Standards of Information and the New Millennium

In the late 80s one of my favourite rock bands, wrote a song called Somebody Save Me.  Within its lyrics it contained the following lines:

Everybody’s got opinions
But nobody’s got the answers

Somebody Save Me, Cinderella from the Album Night Songs (1986)

This seems to have become a motto for the new century.  Indeed my writing this piece is a demonstration of this.  Anybody can write anything they like and it doesn’t even matter if it is true.  Consequently people are buying into it wholesale; not only by producing ill-conceived articles, but also in people reading and believing every word they have read.

Let me illustrate: –

The outright lie.

The Brexit vote was driven by misinformation.  Remember the famous red bus that proclaimed that leaving the European Union would result in £350m a week staying in the government coffers?  Furthermore this money  could be used to support the overwhelmed NHS.  According to a BBC graphic the real figure was actually £161m, when taking into account the funds that return to Britain, either directly or indirectly.  This in itself is a substantial amount, but not what Brexiteers claimed.  It can be assumed it doesn’t take into account any reduction in tax receipts as any consequence of a potential downturn in trade as a result of Brexit.

The moral meme.

Anyone who uses social media has come across the meme, often readily recognised pictures with a comment beside it.  A personal favourite, after Cecil the lion was hunted and killed by an American Dentist, was a pride of lions on the prowl, captioned with the phrase – “we are looking for a dentist..?”  Amusing as it was, it was clearly untrue, but made a powerful point.

However when similar memes masquerade as truth it is problematic. 

Consider the so called European refugee ship that was accepted by North Africa during World War II.  I have reproduced it below.

It may seem logical that many Europeans attempted to escape Europe during the horrors of World War II and the message of our common humanity and reciprocation is indeed a moral one and thus rests easily on our consciences – so we accept it as true.

However, closer examination reveals the truth.  It may not be obvious but the picture has been de-coloured which makes it look older.  The people are so small that they become featureless but if you were too zoom in it would be obvious they are not dressed in the style of the 1940s.  However, the biggest clues are the name of the ship and its home port.  It is the Vlora, registered in Durres.  Both of these are Albanian port cities and what we are actually looking at is an attempted mass exodus from Albania after the fall of communism.  The ship crossed the Adriatic and ended up in the Italian port of Bari.

It was notorious at the time because the Italian authorities didn’t know what to do with the Albanians and most were kept in boiling conditions with little provision in Bari’s football stadium.

This meme became very popular and was viewed by millions through their social media accounts, but shouldn’t a moral message be rooted in the truth?

It also illustrates the point that anybody can use anything to say what they want.  Here is a meme I mocked up during the 2017 election to illustrate what I am saying.

It is obviously untrue and nobody believed it as it completely lacked subtlety, but there is a tendency nowadays to believe what we read, but not only that, but to share it further if it happens to coincide with our beliefs and values.

Readers need to take responsibility and be more discerning in what they share.  In the past journalists had to comply to certain standards and were brought back into line if they strayed – think of the paparazzi in the aftermath of the car crash that killed Princess Diana. 

When studying, students are required to check the reliability of their sources and reference them to demonstrate not only their trustworthiness, but also the diligence of the study.

Let me finish with a simple illustration to make my point.  We have all probably received a ‘Nigerian’ email, which typically is from a widow claiming that her husband has just passed away and her money is locked into an account that she needs your help to access.  She will give you a cool $1m if you can share your banking details to enable her to get the outstanding $9m.

We read it on the net and immediately dismissed it as a scam and unless from a recognised media source we should treat all information with similar scepticism.

If fact, embrace that last paragraph.  Treat everything with doubt, until you check it out – even from so called reliable sources.  I challenge you to check the information I have shared here and take me to task with any information I have shared that is wrong.

© Richard Horton, Omega Support Services 2019

Brexit – The Case for a Second Referendum

Brexit is a mess and it has been ever since the result of the referendum was announced in June 2016.

We can discuss the wisdom of David Cameron’s choice to put it to a public vote (which in the author’s opinion was a short-sighted attempt to unite the Conservative Party that has resulted in dividing the country).  We can even bemoan the arrogance in how he argued that he could win the case to remain thanks to a towering self-belief that in recent history has only been topped by Tony Blair (remember how he tried to shrug off the Iraqi WMD debacle and probably didn’t even convince himself).

Remainers bleat that the vote to leave was misinformed, backed up by the often cited statistic that the most Googled item in the UK after the referendum was ‘What is the EU?’  Negative campaigning – on both sides to be fair – left the public confused and reduced the vote to an emotional reaction rather than a rational decision. 

Leavers insist that the vote should be binding and that to not leave makes a mockery of the oldest sustained democracy in the world.  They also claim that those who didn’t vote for whatever reason can’t complain about it.  Promises of more funding for the NHS have proven to be unrealistic as has a completely closed door on immigration.  The deed has been done and that is the end of the matter.

Theresa May, infamous for using her words to say nothing, declared Brexit means Brexit and she is fully intent on delivering it because the British public has spoken.

