30 Mar 2010

My battles for answers over Mephedrone

The Home Office has it down to a fine art, but many other ministries are up to it too. If you have ever wondered how, in the thick of controversy, a Minister manages to appear to have stepped out of the fray to issue a cool word or two without apparently being pressed upon the immediate controversy – yesterday was a case in point.

In yesterday’s case the issue was the banning of Mephedrone and its classification as a Class B drug under the Misuse of Drugs Act. For weeks, if not months, a decision has been awaited on the drug. But for even longer the Advisory Panel that gives the Home secretary advice on what drugs to proscribe and at what level to classify them, has itself been falling apart. That all came to a head in the autumn with the sacking, by Alan Johnson, the present Home Secretary, of Professor David Nutt, who headed the unpaid drugs panel. That had triggered other resignations – including that of Nutt’s Deputy, Dr Les King.

Nutt, King, and others alleged political interference in the way in which the panel’s work was both executed and received by Ministers. Then on Sunday the panel’s essential and long serving veterinary surgeon Dr Polly Taylor resigned. This after the government tried to redraft the terms of engagement for its unpaid scientific advisors.

In other words a shambles prevailed at the very moment when public concern about 25 Mephedrone linked deaths was at its height. So does the Home Office want a minister out and about responding to the shambles? Or does the Home Office want a minister out, cleanly announcing a mephedrone ban. Naturally the latter.

I happen to work on a programme that allows politicians and others the space to articulate and be questioned about policy beyond the ‘24 hour news sound bite’. So we do as we always do, request an interview with the Home Secretary. After a lot of toing and froing we are told that Mr Johnson will ‘make himself available for two questions’. That means he will appear to have come casually into the public arena for what we call a ‘doorstep’.

Where a minister steps out of his office – in this case into the noisy atrium of the ‘Home Office’ and appears casually to answer a question or two. The deal was, as is often the case – one questioner per broadcast organisation and then two questions per person. These persons, almost inevitably will be the informal or formal ‘lobby’ of correspondents who cover the Home Office or whatever Ministry is in question. What of course that means is that any ‘bad behaviour’ – whereby a journalist who covers that ministry breaks the deal and starts asking more than two questions about other issues in play – stands the risk of losing the access he or she depends on to do his or her work. So they behave.

The Press Office at the Home Office yesterday refused our request for a ‘sit down’ interview with Mr Johnson but said that instead he would be ‘doing clips’ and ITN (covering both ITV and C4) and the BBC, which covers all its outlets, would each be allowed a reporter. Determined to obtain some kind of interview with the Home Secretary – on a day when he faced yet another resignation, and was responding to the mephedrone crisis, we told the Home Office that I would be the reporter representing ITN. Amid mumblings of ‘is it protocol for him to do that’; and from the Press Office ‘well he’ll only get two questions’, I cycled down to the Home Office.

Three or four seemingly Press Office types were herding the regular home affairs reporters into a bunch at the top of the stairs to the Home Office canteen – perhaps five or six other functionaries and officials mooned around the rim of the gathering – one or two telling us at 4.51pm that ‘the Home Secretary only has until 5.00pm he’s in a hurry for another meeting’.

This was to be announcement the Home Office had prepared for some weeks, and a controversy that had raged for months. Mr Johnson arrives, cool as cucumber… A member of his panel says a bit, then he himself says a bit and casually suggests questions. But I suggest to him that we won’t do questions en masse because that will sap time from our ‘two questions only’ one to one. So he moves to work round the four or five journalists allocated an opportunity to put two questions to him.

Of course we all need question one to deal with the drug announcement. Question two needs to deal with its consequences. Hey presto – no question three, so no time to press him on Polly Taylor’s resignation. Except that I use my second question to tell him his panel is a shambles, he’s suffered six resignations, his Drugs Act is unfit for purpose, he’s had weeks to prepare for all this and he’s allowing us nine minutes and two questions only to deal with a major crisis. Well that forces his hand and as his Press Office keeps telling me stop, and stage whispers ‘only two question..I said, only two questions’, the Home Secretary starts to defend himself and I get six questions.

