Portfolio

Data Journalism, Journalism

NHS Staff at breaking point, beds running out, backlogs, delays, and Brexit.

What does the future hold for the NHS?

Urgent and emergency care situation reports show how the NHS almost ran out of critical care beds during the second wave of the pandemic. Hospitals in London reached 95% of their capacity by January 2021, closely followed by the South East and the East of England.

The situation was perilously close to being an unmitigated disaster as the second national lockdown began across the UK. Yet many of the pressures faced by the NHS were predicted in advance.

Five Coronavirus spikes piercing the NHS

In early 2020, a study by the Health Foundation predicted five distinct areas of impact linked to the pandemic.

Severe illness & Death

The authors considered how the direct impact of Covid-19, measured in terms of severe illness, hospitalisations, and deaths, would almost break the NHS. The latest data back up their grim forecast.

Dr Alex Stockdale, NIHR Academic Clinical Lecturer in Clinical Infection, Microbiology & Immunology at the University of Liverpool, who worked on Covid wards during the first wave, said:

“Everybody was really afraid. Non-infection specialists particularly, because they hadn’t really dealt with infectious diseases. All of us had quite profound insomnia, lying awake at night worrying ‘is it going to be me next’?”

Existing socioeconomic inequalities were also exacerbated by the pandemic, with black and minority ethnic communities disproportionately affected

Acute system shake up

Acute care was also expected to suffer from decreased capacity, caused by the massive surge in demand of Covid-19. This transpired as thousands of people were discharged to free up beds for Covid patients, staff were redeployed en masse, enormous numbers of operations were cancelled, and GP appointments increasingly took place remotely.

Non-covid related hospitalisations fell dramatically during the first lockdown, with accident and emergency admissions dropping by 31.4% overall compared to 2019, according to a recent data release by NHS Digital. Around 45% fewer Children aged 0-4, and 21-27% fewer young adults aged 18-25 were admitted to hospitals than the previous year.

Non-acute care and GP clinics

Non-urgent, routine healthcare normally dealt with by GPs was also dramatically impacted by the pandemic. Cancer Research repeatedly raised concerns about the relative lack of early cancer diagnoses, which is likely to lead to adverse outcomes.

Dr Stockdale echoed their concerns: 

“What we’re seeing now is lots of late diagnoses of cancer. That’s going to be the biggest shadow: Cancer related death over the next 24 months.”  

Cancer surgery has also dropped since the first lockdown, meaning that many urgent referrals received alternative treatments like radiotherapy.

Remote GP appointments increased significantly during the pandemic. According to NHS data, between May and July 2020 almost 50% of all appointments were conducted by telephone, exceeding the number of face to face appointments. Previously, from October 2019 until March 2020, in-person appointments accounted for 80% of the total.

A GP from Kent, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said: 

Remote appointments can actually take longer than seeing someone face to face, because…you can’t pick up…non-verbal cues and use your intuition.”

“There is…technology to ask patients to send images…for example of a rash. Sometimes this can be a real time saver, but other times…you have to [see them] face to face…to get a clear view.”

They also worried about elderly, deprived, and vulnerable patients “missing out on access because of digital exclusion.”

A report by Health Watch concurred that “many people [were] struggling to access care”, and found the lack of clear communication about changes to the appointments system “frustrating” and “confusing”.

Delays and failures


Research by the British Medical Journal showed a “record high of 4.46 million” patients were awaiting planned treatment in November 2020, and “2.3 million people” were still “waiting for surgical care” earlier this year.

Repurposed wards, operating theatres and outpatient clinics, staff redeployment, absence due to sickness or self-isolation, protective protocols slowing down hospital treatment, and “delays or failures in patient testing”, were all cited as possible contributing factors to increased waiting times.

A decimated & demoralised workforce 

A report by the Health Foundation examined how perennial staff shortages hampered the NHS’ pandemic response. Despite a recruitment drive there were over 80000 staff vacancies in June 2020. Almost 50% of these were nursing jobs, keeping the UK below the OECD average for nurses per capita.

Evidence also suggests that NHS staff have increased levels of anxiety, depression, stress, and PTSD. Female nurses and ethnic minority workers were particularly affected, with the latter having “50% greater risk” of “high PTSD symptoms”, and being significantly more worried about getting Covid-19 than their white counterparts.

The NHS Staff survey 2020 provided a parallel perspective. Overall, 44% of staff reported “feeling unwell” due to “work related stress” during the pandemic, an increase of 10% from 2019.

Post-pandemic recovery in the shadow of Brexit

A report by the Nuffield Trust outlined the complexity of Brexit for the NHS. From the prospect of investor-state dispute clauses in the controversial Trans-Pacific trade deal allowing private companies to challenge public health regulation, to rising medicine prices, changes in the mutual recognition of qualifications affecting NHS recruitment, UK immigration rules ensuring that social care applicants cannot pass minimum “salary or skills thresholds” for visas, foreign nurses finding it harder to accept jobs, data sharing disruption, and the burgeoning crisis in Northern Ireland, the future looks fraught with problems.

Alongside issues related to Brexit, the NHS is on the verge of integrated care systems reshaping the current model of healthcare. New partnerships between NHS providers and local government are set to be fully operational by April 2022. The proposed changes have been met with scepticism.

What next for the NHS? 

Coronavirus shows no sign of disappearing in the near future. A “chronically underfunded” and understaffed NHS and social care system looks likely, at the very least, to have to maintain a delicate balance between:  

And much more besides. 

As the pandemic ebbs and flows these challenges represent the tip of an increasingly unfathomable iceberg. The question is whether the British government, healthcare providers, and key stakeholders can work together to steer the NHS Titanic through the tumultuous, storm-tossed waves threatening to sink the ship before any lifeboats can be released. 


Photo by Markus Spiske from Pexels

Data Journalism

Unsolved and unsafe: Police forces across England and Wales struggling to tackle 8 out of 10 crimes as Greater Manchester Police found to be failing victims


The vast majority of all recorded crimes have not resulted in any suspects being charged since November 2017, according to an exclusive new analysis of police data.


Police in England and Wales have consistently failed to bring criminals to justice over the past three years, with many forces closing over 80% of investigations without any suspects being identified or prosecuted.

A significant number have charged suspects in fewer than 10% of cases.

The new analysis also shows little to no improvement has occurred during the pandemic, prior to which a YouGov survey revealed that Britons already expressed staggeringly low levels of confidence in the police’s ability to solve crime.

A recent resident of Chorlton-cum-Hardy in Manchester shared his experience of becoming a victim of crime, and his lack of confidence in the police’s ability to help, after moving there from a “quiet, peaceful village” in Cambridgeshire.

Manchester cityscape during a storm \ Image by Paul Rhoades from Pixabay

Ryan Buxton, a musician and guitar tutor, moved to Manchester in the spring of 2018 with a sense of excitement and expectation of encountering a vibrant city with a “rip-roaring” music scene reminiscent of “New York in the 1980s”, which he imagined would have been “terrible and terrifying in some respects”, but also “very exciting, very interesting in others.”

“In my head I’d painted this romantic and slightly intimidating picture of Manchester being this kind of big industrial place…you know, like you have to really be on your toes, being mugged all the time, or worse, I suppose.”

Shortly after arriving in the area, Ryan quickly found himself subjected to bicycle theft, criminal damage, and attempted burglary.

We did have a bike stolen from our lock-up and the new neighbours below us had both of their bikes stolen when they moved in.

I had my car keyed in town and there was no obvious reason why.”

He decided not to report these crimes to the police, as he felt that they would have “much bigger things on their mind.”

I can’t imagine a huge metropolitan police force having time for bike theft.

Just seemed like a process that was probably pointless I guess.”

He also recalled the experience of a friend who was out busking in the city centre.

“My friend Olly had his headphones stolen. He was walking down the street towards Piccadilly. I think it was during the day, to be honest, and somebody on their bike had cycled past and just taken them off his head.[They were] five miles away before he’d had a chance to do anything about it.

You don’t make your intention to be [near Piccadilly] after a certain time in my opinion. You don’t want to invite anything and if you were to be there at that time of night, maybe you’d be increasing your chances of something happening like that.”

Despite being affected by the sobering realities of inner city crime, Ryan still found it difficult to reconcile his daily experience of Manchester with the more disturbing headlines he often read in the local newspaper.

“Something I would say I’ve noticed is the stories that you hear tend to be quite shocking, I suppose. I find it hard to square what I see on a day to day basis with what I hear about happening in Rochdale or Oldham, other places like that…”


Greater Manchester Police were recently placed into special measures due to their failure to record thousands of reported crimes.

One person castigated the force on social media, claiming that they had ignored his pleas for help following a robbery in December 2020:

Yet long before they were placed into special measures, Greater Manchester Police had significant problems finding suspects to charge.

Of the top five police forces with the highest unsolved crime rate, Greater Manchester Police recorded the biggest rise from November 2017 until the middle of 2019. Beyond this point they failed to accurately record crime and outcomes data, leading to a rapid decline in numbers.

