Friday, 31 May 2013

Don't Kill Hitler

'Let's Kill Hitler' is the title of a Doctor Who episode. It's also a topic that keeps cropping up on the internet. The idea that, if one has a time machine, the first thing to do is to pop back and liquidate the Nazi dictator has become conventional wisdom (if any notion that depends on time travel can be deemed wise). But would killing Hitler make any difference to history? And if so, would that difference be great or comparatively trivial?

Well, let's give it a try. We active our time machine and pop back to a time when killing Hitler is comparatively straightforward. How about sneakily administering a drug to Hitler's pregnant mother, so that she miscarries? A tad unethical? And - given the primitive nature of 19th century medicine - we would certainly endanger the life of an innocent woman.

Okay then, let's kill young Adolf as a child. Well, no, not a child. As a teenager. Yeah, what 15-year-old isn't obnoxious enough to merit strangulation? No, but seriously, we can't kill a little boy because, looked at from any moral angle that makes sense, if we do that makes us no better than the Hitler we've set out to kill. It's all very well saying that 'we're saving millions of lives', but of course we're choosing to take one undeniably innocent life right now (or then, anyway).

Well, all right then, let's find a set of circumstances in which killing Hitler wouldn't count for much, morally speaking. Fortunately, history has provided us with the ideal scenario in the Great War. Hitler was a front line soldier, he rose to the rank of corporal, he was gassed in 1918, and must have come close to death many times. All we need to do is get ourselves a British (or French) rifle of the period, pick our time, find the right spot, and blow Adolf's brains out. Problem solved.

Except that you have not altered by one jot the chain of events that lead to Germany's defeat, the imposition of the Versailles Treaty with its reparations, and the desire among many Germans - especially the officer class - to re-fight the Great War and get a 'correct' result. You have not stopped the German army in the Twenties from rebuilding itself, albeit covertly. You have not stopped them from testing their new artillery etc in the Soviet Union, away from prying British and French eyes. All of this happened quite independently of any Nazi ideology.

You may believe if you kill Hitler in 1916 (say) you will prevent the Holocaust because his race theory was a peculiarly personal thing. But Hitler's race theories and obsession with Jewish conspiracies were commonplace stuff. Anti-semitism was the common currency of the European right-wing thought in the Twenties and Thirties. Eugenics, racial purity, the idea of the Germans as a 'master race' were not Hitler's ideas. Houston Chamberlain, a British political writer, was one of the many intellectual fathers of Nazism.

German militarism was on the rise again, long before Hitler came to power. The German military elite had never accepted the Treaty of Versailles. They subscribed to the 'stab in the back' theory, that leftists - many of them Jews - had brought down Germany from the inside in 1918 by fomenting mutiny among the troops and dissent among civilians. The use of right-wing mercenaries - The Frei Korps - to massacre communists in the aftermath of the Great War was practically a dress rehearsal for the Nazi era. The same can be said for the assassination of the left-liberal Jewish statesman Walther Rathenau in 1922.

As for mass extermination of civilians, the Nazis were not unique in this, though they were the most efficient. The Armenian massacres in Turkey, Stalin's purges and contrived famines, Mussolini's invasion of Abyssinia, Franco's slaughter of his opponents, and the Japanese atrocities in China all show that such crimes were part of 'the spirit of the age'. World War 2 provided all the anti-democratic powers with a golden opportunity to carry out mass murder on a huge scale, not least because only by fighting a total war could they have mobilised sufficient personnel to kill millions by any means. War also hardens the general outlook of a people, and of course makes it even less likely that accurate information will get out concerning atrocities or that any serious opposition to the regime will thrive.

The belief that killing Hitler would change anything much is a classic example of the 'great man' theory of history, one devised and promoted by another Briton, Thomas Carlyle, adopted to some extent by Nietzsche, and of course subscribed to by the Nazis themselves. If Hitler had been killed during the rise of Nazism he would, like Horst Wessel and others, have become a Nazi martyr. After a power struggle another leader, such as Goering, would have taken charge of the NSDAP and eventually of Germany. And events would have proceeded much as before.

Here Comes That Trusty Sword of Truth Again

Tory MP Patrick Mercer has just been caught (allegedly) with his (alleged) hand in the (it is claimed) honeypot of (some would say) dodgy lobbying. A few years ago Mercer defined his essential shittiness as a human being by saying this:
"I came across a lot of ethnic minority soldiers who were idle and useless, but who used racism as cover for their misdemeanours."
As a nation, we have come across a lot Tory MPs who are not only idle and useless, but intent on harming society to further their own ends, using right-wing ideology as a cover for their misdemeanours. One down.

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Personal and/or Australian Jesus

Feel free to call your band Australian Jesus, if there's isn't such a band already. The point of this post is that there's a Jesus in Australia. Well, there's a bloke called Alan John Miller, known to his friends as AJ, who claims to be Jesus. He has understandably harrowing memories of being crucified, but - in a typically Jesus-like show of kindness - thinks Mary Magdalene (aka Mary Luck, his girlfriend) suffered more than he did.