But this is no way to run a chip shop! I write at length about it because this is how politicians of all stripes try to convince the public that they are open and transparent and available to respond to the issues of the day. We live in the age of the ‘curse of the sound bite’ and too many of us are not being upfront with the public about our role in allowing politicians to do so.

To the surprise of my home affairs colleagues yesterday I said we should all agree not to participate in events like yesterday’s – by all means let a Minister make a statement in the plush ministerial studio designed for that purpose. But to allow a public appearance that makes it look as if he was available and never asked about the disintegration of his panel of advisors, is less than the whole truth.

Tweets by @jonsnowC4

41 reader comments

  1. margaret BrandrethJones says:

    Ah! you are on a roll about your job again and why not, that is how we acquire information.

    It still amazes me why any dangerous drugs have to be classed anyway. To put them into categories of the most dangerous to the least dangerous implies that taking lower class drugs will be Ok if the users take care.

    This is not so. Scientists.. just stop mucking about with kids lives !

    Nothing which is unnatural should be ingested by anyone , full stop.

    I have witnessed the devastation which using these substances has brought to young lives and their families…what is the point anyway?

    Then for some perculiar type of pedantry ,attempting to justify its use, purity of substances is discussed.

    Jon, three readings in parliament could have taken place on three consequetive days for something as life threatening as mephadrone..all other workers have to produce results working in a flexible manner.

    Have you ever thought though..who was the first person to take something fit for plants..some eccentric triffid!!!

    1. Rob Nurdel says:

      1. No activity is 100% safe, so at some point an assessment of relative risk has to be made.

      2. Use of many illegal recreational drugs IS safe (relative to accepted day to day risks) if the user takes care.

      3. The classification of drugs isn’t based on assessment of relative risks anyway. At this time there is much more reason to believe that taking MDMA, a class A drug, can be done safely then mephedrone, which I believe will be class B.

      4.Why do you believe that ‘artificial’ substances are inherently more dangerous than those naturally occuring? What do you even mean by natural?

      5. I’ve witnessed the devastation caused by alchohol and tobacco first hand. I’ve witnessed the devastation caused by car accidents first hand. What’s your point?

    2. margaret BrandrethJones says:

      Rob Nurdel….

      I don’t think I need to clarify that absurd correlation. If you dont get the point that children should not ingest drugs , designed to give them a high and ultimately cruelly kill them , leave families torn to shreds with their deaths , I think you have an altered perception of life.Taking recreational drugs is not normal. It is not logical or necessary to compare it with other causes of death. It stands all by itself as a threat to youths.

    3. Rob Nurdel says:

      Sadly it is you who does not get the point. Firstly, alchohol and tobacco are recreational drugs and their use is ‘normal’, in western society at least. Secondly, despite what you may believe, drugs, illegal and otherwise, used recreationally are not ‘designed to ultimately kill’, although prolonged use may certainly have a terrible effect on the user.

      You want to deal in anecdotes, pointing to cases where illegal drug use has destroyed lives, as if this implies the presence of absolute evil. Well I have anecdotes too. A good friend of mine died last year at the age of 38 from problems arising from alchoholism. Should we infer from this that alchohol must be banned without further discussion? Maybe you would. The broader point is that many if not most activities have horror stories associated with them, even those whose acceptability in society is unquestioned, such as driving. So how do we choose which horror stories indicate an unacceptable level of danger in an activity and which are products of terrible luck and the law of large numbers? Only with thorough analysis of the available data and assessments of relative risk.

    4. margaret BrandrethJones says:

      Mr Nurdel , you still are barking up the wrong tree. Alcohol , smoking , other drugs are not normal. If you go along with past perceptions you are going to go down with them , for the people who want to continue all this stuff wrecks peoples lives, your anecdote exemplifies what you are arguing against. It is not a valid or a logical argument.

      You may have the voters , but you also have the potential addicts.

    5. Rob Nurdel says:

      Well, at this point your use of the word ‘normal’ has become so idiosyncratic that I can’t claim to know what you mean by it, but this is a side issue. The main point which you fail to address is that ‘potential’ does not imply certainty. Are you against all activities which have the potential to destroy lives? Because, well, that’s pretty much everything. How should a society decide which potential dangers are unacceptable? With anecdotes? Whose anecdotes? What if two people’s anecdotes give contradictory impressions?

