Daryl Ilbury

Archive for the ‘Scoundrels’ Category

I never thought I’d ever say this, but…

In Free-thinking, media, Politics, Scoundrels on January 27, 2017 at 11:05 am

150826_donald_trump_2_gty_629.jpgI never thought I’d say this, but here goes: Since Donald Trump took office, I have developed a grudging respect for politicians. The very statement irks me to the point I feel nauseous. I have interviewed so many politicians, and found them, without exception, to be self-serving, and flexible with the truth. They revile me. They live in a filter-bubble of their own construct; they have to if they want to survive. And that’s why Trump won’t.

I once interviewed President Jimmy Carter. No matter what question I threw at him, he either delivered a brief, punchy answer, stepped to one side and deflected it, or spun it, creating the opportunity to talk about a pet project. It was a demonstration of the skill of a seasoned politician.

But all that comes with experience in dealing with the news media, who can be obstreperous at the best of times. They have to be. Part of their job is to hold politicians to account – tackle them at every turn, ensuring they do what’s right for the people, not for themselves. A successful politician is one that knuckles down, keeps their nose clean – or at least away from the media – and plays the game: remain sufficiently high profile to show they’re doing their job, but away from the spotlight when they’re not. And on those occasions when they fail, and they will fail, they need to endure the inevitable media backlash and, often brutal, public rebuke. It hurts; but if they stick it out, they’ll toughen up, even become impervious.

What they can not be, is thin-skinned. This is why successful business people usually make bad politicians – they are used to blind acquiescence from those lower in the hierarchy and selective accountability to a familiar higher authority. Being publicly challenged by a mainstream media with a mission to find fault is, for them, unsettling and annoying.

Donald Trump is the wrong person for the position of US President, for reasons already suggested: he is arrogant, selfish, bigoted, misogynist, ignorant, and delusional; hell, I’d venture to say he’s batshit crazy. But it’s his inexperienced, reactive, ill-tempered response to criticism in the media that will be his undoing.

The question is, how many people will suffer on his way down?

 

 

 

Fake news? Nothing new.

In media, Politics, Scoundrels on January 24, 2017 at 8:47 am

gadaffi-was-a-woman1Mainstream media is getting all frothy about ‘fake news’ as if it’s a new thing. It isn’t of course. So why all the bother? There are two reasons, but before I get to them, let me explain why it’s nothing new.

I took this photo while walking past my local newsagent on the Sunday after the death of Muammar Gaddafi, the deposed leader of Libya, on 20th October 2011. The paper claimed that according to an autopsy, Gadaffi was…well, you can read it in the headline.

Now you have to be a special kind of stupid to believe something like that, and yet there would have been readers breathlessly repeating this story over a beer or a cup of tea later that day. Of course, there would have been others who would’ve laughed about it.

The fact is, it was written by a ‘journalist’, edited and then published by a mainstream newspaper. All along the process, it would’ve been known the story was fake, but it was published nonetheless.

But there was a subtle nod to the possible dodgy nature of the story in the masthead. UK tabloids such as The Sun, The Mirror, Daily Star and Sunday Sport, publicly herald their tabloid nature right there on the front page, in their title: white, on a red background. It’s almost like a warning flag: ‘herein lies possible fake news’. In a way, it’s honest subterfuge.

And that’s one of the reasons why the fake news you’re hearing about in the mainstream news is such a big deal: it’s more insidious. It appears alongside real news under mastheads that seem so, well, ‘non-tabloid’. Readers no longer have the red tab to warn them. The people writing the stories also don’t seem to do so with a wry eye; more with the equivalence of malice aforethought. To make things worse, the stories are finding a firm footing in that most unguarded of news outlets: social media.

The second reason for the noise about ‘fake news’ is tied to the fact that it’s running amok from the conceiving grasp of mainstream media; and there’s a word for that: guilt.

South Africa takes a further step back into darkness

In Eish!, Science, Scoundrels on September 17, 2015 at 12:02 pm

CandleWhat do the following have in common: cheese, butter, coffee and oral sex? If you’re a science journalist you’ll probably know. The answer: they’ve all been ‘linked’ to cancer. The word ‘link’ is contentious at best.

