Sunday, 2 February 2020

Alastair Stewart, abuse, his fall, and ragwort.

As I keep saying I don't blog too often now, but I have found myself involved in the maelstrom surrounding the ITN Newsreader Alastair Stewart and his resignation. There is an article about me  in the Daily Mail.
The story around is that Alastair Stewart was in effect sacked for a racist tweet where he compared a black person (Martin Shapland) to an ape. This was with a Shakespearean quote.
 
My take on this, my honest opinion, ( and I'll be giving lots of those honest opinions in this particular blog entry) is that it isn't actually the whole truth of the matter at all. I believe that ITN would have looked at his other tweets possibly including those aimed at me and concluded that Alastair Stewart was being unacceptably abusive towards others on Twitter and that he was bullying people.

I should say however, that to a man of obvious African descent like Martin Shapland being compared to an ape like that is a different matter than it would be to me. His experiences and therefore degree of upset will be radically different to mine. I have every sympathy with him.

There is a fake petition on change.org  to get Alastair Stewart reinstated.  I say this is fake, because from the evidence, in my honest opinion, the claims are false. It claims that Alastair Stewart never interacted directly with Martin Shapland, when a credible witness says he did and says it was all about racism which again that witnesses testimony and my experience shows is not likely at all.

The important thing to note is that I actually have copies of a lot of the tweets to or about me that came from Alastair Stewart and I know where they fitted in the conversations that are still available. He has deleted his account so therefore I think it is important that I publish what I have.

First of all, I should clarify that the Daily Mail has it right. I am well known to the staff at Friends of the Earth and I am white. I am Welsh and all my grandparents and great-grandparents were Welsh, I am even one of the 19% of Welsh people that according to the last census can speak the Welsh language.  I am as white as they come.

However,  I don't think it is about race. As I said, I think it is about abuse. I don't think that I am important enough for it to be about me. It is quite likely from what we know about his interaction with Martin Shapland that it  was enough for him to lose his job. I document it below in a twitter thread from another journalist who witnessed it.

However, it is possible that when ITN would have questioned Alastair Stewart that he would have offered up the fact that he had  used the same quote on another occasion against me. Even if he didn't the conversations with me have stuck out to other people. The Daily Mail found them relevant. I also think that any reasonable person would have realised that his behaviour in attacking me was unbecoming to someone of his supposed status. I think it is also quite likely that I am not an important example of this and ITN would have undoubtedly have found other examples of abuse.  In any case, since I have been named in the press as involved I should at least explain what I know.

I realise that I have a number of readers from outside the UK. So I should perhaps explain who Alastair Stewart is. The best way I have to explain is this. If the queen died, Independent Television News ( ITN) who employed him would undoubtedly televise the funeral and prior to his departure his voice would have been the one that I would have expected that we would have heard commenting and explaining what was happening. He is, or was, a very senior TV news presenting journalist.

I am a conservationist and I write and tweet about the issue of a poisonous plant called ragwort. Let's make it absolutely clear, it is poisonous. However, as anyone who studies ecology knows lots and lots of wild plants from oaks to bluebells are poisonous. Ragwort has been subject of a campaign that largely consists of made up falsehoods which make out that it is far far more dangerous than it is. It is also one of the most ecologically important plants and much damage is being done by the misinformation, which I debunk.

The excellent writer Isabella Tree came to the same conclusion in her marvellous, prize winning  book, Wilding when ragwort hysteria nearly sabotaged her wonderful rewilding scheme. I have reviewed her book on this blog.

I can prove my claims. I have the evidence. Much of it is on my website Ragwortfacts.com . Anyone can look at the registration details and they will see that it was first registered 18 years ago. I have worked very, very hard at this for years. I have read hundreds if not thousands of articles and scientific papers. One set of newsletters from an anti-ragwort organisation alone numbers about 150 editions all of which I have scoured for the misinformation they have been producing. I have been and am still scouring the scientific literature to improve my understanding of the issue.

Now let's get on to my interactions with Alastair  Stewart. It started back in 2013 with this tweet.