The dramatic increase in investigations being closed without suspects raises serious questions about the force’s real success rate.

Try selecting 1-2 forces / Scores vs Ranks

According to the ONS, their inability to record crimes was initially due to “the implementation of a new IT system”, which meant that the force were “unable to supply data for the period July 2019 to March 2020.” 

Yet the new data analysis shows that from multiple perspectives, Greater Manchester Police were already struggling to keep a lid on crimes prior to this point.

Other people who claimed to have been victims of criminal activity in Greater Manchester shared their perspectives with harrowing stories of being deserted by the police when they tried to report crimes, and potentially life-threatening situations, shortly after the Manchester Evening News first broke the story of the force being placed in special measures.

The Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, and Bev Hughes, Greater Manchester’s Deputy Mayor for Policing, Crime and Criminal Justice, suggested that the pressures of the pandemic played a significant role in the force’s subsequent issues with data collection.

A recent report by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services said that the force’s litany of problems included:

“Failing to identify, record and investigate around one in four reports of violent crime and to safeguard victims of many of these crimes. This includes behavioural crimes, such as harassment, stalking and coercive controlling behaviour, crimes amounting to domestic abuse and those reported by other agencies involving vulnerable adults and children…

Wrongly and prematurely closing substantial numbers of recorded crime investigations, including a high proportion of crimes involving vulnerable victims, as not supported by the victim, but without the evidence to show this to be the case.”

Greater Manchester Police, the Police Federation, and Greater Manchester Combined Authority were all approached for an interview but declined to comment. 


These withering assessments of police forces in England and Wales have coincided with a report in the Guardian which claims that police forces in England and Wales may face new crime reduction targets “in return for government providing the money for 20,000 new officers”, a flagship Conservative manifesto promise dubbed “Safer Streets” by Boris Johnson.

Yet the push to incentivise police forces to reduce the number of recorded crimes, especially “Homicide and serious violence”, in return for funding which has already been pledged, makes no mention of how unsuccessful they have been at dealing with current levels of crime.

Violence and sexual offences were the most frequently recorded crimes in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland during the past three years, followed by criminal damage and arson.

Cambridgeshire Constabulary, Greater Manchester, West Midlands, Bedfordshire, and West Yorkshire Police, had the highest number of unsolved crimes across all categories in England and Wales, with each force closing over 84% of cases without managing to identify or prosecute any suspects.

The Metropolitan Police also showed a remarkable rise in the total number of unsolved crimes in 2020, bucking the trend set by other police forces, who saw crime levelling off or dipping slightly as the pandemic took hold.

*Crime type data is taken from police “street crime” datasets, which are separate from their “outcomes” datasets, as the latter lack any data with respect to crime types. This means the final figures for “unsolved” crimes will be different (usually higher) than the “street crime” values above.

By contrast, Greater Manchester Police appeared to go in the opposite direction due to the significant issues they have had with data collection.

With the true picture of criminal activity in Greater Manchester over the past two years all but erased by the force’s negligence, the impact of crime upon tens of thousands of victims is impossible to accurately measure.


Featured photo by Anete Lusina from Pexels

Full methodology for the data analysis conducted using RStudio is available on Github. For outcomes data analysis, click here. For street crime data analysis, click here.

Data Journalism

Driven to the edge of chaos and distraction

How emerging technologies could help satisfy AI’s hunger for power and make algorithms more ethical

Photo by Tara Winstead from Pexels

Artificial intelligence has power and secrecy problems, encapsulated by an insatiable appetite for data, energy, and deep-learning models producing inscrutable, unaccountable outputs. A glimmer of hope that AI’s environmental and ethical impact could be counteracted comes from a confluence of emerging technologies.

AI research investment rose steadily since 2010, with a noticeable upward trend from India, China, and Korea before the pandemic struck.

Get the data here

AI’s data diet

Artificial intelligence research is also driving its increasingly ravenous appetite for data and power.

According to the International Energy Agency, demand for data is “rising exponentially”, causing a rapid expansion of global data centres. Alongside power-hungry AI systems, estimated to have a substantial environmental impact, the combined effects are significant.

Two of the top three countries who have invested most heavily in AI research since 2010 also have the lowest proportion of power stations using non-renewable fuel.

Get the data here

Over 8000 data centres crunch the world’s data, according to a briefing for the United States International Trade Commission using proprietary figures from Cloudscene, an Australian data intelligence firm.

A study of global data centre energy consumption shows how comprehensive, accessible energy consumption figures remain elusive. Due to a lack of location data, and “extrapolation” based models, current estimates lack certainty.

This data gap led me to create estimates based on my own analysis of publicly available data. Though this imperfect snapshot gave conspicuously low figures for some industry giants (e.g. Amazon, Google, et al.), it provided insight into some front-runners like Digital Realty and Equinix.

3 companies have over 100 data centres | Get the data here

Digital Realty leads the USA by virtue of building new data centres meeting the Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star rating.

Based on Cloudscene’s figures and official EPA data however, only around 7% of US data centres have this rating. 

Digital Realty also had the highest number of hyperscale data centres with at least 5000 servers spread over 10000 square feet.

Get the data here

AI’s explosive growth means demand for servers with “high-end” Graphical Processing Units has “skyrocketed”, according to Telehouse.

Though not the dominant industry processor of choice, a significant uptick in GPUs dedicated to AI has led to uncertainty about their projected power footprint.

Emerging technology

One innovative AI technology which could mitigate environmental concerns is called reservoir computing at the “edge of chaos”.

Joel Hochstetter, a postgraduate student at the University of Sydney, Australia, introduced his team’s research into novel artificial neural networks, seeking to mimic the human brain, in a recent article commissioned by his university. I spoke with him to find out more about their work and its potential applications.

So essentially I study networks of tiny silver wires….when we stimulate these networks with electricity, we see…interesting electrical switching phenomena.

One of the aims of the work which we’re trying to harness are interesting dynamical behaviours…for…information processing tasks in a framework known as reservoir computing.”

Reservoir computing is startlingly diverse and due to its “low training cost”, and “fast learning” processes compared to conventional neural networks, could revolutionise artificial intelligence.

So if you think about a conventional, artificial neural network you have…layers and they’re fully connected. Then you have some inputs at the start and outputs at the end, and you have weights between the layers.

The way that you train these neural networks is that you go through and kind of fiddle with all the weights and go back and forth through the neural network, to try and optimise some kind of cost function, or basically get the highest accuracy you can.”

Alongside removing this intensive training process, a reservoir computer evolves autonomously “by its own intrinsic dynamics”, and is akin to the “last layer in a neural network.”

Experimental forms of reservoir computing show promise for substantial power efficiency savings with tasks like image classification. One study demonstrated a hundred-fold improvement over conventional neural networks with an equivalent level of accuracy.

I can’t give you any numbers…but if you think about how your regular kind of neural network has many dense layers, then it’s very computationally intensive.”

“If you do this on a regular computer, then you’re limited by…this…Von Neumann bottleneck, where your CPU is passing information between RAM and processing. Because you’re having to access the memory and then operate on [it], that slows you down.”

Transistors with memories

One promising technology being developed which might exceed contemporary computing limitations, whilst reducing AI’s carbon footprint, is called a “memristor”.

So essentially a memristor is…like an electrical device that has a memory of past stimuli. It’s different to a transistor because, for a transistor, if you turn all the voltages off everything is forgotten. 

In terms of energy efficiency these memristor devices overcome this Von Neumann bottleneck that I mentioned because processing and memory occurs at the same location. So you no longer have to pass information back and forth to do processing.”

Industry has yet to exploit the nascent technology beyond “speeding up existing algorithms”.

Commercially, I think companies like IBM would be doing research into this but no one’s using this technology yet, because it’s limited by the material side in terms of – it’s not quite reliable enough yet – but it’s promising.”

An almost chaotic solution

Joel’s team discovered that their memristive system performs more effectively when pushed to the brink of disorder, a delicate equilibrium between stability and instability known in scientific literature as the “edge of chaos“.

Essentially it’s been hypothesised that, for a wide range of dynamical systems… – like brains or gene regulatory networks for example – being close to what’s called the edge of chaos or criticality, where you’re near some kind of phase transition between two different, completely distinct regimes, might give you optimal performance in different ways.

If you think about a regime where the system is very ordered, [it is]…predictable and many parts of the system are either doing the same thing, or they’re not doing anything at all. By contrast, in a regime where a dynamical system might be chaotic, different parts of the system are uncorrelated and…all over the place in how they’re working. Somewhere in the middle between this kind of unpredictable chaotic regime, and this kind of ordered, slowly changing system, you might be able to have the greatest…coherence…complexity and randomness.”

Memristive technologies driven to the edge of chaos could be applied to myriad complex computational tasks, providing solutions to managing the relentless rise of big data and increasingly sophisticated, power-hungry AI.