The list is by no means complete. It’s a long one and includes such gems as air fresheners, bras, hot dogs, talcum powder, and…well, Ross Pomeroy, the author the blog Real Clear Science, has attempted to track them all down.

I was reminded of this because of two recents events, coincidentally linked. The first was the Mail & Guardian’s decision to drop its science desk as part of a series of retrenchments in the face of a cashflow crisis. I learned about this – the day before it happened – when chatting with the title’s (now former) science editor, the award-winning journalist Sarah Wild. It couldn’t have come at a more absurd time – Sarah has just published a book that champions the work of South African scientists, expertly putting science into context for ordinary South Africans.

The second was a piece in the Daily Maverick by one of the few journalists still bothering with employing an investigative eye – Ivo Vegter.

Ivo’s point, and it’s an oft-ignored one, is that science doesn’t know everything (if it did it would stop), and that it’s not so much a repository for knowledge as a process for learning about our natural world. More importantly science acknowledges this (as opposed to religions that claim to know the absolute truth), and so it’s quite comfortable with making mistakes along the way – after all, as I’m sure your mother told you, ‘we learn by our mistakes’.

Now this wouldn’t be the problem if more people knew this when reading the paper or going online. Instead they’ll read a ‘science story’ and just believe it, because a) it’s in the news, and b), well, it’s science.

Editors know this, which is why they like ‘science stories’ that ‘link’ something everyone fears (cancer) with something that everyone consumes or does (coffee…sex…etc.). It’s also why science journalists – real science journalists, not inexperienced journalists given a science ‘beat’ – are sorely needed. They can expertly cut through the research clutter and correct the claims (the ‘links’) editors want to make. That’s how they get in the way of tabloid content dressed up as ‘science’, and why they’re often the first to go in any title’s shake-up.

But in South Africa there’s an added reason why science journalists are needed, but paradoxically not: We’re a nation that still believes in spirits, ‘throwing bones’ to diagnose maladies, and that a man who calls himself ‘Doctor’ can help you win the lottery while making your penis bigger. This would be quaint if it weren’t culturally protected under the title ‘traditional healing’. So any journalist that forces uncomfortable questions about the merits of cultural claims, is, in such a politically and culturally sensitive media environment, bound to get in the way.

The Mail & Guardian’s decision to drop the science desk – claiming the decision is a purely economic one – risks dragging the country deeper into ignorance; and that’s not only short-sighted, it’s wholly irresponsible.

The irresponsibility of media framing around race

In Eish!, Scoundrels on August 12, 2015 at 11:29 am

Militarised policeIs highlighting race in the recent emotionally charged, media-covered riots and arrests in the U.S. newsworthy? The media would have you think so…and that’s highly irresponsible.

I have been following, with more than a little disquiet, how the media, especially in the U.S. frame recent events where police officers have been involved in what developed into high-profile engagements. Examples are the shooting of 18 year-old Tyrone Harris following protests commemorating the death of Michael Brown; the arrest of Sandra Bland, who was later found hanged in her cell; and the shooting of Walter Scott.

In each case, attention is drawn to the race of either the officer, the victim, or both; which is necessary, right? The answer is no, because it’s not necessary for reporting purposes. However, it is necessary if you want to frame the story for maximum impact.

I have been framing media content across different media platforms for over almost 30 years. There’s a secret to doing so successfully, and it’s the key message whenever I train media professionals: get a reaction. That’s because when your audience react they engage, and when they engage, you have a window of opportunity to develop a relationship with them; i.e. encourage their involvement, connect with advertisers, etc. If the audience is not reacting, the content is passing them by. And that’s not good, especially – and this is important – in an era where mainstream media is under pressure from social media.

Getting a reaction is easy – swear on air, show a naked picture on the front cover, and you’ll get a reaction – but there’s a more challenging caveat in mainstream media: you have to do so responsibly, intelligently and, if you’re very good, subtly.

And there’s that word: subtly. In the coverage of the stories listed above, the subtle subtext is the following: this is all about race, people.

Except it’s not. Police officers arrest people (if they started arresting animals, that would be newsworthy). White police officers arrest people who happen to be black. They also arrest people who happen to be white (and hispanic, Indian, Asian, etc.) Black police officers arrest people who happen to be black. They also arrest people who happen to be white.

