Friday, 30 May 2008

Another Blair Foundation

The Tony Blair Faith Foundation, launched (for the second, or possibly third time) today in New York, has had enough attention. Also, I don't see any need to add much to what I said before. Blair's speech today was typically vague. On the one hand, "There are many excellent meetings, convocations, conferences and even organisations that work in the inter-faith area. We do not want to replicate what they do." On the other hand, "We want to produce greater understanding between faiths through encounter."

The former PM's faith foundation is best understood, I think, as an effort to promote the continuing importance of Tony Blair in a changing world. As such, it is probably doomed to failure. But at least it has attracted a measure of interest. Less well known (at least I hadn't heard of it) is the Tony Blair Sports Foundation.

I only discovered it as a result of a small link at the bottom of the Faith Foundation website, but it seems quite jolly. Currently operating in the North East, it's mainly involved in recruiting coaches for local schools. But its aims are nothing if not ambitious:

In the run-up to the Olympics and beyond, the Foundation will increase participation in sport by young people, particularly those who are currently socially excluded – by inspiring more adults to become trained coaches; by providing access to high quality nationally-accredited training for those we recruit; and by helping to match coaches with the schools and sports clubs which need them.

For the moment, though, it is concentrating on indoor rowing, which is claimed to be "an effective method of combating childhood obesity and inactivity". Moreover:

It successfully targets those who do not take part in traditional PE programmes, including girls, the overweight, ethnic minorities and those with physical disabilities and learning difficulties. Head teachers confirm that integrating it into the curriculum enables them to fulfil OFSTED criteria. Teachers have the opportunity to develop cross curricular links with ICT, Mathematics, Science and PSHE.

This is quintessential Blair. From the list of groups supposed not to take part in "traditional" PE programmes (Ethnic minorities? So where did all our black footballers and Olympic champions come from?) to the invocation of bureaucratic box-ticking, it manages to miss the whole point of sport. "Indoor rowing" isn't really a sport at all, of course, any more than using an exercise bike has any connection with the Tour de France. The website even has a quote from Steve Redgrave admitting as much: "Don’t be fooled into thinking that this is about rowing," the multiple gold-medallist says. "It is not."

But then the Blair Faith Foundation doesn't seem to have much to do with religion, either. Rather, it's about using religion as to somehow oil the wheels of globalisation and the geopolitical shift to the (largely non-religious) Far East. Religion, says Blair (and he should know) can cause hatred and division, but

If... it becomes an instrument of peaceful co-existence, teaching people to live with difference, to treat diversity as a strength, to respect "the other", then Faith becomes an important part of making the 21st Century work.

Which is a bit like saying that if rowing ceases to be about propelling a boat down a river more quickly than the other team's boat, then it becomes an important part of achieving the government's anti-obesity targets.

Same wine, different bottles.
Read the rest of this article

Thursday, 29 May 2008

Serious threats

The new magazine Standpoint, published by the Social Affairs Unit, sounds like an excellent initiative: potentially a right-of-centre New Statesman, perhaps. Certainly it has managed to attract a lot of advance publicity, mainly for an article by Michael Nazir-Ali, the bishop lefties love to hate (especially 'cos he's Asian). Nazir-Ali blames the loss of public Christianity since the 1960s for the demise of western civilisation, an argument straight out of Mary Whitehouse or the later Malcolm Muggeridge, though spun as yet another rant about Islam. Actually, he deals with Islam in a few sentences and even has positive things to say about Sharia law, which ought to be a warning for complacent secularists (who have sometimes seen him as some sort of ally) as to where he's really coming from. Governments, he thinks, "will have to be increasingly open to religious concerns and to make room for religious conscience, as far as it is possible to do so." He doesn't explain why.

All mildly deluded stuff, which reaches a strange climax with his last sentence. The bishop writes that we need the Christian faith "to guide us to where we are going, and to bring us back when we wander too far from the path of national destiny." National destiny? Nurse!

Equally demented, and perhaps more dangerous, is the essay by Michael Burleigh entitled "How to Defeat the Global Jihadists". Burleigh is the author of one of the best books ever written in English on the Third Reich, but he seems to have lost all sense of perspective when facing the utterly different and much smaller "threat" posed by the small bunch of loons who seek to wage global Jihad.

Burleigh's main aim is to contrast the seriousness with which terrorism is treated in the US with the wishy-washy multiculturalist surrender found in Europe (especially in Britain). Thus he was impressed recently to discover the "intellectual seriousness, and the global scope of their concerns" of the Pentagon officials he spoke with. He recalls a Senate hearing in April about the likely effects of a nuclear attack on Washington DC - the sort envisaged in that ridiculous film The Sum of All Fears, presumably.

The chairman, Senator Joe Lieberman, said, "The scenarios we discuss today are very hard for us to contemplate, and so emotionally traumatic and unsettling that it is tempting to push them aside." What was Lieberman talking about? A 10-kiloton bomb left in a truck by the White House would kill about 100,000 people and erase a two-mile radius of mainly federal buildings downtown. Most casualties would be burn victims, the majority of them African-Americans who work for the federal government. About 95 per cent of them would die an agonising death, because current capacity to treat such cases is limited to about 1,500. Since the winds blow west to east, the ensuing radioactive plume would drift towards the poor black neighbourhoods of the capital’s South East where there is only one hospital. Lieberman concluded, “Now is the time to have this difficult convers­ation, to ask the tough questions, and then to get answers as best we can.”

Burleigh adds: "One wonders what preparations for such a nightmare scenario are being made here in Britain. Are our parliamentarians asking these questions and enabling us to have this conversation?"

Should they be? Rather than speculating about the likely impact of a major city being nuked by terrorists, would the senators not have spent their time better considering the chances of such a thing happening at all? Since all the available evidence suggests that it would be almost impossible for Al Qaeda to get hold of a nuclear weapon, and absolutely impossible for them to transport it to the United States, the Senate might as well hold hearings into the effects of the White House being blasted by Martians.

A far more rational analysis I came across recently was written by John Mueller, an American academic whose most notable work in 2006's Overblown: How Politicians and the Terrorism Industry Inflate National Security Threats, and Why We Believe Them. In a new essay, entitled Terrorphobia, he confronts the central paradox: most people are well aware that the chances of them being personally killed by terrorists are vanishingly small, yet they continue to believe the myth of an overarching terrorist "threat" and punish politicians who downplay it. He thinks that the War on Terror has become "a popularly supported governmental perpetual-motion machine", akin to the earlier structural paranoia about "reds under the bed" or the endless and unwinnable "war on drugs".

Key to this dynamic is that the public apparently continues to remain unimpressed by several inconvenient facts. One such fact is that there have been no al-Qaeda attacks whatsoever in the United States since 2001. A second is that no true al-Qaeda cell (or scarcely anybody who might even be deemed to have a “connection” to the diabolical group) has been unearthed in this country. A third is that the homegrown “plotters” who have been apprehended, while perhaps potentially somewhat dangerous at least in a few cases, have mostly been either flaky or almost absurdly incompetent.

In Britain, of course, there has been one major attack. But otherwise Mueller's analysis holds true. While terror suspects continue to be arrested and put on trial, they are not agents of a large international network but are almost entirely self-sustained. Which makes them, perhaps, more difficult to keep track of than a traditional, organised terrorist movement would be. But equally it proves them to be amateurish and relatively unthreatening. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, there was a widespread assumption that this was merely the opening salvo in a sustained terrorist campaign that would wreak increasing havoc. In fact, it was the most they could do, and it's unlikely that they could do such a thing again.

The British official response to the perceived terrorist threat is just as exaggerated as the American, but in a different way. Here, Burleigh has some good points to make about what he calls the government's "alternation of appeasement with knee-jerk ­authoritarianism."

In dealing with the Muslim Council of Britain, the British Government unwittingly accepted as “commun­ity” interlocutors men who, in line with salafi-jihadi propaganda, blamed Islamist terrorism primarily on British foreign policy, while failing to condemn unequivocally suicide bombing outside the UK. Virtually nothing is being done to stem the flow of Wahabist money (and the attendant intolerant ideology) not only into mosques but university “Islamic studies” programmes, whose ideologically-slanted nature has been exposed in a report published last month by the Centre for Social Cohesion.

I agree. It is the precise combination of appeasement and repression that has caused the problem. The government has been far too keen to dispense with age-old civil liberties, which has led to a siege mentality among many young Muslims. Yet it has combined this with cack-handed attempts at reaching out to "the Muslim community" by giving free reign, and access to power, to the likes of the MCB: not terrorists, but political Islamists and cultural separatists. Put the two together and you have the conditions most likely to produce the thing that the government presumably wants to avoid: more radicalisation, less social cohesion, more "terrorist" plots.

