Month: May 2021

Facts Versus Free Comment

“Comment is free, but facts are sacred” was a statement of faith, a first commandment of commitment for any aspiring journalist seeking a coveted reporter’s position with the Manchester Guardian in 1921.

The edict came from the pen of Editor C.P. Scott, remembered by Alan Rusbridger in his book “News – And How to Read It.” Rusbridger served as Editor-in-Chief of Guardian News and Media from 1985 to 2015.

The Manchester Guardian is now just The Guardian, celebrating 200 years of publication and standing tall in today’s turbulent ocean of “news” swamping us in digital print. Rusbridger and the Guardian has thrown readers a lifeline. Grabbing it will not guarantee salvation from the overwhelming flood of waste washing over us threatening to choke sound reasoning – but it might help us tread water until common sense proves a lifeboat.

I am not a newcomer to the Wailing Wall where I can find excuses for my own failures to be more careful with what I write. Long time readers may remember my several pieces over the years on Bob Considine, who’s framed Newspaperman’s Prayer hung at eye level for many years over my Legislature Press Gallery desk until it was stolen. 

I can still remember the opening words: “Dear God, may I be fair. Circumstances and dumb luck have placed in my thumby paws a degree of authority which I may not fully comprehend. Let me not profane it … Give me the drive that will make me check and countercheck the facts. Guide me when, lost for want of a rudder or lead, I stumble through the jungle of speculation …”

I had hoped Rusbridger would give me more of the same home spun thoughts on how to handle the never-ending need for vigilance by reporters, especially personal opinion scribblers, to strive for Scott’s reverence for accuracy, honesty and fairness when dealing with facts. It isn’t always easy.

Rusbridger tells us “Facts are powerful. A single fact can make a story. A single fact can change society.” There are basic facts – a name, an age, an address – that are for the most part indisputable. Photographs, if verified, can confirm a claimed fact, or demolish the claim. He cites, for example, the disputed size of the crowd at President Donald Trump’s January 2017 inaugural. Aerial photographs were proof positive that the crowd was thousands short of the Trump claim.

The President left one of his army of publicists to handle the problem and Kellyanne Conway did so with a flourish. The President and the press were both right – they were just dealing with “alternative facts.”

Rusbridger quite properly noted there are no alternative facts. Just as TV mythology mistakenly records that Dragnet’s Sergeant Joe Friday used say: “Just the facts, ma’am.”

I hesitantly recommend “News – And How to Read It” to anyone interested in an accurate, factual picture of what’s going on in our swirling media world today. There are interesting looks at interesting inside stories and occasionally, in chapters like Caveat Emptor, the blunt recommendation from Don Gilmour, journalist turned academic, to “never take it for granted that what we read, see or hear from media sources of any kind is trustworthy.” This caution applies to every scrap of information that comes our way whether from traditional news organizations, blogs, on-line videos, Facebook updates or any other source.

I prefer Considine: “Make me use my legs and eyes the better to track down and see the truth. Deafen me to the Lorelei song of rootless hearsay, rumour and the gossip of town loafers …”


A Passport to New Normal

So, what’s all the excitement on the web about Canada introducing a vaccination passport to citizens who have now received two COVID-19 vaccination shots?

I’m asking because I thought I already had a wallet-sized card listing James Hume, born December 27, 1923, as the official recipient on January 21, 2021 of a shot of Moderna vaccine with my second shot recorded May 7, 2021.

A plain-looking card not all gussied up like my proud blue Canada passport with its pages of impressive foreign travel stamps, now lying COVID-neutered in my safety deposit box. Plain looking it may be but its printed message “this is a permanent immunization record  – keep in a save place” has a nice ring.

I’m keeping it safe along with my medical care card which I assume lists all my frailties, and my BC Identity Card which is clearly marked in capitals THIS IS NOT A DRIVER’S LICENCE – and in minuscule font “this card remains the property of the issuing agency and must be surrendered upon request.”

And if you had to reach for a magnifying glass to read the previous sentence, don’t worry, so did I.

Now, back to my opening paragraph on the current debate on (a) the need for the establishment of an international vaccine passport; (b) the threat such a document could be to our cherished, but often garbled, interpretation of human rights.

BC Premier John Horgan says he supports the international passport idea. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has his doubts saying it raises “serious questions of equality.”

From a layman’s view, it seems a simple matter: If the double dose of the vaccine stops its spread, expedite the international passport idea and let’s get the world moving again. We already appear to have the basic blocks in place to build on. 

If we still have some way to go before we can truly make the Victory claim, let’s get on with it. Just wishing it was all over won’t make it so.