Importantly, in the U.S. police mainly arrest white people. According to the FBI, in 2012, 69.3 percent of all individuals arrested were white, 28.1 percent were black, and 2.6 percent were of other races; white individuals were also arrested more often for violent crimes than individuals of any other race.

However, the media would have you believe otherwise – that white police officers target black people for arrest, often forcibly, and that this is part of a larger issue – hence the subtle – but purposeful – framing by referring to race whenever a suitable occasion presents itself. This, the media knows, will get a reaction; and in an era of active social media that can quickly whip up often violent sentiment, that is irresponsible.

Food can kill you!

In Eish!, Fools, Science, Scoundrels on April 14, 2015 at 4:49 pm

Derp of the DayI have followed with detached interest the rise and fall of Vani Hari (yes, as in Mata Hari), a.k.a Food Babe – ‘detached’ because to engage with her and her doting acolytes would send my blood pressure sky high, and ‘interest’ because what she’s doing worries me. For those who don’t know, Hari is an American self-appointed arbiter of food safety. Her qualifications for such are zero.

OK, that’s a little harsh; she does digest food. The point is she has no academic qualifications. She’s certainly not a dietician. [This is a good point to emphasise the difference between a dietician and nutritionist: essentially dieticians are registered and belong to a regulated body; nutritionists not necessarily so]. She calls herself an ‘activist’. Translated: she makes a lot of noise about something; and you know the saying about what makes the most noise…

The thing about lots of noise though is that attracts attention, and as traditional media battles social media for the minds of media consumers, lots of noise on social media tends to be picked up by a reluctant traditional media. And that makes food companies scared. Hari’s ’cause’ for activism is what’s in food, specifically food that is prepared or packaged for consumers. For her, unless it’s organic it probably contains poisons, and she presents as evidence the varied scientific-sounding additives and preservatives found in most prepared foods. One of her biggest nemeses is azodicarbonamide (sometimes referred to as ADA), a chemical substance approved for use as a whitening agent in cereal flour and as a dough conditioner in bread baking. She has made a noise about it also being used in the manufacture of yoga mats. True, but then the zinc found in spinach is used in the manufacture of car batteries (we’re made of chemicals, people!) She selects as a source the website of an organic food disciple, Max Goldberg, who in turn quotes a WHO report that “links ADA to respiratory issues, allergies and asthma”.

So let’s go there: The report says: “Evidence that azodicarbonamide can induce asthma in humans has been found from bronchial challenge studies with symptomatic individuals and from health evaluations of employees at workplaces where azodicarbonamide is manufactured or used”. Sounds scary. Loosely translated: people who show a sensitivity to it should avoid it, especially those who work with it.

But this is true for any chemical, including something found in almost all prepared food – a chemical so dangerous that symptoms of toxicity to it can include dizziness, changes in blood pressure, abnormal heartbeat, convulsions, coma and eventual death. It’s called sodium chloride – yes, common table salt.

At long last science is beginning to stand up to Vani’s narcissistic (she presents herself as evidence her activism works) scaremongering. Mainstream media is finally getting the message. But what has really made my day is to see scientists take her on via her media platform of choice: blogging – meet Science Babe.

Why ISIS and Boko Harum are right

In Eish!, Fools, Scoundrels on January 19, 2015 at 7:10 am

religious_discriminationThe report that Nigeria-based militant group Boko Haram kidnapped dozens of people in neighbouring Cameroon would no doubt have caused a murmur of concern throughout the Western parts of the world. This comes hot on the heels of other Boko Haram attacks in Nigeria, the killing of a reported 2000 people, and the terror attacks by Islamic-aligned militant groups in Paris. It’s fair to say that most people can’t rationalise why these militants are doing this.

Here’s the explanation: They’re doing what they doing because what they’re doing is right, and because they have ‘evidence’ that what they’re doing is right.

It is of course not right – and as a humanist I condemn it – but they believe that it is, and that’s an important clarification, and the explanation for that will be uncomfortable for many people. But here it is:

Imagine the biggest library in the world. It exists, it’s the US Library of Congress, the de facto national library of the United States. On a large table in the library sits a book. Just the one book. It is an ancient religious text. No-one knows for a fact who wrote it, and so nothing in the book can be verified. 