Joel shared what he hoped the technology might be used for in the future:

Looking forward to the next 15-20 years…predicting chaotic or unpredictable time series. For example, if you were trying to predict the weather or the stock market. Another thing that we might be able to do with these networks is to handle other kinds of streaming data, like video data.”

I asked Joel if he thought it could dramatically improve the way data centres currently function.

Definitely. I think so. Once we accomplish the initial challenges then I think looking long-term this would be the hope: That we could process large data sets, like you described.”

Unlocking AI’s black box

As AI becomes ubiquitous, experts have questioned the trustworthiness of automated systems underpinned by opaque algorithms, which are steeped in hidden biases but so complex that they are inscrutable to the researchers deploying them.

This has sparked controversy, like Google’s recent decision to censor critical research by Dr Timnit Gebru, former co-lead for ethical AI research, who co-authored a paper looking at the “environmental and ethical implications of large-scale AI language models”. The situation raised several eyebrows.

I spoke to David Morales, a Phd student at the university of Granada working on “AI explainability for machine learning algorithms”, whose team discovered a new method of distracting image classification algorithms to make them more transparent using “visual explanation techniques”.

The problem with machine learning algorithms is that they are known as black boxes because the algorithm gets an input, and you get an output, but you…don’t know why the algorithm made that decision.”

“Visual explanation techniques try to explain machine learning algorithms.”

“So…usually the algorithm learns by itself how to classify an image. We modified this training process in order to force the algorithm to discover new features and…regions of interest.”

Though requiring human intervention whilst running a “classical” algorithm, before using the new technique to query the results, this could be simplified to improve efficiency.

“Data scientists have to learn to improve visual explanation techniques…to develop new deep learning…and…machine learning models to make them more trustworthy and interpretable.”

New algorithms could be more accountable and energy efficient, whilst enabling humanity to learn from AI.

“At the end it’s just one algorithm…not two, so I think the energy [footprint] will be much lower.”

“We can learn to perform many tasks in a better way if we can see how artificial intelligence resolved these problems.”

Get involved

The “pernicious effect” of AI bias is being tackled by organisations like the USA’s National Institute of Standards and Technology, who are about to publish a special paper on the topic, aiming to identify and manage AI biases whilst improving trust in algorithms. NIST wants public input on their proposals, which can be submitted by “completing the template form (in Excel format) and sending it to ai-bias@list.nist.gov.“[𝟏]


Endnotes

[𝟏] Link will open on the NIST website. Author has no affiliation to NIST.

Data Journalism

Revealed: 80% of UK adults ready to trust a coronavirus vaccine

Why herd immunity could be achievable despite anti-vax attitudes

 

Source: Alexander Koch on Pixabay.com

Three recent studies suggest a substantial majority of UK adults are ready to be vaccinated against Covid-19, making herd immunity possible, and potentially banishing the coronavirus pandemic to the realm of bad memories and fever-dreams. If 79% of UK adults receive an effective vaccine, this would match or surpass the hypothetical threshold scientists expect a population typically needs in order to defeat a disease like Coronavirus.

Aneesh Thakur, assistant professor of vaccine design and delivery at the university of Copenhagen, though quick to caution against making generalisations, explained that the ‘R’ number has a crucial role to play in how much of the population needs to be vaccinated to ensure success:

Assuming that on average [the ‘R’ number] is 2.5-3, then around 70% of the population should be vaccinated to get herd immunity in order to prevent further spread within the population. We cannot generalise, but that is a theoretical estimation.” 

– Professor Aneesh Thakur, university of Copenhagen, September 2020.

It appears that a substantial proportion of the UK public is ready to put their trust in a vaccine, meaning that it would be possible to meet this theoretical threshold. Comparing data from surveys conducted by King’s College London, YouGov, and University College London, a clear pattern of positive attitudes to taking a coronavirus vaccine emerges. In contrast to widespread media coverage of anti-vax attitudes in the national press, most recently in response to the figures released by UCL, a significant majority of respondents signalled that they were ready to get vaccinated:

Survey results per study – KCL / YouGov / UCL:

UCL survey did not offer respondents a “don’t know” option

Chart: Miguel Roca | Sources (click to Getthedata): KCL / YouGov / UCL | Fri Sep 25 2020

UCL Covid-19 Social Attitudes Survey:

The largest and most recent dataset shown above is the landmark study conducted by University College London, sponsored by the Nuffield foundation, which has been tracking the psychological and social impact of the pandemic on a weekly basis since the original Coronavirus lockdown began. Their evidence overwhelmingly suggests that “on balance”, a significant majority of UK adults have a positive attitude to taking a Coronavirus vaccine. Nearly 80% of UCL survey respondents, taken from a sample of over 70000 people, said that they were very likely, moderately likely, or more likely than not to take a safe, effective vaccine against Covid-19:

“Positive/negative” = varying degrees of how likely/unlikely people thought they would be to take a vaccine.

Chart: Miguel Roca |Fri 25 Sep 2020 | Getthedata

Herd Immunity:

As confirmed cases of Coronavirus rise exponentially across the UK and parts of Europe, society must pin its hopes of stopping the pandemic on an effective vaccine. Estimates for a successful vaccination strategy which could lead to safe and effective herd immunity range from between 43% and 67% of the global population, meaning that an 80% vaccination rate should comfortably meet the required target to put the brakes on the pandemic.

Whilst the estimated “threshold” for herd immunity differs considerably between different diseases, and exists within a hypothetical range, if a sufficiently high proportion of the UK adult population were immunised against Covid-19, it should comfortably match the threshold for related diseases such as SARS1 and influenza:

Chart: Miguel Roca | Sources (click to Getthedata): Statista / IJRR / Harvard / Our World in Data | Wed Sep 23 2020

Although some scientists are cautiously optimistic about the possibility of a mass immunisation program, provided that the vaccines are highly effective against the virus, others remain sceptical and caution against making unsubstantiated predictions about vaccine-induced herd immunity to Covid-19. Dr Alexander Stockdale, NIHR Academic clinical lecturer in clinical infection, microbiology and immunology at the university of Liverpool, stressed the need to resist jumping to conclusions in the absence of real world data:

The level of herd immunity necessary for COVID-19 control is unknown given that we haven’t got a vaccine with evaluable data and these estimates rest on a number of assumptions yet to be validated. I don’t think we could say as such there is scientific consensus at all as these are predictive models not actual data. 

For example, the WHO has suggested a threshold of 50% disease risk reduction for approval of a candidate vaccine. There is a debate about whether disease reduction would translate to a reduction in transmission given that the type of immunity induced by vaccination may not be sterilising, i.e. it might reduce severe disease but not necessarily reduce transmission to the same degree. 

Answering a related question on how effective a vaccine would need to be in order to halt the pandemic if it were administered to 70-80% of the population, Dr Stockdale said:

In general terms vaccine coverage must be higher if efficacy is lower. I cannot provide an estimate as there are still many unknowns here – the proof is in the pudding and evaluation of this must wait for the approval of a vaccine and publication of the phase 3 trial data! There may be surprises along the way and we may be in for a bumpy ride.

For example, issues of fair vaccine allocation, differential efficacy in different populations, the potential effect of rare but serious side effects on population uptake, the role of anti-science and anti-vaccination influence over time. 

Dr Alexander Stockdale, university of Liverpool, September 2020.

As reported in the Financial Times, with 300 potential vaccine candidates in the pipeline – 9 of which have already proceeded to phase 3 clinical trials – the flood of data helping humanity make sense of its latest invisible pathological enemy continues rushing down our digital waterways at breakneck pace.

According to Devi Sridhar, professor and chair of global public health at Edinburgh university medical school, based on other diseases which have plagued humanity throughout history, vaccine-induced herd immunity combined with other measures presents our best realistic hope of controlling and/or eradicating Covid-19. By contrast, since so-called natural herd immunity has never been achieved for many of these deadly pathogens, pursuing this latter, highly controversial approach looks likely to be a dangerously ineffective strategy against the novel Coronavirus:

End Notes

1. This is assuming that the median herd immunity threshold for SARS, which based on these datasets is 65% (between 50-80%), is similar to SARS-Cov2.

Journalism, Opinion

Have journalists misread a moody public? A Faithful & Factful perspective on the question of trust.

*links are highlighted

“Factfulness is … recognizing when a category is being used in an explanation, and remembering that categories can be misleading. We can’t stop generalization and we shouldn’t even try. What we should try to do is to avoid generalizing incorrectly.” – Hans Rosling (2018), Factfulness, London: Sceptre, pg 165.

One of the most enduring memories I have of starting to study theology as a mature student was how quickly I had to come to terms with my own breathtaking levels of wilful ignorance. My entire Christian journey as an adult has been characterised by a series of successive and gradual realisations that my worldview is fundamentally flawed and incomplete. Just like yours, and more or less everyone else’s. Relax, we’re in good company.

