The War on Journalism

“It is often said that journalism is the first rough draft of history; by contrast, investigative journalism provides the first rough draft of legislation. It does so by drawing attention to failures within society’s system of regulation and to the ways in which those systems can be circumvented by the rich, the powerful and the corrupt.”
Hugo de Burgh; Investigative Journalism, Context and Practice

“Democracy Dies in Darkness”
Washington Post

When disinformation is rife the world suffers. Truth and understanding are the foundations of sound decision making. Without information and the knowledge of what is going on around us we, the population, are powerless.
We all have the capability to double check and triple check everything we are told, and we should. The mantra: “question everything” has never been more necessary. And it is this mantra that leads me to put more and more faith in journalism.

Journalists and media outlets have been hounded since news was conceived, and sometimes they deserve it. False claims, conjecture and low-level reporting have often lead to news organisations having to print redactions, apologies and sometimes face lawful action as a result of their claims and how they go about collecting evidence. News of the World’s phone hacking scandal is the obvious case that comes to mind. But the wayward actions of the few should not taint the legitimate, decent work of the many.

People go into journalism because they want to tell the truth. Some just want to break a story and achieve a level of fame. Some people want to attend parties, drink champagne and hang out with the elite. Some journalists make money from commenting on food and drink or art and movies. Journalists report on everything. Their job is to comment on the world, hold a mirror up to society and, if you still believe there is decency in the world of journalism, to shine a light into dark places and hold those who have wronged to justice. As journalist Robert Rosenthal states in his TED X talk on 2nd April, 2011 regarding reporting that it has a role “as a watchdog facing the abuses and the lies and the threats of the government.”

The more we know what is going on in the world around us, the better.
It was investigative journalism that blew open the case of fourteen assassinations on U.K soil by Russian agents by Heidi Blake and her team at Buzzfeed. The story is a mind-blowing piece that goes from Russian actions to potential cover ups by the then Home Secretary, Teresa May. Investigative journalism podcast, The Tip-Off, gives a profound insight into how this particular story was broken (link below).

When the public first heard about Russian interference in western democratic processes many believed that it was unsubstantiated nonsense from the mouths of liberal fanatics.

The weight of Russian interference in western affairs first came to my notice in another podcast, News Roast, when guest, John Sweeney told of multiple sources corroborating the claim (link below). Since then it has emerged that Russian interference through the sharing of supposed confidential information, hacking and the sharing of fake news through social media platforms has been substantiated by the heads of Facebook and Twitter as well as by MI5, the C.I.A and the F.B.I.

The only people that seem to be denying this claim are President Donald Trump, the far-right, and the Kremlin.

Russia aside, it is journalism that shines light on things that we do not see on a day-to-day basis. Louis Theroux is an exemplary figure to look at when it comes to delving into the stranger aspects of life. Actor turned documentarian Ross Kemp is another shining example looking at crime, immigration, drug abuse etc.

These people dive into the worlds that are only on the fringes of our conscious and bring them roaring onto our television screens. Because of this kind of reporting we become more knowledgeable about what is going on around the globe. It makes the struggles we hear about in faraway lands and in other communities more personable, something we can relate to.
But for all its triumphs, journalism is under threat.

When Donald Trump rose to power throughout the presidential campaign of 2016, he aimed a direct attack at journalists screaming “fake news” and claiming that he wanted to open up libel laws so that journalists would be more susceptible to being sued for their work. But that was not all. He was provoking such a hostile environment at his rallies that reporters and news crews were under physical threat from frenzied mobs who screamed at, and tried to attack them. Members of the press were often put in sectioned off areas where crowds could locate and hound them.

Bob Woodward, the man who broke the Watergate scandal, recently released a book: FEAR – Trump in the White House. Trump has already slandered the book putting it under the “fake” banner but the volume is one of a few that have surfaced since he took office.

One person’s claims against Trump does not necessarily mean that he has done something wrong. What does, however, bring doubt regarding his suitability for the role of president of the United States is when multiple sources of information consistently corroborate with one-another, bringing into question his actions and his ethics. So it is through the corroboration of evidence where weight gathers on the scales of truth.

Trump is the most obvious example because he is hot topic and has been since he put his name forward as a candidate for the presidency. But aside from Nigel Farage and recently Jacob Rees-Mogg, he is one of the biggest threats to truth in the western world. Through belittling and an almost child-like rebuttal of news stations, he becomes impervious to truth’s grasp. It is quite extraordinary.

Let’s move on. The reason why I trust journalists is because good investigative journalism does its best to sit outside the usual spheres of influence. Good investigative journalism is not a mere opinion piece or a work of speculation. Investigative journalism is the digging for hard evidence to support claims. This kind of work can take weeks, months, or years. But it is diligent and is often of such quality that it becomes evidence in courts of law. The only real difference between an investigation undertaken by police and one undertaken by journalists is one of method.

We all want the truth. But sometimes flying close to the truth puts journalists in peril. Daphne Caruana Galizia, former journalist, writer and anti-corruption activist in Malta was killed by car bomb after receiving multiple threats about her work investigating Malta’s Labour party, organised crime, money laundering and the liberal providing of European passports to wealthy individuals.

Daphne Caruana Galizia was a prolific journalist and blogger whose online publications often received more readership than Malta’s own newspapers. Despite the tragic fate that befell Daphne her son – Matthew – is a Pulitzer prize winning journalist and part of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ). This is a true testament to the determination to find truth.

Three Russian journalists (Alexander Rastorguev, Kirill Radchenko and Orkhan Dzhemal) were killed in the Central African Republic in July of 2018 whilst investigating private military company – Wagner – that had supposed ties to the Kremlin. At least 58 journalists have been killed in Russia since 1992. The world of journalism, especially in places where unethical practices have been undertaken, is a dangerous environment.

We read newspapers. We watch the news. We rely on providers for information to inform us about the state of affairs from sport to politics and global trends. If we did not have some form of news we would have absolutely no idea what exactly it is that government is up to, what legislature is passed and how that legislature is going to affect us. It is our right to have access to this information. It is right to know when corruption or unethical actions are taking place.

It is our right to be informed. It is our right to know and to be holders of the truth. In a constantly shifting world to have truth is to know your place. Know your stance, and know the next steps you wish to take.

And that is why the war on journalism must stop.

Pollution, pregnancy & false data

“Air pollution passes from pregnant women to placenta” – Peter Stubley, i, 17th September, 2018.

My last blog post was dedicated to the effects of pollution on people’s health – dementia in the older generation and early deaths predominantly in children, but also in adults. Well, not too long after this study was released I was shocked to read the latest update.

In an article by Peter Stubley in the i, he claims: “Evidence that air pollution passes from pregnant women’s lungs to the placenta has been found for the first time” before going on to say: “Previous research has indicated links between pregnant mothers’ exposure to air pollution and premature birth, low birth weight, infant mortality and childhood respiratory problems.”

For example on the 1st September, 2008 the Society for the Study of Reproduction (SSR) published a paper giving evidence that they had tested on mice and concluded that “In humans, adverse pregnancy outcomes (low birth weight, prematurity, and intrauterine growth retardation) are associated with exposure to urban air pollution.”

This is, however, the first time that definitive evidence has been gathered from placentas from Caesarean section births and confirmed the thesis. “Researchers detected what they believe are tiny particles of carbon, typically created by burning fossil fuels, after five non-smoking mothers living in London…”
The idea that children might be born into this world with a running chance has now been extinguished. Particulates are so dangerous that they effect children before birth. This news was on page 13.

I read that article and sped off to research the issue. This morning before I stepped out of my house to do my morning tasks, I heard something else on the radio that made me stop in my tracks. This news was that executives from Volkswagen, Daimler and BMW have now been known to have meetings with the agenda to deliberately avoid competition. The result: instead of trying to come up with innovative engine designs that would effectively reduce emissions, they held off such advances in order to sell their backlog of diesel and petrol cars.

This is an additional finding in what is currently being called Dieselgate, the scandal broken in 2015 in which Volkswagen was found to be taking part in emissions manipulation. This was done during the testing phase in which the emissions numbers were tampered with in order to make selected cars seem greener. More recent information (as published on 18th September, 2018 by Benjamin Wehrmann on cleanenergywire.org) has brought to light that Volkswagen CEO, Herbert Deiss, knew about his company’s emission fraud software long before he had originally conceded when the story was first broken.

Diesel emissions as we know are among the worst offenders when it comes to pollution. In London the primary culprits are delivery vans, hire vehicles (that are not subject to the toxicity charge, or T-Charge as it is better known) and congestion created by cycle lanes and lack of infrastructure. The city has suffered from illegal levels of particulates since 2010 and is close to Delhi and Beijing in level of toxicity according to an article by Leslie Hook and Steven Bernard and published in the Financial Times on 21st August, 2018.

The problem is that whilst the congestion charge and T-charge seem like an understandable way to deter people from driving into the city centre, business still needs to continue as usual and therefore the charges will be paid in order for trade and traders to access the city. Charges simply do not dampen the effects of what Defra called “the largest environmental health risk in the U.K”. Make no mistake, this claim is not limited to the U.K’s metropolis.

When you first click on to the Airlabs homepage, a company mentioned in Pollution & Dementia (5th September, 2018) you are met with a startling statistic. “92% of the world’s population are exposed to unsafe levels of air pollution”. If you doubt the sincerity of this claim maybe take into consideration the Financial Times finding that Airlabs founder, Sophie Power, has deemed the threat of particulates so severe that she has installed an air filter inside her child’s pram. And with good reason.

Another worrying piece of information provided by Airlabs is that pollution hotspots are “places with a high density of people, high emissions and long dwell time. Hotspots in cities usually occur at transport hubs, in parks and playgrounds close to roads, outdoor eating/drinking areas and inside ground floor shops along high streets.”

So, pretty much everywhere we like to go.

Now, consider that particulates are causing dementia, early deaths, and now entering the bloodstream from the lungs and effecting unborn children, the case for change is more evidential and urgent than ever.

Links:

Peter Stubley

i

https://www.independent.co.uk/news/health/air-pollution-pregnant-women-london-study-placenta-first-evidence-a8539861.html

Airlabs

http://airlabs.com/

@air_labs

Financial Times

https://www.ft.com/content/9c2b9d92-a45b-11e8-8ecf-a7ae1beff35b

Leslie Hook: @lesliehook

Steven Bernard: @sdbernard

cleanenergywire.org

https://www.cleanenergywire.org/factsheets/dieselgate-timeline-germanys-car-emissions-fraud-scandal

Benjamin Wehrmann: @BenJoWe

Pollution & Dementia

When 97% of climate change scientists agree that humankind is damaging the planet, it is time to listen. More importantly it is time to act. And, due to recent findings, we need to act now.

Last year an article grabbed my attention. The article was by Katie Forster and published in the Independent, 4th January, 2017. The claim in the article was that living near major roads can “increase the risk of dementia”, particularly when you live within fifty metres of a major road. This was from a study in Ontario, Canada. Having spent twenty-nine of my thirty years living by the side of one of my town’s major roads, I wanted to know more.

Because of the noise emitted from major roads sleep can often be fitful and it is proven that failure to reach R.E.M sleep (or prolonged R.E.M sleep) can lead to memory problems. After all, R.E.M sleep aids “memory consolidation” (the process by which we turn short-term memory into long-term memory) and also boosts capacity for problem-solving skills and aids creativity. So, while noise pollution was a factor in the rise of dementia, another factor was raised but shrugged away. That factor was whether emissions had anything to do with the increase in dementia.

That story in 2017 died down rather quickly and I had not heard much more about it, until a week ago. It was Tom Bawden’s article, written on behalf of the ‘i’ newspaper (28th August) which looked at new research that shows pollution is in fact a contributor to cognitive ability.

“Living in highly polluted areas over long periods of time could hit your verbal and mathematical abilities in later life”. This was the title of Bawden’s article and this time the study was undertaken in China, one of the world’s leading polluters. Lead author of the study Xin Zhang is quoted in the article as saying: “We find that long term exposure to air pollution impedes cognitive performance in verbal and maths tests. The effect of this air pollution becomes more pronounced as people age.”

Cities are by far more prone to the effects of carbon monoxide but the inhabitants see it as a price to pay in order to be surrounded by work and culture. But is it really a price worth paying? Schools in London are advised to keep children indoors during playtime when congestion and lack of circulatory weather patterns creates dense clouds of pollution. To put it into perspective of just how congested London’s air is, Bonnie Christian of Wired released a piece on 2nd February of this year that just one month into 2018 London reached and surpassed its legal pollution limit for the entire year. The title of the article – “How to breathe cleaner in London’s pollution-filled air” – highlights very well the mind-frame adopted by London’s inhabitants. I raised my eyebrows at this title. After all the only time people need a survival “how to” is when they are entering a hostile environment.