Where Burleigh gets it wrong is in thinking that this disastrous policy results from the government being half-hearted about the terrorist threat. On the contrary, it is a result of their absurd over-estimation of this threat, and their desperate scratching around for some means of countering it. Oddly, Michael Nazir-Ali makes a similar mistake when he fears that "Radical Islamism" will flourish in the vacuum created by the collapse in Christian observance. Binge-drinking, trash television and porn might, but that is another matter. Read the rest of this article

Wednesday, 28 May 2008


Although she's best known for revealing her inner sanctum in a trashy film almost 20 years ago, Sharon Stone likes to be taken seriously. After all, she does (or did) have an IQ of 154, but her film career since Basic Instinct (and, indeed, before) hasn't exactly been glittering, so she has to do something to justify her continued presence in the international spotlight. So, like other Hollywood has-beens or never-quite-weres she likes to promote fashionable causes. Mainly AIDS and Tibet: you don't get much more fashionable than that.

Last week in Cannes it was meant to be about AIDS. She and soon-to-be-divorced Madonna were co-hosting a bash which reportedly raised around $10 million, mainly for African AIDS victims. Which ought to have meant lots of good karma, at least cancelling out the etheric debts that she must have incurred for making Catwoman and Basic Instinct 2. Unfortunately on the way in she was waylaid by a film-crew and proceeded to make poor use of her sky-high(ish) IQ. Here's the evidence.

A truly bizarre clip. "It's interesting because..." she begins, before reeling off a list of things about China that have been worrying her lately. ("I've been concerned about how should we deal with the Olympics, because they are not being nice to the Dalai Lama, who is a good friend of mine": that must rank as a classic of bathos.) Obviously, it's all about her.

I don't know a great deal about the doctrine of Karma, but I'm sure there's more to it than some Eastern version of divine retribution. Sharon Stone's initial reaction - "is that Karma?" - sounds a lot like "they had it coming", and has some similarity with that of the gay-hating Westboro Baptist Church, who lost little time putting out a press release congratulating God for smiting the godless Chinese. But that plainly wasn't the point of her little homily, which was intended to highlight the superior humanity of the Tibetans who shamed her by, like, actually caring about all those homeless and bereaved people. Even if they were, you know, Chinese.

"They wanted to go and be helpful, and that made me cry," she said. "It was a big lesson to me that sometimes you have to learn to put your head down and be of service even to people who aren't nice to you."

No doubt her "good friend", the Dalai Lama, could have told her that the children whose poorly-built schools collapsed in the Sichuan quake were as much victims of the Chinese system as the oppressed Tibetans. But then you wonder why she needed anyone to point out that the victims needed help rather than a lecture. Although I seem to recall that several leading Christian theologians had a similar reaction to hers when Lisbon was destroyed by an earthquake in 1755.

What may have addled Stone's famously enormous brain is they way language tends to elide nations with their political representatives. It ought to be possible to say that "the Chinese" are oppressing Tibet without feeling antagonistic towards any human being who happens to be of Chinese nationality or descent. But it often doesn't work like that. Rather, the impulse to impute collective guilt takes over. A sentiment understandable when felt towards your nation's enemies during a war seems a strange reaction to have when faced with a natural disaster. But then Buddhism can be the most narcissistic of all religions.

I wonder, though, what the present controversy really signifies. Demands for Ms Stone to apologise and withdraw the remarks seem to miss the point that the whole comment was, in essence, an apology to begin with. Her mistake was to take a question inviting her to make sympathetic noises about the earthquake and its victims as an opportunity for personal analysis. On the other hand, we now learn that Ng See-Yuen, owner of one of China's major cinema chains and the chairman of the Federation of Hong Kong Film-makers, is threatening a boycott of her films.

From the Independent: "He called Stone's comments 'inappropriate', adding that actors should not bring personal politics to comments about a natural disaster that has left five million Chinese homeless, said the Hollywood Reporter." You don't get to own one of China's major cinema chains without knowing how to get on the right side of the Beijing regime. And there seems to be a concerted campaign (at least on YouTube) to encourage the production of vaguely nationalistic "responses" to Sharon Stone's comment.

Who here is really playing politics? Read the rest of this article

Tuesday, 27 May 2008

Bunker Mentality

This hilariously subtitled excerpt from Downfall was posted on YouTube by someone using the name ACL Blair. It captures perfectly the combination of frustration, paranoia and despair which would seem to have possessed the Downing Street bunker over the past week.

Most unfair, of course. Read the rest of this article

Monday, 26 May 2008

Game Over?

Dr Richard North of EU Referendum, who together with Christopher Booker has spent the best part of 20 years railing against the creeping coup d'état from Brussels, has signalled his readiness to raise the white flag. It's over, he thinks.

Euroscepticism is dead. It is not official yet, and the putative corpse is still breathing. If it was a human being, it would be on life support, showing no brain activity. The relatives would be gathering round, discussing when to switch off the machine and whether any of its organs could be suitable for donation.

North hasn't yet explained the full reasons for his pessimism, though the apparent enthusiasm shown for the EU by big business seems to be high on his list of suspects. In a democracy, however, that should not in itself spell doom for an ambition - repatriating power from international bureaucrats to local voters - that enjoys widespread public support. More pertinent, I would suggest, is is the abstract nature of much of the argument.

The EU project - which, whatever one thinks of it, involves the wholesale transfer of power from elected politicians (in other words, the voters) to supranational bureaucrats and regulators - is one of the biggest and most important stories of our age. But it doesn't (except where there's a "shock" referendum result somewhere) produce big headlines. By contrast, the looming energy crisis, which is an even bigger story, is capable of punching its weight, journalistically speaking. That's because a sudden increase in fuel prices hits people where it hurts, millions of them and all at once. A spike in the cost of fuel has more immediacy than a Brussels directive could ever have, even if one allows for the fact that most are in any case disguised as secondary legislation and "laid before Parliament", as the jargon quite accurately has it.

Over the years North, Booker and other anti-EU campaigners have reported meticulously on the (sometimes unintended) consequences for small businesspeople of various Brussels diktats. But while such items are often reported, and occasionally attract press interest, the response rarely goes beyond a resigned shrug or passing irritation. They tend to be filed under "bureaucracy gone mad", along with non-EU stories such as the woman who got into trouble for sticking up a poster of a missing cat.

Lacking a truly momentous disaster that can unambiguously be blamed on the EU, a slow drip-drip of items hardly disturbs the surface temperature of national debate. There is, I think, a settled dislike of "Brussels interference" on the part of most British people, but this is coupled with a sense of helplessness and inevitability, above all a feeling that there is no real alternative. A referendum on the Lisbon treaty would, for a while, have galvanised debate on the European issue; but its absence, despite being a blatant betrayal of the promise contained in Labour's election manifesto, has not generated the sustained outrage that would be necessary to turn it into a defining issue. Instead, the government's miscalculation in the matter of the 10p tax rate, a piece of political clumsiness quickly and easily put right, has become, oddly, the hinge around which the story of this government's collapse will turn, just as the 1992 ERM debacle (a much more profound economic and political event) was for John Major's.

There tends, in fact, to be remarkably little correlation between the importance of a news story and its impact on the mediated public consciousness. Or, if there is such a correlation, it tends to be a negative one. Looking back, stories notable for their irrelevance and triviality stand out in the memory far more than the important, but boring ones. Edwina Currie's "gaffe" about egg-production being infected with salmonella is remembered by many who forget that what she said was entirely true. The Duchess of York's toe-sucking exploit in the south of France was huge news at the time, bigger even than Britney's haircut (and imagined to be an issue of great national importance). People who forget Tony Blair's war lies and were never interested in his wholesale constitutional vandalism nevertheless have a corner in their brains reserved for Cherie's shopping trips.

In the current US election we can see this tendency everywhere. In the intense attention paid to the largely irrelevant sermonising of the Rev Jeremiah Wright, for example. Or, more recently, Hillary Clinton's supposed gaffe about the assassination of Robert Kennedy. This last incident has attracted far more attention than the more significant story of how the Clinton campaign is now so cash-starved that Hillary has been leaving a trail of unpaid bills. But it's worth looking at in some detail. Her rather strange remark, when asked why she was still in the race, came out as follows:

My husband did not wrap up the nomination in 1992 until he won the California primary somewhere in the middle of June, right? We all remember Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in June in California.

Talk about putting your foot in your mouth. Hillary's rapidly took on the appearance of Imelda Marcos's wardrobe. What she was trying to say, presumably, was that many nomination contests go down to the wire. What went round the world, by contrast, was the notion that she's hoping that someone shoots Barack Obama in time for her to claim the nomination. Perhaps there's a deep part of her ferociously ambitious brain that does indeed think along those lines. After all, it could happen. Some of the blogosphere chatter about Obama being some sort of Al-Qaeda plant is sufficiently deranged to set off some random nut-job. I'm not too holier-than-thou to imagine that she's unworthy of public office merely for having contemplated such a scenario. (Unlike, for example, Emily Yoffe, who accused Hillary of "calling forth the forces of madness to give her the presidency".) But why did an offhand, trivial remark, immediately withdrawn, become the major story of the campaign?

