The horsemeat scandal, alone amongst food scares, is not about health. Why the hell is it so huge?

Martha Gill's Irrational Animals column.

Over the weekend I caught up with an American cousin. His questions started out friendly enough, but when I confessed that I was “still a journalist”, they took a turn for the patronising. “I’ve been in England two weeks now and every time I switch on the news it’s just horse meat, horse meat, horse meat,” he said. “Does nothing happen in this country?”

Nothing does, but even I can see that our media’s horsemeat content is nigh on indigestible at the moment. The industry reaction has been huge too. Tesco has dropped €360m in market value. European leaders have called emergency meetings in Brussels. Now, large-scale (in other words, extremely expensive) DNA testing is being talked about.

What makes the scale of this food scare particularly odd is that it isn’t even a health scare. All our previous food scares have been: BSE, salmonella, listeria. This one is mostly about surprise. Looks like beef, tastes like beef, sold as beef, actually horse(!) (Let’s ignore the murmurings about bute, by the way, the horse analgesic that “may” have entered the food chain. Even if treated horses had ended up in some burgers the estimated dose would be too low to have any effects, and as the drug is used therapeutically in human beings anyway, the effects would be fairly innocuous.)

No: the scale of the reaction here, I’d argue, is all about BSE – another food scandal involving dangerous cost-cutting, regulatory failures and beef - but that time with fatal consequences. An important difference, you might think - yet almost every comment piece on the recent scandal has linked the two. Google “BSE horsemeat”, for example, and you get 182,000 results. BSE is Horsegate’s nearest relation and the scale of that crisis is dictating this one.

Our mistake here is an example of “anchoring”, taking an early piece of information and leaning on it too heavily as a reference point. We’re all vulnerable to the error. Here's how it works: ask someone the following two questions:

1)Was Gandhi more or less than 144 years old when he died?

2)How old was Gandhi when he died?

..and now ask someone else these questions:

1)Was Gandhi more or less than nine years old when he died?

2)How old was Gandhi when he died?

Absurd as the two openers are, they will still affect the answers you get. In group testing, the first questions had Gandhi die at an average age of 50 and the second at an average age of 67.

The trick is simple and effective but can also be dangerous, and when reacting to a developing crisis we are particularly susceptible, as with limited information available we cling all the harder to what we have.

In July 2011, when a bomb went off in Oslo, the world’s media instantly assumed that it was a work of jihadist terror, before the real identity of the perpetrator – the far-right extremist Anders Behring Breivik –was revealed. Nearly a year later, when a killer went on the rampage in France, the same media outlets pointed the finger at the far right until they discovered the murderer was an Islamist named Mohamed Merah.

We can’t avoid such mistakes entirely, but we can deal with them if we know they can happen. As panic starts to die down, we must reassess our evidence and start to piece together the real story.

Horsemeat: less about health than surprise. Photograph: Getty Images

Martha Gill writes the weekly Irrational Animals column. You can follow her on Twitter here: @Martha_Gill.

This article first appeared in the 25 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The cheap food delusion

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The economics of outrage: Why you haven't seen the end of Katie Hopkins

Her distasteful tweet may have cost her a job at LBC, but this isn't the last we've seen of Britain's biggest troll. 

Another atrocity, other surge of grief and fear, and there like clockwork was the UK’s biggest troll. Hours after the explosion at the Manchester Arena that killed 22 mostly young and female concert goers, Katie Hopkins weighed in with a very on-brand tweet calling for a “final solution” to the complex issue of terrorism.

She quickly deleted it, replacing the offending phrase with the words “true solution”, but did not tone down the essentially fascist message. Few thought it had been an innocent mistake on the part of someone unaware of the historical connotations of those two words.  And no matter how many urged their fellow web users not to give Hopkins the attention she craved, it still sparked angry tweets, condemnatory news articles and even reports to the police.

Hopkins has lost her presenting job at LBC radio, but she is yet to lose her column at Mail Online, and it’s quite likely she won’t.

Mail Online and its print counterpart The Daily Mail have regularly shown they are prepared to go down the deliberately divisive path Hopkins was signposting. But even if the site's managing editor Martin Clarke was secretly a liberal sandal-wearer, there are also very good economic reasons for Mail Online to stick with her. The extreme and outrageous is great at gaining attention, and attention is what makes money for Mail Online.

It is ironic that Hopkins’s career was initially helped by TV’s attempts to provide balance. Producers could rely on her to provide a counterweight to even the most committed and rational bleeding-heart liberal.

As Patrick Smith, a former media specialist who is currently a senior reporter at BuzzFeed News points out: “It’s very difficult for producers who are legally bound to be balanced, they will sometimes literally have lawyers in the room.”

“That in a way is why some people who are skirting very close or beyond the bounds of taste and decency get on air.”

But while TV may have made Hopkins, it is online where her extreme views perform best.  As digital publishers have learned, the best way to get the shares, clicks and page views that make them money is to provoke an emotional response. And there are few things as good at provoking an emotional response as extreme and outrageous political views.

And in many ways it doesn’t matter whether that response is negative or positive. Those who complain about what Hopkins says are also the ones who draw attention to it – many will read what she writes in order to know exactly why they should hate her.

Of course using outrageous views as a sales tactic is not confined to the web – The Daily Mail prints columns by Sarah Vine for a reason - but the risks of pushing the boundaries of taste and decency are greater in a linear, analogue world. Cancelling a newspaper subscription or changing radio station is a simpler and often longer-lasting act than pledging to never click on a tempting link on Twitter or Facebook. LBC may have had far more to lose from sticking with Hopkins than Mail Online does, and much less to gain. Someone prepared to say what Hopkins says will not be out of work for long. 

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