We British are such a bunch of pussies dicks when it comes to the weather. Anything slightly warmer than a tepid bath and we're all like "Oh my God! We're all gonna die!!!!"; anything slightly colder than a tepid bath and we're all like "Oh my God! We're all gonna die!!!!"; anything drier than a tepid bath and, well, you get the general idea. Essentially, if it's not like a tepid bath outside, we're all at risk of freezing/frying/drowning/drying up to death.
And so, dear friends, to today's Daily Express. While it lacks the snarling at minorities of yesterday's poison-filled slurrybucket of a front page, it still persists with a similar narrative: that of us being under attack!
You can see the weather story and the Abu Hamza story as pretty much the same thing: we're under attack, and there's nothing we can do about it! We can't even extradite HOOK! We're going to fry in the hot weather! There's nothing we can do! Panic! Panic now! Panic soon! Panic quickly! Stay indoors! Don't keep calm and carry on! Panic! PANIC! This isn't just a WARNING, it's a DANGER WARNING! Aaargh!
Hang on, this reminds me of something.
Did 60,000 die in the snow? No. Did gas supplies run out? No. Did the snow chaos prove that global warming was a load of codswallop? Er, no - just as the latest 'heatwave' doesn't prove conclusively that climate change is a reality either (it's a bit more complicated than that, I reckon).
I know Brits are obsessed with the weather, but bloody hell. It's not like it's The Day The Earth Caught Fire (a film which ironically has the Daily Express as the arbiter of quality journalism), is it? Just a couple of nice days. Get a fucking Cornetto, or a 99 with monkey blood and sprinkles, and go out and enjoy yourselves! It's not the end of the world, just as the snow wasn't either!
Enough of this weatherfearporn! A few warm days are something to enjoy, not be afraid of.
News today about the tragic deaths of two teenagers:
Toxicology tests have shown that two teenagers whose deaths were linked to mephedrone had not taken the drug.
The deaths of Louis Wainwright, 18, and Nicholas Smith, 19, in March 2010 sparked concern about the synthetic stimulant, which was then legal.
The Labour government banned the so-called "legal high" in April, making it a Class B drug alongside amphetamines and cannabis.
At the time, you could have been forgiven for thinking there was no doubt about what killed the pair:
Not a sniff of doubt about it back then: MEOW MEOW KILLS. The Sun couldn't resist a bit of kneejerkery and roared BAN DRUG NOW. Luckily for all drug-fearing parents everywhere, the then-Labour administration knew its masters at the Sun were right, and hastily ensured a ban did take place.
Which isn't to say that mephedrone is entirely safe, or should be put in a bag with a lolly like a Sherbet Dip-Dab, or anything; it's just that, as I thought at the time, sometimes it's best to wait and see before blundering in to making conclusions and driving up a moral panic - particularly if you're a massive newspaper with millions of readers, some of whom will actually believe what you say, and you're not entirely sure, and not all the facts are known.
The deaths are still as tragic as they were, whatever the cause. And before the inquest is concluded, we still don't know the exact circumstances. But I wonder if the Sun or Monday's Metro will give equal prominence to the real cause of death, if it's established not to be something that chimes in with a moral panic agenda.
I don't wonder actually.
As I said yesterday, it might seem quite surprising that some of our papers are lamenting the fact that Britain's closed off to the world - when that's exactly what they want most of the time.
But that is to suppose that they have strong principles, or beliefs, beyond a desire to get off on a frenzy of panic-porn and fear-tapping - and I'm not so sure they do. Fear of immigrants is a particularly useful fear to tap into because it's hard to disprove, whereas evidence seeming to back it up is everywhere - the anecdotes about immigrants taking jobs neatly rattled off as if they're true in the letters pages of the Daily Mail, for example.
In a sense, the fearmongering about volcanic ash from Iceland is exactly the same story.