Reading Christian Scripture usually impacts my sense of place, purpose, and calling in this world in relation to God and humanity. Having recently finished Hans Rosling’s masterfully written book called Factfulness: Ten Reasons we’re wrong about the world and why things are better than you think, I am not ashamed to say that every chapter had a strikingly similar effect to my experience of digesting biblical literature. They both breathe fresh life into my curious mind, albeit in different ways.

Although I didn’t read Factfulness in the bathtub, I had plenty of eureka moments as I plunged more deeply into a Factful way of thinking. Little lightbulbs kept popping into my head as I began to ponder the enormous potential of Rosling’s fact-based conceptual framework; this is especially the case when I consider how useful it is with respect to the process of forming and shaping my nascent data journalism skills. As Hans puts it:

“The world cannot be understood without numbers. But the world cannot be understood with numbers alone.” – Rosling (2018), Factfulness, 192.

As I wrote in my previous post, the Devil in the Data, rooting out vital public interest stories hidden in the numbers, whilst avoiding an overly dehumanising approach to statistic-led journalism, is precisely what I hope to learn how to do in my PGCert in Data Journalism at Birmingham City University. Time will tell if the pandemic will have tapered off enough by September 2020 for me to commence my studies in person.

Facing an uncertain future in the time of Corona has not dampened my newfound desire to pursue journalism as a vocation, although it has chastened it. To survive this pandemic and progress into a new career in investigative data journalism, I will have to attempt to remain steadfast and patient. Such is the order of the day for so many of us across the globe during lockdown.

Thankfully, alongside Factfulness as a preliminary guide to getting to grips with data, as a Christian I need not rely upon the numbers alone. Nor do I have to feel unduly pressured to make perfect sense of them. This is in no small part because I frequently read and believe the multiple reassurances in the scriptures about divine faithfulness, which remains my immovable anchor amidst all the storms life tends to hurl at us; including Coronavirus.

As mysterious and overly simplistic as it may sound, believing in the God revealed in Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whose essence and character are variously described as love, light, truth, and goodness combined with absolute trustworthiness, gives me a great sense of comfort and peace. This is especially important and helpful during a time such as this ongoing pandemic, replete as it is with so much sadness, suffering, anxiety, and uncertainty. Powerless though I am to change the course of history, I do my imperfect best to cling to the kernel of beautifully naive, childlike faith which I have been granted to trust that if my vocation in this brief life is to pursue data journalism, I can rely on divine faithfulness to enable me to succeed. Even in the time of Corona.

A Moody Public?

Yet on the subject of trust, according to some vocal critics of my desired profession, it appears that substantial numbers of people across the UK do not see journalism through the same rose-tinted spectacles I have found myself donning over the past twelve months. A recent, already infamous poll conducted by YouGov on behalf of Sky News, claimed that trust in newspaper and TV journalists has plummeted over the past month, despite a similar poll in March showing that some forms of journalism (i.e. The BBC and broadsheet publications) were enjoying an uptick in public trust since the 2019 General Election. Within barely a month, the national mood appears to have changed dramatically. So much so, that one tweet captured the alleged zeitgeist as follows:

For clarity, according to the Sky News YouGov poll, trust in journalists has fallen into “net minus” figures: Approximately 72% of respondents expressed some form of distrust of newspaper journalists, versus 17% who expressed varying levels of trust. Whereas 64% of respondents expressed some form of distrust of TV journalists versus 24% who expressed trust. Or, put another way:

Source: YouGov

In either case: the final methodology given in the Sky News article was to subtract the distrust from the trust, which was then described as a “net minus” score. E.g. 17-71 = -56 (in the original article it was -55) and 24-64 = -40. Despite my paucity of knowledge or experience with respect to how statistics are typically expressed, I did feel puzzled by this way of putting it. Nevertheless, hold onto those two minus figures. They’ll be important shortly…

Rapid Rebuttals

Since the original Sky News article, accompanied by a seemingly synchronistic flurry of self-appointed social media spokespeople who were suddenly keen to speak on behalf and express the “mood” of an entire nation, more than a few journalists found storms brewing in their teacups instead of the usual Yorkshire nectar. [1] Masterful responses to both unofficial spokespeople and Sky News were forthcoming from a range of commentators. Data journalism guru Paul Bradshaw pointed out the obvious for anyone who has become acquainted with Factfulness:

“News — aside from the odd human interest story or “and finally” piece — has never been the place to go for hope, optimism, faith, or positivity.

News is also an industry that focuses on facts. And most of the facts right now are not very nice facts.” – Paul Bradshaw (2020), Is the press missing the mood of the country over coronavirus?, Birmingham, UK: Medium.

Data-driven journalism underpinned by Factfulness is not designed to be akin to entertainment. Au contraire, it finds its raison d’etre in confronting and provoking those who might otherwise ignore, suppress, or simply be oblivious to the facts of any given matter. The kind of journalism I hope to learn to do is, at its idealistic best, compelled by an unflinching resolve to seek, find, verify, and tell (or often expose) the truth even if it is uncomfortable or inconvenient for the national mood. Holding governments and businesses to account is an extraordinarily important contribution to any nation’s efforts to survive a crisis like Coronavirus. Democracy crumbles when the 4th estate is reduced to a PR exercise to tow the party line.

Playing with Numbers

Other writers weighed in quickly with various nuanced critiques of the Sky News poll. Charlie Beckett, writing for the London School of Economics, pointed out various issues with the vague nature of how the YouGov pollsters surveyed the nebulous notion of “trust”, and cautioned against missing the broader context of what he otherwise described as a “perfectly reputable” poll. Richard Fletcher, writing for the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford university, offered a superbly intricate study into the mix of the wider debate around public trust in journalists and news media.

However the most scathing rebuttal of those clamouring to suggest that trust in the press has plummeted dramatically over the past 30 days was summed up by Will Jennings’ response on yougov.co.uk. Analysing trends in the data around this very question of trust in the media more closely over the past few months, he simply expressed the truth of the matter like so:

“There simply has been no collapse in public trust in news media during the coronavirus outbreak.” – Will Jennings (2020), No, trust in the media has not collapsed because of Coronavirus, yougov.co.uk.

This brings us back to those “net minus” figures from the original Sky News article. Whilst they were actually only presented, quite rightly, as part of a bigger and much more complex statistical picture, even I wondered what was going on in the polling numbers. So out of morbid curiousity, I had a quick glance through the wider dataset and compared some of the other data which sprang out at me with the original “trust” data in the same poll. To my amazement, here’s what I found when I mapped the numbers which sought to gauge the public “mood” with respect to respondents’ perceived levels of increased sadness and anxiety, over their “trust” in newspaper and TV journalists:

Source: YouGov

Did trust in news media figures plummet in tandem with increased public sadness and anxiety brought on by the Coronavirus pandemic and the resulting lockdown? Common sense might dictate that this is eminently plausible. Perhaps journalists really are “missing the mood” of the nation because people are more depressed and anxious than usual during lockdown. If journalists are frequently the bearers of more bad news as the Coronavirus death toll soars, this is surely understandable. The comparison can appear even more fascinating when combined with previous YouGov polls on the question of trust. For example:

Source: YouGov

As others have already explained far more artfully and accurately than I can at present, the broader trend of public trust in different forms of journalism is actually far more nuanced and stable than some self-appointed spokespeople appear to believe. Especially when you compare levels of trust in a variety of newspapers (broadsheets / mid-market / tabloids) over the past 6-7 months. For example (again numbers = % of respondents who expressed some level of trust):

Notice the relative stability of public trust levels throughout October to March. Also the similar ratio of trust between the vaguer categories of “newspapers” and “TV” journalism. Does this point to the seductively obvious picture of a spike in sadness and anxiety during the Coronavirus lockdown being a causative factor in the alleged drop in the public’s trust in news media? What if you plunge further down this rabbit hole and work with another metric, like averages?

For instance, by adding increased levels of anxiety and sadness together and finding the average you would get a figure of (45+49) / 2 = 47. Let’s call this arbitrary figure “negative lockdown mood” or NLM. How does NLM compare to an average of the “net minus” figures we mentioned earlier? (See above) According the Sky News YouGov poll, public trust ended up at -55 (trust in newspapers) & -40 (trust in TV journalists). Add those figures together and find the average and you get (-55+ (-40)) / 2 = –47.5. Notice the potential implications? Eureka! The Sky News Poll shows us that there is a direct correlation between increased levels of public sadness and anxiety and decreased levels of trust in news media, which explains everything, right?

In a word: No. At best, I have stumbled across an interesting pattern in the Sky News data, and manipulated the figures to support an assertion, which is almost certainly of no statistical significance whatsoever (of course, if it is, you read it here first). Hans Rosling would likely be horrified at my presentation of the above data if I was trying to use it in a serious fashion to sway public opinion, or inform any kind of government policymaker. Correlation ≠ causation and confirmation bias frequently runs rampant through the human mind in our search for meaning. Randomness is real, and poll data are very often clumsy numbers to work with. Especially when pollsters conflate diverse categories like broadsheets / tabloids / TV journalism / the BBC etc (or when friends on social media fall into a straw man fallacy by castigating impossibly broad categories like “the media / press”: Who exactly? Which ones?!).