Alastair Stewart
@alstewitn
#ragwort Professor Knottenbelt is right. There are more than enough other plants for insects to feed on. Ragwort,however, kills horses.
10:45 AM · Aug 19, 2013
It generated a number of responses including these exchanges with my colleague and good friend Esther Hegt who is a Dutch ragwort expert.
  Esther Hegt
@Ragwort_horses
·
@alstewitn
Knottenbelt is the primary source also for many myths, and scaremongering, an example http://ragwort.org.uk/facts-or-myths/7-i/13-ragwort-poisoning-through-skin-absorption-fact-or-fiction

Alastair Stewart
@alstewitn
#ragwort Professor Knottenbelt is right. There are more than enough other plants for insects to feed on. Ragwort,however, kills horses.
10:45 AM · Aug 19, 2013·Twitter for iPhone
*******

Esther Hegt
@Ragwort_horses
·
Replying to
@alstewitn
@alstewitn
maybe read also the references we used to write my website http://ragwort.org.uk/references
********

Esther Hegt
@Ragwort_horses
·
Replying to
@alstewitn
@alstewitn
Professor Knottenbelt is wrong, At least 30 insect species are entirely reliant on Ragwort,http://buglife.org.uk/conservation/campaigns/Ragwort
********

Alastair Stewart
@alstewitn
·
@Ragwort_horses
He is right that Ragwort kills horses. Insects can feast elsewhere or evolve. Dead horses can't.
*********
Alastair Stewart
@alstewitn
·
@Ragwort_horses
Will read...
*********

Esther Hegt
@Ragwort_horses
·@alstewitn
you always can contact me with the mail form if you need more info.
*********
Alastair Stewart
@alstewitn
·
@Ragwort_horses
Thank you.
*********
Now as you can see this is all polite and gentlemanly.
I then wrote an open letter to Alastair Stewart and this is the exchange.
Neil Jones
@ragwortfacts
·
@alstewitn
Ragwort An Open Letter to Alastair Stewart see http://bit.ly/1747Hcm I would appreciate an acknowledgement of reading please.

Alastair Stewart
@alstewitn
Replying to
@ragwortfacts
@ragwortfacts
#ragwort I have read your blog. Thank you.
4:55 PM · Aug 21, 2013·Twitter Web Client

At this stage it was again all very polite. This is what I expected from a professional journalist of high standing. You can read the open letter here. http://ragwort-hysteria.blogspot.com/2013/08/ragwort-open-letter-to-alastair-stewart_21.html

From the letter you can see I don't have a good opinion of Professor Knottenbelt's claims. I actually went rather easy on the professor. I  knew that he had been making far wilder statements than the ones I used there, but I am a stickler for evidence and chose to use just what we know the professor had written himself rather than press quotes, which might be misrepresentations.

Since then I have obtained some far better material on the professor's claims, in the form of an article that he wrote in a magazine. The magazine put its old contents pages on its website and I just knew I had to have a copy. It would be full of complete and utter nonsense about ragwort!
My debunking is on my website. https://www.ragwortfacts.com/professor-derek-knottenbelt-country-illustrated.html
The professor is undoubtedly a very excellent veterinary surgeon, but if you notice most of the time the things he gets wrong are not veterinary knowledge. They are things about ecology, where he is a layman, and it really shows.

His claims about the cinnabar moth, especially in the book quote which I use on that page, are completely insane! They are utterly bonkers! The cinnabar moth uses the plant as a food. It is absolute lunacy to claim the plant is poisoning it! I have a page giving more technical details.
https://www.ragwortfacts.com/ragwort-cinnabar-moth.html
Unfortunately, as you will see from the page, the story has been repeated and even got into a veterinary magazine!

Incidentally, this is how hard I work at this. I needed this paper from Country Illustrated. I located a copy in a library. I went to get it. I set my alarm clock for 4 am and set off. I got back just before 10PM .  That is 18 hours later.

As I said, things were polite and I had hoped that Alastair Stewart would have had the ability to realise that things were not as black and white about ragwort as he had believed, but alas, this was not the case.

We now move on several years. This is 2018 where Stewart retweeted a tweet from Landrover. You will note this is his customary manner of commenting on a tweet. He retweets it with a comment on top rather than replying. It is of course a form of reply, the author still sees it, but it also means that all his followers see the original tweet. The original tweet includes a picture of a landrover, which I have left out for clarity.
 