Understandably, millions of people in the world dispute the veracity of its contents. Nevertheless millions of other people around the world still believe what’s inside it to be true, absolutely, unequivocally true. More importantly they see it as their sole frame of reference for understanding the world and interacting with other people. In fact they see it as a book of answers to any questions they have – any questions whatsoever. 

And it can be, because with the guidance of self-appointed interpreters, all they have to do is find a phrase in the book and twist it to address their question or, more worryingly, to support their purpose, to be ‘evidence’ that what they’re doing is right – no matter how abhorrent it may seem to other people. 

This is possible because – like horoscopes – the wording is broad, often vague, and in many places even contradicts itself.

That book is of course…the Bible.

What? You were expecting the Qur’an? That’s understandable because it could easily be the Qur’an. But then it could also be the Torah, the Talmud, the Book of Mormon, the Pearl of Great Price, the Guru Granth Sahib, the Dhammapada, in fact any one of many diverse and disputed religious texts.

Think about that for a minute: Of the over 158 million items in the Library of Congress, many people in the world take as their absolute doctrine the contents of just one book, the contents of which can’t be verified and yet can easily be interpreted to support any belief or purpose.

The militants are simply doing what millions of other people of all religions do every day: do what they do because they believe what they’re doing is right, and they have ‘evidence’ to prove it.

Oh, and by the way…humanists? They’re interested in what’s in the rest of the library.

The anti-GM hypocrisy

In Eish!, Fools, Politics, Science, Scoundrels on January 15, 2015 at 6:05 am

figure6I am both fascinated and frustrated by people who use advances in science and technology to object to advances in science and technology – it reeks of hypocrisy; and I reserve a special frothy ire for those who use all the scientific and technical means at their disposal (such as social media) to object to biotechnology, especially around genetically modified (GM) food. 

The recent decision by the EU to allow its member states to decide for themselves whether they should allow GM crop cultivation, has shaken the anti-GM lobby from their slumber, and they’re beginning to make a noise again.

Unless you’re someone who understands the science of biotechnology and the context within which the research and development takes place, the chances are you’ll sway towards, at least, being cautious towards GM food, your head swimming with warnings of contamination, or fears that if you eat GM food you’ll give birth to a child with three heads. 

And yet, you still want the right to have children. Yes, GM food and your right to have children are linked.

First of all, as I’ve said before – content is king, context is King Kong; so first, a little context: Scientists suffer the popular misperception that they:

  1. Like to tinker with nature – they just can’t let it be;
  2. Think mechanically – they just can’t stand back and respect the aesthetics of nature;
  3. Like to play God – they just can’t let nature be;
  4. Like to retain an aura of exclusivity and mystery – they think they’re better than everyone else;
  5. Have evil designs on the world.

Every scientist I’ve interviewed – and I’ve interviewed a lot – does research for the same reason: they are deeply fascinated with the natural world (especially their focus area) and wish to contribute to the greater public understanding and appreciation of it; and where it’s applied to usable products (technology), how it can improve the human condition. And whereas one or two of the scientists I know may lack the social graces of writers and artists, they’re certainly not evil!

And yet the anti-GM lobby would have you believe scientists are evil, because it serves their agenda to drill into you one thing: fear (here’s a typical example of more tempered fear-mongering).

The reality is that you’re already eating food that has been genetically modified, but over thousands of years – it’s called evolution; and the developments in GM food – such as increased pest-resistance – would more than likely happen naturally, but eventually.  

That would take time, time that a rapidly growing, eternally hungry, increasingly urbanised human population, with limited resources at its disposal, doesn’t have. The anti-GM lobby – and I’ve met a lot of them – seem ignorant of this fact (and are certainly ignorant of the science of biotechnology) and are happy to live their own precious lives enriched with all the trappings of science and technology, content to denigrate the very same science and technology that has an eye on feeding the future.

When bizarre medieval beliefs obstruct modern medicine

In Eish!, Fools, Science, Scoundrels on January 3, 2015 at 7:58 am

witch_tortureI don’t know of any other area where science and society clash more than around religion, which is why it interests me. There are so many areas of science where evidence has completely disproved religious belief, and where religion has eventually (albeit reluctantly) accepted such evidence (e.g. a helio-centric solar system as opposed to a universe with Earth at the centre), or where religion chooses to reject scientific evidence and hang blindly onto its construct (e.g. evolution vs creation).

However, what is of particular concern to me is where such religious construct clashes with science around civil liberties. A recent piece in The Atlantic is a case in point. It reports on research done in Catholic hospitals where doctors are not allowed to perform tubal ligations (tube-tying) – a routine procedure and one of the most common forms of sterilisation – requested by women who have had multiple children through C-sections. Such requests by women in these circumstances is understandable given that they run a real risk of harm if they are forced to undergo another C-section. This is of particular concern to doctors at these hospitals who face dismissal and legal action if they perform the procedure – even though it’s in the best medical interests of the patient. This is of course because of the Catholic church’s official objection to contraception. It is bizarre that the Catholic church still hangs on to the medieval belief so wondrously captured by the Monty Python team that every sperm is sacred (in which case, as the wry observation reminds us, male masturbation is mass murder).

What stands out for me is that according to the piece in The Atlantic, Catholic hospitals in the US are prohibited from providing sterilisation under the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services, which are issued by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and enforced by local bishops; and yet these same directives claim that “Catholic health care ministry seeks to contribute to the common good [which] is realized [sic] when economic, political, and social conditions ensure protection for the fundamental rights of all individuals“. Since when is a woman’s decision about her own body not her ‘fundamental right’?

Let’s not forget these directives are handed down by a powerful organisation controlled entirely by men.

20:20 vision…and it’s not good

In Eish!, Politics, Scoundrels on April 27, 2014 at 4:43 am
ANC moving forward

ANC election poster promises signposting actual delivery

On the much-lauded 20th anniversary of the first truly democratic elections in South Africa, there’s a lot of retrospective navel-gazing in the media mixed with modern promises and political fighting-talk ahead of the next elections on 7th May. For me this is all captured in the image on the left.

Some context: I took the picture during my daily walk to work along one of the major streets in the centre of Pretoria, South Africa’s administrative capital. It’s a snapshot of conditions of a portion of the city that’s a stone’s throw from the city hall – an ANC stronghold – and a couple of minutes drive away from the seat of national Government – The Union Buildings – also full to the rafters with senior ANC decision-makers.

At first glance you notice the rubbish strewn on the pavement. But look closer at the poster half way up the pole (you may need to double click on the image). It’s an ANC election poster showing President Jacob Zuma with the words underneath ‘Together we move South Africa forward’. The juxtaposition between promise and delivery is jarring.

What you can’t see is the litany of broken paving, missing manhole covers and indefinitely suspended road works that are repeated throughout this part of the capital, and through which the municipal, provincial and national ANC decision-makers travel regularly.

This is not an isolated case. The ANC’s election claim it has a ‘good story to tell’ of governance over the last 20 years has been found by respected fact-checking journalism organisation Africa Check to be almost entirely false. The media are also full of stories of corruption, mismanagement and abandonment of responsibility. Another, more worrying, snapshot of this is in the deterioration of the once highly-respected Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital.

What makes all this so truly unbelievable is that it most probably won’t make a shred of difference to the people of Pretoria who are expected to return the ANC to govern the city, the province of Gauteng and the nation as a whole come 7th May.

So why is this? In brief: the typical South African doesn’t have sufficient maturity of understanding of their entire role and responsibility in the democratic process. They don’t understand that it is they who ultimately hold the Government to account, and that this responsibility requires rigorous implementation at election time.

This is very much a reflection of the lack of critical thinking by South Africans – a result of a decades of state control during apartheid; embedded traditional cultures that demand unquestioning reverence towards leaders; and a pervasive identification with religions that provide promises of delivery – without accountability – by mythical beings.

Personally, I believe that if the people of Pretoria walk past this kind of scene every day and still vote the ANC to power on 7th May, they deserve to get screwed. Again.

“What the f…, Daryl?”

In Eish!, Politics, Science, Scoundrels on April 23, 2014 at 4:51 pm
Fodder for the South African media consumer. Image: The Guardian

Fodder for the South African media consumer. Image: The Guardian

It took a tweet from @ScienceWTF quoting British biophysicist and X-ray crystallographer Rosalind Franklin to jolt me back to writing – that and a full six months in my current position as Media Coordinator at SAASTA. I have over that time come to realise that the only way to get more science into the public domain is not with a gentle nudge but with a silk-enrobed sledgehammer.

