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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Tuesday 17th December 2013

There’s a regularly trotted out story premise found in a lot of science fiction. It involves a future world where the masses are kept semi-comatose by being fed an endless stream of entertainment TV that does not require them to confront real issues.

Unfortunately for science fiction writers that world is already with us, in part. It is BBC2’s ‘flagship news & current affairs’ programme ‘Newsnight’. It may be that after its spectacular recent failures (it didn’t broadcast its evidence of Jimmy Savile’s crimes but did broadcast false allegations against a prominent man) it is shy of addressing real issues but, whatever the reason, it has become the home of silly stunts.

Conducting an interview with a hand puppet is silly but harmless. Presenting verbal slapstick comedy as a serious discussion is rather less forgivable. And that is what happened last evening.

It should be the province of TV chat shows to fall over themselves to accommodate the agenda of some visiting American ‘celeb’. But, sadly, these days the BBC is perfectly happy to create a news or current affairs item around such visits.

I don’t know if Matthew Perry’s visit to the UK was for purposes other than to promote the concept of drug courts to a Policy Exchange meeting but it was these courts that Newsnight decided to explore.

I’m not going to write about the drug courts themselves but I do find it interesting that a think tank, generally described as being ‘right leaning’ is so interested in them. Drug courts seem to be a way of softening the way drug users are dealt with whilst maintaining the moral position that all drug use is wrong and requires intervention of some sort. It may be a sign that there are people who, whilst remaining implacably opposed to substance use of any kind, recognise that the current regime is not working.

I’m going to have to try and differentiate between what the producers of ‘Newsnight’ would claim they were doing and what they were, in fact, doing. The claim would be that the BBC has to show balance so it could not simply interview Matthew Perry about his championing of drug courts. The reality is that no-one would be interested in a one to one interview with a celebrity talking about his past substance problems and his panacea for solving the world’s drug problems especially when Newsnight’s interview with Russell Brand is still fresh in the memory.

So, a debate is required. Now, there has been a lot of work done on both US drug courts and trials in the UK that have followed similar philosophies and the BBC could have found people who would have debated with Perry and challenged his assertion that drug courts are the way and the light. (Just like Russell Brand, Perry knows that he has found the only method for dealing with substance use and won’t entertain other more nuanced approaches.)

Such a debate might have elicited evidence and considered the moral issues associated with what is effectively forced treatment but that would never do, so ‘Newsnight’ invited Peter Hitchens. To counter the arguments of people like me that this was current affairs as entertainment, Baroness Meacher, chair of the UK All-Party Parliamentary Group on Drug Policy Reform, was also present and made some thoughtful contributions especially on the evidence that drug courts are not the wonder Perry claims.

Perry wanted to talk about the best way to deal with addiction but, by choosing Hitchens, the BBC put up someone who, famously, denies there is any such thing as addiction. It is like having a debate on the effects of climate change on circulating weather patterns and inviting a member of the flat earth society who denies there are circulating weather patterns.

There’s a game being played on both sides. For the BBC it wants an entertaining rough & tumble that will get ‘Newsnight’ into the hearts of its viewers so it has support the next time it messes up.  

And for Hitchens, as I’ve said before, he wants to be insulted so he can tell his constituency of right-wing hangers and floggers that the lunatics are in charge of the asylum and they should pity those whose right-thinking (in the ‘correct’ rather than political sense) views go unheard.

The bad news from the segment, which can be watched until 23rd December (starts at 20:15 in),  was that Perry fell straight into Hitchens’ trap calling him ‘ludicrous’ and ‘Santa’.

I went looking to see how quickly Hitchens would post his account of the interview and found that, at the time of writing, it is the main story on the Mail Online home page. It won't stay that way for long so here's the link to the story itself. Notice that the only mention of Baroness Meacher is in a photo-caption where the only alternative would have been to airbrush her out.

I can’t be angry at Hitchens even though he is a deeply unpleasant man whose distorted views contribute to a great deal of harm amongst substance users. And I can’t be angry at Matthew Perry because it is unfair to expect anyone who has found fame by saying other people’s words to be good at thinking of their own.

I can, though, be angry at the BBC, in general, and ‘Newsnight’ in particular for once again using drug policy as an entertainment and, as a result, marginalising those users who are in need of help and support.

Coming soon on ‘Newsnight’, how to prepare a simple Christmas dinner like the Syrian refugees in a tented camp in Lebanon.


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