Alastair Stewart
@alstewitn
Alas, our world also includes the dreaded ragwort; but, once rooted up & bagged, there are few better vehicles for collecting it & taking it to the dump! #Discovery
Quote Tweet

Land Rover
@LandRover
·
Sleek design matched perfectly with the capability to make more of your world - #LandRover #Discovery. Book a test drive: http://bit.ly/2ltRlHg3:26 PM · Jun 26, 2018·Twitter for iPhone 

At this point I ought to explain a well-known phenomenon from psychology, which  is called The Dunning Kruger Effect. This term is derived from the work in 1999 of two Cornell University psychologists, David Dunning and Justin Kruger. It is a cognitive bias whereby people who are incompetent at something are unable to recognise their own incompetence. Part of this is that not only do they fail to recognise their incompetence, they’re also likely to feel confident that they actually are competent.
No one is immune from this, which is one of the reasons I am so careful with my evidence, and their research broadly indicates is what is done by more expert people, in that they are cautious. I know  this subject is complicated. My opponents think it is simple.  I would contend, that this effect certainly applies to several of the people in the next set of tweets. They followed directly on from the one above from Alastair Stewart. The Dunning Kruger Effect is the prime piece of evidence that I am quoting when I talk about research and arrogance.

I'll comment between the tweets.

Replying to
Ragwort hysteria is a far bigger problem than the plant. See ragwortfacts.com & ragwort.org.uk |
*****
Bill is a debunker. This is a standard answer he has to anyone who posts what he regards as ragwort hysteria or silly things about ragwort. He also debunks poor information about Aneurin Bevan and the NHS, about which he has a really encyclopaedic knowledge and also other things like "Burglar chalk marks". This is the panic that chalk marks in the street are information left about houses by criminals. They are actually done by utility companies!

*****
liza rakovic
@lizarevell
·
Jun 26, 2018
Have you ever seen a pony die from liver disease due to Ragwort poisoning Mr Ellson?. It may be pretty, it may be critical to the Cinnibar Moth, but it kills, slowly. The only reason Sheep and Cattle do not have symptoms is due to them being slaughtered before they show.
******
Now this is a  classic example of the Dunning Kruger Effect. From my point of view, as someone who has studied the subject long and hard, she is very clearly not competent in the subject, but she is extremely confident that she is correct.
Sheep can be poisoned. It  has little to do with slaughter time, but poisoning them is rather difficult, they have a very high immunity. There is quite a bit in the scientific literature some of which I still have to write up for my website. It is a combination of bacteria degrading the toxins and differences in the enzymes that metabolise them.
*****
Bill Ellson
@BillEllson
·
Jun 26, 2018
Have you? A large proportion of equine liver casualties have no definite diagnosis. The demonisation of ragwort tends to lead to other causes of equine liver failure being overlooked and more horses suffering.
******
Bill is actually correct here. There is really good evidence and we even have the country's leading veterinary expert on ragwort  telling people we shouldn't be talking about ragwort when it comes to liver disease in horses and that it is pretty rare.
******
liza rakovic

@lizarevell
·
Jun 26, 2018
Yes I have and it was awful...and confirmed as Ragwort poisoning due to being fed in hay. And as you would know this is when it becomes palatable to horses. Having said that, a horse will "get a taste" for the green plant once eaten.
******
Hay is the problem, but this getting a taste thing has no basis in the science.
Dunning Kruger strikes again!
******

Bill Ellson
@BillEllson
·
Jun 26, 2018
Diagnosed by whom and upon what basis? Horses do not get a taste for ragwort, that is an urban myth.
*****
Bill is questioning the diagnosis for two reasons. One we know, as we have evidence, that vets  just say liver damage is ragwort when it is established by research that it is only possibly a low percentage. He also knows that there is no definitive test for it, even a biopsy or a post mortem cannot tell the poisoning apart from damage by fungal toxins or other substances. It is covered here, with evidence from world leading veterinary experts. https://www.ragwortfacts.com/ragwort-poisoning-no-test-can-confirm-ragwort-poisoning.html 
The evidence on the page is not the only evidence I have looked at to confirm the facts.
*****

John Burns
@TwoStoreyVolvo
·
Jun 26, 2018
What is it with people that they keep spouting what I see as verbal diarrhoea and abuse to you, Al in areas that both you and
@lizarevell
clearly have superior knowledge about? They should get their empty heads together, form a band and go by the name of the #TrollingStones
😁
******
Now this from John Burns irritated me. It is nonsense. It is obvious to me that Alastair Stewart, which is who he is referring and replying to, doesn't have superior knowledge..  We have established that Lisa Rakovic,(@lisarevell) doesn't have it either. It is Dunning Kruger again and especially with regards to critical thinking. Being a respected journalist doesn't make Stewart an expert on anything other than journalism. Thinking that he must be an expert on ragwort just because of him being famous is an example of one of the biggest errors in critical thinking called, "Argument from false authority." Even if the authority isn't entirely false arguing from authority is a risky enterprise. Look at Professor Knottenbelt, a fine vet, but with some insane claims. You don't look for authority to make a case in debate, but you use evidence. If you don't your argument is very weak.
*****

