Beauty and post-postbag journalism

What online writer doesn't bait readers to get their hits fix?

Yes, this is about That Journalist. I don’t even need to mention her name; you almost certainly know who it is, unless you’ve been lucky enough to avoid Twitter all week, don’t read the Daily Mail and don’t watch This Morning. In which case: God bless you. Go outside and frolic in the daffodils. This is for the rest of us, who have had to wade through the porridge-thick mass of comment and countercomment that has been social media over the past few days.

So That Journalist wrote an article in which she said being beautiful led to problems. People disputed whether she was beautiful, or deluded, or whatever. It became what people call a Twitterstorm, though I tend to imagine that word spoken aloud as one might say "hit parade" or "wireless"; even though it is a relatively new word, it seems dusty, obsolete and confused already. Since then, you haven’t been able to move for comment about it all. Was she a helpless victim? Was she a knowing participant? Were the Twitter masses worse than her? And so on, and so on.

We all do it, in one way or another. I would so love this blogpost to go viral, although it won’t (although if you’d like to retweet it, or share it, then please do, I wouldn’t say no, that’d be great). I’d love to be trending on Twitter. Wouldn’t you? If not, you’re probably not cut out to be a writer. But writers (or those of us who consider ourselves writers, even though our readers, and our tax returns, may disagree) do. Most of us write because we crave validation, or attention. "Read this!" we scream. "Read this and agree with it!" But mostly, we just want you to read this. Read this now.

There was a pre-digital time when people didn’t know whether columnists were popular or unpopular. You could get a reasonable idea as to whether people liked them by judging from the postbag – though that’s a pretty blunt instrument for working out whether someone’s writing stuff that the readers are engaging with. You might not get letters for the hundreds of people nodding along in agreement, but you will for one person getting the wrong end of the stick, or getting angry with what you’ve said.  

The more outrageous and controversial the opinions the columnist decided to have that particular week, the bigger the response (good and bad) might be from your beloved readers and subscribers. It could be tempting, then, for writers to come up with surprising, alternative or abrasive opinions, just to stir things up a bit more than they otherwise might have. It’s the whole point to create a debate, but it’s tempting to create a more vigorous debate, to make your work more noticeable.

Most of us who’ve written for dead-tree publications (as well as online) will have felt that temptation, but now with the internet there’s a much easier way to find out: just look at the numbers. The stats won’t tell you whether the readers were amused, appalled or dismayed when they read what they read, but they will tell you whether they were there or not in the first place: and that’s important for revenue. Traffic is money.

If you write something horrifically provocative, but which hauls in a million angry sightseers, you and your publication have a very nice day. You don’t need necessarily to retain these folk, because as I explained the other day, operations such as Mail Online (for example) are vast enterprises designed to attract as much traffic and revenue as possible – but their visits add a welcome boost to your stats.

It’s not true to say that Twitter mobs are single-handedly fuelling certain newspapers’ websites, but they are a jolly handy thing to have, if you can taunt them into clicking. It’s not the fault of the internet itself for being used in this way, since it can mobilise people into marvellous acts of generosity and humanity, but the technology we have means it’s possible to bait folk in a way it simply wasn’t before. Now you aren’t just targeting your hardcore readers: you can tempt anyone you like to read what you want.

It is a genuine sadness to me, a fading remnant of the days of ink, that articles are perhaps more often written for the reaction they will generate, rather than any intrinsic value they might have. Can I say I haven’t done it myself? Of course not; I play the game as well, although I hope that the things I’m sincere about make more impact than the things I’m less sincere about. But that’s all it is, a hope.

So I don’t blame That Journalist for writing That Article. I’d love to be on This Morning and meet Philip and Holly, and talk about my experiences. I’d love to have all eyes looking at me. Of course I’d love to have it happen for some great triumph of prose or investigative journalism rather than just some maggot-dangling linkbait, but I think most of us will take what we can get. 