'Never mind, love, one day we'll be reunited in the land of the didgeridoo

He has of course offered plenty of evidence supporting his claim.
After his crucifixion the Australian claims he entered the spirit world where he met Plato, Socrates, popes and presidents. 
He also says he remembers performing miracles.
He said: "I did resurrect quite a number of people ... including a friend of mine Lazarus, who most people know is mentioned in the Bible." 
Fair enough. He's got his story straight. No wonder some people have sold their homes and left their jobs to be near AJ and the lovely Mary.

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Mr Cushing and the Daleks

Peter Cushing was born 100 years ago last Sunday. To celebrate, I watched two of his lesser-known but still rather good films - the ones in which he played a (very human) Doctor Who. And yes, he is called Doctor Who in the films, as in surname Who. You just have to roll with it.

Anyway, these two movies were made on low budgets in the mid-Sixties as an attempt by Terry Nation and producer Milton Subotsky to cash in on the Daleks as a toy franchise. The idea was not merely to boost sales of plastic Daleks in the UK, but to launch the genocidal mutants from Skaro on the unsuspecting American consumer. The latter part of the plan didn't really work, but the first film - cunning entitled Doctor Who and the Daleks - was so successful that a second was made, rather plonkingly entitled Daleks: Invasion Earth, 2150 AD.

The films are great fun. In fact, I should watch them both at least once a year, simply for the pleasure of seeing an iconic Sixties image - Ray Cusick's Dalek design  - on the same screen as the great Peter Cushing. But it's only fair to point out that Terry Nation's scripts, while a bit padded and a little naff in places, are decently entertaining, and have more to offer than the usual B-movie thrills and spills.

The first film is a not-too-subtly disguised commentary on contemporary affairs. Bearing in mind the original story was penned by Nation for the first series of DW in autumn 1963, it clearly reflected contemporary concerns about the Bomb and CND. The difference - and, to me, quite a clever one - is that in this story the pacifists, a tribe called the Thals, have every reason to eschew violence, because their planet was devastated by a nuclear war in the remote past. Violence only begets annihilation was the message of the Aldermaston marchers, of Lord Russell and the young Michael Foot. They anticipated a final war, but thanks to the freedom offered by sci-fi, Nation situates his anti-war movement in the long, glow-in-the-dark aftermath.

A rather different lesson was learned by the Daleks, whose ancestors suffered such drastic mutation from the fallout that they ended up as monstrous mutants trundling around in armoured battle machines, confined to a high-tech city that seems to consist partly of shower curtains, and hosts a permanent exhibition of lava lamps and modernist sculpture. Paranoid and treacherous, the Daleks view the peaceful Thals as the enemy simply because they are different. The other must be destroyed. To this end - having established that they can't use the Thals' anti-radiation drug - the Daleks decide to increase the already horrific levels of background radiation by exploding a neutron bomb. Problem solved.

Into this mix come the Doctor and his companions, getting into scrapes and along the way uncovering the grim history of Skaro. For a studio-bound British family film on a low budget, Doctor Who and the Daleks manages to pile on some serious debate, not least on the issue of when it is right to fight, and what people should be prepared to fight for? The film's few weaknesses - the Thals seem to have extensive supplies of eyeshadow for a simple agrarian people, never mind their advanced pharmaceutical knowhow - are more than outweighed by Cushing's performance. And the central message? I suppose it's that we should live in peace if we possibly can, but sometimes you must fight simply to survive.

Given the Daleks' rampant militarism and general tendency to shout at everyone, it's not hard to see Nation's creations as pseudo-Nazis. The pacifism of the Thals might well be intended to convey the appeasement of Britain's pre-war Establishment as well as the more idealistic opposition to nuclear arms that emerged in the Fifties. If the Nazi parallel is hinted at in the first film, it's right in your face in the second.

While the Dalek invasion of Earth may be dated at 2150 AD, the feel of the film is very much Britain in the Forties. When the TARDIS gang disembark by the Thames to find an eerily silent London, the skyline looks very much as if the Luftwaffe had had a few more years to flatten it. As the background to the Dalek occupation is mapped out we see more WW2 imagery - shelters in the Tube, people in threadbare cardigans, old valve radios. There's even an advert for Sugar Puffs, apparently thanks to a sponsorship deal.

The only futuristic paraphernalia in this supposed far future Britain is the retro-Space Age gear the Daleks brought with in their classy flying saucer. The humans are essentially the folk of Europe under the jackboot, complete with collaborators, black marketeers, resistance fighters and - most telling of all - slave workers. The Daleks' master plan (ahem) to mine the metallic core of the Earth may make no real sense, but it has a Wagnerian lunacy about it, recalling the Nazis' strategic blunders that were based, at least in part, on Hitler's crackpot theorising. (It's arguable that the Dalek fixation on the Earth's core might even echo a widely-touted Nazi 'theory' that an Aryan super-civilization could be found in vast caverns, somewhere or other.)

