Careful now! The safety of this information could be questionable

That would be the information in these two articles, 'Health and safety purge of the park benches that are 3 inches too low' from the 2 June edition of the Daily Mail, and '£160m to "lift seats" by 3ins' in today's (4 June) edition of the Sun. Be especially careful around the unsafe information in the second article. It could have your eye out.

These two are classic examples of how one thing maybe happening in one place gets exageratted and gradually changed at each telling until we have a supposed nationwide phenomenon.

The story starts in the Mail, and I found it fishy. Very fishy indeed. I'd started typing this post explaining why, and I just thought, 'Bugger it. You know what? I'm just phoning the Council and the Crematorium to find out what happened.' So I did, and was forwarded on by the Crematorium to the Council's press officer, who was very nice.

The Mail's version, in short, is this. New rules say that everywhere across the country must replace benches with ones three inches higher. A council inpector visited Bramcote Crematorium, measured everything and ordered the Crematorium manager to replace everything and add very expensive lighting within two years. So the benches - including those paid for as memorial benches - are being removed. A member of the public was contacted and told that the memorial bench she paid for being returned to her and her plaque moved. There's a quote from the woman in the article.

Here's what actually happened.

In order to meet requirements of the Disability Discrimination Act, Broxtowe Council are replacing benches thet need to be replaced because of wear and tear with higher ones as they go along. It would be too expensive to replace them all at once, so they're not removing every bench and replacing it with a higher one.

The Crematorium, which is owned by the Council, is following this practice. Some of the benches have memorial plaques, which members of the public pay for a five year licence for. As these five year licences run out, people are being told that the benches are being replaced and they can buy a memorial plaque for the replacement bench. Because of higher demand and a limited number of benches, the council have decided to reduce the cost of the plaques and include more than one on each bench. They're also offering the original bench to those people to keep if they want the original memorial bench. They're not throwing them out, they're not replacing all the seating in one go and they're not replacing the memorial benches until the memorial licence has run out.

The lady in the article was upset at the idea of having to share a memorial bench and contacted her local paper, the Nottingham Evening Post - which just happens to be owned by the Mail Group. Since the story appeared, she is apparently not taking any calls from the press because she is so distressed by how she has been misrepresented. The article doesn't seem to be on the website, as I've searched for 'bench', 'Broxtowe', 'Bramcote', 'crematorium', 'Kevin Browne' and the woman's name. I don't know if this is because the story went straight to the Mail and didn't appear in the local paper, or if it has been taken down because of complaints about misrepresentation.

Since appearing in the local paper, the story has been covered by the Mail, the Sun, Radio 5 live and elsewhere. Not a single journalist from any of these places have contacted the press officer to check any facts. I seem to have been one of the first people to have done so. They'll be releasing a statement this afternoon, and forwarding me a copy.

The Mail's story is bad enough, starting with this:
Park benches across the country will have to be replaced at a cost of hundreds of thousands of pounds - because they are too low.
When in fact what is happening is that one Council is replacing benches that need replacing with higher benches. Every bench that is being replaced by this Council would have to be replaced anyway.

The Sun's is much, much worse. Its version drops any reference to Broxtowe Council and Bramcote Crematorium and gone with this:
PARK benches across the UK will have to be replaced at a cost of up to £160million - because they are too LOW.


Under the same rules benches must also be well lit.

The bill to illuminate half would be a staggering £1BILLION.
Needless to say, Broxtowe Council's press officer had no idea where the paper got its figures from. Ironically, the Sun's version is illustrated with a logo stealing their ex-columnist's catchphrase, 'You couldn't make it up.'

But it just flipping did!

Political Correctness Gone Mad stories spread like urban legends. With an urban legend, what happens is that each person spreading it tweaks the legend just a little bit to make the story more convincing. That's why they usually start by saying they happened to a friend of a friend, or someone the storyteller actually knows. If they started with the person telling the story saying, "this happened to someone somewhere, but I don't know who or where or when," the story wouldn't be nearly as interesting or angaging.

With a Political Correctness Gone Mad story, what often happens is that each person, or paper spreading it tweaks it just a little to make it more interesting. And to make it fit the paper's pre-existing biases. A story about someone not liking the idea of having to share her memorial bench with someone else isn't as interesting as a good old crazy PC Gone Mad bureaucracy offending poor, bereaved relatives story, so the paper takes the idea of the benches being replaced at the end of a licence period and turns it into a 'purge of park benches that are three inches too low' story. Conveniently deciding to leave out any reference to licence periods, the fact that the benches being replaced need replacing anyway or the fact that the crematorium is actually owned and run by the Council.

A story about one Council slowly replacing benches as they wear out isn't as interesting as a PC Gone Mad bureaucracy screws up entire country with expensive nonsense rules story, so every local reference is dropped. (Although this may even be because the woman in the article wouldn't give the paper any quotes). In two quick steps we have a new contender for the next crappy 'Why kids need to learn APCs' hatchet job.

All without a single fact check.


septicisle said...

Brilliance, as ever. I swear they get worse, but then they've probably being doing it for years without anyone noticing.

Five Chinese Crackers said...

I wouldn't be surprised if they have. Without the internets I wouldn't ever be payiing money to read this crap - and nor would anyone else not lkely to swallow it hook, line and sinker.

And even if they had, there'd be nowhere to share it with anyone else.

Tom said...

It's the BBC latching onto it that's new, though - the Five Live habit of picking up that morning's Mail and running stories from it through the day acts as a very useful amplifier. In my mind's ear I can hear the angry texts from listener being read out now...

What show was it on, incidentally?

Five Chinese Crackers said...

I don't know much about 5 Live, but I know it can be a bit like that at times. Don't know what show it was mentioned on, the press officer I spoke to just mentioned 5 Live. She seemed pretty exasperated.

Anonymous said...

I can't stand the Mail but I have to say that you haven't quite made this huge revelation you seem to think you have. Anyone can read between the lines in the article in question without even calling the council. It says that the benches are being moved due to the needs of the elderly and disabled and though it doesn't say that the cost of replacement will be staggered, it doesn't say that it isn't either. All you have shown is that as a conscientious reader of newspapers you have noticed that there is more to the story than is reported. Most of us know this, don't take it for granted that yo're the only person to do this. Sorry, but your smug tone really bothered me.

Five Chinese Crackers said...

Wow. You must be the most conscientious reader of all time. You managed to work out by reading between the lines of the Mail article that:

Only one council and one cemetery were involved.

The cemetery is owned by the council.

The council were issuing press notices to clarify the situation because of how the articles were misleading.

The benches that were being replaced would have had to be replaced because of wear and tear anyway.

Memorial plaques are issued on 5 year licences.

The woman in the Mail article's licence was about to run out.

The woman in the Mail article had refused to take any calls from the press because of how she'd been misrepresented already.

If you could have told all that from the Sun's article, which didn't even mention the name of the cemetery, you need to forget about conscientious reading and think about claiming James Randi's million dollars for proving psychic ability. Hell, if you could have told all that from the Mail, you should still think about giving it a pop.

I don't know where you get the idea that I think I'm the only person to notice bullshit in the tabloids. There are links all over the shop here to other people who do exactly the same.