An interesting perspective from the sharp end of online news coverage comes from John F Harris of the US site Politicos. "The signature defect of modern political journalism is that it has shredded the ideal of proportionality," he complains. In the Internet age, this tendency has been greatly exaggerated, thinks Harris, because the importance of a story is measured in terms of clicks and inbound links. The result is predictable and, in an informed democracy, probably disastrous:

Important stories, sometimes the product of months of serious reporting, that in an earlier era would have captured the attention of the entire political-media community and even redirected the course of a presidential campaign, these days can disappear with barely a whisper.

Trivial stories — the kind that are tailor-made for forwarding to your brother-in-law or college roommate with a wisecracking note at the top — can dominate the campaign narrative for days.

Hillary's gaffe was "an especially vivid example of modern journalism as hyperkinetic child — overstimulated by speed and hunger for a head-turning angle that will draw an audience." And he should know:

On Friday afternoon, I heard my colleague, Politico reporter Jonathan Martin, bellow in excitement as he called me over to his desk.

Martin was furiously typing away, not looking up as he told me the latest: Clinton had given an interview to the editorial board of the Argus Leader newspaper in South Dakota in which she answered inquiries into why she is staying in the race by citing the fact that it’s only May, and RFK had been shot and killed in June.

Here is what I was thinking: Wow. Maybe she has come unhinged? It’s not as though such macabre thoughts have never occurred to me, but for Clinton to give public voice to such a scenario is bizarre. This is going to be a big story and is almost certainly going to shadow and quite likely accelerate the final chapter of her presidential campaign.

Here is what I said: Martin, quick get that item up!

He needed no prompting.

Politicos is a fairly new, entirely net-based operation. But the venerable New York Times was even more alacritous in putting the word out.

Harris found it "a deflating experience" to watch the quote in context, where it appeared far less outrageous, if still ill-judged.

Make no mistake. Clinton stepped on a rake with her comment and got bopped in the face. This was entertaining political slapstick, for those of us who like that kind of thing. Little wonder she apologized.

But Clinton’s clumsiness does not excuse news media clumsiness in making a minor story seem like a major one. A note on the randomness of the news: If this really was a big story, then the media has blown it for months. Clinton made similar remarks to Time magazine back in March.

Maybe it's having a British perspective that makes me less rosy-tinted than Harris when it comes to journalism past. "Once, the elite papers and network news set the agenda, and others followed suit, following up on what these establishment pillars deemed important," he claims. "Now it’s just the opposite. The conservative old voices increasingly take their cues from the newer, more daring ones." I can't remember such a time. At least over here, political journalism has always been more about personalities than about issues, because politics is a soap opera. As Andrew Marr put it, with refreshing honesty, in his book My Trade,

Political stories, like politics, are about power. They are about who has it, who is trying to get it, who's losing it and who is fighting for it. In every human society that has left a record, power is an obsessive, fixating cultural magnet. The personality of the prince, the plotting of the courtiers, the plumage of the priests, the errant phallus of the president... without stories of human power, nine-tenths of history and much of art and literature would be void.

This fact of human nature leaves a dangerous vacuum at the heart of political reporting, and the Eurosceptic campaign would seem to have been sucked into it. For politicians, getting and retaining power is what counts; the policies are often secondary. And to argue for serious reform of the EU institutions is, even in the Conservative party, potentially career-destroying, as the likes of John Redwood long ago discovered. Career politics undoubtedly takes place in the deepest recesses of the EU where so much of our lives is unaccountably determined. The lobbying, the bad accounting, the secrecy ought to be higher up the news agenda; but Brussels (or the WTO, for that matter) lacks the theatrical quality of the sideshow of national democratic politics. That's where the fun is, and that's where the gaffes are. And in that under-reported world the continual advance of the EU machinery goes without question.

You can blame the media for not giving the subject enough coverage, or politicians for not being quite straightforward with the people about the source of most of our laws, or even the people for not knowing, or caring, enough about the intricacies of European bureaucracy. But it's probably inevitable. The voting system of the EU is no more impenetrable or opaque than that of the Eurovision Song Contest. But it is considerably less eye-catching, and therefore more difficult to get really upset about. Read the rest of this article

Sunday, 25 May 2008

Breaking News

I notice that the Mail on Sunday today has provided some details of Mistress Abi and her activities. Including some photos, one of which will already be familiar to readers of Heresy Corner and its associated Dungeon. Indeed, there's practically nothing in this latest report that wasn't here, first. Not that the details were particularly hard to come by. Were they waiting for someone to break the story in a blog first, I wonder? Read the rest of this article

Saturday, 24 May 2008

Not safe for work

Quite a few people found their way to the Heresiarch's dungeon the other day courtesy of the one-man media empire that is Tim Worstall. (Thanks, Tim.) Sadly, this was not, for everyone, an entirely pain-free experience. Mark, writing on Tim's site, had the following tale of woe:

The link caused my employer’s net-nanny software to have hysterics. So I’ve now read it at home, and am looking forward to the warning from the IT people when I get to work in the morning….

Sorry, Mark, and to anyone else who found the link swallowed by their firm's smut-filter. I hope the IT guys were understanding once it was explained to them that the link led merely to a serious journalistic investigation of an important topical issue. With spanking. Some filters are set to reject identifiable blogs of any description, but the problem was more likely to have been caused by my use of the phrase "Nazi sex orgy" in the post's title. That was thoughtless of me, or perhaps it was just a cynical attempt to attract passing trade from Google (which didn't really work, by the way). I should have called it "Details of the Chelsea Basement", which might have suggested a treatise on property developing.

If you had similar trouble accessing the story, this should be perfectly safe. Read the rest of this article

Taking us to the cleaners

Among the items listed in the MPs expenses released yesterday was the news that LibDem MP Mark Oaten claimed £244 on a new bunk-bed and mattress from a discount furniture store off Wandsworth Road. Clearly a bargain - rather less than Gordon Brown claimed to have Sky TV with all the trimmings, let alone the £723 the PM required for “cleaning services”- but why did he need the new sleeping facility? Was it during the period when his wife has cold-shouldering him after he embarrassed her in the News of the World? Or had his old bed become, er, discoloured? Read the rest of this article

Friday, 23 May 2008

Terrifying terrorists

A smattering of stories in the news today reveal just how deadly serious is the terrorist threat we all face, and why the government is absolutely right to press ahead with 42 days' detention without charge, ID cards, a massive database recording all internet searches ever made by anyone, and all the rest of it.

1) The Old Bailey heard an admission from an English teacher, Saeed Ghafoor, that he plotted to bomb the Bluewater shopping centre. He planned to fill three limousines with gas canisters, and blow them up. Or so he boasted to guards at Haverigg jail in Cumbria, where he was serving 12 months for threats against his sister. He was confident of his ability to destroy the massive shopping complex in Exeter, until it was pointed out to him that Bluewater was in Kent. He "hadn't finalised his plans", he explained.

According to the prosecution counsel, "We do not know if he could have carried it out. It was not a bomb hoax. It appeared on the face of it to be a serious threat by someone who was not happy."

2) Yesterday Nicky Reilly tried to blow himself up in an Essex restaurant and take scores of others with him. Officers suspect that 22-year old Reilly, who has "learning difficulties" and has been treated for mental illness, planned to commit suicide "but do not think he could have constructed the bombs without help." But even with this expert assistance, possibly from the ad hoc radical cell that is suspected of "brainwashing" the vulnerable young convert, he was only able to cause himself minor injuries. Reilly seems to have been loosely associated with this group, one of about 200 the police are monitoring: apparently, he was sent a text message from one of them "which officers believe amounted to a message of encouragement."

By contrast:

3) In Nottingham, a masters student and his supervisor were held for six days under anti-terrorist legislation after an "Al Qaeda training manual" was found on his computer. The student, who was writing a thesis about terrorism, was apparently consulting the material for research. He had downloaded it from a US Government website. According to the two men's lawyer, after they had been detained for 48 hours a warrant for further detention was granted "on the basis that the police had mobile phones and evidence taken from computers to justify this."

Bettina Rentz, a lecturer in international security and Mr Sabir’s personal tutor, is quoted as follows:

This case is very worrying. The student downloaded publicly accessible information and provoked this very harsh reaction. Nobody tried to speak to him or to his tutors before police were sent in. The whole push from the Government is on policy relevance of research, and in this case the student’s research could not be more policy relevant.

