No turning back

The <em>News of the World</em> phone hacking scandal is growing by the minute, and threatens to chan

Each hour brings new revelations. More victims of phonehacking are being identified -- not just celebrities, or politicians, whose discomfort we have tolerated in the past, but real people, ordinary people like us, whose private moments of anxiety, grief and despair have been listened in on, and used to fuel tabloid tales.

Ever since allegations broke that an investigator working for the News of the World had hacked the phone of a missing teenager, and deleted messages, this story has taken on a new life. A Facebook group calling for a boycott of the News of the World has thousands of members. More significantly, advertisers, who have been bombarded with complaints from their customers, are deciding to withdraw their brands from the toxic environment of the News of the World -- for now at least. This is no longer a trifling matter of ethics only of interest to the London media bubble or the pitchfork-wielding Twitchunters; this is the only story in town, and it has angered more than just dripping-wet liberal Guardian readers. The shock and dismay reaches out much further.

You wouldn't know that from reading the Sun, though. They have covered the unfolding drama at their parent company News International, and their sister paper the News of the World, as if it were happening in another world -- a minor scuffle, but nothing to see here: please distract yourself with these other stories, rather than reading these few lines about our troubles. Apparently, it's business as usual.

Except it isn't. Newspaper readers aren't mugs; Sun and News of the World readers aren't mugs. It's wrong to think of them as a tide of dumb morons who don't understand the gravity of what's going on; a bunch of dribbling zombies who will happily skip down to the newsagents on Sunday and buy their favourite paper regardless of its alleged misdemeanours. It might be easier for us to see the world in those terms, but I tend to have a bit more faith in newspaper readers -- including News of the World readers -- than that.

The Sun might not be giving the phonehacking drama the attention that its newsworthiness deserves, but that doesn't matter: punters will be hearing the story on the radio, seeing it on television, reading about it on the net and seeing it covered elsewhere. The Sun's own website has carried discussions about the phonehacking fiasco today on its forums -- though some threads appear to have mysteriously disappeared.

Calls for a boycott of this Sunday's News of the World -- and wider calls for a boycott of News Corporation products -- are increasing. This is not just a few silly vexatious lefties on Twitter getting in a tizzy, as these things are usually depicted; this is much wider than that. Corporations who didn't worry about seeing their products placed in the country's most popular newspaper when the first phonehacking revelations came out are now thinking again. This is a big deal.

Perhaps News International hopes it can ride out the story; perhaps it genuinely doesn't understand the storm that has been created; or maybe a sacrificial figure is being prepared, someone to blame so the so-called mob can be satisfied and everything can carry on just as it always was.

So where we go from here? We don't trust the papers to police themselves. We don't trust the Press Complaints Commission to police the papers. We don't trust politicians to police the papers. Left with no-one to rely on but themselves, the campaigners have targeted advertisers -- and the efforts are paying off, in the short term at least. But what happens next will go some way to deciding how the media go about their business in this country.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear