Monday, December 7, 2009

Reconstructing Truth

I assume the Editor of the Daily Telegraph is a fan of Joseph Goebels and his dictum that if you shout a lie loud enough, people will believe it.

There can be no other rational reason to explain the front page story on 16 Nov 09 - "Crowded prisons sending killers on 'holiday'." Oh, there are other potential explanations. Incompetence. Stupidity. Malevolence. Political spin. I'll just de-construct this web of deceit and let you decide whether it was deliberate lies or merely lazy journalism.

Having set the stage with that headline, the first paragraph sets up the stall for the following story. "Murderers, rapists and other prisoners are being allowed up to 100 days "holiday" away from their cells to ease the pressure on overcrowded prisons."

Let's tease out the fragments of reality from this fiction. At the end of their sentences, in Open prison, people like me spend increasing amounts of time out in the community. That is the nature and purpose of "resettlement", to prepare us to re enter society after what may be decades in prison. A slow transition is meant to both test us and prepare us. A good idea in principle, yes? The alternative being to drag a man from his dungeon of twenty years and plonk him straight into the flat next to where you live.

After several months of working out in the community for 4 days a week (unpaid, argh!), we can apply for home leave. These can last up to five days at a stretch. Don't be deceived by the "home leave" description. Rather than putting our feet up in front of the fire at home, cold beer in one hand and hot woman in the other, the reality is that we are forced to go to probation hostels.

Five days in a bail hostel, with a curfew, no drinking allowed, stuffed full of teenage car thieves and smack addicts, sharing a room, with no money, not allowed to begin personal relationships and probably in a town you have never previously set eyes on. That is meant to give us a taste of living at home, whereas most prisoners see it as an ordeal of monumentally stupid proportions. Most of these hostels are worse than the Open prisons the lifers may have come from. But these sojourns now find themselves firmly categorised as "holidays". The guys in the Telegraph office will be disappointed if we swap a week in Ibiza for this experience.

Where did the "100 days" come from? Well, if you add up the maximum number of days we can apply to spend in these hostels, each year it comes to 96 days per year. So with tabloid ease, four days a month per year in a bail hostel becomes a 100 day holiday. Simple, innit?

As is standard these days, the Telegraph even found a "victims campaigner" to pitch in. Lyn Costello of Mothers Against Murder And Aggression (as opposed to all those mothers campaigning for butchery and mayhem), complains about these "holidays". She used that exact word. You can see what happened; the Telegraph phoned her, read her a paragraph with the key words - killers, rapists, holidays - and like a defective one armed bandit she spat them a quote straight back.

So far, so stupid. But Lyn Costello and her group are deeply involved with perpetual consultations with policy makers. To be frank, I expect those who hold such positions to engage their brain before opening their mouths. If you don't know about something, feel free not to comment upon it. But this continues her prior form for ignorant ranting. Last year, when a Judge had cause to produce a pen-knife in the course of a trial, she was so outraged at this wicked wielding of a weapon that she demanded he be sacked. Lyn Costello sees a cause and instinctively bites.
As one reads deeper into the story it becomes clear what this is really about. The figures for the number of prisoners having these "holidays" were released by the Conservative Party. Their mouthpiece, Dominic Grieve, is arguing that this all stinks of Labour incompetence. Whilst in favour of these temporary releases for long-termers to ease the transition into the community, Grieve is claiming that they are being let out solely to ease the prison overcrowding.

I assume Dominic Grieve is a reasonably bright chap, so I will explain to him why he is wrong. When a man goes on home leave, his cell remains empty. He moves straight back in on his return. It is not the case that an Open prison with 50 men on home leave will ship in 50 prisoners to fill those beds for the 4 days they are empty. It is clear to even the dumbest politico that these home leave releases have absolutely no effect on overcrowding, they are not connected in any way whatever. None. Zilch. Zero. Grieve may know this, but he should know it - he should have checked.

And yet we have the man who may be the next Justice Secretary pushing some statistics at the Telegraph, supplying them an anti-Labour explanation, and watching them run with it. Rope in a Victims Representative to add some outrage, and this is a perfect story.

The Truth is duller. The story would read -"Long term prisoners in Open prisons are forced to stay in bail hostels each month in aid of easing their passage into the community. It has been going on for decades. This has no effect on prison overcrowding."

When people ask why I decided to blog, it was out of frustration at the level of the debate around prisons. The anger I felt at the media’s lazy and distorted coverage had been bubbling away for years, and blogging offered the opportunity to pitch in with another perspective.

This Telegraph story perfectly illustrates the problem. A media outlet which is happy to be spun a story that fits its political agenda; a Tory spokesman willing to ignore the truth in favour of kicking his opposition; and a rent a quote victim adding spice.

The effects of this farce isn't just to degrade the public debate, it could cost lives. If Jack Straw lives up to his knee jerk reputation he will have already voiced his concern to the prison service. Governors being managerialist puppets, I can easily see those in charge of Open prisons now hesitating before they sign the temporary release licence. Fewer long term prisoners could be going to work outside or being dumped in bail hostels.

Why should you care? Because, much as I despise the system of Open prisons and hostels, they do serve one broad useful purpose. They "test" a man; they give him more rope to hang himself. And as a general proposition I would rather find out if a man is unstable or dangerous whilst he is in Open or a hostel, because the alternative is to kick him out at the end of his sentence without this testing. The people who find out if he remains dangerous are then his neighbours.

Dominic Grieve has done a massive disservice to criminal justice in spinning this story. He has chosen to opt for short term electoral gain, and I doubt has even considered the very real consequences that could flow from his intervention.
Every story I see in the media around prisons carries some of these flaws and this distorted information then becomes the basis for popular discourse. Debates are needed around imprisonment, but how is this ever going to be possible when people are fed a constant diet of distortion? Please bear this in mind the next time you read a prison news story. And someone shoot me if I ever descend to a similar level of distortion in my writing.


  1. I'd make newspapers write their 'stories' with Harvard referencing like we do for essays at Uni then people could check before swallowing their BS.

  2. This article belongs in the Guardian. How did your last article get picked up? I hope they see this and publish it.

    This is just one more example of the depths to which journalism has sunk nowadays. The rot runs deep - science reporting is my personal bugbear but this shows it is as bad in other places as well.

    We haven't quite sunk to the levels of the American press and I hope it will be a while before we get our own Glen Beck or Rush Limbaugh. It won't be long if standards don't improve though.

  3. An excellent post today.

    Did you ever read 'Flat Earth News' by Nick Davies? If not it would make a great christmas present! It's about how declining standards of journalism mean that a massive portion of what we read is either lies or PR

  4. I left prison to go to a bail hostel, (long story) but it wasn't that bad, it was a shared flat, with another ex-cookham wood woman. We got on well, the staff came in only 3 days a week, for about 15 mins. Nothing says you can't go out during the day for a drink, or whatever. We were tagged, and had to be in at 6.45. And 8 months after i got my own council flat. ( i know other people who have been on the list 11 years) You get extra points for living in a hostel, (being homeless) so it's not all bad Ben.

  5. It is this kind of media story, that should be vetted first for truth. Little, or no truth, then bin it! It should never be allowed to influence live situations, without democratic logic and truth first, in it's content. And, No! This would not harm Free Speech! It would just remove possible damage to a good, and truthful cause.