If you felt a hint of persuasion in my argument above, consider that experience carefully before you feel tempted to jump on the next bandwagon careening its way through your social media feed. So much for journalists misreading the public mood. It turns out that a decline in public mood may (or may not) have influenced their level of trust in the media. Yet if you believe that and/or the spokespeople asserting the latter, it might be worth pausing to reconsider whether you (or they) are actually in full possession of the facts.

A faithfully Factful approach can work wonders here. As can a dose of humility in admitting that claiming to speak on behalf of > 60000000 people, or casting judgment on all forms of journalism by denigrating hopelessly imprecise categories like “the press/media”, is a foolish (and potentially dangerous) business. Remember the opening quote in this article by Hans Rosling: Categories can be misleading. If in doubt, better to keep quiet. As one writer in the Hebrew Bible puts it:

“Even fools who keep silent are considered wise; when they close their lips, they are deemed intelligent.” ‬‬

Proverbs‬ ‭17:28‬ ‭NRSV

End Notes

Miguel Roca

1. For the uninitiated, I am of course referring to the legendary British brew known as Yorkshire Tea. Peerless amongst black tea brands in the UK.

Opinion, Thoughts

The Devil in the Data

*Links are highlighted

“What do you need to hunt, capture, and replace misconceptions? Data. You have to show the data and describe the reality behind it.” – Hans Rosling.

New beginnings await. I have been offered a place on a PGCert in data journalism at Birmingham City University starting this September. Since beginning to explore the possibility of pursuing journalism as a vocation for almost a year, two doors recently popped wide open for me to begin studying the subject part-time. After giving it some careful, prayerful thought, I believe that the time has come to walk through one of these portals and embrace the monumental change it represents.

I have opted to study with Paul Bradshaw on the data journalism program at BCU for a wide variety of reasons. These include (in no particular order): Multiple positive testimonials and recommendations I have gleaned from current and former students; the specific focus on data and investigative journalism; a diverse selection of optional modules should I progress to the full MA program after a year; great industry links and opportunities for work placements at home and abroad; the excellent breadth of expertise and experience offered by the faculty at BCU; and the simple fact that the PGCert will initially have a lighter and more flexible workload than a full MA, meaning I can fit it around work and family commitments more easily during the next academic year.

I have also already had an overwhelmingly positive, encouraging experience when interacting with Paul Bradshaw & BCU thus far. This began before I had even applied for the course, let alone been given an offer. First impressions really do make a difference.

Rabbit holes & Factfulness

I would have written this post sooner, but sometimes life throws unpleasant curve balls in our direction. Having being caught off guard by just such an unexpected occurrence in recent weeks, which has thankfully been resolved for the time being, I was reminded yet again that I have already been blessed from above with an embarrassment of riches. Life is too short, and I want to make the most of every opportunity.

Alongside this broader sense of urgency to cherish each mundane moment I have been given, receiving an unconditional offer from BCU to study data journalism feels like a green light to plummet down the rabbit hole and see where this new sense of calling leads. As my Irish grandmother often said: “Thanks be to God”, for all of the above and more.

As part of my preparation for the data journalism course I have begun, coincidentally, to slowly read two books in tandem: Factfulness by Hans Rosling & The Curious Journalists’ Guide to Data by Jonathan Stray. Both books emphasise the importance of statistics and the art of interpreting them in a meaningful and accurate way in order to develop a coherent worldview. They have already proven to be an eye-opening introduction to the elusive reality behind the often fictitious world we tend to perceive or imagine exists out there (somewhere!).

As a Christian, and a recent MA Theology graduate, I can’t help but see parallels with the kind of epistemology hinted at by the writer of St Paul’s 1st letter to the Corinthians, which incidentally inspired the title of my old blog (Cracked looking glass = i.e. At best we see an inaccurate, broken reflection/refraction of reality):

“For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”

1 Corinthians ‭13:12‬ ‭(NRSV)‬‬

As partial as human knowledge will always be, I have been struck by the positive aspects of embracing this kind of realism about the limits of our understanding, and how it can be applied to the old fashioned ideal of journalism as the art of truth-telling and holding power to account. Both of these pursuits require data.

To succeed in such a vocation, I imagine any credible 21st century journalist could do worse than to get to grips with facts, figures, reliable statistical analysis, a capacity to read widely enough to be a bona fide jack of all trades who can quickly verify sources, adopt diverse, flexible, and robust investigative methodologies, routinely sharpen their critical thinking skills, and crucially: Blend all this and more together with the ability to accurately interpret and creatively communicate complex data sets and/or concepts to a broad audience. Straightforward enough, no? Time to get to work!

As daunting this path ahead may seem, I feel enormously excited about turning my hand to acquiring these and any other necessary skills to become an investigative data journalist. Counteracting the worst elements of our current post-truth, social-media saturated, fake-news-infused world, which is all too often dominated by a dubious blend of surveillance capitalism, partisan political propaganda, and myriad forces seemingly beyond our control (i.e. Coronavirus/climate change), will undoubtedly require a multifaceted approach. Even if I can only manage to play the smallest of small parts in contributing to this lofty goal, I will at least have done something useful with the gifts I have been given.

A Corona of Stories, Voices, and Contexts

There are so many stories yet to be written, so many voices yet to be heard, and so many ‘explainer’/‘fact-check’ articles needed on a daily basis to demystify panic-worthy social media posts, and/or clarify the reality of any global event in the face of media sensationalism.

For example, on a personal level reading some real healthcare statistics can make quite a difference to an otherwise febrile state of mind when we receive distressing news about a friend, colleague, or family member who unexpectedly finds themselves battling with a serious illness. A Factfulness-led approach can work wonders if we can understand the real world statistics and/or probabilities of what might happen to them. Even the alarming spate of coronavirus epidemics can be helpfully contextualised by crunching and comparing some relevant numbers (e.g. present mortality rates Vs. seasonal flu, or something far more deadly like Ebola; at present, in terms of severity, Corona virus is > flu but considerably < Ebola).

If there is a devil in the deep blue sea, fear is undoubtedly a correlating factor in how it works against our better judgement. A rigorously rational, factful, statistically responsible approach to making sense of the world around us in order to dispel unfounded fears, stave off mass hysteria, and dismantle disinformation whilst helping the general public become more well informed about the partially perceptible reality we currently inhabit, is precisely the kind of data-driven journalism I want to learn to do. I can’t wait to get my teeth into this new discipline at BCU.

After all, to adapt a well known English idiom: The devil is in the data. Time to root him out.

M

Journalism, Opinion

Remain is Dead: The 5th stage of Brexit Grief

*Links are highlighted*

Less than 12 months have passed since that stunning BBC exit poll dashed the naive dreams of Britain’s Remain tribe, and burst the buoyant bubbles of idealistic enthusiasm stoked up by Labour’s radical Corbynite manifesto. A barrage of cut-throat commentary on social and mainstream media alike failed to dim the hopes of many echo-chamber dwellers who dared to contemplate the highly improbable scenario that Boris might fail to win a majority, and Brexit could yet be reversed.

To use a comic book analogy, when the unstoppable force of optimism collides with the immovable object of realism, explosive sparks are bound to fly. In this case the electorate proved to be unwilling to budge from their scepticism about Jeremy Corbyn, or their apparent belief that they must simply allow Boris to “get Brexit done”. Workington man was not to be moved by the unlikely inertia of democratic socialism. Instead, he stood his ground and the so called “red wall” fell into the abyss of populism and resurgent English nationalism.[1]

Dissent drowned in a tsunami of dystopian disinformation throughout the election campaign. The prime minister’s tub-thumping majority was clearly not affected by his track record on having a less than intimate relationship with the truth. Nor were Labour’s hopes of winning over the British public brought in out of the cold by Boris’ decision to hide in a fridge rather than face Piers Morgan. Any prospect of the PM consenting to being drawn over the hot coals of political scrutiny by Andrew Neil prior to retaking office also remained firmly on ice. One could surmise that the Johnsonian mandate to govern genuinely did have a “chilling” effect on democratic debate.

Denial

Since the 2016 referendum, many UK citizens have been coming to terms with nothing less than a full blown identity crisis. The anxiety induced by such epoch-shifting events can manifest itself in something akin to grief, characterised as it often is by five distinct stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance.

For several years now, Remainers had hoped that their denial would turn out to be a fresh form of the classic British stiff upper lip syndrome; endure the worst of the polarisation and uncertainty long enough to persuade the overwhelmingly leave-voting general public with facts and well-rehearsed, reasoned arguments, and they might change their collective mind. All they had to do was persist and resist any temptation to complain or be too condescending. Eventually, with enough resolve they could see eye to eye with enough leave voters to swing the electoral map back in favour of the EU. It now turns out that this was a grave mistake; Remain have been in denial for over four years.

