Blogging is better than Fleet Street Fox's journal of branding

Are there any bloggers who write stuff because they want to write stuff?

So Fleet Street Fox was someone called Susie Boniface all along. Who knew? Oh, everyone.

Apparently it’s a big deal that the formerly anonymous (while not being tremendously anonymous) blogger has outed herself and is now herself, rather than not being herself, while still being very much herself. (There’s a book out. I see.)

The mysterious Fleet Street Faux, it turns out, wasn’t all that mysterious to people in the know, despite claims that she would have lost her job if she had been unmasked. (I didn’t know, but I’ve never been in the know.)  Still, it was a nice branding exercise I guess.

FSF has shown vulpine cunning when it comes to spotting a gap in the market, though: there hasn’t been a half-articulate figure defending the tabloid press for ages. Kelvin "The Truth" Mackenzie clung on for as long as he could as the bluff, disingenuous voice of the common White Van Geezer who likes tits, football and right-wing views. The spivvy hack Paul McMullen cut a rather unloveable figure as he gamely attempted to defend the redtops at the height of Leveson, lurking in the shadows in his battered cream suit like a rather forlorn Sidney Stratton. That only leaves Janet Street-Porter to be wheeled out whenever you need a quote from someone to present the “I say let em crash” counterpoint which news programmes deem it necessary to provide as equivalence to anything slightly rational.

Enter FSF The Brand, then, to fill that void and tell us that we’ve got it all wrong, and the tabs are all right. At least Mackenzie isn’t getting on telly as much, but this well-trodden path from "anonymous insider" to "person who pops up on Newsnight with apparently surprising and contradictory opinions" has happened so many times now that it’s become a bit of a cliché. You see people all over the blogosphere painstakingly setting themselves up as these brands ahead of the long-anticipated big reveal.

It seems a far cry from the days when blogging was supposed to change the world; when we were part of some kind of glorious revolution in which the masses would finally take over control of the Fourth Estate. (I’m pretending, here, that there was some kind of golden age of blogging where it wasn’t a cavalcade of oddballs and losers, and we all wrote things out of the goodness of our hearts. Run with that, if you can.)

Perceptive readers may have noticed that I was an anonymous blogger myself. This is true, although I never really had any endgame in mind; I certainly have no desire to cover my genitals in chum and dangle them into the sharky waters of a career as a media pundit. I can think of few worse fates for me, or the rest of the world, than that.  

So what’s my problem? Well, for one thing I think blogging is about more than trying to get your face on telly. If you want to write, write; if you want to be famous, do something worthwhile. There’s a whole world of wonderful blogs and exciting writers out there who’ve been completely ignored by the mainstream by dint of their lack of self-promotion. I think that’s such a huge shame, because some of the very best writers around are online, and not necessarily shouting from the rooftops about how great they are.

Come on, we’re better than this. Blogging is better than the Guidos or the Fleet Street Foxes of this world. Surely there are bloggers who write stuff because they want to write stuff, not because they’d rather fashion some kind of cobbled-together media whack-a-mole career out of it. Please? Someone prove me wrong. 

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media

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All doctors kill people – and the threat of prosecution is bad for everyone

We must recognise the reality of medical practice: just because a doctor makes a mistake, that doesn’t mean they’ve all broken the law. 

On 15 November the Court of Appeal quashed the 2013 conviction for gross negligence manslaughter (GNM) of a senior consultant surgeon in London, David Sellu. Sellu, who had completed his prison term by the time the appeal was heard, will never get back the 15 months of his life that he spent in jail. Nor will the personal and family trauma, or the damage to his reputation and livelihood, ever properly heal. After decades of exemplary practice – in the course of the investigation numerous colleagues testified to his unflappable expertise – Sellu has said that he has lost the heart ever to operate again.

All doctors kill people. Say we make 40 important decisions about patients in a working day: that’s roughly 10,000 per annum. No one is perfect, and medical dilemmas are frequently complex, but even if we are proved right 99 per cent of the time, that still leaves 100 choices every year where, with the benefit of hindsight, we were wrong.

Suppose 99 per cent of those have no negative consequences. That’s still one disaster every 12 months. And even if most of those don’t result in a fatal outcome, over the course of a career a few patients are – very regrettably – going to die as a result of our practice. Almost invariably, these fatalities occur under the care of highly skilled and experienced professionals, working in good faith to the very best of their abilities.

If one of these cases should come before a crown court, the jury needs meticulous direction from the trial judge on the legal threshold for a criminal act: in essence, if a doctor was clearly aware of, and recklessly indifferent to, the risk of death. Sellu’s conviction was quashed because the appeal court found that the judge in his trial had singularly failed to give the jury these directions. The judiciary make mistakes, too.

Prosecutions of health-care professionals for alleged GNM are increasing markedly. The Royal College of Surgeons of England identified ten cases in 2015 alone. This must reflect social trends – the so-called “blame culture”, in which we have come to believe that when a tragedy occurs, someone must be held responsible. In every one of these cases, of course, an individual’s life has been lost and a family left distraught; but there is a deepening sense in which society at large, and the police and Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), in particular, appear to be disconnected from the realities of medical practice.

Malpractice investigation and prosecution are horrendous ordeals for any individual. The cumulative impact on the wider health-care environment is equally serious. In a recent survey of doctors, 85 per cent of respondents admitted that they were less likely to be candid about mistakes, given the increasing involvement of the criminal law.

This is worrying, because the best way to avoid errors in future is by open discussion with the aim of learning from what has gone wrong. And all too often, severely adverse events point less to deficiencies on the part of individuals, and more to problems with systems. At Sellu’s hospital, emergency anaesthetic cover had to be arranged ad hoc, and this contributed to delays in potentially life-saving surgery. The tragic death of his patient highlighted this; management reacted by putting a formal rota system in place.

Doctors have long accepted the burden of civil litigation, and so insure themselves to cover claims for compensation. We are regulated by the General Medical Council, which has powers to protect patients from substandard practice, including striking off poorly performing doctors. The criminal law should remain an exceptional recourse.

We urgently need a thorough review of the legal grounds for a charge of GNM, with unambiguous directions to the police, CPS and judges, before the spectre of imprisonment becomes entrenched for those whose only concern is to provide good care for their patients. As Ken Woodburn, a consultant vascular surgeon in Cornwall who was accused and acquitted of GNM in 2001, has said: “You’re only ever one error away from a manslaughter prosecution.”

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage