February 29, 2024

As simple as 2+2

Hi there,

Thank God that journalism is not a trade that requires credentials or I would be out of a job. A little literary ability, a rat-like cunning, a willingness to steal other people’s ideas and an ability to betray, if not friends, at least friendly acquaintances is the basic tool kit, according to one journalist I read long ago. I score highly on these, I feel. 

However, in the dim, dim past I did gain some rudimentary training on the sub-editors’ desk of the Sydney Morning Herald. One incident there has always stuck with me. As the experienced fellows were busy writing headlines and I was changing commas to semi-colons, someone asked, “what’s 42% of 96?”

Everyone looked puzzled. “No idea, mate.” “How should I know, I didn’t do maths.” “What do you want to know that for?” etc. Finally, someone had a bright idea: “Ring up Finance. They’ll have a calculator over there.” Problem solved. 

Something similar happened this week in the UK. A major report from the  Academy of Medical Royal Colleges found no link between mental health problems and abortion. This is a perpetually contentious issue which became even more inflamed after the September publication of an article by US academic Priscilla Coleman which found one.

There is no point becoming embroiled in this dispute, but one extremely obvious question arises for the media. The reason for 98% of English abortions is that continuing the pregnancy will cause mental health problems. However, the British medical establishment has just demonstrated that abortion has no effect upon the prevalence of mental health problems. Doesn’t this mean that 98% of abortions are technically illegal?

No doubt this is a complicated and terribly involved issue. But it seems like a very obvious question which no one in Fleet Street, apparently, had wits enough to ask. To me, it’s as simple as 2+2. But perhaps, like my friends on the subs’ desk, journalists still can’t do maths.

Michael Cook