PARALYSED BY THE VOLCANO is the same kind of story as we've seen before about stuff like swine flu, or SARS, or the Millennium Bug, and so on - here is this spectral thing, which is going to do us harm, and we can't do anything about it. There's an almost catastrophism fetish in our screamsheets, at times, which luxuriates in stories about Nostradamus predicting the end of the world, for example, or terrible viruses killing us all off; we've all read the stories and they appear quite regularly. I call it panic porn because instead of looking at the realistic scenario, newspapers gravitate towards the worst-case event, even if it's a remote possibility - like when cold weather struck and FREEZE MAY KILL 60,000. Just cold weather isn't good enough. Terrifying cold weather that could kill thousands? Now you're talking.
But I'd go a step further and argue this is exactly the same kind of fear-tapping these papers use when it comes to stuff like immigration - here comes the invasion of brown people, or Poles, or Romanian gypsies, or whoever it is this week we're meant to be scared of, and they're infecting us, and we can't do anything about it. Again, the fear of infection; the fear of contamination by an outsider; the fear of our green & pleasant land being damaged by these forces we can't control. Those are the key elements to a lot of tabloid stories, and they get repeated even on a smaller scale with silly stories about ladybirds or caterpillars or squirrels - same same, but different.
The volcanopocalypse, or ashmageddon, or whatever you want to call it, effortlessly glides along the same tramlines as these other stories. Here is this outside force. We can't do anything about it. It's coming to get us and infect us. It's going to contaminate us. It's going to cause chaos. We are powerless. Now, you could liken this to 1950s paranoia about Communists and draw parallels with similar popular-culture narratives about invading aliens; or you could say we're in a similar invasion/contamination paranoia right now because of fear of terrorism/dhimmitude, and so on. This is, I suppose, the overwhelming paradigm of these post 9-11 times: 'we' are under attack.
Whatever it is that we culturally like about this narrative, it's why the papers go big on it - ramping up the fear factor. Which is why it needs to be taken on a step further. It can't just be ordinary ash disrupting flights, causing a bit of travel bother and so on; it must be DEADLY.
You may not fall off your chair if I tell you that the story isn't quite about Britain getting a 'stay in or wear a mask' warning; that these warnings are for people with certain existing respiratory problems or conditions; that these warnings are only applicable if the volcanic dust begins to start settling at ground level, which it hasn't done yet; and it isn't quite the DEADLY DUST horror promised by the headlines. But you knew that already. What I'm interested in is the why. Again, the Express, like the Mail, constantly pushes the 'fear of immigration' storylines on its front pages, even stretching the truth when it needs to get from A to B in a hurry, pandering to racism and prejudice as it does so. I vary between (a) thinking the Express is simply racist and (b) thinking that racism is just a by-product of its desire to tell ghost stories. But here we go again: for the ghost story to be scary, it must result in death. Who cares about a few asthmatics getting breathing difficulties? Let's go for DEADLY DUST instead!*
The Mirror's take is interesting because that tries to demonise the ash cloud and personalise the fear. Look, it's got a vaguely face-shaped shape to it! It's a MONSTER! You'll recall at the time of 9-11 when people saw 'faces' in the explosions; this is the same kind of thing. It taps into another little fear-spilling part of the brain, that thinks this is the work of the devil or something; it's that ancient sun-worshipping bit of the brain that tries to make sense of stuff we don't understand by turning it into gods, monsters and dragons.
The storylines are familiar; the ash cloud simply happens to fit into a familiar type of story - one that we know and recognise. Are we panicking yet? Not really. I don't think so. But as time ticks on, and if the cloud doesn't go away, the fear might get turned up a notch. Are we really in terrible danger or not? The one place you won't be finding that out is on the hysterical front pages. I don't blame them; they've got a job to do - they're just selling a story. But the story they're selling might not quite be the same as what's actually going on - and that's pretty much the case all the time.
* If you ever get the chance, have a look at The Day The Earth Caught Fire. It's set in the Daily Express offices (and was filmed in the actual building IIRC) and tells of the earth heating up in a natural disaster. I find it interesting because it shows old-school journalists at work; not only that but these fictional old hacks remain much cooler in the face of a 'real' catastrophe than their contemporary real-life counterparts do in the face of a bit of cold weather. I suppose, in a way, the modern-day Express is always waiting for the earth to catch fire, and treats all stories as if it might.