Neil Jones
@ragwortfacts
·
Jun 27, 2018
How do you know that someone has superior knowledge? Research says that you need that knowledge yourself to be able to judge. As someone who has spent years on it I am in a better place to judge. I'd also suggest learning the rules of critical thinking. You'll see many errors.
*****
Of course I am talking about the Dunning Kruger Effect here. Their research does indeed tell us that you need the superior knowledge to know if you or someone else has that knowledge.
 *****
liza rakovic

@lizarevell
·
Jun 27, 2018
Such arrogance is astounding!
***********
Am I being arrogant? It is a very robust debate. I am being called a troll, but I have a good response. I have evidence for everything I say.  I am really entitled to be certain , often from first principles of the rules of critical thinking, that my opponents are wrong! You do notice though that she can't answer the question I pose? I am questioning someone who, as I say above, is forming bad conclusions by using a well-known logical fallacy.


Here comes my response, which caused all the trouble. I think this is completely justified given the science. Remember I am talking about research. I would have expected someone of Alastair Stewart's experience to ask me what was the evidence.

Incidentally, there is also more stuff about people with a romantic and inexact grasp of what is true and accurate, regarding people who are more logic orientated as arrogant. There really isn't space to go into it or the time for me either. It is rather complex and this blog entry is going to be long anyway.
**********
Neil Jones
@ragwortfacts
Replying to
@lizarevell
@TwoStoreyVolvo
and 2 others
I am certain of what I say only because I have spent years studying it & checked my facts with data and other experts. Research says that such rational thinking and certainty is often mistaken for arrogance by people who haven't yet studied how to be rationally certain of facts

Now this is where Alastair Stewart retweets my tweet with the ape quote.



This goes out to all his followers. My honest opinion is that this is an abusive personal attack. He doesn't make any attempt to deal with the issue. Instead he just makes an ad hominem attack to belittle me in front of his many followers. It is just a misuse of his authority.

There was also another tweet like the ape one where he attacked me in the same way by retweeting me to his followers while name calling.

 Alastair Stewart
@alstewitn
The arrogance of it... and all in defence of a weed.
Quote Tweet
Neil Jones
@ragwortfacts
·
Replying to @lizarevell @BillEllson and @alstewitn
The civil servant who wrote that page does NOT understand the law or is deliberately misstating it. Similar claims in adverts have been stopped by the Advertising Standards Authority and a claim in a magazine has been forced to be retracted after action by Press Complaints Auth.
10:22 AM · Jun 27, 2018·Twitter Web Client

The simple  issue here is that I am criticising a civil servant for getting the law wrong. Ask yourself this, I have a large website on this issue, a blog, and I am consulted for my expertise on this issue by a several large conservation organisations. I have won cases with the Advertising Standards Authority, and the Press Complaints Commission over this issue. I have been thanked by the equivalent Welsh minister when I corrected a similar problem. I believe therefore that it is very reasonable for me to assume, because I have the evidence, that my beliefs on what constitutes the law to be accurate.

 Alastair Stewart implies strongly and, I honestly believe, rather haughtily and dismissively ,that I cannot be right and does this without question and without offering any counter evidence . So who is being arrogant here?

I don't propose digging out the Defra page, which has now changed to be more accurate about the law, but I do know that it confused the law on foreign invasives with the law on native plants considered weeds. It said, as I recall, for instance that you shouldn't plant ragwort. You are legally quite entitled to do so.

What I haven't given in here is all the side threads where Bill Ellson was attacked in the same way  with Alastair Stewart retweeting him calling him stupid and encouraging others who attacked him by retweeting. I have the tweets, but there isn't space or time to include them all.


One of the important things as far as I am concerned as a conservationist,and   which really perturbs me, is a later set of tweets. I do wonder if ITN could possibly have picked up  on this as well, but  I doubt it. It seems that Alastair Stewart may have been encouraging people to break the law protecting our wildlife here in the UK. I don't imagine it would have been intentional, but this is what happens when you don't listen and act dismissively.

