October 2014

The Life & Social Media Times of John Ashton

Daedalus Smith was sitting in the public health prison of his own design; the sun bore down as he contemplated how best to deal with the rising popularity of electronic cigarettes. Icarus burst into the room sending piles of scientific studies stamped “For Ignoring” fluttering like feathers to the floor.

“I have the solution, father,” exclaimed the hubris-flooded boy, “We shall take to Twitter and everyone will come around to our way of thinking.”

Aware of the problems connected with 140 character-based communications, Daedalus cautioned “But haven’t you seen the sticky situations Richard Dawkins gets himself into?”

Icarus laughed.

“But Father, I have clearly stated that the views expressed are my own and do not represent the views of any organization with which I am employed or involved in a professional capacity. ”

My life bears witness to some abysmal predictions: in 1978 the television program “Tomorrow’s World” informed me I’d now be enjoying 24 hours a day leisure time while robots took care of business, not forgetting the Millennium bug-fuelled hysteria which drew images of a post-apocalyptic world.

I fancied a life of golf and jetpacks (even if I don’t play the game and am irrationally acrophobic), but nothing compares to my longed-for Mad Max future. It would be fair to say I was slightly disappointed when computers didn’t explode and phones die as the century passed; day-to-day life in rural England can be terribly pedestrian. All told, prognosticating outcomes is not easy, although it is much simpler when things like this happen …

Professor John Ashton is, at the time of writing, the president and chair for The Faculty of Public Health (UK), a body set up to create and implement “standards” in public health. Standards are things implemented to control systems and, in turn, to control the people who operate systems. Why? Because most people are stupid and irresponsible so important, clever people are put in charge of it. Important, clever people like Professor Ashton.

Ashton, like many others of a certain age, has demonstrated a failure to come to terms with the use of (and response to) social media. Despite the Daily Mail newspaper incorrectly reporting that he has stepped down “after crude 'e-cig' rant,” they are correct regarding his outbursts. It is a matter of speculation as to what fuelled his Saturday night invective or what he hoped to achieve when he wrote:

“These abusive e-cig people remind me of the lads who used to play with themselves behind the bike sheds at school.“

“They are even more pathetic than that. Need e-cigs to get aroused.”

“I think I have identified a new species of human being this week. 'Obsessive, compulsive, abusive onanist with e-cig tendencies.”

“Have you always been an anonymous c***.”

He placed a number of vapers and public health campaigners on ignore, went through post histories of others to pull up material to attack them with and then went to sleep having firmly removed and lost the pin from the virtual grenade. The tweets were gone by Sunday but screenshots had been made and were in wide circulation.

The response to his diatribe was predictable outrage, given the position he held as a senior adviser to the government on vaping matters. Well, predictable unless you were a more seasoned watcher of his use of Twitter—for as the Health Service Journal put it in 2013: “What happens when a senior figure broadcasts whatever is on his mind, without the slightest regard to his personal reputation?”

Letters were written, emails sent and teeth ground like coffee beans. Demands were made for him to be dismissed, resign and (probably) fed to fierce creatures. Which poses the question: what is it that we as vapers collectively wish to see as an outcome? Does removing a man from office move our cause forward or are we far better off dealing with known entities?

For sure, schadenfreude can be very enjoyable. Videos of fat ladies falling off tables, children running into glass doors and men being hit in the testicles are all stock television entertainment. When that irksome person in the office finally gets caught out and fired it is always a good excuse for an office drinks outing.

After the Faculty of Public Health press office turned its answering machine on and the UK vaping social media community had peaked in venting fury what are we left with?

Contrast the Ashton meltdown with the actions of a Matt Braund, ex-ABO Wind UK projects development manager. Braund thought that social media is an appropriate place to deposit ill-considered and offensive thoughts. ABO Wind UK is in the process of trying to convert Scotland’s abundance of wind into electricity.

Ignoring Braund’s abilities to do his job or the relative offense caused, it drew a poignant comment from Andy O’Malley “I think guys like this should be allowed to say exactly what they want to online so that we can see who they really are and what they think. Then we should set up a charity to offer them free 'Equality and Diversity' training. The only way we will change people is through education; simply shutting people up won't change their attitudes, it will just make them more careful about what they say in public and not allow them to learn and change.”

Ashton has since announced: “I very much regret my choice of language to describe some vapers on Saturday evening and any offence caused. I am taking a break from Twitter” A break that lasted a full seven days, no lasting attitude adjustment here.

His employer initially echoed the “regret” but, after British media seized upon the story, finally took further action and issued an unreserved apology for the language that personalized a public health issue. Meanwhile Ashton has stepped down for an internal investigation into the matter.

Daedalus Smith has banned Icarus from Twitter following some grotesque comments regarding the quality of Greek wax and a wing manufacturer.