      You should remember that I’m not arguing with your view on drugs here, although I think I do disagree with you on that. Rather I’m arguing with your implication that drug policy should not be informed by science, that in some bizarre way the concept of risk analyisis doesn’t apply to drugs.

      Personally I don’t understand how an issue can be ‘too important’ to look at the available evidence and engage rational thought over, but then, I am a scientist, so I must be biased.

  2. Pink Zoe Realm says:

    It is brilliant to know that as we return to Britain to live that some one cares to put their job on the line, its just a shame your other colleagues wont do the same, that is down to the ministers you talk to who have kept Britains at each others throat, just like its been since 1066. Once again Thank You.

  3. Sarah Scott says:

    This post is right on the money. How are journalists meant to inform the public if all we are given are two questions or five minutes or even worse, a statement through the press officer. Politicians and others in the public service sector need to be accountable and journalists should not be fobbed off like that. The public should know the battles journalists face to unmask the truth.

  4. Briantist says:

    Not really sure what else you expect from The Chief Postman.

  5. maya boustany says:

    Thank God for journalists like Jon Snow

  6. Mel says:

    Mr Snow hasn’t this always been the case – highly constructed interviews arranged on a government offices’s terms without which, if you do not agree to, you do not get the interview? Crumbs I dread to think of the amount that must of gone on during the Northern Ireland peace processes.I think we the public are aware of it and realise that no piece of journalism no matter how good the journalist can ever be unbiased or the complete truth. What we may not be aware of is just how finely tuned it is as you have detailed. Not going to these things would not help – then there is just nothing instead of something – so how about showing the true courage of your convictions – not just blog it but do a full length article on the news on the ways these interviews are made – put the cat amongst the pigioens coming up to election time – force their hands as they force the journalists – and every time you show one of these interviews announce before it’s shown the construction/time limit that was given to you for it. Now that would be a journalist!!

    1. Meg Howarth says:

      Piece on the news would be great, Jon. Your standing is high, so why not take up Mel’s challenge. Life’s too short to mess around, and the future is on the side of those who speak out. We in the relatively safe North have a responsibility to do so. Snowbloggers, and others, would be behind you.

  7. adz says:

    Open and transparent?
    They are open because they repeatedly lie to us including the “best” one being, telling us that they are open!
    They call themselves transparent because they let general public know what they want us to know and all distorted to their own political advantage.
    Politicians’ lies are open and transparent because we know they are not telling us the truth and most of us can see right through them!
    Controlled substances are a mega money generator for governments, right behind war, pharmaceuticals and religion.
    adzmundo The Venus Project & CND

    1. margaret BrandrethJones says:

      adz; as usual you get to the point ,; the discussion is about drugs.

      My question is why should goverments want to be covert about drugs in any particular way ,when any interview about any topic ,as a doorstep interview ,only two questions per organisation are allowed. That is not discriminatory against interference in the drug industry, it is the same for any topic.

      Any controlled substances should be purely for medical use , not recreational use AT ALL.

      Anyone who argues against this cannot appreciate the self -destructive influence it has on innocent undeveloped minds. They argue because it is cool.. it take a long time to learn that suffering is not cool.
      I have spent my life dealing with the drug and medicine industry.. you don’t know the half of it.

  8. ABatchelor says:

    Thanks for an excellent piece. Confirms all my suspicions ref their diversionary tactics and total lack of respect for the voting public. Shameful.

  9. ABatchelor says:

    Thanks for an excellent piece. Confirmation, were it needed, of parliamentary attitudes towards the voting public. Mushroom politics – can’t see an end to it, unfortunately.

  10. David Raynes says:

    Why do you think Ministers do not want to sit down and have a long interview with you? Could it be that your agenda shows? There is another interpretation to put on events and your “shambles”.

    Another interpretation is that Nutt was rightly dismissed for his activities around legalisation/liberalisation and the incompatability of his beliefs and his personal business interests with his public role.