 It is illegal in the UK to uproot any wildflower, including ragwort, without permission from the owner or occupier of the land. There are exceptions for certain officials. I cover this here:https://www.ragwortfacts.com/ragwort-uproot.html   ( Incidentally, I had guidance on writing that page from a very, very senior person in a leading conservation organisation. I don't just do things without checking them.)

Someone called Katika Vivuli tweeted that they pull up ragwort everywhere they go, which is, as I said, against the law in the UK. Alastair Stewart retweeted it in his customary manner with a comment and liked the original tweet. You'll also see a response from Bill Ellson in his customary manner. Alastair Stewart had also somehow got the law wrong on  control of the plant, which I am not surprised at.


I have screen grabs here.


And a second picture which shows Alastair Stewart liking the original tweet.


Bill Ellson did tweet that this was illegal. If you look carefully you can see this. It is mostly hidden but it is another of Bill's standard responses so I recognise it.  It is actually still on-line anyway. Katika Vivuli's tweets have since been taken private and are protected from public gaze. Ask yourself, should Alastair Stewart have been more careful?

At this point I want to refer to two twitter threads that I have found. This one is by journalist Kate Maltby You can read about her on her website here


KateMaltby
@KateMaltby
·
Jan 29
OK, so I'm probably going to regret sticking my oar in. But, Alastair Stewart:
KateMaltby
@KateMaltby
I've admired Alastair Stewart for years, and really enjoyed getting to know him a bit on here.

BUT: I watched the actual exchange in REAL TIME, because I also follow and like his interlocutor. And it was much, much nastier than has been reported. It wasn't just the 'ape' quote.
11:09 PM · Jan 29, 2020·Twitter Web App
116
 Retweets
228
 Likes
KateMaltby
@KateMaltby
·
Jan 29
Replying to
@KateMaltby
I was surprised. As I say, I like Alastair and watching this exchange didn't change that, in so much as it made me think this intemperate bullying was totally, TOTALLY out of character. Maybe he'd had a bad day. Maybe he was tired and emotional. There's no way to know.
KateMaltby
@KateMaltby
·
Jan 29
Most of the tweets have now been deleted, so people now commentating think it's *just* 'the ape thing'. As I recall, AS went on a rant about Martin's education level, dismissed the possibility he could have a degree, really picked on him by quote-tweeting & encouraging a pile-on.
KateMaltby
@KateMaltby
·
Jan 29
I still wouldn't have sacked AS. Partly because I'm a free speech fundamentalist, partly because we all make mistakes on social media. (I've made lots!)

But we don't know if there were other incidents that ITN took into account. There's lots we don't know.
KateMaltby
@KateMaltby
·
Jan 29
I'm selfishly sad, because Alastair leaving Twitter means me losing a fun person I enjoyed engaging with here. And the lesson I'm taking from this is that we should all de-escalate and step away from the keyboard more. But please, call off the pile-on onto Martin Shapland.
KateMaltby
@KateMaltby
·
Jan 30
And on the ‘there’s lots we don’t know’ point, this is now doing the rounds. I do wonder still how on earth ITN let it come to this - in my experience there are constructive ways to guide & warn your staff on social to avoid precisely this type of mess.
https://twitter.com/angloyankdad/s

And this thread where I have limited things to people who seem to be professional journalists.

Mark Di Stefano
@MarkDiStef
The errr irony of Alastair Stewart "stepping down" for social media "errors of judgement" was he spent a lot of time on this website lashing (often young) broadcast journalists about impartiality with awful lecturing quote-tweets.

Comes for us all, I guess.
5:45 PM · Jan 29, 2020·TweetDeck
*****

nimesh thaker
@thaker_nimesh
·
Jan 29
Replying to
@MarkDiStef
Always came across as a bit of knob.. decades of perfecting it and then came twitter.. wham bam...
*****
Luke Jones
@lukejones03
·
Jan 29
Replying to
@MarkDiStef
When the R4 programme I used to do was cancelled he kindly told me how shite it/I was.
*****
Aasmah Mir
@AasmahMir
·
Jan 29
He was not a fan of me on Saturday Live and used to tweet about it. That was fun. Hey ho.
I  honestly believe that this is a matter of Alastair Stewart having got over confident about himself, as we say, having got to big for his boots. He took on someone else rather in the manner he took on me.  This behaviour escalated and  was unbecoming of someone in his position and led to his resignation.




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