"Read this and agree with it!". Samantha Brick on Mail Online
Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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Testing migrant children’s teeth for their age is not only immoral – it doesn’t work

Ministers have flirted with this idea for over a decade. It’s bad policy, as well as poor ethics.

This week, the Home Office finally ruled out the use of x-rays to establish the age of childhood migrants.

It’s welcome news, but this story predates the dispersal of the Calais “Jungle” camp. 

For over ten years, ministers in Conservative and Labour governments have flirted with these tests. And it’s been up to us – the practitioners who’d be expected to administer them – to pick holes in a policy that’s a great way of securing headlines, but simply cannot deliver on the claims made by its cheerleaders.

It goes without saying dentists are health professionals, not border guards. But our objections run deeper than that. And it’s worth revisiting the arguments, just in case future governments start grasping for silver bullets.

It’s ineffective

We can talk about philosophy later, but let’s start with a pretty fundamental objection: dental x-rays are simply not a reliable way of establishing age.

No two mouths are alike. I’ll add my own to that list, as I still sport two of my baby teeth.

Children and young people mature at different rates, so the level of accuracy in these tests changes with time. And these x-rays can estimate age in younger children much more accurately than in adolescents. So as children mature at different rates, the potential margin of error gets ever larger with age.

For example, the third molars, commonly known as wisdom teeth – the last permanent teeth to develop – can form any time between the ages of 16 and 23, and a small proportion of individuals never develop third molars at all (I’ll have to pop my name to that list too).

A 2010 study of 300 young people aged between 11 and 25, whose age was determined based on dental x-rays, showed this method of testing consistently over- or under-estimated age, with a two-year average difference between dental and known age.

So if you are searching for a litmus test that will tell you whether a subject is 17 or 19 years old you won’t find it here.

It’s inappropriate

A few MPs and pundits have found it hard to acknowledge the codes health practitioners sign up to, which make this test a no go.

We must always act in the best interest of our patients when providing a medical procedure. And it is beyond question that the process of radiography is a medical procedure that should be carried out only for medical purposes, and where the patient stands to benefit.

Now many people might not consider this test an invasive procedure. However, x-rays do carry a small risk of possible long-term physical impact, and current best practice in this area dictates that exposure to radiation should be kept as low as reasonably possible over a lifetime. They should be carried out sparingly and where there is a well-defined potential clinical benefit, which must always outweigh the potential clinical harm.

As taking x-rays to determine the age of an individual carries no clinical benefit, it frankly isn’t appropriate to expose a patient to the potential clinical harm it can cause.

It’s unethical

Our lawmakers cannot simply dispense with fundamentals like consent to show they are “taking action”.

It is a legal principle that before practitioners carry out any medical procedure, the recipient – or someone who can consent on their behalf – must be given a full understanding of the nature of the procedure, its significance, impact and potential consequences before signing up to it.

For the children arriving from Calais, this would be a difficult task without English as a first language. Consent may also be required from a suitable adult. Yes, these children may be unaccompanied, but it does not mean the need for valid consent and protecting the child’s best interests can simply be ignored.

The letter of the law might be inconvenient, but it is a requirement that can only be compromised where the urgency and necessity of the circumstances demand rapid action in a patient’s best interests. And even in these circumstances the validity of treatment has sometimes ended up being challenged in the courts.

Given that taking x-rays in order to determine age is not medically justifiable in the first place, the urgency justification really doesn’t come into play. And that means dental colleagues – in the absence of valid consent – could find themselves performing an act that constitutes a criminal battery.


In the past, ministers have debated whether there is a credible “public interest” case that might override these little legal or philosophical objections. But these practical and ethical concerns can’t really be separated.

But why bother constructing a case for a test that frankly isn’t much cop? Dentists can only hope the latest message from the Home Office marks the beginning of a consensus, which draws a line under a decade of wishful thinking.

Judith Husband, Chair of the British Dental Association’s Education, Ethics and the Dental Team Working Group.