It's an enjoyable film that moves along nicely, thanks in part to Terry Nation's standard DW trick of splitting up his central characters so they can go off and have two or three parallel, plot-developing adventures. A big supporting cast makes up for the obvious lack of a significant effects budget, with Andrew Keir (gruff old campaigner hiding a heart of gold) and Philip Madoc (cunning opportunist of the lowest sort) turning in especially good performances. Both would have made rather good Doctors on the telly, come to think of it; though perhaps Philip Madoc would have been a bit much for the kiddies, as he was the sort of actor who could make dunking a Ginger nut seem infinitely menacing.

Anyway, the Daleks get their comeuppance thanks to Cushing's cleverness and Bernard Cribbins' ability to hastily block a large hole with some bits of wood - a very British response to a crisis, when you think about. Between arrival and denouement we are treated to a lot of authentic wartime action, not least the heroic but disastrous resistance attack on the Daleks and their conditioned Quislings, the Robomen. But to get the genuine wartime feel you have to hear it, too - the Dalek broadcasts are the genuine article:

'Rebels of London. This is our final warning. Leave your hiding places. Show yourselves, in the streets. Work is needed from you, but the Daleks offer you life. Soon we will destroy London completely and you will all die. This is your last chance to come out of your hiding places.'

Scripts can be found here. A Blu-Ray release of the two films is, apparently, on the cards...

Monday, 27 May 2013


If you read nothing else about reactions to the Woolwich murder of a soldier by two British thugs, read this piece by Glenn Greenwald. For me, he nails the essential hypocrisy of blasting the shit of out of Muslim countries and slaughtering a lot of innocent civilians (having filled out all the correct forms, of course) and then being surprised to find that fanatics want to kill British soldiers. It would be surprising if they didn't.

You don't put out a fire with gasoline, and the way to defeat Islamic radicalism is to strengthen the Western, liberal values we supposedly hold dear. Censorship, state spying, repressing laws, and a general feel that we are in a permanent state of national emergency - not unlike some Middle Eastern states - will not do the job. They've failed in Russia, for instance. But, more importantly, repressive, un-democratic measures are wrong in principle.

If Islamist ideology is an infection, the way to fight it is to strengthen the immune system of our culture. That immune system is freedom of thought, freedom of expression, open debate, and above all a refusal to play the game of religious fanaticism, whatever brand of religion is concerned. The vote for marriage equality early last week was one example of a modest measure that boosts the defences of a free, secular society founded on human rights, moving us a small step further away from a state founded on 'God's law' or similar nonsense.

Saturday, 25 May 2013

If you don't know Scarfolk...

... but grew up in provincial England in the Seventies, you should mosey on over. It's grimly amusing, to say the least.

Scarfolk is a town in North West England that did not progress beyond 1979. Instead, the entire decade of the 1970s loops ad infinitum. Here in Scarfolk, pagan rituals blend seamlessly with science; hauntology is a compulsory subject at school, and everyone must be in bed by 8pm because they are perpetually running a slight fever. "Visit Scarfolk today. Our number one priority is keeping rabies at bay." For more information please reread.

Thursday, 23 May 2013

The Truth They Don't Want You To See


'It must be exhausting, having to constantly reinterpret the world through the blinkers of your own idiocy.' 

No, I haven't been to see an internet therapist. I merely quote a friend's comment on friends-of-friends Facebook comments. That's what we've come to, I suppose. The idiocy in question is the 'false flag' claim - that the very brutal killing of a soldier near Woolwich barracks was somehow faked, or staged, or otherwise is not what it seems to be i.e. a murder by two stupid young fanatics. 

There's a paradox for you. While we've never had so much information before, our ability to interpret the data we are bombarded with remains rather primitive. Couple that with a desperate desire to be a sophisticated, cynical commenter on life's passing show and you get fuckwittage on a grand scale. Show some people film of a crime taken while it's still actually occurring and they will decide that the 'blood is a funny colour' or 'he's talking like an actor', or ask the profound question (and this was on Twitter, I swear), 'since when do Muslims wear stone island' (sic). 

The false flag drivel can be applied to anything. Holocaust deniers, possibly the scummiest conspiracy merchants of all, have applied it to World War 2 - they claim the Nazis were more-or-less innocent victims of a Zionist conspiracy. That's at the extreme end of the scale, but lesser examples are everywhere. And of course there's the usual dead weight of those geniuses who think it 'doesn't really hurt anyone' if people claim the Moon landings were faked. Because  promoting untruth cannot, in and of itself, do any harm to society. 

How could creating a climate of ignorance, confusion, and credulity harm anyone? And for a bonus question, how would you pronounce 'Weimar'?

The torrent of electronic stupidity generated by any major news item is the modern equivalent of a problem encapsulated, albeit in slightly snobbish terms, by A.A. Milne:
“The third-rate mind is only happy when it is thinking with the majority. The second-rate mind is only happy when it is thinking with the minority. The first-rate mind is only happy when it is thinking.”
No, I don't think Winnie the Pooh actually says that to Eeyore at any point. Milne did write other stuff. But if old A.A. could have had five minutes' access to Twitter he might have taken some satisfaction in seeing how right he was. The most credulous idiots always produce the most illiterate, raggedy-arsed comments.