That may sound a little blunt, but in my travels across the country and in my interaction with South Africans – both creators and consumers of media content – I have noticed two things: the relative lack of imagination and maturity in the South African media landscape, and a lack of critical thinking in the typical South African media consumer.

I am not surprised given that I am intimately familiar with the editors’ mantra “our readers/listeners/viewers don’t have an appetite for science”. This is of course highly inaccurate because we are all voracious consumers of science (albeit largely unknowingly so). But more about that later.

So what does the average South African media consumer have an appetite for? If we are to judge by the content currently peddled by the conventional media, it’s the following: Oscar Pistorius, politics, crime and – trailing at the back somewhere – sport.

Let’s examine those one by one by asking a couple of basic questions about their relevance:

Oscar Pistorius

Who will be directly affected by the outcome of the Oscar Pistorius trial and therefore has a proper reason for following it? Outside of Pistorius and his family, the family of Reeva Steenkamp, and the prosecution and defence teams, few, if any. So why are so many people glued to it? For the same reason Romans used to pour into the Colosseum to watch Christians being eaten by lions. There’s a word for it: schadenfreude – and it represents a particularly nasty side of human nature. Therefore the deafening coverage of the trial in the media actually speaks unflattering and uncomfortable volumes about the (lack of) humanity of the South African media consumer. So therefore why cover the trial to such an extent?

Politics

Who is directly affected by the detailed coverage in the media of the actions (or more accurately inactions) of politicians? Outside of the politicians who rely on remaining in the public attention in order to remain relevant, few, if any. Unless, of course, by their actions (or inactions) being covered (uncovered?) in the media, they receive their justified comeuppance. However, in South Africa such accountability is virtually absent, otherwise half the players in politics would be in jail. So therefore why cover it to such an extent?

Crime

There’s no denying crime, especially violent crime, is rampant in South Africa; so much so that rape and murder hardly make the headlines any more. That’s a shocking state of affairs, but not so much as the fact that it’s not considered sufficiently so by the Government to warrant any decisive intervention (see point above on inaction). It’s fair to say the typical South African media consumer has become inured to reports of crime. So therefore why cover it to such an extent?

Sport

There’s also no denying that South Africans have a passion for sport, especially football (that’s real football by the way, where players actually put foot to ball, not American ‘football’, where they don’t). With so much passion, you’d think South Africans are good at playing the game; however, a quick glance at the FIFA rankings would show otherwise (hint: we’re buried on page 3). Granted, we are good at other sports, like rugby and cricket; but let’s face it, sport’s hardly a matter of life and death (and please don’t quote Bill Shankly is if to prove it is). So therefore why cover it to such an extent?

However, there isn’t a single element of our lives that isn’t examined by science – not one; and it’s usually with the purpose of improving our lives. Science isn’t 18th Century Greek architecture – the domain of specialists with niched scopes of interest! We consume it – it’s in the food we eat, in the technology we use, in the clothes we wear, in the natural and built environments in which we live, in the medicines we use, in the air we breathe, in the behaviour we display, in the way we think and in the way we move. We are also the very embodiment of science – in the chemistry of our blood and organs, in the physics of our limbs and in the electricity that courses through our brains; and we exist in a universe that is composed of the very same chemicals that are the building blocks of our bodies.

In short: science is the core of our very being.

The discipline of science also encourages critical thinking. Let’s not forget South Africa is a country where an ignorance of science is fuelling rampant levels of HIV infection, and where the belief in spirits and untested ‘traditional’ medicine is fuelling a plethora of miscreants offering everything from miracle cures to “bringing back lovers, lengthening penises and winning the lottery”. Don’t laugh – have you read your stars today? Do you really believe swirling balls of high density gas thousands of light years away move with the specific aim of determining when you should buy a lottery ticket? Of course not…and you don’t believe in fairies, either but you’d buy a lottery ticket and pray to some mythical god to help you win.

“Our readers/listeners/viewers don’t have an appetite for science”? What utter bollocks! They NEED science.