In the past week the UK national media have run over 150 news stories and comment pieces about seagulls.
The seagull has well and truly unseated the false widow spider of recent years to be the media's scare story of choice for the summer. To put the numbers into some perspective, at peak hysteria the false widow spider only generated 54 pieces of national coverage in its busiest week.
The Times, downplaying the media's role in whipping up seagull-related hysteria, has taken pause to ponder the nature of this "primeval dread", suspecting it might be innate in our psyches:
"Somewhere, deep down, we fear nature’s revenge. That fear discharges, irrationally, because it’s there and we’ll never get rid of it. Seagulls are not, commonsense informs us, a real risk to mankind but this year we fear them."
Others have been less thoughtful in their coverage:
The Daily Star, a long-time fan of animal scare stories, leads the way in reporting the "seagull terror" from above with stories of "seagulls waging war on mutant rats" to claims that "vicious seagulls will attack and kill babies".
It should be stressed no babies have been killed. In fact, the reality to date has often been a lot less shocking. While the Daily Mail and others did report that a pensioner and a four-year-old boy both needed medical attention after being pecked by the "seagull menace" and a couple of pets have been killed, the Star also informs us that a family was "forced to flee a guest house when a plague of noisy seagulls kept them awake all night". That may have been frustrating but it doesn't feel like a national news story.
In the main the victims have reportedly been ice creams, pasties and sausage rolls but that hasn't discouraged the media from setting about the story like a flock of hungry seagulls mobbing a discarded chip packet.
It is a situation which has even brought journalists into direct contact with the "bloodthirsty", "terror-inducing" menaces. The Telegraph reported a "particularly sadistic" seagull attacked one of its journalists and a photographer as they left an ice cream shop in Brighton.
According to an outraged headline on The Mirror’s website: "British parents should be JAILED for smacking their children says United Nations report".
The Express wades in with "British parents should be JAILED for smacking their kids, warn UN human rights bureaucrats".
Those damn human rights bureaucrats, how dare they! Coming over here, protecting our children.
To illustrate the sort of behaviour these bureaucrats want to outlaw, the Express has used an image (posed by models, obviously) of a mother about to smack her child around the face with the kind of forehand smash a tennis player might be proud of. Presumably the Express thinks allowing this would be preferable to giving in to the outrageous whims and recommendations of "meddling" human rights "do-gooders":
However, it should be pointed out the UN’s recommendation actually says: "The state should take practical steps, including through legislative measures where appropriate, to put an end to corporal punishment in all settings, including the home, throughout the United Kingdom."
Which seems entirely reasonable. Tellingly there’s no mention at all of parents being thrown in jail, or of the UN recommending any such a punishment.
(Hat tip: @PrimlyStable)
When the Conservatives won a majority at the general election it was clear the BBC was in for a tough time, with charter renewal on the horizon and election favours to be repaid.
The government has made no secret of its feelings towards the BBC, of course (though it's been less open about its dealings with the commercial media owners who stand to benefit from cuts to the Beeb).
When much of the country's media is openly right-leaning it is natural the Conservatives would find the BBC's even-handedness frustrating - hence the regular cries of bias. But many of the arguments the government is putting forward to justify cuts don't stand up.
Take the suggestion the BBC is bad for local media, when a more pressing issue should be the extent to which local media owners are bad for local media - as highlighted by recent strike actions. Under-investment in journalism and effective digital strategies, alongside poor commercial planning, are hurting local media far more than a competitor that has been around for decades. But if you were the boss of a local or regional media company who would you blame for the falling quality of your product? Certainly not yourself.
The accusation that the BBC has gone "chasing ratings" clearly has a grounding in truth. What broadcaster doesn't want to draw an audience? It is the BBC's job to bring people together in good times, bad times, fun times and important times.
While programming such as The Voice (X Factor without the hit singles) or celebrity gymnastics show Tumble (Splash without the swimming pool) may expose the extent to which the BBC has made some bad bets in the name of entertainment, the obvious risk aversion and lack of imagination behind such decisions arguably makes a case for giving the BBC more room to breathe, not less. However, much of this is subjective and the debate cannot become about individual shows or even whole channels and stations.
Objecting to the licence fee because you can name a handful of programmes, or even whole channels or stations you don't like makes about as much sense as walking out of a restaurant refusing to pay the bill after an excellent, fairly-priced meal because there were other things on the menu you wouldn't have liked if you had ordered them.
The BBC's greatest strength is the choice it offers across online, television and radio. But the choice needs to be rich and diverse and the economics of content are such that we need to judge value carefully. Somebody who only watches niche documentaries on BBC4 may cry foul that their licence fee funds big budget prime time shows on BBC1 but 300,000 people watching a documentary on BBC4 are getting far greater value for money than 10 million watching The Voice, because they are getting a scarce product for the same price as a more commoditised product.
People enjoying the BBC's factual and documentary output benefit from the licence fee in a way that simply couldn't be recreated under any other funding model. One television historian told me commercial broadcasters may still commission occasional historical documentaries "but only if they are about Nazis or the Titanic". He was joking. But only just.
Nothing characterises the BBC's dilemma more than sport. Damned if it shows too much, damned if it shows too little. Take the recent example of the BBC being sidelined in the world of Olympic coverage which resulted in angry criticisms of the Corporation. The BBC arguably taught the world how to broadcast sport but is now being pushed to the periphery because money talks and the BBC is having to keep its voice down.
Love it or hate it, the role of sport in creating those moments which unite us should not be underestimated, nor should the impact of the BBC losing rights, because without its involvement sport is reaching ever-smaller audiences - the current Ashes series being a prime example. Currently the rights owners, such as sports' governing bodies, don't seem to care but in time they surely will.
Of course there are things we'd all change about the BBC if we could and we're all entitled to our moans - not least because - for now - we pay for it, not advertisers and not the government. Keeping the licence fee separate from general taxation and annual government budget reviews gives us all a claim over the services we receive and research shows the majority of us still favour the licence fee as the preferred way of funding the BBC (ICM, 2014).
As BBC Director General Tony Hall pointed out this week: "The BBC does not belong to the government. The BBC belongs to the country. The public are our shareholders. So it is their voice that will matter most in this debate."
For more on this subject, see:
The "mind-blowing excess" of BBC tea-drinkers
BBC critics ramp up their attacks
Bullish BBC boss comes out swinging
Telegraph bashes BBC for doing its research
BBC bashed for "lavish" lambing largesse
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