Out of what may be masochism, yesterday I watched a BBC documentary about how some Christian leaders whip up fear of child-witches in Africa. The result is 'deliverance' rituals that can seriously injure a child, and are bound to leave it severely traumatised. Some parents dispense with the ritual aspect and simply set their offspring on fire. 

And this is all relatively new - it's only in recent decades that children have been targeted by witch-finders and exorcists. It is (presumably) down to the inroads made by US-style, money-driven fundamentalist Protestantism. It's the nearest thing the modern West has produced to radical Islam, I suppose. 

The programme is all the more harrowing because it's presented by a young Londoner who returns to DR Congo to find her family in the grip of this witch mania. Her despair at this happening 'in the 21st century' sums up what many people instinctively feel - that we should have discarded the cultural baggage of ignorance and superstition, along with the fear and cruelty they cause. Similar views were expressed in the 20th century, and the 19th. 

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Things I have learned from the debate on marriage equality

1. Much of the Tory party is not so much conservative as deeply reactionary. In other news: bears, woods, excrement.

2. Norman Tebbit is quite genuinely barmy,  but because he's a right-wing 'elder statesman' touched with the mystic raiment of St Margaret none of the mainstream hacks will simply call him a swivloon.

3. Many rightists consider the two purposes of marriage to be a. regular supplies of hot sex action, and b. tax breaks. Love means nothing to these people, which is ironic given that so many of them are Christians and must have come across the word at some point.

4. Those who think that marriage is for 'natural procreation' would probably not be delighted if the state took this seriously, tested everyone in childhood, and banned millions of young people who are unable to naturally procreate from ever getting hitched.

5. Those who think homosexuals can't make good parents ignore the fact that many supposedly straight men - including Tory backbenchers and Anglican clergyman - are now, and have in the past been, exemplary gay dads.

6. The extreme right-wing Tories are out of step with most ordinary people, but don't realise this because they are in the habit of only listening to people who share their prejudices. We're back to the woods and those bears.

7. I sympathise with  the openly gay Tory MPs who supported equal rights, of course. But I remain baffled as to why anyone who has been a victim of bigotry would join a party that has, at its ideological heart, the lowest instincts of the Victorian public school bully.

8. Anyone who thinks same sex marriage a problematic thing to explain to their children (i.e. 'two grown-ups who love each other very much decide to live together, and when they decide this they have a party for all their friends') should find a less demanding job than politics. Such as delivering papers in a very small village.

And finally - I predict that at least one Tory MP who voted against marriage equality will be outed as gay/bisexual within 6 months. He will be a churchgoing Christian and will have all sorts of fine things to say about suffering (his own), the nastiness of the press (which he has always been happy to spread vicious rumours to in the past), and the harm the row is doing to his long-suffering wife and innocent children (as a direct consequence of his hypocrisy). There may well be a by-election.

This revelation will be leaked to the press as part of some boringly complex (i.e. typical) spat between cabinet factions. Or Boris will blab it out on the telly when asked about a third runway at Heathrow, possibly inventing some new and exciting definition of Wiff-Waff in the process.

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Meanwhile, in Gotham City...

What if superheroes acted like the God of the Bible? Clue: it would not make for a feel-good movie.

So Macho

Paul Krugman nails the reason why it's seen as manly and brave to support ruthless cuts in public spending, though economically these are proving disastrous across the board. He links it to the macho impulse to war that led to costly and bloody failures in Iraq and Afghanistan.
It was obvious during the runup to the Iraq war that what was going on in the minds of many hawks — and not just the neocons — was not so much a deep desire to drop lots of bombs and kill lots of people (although they were OK with that) as a deep desire to be seen as people who were willing to Do What Has to be Done. Men who have never risked, well, anything relished the chance to look in the mirror and see Winston Churchill looking back.
This bit, for me, sums up why Labour is so consistently disappointing to traditional Labour voters. To be afraid of being called weak is the mark of a weak man, and that - I'm afraid - sums up Ed Miliband.
Much of the problem in trying to stop the march to war was precisely the fear of many pundits that they would be seen as weak and, above all, not Serious if they objected. Austerity has been very much the same thing — and again, it’s not just the right-wingers who are afflicted.

Monday, 20 May 2013


For many years, amateur astronomers reported seeing Transient Lunar Phenomena, TLP (or LTP) for short. The term was coined by Patrick Moore. These were sudden flashes or bright patches on the generally dull, grey, and apparently changeless lunar surface. These flashes or clouds were difficult to photograph, as they were not long lasting, and in the absence of hard evidence many professional astronomers were sceptical about such claims. But it now seems that the amateurs were right - the Moon is constantly being bombarded by meteoroids, and sometimes the impact makes quite a flash.

Sunday, 12 May 2013

The consumer-driven future of the NHS...

Coalition Implosion?

Well, there's a lot of strange malarkey about the Queen's Speech and votes and so forth. All absolutely fascinating to about 0.1 per cent of the electorate, but it might just start a process that could wreck the government. With a bit of luck the lying bastards will self-destruct over Europe and there'll be a general election this year. I don't have high hopes of a Miliband premiership, of course. But choosing between Labour and the Con-Dems is like choosing between being kicked in the shin and having your lower leg removed by a drunk with a rusty machete.