    The Home Office was probably, once it had recognised the problems in the ACMD, quite relieved that a few others went with Nutt, it saved a lot of trouble.

    On Newsnight last night Les Iversen, now Chair of the ACMD, was quoted by Paxman as saying (in terms) that Nutt had “lost contact with reality”. Quite.

    Rather similar to Professor Robin Murray who said that Nutt had played “fast & loose” with statistics on cannabis.

    As for Polly Taylor, she was due to go soon anyway. She was inarticulate and inept on Newsnight. I conclude she had tried to time her resignation to cause maximum damage to consideration of the mephedrone issue. Responsible? Hardly.

    More proper reporting and less agenda showing might, I suggest, get you a longer audience with Ministers.

    1. Jim Flavin says:

      What exactly did u expect the new cahirman of the ACMD to say – that Nutts resignation was a great loss !!!,There appears to always be a campign against those who clash with the govt – a campign to ” run them down” . Jon Snow has an agenda of course – waht is point in being a journalist – or anything – if one as no ” agenda ”- i presume part of that agenda at least is to try to get at the ” truth ” of matters .

    2. adrian clarke says:

      Government Ministers , whether you like it or not are OUR representatives .They should at all times (except for National Security) be answerable to us .As we can not all ask individual questions , it is down to our news reporters such as Jon Snow to elicit the truth .There should be no hiding, no restrictions on questions.What makes this big brother government even worse is their refusal to go on programmes like channel 4 ,to explain their actions.Actions that affect us their electors.If they are not prepared to do that, they are not fit to be part of our supposed democratic government

  11. GS says:

    You’re right Jon. To the viewer it looked as if the news crews had run up to him on spec and he’d kindly agreed to answer a few questions on the spot. How generous.

    Something is very wrong when the top news and current affairs programmes in the country are prevented from asking questions. Just before Christmas we saw a Panorama reporter chasing Hazel Blears repeatedly, trying to get a word, but without success. This is a Member of Parliament who is standing for re-election! Has she given any interviews at all?

    And it illustrates why we need ‘big’ media and professional journalists who know every trick in the book. Bloggers will never replace them.

  12. Ibnor says:

    Effects of Mephedrone

    – Short Term

    * Constipation.
    * Mydriasis (dilated pupils.)
    * Sympathomimetia (increased heart rate, among other things.)
    * Hallucinations

    – Withdrawral Symptoms

    * Mild depression
    * Irritability

    – Prolonged Use

    * Lethargy
    * Nightmares
    * Tremors
    * Anorexia
    * Negative Impact on Liver Function
    * Diminished Sex Drive

    Now tell me, why would you want any of that?

    1. Jim Flavin says:

      And waht exactly are the effects of Alcohol abuse .

  13. adrian clarke says:

    Jon ,what an illuminating article .Is this the reason that ministers from other departments are not thoroughly interrogated on their pronouncements or events within their office .I noted the press reports today that Home Office announcements contain 60% falsehoods.If that is true how can we trust this government on anything???

  14. stuart says:

    I understand the reasons why they are trying to ban this substance. What I don’t agree with however is the fact that the trash news papers such as the sun publish total lies and imploy scare tactics. Recently two young men died from taking the drug, the news reports never stated how much they had taken. Its like alcohol, if you take to much you will die, also they used a class A drug methadone, which gives the body the opposite effect, its like having to cars tied together and both pulling in opposite directions inside the body. The newspapers never mentioned this fact. They also classed these guys are innocent students….they had class a drugs and were frequent weed smokers… i could rest my case there. There has been no 1 instance of someone dying on a normal dosage of mephdrone and taking nothing else with it. Thousands die from Alcohol and smoking each year but we wont ban those because of tax. And the main reason a ban is taking so long to come through is because when we buy mephedrone tax is being payed on it :) clever goverment.

  15. skiddie says:

    Really great to read. Thank you.

  16. bdbcks says:

    never mind scruffs snorting plant food, why aren’t you making a fuss about the date of the general election aka thus far there is no date. c’mon snowman kick up a stink…

  17. margaret BrandrethJones says:

    Although I can see the injustices of only having a small amount of time to unlock the intrigue in the corridors of power, the reason one wants to have more time is to agitate and get them to expectorate.

