of credibility.

And such was this case. A significant number of members rightly recognised that we couldn’t allow the tail to wag the dog – that these very very expensive – and often not very good – collection of senior civil servants should be properly accountable to the public – via their elected representatives.

So, a crushing defeat for the executive – the ‘Government’ – inflicted upon it by the legislature.

Coverage of this story in the Jersey Evening Post?

It’s become a cliché of mine, I know, but – you just couldn’t make this stuff up.

I haven’t been able to locate so much as a single sentence on the subject anywhere in The Rag.

Not one mention.

In how many other jurisdictions, do you imagine, the newspapers would not print a single paragraph about a heavy and dramatic defeat for the Government of the day?

None. Only in Jersey would this happen. Now, there are only two possible explanations for this. That the Jersey Evening Post – uniquely in the entire democratic world – has got the right approach to reportage – and every other newspaper in the democratic world is wrong. Or – the Jersey Evening Post is crap.

I’ll let you come to your own conclusions.

But to return to the substance of the debate, and the second missing news story.

There is a perception in Jersey that the senior civil service are out of control – unaccountable and invulnerable. An entirely accurate perception, at that. A bloated and monstrous incubus feeding upon islanders’ taxes in ever more insatiable quantities.

I know this to be so from long, first-hand experience – not least in having my dismissal as Health & Social Services Minister engineered by senior civil servants in a desperate attempt to carry on the cover-up of the culture of child abuse in Jersey.

In support of the proposition that the island’s parliamentarians should have access to CMB minutes – obviously an anarcho-commy plot designed to overthrow the state – I made a speech during the debate in which I cited reasons for, and examples of, the civil service being out of control, politicised and acting in a manner which was simply an assault upon functioning democracy.

In the ordinary course of events, a speech from me would not necessarily be news-worthy.

But on this occasion I recounted two recent experiences from my time as Health & Social Services Minister. These two things would have been sensational in any jurisdiction – but of coverage by the Jersey media? – There was none.

Now, you might think ‘why the hell should they report what he said? What was so special about his speech?’

You be the judge of the significance of the two specific issues I raised.

Firstly, I informed the assembly that it was no mere paranoia which leads some of us to state that the civil service is out of control, politicised and acting out of self-interest. I knew it was so – for a stone fact.

I explained to the assembly that I knew my dismissal as H & SS Minister was discussed by un-elected, unaccountable, supposedly non-political civil servants during a Corporate Management Board meeting.

And I explained to the assembly that I knew this for a fact – because no-less an authority than the Chief Constable of the States of Jersey Police Force – following my expression of concern to the Police that I had been obstructed in my lawful duties as Minister – quite properly notified me of the fact that he was present when these discussions took place at the CMB meeting, and that he had taken his own notes.

Now – imagine, say, a Minister in the UK Government; a Minister who had discovered gross deficiencies, failings, cover-ups – and worse – in respect of child protection.

Imagine his dismissal being engineered by the civil servants who he was attempting to hold to account.

Imagine the plot to engineer his dismissal succeeds – an anti-democratic assault on democratic accountability by un-elected, self protecting civil servants.

Imagine the, now former, Minister being properly informed by a Police Chief that he was present and took notes when the civil servants discussed his Ministerial demise.

Imagine the ex-Minister announces these revelations in the House of Commons.

Now – all that was the easy part. This is the hard bit – imagine that, notwithstanding the utterly sensational nature of the events – not – one – single – solitary – part of the UK media reported it.

If you’re an honest and sensible person, you will know immediately that such a scenario is utterly inconceivable.

But what was the response of the Jersey media?

You really don’t need me to tell you – do you?

The second newsworthy feature of my speech, and the third missing news story, was this:

I publicly confessed my guilt to corporate manslaughter.

Not the kind of thing you hear everyday – especially from a politician.

Might just be a bit newsworthy, do ya think? A bit unusual? Worth a couple of paragraphs?

In any other democratic jurisdiction – you bet your sweet life.

A politician – telling the truth – about an absolute tragedy and disaster that happened in his department?

In fairness to the local media, they would have to be quite circumspect as to what and how they reported this matter, as it is sub judice. But it could have been at least referred to, especially given that my remarks are reportable under parliamentary privilege. (Note to BBC Jersey: parliamentary privilege does exist in this jurisdiction.)

For similar legal reasons – I, too, have to be circumspect. I cannot – at this time – explain events, the response of the department – and my constantly evolving state of knowledge as whistle-blowers from within the organisation have told me more and more.

Nor can I say publicly – yet – just what my knowledge is. But when legal circumstances permit – whenever that may be – I will share with you my understanding of a tragedy; an understanding which has been given to me by decent front-line staff.

So, to draw our experimentally proven and evidenced conclusions together. This morning I invited readers to study the Jersey media’s’ out-put of the day. We had an hypotheses; namely that the reportage of the Jersey media would be comically deficient – in a tragic kind of way.

We didn’t know what the scope and scale of reporting would be. We had no insight or knowledge of what decisions news editors would make. In fact – if we did hazard some guesses – based on, say, what the UK media might do – we could have expected at least some detailed reportage of these important subjects.

But, we were so confident of our theory being demonstrated that we set the experiment in motion this morning. We actually gave the Jersey media every opportunity; our theory met the Falsifiability test – in best Carl Popper manner.

And the result?

QED.

The Jersey media sank like a stone – thrown into a septic tank – right down to the very bottom. The festering lower-depths.

The tragedy for this community – for what Jersey was – for what Jersey should be – is that the outcome of our experiment was so absolutely – and sadly – predictable.

Stuart Syvret

Book of the Post:

When the Press Fails – Political Power and the News Media from Iraq to Katrina: Studies in Communication, Media, and Public Opinion, by WL Bennett.

Joke of the Post:

A news editor should have a pimp for a brother – so he’d have someone to look up to.

One thought on “Anatomy of a Spin: #5 – Continued.

  1. Anonymous

    I tuned into the debate to which you refer – in the afternoon – so I missed FW’s speech. I like to listen to FW as I count how many times he repeats CATEGORICALLY and ABSOLUTELY…..have you noticed how those two words spin(!)regularly off his tongue……..so annoying! I too could not believe the Beano ( it is not the Rag in house ) did not report either your speech or the nature of the debate – honestly I thought I’d tuned into the afternoon play on Radio 4 – I just could not believe it – Grown ups having a debate about seeing the minuites of senior civil servants – absolutely hideous………….anyway I see Mr C’s son has done a piece on it in tonights Beano – tucked away on page 8…………I think that you will have to face facts the majority of people in this island know more about Barak and Hilary than they do about Ben and Terry………and the Beano is bought for the hatches matches and dispatches not politics! The Council of Sinisters are sailing onthe Marie Celeste………..and please don’t get me started on the trip to India………….

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