It would apt if the Con-Dem coalition collapsed because the Tories can't get their act together on Europe. Cynical, conceited old Ken Clarke wants to stay in because it's good for business, sort of. Cynical, conceited old Nigel Lawson wants to leave because it's bad for business. Neither has a clue what would really happen if we left, but both are too pompous and self-indulgent to give serious thought to real world issues. The important thing is that their flabby old egos get stroked by the press.

So, best case scenario: Tories disintegrate into spiteful, bickering mess over EU referendum. Coalition collapses and Cameron hands in his P45 to Liz, all probably due to Nick Clegg being a tosser and mistiming his move. Lib-Dem vote collapses, leaving them with about thirty MPs. UKIP scuppers the Tories in a good few seats but wins no MPs. Labour wins a majority of about 20 because it's vote, while not impressive, hasn't actually collapsed. Worst case scenario - another hung parliament with Labour and Tories on roughly equal numbers of seats, despite Labour getting more votes. Not a wonderful range of options.

Apart from anything else, though, it would be wonderful just to see the back of Iain Duncan Smith, forever. Well, he'd be translated to the Lords, as our biggest political failures and liars usually are. What better reward for failing to serve the people as an elected MP than making someone an unelected MP? That's British democracy, dude! But at least we wouldn't see IDS's ignorant, smug, parasitic face so often. Oh, and with a bit of luck Michael Gove would run for the Tory leadership, lose, and flounce off in a huff like Portillo. Or he'd be eaten by a velociraptor. Either one is fine.

Friday, 10 May 2013

Well, I didn't know that

Fun Guy

The Chucklesome World of Local Government

'If we're going to beat all the other departments, we have to choose something that will stand the test of time. Like the Mona Lisa, or the music of Squeeze.'

Sometimes there are unhappy coincidences in life. Like, for instance, this one: the BBC is currently running two TV shows about local government. One is American, award-winning, and quite wonderfully good. The other was written by Ben Elton's agent's accountant, on a bad day.

Parks and Recreation is a brilliant series, chock full of the ingredients that make a comedy show work. You've got a straightforward premise, excellent scripts, superb characterisation, great performances by a top-notch cast, unobtrusive but clever direction... Look, it's not always easy to praise things, because our whole pop media culture is based on decrying What's Gone Wrong. Nothing is wrong with Parks and Recreation, except that there's not enough of it. I've watched every episode at last twice. If anything can be life-affirming, this is it. Point me to the box sets, Mistress Amazon.

Then there's Ben Elton's series The Wright Way. Unlike P&R, this one is a one-man job by Mr Elton, who is listed not only as the sole scriptwriter in the opening credits, but has also likes to be known as its creator. And it's truly terrible. Here is a quick roundup of the reviews.

Gandahar, aka Light Years (1988)

This is very odd. Originally a French sf movie, an American version was directed by Harvey Weinstein with a script by Isaac Asimov. Voice artists include Glenn Close, Bridget Fonda, Christopher Plummer, Penn & Teller...

The basic plot is straight out of the old pulps, with an apparently Utopian pastoral society based on biological technology under attack by an army of metal men - from the future! There's also a really huge artificial brain, a tribe of cave-dwelling mutants, weird animals and plants of all sorts, and a city with breasts. In fact, there are quite a lot of breasts, because it's French.

The overall mood is oddly upbeat, given that the plot is about botched and thoroughly unethical experiments undermining a splendid but flawed culture. The animation was handled in South North Korea, which gives the thing an even more surreal feel than was perhaps intended. But watching it I found myself intrigued and forgot my everyday concerns, which is the mark of a good fantasy.

Indeed, such an ambitious and - broadly speaking - successful feature film deserves to be considered neglected classic. Loopy? Well, yes, but most sci-fi and fantasy classics are. Explain how Metropolis makes any kind of sense in plot terms, and then we can talk about whether millions of small cyborg birds really could lift a city.

Thursday, 9 May 2013

Unworthy of a decent human being

I've had it with John Humphreys. This morning on the Today programme he interviewed a man who's dying from mesothelioma, the lung disease caused by asbestos. The poor man has failed to win compensation and is of course upset about this.

So, what did Humphreys do? He proceeded to browbeat his interviewee as if he were tackling a media-trained professional, like a politician. His whole approach was not to get some perspective on the man's legal, financial, and medical situations - there was little, if any, attempt at fact-finding. Instead all Humphreys wanted to do was get a dying man to admit, in so many words, that is dying and hasn't got much time left.

Some people are not happy talking about dying, especially when it's close. They would rather speak in euphemisms. You would think a BBC interviewer - especially a very experienced journalist of pensionable age - would grasp that obvious point. But no. At one point what I assume was a mobile started ringing in the background, whereupon - in a moment that would have been funny in an Alan Partridge show - Humphreys told a dying old man to 'kill that phone'.