    The response from this delightful blog promotes journos to expecorate the purulent phlegm without consideration of the kids who died from the toxic substance.

    As much as I like the idea of using power to weed out evil , I dislike the crawlers who slime along,

  18. Fredrika Debrabant says:

    I also have been seaching for answers as to the dangers of this drug.One I might add, I would not have been curious to try were it not for the massive media attention. On various drug forums there is a wealth of information regarding it’s effects and side effects.It seems that people who are experiencing an adverse reaction are those that are absolutley caning it (perhaps to do with availalablity and low-cost) and those that mix it with other substances.
    I would be interested to know the results of the drug analysis on those people whose deaths have been “linked” to Mephedrone.It seems to me that regardless of legality there is always going to be a section of society that will be drawn to taking mind-altering substances. And, that once criminalised, a new chemical will be produced to replace the old. I know full well that the likelihood of decriminalisation is small. But if every alcohol-related death was covered in the same way, would prohibition follow?
    To disregard to findings of Professor Nutt is small-minded and short term.
    We need to police drug-taking, but in a way that protects people from inferior products by regulating them.
    I am 40 years old and work full-time.

  19. don mac namara says:

    Delightful little expose re how these ” doorsteps ” are orchestrated.
    I wonder if the casual week -end interview in his backyard with open necked shirt is staged in a similar manner. They all seem to be directed bu the same stage managers these days .
    Sometimes there is something soothing like a boat in the background .. sometimes a somber statue ..or buildings associated with his portfolio – the intention is to give the impression that the minister or spokesman is never that far away from his desk, or that even if he is down mucking about on the fiver , he is focused obsessively on the common man ,

  20. Glenn Le Santo says:

    My son, Nimai, died aged only 23 while taking drugs that were classified or have since been classified. He died from a lethal mix of Ecstasy and GHB.

    Some of the drugs he took have been illegal for a very long time. But they were easy to obtain and he still took them.

    All that prohibition means is that gangsters have profited from his death.

    Despite the terrible grief and hardship caused by his death, I would prefer all drugs to be legal. I’d rather that the vast sums of money wasted on the long running political publicity stunt known as the ‘drugs war’ be spent instead on educating our kids and giving them opportunity.

    And yes, I’d love to talk to Jon Snow about this for airing to try and help spread some common sense in an area full of hysteria and ineffective knee jerk policies.

    1. margaret BrandrethJones says:

      I do sympathise with your sad loss. I was involved with a gent who lost his son due to drugs as well.I have also watched as drug addicts have been homeless , have given these toxic substances to 3 year olds to quieten them and they do not understand the dangers. The drugs companies long to have these lucrative drugs legalised and this is who the scientists are working for not the health of our children.

      It is not a knee jerk response from myself. I have given out these substances legally and in a controlled way for 40 years.

      He had a similar outlook to yours. The law has to move on and ban these drugs. There will be criminal activity whether these drugs are banned or not.

      The easy of option of legalising harmful substances is not the sensible route.

      In a hospital setting these drugs are carefully controlled and subject to checks and further checks because we know them to be medically harmful. Why then should children be allowed in anyway be allowed to perceive drugs as something for recreation. NO stop killing our kids.

    2. Julie says:

      Dear Glenn, I just happened to see the BBC3 documentary on Ecstasy whilst channel surfing a bit, and I felt very sad for you. I hope your pain is more bearable – I know you say time doesnt heal, but it may have done a little since the documentary was filmed. I hope you are managing to live again. I was a raver in Brighton back in 1988, and watching the doc reminded me of how foolhardy those days were. As the girl said, it was all about the moment. My antics those years imprinted on the rest of my life and mostly not in a good way. I regret them. I hope you are ok. I just wanted to share a bit of thought with you, and hope you don’t mind.