Living Longer and Thankfully Safer

When I was born in England in 1923 the estimated life expectancy for a newborn male was, with a bit of luck, around 40 years. And every decade or so from 1923 to the present, my “life expectancy ratio” forecast got a boost. In other words, the longer I lived the longer I could expect to live.

By 2020, the actuaries who keep track of these things were assuring us that we could enjoy 81 years … not exactly headline news for this wordsmith still blogging in 2020 in his 97th year. I remain well aware of my good fortune to have been blessed with genes that have now carried me well beyond two “best before” dates, first when I waved goodbye to my 40th birthday in1963 and realized I was indeed getting “old;” and now, remembering that next December I’ll be 98 and wondering who – or what – is turning the hands of the clock so fast.

I become easily irritated these days when I read the sweeping claims of the 2021 anti-vaccine, anti-face mask doomsayers who see nothing but evil in the research and dedication of medical doctors and scientists and armies of health care workers who, over the centuries, have brought the world protection against plagues that once ravaged the world unchecked.

Recently, Facebook and Twitter – unfettered platforms for anti-vaxxers’ outrageous objections to the vaccine program – have promised tighter checks on clients using their services to spread misinformation. In their reluctant concession, they have recognized that unfounded statements and false claims have been disseminated worldwide in the guise of free speech.

I reach back a little before Facebook and Twitter to my well-thumbed copy of Charles Panati’s (1989) Panati’s Extraordinary Endings of Practically Everything and Everybody for answers. It’s a minor classic in that while Panati is dealing with plagues and disasters, he does so with an occasional touch of humour that makes the horror of many catastrophic events easier to face and fight.

When reporting on New York’s “Typhoid” Mary Mallon, 68, who sent to their graves or infected with typhoid an unknown number of victims in the 1870s, he writes: “Medically she was that immunological marvel: a person who carried a deadly agent without ever becoming sick, but who can kill others with a kiss or a meringue pie.”

Much of Panati’s reporting should fascinate today’s truth seekers as they read about Dr. Edward Jenner, the English country doctor who developed the vaccine and method of vaccination that led to the end of smallpox as a global pestilence – a brutal killer of millions until 1977 when it was finally defeated.

Like today’s vaccination attack on COVID-19, Dr. Jenner’s vaccine procedure faced a daunting public fear campaign and he was much maligned until smallpox was finally listed as defeated. Readers who have a genuine fear of vaccines might profit from an hour or two with Panati and pray that the men and women he portrays, facing and defeating centuries of health fear-mongering, never give up the fight.

Stay Alert For Poisoned Cobwebs!

It has long been a fact that the first casualty of any war is the truth. So, it should be no surprise that the global conflict now threatening the future of every nation on Planet Earth is awash with fear and uncertainty.

For sure, we are in a war between science and what we have come to know as COVID-19, a killer germ that broke loose from wherever it was confined a little more than a year ago and has since been on a worldwide, largely uncontrolled, rampage.

It took a few weeks for humanity to awaken to the danger of the new disease and for the world of science to move into high gear in the search for an antidote or cure. Then, in record-breaking time, several vaccines were being tested, refined, retested and finally approved for mass production and distribution.

Around the world, governments created centres to administer the vaccines. Daily bulletins began to appear recording the number of citizens vaccinated, the number successfully returning to work after vaccination, the number kept in routine care or “intensive care,” and the frightening number of deaths. Those deaths leaped from hundreds to thousands then worldwide to millions dying in hospital wards overflowing with the stricken.

And, the rumours and the whispers began. Were all the vaccines safe? Which one is the best? Can the giant pharmaceutical firms be trusted? Are the big pharmas just in it for the money because they don’t care about the cure?

Our local health authorities have done their best to address these rumours and conspiracy theories, but sometimes it has been a losing battle. People determined to think negatively will not be persuaded by science. I don’t envy Dr. Bonnie Henry her job of trying to persuade anti-vaxxers they are wrong.

It will be little comfort to remind her and her colleagues that in England in 1941, during the unpleasantness of World War Two, then-prime minister Winston Churchill permitted his government’s Ministry of Information to establish two in-house bureaus: The Anti Lies Bureau was charged with tracking and responding to German propaganda; and, the Anti-Rumors Bureau was assigned to track down uninformed local gossip.

I hesitate to mention one 1941 rumour making the rounds in British pubs lest 2021 anti-vaxxers dust it off and add it to their reasons for abstaining: The false rumble making the rounds was that German aircraft were dropping poison cobwebs on the British population.

Churchill’s sleuths confirmed the rumour once had life but was “rapidly dying.”

The last few days unfolded as planned and I got my second vaccine shot on Friday, May 7. Didn’t spot any cobwebs. But I’ll spend the next few days wondering if the light I now see at the end of the tunnel is one of promise – or a freight train heading my way.