The sad truth about the BBC is that it has always had a high percentage of insensitive jerks in its news teams. Far from being touchy-feely, like most news organisation it often forgets that the raw stuff of news is not (supposedly) interesting events, but the human lives caught up in events. The best interviewers, such as Eddie Mair and John Waite, are always genuinely interested in ordinary people, showing them the degree of respect they are due. When dealing with such 'civilians' they never try to bludgeon their way to an unpleasant truth, and are content to leave some of the work to the intelligent listener.

It's just a pity that the full spectrum of modern British journalistic practice should be so well represented at the BBC. Anyway, here's Eddie Mair showing how it's done when you're dealing with the powerful and slippery.

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Ireland's Heroes, Ireland's Shame

It's taken a long time for the Irish government to forgive its war veterans.
THEY were labelled traitors and barred from state employment, but yesterday the Irish government formally apologised for its treatment of thousands of men who deserted the Irish army to fight in the Second World War.

An estimated 60,000 men from Ireland served in the British Army, Royal Navy or RAF between 1939 and 1945. Of those, nearly 5,000 deserted the Irish armed forces to join the fight against Nazi Germany.
Only about 100 of those subject to so-called 'starvation orders' are still alive. When these men returned home, having risked their lives in the defence of freedom, they were denied all government employment and put on blacklists that made any jobs hard to come by. Find out more here. There's a link to a BBC radio documentary on the subject in the series Face the Facts. There is an extant Nazi plan to invade Ireland, which was drawn up in 1940 but rendered abandoned after Germany lost the Battle of Britain. More irony.

Sheer spite seems to have been main motivating factor in Irish policy towards the UK after the Free State was established. It's ironic, to say the least, that a nation that had fought long and hard for its freedom should have stood by while Nazi Germany snuffed out independent states across Europe. As the Scotsman item cited above notes: 'The Republic barred the allies’ Atlantic convoys from sheltering in Irish ports, refused to accept Jewish refugees from continental Europe and maintained cordial diplomatic relations with both Germany and Japan.'

The story doesn't mention that the president of the Free State, the American-born Eamon de Valera, also signed a book of condolence at the German embassy in Dublin when news of Hitler's death emerged. He was a rather despicable man, then, but a man of his time and his environment. Hatred of the British trumped all other concerns, even the obvious ones that, if Britain had fallen to Hitler, Ireland's precious independence wouldn't have been worth a bucket of warm snot. Such is the effect of unreasoning hatred when it is transformed into (im)practical politics.

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

You Can't Handle the Truth!

Editors' style notes (Tory press edition):

"The BBC's Stuart Hall..."
"The BBC's Jimmy Savile..."
"The BBC's Dave Lee Travis..."
"The BBC's Rolf Harris..."
"Jimmy Tarbuck..."

HT author Steve Duffy. He's also here.

Monday, 6 May 2013

Army Dreamers

It now seems possible that Sarin (or something) has been used by the rebels. So both sides have arguably crossed the 'red line' and we should bomb the lot. Or we could learn the costly lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan, and not assume that military intervention makes everything fine and dandy. Iran backs Assad, the Saudis back the rebels, Israel bombed Assad's weapons research facility, the Turkish army manoeuvres near the border, and Russia makes threatening noises. It's a right bloody mess, by and large, and keeping clear of it is only sensible.

Two Systems for Two Nations

Forever Smithland

Smith in England and Jones in Wales, with a dash of Brown and the odd patch of Thompson. That's the impression of this map of Britain's most common surnames.

The map was created by combining data from electoral rolls with Twitter surnames. Predictably, you get English, Scots, Welsh and Irish names first, and have to dig down a bit to find the first Patels, Kaurs, and Mistrys.

I'll bet if the Daily Mail discovers this map the headline will be along the lines of: 'The parts of Britain where Smith, Jones, and Brown are rare names.'

Still room in the Klown Kar, apparently

Neil Hamilton is planning to stand for UKIP. And it gets better.
Party members hope his wife can be convinced to run alongside him.
Showing that the debacle of Robert Kilroy-Silk’s nine-month membership has not put Nigel Farage’s party off celebrity candidates, the pair could be joined on the list by DJs Jon Gaunt and Mike Read. But The Independent has seen internal emails from grassroots members complaining about being “totally ignored” over selection choices.
Mike Read? The author of the legendary Oscar Wilde musical? Jiggery me sideways, this is getting better by the day. In Mike's own words: "Your barbaric ways/ Leave me quite amazed."

But let's focus on the one with a real political pedigree. Neil Hamilton is a controversial figure, not so much because of his wacky personality but because he is obviously dodgy. He can be guaranteed to screw up, big time, if he gets back into the political limelight.

He sued the BBC for libel back in the Eighties in part because Panorama reported, correctly, that Hamilton had given a Sieg Heil salute on a parliamentary strip to Berlin. In his defence, Hamilton noted that he often did impressions, and had once blacked up to portray Idi Amin.  

That was comparatively trivial, however, compared to 'cash for questions'. Hamilton escaped any actual criminal conviction, but he was ousted from his seat by Martin Bell, who stood as an independent anti-corruption candidate. Hamilton then sued Harrod's owner Mohammed Al Fayed - who had paid several MPs to advance his interests - and lost, becoming bankrupt as a result. Al Fayed famously compared Hamilton to a rent boy, adding that if you pay a rentboy to do something, he does it, whereas Hamilton just took the money and did nothing.

