Safety is not top priority

Politicians want votes. Newsmen want quotes. Neither has good sense as a priority. News reporters demand that politicians make statements that tell the stories that the newsmen want to tell, and politicians fear that if they don't say what the newsmen expect, then they can be made to look like evil fools on telly.

Whenever there is an accident on a train in Britain, it is widely reported. Each accident is called a "disaster" or "tragedy", and the hunt starts for someone to blame. The minister responsible for transport or some other high-ranking official in the transport industry is brought for slaughter in front of the cameras, and obliged to say that safety is his top priority.

No it isn't.

Safety has never, ever, been the top priority of a rail network, nor is it now, nor will it ever be. Trains are very big heavy things, and they move very fast. Big heavy fast things are dangerous. They might hit someone. If safety were a priority over movement, then for safety reasons all trains would remain still. Trains need to be operated by crews. If there were no crews, then the rail network wouldn't work, therefore recruitment of crews has to be a priority above safety, even though crews sometimes get assaulted or trip over things. The rail network would be incapable of serving its function without ticket sales, information, account-keeping, rolling stock, stations, power supply, and many other necessities. If safety were truly the top priority, they would never run a café in case someone got poisoned or scalded. Safety is always a consideration of course, but I long for the day when a politician has the guts and plain sense to say, on camera, "No, safety is not our top priority. Running an efficient rail network that gets people and goods where they want to be at an affordable price is our goal, though of course safety is always a consideration."

Media folk thrive on outrage and controversy, and politicians are afraid to be seen not doing anything. To be heroic, it is necessary to respond to a crisis. A while ago, there was a great furore over the revelation that some hospitals in Britain had higher death rates than others. Figures had been collated that showed the death rates in many hospitals, and an average had been calculated. Some hospitals had death rates above the average, and this worried people. The news reporters sniffed a scandal, and questions were asked in The House. Members of Parliament, goaded by the media, stood up and made speeches about how sinister and terrible it was that some hospitals had above average death rates, and they demanded immediate investigation and remedy ("It must be this government's top priority…"). It staggers me that such MPs were clever enough to do up buttons, let alone pass a school exam or get elected.

I am hoping that you, dear intelligent reader, have already spotted the simple misunderstanding perpetrated by those politicians. An average will always show that some things are above and others below average (unless there is no variance at all). No matter how fabulously excellent Britain's hospitals might be, there will always be some that have more deaths in them than others. In fact, half of the hospitals in Britain have above-average death rates. Does that alarm you? It shouldn't, but doubtless some unprincipled villain working for a newspaper could make you afraid. I can see it now: "Fact: half of Britain's hospitals are under-performing, and thousands of patients are dying needlessly. Do you want to be part of the hospital lottery? Is your hospital a killer hospital? See page 17 for details."

These two examples, of rail safety and hospital death rates, illustrate the same points. We the consumers of mass media must be vigilant and wary of what we read and hear, and politicians need to learn to recognise when they are being played for fools by fools. Never be quick to be outraged. Outrage itself is not a virtue. Outrage is usually fake, and it is an easy way to manipulate people. To be outraged by something does not make you heroic, brave or wise. If someone calls on you to be outraged by something, then before trying to prove your moral goodness by being outraged, first ask yourself what the motives of the people demanding you to be outraged are, and then try asking a non-outraged person why he hasn't bothered to clamour for action. When the real crisis comes, we will be better at responding. The media make us cry wolf too often.


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