I've said it before, and no doubt I'll have occasion to say it again: all these home-grown terrorists and wannabe terrorists are pathetic. They are fantasists, obsessives, dreaming of global jihad and the Islamic world state to distract themselves from the mundanity of their own lives. They have no organisation, no political programme, no caches of high-explosive and sub-machine guns paid for by foreign governments. They aren't the IRA, or even ETA. They are self-created and self-sustaining. Of course, on occasion they can wreak havoc. But such incidents are rare. The police and the security services know who and where most of them are; they are almost all caught before they do any damage, and when they do slip through the net their bombs misfire. While the devastation of 7/7 gets most of the attention, it was the failed attack of two weeks later that was far more representative of the threat we all face.

Of course, there are countries where the terrorist threat is far more serious: Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel, Pakistan, Indonesia, Thailand. Muslim countries all, or countries with Islamic separatist movements. In other words, the Islamic terrorism that the world faces is not "global jihad" but old-fashioned political violence, aimed at destabilising particular states. For all the posturing by Al Qaeda, all they can do these days is to distribute tapes and thus lay claim to an influence and a control that they do not really possess. And even where the theat is greatest, it is less great than is was.

A recent Human Security Brief report - compiled by a working group funded by various western governments, including Britain's - concluded that there has been a substantial decline in terrorist activities, and terrorist deaths, over the past year. And for a simple reason. Most of the increase in terrorism over the past ten years has been in Iraq - in 2006, almost 80% of all terrorist deaths were in that country. The substantial fall-off in terrorist activity in that country last year (whether or not the credit belongs to the US troop "surge") has produced a reduction of 40% in the global casualty rate.

This is, of course, very good news. But I don't expect to hear government ministers to be boasting about it. Widespread public fear of terrorism, after all, can be quite useful. Read the rest of this article

Thursday, 22 May 2008

A ghastly Crewe

Whatever happens in Crewe & Nantwich this evening (and the prevailing media-driven narrative seems to require a Conservative victory, so I suppose the voters will oblige) it has been a strange campaign. The Labour party high command might have been better advised to stay out of it entirely, keep their heads down, and stick up lots of pictures of Tamsin Dunwoody (-Kneafey) standing next to her much-missed mum. It works in India, it sometimes even works in the US (my money's on Chelsea Clinton-Mezvinsky in 2028) and it used to work here. Even Winston Churchill got his big break by being Lord Randolf's son.

Instead of which, they ran one what was even by New Labour standards an extraordinarily cynical, ugly, mendacious, even racist campaign, which looks set to turn a narrow defeat, or even a narrow victory, into something of a rout. Somehow, the moral and intellectual bankruptcy of the Labour attack in Crewe sums up everything that is most vomit-inducing about a party that once posed - what a joke - as an antidote to sleaze. Gwnyeth Dunwoody deserved better. So, I dare say, does Tamsin.

Labour's disastrous "anti-toff" campaign might well have been an amateurish attempt to deflect attention from the obvious nepotism of Tamsin Dunwoody-Kneafey's selection for the seat. While Gwyneth Dunwoody was well-loved, feisty and independent-minded, and Tamsin may well herself be all of these things, a political succession of this nature has about it the air of an 18th century rotten borough. Edward Timpson may come from a prosperous background (but in trade - real toffs are landed), but it is, of course, Ms Dunwoody who is a scion of the political aristocracy. She is a Labour dynast as red-blooded (to mix a sanguineous metaphor) as a Benn, a Mandelson or a Miliband. Not her fault, of course. But nor is it the fault of the voters of Crewe and Nantwich, who may today be feeling a small twinge of guilt as they place their cross next to the Tory name.

While the younger Dunwoody's own political pedigree goes back to the Suffragette movement, and she herself has plenty of experience (her selection is far less objectionable than the stunt-casting of the teenage Emily Benn in Shoreham), her candidacy raises the question of whether politics, like journalism, has now become an hereditary profession. This current cabinet is the most inbred and intermarried since Harold MacMillan's fifty years ago. Everyone seems to be someone else's brother, sister, grandchild, spouse, ex-flatmate or one-time drunken shag. Gordon Brown is an exception, perhaps: having been Ed Balls's patron and Douglas Alexander's surrogate father doesn't really count. He had to make his own alliances, fight his own early battles largely alone. It has given him, perhaps, something of the hard-boiled exterior of a parvenu. He lacks the ease that comes from hereditary privilege. Like the King of the Woods, he knows that while many are out to get him, he is basically on his own.

Not that it matters that much who leads Labour to defeat in 2009 or 2010. Read the rest of this article

Wednesday, 21 May 2008

Cult Viewing

You may well have heard by now about the 15 year-old anti-Scientology demonstrator threatened with criminal proceedings over a placard which used the word "cult". It's a strange, strange story which is open to various interpretations. The more conspiratorially-minded have noticed that the City of London Police, which was the force concerned, have a oddly chummy relationship with L.Ron Hubbard's followers. Chief Superintendent Kevin Hurley praised Scientology for "raising the spiritual wealth of society" during the opening of its new London headquarters - the venue being picketed on May 10th - in 2006. The "Church" of Scientology certainly knows a thing or too about wealth, if not always of the spiritual kind. Another angle, pursued in an interesting Telegraph piece by George Pitcher, sees the incident as yet more evidence of police over-reaction to religious sensitivity in light of recent events and the otiose 2006 Religious Hatred Act. "If the law is an ass, those who enforce it are whipped mules, writes Pitcher. "The police in these circumstances are too inclined to side with the bullies."

With the long-overdue scrapping of the blasphemy law, defaming Christianity no longer carries even notional penalties. It would be a sad irony indeed if special consideration is now to be given to an exploitative cult like Scientology.

Or you could simply view it as yet another instance of the bizarre and inconsistent policing to which the British people are subjected, to be set alongside the decision of West Midlands Constabulary to refer Channel 4 to Ofcom over Undercover Mosque. To be honest it's hard to know what to make of the police these days. Part of me hopes they do decide to go on strike.

Here's the video which captures the now notorious "caution" (it comes about a minute in). The protester was ready with some killer quotes from a ruling by Mr Justice Latey in 1984. The policewoman, by contrast, sounds as robotic and pre-programmed as any Scientologist.

Update: Thanks to "Anonymous", who might be part of the "Anonymous" campaign. The disguised (and heroic) protester is apparently now known as "Epic Nose Guy". (Watch the video if you want to see why.) And here is another video dealing with the incident. Read the rest of this article

Monday, 19 May 2008

God is in the ETails?

UFOs, flying saucers, extraterrestrial beings and the like re-emerged unexpectedly into the news last week. There was, you may remember, a mass release by the Ministry of Defence of many of the documented reports of sightings they have collected and collated over the years, which caused a flurry of excitement until it became obvious that few of the sightings were particularly interesting. Doubtless there's material in there to give diligent compilers of UFO data many happy hours. Doubtless, too, the conspiracy theorists will be telling us, anything really explosive will have been deleted.

But there was also, and I presume co-incidentally, an interview with the pope's chief astronomer Fr Jose Gabriel Funes, published in the Vatican newspaper and excitedly relayed around the world. In it, Fr Funes speculated openly about the existence of life on other planets - "Certainly, in a universe this big you can't exclude this hypothesis" - and went on to discuss the theological implications of some sort of alien contact. There was, he thought, no reason why God could not have created life on other planets:

Just as there is a multiplicity of creatures on earth, there can be other beings, even intelligent, created by God. This is not in contrast with our faith because we can't put limits on God's creative freedom. ...Why can't we speak of a 'brother extraterrestrial'? It would still be part of creation.

He went on to suggest that such beings might not have "fallen", like humanity, and thus not be in need of redemption. They would be creatures "who remained in full friendship with their creator", he thought.

There's nothing particularly new about this type of speculation, even in the press. In 2005 another Vatican astronomer, Brother Guy Consolmagno, wrote a book entitled Intelligent Life in the Universe? Catholic belief and the search for extraterrestrial intelligent life which attracted quite a few headlines. He, too, focused on the theological implications of ET. As he wrote,

But there is one crucial question that will face Christianity if, or when, extraterrestrial intelligence is discovered. That's the question about what the Incarnation means to other species. In other words, would aliens need to have their own version of Jesus?

Do aliens need to be saved? Depends if they are subject to "original sin" or not. The traditional theology of original sin, tracing it back to the origins of the human race, says absolutely nothing about other entities, either way. Once we find other intelligences, we'll be in a better position to expand that theology.

And even if they did need to be saved, would Christianity be the appropriate way to do it? Or was the Incarnation of Christ a case of God becoming man, not little green man. Perhaps it doesn't matter. Brace yourself, the next quote is rather deep:

The point there is that, even though the life of Jesus occurred at a specific space-time point, on a particular world line (to put it in general relativity terms), it also was an event that John's Gospel describes as occurring in the beginning-the one point that is simultaneous in all world lines, and so present in all time and in all space. Thus, there can only be one Incarnation-though various ET civilizations may or may not have experienced that Incarnation in the same way that Earth did.