Anger

The emperor of a second referendum had no clothes. The Remain dream has long since breathed its last. Brexit is now “done” and dusted. Yet No Deal, far from being off the table, remains a genuine possibility before the end of 2020. Boris Johnson has won. Power, privilege, and populism hold sway, and any socialist notions of levelling the playing field in the UK between the have and the have-nots has vanished in a sea of black X’s next to Tory candidates. Any misplaced notion that Britain could become a nation which works “for the many, rather than the few”, has finally been laid to rest for at least another generation. For some, anger is an entirely understandable response to this scenario, and all that Boris Johnson’s government entails. But it is too late for anger to bear any real fruit in the immediate short term. Playing the blame game won’t fix anything. Vitriol may feel good, and even have a cathartic quality at times, but it won’t change the UK’s current circumstances.

Bargaining

The general public could have wrought great change at last year’s election. They could have given themselves a second opportunity to consider the wisdom of Brexit; to vote for a bold new vision of equality and reform. Many Remain voters attempted bargaining with committed leavers, to convince and persuade them to change course. To rage against the injustice of ruling class privilege. To opt for a man of principle and side with social justice over against reinforcing the status quo.

Instead, the people have opted for the latter and given another old Etonian, of Bullingdon club pedigree, unfettered permission to take the UK out of the EU and rule the country as he and his party see fit for at least the next five years. In all likelihood this will stretch to ten, and beyond. By 2030, the UK will look radically different. EU membership will be a distant memory. Further bargaining might feel necessary, urgent even. Yet this too would be mistaken.

Depression

Depression, despondency and/or abject apathy may well be a natural response to the finality of the present political situation in the UK. Anyone who has ever experienced depression will be able to tell you that recovery is not a simple case of clicking one’s fingers and attempting to “snap out of it”. The good old British phrase “chin up”, or hollow platitudes about looking on the bright side, are useless and insensitive to anybody wrestling with poor mental health. So it is with the emotional fallout generated for so many by the Brexit process.

For many remain voters Brexit has hurt. It has dragged them down and dampened their spirits. It will undoubtedly take time to heal if this is the stage you find yourself in. There are no easy answers here, and until you are ready, moving on to the final stage is not easy. Be patient with yourself. Know that you’re not alone. If possible reach out for help and support. Staying in this stage of Brexit grief is not sustainable. As a committed Christian, I am thankful that I have been able to take solace from my hope in Jesus Christ and the peaceful security the gospel of hope brings. Yet even this can be easier said than done in the nitty gritty of day to day life.

Acceptance

When you are ready for it, maybe the time has come to move past denial, relinquish any anger, cease attempts to bargain a way out of this, and do your best to deal with the depression of losing “Europe” once and for all. Acceptance is the only realistic, and healthy way to ultimately move forward. Fighting to change a nation’s mind is a fool’s errand in the current political climate. It would also be undemocratic. Like it or not, the people have spoken.

To accept this reality is to be empowered to prepare for potential next steps, whatever they may be. For each person who decides to take the path away from denial, anger, bargaining, and manages to get through the depression, the unthinkable yet necessary task of accepting the death of the UK that existed before Brexit awaits. It it surely better to embrace this reality, warts and all, than to persist in a futile fight for a forgotten ideal.

The Remain Funeral is booked

Remain is dead. Realignment is imminent. Rather than mourning the loss of freedom of movement, or a sense of European identity, a smarter move now might be to spend the coming months and years planning an escape route into the EU, and leave the UK behind. Either that, or remain and face the music of Boris’ Brexiteer symphony, conducted to imperfection by Dominic Cummings & Co.

Grief is an entirely normal response to loss. Just be aware that to remain in that state too long is extremely unhealthy and destructive. For those who decide, or have no choice but to remain in the UK, the sooner you can let go of being a part of the EU and all that it represented, the better. For those who are able to leave the UK for the EU or elsewhere, the clock has always been ticking. Life is painfully short. Wasting it will only lead you to miss the gift of life that precedes the moment when there is no more of it, and the coffin lid is finally nailed shut. Seize the day before it ends for the last time.

Change has come. Brexit is now the unstoppable force that will shape the future of these islands for generations, for better or worse. Brace yourselves for it, or remove yourselves from it. Such is the path ahead. For me, this will involve sustained prayer and reflection before making any bold moves. Should any opportunities arise to take a leap of faith elsewhere, I suspect that jumping at such a chance is now almost as inevitable as the UK’s EU membership funeral service due on January 1st 2021.

Whatever the future may hold, I can only be eternally grateful that I also have the hope of resurrection and new life springing forth from any form of death; as much during this life as in the next. I pray that by some miracle you would all be blessed with the same.

Godspeed.

M

End Notes

1. See Fintan O’Toole’s Heroic Failure: Brexit and the Politics of Pain, for an incisive analysis of this. Also a recent article in the Washington Post for a snapshot.

Journalism, Opinion

Journalism and Truth: A Christian view on the SPAC Nation scandal

Links are highlighted.

Corruption coupled with clandestine endeavours, all too often enacted by cash-hungry con-artists within the worldwide Church, is hardly breaking news for anyone who is at least vaguely acquainted with modern religious scandals. Even a cursory glance at biblical literature, and the gospel stories in particular, ought to remind us that the human condition has been devastatingly prone to temptation since time immemorial. Take the infamous villain, Judas Iscariot, who shows us his true colours by betraying Jesus of Nazareth with a kiss, for a paltry bag filled with thirty pieces of blood money.

Although the author of Matthew’s gospel paints a mysterious picture suggesting that these events constitute a prophecy fulfilled, one wonders how often history must repeat itself before people begin to take heed (See Matt 26:47-50; 27:3-10). Amongst the many morals such a narrative may evoke, the tragic reality that even those who appear and/or claim to be close to Jesus are not automatically trustworthy is perhaps one of the most uncomfortably obvious options.[1]

Fast forward approximately two millennia, and sadly the love of money all too often remains a prime candidate for being the root of all evil. Imagine my surprise days after taking the plunge back into the Twitter-verse, following more than a year in a self-imposed digital wilderness, only to discover this shocking exposé on SPAC Nation by the Huffington Post’s Nadine White and Emma Youle. Extraordinarily disturbing allegations of flourishing fraudsters, safeguarding failures, rogue pastors, a culture of control, coercion, abuse, and lies form the jaw-dropping litany of charges levelled against this increasingly high profile religious organisation.

The plot thickened considerably once it emerged that the metropolitan police, serious fraud office, and the charity commission had each instigated separate investigations into the group, to determine whether or not criminal charges/sanctions need to be brought against them. Whilst the Met recently decided not to pursue a criminal investigation into the church, and the the veracity of the above allegations have yet to be established, the fact that such claims existed at all is profoundly troubling, to say the least. What has been going on at SPAC Nation?

It is tempting to jump to the conclusion that the mounting evidence of so many smoke signals means that fires must be ablaze within their midst. However, from a biblical perspective, the truth is that there are always at least two sides to a story (Prov 18:17). Christians of all persuasions should therefore carefully and soberly consider how they approach a scandal such as this one.

PR & Political deadlines?

For what it’s worth, my thoughts and prayers have been with the many alleged victims detailed in the Huffington Post investigation, and any other shell-shocked, fragile followers of this influential group, who have already been affected by the recent media coverage. Who should SPAC Nation’s rattled congregation trust? The media? Disillusioned former leaders/members? Persuasive preachers behind the pulpit? As an increasingly vivid, yet complex and difficult to discern picture of what has been going on at SPAC Nation begins to emerge, public commentators would do well to resist the urge to assume anything.

At present, official responses from the church have sought to control the narrative, denied the credibility of the alleged victims, and refused to engage directly with what they describe as “hastily put together” media coverage. The organisation promises to purge the congregation of pernicious pastors, cooperate with “meaningful investigations” in order to reassure concerned onlookers, and yet casually dismisses the harrowing claims made by numerous alleged victims in the Huffington Post articles. Surely this behaviour ought to strike Christians as an unusual response for a church? Is everyone involved in the story so far, apart from the “management board” at SPAC Nation, a liar and/or acting maliciously against the church, driven by nefarious political motives? SPAC Nation’s “management board” say that it is actually they who are the victims of a politically motivated “smear campaign”:

Does this religious group not wish to express any concern for, or solidarity with, the alleged victims of fraudsters within their midst? Although the organisation expresses a strong desire to curb wrongdoing and hold bad actors accountable for their actions, are the general public supposed to disregard all of the evidence gathered by the Huffington Post thus far as baseless fake news? Purely because this faceless “management board” say so? I find it hard to understand why a more sensitive public response would not be forthcoming from a church under these circumstances. None of this necessarily points the finger of blame at the church, but as PR strategies go this one leaves a lot to be desired, in my opinion.