Division, dissension and disarray – we have become an international embarrassment.  The world looks on in wonder how such a cultured and civilised nation has been reduced to such a state.  Even EU President Donald Tusk, who has been notably diplomatic and conciliatory in his approach to the negotiations (unlike the self-important one time city mayor Jean-Claude Junker), finally lost patience in declaring (paraphrased) that ‘(he) wondered what special place was reserved in hell for those who devised Brexit without any idea of how to deliver it.’

Frankly I agree.

This was another mistake Cameron and Co made.  Remain or Leave were simple choices, but Leave was vague in its definition.

Allow me to digress for a second.  Imagine you want to move house.  You don’t simply sell up and move out.  If you were to do so you would end up on the street.  You make a plan, or maybe even two plans.  Maybe you will sell and rent while waiting in a chain or for a suitable property to become available or maybe you will buy and move in before you sell your old house.

The permutations don’t matter the point is you make a plan.

Brexit is about the whole of Britain moving out and no plan was made.  If we want to leave we should already have provisional bilateral agreements in place, and an understanding of the position concerning immigration, trade and border controls – especially with the Republic of Ireland.

I’m leaving is tantamount to just walking out, but as with a marriage we cannot just walk away.  There are certain moral and legal obligations that remain.  Were we told this?  Did we understand the implications of these commitments.  European projects are figuratively the EU’s babies, we can’t nor shouldn’t walk away from these projects in the same way as a parent can’t nor shouldn’t walk away from a child.

On this point it is important to make clear that the EU needs to give ground too!

Dwelling on the past, however, doesn’t deal with the core issue of whether we should remain or not.  Brexit should be an informed decision carried by either a Parliamentary majority, or – and now that particular Pandora’s Box has been opened – with a clear majority in a referendum.

Dear Mrs May, Brexit means Brexit because the British people have spoken is a misguided belief!

Let’s look at the statistics.

Accessed on 26 February 2019 and reproduced from Wikipedia:

In terms of percentage it was close, often cited as 52/48% but in terms of numbers it represented more than a million people who cannot be ignored.  However, a true extrapolation of the data reveals that declaring the British public has spoken isn’t entirely true.

Out of the British public with the right to vote (46,500,001), the number who actually voted to leave was 17,410,742.  Therefore the actual percentage of the public that voted to leave was actually 37.44%. 

Newsflash Mrs May! This is not a majority.

Of course the same claim could be made of the remainers; whose actual vote comes out as 34.71%

Brexit however was such an important decision with major repercussions on the future direction of the country that this should have been taken into account.  My first thought was to skew the vote, but this would be fundamentally undemocratic.  To insist on at least a 60/40% vote in favour of Brexit to change would be unfair.

However what would be fair would be to insist that whatever the turnout, based on the number of registered voters the threshold to achieve Brexit would need to be greater than 50% of the whole or in this case, as the number works out quite nicely, 23,250,001. 

The British public would need to be informed very clearly that not voting communicates, ‘I can’t be bothered’, ‘I don’t know’ or ‘I’m not interested’ means they don’t care and it is reasonable to interpret a non-vote as don’t change anything which is tantamount to remain.  Thus their non-vote, while not being overtly a vote to remain, does become significant as it is not added to the leave total.  The apathy of the non-voter would work against Brexit.  So long as this is clearly understood it is then for those who wish to leave to make sure they vote.

On the surface this may seem unfair.  Why should such restrictions apply to only one side?  Well it is simple, a vote to remain is a vote to carry on (albeit with a possible wish to reform the EU) whereas a vote to leave is a vote for change.  Change need to be voiced whereas simply carrying on can happen through the quiet acquiescence of the apathetic.  Those who drive political change are known as activists for a reason.

Again there is precedent in day to day life.  If my wife asks me what I want for dinner and I don’t offer a suggestion I can’t complain when she feeds me what she wants.  My apathy means do what you want.  Only a proffered suggestion can change this.

So to summarise, the original referendum was flawed in how it was set up and how the results were interpreted.  We have now opened the issue up to a public vote and we can’t force that genie back into the bottle.  So a new referendum is the only way forward with a clear understanding that an absolute majority (based on the total electorate) needs to be achieved to execute Brexit and it needs to be made crystal clear to the voting public what a non-vote means.

And in the meantime before voting let’s focus on clear reasoning rather than negative and populist arguments to make our points, whichever side of the divide we are on.   While you are at it Mrs May bash out a tentative agreement and inform the public of what it means so a vote for Brexit becomes an informed choice.

And finally Mrs May deal with the very reasonable Mr Tusk –whose loss of patience is fully understandable – and look to scope out a Norway or even Switzerland type of deal in the event of Brexit; after all when we joined the Common Market it was something more the shape of EFTA that we wanted in the first place.

Whatever you do ignore the hair fondling Juncker who is nothing more than a hyped up little man with a Napoleon complex.

© Richard Horton Omega Support Services. 2019