A mysterious concept indeed. And it raises what is (for those so minded) an even more important question: do we leave these aliens to their own spiritual wisdom, or darkness? Or should we send out missionaries and make converts of the heathen aliens.

According to a Russian Orthodox theologian Alexey Osipov, quoted this week, even asking this sort of question is heretical. With unassailable logic, he pointed out that the existence of extraterrestrial life is in any case inconceivable. Alien life forms were not mentioned in the New Testament, he said. Equally significantly, "there have been very many people in the Church who reached highest degree of Godliness and sanctity but no one of them has ever mentioned them [extraterrestrial civilizations], though they pointed out to many other things."

Furthermore, the fact that none had yet been discovered yet provided "solid grounds to negate existence of any extraterrestrial intelligent civilization", he claimed. And even if UFOs did exist and had occupants, they were probably demons. Case closed.

Perhaps herein lies an important difference between Orthodoxy and Catholicism. This sort of speculation, while anathema to Osipov, has a surprisingly long history in western Christianity. As Brother Guy points out, "to insist that God could not have made other worlds was declared a heresy back in the thirteenth century". On the other hand, "claiming the existence of a plurality of worlds" was one of the heretical opinions for which Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake in 1600. Still, it's natural for a theologians to want to speculate about questions of extraterrestrial life. Theology and Ufology have a great deal in common.

For one thing, their fields of interest are beyond the realms of what can be proved, known or properly understood. Alien beings might even be to modern theologians what angels were to their medieval forebears, invisible entities whose existence and characteristics must be inferred and which can be argued about without the troublesome intrusion of boring facts. Can aliens be saved? How many angels can dance on a pin-head? It's the same sort of meaningless question.

Theology and Ufology, moreover, are both rooted in faith. In fact, the early sightings of flying saucers swiftly gave rise to quasi-religious movements, some of which like the Aetherians and the Raelians - and above all the Scientologists - are still with us. Space-faring beings, like gods, are superior and might help us, but they are also potentially wrathful or malevolent.

Both UFO believers and religious believers are unswayed by evidence to the contrary: God, after all, moves in mysterious ways, while the government has its own deep reasons for wanting to cover up the truth. And both have the same love-hate relationship with conventional science. Science can never disprove what they believe. Yet the possibility must also exist that scientists will one day prove that it is true. And in the meantime ufologists will point to hard-to-explain sightings, and the religious to "miracles", as evidence that challenges science. Deep down they both want scientific approval.
Read the rest of this article

Sunday, 18 May 2008

Bring Back Boris

The News of the World today has what purports to be an article by new Mayor of London Boris Johnson on the subject of knife crime.

It was plainly not written by Boris Johnson.

Here's a sample:

All over Britain, drug crime, knife attacks, violence, drunkenness and disorder are creating streets of fear where decent people fear to tread.

I intend to stop that rot in London, demonstrating how common sense Conservative policies can heal this damaged nation and put the whole country back on track.

I want what we achieve, here, to be a beacon for the rest of Britain to follow.

I have already honoured my campaign promise to put hundreds of uniformed men and women on major transport hubs.

The Metropolitan Police have beefed up their stop and search operation. They are focusing on key estates and are armed with knife scanners.

My alcohol ban on the London underground comes into force in a fortnight. This could be rolled out to stop drunks making life a misery on trains all over the country.

And so it continues in the same vein. Cliché piled on cliché like (as the cliché has it) Pelion on Ossa. The last sentence I quoted is especially telling, in its lack of thought, in its me-too adoption of Jacqui Smith's moronic proposal to ban alcohol on long-distance trains, above all, perhaps, in the blackboard-scraping ugliness of the phrase "rolled-out".

This shockingly awful prose doesn't just read like a press release. It reads like a New Labour press release at its most robotic. I find it impossible to believe that Boris Johnson, however busy he is in his new responsibilities, however much he has taken into his soul the need to appear un homme serieux and get away from the flippant verbal pyrotechnics of his Telegraph heyday, could have seen, let alone penned, such mush.

Most politicians employ underlings to write the newspaper articles that appear under their name, of course. A well-worn story about Peter Mandelson relates that he was once shown the text of a piece that was to appear under his by-line, and responded that it was perfectly acceptable, "So long as no-one believes I actually wrote it". There are good reasons for this. They are too busy; they are pushing a unified party line in the approved way; they are not professional writers.

But wasn't a large part of Boris's appeal that he was not a machine politician? Voters in London were sold Conservative policies, they were sold an end to Ken's conspiracy of cronies, but they were also sold a personality who wrote his own gaffes. As recently as the weekend before the poll, he was still recognisably the old Boris, learnedly informing reporters that there were no "Arian" divisions between what he was and what he must become: they were "consubstantial, co-eternal, homoousios". The real Boris might have placed his denunciation of yobbish behaviour in context with a reference to the desecration of the Athenian herms in 415 BC. He would certainly not have let through a pair of sentences as inelegant and devoid of insight as these.

Gangs, guns and drugs are proving more attractive to young people than family, school and qualifications. And that's got to stop.

Even if he was "writing" for the News of the World. Read the rest of this article

Saturday, 17 May 2008

Like the Roman

This week's over-hyped "bust of Caesar", and the ensuing controversy, sent me back to the books. In The Oxford History of the Classical World (1986) I found this passage by David Stockton on the problems encountered by the emperor Tiberius on succeeding Augustus. I can't help thinking it strangely pre-echoes more recent events:

He came to the task of government in his mid-fifties with excellent and unrivalled credentials. But his character was dour and introspective, poisoned by unhappy private experience, with more than a touch of melancholia and insecurity. Above all, he lacked the consummate political adroitness of Augustus, his self-confidence and prestige..., the genial tact which had moved him to ask on his deathbed "if everybody had enjoyed the play". Men could never be quite sure what was going on in Tiberius's mind. This led to the view... that he was a hypocrite, a master of dissimulation, a view sometimes ludicrous in its strained invention or innuendo. In fact, the true dissimulation stemmed not from the man, but from the system which he inherited, the product of the great illusionist Augustus.

Obviously, comparisons can be pushed too far. Gordon Brown does not (so far as I am aware) employ trained slave boys to nibble his genitalia while he goes swimming. And Tiberius could easily have had Cherie Blair exiled to a small uninhabited island before her memoirs saw the light of day. But Stockton's summing up of the latter days of the emperor's reign as "years of gloom, intrigue and uncertainty" certainly rings a few bells, except that where Tiberius was "encompassed by astrologers" Brown has pollsters, special advisers and media monitors to shore up his misery. Read the rest of this article

Friday, 16 May 2008

Rendering Caesar

Do these very different-looking busts, both dated to around 45BC, show the same person? If recent international press reports are to be trusted, they both depict Julius Caesar towards the end of his extraordinary career; and the one on the right, found last autumn after lying at the bottom of the Rhône for more than two thousand years, has the greater claim to show what Caesar really looked like.

The new discovery, dubbed the "Arles bust", is part of a huge and very exciting haul of around a hundred objects, which also includes a statue of Neptune dating from around the 3rd Century AD. But not surprisingly, the new "Caesar" attracted most of the attention. Its striking realism, and remarkable state of preservation (especially considering where it was found), gives an eerie impression of being brought into contact with one of the most significant figures in history. As Charles Bremner put it in the Times, "the world has been introduced to the true face of Julius Caesar." And it's a new Caesar, too: less bald, rounder-faced, and somewhat less haughty-looking than more familiar depictions. Though some have noted a slight resemblance to George W. Bush.

But is it really Caesar? How was this image authenticated, and with what degree of certainty? According to the expedition leader, Luc Long, he at least was never in any doubt:

These really are his features. I recognised them immediately. It is a new image, with the realism of the period, before the conventional representations of a divine Caesar. He has a long neck, wrinkles showing his age, the prominent Adam’s apple, the high and wide forehead and marked baldness.

So on the one hand, it looked sufficiently like Caesar for Long to immediately recognise him. On the other, the fact that it doesn't look particularly like other images of the dictator is ironically proof of its authenticity. Other, better-attested images of Caesar (such as the one on the left, known as the Tusculum portrait, and also believed to date from his lifetime) are thus suddenly downgraded. We thought we knew what Caesar looked like, but it seems we were wrong. And he has a theory as to why the bust was dumped in the river. It was after Julius was assassinated in 44BC, he thinks, when owning an image of the dead man might have been dangerous.