Journalism & the Shepherd’s voice

Speaking up for voiceless victims whilst listening to the voice of the good Shepherd, and learning how to navigate an increasingly complex, fractured digital realm, is how I would hope to do 21st century investigative journalism. From my point of view as a Christian, seeking the truth and following the one who claims to be the truth, and who also promises that all those who “belong” to the truth, hear and listen to his voice, are not mutually exclusive ways of living (See John 10:27; 14:6; 18:37). Nadine White and Emma Youle have sought to ascertain the truth of a complex matter by investigating the SPAC Nation scandal, and giving the alleged victims a chance to share their stories. I have nothing but admiration for their tenacity, boldness, and willingness to ask difficult questions about the church despite its influential public profile.

Whatever the reality of the situation at SPAC Nation turns out to be, subjecting religious organisations to robust scrutiny in the wake of troubling allegations should never be off limits, especially for investigative journalists. A free press should not fear holding powerful figures and organisations to account, especially those who lay claim to divine authority. [2] As I have been considering investigative journalism as a vocation, I have been dreaming of an idealistic kind of transformative practice which is loosely defined as the pursuit of truth, justice, and the gospel imperative to counteract evil and stand alongside oppressed, marginalised members of society…[thereby providing] a means of speaking truth to power, empowering the poor, freeing those held captive (literally and metaphorically), and bringing light into dark places. Great investigative journalists are already doing a lot of these things, and I would like to join them.

I would, therefore, urge all believers to view high quality investigative journalism, irrespective of whether or not the journalists, or the subject(s) of their reports, happen to be Christians, as one of the ways that God may be at work in the world. Great investigative journalists may not consider themselves Christians, but by chasing truth and standing up to injustice they may discover that they are much closer to the way of Jesus than they realise. The global Church does not have a monopoly on truth and justice, and falling into the zeitgeist of rabidly distrusting the media may (ironically) be more in tune with the spirit of the age than the Spirit of truth. Time will tell what exactly the truth of any matter is, even if it is a long time coming; as Jesus promised his followers:

“Nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known…” (Luke 12:2-3, NRSV).

Until then, when confronted with a scandal such as this one at SPAC Nation, we can only wait, watch, hope, and pray for the best possible outcome one way or another. After all, the Lord works in mysterious ways.

M

End Notes

1. Albeit based on a remarkably naive, anachronistic reading of the gospels; it seems at best highly speculative to suggest that the original authors of Scripture intended Judas’ character to be read this way. In my defence, this post is not intended to be a piece of robust theology or scholarship.

2. Ironically, it was another kind of religious corruption that first drove me away from Catholicism and the Church in general. I still remember the devastatingly familiar trope of the paedophile priest from our local Roman Catholic Church, who was arrested and jailed for committing heinous acts against children who attended my school. Although thankfully I was not directly affected, it did set me on a path away from organised religion for over a decade. It also remains a reminder that, unfortunately, it is wise to adopt an innate scepticism towards authority figures, particularly religious ones who lay claim to divine authority.

Thoughts

Investigating Gothenburg

Staring at a blank canvas can be an unnerving experience. Like muted white noise emanating forth from a carte blanche opportunity, seemingly devoid of an immediately obvious pathway or purpose, fresh starts often feel simultaneously daunting and exhilarating. Yet this unexpected invitation of a fleeting glimpse of adventure, security, and comfort, leaked through the cracks of an otherwise formidably opaque vista of incertitude and strangeness as I landed in Gothenburg this week. Such were the sensations I felt as I set foot in a land that feels replete with mystique and allure, doubtless stimulated by my growing fascination with modern Scandinavian society, and old Norse legends. My initial impressions of Sweden made me feel as though I had suddenly been transported into my own private Scandi-noir drama. Subtle shades of grey harmonised the imposing skyline with a groundswell of withered, crimson leaves, and eclectic industrial architecture merging seamlessly with vintage buildings reminiscent of a dystopian detective novel. Facets of Gothenburg felt oddly familiar despite their inherent otherness. Foreign yet familiar.

Lost yet found

I embarked on this trip for the sole purpose of sampling the Master’s course in investigative journalism at the University of Gothenburg. With no idea what to expect, I booked myself haphazardly into a hostel that transpired to be within walking distance of the university journalism department. My dastardly plan was unfolding with gusto until I managed to take my first misstep in investigating my whereabouts. After a pointless tram trip across the city and back, I finally realised that the building I needed to be in was, in fact, not the main university building. It turns out that a modern over-reliance on Google Maps is doomed to dampen the much coveted journalistic ability to follow one’s nose.

Far from picking up the scent, I ended up chasing my tail and basking in the fetid aroma of momentary confusion. Imagine the potential memoirs in years to come, as the legendary Anglo-Irish/Peruvian investigator recounts taking his first tentative steps on a thrilling new journey, by wandering aimlessly like a bewildered buffoon around the tram stop nearest to his final destination. Instead of “rat-like cunning” (ala Nick Tomlin), this aspiring journalist exhibited an almost farcical, comedic ignorance as to where he was actually supposed to be going, a good hour before discerning the truth of the matter. In hindsight, at least I now have a broader perspective on what it means to “stumble” into a new career, as my latest mentor put it when describing his own humble beginnings.

A wise man once told me that there are no such things as “failures”, just new learning opportunities. Unsurprisingly, this is a perennial lesson I keep having to relearn. Much like I gradually came to understand when completing my first Master’s degree in Theology, serious, rigorous research of any kind must at least attempt to leave no stone unturned when navigating around a topic. Perhaps library research skills can translate into real life after all. New learning opportunity digested: figure out where on earth you are actually supposed to be going before starting out on an assignment. Moreover, put the wretched smartphone aside when staggering around the streets in a dazed state of befuddlement, whilst struggling to form new neural pathways to adapt quickly and safely to the fact that everyone in Sweden drives on the right (or wrong) side of the road. Point taken, I hope.

Breaking in on the News

I eventually sauntered hamfistedly (read: kindly escorted, despite my tardiness, by the puzzled looking course administrator) into the all day journalism seminar to which I had been graciously invited by the course leader, a distinguished British journalist called David Crouch. The university department was relatively modern, well equipped, and resonated with both industrial minimalism and architectural nostalgia in its overarching design. As I entered the fray, group upon group of highly engaged students were presenting on what I presume must have been an assignment to critically evaluate new forms of investigative journalism, with a particular focus on business models. A substantial proportion of this year’s course intake had prior experience of modern journalism, which added to the credibility of the Master’s degree in my naive, yet rapidly widening eyes. Once I had smeared some of the exploding ink from my shocked fingers, as my fountain pen reminded me that it has serious issues with flying, I scribbled notes as fast as my handwriting would allow me to. Note to self: learn shorthand, fast. Dated it may be, but it remains faster than alternative methods for the informed communication connoisseur.

All in all, I watched nine contrasting talks led by teams of two to three speakers a piece. Pros and cons of each startup were discussed and critiqued, numbers crunched, gaps filled, and cross border journalism featured heavily in several presentations. The atmosphere was relaxed yet serious, as significant amounts of information, and attempts to answer searching questions, were delivered with a marked tone of professionalism and zeal. One student even presented remotely (in a manner of speaking) by pre-recording her power point presentation as a YouTube video, with accompanying audio. Apparently she’s already published a book, so at least the bar hasn’t been set agonisingly high (!?).

I was treated to a dizzying array of stories touching on a variety of issues involving undercover prison guards, niche “Long Play” journalism chiming in with monthly 50000 character articles for highly educated Finnish “elites”, collaborative European journalism funded by controversial donors such as the Open Society (founded by George Soros), an Italian team squaring up to the mafia, local journalism from Gothenburg uncovering toxic spiritual abuse which ostensibly contributed to a spate of child suicides in a purportedly cult-like religious school, awkward questions around how impartial Chinese investigative journalists can be in the face of state sponsored oppression and censorship, and plenty more besides.

A taste of the future?

For a fledgling pre-trainee journalist like me, imbibing a thimble of the heady complexity which characterises the modern investigative journalism sector proved to be an intoxicating cocktail of diverse angles on the same emerging story. Enlightening, eye-opening insights showed how the industry is adapting to overcome a relative paucity of funding in the post-social media digital era. Reassuring flashes of a glimmer of hope that journalism remains a viable career path ricocheted across my field of vision. Whilst considerable challenges and risks remain, there is clearly a market for independent, investigative journalism which could, potentially, become sustainable. Whether such new journalism (investigative journalism 2.0?) survives remains to be seen. If it does, it will surely require sustained engagement with an incessant shape-shifting process in order to cope with the onslaught of sociopolitical and technological flux, shimmering apparitions in the form of latest zeitgeist, forced and/or self-imposed reinvention, market forces, and the prophesied singularity of A.I, to name but a few salient factors. Idealism notwithstanding, reports of the death of investigative journalism are apparently greatly exaggerated, at least for the time being.