How dangerous is meow meow? One thing's for sure: we won't be finding out by opening a newspaper. Now that two deaths have been linked to it, it's time for a bit of panic-porn. Imagine if swine flu and Facebook had sex and produced a runty child that went around killing people: that's the kind of treatment that meow meow's getting right now. Evil! Danger! Terror! Dead children! Aaargh!
Were they 'killed by meow meow', as those headlines boldly state? Well...
Police said they believed the drug, also known as "meow meow" or m-cat,contributed to the deaths of Louis Wainwright, 18, and Nicholas Smith, 19. They died on Monday after a night out drinking in Scunthorpe, Lincolnshire.
It depends on whether you think 'contributed to someone's death' is the same as 'killed'. Or whether you think that matters. Or whether you don't give a shit, so long as you flog some scary newspapers to ramp up the panic and take your readers round that ghost train one more time.
Of course it brings to mind that all-time classic
episode of Brass Eye in which all kinds of celebrities were all too keen to come forward and make bizarre claims for how a huge fluorescent yellow drug called 'cake' could affect your 'Shatner's Bassoon'. Meow meow, as we are doomed to call it now, is real enough; but how dangerous is it really? Does it just contribute to people's deaths when combined with other activities, legal or otherwise - in which case, why isn't that message which could save lives coming ahead of all the BAN IT NOW, WE'RE ALL GONNA DIE!! hysteria?
No. We're not grown-up enough in this country to have a reasonable debate about drugs, and the screamiest parts of our press aren't grown-up enough to describe what may well be a complicated situation without yelling the loudest to call for things to be banned, or to warn that things are killers when they may not necessarily be in all circumstances. In Britain, we are trapped in a classroom with Mr Mackey: Drugs are bad, and that's that.
Professor David Nutt is one person who tried to talk reasonably about drugs a while ago as an expert adviser by the Government, and was swiftly jettisoned as his expert advice, expert advice though it was, wasn't the expert advice they wanted to hear. All of a sudden it was "Ooer, he's a bit of a Nutt innit? Do you see?!" and he was doomed. It didn't fit the narrative. He wasn't screeching dire warnings about kids playing Russian Roulette with their very lives. He tried a pharmacological, rather than hysterical, approach. Which failed.
Poor old David Nutt, previously lambasted by Jacqui Smith for daring to imagine a world in which all drugs weren't entirely evil things which kill you as soon as you look at them, tried to hold up his cocktail umbrella against the tsunami recently in the Guardian, before this latest incident:
Is mephedrone harmful? Because its use is so recent there is relatively little evidence on this point, but from its pharmacology we could not make the assumption that it would be completely safe, especially at high doses. Users report effects such as a faster heart rate as one would expect from a stimulant. In the UK, there have been scare stories of mephedrone deaths, but so far none has been proven, though mephedrone was involved in the death of a Swedish teenager in 2008.
The link in that quote from the Nutt piece is broken, but it once went to a story saying that meow meow was "The deadly drug that's cheap, as easy to order as a pizza... and totally legal" - a story in the Daily Mail, I bet you are somewhat unadjacent to the feeling of being surprised to hear.
Because this new panic-porn has been some time coming. There were previous false alarms with meow meow being linked to deaths, but now it is being described as a possible contributory factor - or the thing that definitely killed these people, depending on how frightening you want to make it sound. Earlier this month, Metro confidently reported on how 180 children had been sick off school because of meow meow, although you could see that it wasn't really that clear cut from their own story:
It's not clear how they know - but quick! Make them panic! 180 kids off school! Definitely! We're not sure which school or where, or how they know, or what's going on, or whether it's really 180 kids or just the same kids taking it again and again, but PANIC! Panic now! Panic as if your lives depend on it!
It may, of course, be the case that there really is something dangerous in meow meow, and it'd be foolish to imagine that all the fears weren't founded at all. But how do we know that? And what do we really know? We know that the police think it might be a factor. What does the science say? No-one's referring to science when they talk about this story; they're talking about SCARED PARENTS and ANGRY POLICE and the evil lethal drugs that can kill you, and have definitely killed these people.