Not everyone is convinced, however. Mary Beard, for example,

There is, I suppose, a remote possibility that it does represent Julius Caesar, but no particular reason at all to think that it does – still less to think that it was done from life.

The game of art-historical snap is a risky business, and honestly you could find hundreds of Romans who, with the eye of faith, look pretty much like this. Besides – despite all you get told about the style of the portrait pinning it down to a few years – this style of portraiture lasted for centuries at Rome. There is nothing at all to suggest that it came from 49-46 BC.

Prof. Beard reminds us of Heinrich Schliemann, the most romantic of archaeologists, who found a beaten-gold death mask in a tomb at Mycenae and excitedly told the world's press that he had "gazed upon the face of Agamemnon". "Almost every local archaeological society in England was certain that the tiny little Roman villa they were digging up was actually the governor’s residence," she adds. It's the same wishful thinking, I suppose, that wants to make every post-Roman British fort the site of Camelot, every mummy dug up in Egypt a possible Nefertiti, or every anonymous late-Elizabethan poem a lost work of Shakespeare.

On the comments section of the Coin Archaeology blog, "Mary Jane" has an exhaustive list of 14 points of difference between the two busts. On the assumption that the Tusculum bust is an accurate representation of Caesar, she concludes that the new bust cannot possibly be him. So what is the evidence that the Tusculum portrait is genuine? Actually, little more than its similarity to Caesar's image on coins. The coins are the only contemporary depictions of the man inscribed with his name. And who knows how accurate even they actually are?

Surely there must be more to it than this? The identification, apart from anything else, carries with it the imprimatur of the French state. A press release from the Ministry of Culture describes the Arles bust as "the oldest known representation of Julius Caesar". And according to the expedition's supervisor, Michel L'hour, part of the reason that the discovery has only now been announced was due to the need to establish the truth beyond question:

We have consulted the most eminent specialists in ancient statuary so as to make sure that this really is a portrait of Julius Caesar. The researchers unanimously confirmed the authenticity of the image. It is typical of realist portraits of the Republican era... Everything points to its being a portrait of the emperor executed during his lifetime.

Given such definitive statements (and Luc Long also claimed to have consulted "specialists in art history and forensic morphology") it's not surprising that the press have accepted the attribution without too much in the way of scepticism. It's an exciting news story, after all. The trouble is, the claim that this bust represents Caesar, let alone that it was "drawn from life" is suppositious at best. And the more you think about it, the more far-fetched it appears. For one thing, unlike his successor Augustus, Julius wasn't in the habit of setting up images of himself all over the empire, so how did this end up in Arles? For another, it was common practice for wealthy Romans to have busts of themselves and their ancestors sculpted.

In the absence of an inscription, it really could be anyone. The truth is that we will never know precisely what Caesar looked like. With ancient Egyptian notables, facial reconstruction artists can often get to work on the mummy and produce an almost exact likeness. Julius Caesar, of course, was cremated. But people, even "eminent specialists", can be very suggestible, especially when faced with a romantic and perhaps career-defining possibility. Read the rest of this article

Thursday, 15 May 2008

Undercover Police

Today the West Midlands Police and the Crown Prosecution Service have finally been forced to accept the inevitable: that their joint complaint to Ofcom last August over the Channel 4 Dispatches documentary Undercover Mosque was wholly without foundation. They paid £100,000 in damages and costs, and were obliged to read out in court, and publish, a grovelling apology:

We now accept that there was no evidence that the broadcaster or programme makers had misled the audience or that the programme was likely to encourage or incite criminal activity. A review of the evidence (including untransmitted footage and scripts) by Ofcom demonstrated that the programme had accurately represented the material it had gathered and dealt with the subject matter responsibly and in context.

We accept, without reservation, the conclusions of Ofcom and apologise to the programme makers for the damage and distress caused by our original press release.

This is very different in tone from their earlier press release, which gleefully announced to a news media reeling from the "grumpy Queen" scandal and various phone-in vote scams that they had caught another, and potentially far more serious, example of TV fakery, this time making perfectly innocuous, moderate imams look like ranting extremists by taking their remarks about jihad, homosexuals and women out of context. Though the original text has now been removed from the CPS archives, as widely reported at the time it made much of the fact (unsurprising given the constraints of the schedules) that 56 hours of original footage, assembled over a 9 month period, had been edited down to a mere hour-long documentary. According to CPS lawyer Bethan David, "the splicing together of extracts from longer speeches appears to have completely distorted what the speakers were saying."

And the WMP officer overseeing the investigaion, Anil Patani, was positively gleeful in pointing to the complaint as proof of his force's balanced approach:

The priority for the West Midland Police has been to investigate the documentary and its making with as much rigour as the extremism the programme sought to portray.

A strange priority for the police. It was, I seem to remember, a principle of Roman law that if a person bringing an action was unsuccessful he could be fined the value of the damages he would have won. And a person bringing an accusation of murder risked being branded on the forehead with a K (for Calumniator) if the defendant was acquitted. Perhaps this is now the police see their role, coming down equally hard on extremists and those who seek to bring them to public notice.

Ofcom disagreed with the complaint. In fact they disagreed so comprehensively that it's on the face of it astonishing that the police and the CPS didn't apologise there and then. Ofcom's adjudication could almost have been a press release on behalf of the documentary team. The report, which is worth reading in full, contained the following ringing endorsement of the role of programmes such as Undercover Mosque.

Investigative journalism plays an essential role in public service broadcasting and is clearly in the public interest. Ofcom considers it of paramount importance that broadcasters, such as Channel 4, continue to explore controversial subject matter. While such programmes can make for uncomfortable viewing, they are essential to our understanding of the world around us. It is inevitable such programmes which tackle highly sensitive subjects will have a high profile. Such controversial programmes may inevitably lead to a large number of complaints. However, investigative programming is amongst some of the most important content that broadcasters produce.

As Channel 4 was able to demonstrate, moreover, the police submission to Ofcom had itself misrepresented the nature of the documentary - through tendentious editing! As Steve Hewlett reported in November:

In studying evidence submitted by the police in support of their complaint to Ofcom, C4 realised that some key passages had been mistranslated and some had been omitted altogether. Police assertions to the effect that speakers had been taken out of context and misrepresented were fatally undermined - in Ofcom's eyes at least - by correct translation and the inclusion of the omitted sentences. In other words the police had done precisely what they had accused the programme makers of.

Even before the Ofcom report, however, it had become obvious that the police complaint had no validity. Dispatches raised important issues about the radicalisation of British mosques, about how several institutions had been infiltrated and even commandeered by Saudi-financed extremists, and how messages rich in misogyny, homophobia and anti-Semitic paranoia were being preached from pulpits. Even though the subsequent police investigation failed to provide sufficient evidence for a prosecution on the grounds of inciting murder or racial hatred, the programmed still launched a much-needed debate both within and outside the Muslim community.

Yet when the blistering Ofcom report was issued, the West Midlands Police refused to withdraw their original press release and merely issued a holding statement:

A spokesman for West Midlands police said a number of people had made complaints to the force. It said the CPS had raised "significant concerns" about the production of the programme.

"West Midlands police considered this and subsequently a referral to Ofcom, as the independent and experienced regulator in this area, was made. It is usual practice for West Midlands police to make referrals to regulatory bodies," said the spokesman in a statement.

Usual practice? It is no part of the police's, or the CPS's, responsibility to make complaints to regulatory bodies about TV programmes. They're not TV critics. They investigate crimes and, if necessary, bring charges. And if they find that no crimes have been committed, or that there is insufficient evidence, then their job is done.

There are various theories about how the police came to investigate the programme-makers rather than the radical preachers. One is that they simply wanted to justify the time and money spent pursuing an investigation that was never likely to yield sufficient evidence of law-breaking for a prosecution, and so decided to go after the film-makers instead. But it would seem that at least part of their eagerness to pursue the complaint sprang from their desire to appease "community leaders" who had objected to their enquiries in the first place. One such, Mohammed Shafiq of the Ramadan Foundation, expressed his delight at the referral in a letter to the Guardian:

We totally condemn Channel 4 for its arrogance in defending this programme, when it was clear to us that the makers had taken contributions out of context and edited speeches.

We urge Channel 4 to suspend all the Dispatches programmes immediately so that corrective action can be taken to ensure that this sort of journalism is eliminated.

The Ramadhan Foundation has always been very clear that the mosques have an important role in promoting tolerance and peaceful coexistence, but to use these sensitive issues to demonise Muslims shown in the programme is shocking and deeply disturbing. There can be no justification for this kind of journalism. The complaint is total vindication for the Muslim organisations which complained that the Undercover Mosque programme had taken the views of contributors out of context.

To him, clearly, the making of an official complaint was tantamount to proof of guilt. Inayat Bunglawala was another who enthusiastically seized on the police's action.