An entrepreneurial spirit coupled with boldness, an acute awareness of the ethical dimension robust investigative journalism provides to buttress its role within the 4th/5th estate, and a willingness to experiment shone through as prerequisites for anyone wanting to plunge themselves headfirst into this compelling critical industry. I found myself relishing a brief foretaste of not just what life as a journalism student on the MIJ course at Gothenburg might look like, but what it might feel like to actually work as an investigative journalist in the modern world. My palate remains piqued with more than a soupçon of intrigued fascination, especially by the revelation that long form, slow-news journalism has a place in this new digital sphere. What is more, people can be persuaded to pay for it, which drives a coach and horses through the notion that #TLDR advocates rule the roost in a world suffering from increasingly decreased attention spans.

Singing before supper

A highlight of my trip was the opportunity to pick the course leader, David Crouch’s brains (albeit briefly), and hear a little about his life and work thus far as a journalist. Alongside extraordinary mental images of his time writing news stories in the former Soviet Union, his penetrating insights and questions were perhaps best summed up by a sudden chorus of a cappella singing, which erupted forth on the table next to us as we ate lunch together. It is fair to say that this left both of us staring at the songsters with gleeful puzzlement. I interpreted the event as being at least partially prophetic, in the sense that you never know where an adventure might take you. Taking risks might just lead to unexpected melodies that catch you off guard by their sheer spontaneous beauty. If life as a journalist could look anything like the picture such an occurrence might tempt one to paint, surely it is worth pursuing?

My closing conversations with David, and a subsequent cadre of eager and inspiring students, certainly pushed me closer to wanting to seriously consider taking the leap of faith such an endeavour would undoubtedly require. This is particularly true for me since moving to Sweden to become an investigative journalist would have to be a family affair driven by faith and grit; one which works for both me and my loved ones, some of whom remain very small indeed. Counting the cost, further research, and considering an application will be the next step in the process.

Parting gestures

I have never explored a new city overseas on my own, which makes this short Swedish sojourn all the more extraordinary. After wandering around the historic Haga district, taking innumerable pictures of the locality, and posing for more than one pretentious selfie along the way, I ended my trip with a fascinating two hour conversation. Being of a robustly religious persuasion (though not in a ritualistic manner per se), it felt fitting to attempt to coordinate a meeting with a local church leader who might be willing to give me some idea of how people of faith coexist alongside the general populace within an infamously secular culture.

God willing, I was blessed with just such an opportunity, and enjoyed another fabulously fishy and fascinating lunch with a friendly Swede called Fredrik. I left encouraged that despite the ubiquitous challenges of blending life and faith in the 21st century post-Christian West, authentic spirituality need not be deterred from thriving in what might otherwise seem like as chilly a cultural environment as any typical Nordic Winter. The Spirit, as some say, continues to hover over the waters of Gothenburg, and fishermen like myself willing to take the risk of casting their nets overboard may yet discover that such simple acts of faith can yield all manner of pleasant surprises.

Make of that what you will. Until such time as I may, or may not find myself setting sail with family in tow towards the imposing shores of Scandinavia again, all I have left to say is Tack så mycket (thanks so much, in Swedish).

Miguel Roca

Journalism, Opinion

Are Joshua Harris and Marty Sampson losing their faith, or their religion?

Links are highlighted.

R.E.M. were on to something when they wrote the hit song “losing my religion” in 1991, back in the dark ages before the internet, i-device craze, and the tyranny of social media took hold of our collective subconscious in the West. Although the song is reputedly not about a crisis of faith, but rather the well rehearsed pop music trope of “unrequited love” and obsession, it nevertheless provides a thought provoking soundtrack for those of us who have suffered from the former at least as much as the latter. Instead of a social commentary about religion, the song actually took its title from a southern American expression for “being at the end of one’s rope”. In that sense, it is perhaps an entirely fitting way of describing the recent public declarations by Joshua Harris and Marty Sampson that they are reaching (or have reached) the end of their respective tethers as far as their experience of the Christian faith is concerned.¹

Deconstructing one’s religious identity and asking pointedly challenging, searching questions which cast reasonable levels of doubt upon any given status quo is hardly a modern phenomenon. From a biblical perspective, the Psalmist illustrates how the rich Hebraic tradition of lament provides an outlet for the often tumultuous nature of the human condition, as we are forced to wrestle with God throughout life’s struggles (e.g. Psalm 22). By contrast, broadcasting our internal woes on social media, for good or ill, is a distinctly 21st century habit for many digital converts and natives alike. Lachrymose lament in search of likes is clearly not so much a religious expression of grief as a socio-cultural one. Sampson and Harris clearly straddle both of these categories simultaneously, which has perhaps exacerbated the reactionary responses they have received from contrasting corners of the western evangelical soap opera elite

To whom am I referring, you might well ask (you should, if you didn’t immediately do so. Clue: it’s not the Illuminati). Since I have neither the time, space, nor inclination to wax lyrical about the state of public discourse within a digital context saturated with popular subcultural commentators, many of whom all too frequently compose, control, and thereby shape (read: dictate) the narrative connected Christians consume on an hourly basis, a straw man fallacy shall have to suffice:

Western Evangelical Soap Opera?

The perennial problem of growing toxicity levels within online debate has seemingly metastasised throughout our social media echo chambers, and is fast approaching a terminal prognosis. Bolstered by ignorance, group think, mob mentalities, celebrity culture, a temptation towards adversarial rhetoric, virtue-signaling, sensationalism, and the potent, habit-forming, dopamine dependency all users of the digital drug smorgasbord (aka social media) end up hooked on, the popular postmodern mantra of “joining the conversation” has become an ominously loaded term.

The “Western Evangelical Soap Opera” is a term I coined to describe both:

a) the hordes of Christians, often with some kind of platform to shout from, who seem to feel the need to publicly tear strips out of their brothers and sisters in Christ whilst stoking up faux outrage amongst their followers, thereby playing from the same rule book as all the other, allegedly more worldly, unbelieving participants of this digital danse macabre;

and

b) the troubling, all too human tendency to develop an unhealthy appetite for scandal and controversy involving Christian public figures, organisations, and ministries, usually giving rise to a raft of new reason(s) to disagree with them and vent self-righteous indignation at any given opportunity (and sufficient click bait: hence back to the first definition in a cyclical fashion).

The Western Evangelical Soap Opera is exactly that: a form of perverse entertainment for (un)discerning consumers who are “tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, [and] craftiness in deceitful scheming” (Eph 4:14, NRSV). It turns out that people of all faiths and none are not immune to the overwhelming centre of gravity generated by such an agitated environment. So much for the popular evangelical recourse to Matthew 18 as a model of settling disagreements within the body of Christ (See Matt 18:15-22). Airing disputes on Twitter, Facebook, and occasionally the Christian blogosphere, all too often masquerades as a modern day form of godly, biblical confrontation (which of course it’s not!). Consider James, chapter 3, by way of counterpoint: tame the tongue or it causes wildfires to spread.

Pocket Slot Machines

Small wonder then, that the daily dramas taking place in this febrile context frequently end up being blown way out of proportion, and disconnected from lived realities. Storms and teacups spring to mind, except that would be to minimise the acute anxieties so many of us face alone in our increasingly solitary online worlds. Joshua Harris and Marty Sampson are real people, not avatars or ideas to be debated, maligned, or dismissed by legions of blue screen-toting social media junkies who regularly perform the modern day miracle of navigating blindly around vast metropolises, whilst seemingly not looking where they are going; eyes glued to their shiny i-fondle-slab task masters.

The phrase “a slot machine in your pocket” speaks volumes about any audience of self-appointed judges, jurors, and executioners, who see fit to publicly ponder the deeply personal, emotionally traumatic journey that Harris and Sampson have found themselves on. Addicts rarely display sound, sober minded reasoning whilst getting their daily fix.

Casting stones or grace?

Against this dysfunctional backdrop, and particularly inside the distinctly Evangelical Christian subcultures within which Harris and Sampson find themselves wrestling with their faith, is it not understandable that they have both finally reached the end of their tether?

Have they lost their faith, or are they merely losing their religion? As someone who has found themselves unexpectedly wrestling with God, faith, the Church, and what it means to be religious throughout my life so far, I sympathise far more than I expected to with Harris and Sampson. Of one thing I am certain, as I attempt to stay close to Jesus, the Good Shepherd of my soul: If certainty is a prerequisite for receiving divine grace, even Jesus Christ himself would have been a failure when he cried out on the cross “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34, c.f. Psalm 22).

I believe Jesus would extend grace and love to Joshua Harris Marty Sampson. Even if they have finally lost their religion. I’m not convinced that the best way to extend that grace is necessarily in public, via a pocket slot machine.

Anyone care to cast the first stone?

End Notes

1. I make this nuanced distinction between the Christian faith, and one’s experience of the Christian faith, to highlight the reality that what we experience in our complex, messy lives, particularly within Christian subculture, is not necessarily indicative of the truth, who is of course a person (i.e. John 14:6).

2. Perhaps there are some subtle parallels between biblical lament, and openly sharing the sadness of inner religious confusion and conflict, which get overlooked by the legions of (non)expert analysts who feel qualified to cast judgement on the likes of Harris and Sampson.