Overall, UKIP's latest recruit comes across as shifty, greedy, and very accident-prone. An ideal candidate, really. He and Nigel Farage can get together and discuss the best ways to make hefty personal profits from a political career.

And I'll bet they can come up with some hilarious jokes, too. One recalls the sparkling Commons debate when Greville Janner, a Jewish MP, noted that half his family had been killed by the Nazis. Quick as a flash, the witty Hamilton replied: 'Unfortunately, the wrong half.' What a guy. If people really do become more right wing with age, I shudder to think what Hamilton will come out with if he does stand for parliament again.

Saturday, 4 May 2013

Take it away, Timothy

Still the best system

Winston Churchill was a bit of a tinker, in so many ways. But he did point out one obvious truth - that democracy is obviously a terrible system for choosing leaders, until you take more than a cursory glance at all the other systems.

Which is something to keep in mind when you reflect on the good folk of Wadebridge in Cornwall, who've just elected someone who expressed view - as you do, in a joking aside - that disabled children should be 'put down' because they cost the council too much.

The man in question, Colin Brewer, made the remark at an event at Truro Town Hall, addressing it to a member of Disability Cornwall. The incident took place in 2011 but only came to light in a report by Cornwall unitary council's standards committee. Can you believe it? The charity actually complained!

It took Colin Brewer over a year to apologise. His apology took the form of a letter folded into eighths, with a second-class stamp. "I have no intention of resigning," he said, before he was forced to resign. "I don't think I have done anything wrong."And he won in Wadebridge by four votes, standing as an independent and beating the Lib Dem.

Just a rogue result in the back of beyond - Wadebridge, a place I'd never heard of, but which is now winner of my newly-invented award for 'Moronic Boghole of the West Country'? I hope so. But, when seen in the light of the demonisation of the disabled as scroungers by the government and its press pals, maybe it isn't.

Friday, 3 May 2013

They all count

So, a by-election was held next door to my patch, in South Shields. Two facts struck me.

1. The BNP candidate, Lady Dorothy MacBeth Brookes (I kid you not - check it yourself), is pictured below. I think she has a problem in addition to being a racist and so forth.

She still got 711 votes. Of those, 703 were from avid fans of the American stage musical who thought they were reserving tickets for a amateur production of 'Showboat'.

2. The Labour candidate got far fewer votes than the 'gone off to America to be rich' David Miliband. This is because a. the turnout was far lower than at a general election, b. protest votes always prosper at by-elections, and c. even loyal Labour voters don't like sitting MPs flouncing off to America to be rich in what amounts to a fit of pique.

No doubt UKIP's second place will be mentioned again and again. But since it was less than half the Labour vote on a turnout of less than 40 per cent, it's not that significant. Low turnouts - like those in council elections - favour fringe parties. General elections don't, and if Nigel Farage seriously thinks he'll get to Westminster in a by-election he's sadly deluded. He can either drive the Tories into third place in a Labour seat (given that the Lib Dem vote has collapsed almost everywhere), or he can undermine the Tories and let Labour in.

Thursday, 2 May 2013

How the Press Betrayed Britain's (and America's) Children

Is the press 100 per cent responsible for the measles outbreaks, or is it just around 50 per cent? Sure, greedy fraudster Andrew Wakefield was entirely responsible for the original MMR hoax, which he perpetrated by producing dodgy 'research' and conning a respected medical journal into publishing it. But what of the newspapers? Did they just calmly sit back and report a controversy between experts?

No. As this excellent piece by Curtis Brainard explains, the press caused the measles problem. Yes, Wakefield cynically played on the fears of some parents concerning vaccines. He wouldn't have been much of a con-artist if he hadn't. But, as Ben Goldacre pointed out, the original press reports were handled by science or medicine correspondents and they adopted a sensible position - that Wakefield was a fringe figure and there was no real scientific concern about MMR.

What happened next, though, is that regular news editors got hold of the story and blew it up into a major crisis. Tony Blair refused to say whether his son Leo had been vaccinated (though he had). The story spread to the US, with Wakefield given massive publicity by not only the press but also by politicians. Journalists, purporting to report a controversy, fanned the flames of public confusion and panic over MMR because - long after Wakefield was wholly discredited - they deliberately kept the story alive. Or, to cite Dr Goldacre again:
“[Y]ou will see news reporters, including the BBC, saying stupid things like ‘The research has since been debunked.’ Wrong. The research never justified the media’s ludicrous over-interpretation. If they had paid attention, the scare would never have even started.”
Simply referring to something as a possibility influences some sections public opinion, as anyone who's ever come within sniffing distance of the Mail's more toxic content knows.
The two scholars assigned 320 undergrads to read either a “balanced” article or one that was one-sided for or against a link between vaccines and autism. Those students who read the “balanced” articles were far more likely to believe that a link existed than those who read articles that said no link exits.
There's a timeline for the Wakefield hoax here. It's notable that, when Wakefield was discredited, it was thanks to the work of an investigative reporter, Brian Deer, who simply went to work on the story, old style. The time-honoured maxim 'follow the money' worked. Deer found that Wakefield's patients were all litigants seeking damages from the NHS and that hundreds of thousands of pounds were riding on the bogus MMR 'research'. He discovered that Wakefield had performed unethical procedures on children. He produced a detailed profile of a shameless, greedy fraudster who now lives, very comfortably, in America.