  21. Gordon Semmens says:

    The more we see of MP’s in the papers and on the telly the more they remind me of the series “Yes Minister”

  22. Jim Flavin says:

    The hypocrisy about the so called drugs problem is typical of Politicians . In the same time span that the 25 deaths occured from Mephedrone – how many deaths occured from Alcohol – and Nicotene abuse – At a guess many , many time s more – yet not a word wabout them. The politicians and the Press make big news out of one death from a so called ” illegal drug ” – hardly ever a word about the legal ones from which as has been said they get much in tax – . It just total hypocrisy – and as for treatment by politicians – what did Jon Snow expect – the record is there for all to examine -lies , deciet .
    What is the worst news the drug barons could get today – right – that all the illegal drugs had been legalised . The price would come down . They would be manufactured to set guidelines – as with alcohol and Cigarettes – and the criminals would have a major problem on their hands- hopefully unemployment . . Education would have to go hand in hand with legalisation .

    1. adrian clarke says:

      Jim i agree totally , there is an argument to legalise drugs through controlled centres .Whenever anything is banned the underworld move in .You only have to look at prohibition in the States ,Prostitution over here and world wide,and of course drugs .Were it controlled it would get rid of much of the drugs trade,underground.It would enable addicts to receive better aid.It would destroy much of the violence and gang culture.plus it would produce an income that is going to the underworld.

  23. Anthony Lawton says:

    Longer term, attention is needed to how government ministers & officials treat all advisory committees & similar and the process by which they are controlled (framing the terms of reference; timing meetings; agendas; paper writing; minute making;subtle control of the Chair).

    I’ve been on several committees. The first in the mid-80s was an early education in the subtle ways of the civil service in making sure it was an instrument of their will, and not the Secretary of State’s, let alone members.

    Latterly, in one ‘task-group’, after considerable willingly given unpaid thinking & drafting effort, pressurised by paid civil servants about urgency, nothing was published, and no explanation felt by the officials to be required, let alone thanks. For another ‘minister’s advisory group’ I have to this day some 3 years on never been told officially that the group was stopped let alone did I ever get a letter of thanks.

    ‘Speaking truth to power’ is a tricky business for media, volunteer and paid group members, and (in my case) charity personnel: the control by threat to access (and for a charity or contractor, to commissions) is a common and powerful tool.

  24. Jerry says:

    The reason that the minister would not give any interviews is that the Home Office is not in charge of drugs policy in the UK. Why is it not made clear that before banning meow meow the UK has to get PERMISSION from the EU to ban it. That would take at least 3 months. An “instant” ban by the government is poppycock.

  25. Marek Zielinski says:

    Two people died from overdose of mephedrone.
    The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs is to establish the scientific evidence on its dangers and to recommend whether it should be banned. Professor David Nutt, the sacked chairman of the ACMD, said he backed the home secretary, Alan Johnson, in arguing that such action was premature.
    Such decisions need to be based on sound science. Some previously reported mephedrone deaths have also turned out to be false alarms.
    They try to ban the drug.

    Over 3000 people per year die on the UK roads in road accidents.
    They do not ban car manufacturing.

    Millions of people die every year as casualties of war activities all around the world.
    They do not ban production and supply of arms.

    Is it the world really becoming insane or is it only my observation?

    1. Dumbert says:

      You have no idea what you`re talking about, you say theres only two reports of mephodrone overdose, but do you have any idea how many people have been killed and seriously and injured by people high on mephodrone?? Just two days ago in Sweden a 24 year old man went crazy, stabbing people randomly, killed an 84 year old woman in her own home! Police had to shoot him 5 times and killed him. They had to, after being shot in the legs he didnt even blink, he just continued to crawl towards the police while waiving a knife. He probably had no idea they were police, he probably had no idea where he was or what he was doing. This is mephodrone reality, forget cocaine and heroine, thats nothing compared to this, those addicts are easy to deal with, mephodrone addicts cant be dealt with because you cant reach them, you have to kill them to stop them.

  26. James says:

    You should continue to encourage other journalists to boycott this farce of managed news events; just don’t attend. As you know, where there is a lack of credible information, rumor will fill the vacuum, usually to the minister’s disadvantage. Your job then is to report what others are saying, namely the rumors and speculation being circulated; when the minister in question finds the rumors more detrimental to them than facts would be….well, then they’ll come running to squeal.

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