by Peter Jones7 minute read
The latest Daily Mail journalist to take a pop at the issue of how waste is managed in the UK was the unlikely figure of Richard Littlejohn – the vituperative columnist described by John Crace as “the stupid person’s Jeremy Clarkson”. His article is a blunderbuss assault on local authorities, whose bin collections he says have become “a perversion of public service where dustmen are the masters and we are the servants“. So zealous were his comments that the piece immediately spawned a rather brilliant Daily Mash parody.
Flipping his lid
The jumping-off point for the UK’s sometime highest-paid columnist to dive into our sector was the release of CCTV footage of a Leeds binman removing bags from an over-filled bin and leaving them by the side of the road. Whilst I’d suggest that the “closed lid” policy is a reasonable approach when the aim is to restrict residual waste capacity and boost recycling, not putting the additional bags back in the emptied bin wasn’t a moment that covered the council with glory. The operative in question was duly suspended pending an investigation.
Littlejohn treats this incident as a symptom of something far wider, and sets off on a scattergun gripe attack on all aspects of council waste collection, an issue clearly close to the Florida resident’s heart. It may not come as a surprise to learn that the man with the catchphrase “you couldn’t make it up” has based his lively opinions on some pretty dubious factual claims – so dubious that, after several months of painstaking argument and the involvement of the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO), the Daily Mail has now amended or deleted nine separate errors made in the article.
That was a rather better outcome than I expected when I set out on my complaint. After all, this was a comment piece, and I suspected that the Mail might try to argue that the entire piece simply set out Littlejohn’s opinions, rather than stating facts. Although the newspaper often mentioned that the piece was “satirical” and expressed “opinions”, thankfully they didn’t try to hold this indefensible line.
Full of holes
Another challenge was that the piece contained numerous incidental errors, rather than resting on a single blunder like some previous cases I’ve pursued. Whilst each was misleading, it was their cumulative impact that most concerned me – and I wondered whether the newspaper or regulator would insist that each be considered on its individual merits, opening up an argument that they fell below some sort of de minimis significance threshold. Fortunately, that problem didn’t materialise either.
For the dedicated press watcher, I’ve provided hyperlinks to my side of the correspondence below (I’m not allowed to share the Mail‘s), which may be of interest to those who wish to see the lengths I had to go to in order to dispel Littlejohn’s various absurdities. The Mail even had a go at defending the claim that the hole in the ozone layer doesn’t exist….
Perhaps the oddest claim, and one they strove hard to maintain, was that David Miliband had proposed that “every household should buy a ‘kitchen caddy’ for food waste”. If only the one-time environment secretary had been so bold in the 2007 Waste Strategy…. It seems that the Mail, rather than looking at what the Strategy actually said, had relied on (and embellished) a Sunday Times article previewing what the document was expected to say – which proved not to be ever so accurate. Ultimately, the point was conceded and the text removed.
Bags of trouble
Also peculiar was the coverage of the case of a beauty salon owner, Susan Le Poidevin, who was being taken to court by Birmingham City Council because her business had been caught disposing of waste unlawfully in standard black sacks, rather than having any commercial waste arrangements in place. For Littlejohn, this was a petty-minded council prosecuting a business for using “non-regulation” bin bags, presumably put forward as another example of the “perversion of public service” that is the article’s target. However, all it really succeeds in demonstrating is his lack of understanding of waste collections – trade waste being collected by councils on a commercial basis, not as part of a taxpayer-funded public service.
Ms Le Poidevin blamed the incident on her 71-year old mother “making a mistake” while tidying up, but it transpired that she had not bought trade waste sacks for over three years. She was charged with causing controlled waste to be dumped without a permit and failing to have a legitimate means of disposal of her trade waste from the premises. Although reportedly determined to fight the case as “a matter of principle”, Ms Le Poidevin entered a guilty plea, and was fined £525, plus costs of £2,734 and a victim surcharge of £53. It’s hard to think of many circumstances where the Mail would take such a sympathetic view of someone charged with ripping off taxpayers – perhaps waste collections are a special case? I was able to get the newspaper to make it clear that Ms Le Poidevin was supposed to pay for trade waste sacks, but not to get all of the irrelevant material removed – irrelevance isn’t against the Editors’ Code of Practice.
Littlejohn also managed to pin some of the blame for the “perversion of public service” on the dreaded European Union, with a lengthy disquisition on the evils of the “sinister” 1975 Waste Framework Directive (75/442/EEC). This he credits with starting us on the path to “pay-as-you-throw taxes and microchips in wheelie bins” – the former of course banned in England and Wales, so making the latter a rarity. No mention is given to the subsequent amendments and replacements of the directive in 1991, 2005 and 2008 – but it’s probably as well if Littlejohn remains unaware of them, as they would most likely render him even more apoplectic.
Stepping up to the plate
He claims that the purpose of Directive was “to tackle the problem of a lack of landfill sites in the Netherlands and Belgium”, a view for which I can find no foundation, and that he seems to have borrowed from a Mail article by James Delingpole that I discussed last year. Indeed, in the correspondence, the newspaper mentioned that in preparing the article Mr Littlejohn “sought general guidance from a fellow journalist who writes extensively on environmental issues”.
He also repeated the canard that the UK “gold-plated” EU waste directives, when in important respects quite the opposite is the case. Throughout the correspondence, the Mail was unable to identify an instance of gold-plating, and in the end withdrew almost all of the material about European law.
The end result of all of this correspondence is a rather less inaccurate but still pretty unsatisfactory article, so you might be asking – why does he bother? While using the complaints process to correct erroneous articles does not undo the harm they cause, or prevent further inaccurate stories being produced, it does have an impact. Journalists and newspapers dislike having to defend and amend stories, a topic Delingpole has griped about in the Spectator. But one key reason is that tabloid newspapers tend (with unwitting irony) to recycle their anti-recycling claims, and forcing them to withdraw points makes it less likely that they will be repeated. Coming up with new inventions at least requires more effort on their part!
Waste is one of the key points of contact between councils and the public, and an area where criticism will resonate most widely. For those wishing to see a smaller state, presenting this important service in a negative light is attractive. The Mail has recently placed the blame for untidy supermarket recycling areas this Christmas on “disrupted kerbside collections over the festive period” – not mentioning that in Bristol (one of the cities highlighted) the “disruption” amounted to a two day delay. No criticism of supermarkets for not supervising their car parks properly, or on the public for discarding waste so irresponsibly. No, it’s all the council’s fault.
The disparaging of council waste services is therefore set to continue. Occasionally, councils will mess up, and when they do, they deserve criticism – but it’s important that unfair arguments, based on untruths, are challenged, rather than being allowed to be repeated freely.
The IPSO resolution statement regarding this complaint can be found here.
|Daily Mail: Littlejohn “Perversion” Correspondence|
|01. Mail Complaint 13/08/15|