Emergency! Call the health and safety brigade!

Wouldn't it be ironic if firefighters weren't allowed to visit smokers' houses because of the smoke? That would make great tabloid copy. People who are in the most danger of being involved in a fire being denied safety advice to protect people who fight fires for a living? Just imagine the outrage expressed by the Daily Mail, say, if that happened.

Well, stop imagining and start believing, you crazy dreamers. Today's Mail has 'Firefighters banned from visiting smokers' homes to offer safety advice'. The caption underneath a photo of two firefighters bravely hosing a fire says this:
Burning issue: Firefighters are trained to deal with the most dangerous situations but new health and safety rules now reckon that visiting a smoker's house is a risk too far
It seems that Matthew Hickley, the hack responsible for this story, couldn't wait to be outraged by such a ban. So desperate was he for such a plum opportunity to slam the health and safety brigade that he kind of made this one up out of something a lot less worrying.

Here's a tabloid reporting rule. If a headline says something has been banned, the body of the story will reveal that nothing actually has. In place of a ban is usually a set of guidelines that only apply to one council or area of the country, sometimes old guidelines that aren't relevant or used any more, that don't threaten any kind of discipline or sanction for people who choose not to follow them. In this case, what has really happened is that the London Fire Brigade has sent a memo to firefighters saying that on prearranged fire safety visits to smokers' homes, they should ask the smoker involved not to smoke in the house for an hour before the visit and make sure the house is ventilated. Apparently:
If these rules are not followed, and a tell-tale haze of smoke remains when the fire officer arrives at the front door, he or she must "complete a risk assessment and consider whether the visit should proceed."

If they feel the home in question is just too smoky to enter, they will provide "general fire safety advice" at the door, and try to make another appointment.
Notice the bit about how the firefighter doesn't have to enter "if they feel" it's too smoky. It's up to them. Nobody's going to get the sack or otherwise disciplined if they go into a smoker's house. Nothing has actually been banned.

Over the last couple of decades, people have become more litigious. Ambulance chasing law firms offer to help people get compensation for what most people would think of as accidents in tawdry adverts on daytime TV. If something bad happens to you, you could get a nice little payout if you successfully lay the blame at someone else's door.

All that's happened here is that the London Fire Brigade is covering its back in case of future litigation from firefighters who might get lung cancer and blame it on the Brigade for making them go into smokers' homes. Firefighters are still allowed to use their judgement and decide whether they feel it's too smoky or not. The only thing that's different is that if they then try to sue the Fire Brigade, the Brigade can point out that it was the individual's own decision to go into smokers' homes since they were given a choice and guidelines for what to do if they didn't want to. This is true of pretty much every health and safety scare story in the tabloids.

Reporting that accurately would make for boring stories and wouldn't fit in with the tabloids' political agenda though, which is why tabloids always present things in an extreme either/or manner. You either want something to be allowed, 100% of the time, or you want it banned. 'Do this at your own risk' won't make a shocking enough headline and doesn't attack the paper's real or imagined enemies, so it gets changed to 'this is banned'.

The spin can change even in very similar stories, depending on who is involved and whether or not they are tabloid heroes or villains. The Fire Brigade story is clearly about tabloid heroes, since it is framed as being about firefighters being banned from entering houses.

The Mail has reported a very similar set of circumstances once or twice in which local council employees have been instructed to ask tenants not to smoke during home visits. The spin on these is evident from the headlines, 'Tenants to be banned from smoking at home' and 'Council tells smokers: 'Don't light up in your own home''. The situations are virtually identical to the one in the firefighters story, but council workers are Daily Mail hate figures, so these stories are about them banning people from doing what they want in their own homes rather than council workers being banned from helping certain people. The paper keeps the outrage but changes the target.

For those of you who are disappointed that you can't daydream about how the tabloids would treat the firefighter story anymore, imagine this; how would all three of these stories have been treated if the same things had happened for the same reason, but not smoking was a requirement of Islam?


poons said...

Tag - you're it


Timothy Baldwin said...

The ridiculous thing is that there is plenty of real health and safety nonsense out there!