Emissions are the cause of “early deaths” – death that occurs before the average age of death in a certain population – “contributed to by PM2.5 (which is particulates in the air that are smaller than 2.5 micrometres)”. In 2009 the Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollution (COMEAP) put the deaths caused by PM2.5 as 29,000. In 2015 nitrogen dioxide was reported to have been responsible for 23,500 deaths according to Defra.

The information above is provided for their respective years. If these numbers of deaths are happening year on year it is clearly a problem of pandemic magnitude. Why is this not splashed on the front page of every newspaper? Why are there no emergency meetings being held in which the government divert sources and funding to help combat the toxification of the air we breathe?

The evidence proving that greenhouse gas emissions are getting worse is exponential. Satellite footage from NASA, NOAA (National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration) as well as research undertaken by scientists from all over the world have proven with myriad statistics that levels of nitrous oxide, carbon dioxide and methane are on the rise. This is reflected by the rise in global temperatures, major depletion of Arctic ice as well as landlocked ice in Greenland.

Pollution poses a threat in our streets, but it does not stop there. Studies have also suggested that the level of C02 in the air is causing “key crops” to wield less nutrients. As many as “half a million Britons could become deficient in protein” as well as suffer from a depletion in sufficient levels in zinc. The study by Harvard University (funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation) states that “the populations of 18 countries may lose more than 5% of their dietary protein by 2050 due to a decline in nutritional value of rice, wheat, and other staple crops”.

Globally, 76% of the population derives most of their daily protein from plants. Zinc and protein are much needed throughout pregnancy, infancy and childhood in order for children to be able to properly develop both physically and mentally.

Pollution is seen as a distant nuisance. A wrong that will be righted by future generations. We believe, or choose to believe, that someone will come up with a new piece of technology that will clean the oceans. Another piece of technology that will bring back the trees and another that will clean the air. The truth is technologies exist but not on the scale that we need in order to see the vast degree of change needed.

The study from China is a game changer. It highlights the fact that pollution is no longer a layer thickening the atmosphere far above our heads and far from our conscious. Pollution is at street level and pressing up against our doors. Particulates stick in our lungs. Our children breathe them in on their ways to and from school and when they go outside in the playground. The eldest members of our society lose their mental faculties and slip away.

The question is: how are we going to deal with that danger at our door?

There is some good news on this front. Start-up company, Airlabs, has trialled pollution traps around bus stops in heavy-traffic areas which, according to Bonnie Christian’s article, filtered “97 percent of nitrogen-oxide from the air so commuters could breathe easy while waiting for the bus.” Christian’s article was one of the most informative in highlighting solutions to the pollution issus (link below). Christian mentions Dutch artist Daan Roosegaarde designing and creating the solar-powered Smog Free Tower which has the “capacity to suck up 30,000 cubic metres of polluted air per hour, cleaning it at a nano-level and releasing the clean air back into the city.’ These are now being used in Tianjin, Dalian and Beijing as well as Rotterdam.

This is a great step in the right direction, but we need more initiatives. Pollution traps at every bus stop and street corner. Every city should introduce Smog Free Towers and aid in the cultivation of plant life. The problem is that, although these technologies are a fantastic move forward in combating air pollution, they are reactive. The very infrastructure that we use and rely on is fossil-fuel dependent. Be it the cars and buses that congest our streets or the container vessels chugging across our oceans, it would be a herculean undertaking to make the transition to green power, but not at all impossible. Naomi Klein in her bestselling book –This Changes Everything, makes a brilliant case of how the green energy movement would create a new global economy.

This kind of change needs to happen soon. Early deaths through respiratory illnesses and early onset dementia simply can no longer be justifiable when we have the potential for change at our feet.

https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/health-news/dementia-develop-living-near-major-main-road-study-mental-disorder-lancet-a7507616.html

https://inews.co.uk/news/environment/how-air-pollution-can-reduce-your-verbal-and-maths-skills/

https://www.wired.co.uk/article/london-pollution-toxic-levels-2018

The New-build Dilemma

It is official – houses are getting smaller.