Deer's work - exhaustive, detailed, joining the dots, making sense of it all - represents what the press should have aspired to from the start, but didn't. Now we're experiencing a measles epidemic and that same press is, predictably, harrumphing at the NHS for not doing more to get kids - and young adults - vaccinated.

And then there's this:
In a series of articles for Reuters in January and February, reporter Kate Kelland described how a Finnish researcher endured months of ridicule and accusations from colleagues while trying to establish a link between a flu vaccine called Pandemrix and an outbreak of narcolepsy among children in Europe. Eventually, other studies confirmed the link, Kelland reported, but she added a cautionary note: “After the false alarm sounded by British doctor Andrew Wakefield, some scientists say they are more hesitant to credit reports of potential side effects from vaccines.” That chilling effect might extend to journalists as well; Kelland was one of only a few reporters in the US or the UK to cover the Pandemrix story.
Objective reporting of a real scientific controversy concerning vaccines? No thanks. We'd rather not remind our loyal readers how brilliantly we handled the last one.

I'm not into this particular bag

I've heard of having layers, but WTF.

Haruhiko-Kawaguchi photography

Free speech and all that

You may recall that just after the Boston bombers hit the headlines, a fertiliser plant exploded in rural Texas. The second incident killed more people than the first. It emerged that the last safety inspection at the plant had taken place in 2006. Now some Texans are getting their knickers in a serious twist over a cartoon in a California paper, the wonderfully-named Sacramento Bee. Here is the cartoon:

Background: Texas governor Rick Perry is trying to lure firms to Texas from California by claiming that low taxes and weak health and safety regulation makes for a more competitive business environment. The cartoonist is making the valid point that lack of plant inspections makes them, on balance, more likely to blow up, and that is not good for jobs in the immediate vicinity. Needless to say, this is unacceptable to right wing advocates of free speech for themselves.

The Republican governor of Texas, Rick Perry, has demanded an apology and some other pol has called for the cartoonist, Jack Ohman, to be fired. I daresay it's a convenient distraction from the fact that lax regulation has killed a bunch of voters. Perry must be rather relieved he can talk about hurt feelings instead of, y'know, the lack of safety inspections in a factory packed with tons of highly explosive chemicals.

Sure, it's in your face. But what is more tasteless - relaxing regulations so that people are more likely to be killed in their workplace, or pointing out that fact in a cartoon? Factories don't explode if proper precautions are taken. And the only way to ensure that is to have a proper safety regime. Rick Perry - who is a prize oaf, Google him to find out why - deliberately puts Texans in danger then complains when someone points it out. Well, boo friggin' hoo.

Methinks they do protest too much

UKIP's website states that: it's a "Libertarian, non-racist party seeking Britain's withdrawal from the European Union.".

I'm not aware of any other party describing itself as non-racist right there, up front. It is, as a Facebook friend remarked, rather like a motel advertising clean rooms as a selling point. Or, as another FB pal commented, using: '"No Confirmed Cases Of Botulism for (insert number) Days!!!" to promote a restaurant.

Sadly for Farage and the bar-room bores, the dirty rooms and the botulism are already public knowledge. To argue, as Farage does, that he 'can't keep out BNP or EDL activists' begs a rather obvious question - why would racists want to stand as UKIP candidates in the first place? After all, it's a self-defined non-racist party. Gosh, what a mystery.

Then there's our wonderful free press. The Greens might have more actual support and even an MP, and have obviously got staying power, organisation, grown-up policies etc. But who cares about that stuff? Because when you offer our right-wing hacks outright bigotry they act like a weak-willed fat bloke at a free cake buffet. They know they shouldn't, they feel guilt and more than a little self-loathing, they desperately try to summon the will-power to resist. But... Green salad? No thanks.

They know it's wrong, but it's all so deliciously tempting. And part of the pleasure is the thrill of transgression. They know that if they try to drag xenophobia and all the rest of that Tea Party shit into our political mainstream they'll regret it. But it is a defining characteristic of right-wing hacks to be instinctively sympathetic to simple-minded, brutal, ignorant solutions to complex problems. They can't help stuffing their faces with that sweet, yummy prejudice.

Wednesday, 1 May 2013


Political compass of the EU - original is here. A bunch of right-wing governments have been given power by voters (or other means) and have, by and large, cocked things up.

I am slightly surprised by the position of the Nordic countries - I'd have thought Sweden and Denmark might be a bit further to the left than France. Also surprised to see Italy scoring so highly in authoritarian tendencies. Has somebody promised to run the trains on time?

'Dear Sir Oswald'

From an earl to the mere baronet, but more importantly, from a great thinker to a mere fascist thug.