I can only see this getting more intense because it's in everyone's interests that it does. The Government will be delighted: they can portray themselves as arbiters and protectors ahead of an election, and ban this sick filth from our streets. All politicians will want to join the snowballing panic before it passes them by, so won't dissent. The cops can make themselves look like diligent protectors, also, seizing these perfectly legal drugs in order to protect us from ourselves. And the press have got a new scare story - our children being killed off by a lethal drug. It's a perfect storm.
From the BBC:
At least 29 people are thought to have died as a direct result of the cold snap.
There's still some way to go, then:
That snow had better get a wiggle on if it's going to get another 59,971 before the end of the cold snap.
The Express isn't sure whether it's the snowpocalypse or not.
Aargh! Gas running out! Looting! Murder! People turning to cannibalism! (Of course, gas is always, by its nature, running out so it's not entirely false - it's just that it hasn't run out quite yet, so it's a teensy weensy bit misleading)
Wuuuuurgh! Help! Panic! Chaos! Cars not moving quite as freely as they would otherwise do! Flakes of white stuff falling to the ground! Panic! Death! Roasting headless babies on a spit! Murder! Barricade yourselves in! Evil! Coldness! Fear!
However, Thursday brought this:
That's right. You see, the GAS IS RUNNING OUT and it's SNOW CHAOS, and you should be panicking... but, on the other hand, don't let that panic mean that we're ground to a halt, obviously. I mean, yes, it's is chaos, but on the other hand, it's not as if it's chaos, is it?
Panic returned for today, though, in a delightfully responsible piece of journalism that reports the facts without having to resort to simplistic scaremongering:
Yes! PANIC NOW! Panic! Stock up on tins of spaghetti hoops and firewood - this is going to be the snowmageddon! Doomed, I tell you, doomed! A far cry from "Don't let the snow bring us to a stop" - now the Express says that the snow definitely will bring at least 60,000 of us to a stop, permanently. Sadly, then, it's the "Don't panic" that's the island in a sea of "Aaargh, we're all gonna die!" - and when 60,000 of us haven't snuffed it because of the weather? Well we should just think ourselves lucky we're still around to enjoy such beautiful front pages.
Panic. Panic! PANIC! Do you not see how important it is to panic? We haven't had a decent panic since swine flu - remember that? And that wasn't even around long enough to panic about. So now it's time to really panic. PANIC! It's not too late to panic. Get out there and panic. No, stay in and panic. Stockpile salt, water and Ovaltine at the Co-op. Then panic. And buy a newspaper while you're in there, elbowing people in the head for a can of de-icer and a bag of oranges to ward off the scurvy.
I've written before about how people like Iain Dale and Richard Littlejohn - ah, and I'm sure Wogan would be doing it, if he were still on the radio, but thankfully I don't have to listen to him ever again - do the "Hey look, it's snowing outside, therefore there's no such thing as climate change ever, hooray, I win" silliness every now and then. Which is fine, because it's a nice little joke for their readers and makes them feel more comfortable about not having to understand something quite complicated, like the seasons of the year and the fact it's colder in winter than it is in summer, especially in a generally cold country like Britain*. But you'd think that kind of silliness would be reserved for comment pieces rather than the front page of a national newspaper. You'd think so if you didn't read the Express:
Aaaargh! SNOW CHAOS! Eeeep! Martyn Brown was the Express writer charged with sellotaping together their snow story, writing:
AS one of the worst winters in 100 years grips the country, climate experts are still trying to claim the world is growing warmer.
With millions of Britons battling through snow and ice to get to work today, scientists claim that the cold conditions should not be used as evidence against man-made climate change.
As one of the worst winters grips the country, climate experts claim the world is growing warmer. Whyever might that be? Could it be that not every country in the world is seeing a really cold winter? Possible. But to imagine all that, and to imagine that today's weather in Britain is slightly different from the global climate, is quite difficult if you don't want to look beyond your own back gate. This story says there's a heatwave heading for South Australia. Conclusive evidence of man-made global warming, then? Well no, not quite either. It's a bit more complicated than that. Why can't newspapers handle things that it's hard to describe in ten words or fewer?
