Monday, June 28, 2010

Fun with headlines

So the government is making noises about banning smoking in prisons. You'd wonder why they feel like they need a fag when they can just take a dip in the heated pool, shoot a quick nine holes on the golf course or watch Gossip Girl on their MySky HDI blah blah blah...

Anyway, supposedly the main motivation for the change is the health - and, of course, future litigation prospects - of prison guards and non-smoking prisoners. Fair enough, although good luck making it stick. So quite why anyone feels the need to make this ridiculous point is beyond me - "Prison smoke ban could reduce crime":
Banning smoking in prisons could reduce crime, says a Northland mayor, amid warnings that guards and inmates would face added pressures and need more resources to cope.

[...] Whangarei Mayor Stan Semenoff, who has been advocating smokefree prisons since March, said crime rates could drop as a result of the policy.
Since March! Anyway, this is New Zealand and we have a fine tradition of small town (sorry) mayors coming up with ridiculous bollocks: Tim Shadbolt's Invercargill International Airport, Michael Laws' ... erm, Michael Laws. Now why does Mr Semenoff believe this to be the case?

A smoking ban at a prison on Britain's Isle of Man had become a deterrent for reforming criminals who couldn't face prison terms without smoking, Mr Semenoff said.

The drop in crime has been reported by British media, including the Telegraph, which said the crime rate on the island had fallen by 14 per cent and burglary by 35 per cent.

For a start, the Isle of Man isn't really part of Britain - but that's hardly the most misleading thing here. It seems like Mayor Semenoff has been reading this article from the super-reliable Daily Mail, which combines the correlation of a (relatively) massive new prison that happens to ban smoking with anecdotes about potential crims hating the prospect of not smoking, and finds causation. Interestingly, this piece from the IoM Today doesn't mention the smoking ban, and puts the drop down to effective community policing, which seems perfectly plausible on an island of 80,000 people with already-low rates of crime. In fact, while the Telegraph article mentioned in the Herald mentions a one-year drop in crime, the IoM Today article claims the massive crime drop began three years ago - before the prison was even built.

Obviously I can't expect a Herald reporter to do the five minutes of googling it took to find that information. And I realise that in the brave new world of 'objective journalism', the journalist's job is to accurately report what famous people have said, rather than finding out if it's true or not.

What I don't understand is why the crazed ramblings of a minor public official on an issue of no direct relation to him have been reported, and then bigged-up until it forms the headline of the piece (the only part of the piece most people will read before heading to Your Views). Or why the Herald is suddenly interested in an evidence-based approach to reducing crime, rather than just phoning up Garth McVicar and asking him what he thinks.

But the worst part is the headline. The article itself, while certainly being an utterly banal recounting of what various interest groups have said, with no weighing up of the issue at all, at least samples different views, only one of which - Mr Semenoff - considers the putative drop in crime noteworthy. Nonetheless, there's the headline: "Prison smoke ban could reduce crime".

Sometimes I cry at night.

EDIT: The headline has changed now that Crusher has announced the policy. But you get the point.


  1. Dealing with the modern internet - Rule #3.

    Always ignore any story/article that has one (or more) of the following words in it's headline:

    ...and so on...

    By doing this you'll save a bunch of time and keep your sanity at the same time.

  2. Unfortunately, I suspect most of your Sensible Sentencing Trust-types don't follow that sound advice.