While the original C4 programme will have reinforced some prejudices people have of Muslims, today's CPS/police statement will, I think more justifiably, reinforce the distrust with which many Muslims regard sections of our media.

Hate speech must be combated. Documentary makers have an important responsibility, however, to do their research properly and carefully identify those who actually incite hatred. They must take great care to avoid unfairly stigmatising whole institutions and groups of people.

Much of the media - notably the BBC, which must have been relieved to find something to distract from the Queen/Annie Liebowitz imbroglio - followed suit. There was considerably less reporting of Ofcom's ruling or, indeed, today's humiliation for the CPS/ police axis of appeasement. And this, of course, was the most dangerous aspect of the original complaint. The police and the CPS are public bodies charged with upholding the law; as such, their action in referring Channel 4 to Ofcom was a serious matter, potentially crippling for investigaive reporting - including, perhaps, investigative reporting into the police itself.

At this point, the usual clichés are trotted out. The West Midlands Police "will have questions to answer". "Heads must roll". But will the questions be answered? Will heads roll. Looking back on recent history - incidents like the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes, for example - it hardly seems likely. Read the rest of this article

Wednesday, 14 May 2008

Monkey Business

I spotted this in Science Daily, and predict that it will be of interest to the Daily Mail, amongst other media outlets. It's the sort of story they tend to get very excited about.

Apparently, researchers in the USA studying macaque monkeys have discovered that subordinate females have a tendency to pig out on high calorie foodstuffs as a way of relieving their status-related stress:

During the study, female macaques were given access to a sweet but low-fat diet and a high-fat diet for 21 days each. For a 21-day period between each test diet, the group was able to access standard monkey chow only. To track feeding patterns, automated feeders dispensed a pellet of either the low-fat or high-fat chow when activated by a microchip implanted in each female's wrist. Researchers found socially subordinate females consumed significantly more of both the low-fat diet and the high-fat diet throughout a 24-hour period, while socially dominant females ate significantly less than subordinate animals and restricted their feedings to daytime hours. This difference in feeding behavior resulted in accelerated weight gain and an increase in fat-derived hormones in subordinate females.

Fascinating stuff, if you happen to be interested in monkeys. But the study is also billed as a "critical step in understanding the psychological basis for the sharp increase in obesity across all age groups since the mid-1970s." Because there's no difference between human beings and monkeys, obviously. After all, it's the poor wot gets fat, innit? As Wallis Simpson used to say, one can never be too rich or too thin.

It's not quite clear whether or not the researchers intended this study to have any application to human societies, but the wording of the report does tend to suggest that they did:

Because the relationship between diet, psychological stress and social and environmental factors is complex, Mark Wilson, PhD, chief of the Division of Psychobiology at Yerkes, and his research team set out to determine whether individuals chronically exposed to psychologically stressful environments over consume calorie-rich foods. To do this, they studied the feeding patterns of socially housed female rhesus macaques.

The word "psychobiology" is the key here, a discipline that takes as its working assumption that one's psyche is a function of one's biology. Of course, there are physiological and chemical factors that relate to mood, psychological well-being and so on, and these in turn may be influenced by social pressures. But to read through from a study about monkeys to human behaviour is dangerous for a number of reasons.

For a start, we are not monkeys. We have culture, history, language and conscious awareness. And those cultures are highly variable. As the report notes, obesity levels have been rising in western societies (and especially in the US) since the 1970s. It is in the special conditions of these societies, in changing patterns of life, work and food consumption, that answers to what is increasingly called the "obesity epidemic", should be sought. It's nothing to do with monkeys.

It is true that obesity, in affluent western countries, tends to be concentrated among lower demographic groups. Or at least that is the widespread perception: fat is a socio-economic issue. But that hasn't always been the case. There have been many societies historically, and today, in which the opposite association was made, and the rich aspired to a condition of plumpness, even obesity. Girth implied resources; the poor were thin because they were hungry. Fat was even eroticised. Today, by contrast, it is all too easy to put on weight, given the easy availability of cheap, pre-prepared food high in sugar and salt. So the overweight are stigmatised as lazy, undiscriminating slobs. They are assumed to have low self-esteem and (more importanly for the government) to be contributing towards a fast-approaching health apocalypse comparable (isn't everything) to the threat of climate change.

With such attitudes prevailing, news that low-status macaques (female macaques, moreover) have a sweet tooth has an obvious facile explanatory power. Especially since it fits so neatly into another prevailing narrative, the one that tells us that human behaviour, attitudes, thoughts, emotions and culture are a product of evolution, genetics or brain chemistry. This is the view that often comes across from media reports of studies like this one. Scientists, by contrast, tend to resist such conclusions, or at least their cruder manifestations. As Richard Dawkins, for example, never tires of pointing out, the fact that our genes may be "selfish" has no bearing on morality. One cannot, or should not, derive an ought from an is. We are after all moral agents, not automata mechanistically following the dictates of hormones and neurochemicals.

At the very least, a civilised and democratic society, one based on notions of citizenship, ought to start from that assumption; even (or perhaps especially) if it is an erroneous assumption. To believe otherwise is to accept that we are not autonomous, free individuals responsible for our decisions but bundles of desires, describable by scientific equations, just so many responses that can be triggered by appropriate stimuli. This dumbed-down notion of a human being often appears to be the model favoured by governments, corporations, broadcasters, even publishers. It is one we should resist. Read the rest of this article

Tuesday, 13 May 2008


The other weekend, I poked my head round the door of my local branch of Waterstone's and noticed that Andrew Marr's A History of Modern Britain was out in paperback. When it first appeared, the BBC man's weighty tome accompanied a "major" TV series mixing old news footage with shots of Marr gesticulating to camera. His overarching theory, the "replacement of politics by shopping", seemed neatly to sum up the flashy consumerism and intellectual vacuity of much of the past two decades, and he seemed oddly upbeat about it all, claiming in his final paragraph that "we British have no reason to despair, or emigrate". Despite what most people might regard as indisputable evidence that increasing numbers are doing one or both.

The new edition has a new preface, taking account of events in the past year which might, conceivably, cast doubt on Marr's cheery end-of-history view of the death of politics. The sub-prime mortgage crisis, the escalating cost of fuel and food, the ongoing (and seemingly endless) misery of Iraq and Afghanistan, all these contributing to what Marr calls a "darkening of the national mood". He gives a neat if rather shallow sketch of political developments since last spring, with the early triumphs of Gordon Brown followed by the abrupt turning-point when "it all started to go wrong". Although someone should have told Marr that Northern Rock was a bank, not a building society. While the latest electoral disasters, the 10p tax fiasco and the collapse in Labour party discipline were beyond this edition's publication date, Marr has clearly grasped the main political story:

People had grown fed up of Blair, regarding his television skills and vision as lightweight: remarkably quickly, they seem to have concluded that Brown, welcomed as dour and cautious, was worse.

So with bad times just around the corner, will politics, after all, defeat shopping? Not a bit of it, says Marr. For a start, it "seems most unlikely that the country is going to be transformed merely by the economic cycle". And even if "distinguished scientists" now argue that "an age of hair-shirted austerity" will be needed to save the planet, most people are more likely to look away. "We are flinching", and the parties are sending out mixed messages. Marr seems to be among those who imagine it will all go away:

But is the challenge ahead so big that it dwarfs the problems already confronted? Absolutely not. The history of modern Britain tells us that we have had some narrow squeaks, but also that we have done some extraordinary things... There is no alibi for pessimism.

Mr Micawber himself couldn't have put it better. But here's the thing. I find that Marr's TV series is being repeated on BBC2, starting this Saturday. The book is published by Macmillan, not the BBC, so this must be just a coincidence, I suppose. The Beeb would never knowlingly organise their schedules to help a commercial publisher, after all.

PS. Peter Bracken has ridden valiantly to Blair's defence in the comments after my last post.

Peace in Northern Ireland was a singular development; his leadership in response to the crisis in Kosovo is casually neglected by his detractors; and the commitment he showed to the health and education services produced tangible, material benefits. In Iraq and Afghanistan he nailed his liberal interventionist colours to the mast and took on proto-fascists for which, frankly, he should be applauded: that sections of the deluded Left can't see beyond their anti-Americanism is their problem, not his.

Well, I agree with his last clause about the deluded Left. Less sure about the rest. Feel free to join in. Read the rest of this article

Monday, 12 May 2008

Dishing the Dirt

What struck me most about this weekend's rash of memoirs and interviews with political figures of the recent past was how bad it all looks for Tony Blair.

Yes, I know we're supposed to think that these developments are all highly damaging to Brown. But that's only because of the combination of events, bad election results and, not least, a concerted campaign by embittered Blairites to destabilise him. As Nick Robinson notes, this is merely "the latest of a series of very difficult weeks" for the prime minister.