Here are a few numbers from an article on the subject by Andrew Ellson and Jedidajah Otte in The Times, 20th August, 2018.

On average:

– Houses are now 20% smaller than in the 1970’s

– Living rooms are 1/3 smaller

– Kitchens are 1/4 smaller

– Bedrooms are 1/5 smaller

The road to purchasing a house is littered with potholes, diversions, dead-ends and dodgy signage. It took myself and my partner a year and a half to save up the deposit needed for a house in our area. And we only managed it because of the charity of my parents letting me live rent free in their house. If my partner and I had been renting, it would have taken us nearly three or four years to save for that deposit. That says a lot about our current culture.

New couples, new families and O.A.P’s looking to upgrade in their later years are buying new houses in new developments. Around Crawley and Horsham alone – where I am based – five new sectors are being added. Thousands of houses and apartments. All of them built smaller than the average residence, and – from myriad conversations I have had with labourers on site – with ever cheaper materials. For example: door frames built from compressed cardboard, plumbing constructed from PVC pipework, fake chimneys made from wood and rendered to look like brickwork. As well as plasterboard walls which would crumble if the PVC breaks or splits – after all PVC is far more brittle than copper and more susceptible to changes in pressure and atmospheric conditions.

New builds are not just smaller but also more expensive than the regular property and they are selling on the notion that, because they are modern, they have a longer lifespan than those built during earlier periods. No previous owners. No degradation. A new space to make a new home.

Space aside there is another issue facing those living in the new build houses and that is one of mental health. Statistically those living in smaller properties are more likely to develop mental health and social issues such as depression and anxiety. In cramped conditions, members of the family cannot get the time on their own that they need, as highlighted by Ben Derbyshire, president of the Royal Institute of British Architects who says that “In a two-bed, four person home there is no space to be on your own except in the lavatory. Humans are social animals but they also need peace, quiet and space for concentration.”

Higher property prices of new builds lead to financial anxieties due to buyers taking out larger mortgages. Combined with smaller living conditions leading to mental health problems the precedent being set by property developers is worrying.

Mental health and social issues after all lead to the most amount of work days missed and account for two of every five visits to G.P’s. The financial demand of the house combined with the house itself causing stress and worry would only create a false economy, would it not?

That is not to say that every new build is small, but with prices already high for smaller dwellings, the costs of larger properties are exponentially more and therefore fall into a price bracket that is often unachievable by those living on the average income. As commentator Tim Montgomerie says: “Inflated house prices owe much to the power of a few major builders to restrict the supply of new homes.” If someone wants to buy a house to call a home, they are at the whim of the prices dictated by developers. If you are a high-earner or in a high earning partnership and have enough money to buy a larger property, well, it turns out money really can buy you happiness.

The saleability of houses in regards to number of rooms is another contentious issue that we face in the United Kingdom. We are one of the only nations that sell properties based on the number of bedrooms that it has. In America and in much of Europe houses are sold on the basis of how many square metres are available. While people within the U.K might be happy in the knowledge that they have bought a three bedroom property, the space inside might not be appropriate for either the family unit, or to provide adequate separation space. After all, many properties advertised to have three bedrooms live up to the promise but space is massively lacking. What are sold as double bedrooms can at best fit a double bed and nothing else. I came across many of these houses when looking for the place we eventually called home.

As property developers squeeze as many houses into an acquired space as possible in order to maximise profits, the government is doing little in the way of putting regulations in place in order to set a decent living standard. Instead the “minimum size standards for new dwellings” as laid down by the government is entirely voluntary. This needs to change. The standards should become policy for all new developments not only for the benefit of the inhabitants but, as pointed out above, for the economy as a whole.

Architecture and proper civic planning can be, and has been, a tool for great change. By giving people space in which they can be part of the family unit and when needed to spend time by themselves. By focusing on creating public spaces in order to eradicate seclusion from one another and by bringing back community centres for children and social clubs for adults.

Due to the neoliberal dogma that the Conservative government subscribe to, projects such as this will simply not take hold. Maximising profits for companies and deregulating the market only weakens the government’s voice in matters of public discourse as corporate interest takes control. Prices will rise, houses will get incrementally smaller so that it is barely noticeable, and the effects on buyers will only be negative as a result.

Is this the way we want to go? Of course not. We need a government that will implement change and stamp policy into place to give people the place, and space, that they deserve.