Northernheckler's Blog

A Yorkshireman's adventures in the big Smoke

Who decides what the public think ?

NEW mak

Just got back from a week in Cornwall.

I had a very weak mobile signal. I could occasionally tweet. Could not get mobile internet on my laptop – so didn’t see any websites. Didn’t have a telly, didn’t pick up a newspaper.

So from being a news addicted politically aware blogster, I turned very quickly into someone who didn’t have much of a clue what was going on.

Even having been back for nearly 24 hours now, I’m still not up to speed – which sort of puts me on a par with the rest of the country – you know, the type that doesn’t do blogs, the type that uses Facebook to share family snaps rather than run political campaigns, the kind that follows celebrities on Twitter, rather than politicians. The kind that goes to make the coffee when the news comes on, and if they ever read a newspaper, it tends to be from the back to the front, or maybe just the back.

So what’s going on in the world – well it seems some bloke who advises the Government on drugs has advised them to reverse the recent reversal of cannabis’s grading as a Class B drug, and to reduce its classification. As a result he’s apparently been sacked. According to the BBC news on 5 Live, this has been done “On a whim” of the prime minister. Now the media are up in arms about the Government being dismissive of scientific evidence, and it would seem are presenting the Prime Minister in a negative light for his actions.

And with my very scant knowledge of what’s going on – I’ve barely any reason to challenge that perception – so it sort of becomes my own perception by default.

Except I’m not so sure (well you knew I’d be cynical didn’t you !). First of all it strikes me that if the Government had followed the advice, we’d effectively have a U-turn on a U-turn – and remember the last U-turn wasn’t in response to any great pressure, it was in response to the difficulties experienced in practice to the partial decriminalisation of cannabis – an admission that the new policy was not working. I can’t imagine many Governments being keen on a 360 degree turn.

Next it strikes me that an advisor should be doing his advising in private, not in the national press. I work with advisors/consultants as part of my local authority’s work for Building Schools for the Future – No one in the authority would take kindly to those advisors bleating the advice which we pay them for, to the general public. Neither would we feel bound by their advice – advisors provide a particular perspective on an issue – part of the picture. Not the full picture. If any of them sought to publicise their advice, and criticise the authorities actions in the light of it, then I suspect that the likely outcome would be that the authority would dispense with their services.

I also know that research evidence rarely proves or disproves anything – rather it tends to support particular hypotheses. So what ever evidence the advisor has or has not, it’s unlikely to prove conclusive (and I don’t know what the evidence is remember). It’s also likely to be part of a whole range of other indicators.

Governments don’t take decisions based on just one factor. They have to consider things like how popular a decision is likely to be for instance – and if that sounds cynical then just remember that no Government can do anything if they lose power – so popularity HAS to be a consideration. They also have to consider not just realities but also perceptions – because we need have no doubts that had the Government followed the advisors advice, they’d have been perceived (with assistance from the press) as being ‘soft’ on drugs, and as woolly liberals (not to mention dithering and U-turning).

If anyone thinks that scientific evidence is the only basis for legislation then simply consider the case for an outright ban on tobacco. The evidence is overwhelming – it IS a major cause of ill health and death in the general community. But whatever your position on a tobacco ban, I think most people would agree that there are a myriad of complicating factors that enter into the thinking that would lead to a ban. Tax income, freedom of expression, Nanny states, relationships with trading partners, employment, consequences of criminalisation – I could go on – but won’t – you get the picture, it’s not just about scientific evidence.

Everything I’ve said here though is without any knowledge of the facts of this case – I can’t even remember the bloke in question’s name. Which as I said previously, puts me on a par with large numbers of the population, people who don’t share my interest in politics and current affairs – but who have a vote just as I do.

What seems likely to me is that far from the sacking of this being on “a whim”, it’s more probably that it’s been thought out very carefully. I’d also suggest that the ‘advice’ that’s been made so public has not been done as an off the cuff throwaway thing either – it’s been planned with some expectation of the consequences.

The Government it seems have acted swiftly and firmly to defend their position and to sack the advisor in question. Whatever you think of the action, it is hardly that of a dithering administration. It’s pretty authoritative I’d say.

So who decides which way to sell this to the public ? Who decides how to take a story and turn it into a way to present the Govenrment in negative tones again ? More importantly – Why do they decide this ?

The news outlets in this country have a massive impact on public opinion – to the extent that for many people their opinion is effectively decided for them. It worries me, that most of this opinion forming is done simply by rubbishing everything the Government does – and I’m sure it would be the same for a Conservative Government.

This saddens me. They need to take more responsibility, make proper analysis of the news, give both credit and criticism where it’s due – and most importantly, to give some respect to the public and the enormous power which they wield over them.

[The picture by the way is actor Milton Johns who has nothing at all  to do with with this blog other than that I thought he looked suitably creepy ! Can anyone remember the name of the 1973 children's drama series he was in alongside David Bradley (of 'Kes' fame) ? - Try to remember ! Try to remember Terry ! ]

October 31, 2009 - Posted by | politics, Uncategorized | , , , , ,

6 Comments »

  1. The advice came before the original u-turn. It was the advice that the Government ignored when it re-classified cannabis back up to class B.

    Also, it’s not that authoritative a sacking. It only happened the morning after Jacqui Smith was challenged over ignoring Nutt’s advice on Question Time the night before. They’ve taken an awfully long time to act.

    The reason for the sacking, as far as I can gather, is that the scientist made his views, which differed from the Government’s, rather too public for Alan Johnson/Gordon Brown’s liking. He directly contradicted Brown, who had described cannabis as “lethal”, called for a less sensationalist and more balanced approach to drugs (ie scrapping the A,B,C classification and basing a classification more clearly on risk), and said that alcohol causes far more damage than cannabis.

    He also made an ill-advised statement about taking ecstasy being no more likely to kill you than horse-riding. Which is possibly true, but rather tactless – also, I don’t know the context in which this was said.

    Comment by Phil | October 31, 2009 | Reply

    • In a few lines you’ve been able to give a reasonably balanced potted history of this – again I’m not up to speed on this, but it sounds credible, and objective rather than just out to trash – I wish the news blurbs that have been popping up on the radio & TV all day could be as well informed – and well informing – as your synopsis.

      Comment by northernheckler | October 31, 2009 | Reply

      • No problem. I only happened to catch Question Time just for that question – otherwise I’m sure I wouldn’t have known about it being on QT.

        I think you’re right to an extent about daggers being out – shown mostly by the omission of the ecstasy-horseriding comment in most news reports after the sacking (it seemed rather more important to observers on Question time before the sacking). I suspect that there was a combination of the Government wanting to distance themselves from that, and using it as an excuse to get rid of an advisor who was reading from the wrong script.

        Bloody awful decision, either way. In substance, manner and timing.

        Comment by Phil | November 1, 2009

  2. [...] Who decides what the public think ? « Northernheckler's Blog northernheckler.wordpress.com/2009/10/31/who-decides-what-the-public-think – view page – cached I had a very weak mobile signal. I could occasionally tweet. Could not get mobile internet on my laptop – so didn’t see any websites. Didn’t have a telly, didn’t pick up a newspaper. — From the page [...]

    Pingback by Twitter Trackbacks for Who decides what the public think ? « Northernheckler's Blog [northernheckler.wordpress.com] on Topsy.com | November 1, 2009 | Reply

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    Comment by Phil | November 1, 2009 | Reply

  4. A couple of informative links.

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    Comment by Phil | November 1, 2009 | Reply


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