Any memoir that appeared at this juncture would inevitably have been slotted into the prevailing narrative of a hopelessly floundering Brown government, just as prior to 1997 any previously-unknown Conservative MP exposed as having a mistress or an expense account became the latest standard-bearer for Tory Sleaze. Whereas David Cameron has been so successful in neutralising the whole issue that even something as potentially devastating as Derek Conway's family business was skilfully turned into a tableau of the party's rejection of the bad old days, and the even stranger tale of Bob Spink went virtually unreported.

What, after all, did these memoirs tell us? That Blair and Brown did not always get on? Excuse me while I get over my astonishment. That Brown very much wanted Blair to stand aside, and believed that Blair had agreed to do precisely that? The Deal told the already famous story of that lunch at Granita's on prime time TV some years ago. That Gordon has a tendency to brood, and has always been dependent on a small circle of trusted advisers? Next they'll be revealing that his father was a Church of Scotland minister.

Take John Prescott's act of imagined treachery, as he regurgitates (sorry, John) some of the semi-digested power breakfasts on which he gorged himself in more than a decade at the top. From the Sunday Times interview by Lesley White:

“Towards the end, it got more . . . difficult,” Prescott says carefully. “Tony was frustrated that he wasn’t totally running government. They hadn’t lost control of their emotions. They weren’t about to belt each other. I mean, Gordon could go off like a bloody volcano, but Tony doesn’t like the full-frontal approach. It puts him off his tea.”

In 2002, at Dorneywood, Prescott’s official country residence in Buckinghamshire, Brown and Blair had a furious argument about foundation hospitals – then a new concept, which involved loss of Treasury control – while the deputy prime minister tried to play the conciliatory host. “There was no ‘Have a drink. Sherry, beer . . . ?’ None of that. Gordon came in and just launched into Tony.”

How is that damaging to Brown's reputation rather than Blair's? And how did it get spun as a story that Prescott was urging Blair to sack the chancellor, when at other times he was urging Gordon to resign and pursue his vendetta from the back benches? Brown actually comes out quite well from asides like this:

“Gordon was unfairly treated,” he announces categorically. “But from Tony’s point of view, there were things that [Tony] couldn’t get on with, like joining the euro, because he wasn’t getting the cooperation.”

And what of the famous Granita "deal"? Prescott comes down firmly (or so it seems to me) on Brown's side:

Gordon believed Tony had said he’d go halfway into the second term. Tony denied it.

“I don’t think there was any doubt about it: there was an agreement. It had to be halfway into the second period – you couldn’t do a deal by saying if we win three elections you’ll get the job. There was less and less trust between them.”

Indeed, Prescott describes a meeting in his grace-and-favour apartment in Admiralty House in which Blair definitely promised to go. “He said, ‘Look, you know, I am gonna go’ – and then he didn’t do it. So he reneged on his promise. The feeling of not keeping your promises – it doesn’t encourage cooperation.”

The impression given, in published extracts and in interviews, is of John Prescott as a man who feels more than a little aggrieved at both Blair and Brown, for whom he acted as an indispensable go-between but who both seemed more than a little patronising and kept him out of the loop on significant occasions. With Brown, he was made to feel intellectually an inferior. Blair, by contrast, exhibited a subtle but unmistakeable social snobbery. And that was what really hurt:

The shortage of invitations extended to the personal realm: why, Pauline would ask him, were they both so rarely entertained at Chequers (only twice in a decade)?

“I did ask Tony about it a couple of times, you know, but nothing . . . ” Prescott says. “I used to tell Pauline he didn’t do it [entertaining ministers and their wives]. Then it came out that all these celebrities had been entertained there, and cabinet ministers as well.”

If Gordon Brown were more in control of events, or at the very least had advisers with a better feel for media management, Prescott's revelations could have proved a veritable arsenal of matériel for the final destruction of the political memory of Tony Blair.

Then there's Cherie. She bitches a little about Gordon Brown, of course she does. No-one would have expected any less. The world knows that they did not always see eye to eye, and indeed sometimes couldn't bear to maintain eye contact of any sort. (I particularly relished a little tidbit about why Cherie was so taken with Gielgud's Buckinghamshire mansion: she wanted somewhere "fairly near Chequers", presumably so she could glare at Gordon over the South-East countryside.) But what are we to make of her revelations about her own husband?

We learn today that when Cherie suffered a miscarriage Tony's first thought was about how it might impact on his Iraq strategy. According to The Times, she "was astonished by the ruthless manner in which her husband made public within hours the fact that she had lost the baby she was carrying." This is what she says,

Twenty minutes later he called back. The kids were OK, and he hoped I understood, but he had to tell Alastair. Ah, yes. Alastair. I lay there just waiting. Then the phone again: this time the two of them on the line. There were implications in not going on holiday, they said. It was known that we were going to France. It was all to do with Iraq. There had been talk that we might be sending troops in. If we didn't go on holiday, the concern was that it would send out the wrong messages. They had decided that the best thing was to tell the press that I'd had a miscarriage.

I couldn't believe it. There I was, bleeding, and they were talking about what was going to be the line to the press. I put down the receiver and lay there staring at the ceiling, as pain began to grip.

When I began to come round from the anaesthetic and was being wheeled out of the operating theatre, who should I see but Gary, one of the detectives. He was looking so distressed that I burst into tears, sobbing and saying, “But I really want my husband”. In fact Tony was there, but because of the security issues it was Gary whom I saw first.

As for Tony, his main emotion appeared to be relief. “You know you felt there was something not quite right, Cherie,” he said. “So it's probably all for the best.” I realise now that he was simply trying to make me feel better; it just came out a bit oddly. Of course, he was right, but I was surprised at just how badly it hit me.

What a bastard. But then we remember how Blair and Campbell dumped her in it over the Bristol flats affair and it all falls into place. The man has a splinter of ice in his heart the size of a small arctic glacier.

After all, his reaction to the birth of Euan in 1984 wasn't that dissimilar:

The practicalities of the physical ordeal I had just endured took time to percolate through, however, as in the afternoon he told me that I had a visitor. I was about to have my photograph taken, he informed me: The Northern Echo - Sedgefield MP, wife and newborn son being the theme. I was given a rubber ring to sit on so that at least I could force a smile. As the guy went about his business, focusing and clicking, all I could think was, an appearance before the House of Lords is a doddle compared with this. I am never going to do it again. My last thoughts as I went to sleep that night were of my husband: I hate this man.

That Gordon Brown has made serious errors of judgement in his economic policy is not in doubt. That he has systematically overspent, has squandered the years of plenty in expensive and bureaucratic initiatives, that his desire to micro-manage has wreaked untold damage, all of this I would proclaim. But that doesn't explain why his authority has so suddenly collapsed. Nor do his character flaws, real and imagined. Partly, it's the natural decay of a government which has had its time. Partly, it is a deliberate campaign of character assassination. The media is bored with Labour. Brown himself has proved to be a less-than-inspiring leader. But that's no reason to pine for Tony Blair. As this weekend's revelations should leave no-one in any doubt, he was far, far worse. Read the rest of this article

Sunday, 11 May 2008

A Very Naughty Boy

I couldn't resist this story from Texas, which will probably be all over the place by tomorrow morning, or even later today. In terms of turpitude, it comes somewhere between Ferris Bueller's Day Off and Catch Me If You Can. Its protagonist, 13 year old Ralph Hardy (this is Texas: no nonsense about "cannot be named for legal reasons") could easily have been a Frank Abnagale in the making, but the authorities got to him early and he's now on probation.

By all accounts, young Frank was annoyed when his father - a lawyer - was too busy to buy him a birthday present. So he rang up his father's bank and ordered an additional credit card, just for him. The card arrived (the bank said that "all the security questions" had been answered) whereupon Frank proceeded to live out every 13 year old boy's fantasy. He took his mates on a $30,000 spending spree, using the cover story that he had just won an online games tournament. They bought a whole load of games equipment, booked a motel room, sent out for fast food - and then asked the delivery guy where they could "score some chicks". The man alerted the police, but not before putting the boys in touch with some $1000 an hour hookers. According to the report:

Asked why he ordered two escorts, Ralph said he thought it was the thing to do when you win a "World of Warcraft" tournament. They told the suspicious working girls they were people of restricted growth working with a travelling circus, and as State law does not allow those with disabilities to be discriminated against they had no right to refuse them.

He didn't try to have sex with the girls, but he did invite them to join in a few games of Halo on his brand-new Xbox. They "sensed something was up", or so they told the police who arrived not long afterwards.

Ralph's ambition, we are told, "is to one day become a politician". No doubt he'll be modelling himself on Eliot Spitzer.

UPDATE: Too Good to be True? Indeed. It turned out to be a hoax. I really should have spotted it. Mea Culpa. Read the rest of this article