Even the Mail - even the Mail, for god's sake - is a bit more upbeat about things, saying that we'll get through it with true British grit and determination:
That's a bit more like it! I imagine the online articles about snow have ten billion billion billion comments underneath saying "WHATEVER HAPPENED TO GLOBAL WARMING LOL?" but at least the Mail are trying to suppress their natural instinct to panic as much as is humanly possible.
The newspapers, though, are bastions of responsibility compared to the dumbed-down rolling news channels, desperately trying to out-Day Today each other with increasingly apocalyptic predictions of snowmageddon. I think if I see one more breathless reporter in a bobble hat out in a snowy field telling me that it's snowing - which I can see with my own eyes, by looking with them - I'm going to go insane.
And now, of course, news channels and their websites have turned into Tony Hart doing 'The Gallery'. Send us in your pictures of snow so other people can have an idea of what snow might look like, in case they've strained their necks and can't look out of windows - and people do, they really do. "Here's my picture of snow, it's in my back garden" - "And here's a lovely picture from Doris Racist of Guildford, and here's some lovely snow in her back garden, oh and look, there's a little dog turd by the bird bath there, lovely, keep those pictures coming in" - is this what we've become? Is this the bright new world of citizen journalism? Is this what rolling news was meant to be all about - people sending in pictures of their back gardens because there was weather?
Apparently, yes. Sky plead with readers to send in their snow pics:
I'll send you a picture all right. Here's a picture of my hairy arse, which is about as relevant to news and as interesting as your bloody snow pictures. Ooh, here's a gate with some snow on it. Christ! Oh, people made snowmen did they? I would never have known they did, if you hadn't been there to tell me. Thank goodness there's no other news in the world at all, that you could just clear the news schedules and stop people dying and being nasty to each other right across the planet, because there was a bit of a flurry in the home counties and some kids had a day off and went sledging, the jammy bastards.
I might sound a bit curmudgeonly, but no. I like snow. I think it's great. I like going to the pub as well, but I don't think Sky should have a reporter outside telling the world about it. There are lots of banal details about the world that aren't interesting enough to be put on the news, with warnings of CHAOS and DANGER and BLOODY SNOWBOUND APOCALYPSE WITH PEOPLE MURDERING EACH OTHER AND TURNING TO CANNIBALISM - all right, I made the last one up. I know the election stuff was tedious, and the snow's a bit more fun than that, but surely - surely - there are other news stories as well, somewhere, about something. Aren't there? Or is this all there is? Panic and weather, the two great British obsessions - it's a perfect storm.
See also: Lenin's Tomb - today's headlines
* Even if you're looking at pictures of it on the TV from Florida or popping over on holiday to the UK to see how your kids are doing in their journalism jobs (which they obviously got through talent, determination and sheer skill alone) in the case of Littlejohn
Panic. Panic! Panic about everything. Panic about the same old things if you must
with the same story you run every few days, in which the population could reach twenty eleventy billionty five if everyone stopped dying and all those bladdy immigrants kept coming over here, and had a million kids each, and so on, and so on...
Or if you can't raise yourself to panic about the population you can panic about petrol, if you like.
Prices are going up! Who would have thought that the prices of things increased over time? Why hasn't someone come up with a name for this incredible phenomenon? We should call it something like 'inflating' to emphasise how things are blowing up and there's nothing we can do about it. I mean, rail fares and bus fares going up by double digits every year is one thing, and something well worth ignoring entirely, but when it's petrol, that means it'll hit the poor old middle class folk on the school run and no-one else at all!
My favourite panic porn today, though, is about this:
Aaargh! Some kids have copied a scene in which kids did something - and became ill because of it - and have become ill because of it. Next they'll be copying someone smashing themselves in the face with a brick, and it'll be the BBC's fault when they end up with bloody noses! But seriously. How reckless of the BBC to promote guzzling loads of booze! No-one would ever do that.
Great! I'm off to down 10 drinks because even though the headline says it might be dangerous, I'm too stupid to know about things! And I'm too busying about petrol and the BBC to care any more...