Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Why do the forecasters now say hot weather is bad?

When did it become the official truth that hot weather was bad for you? The question comes to mind when watching the weather forecast, which has now assumed a gloom and doom mode when it comes to predicting hot weather. It is so gloomy in fact that any sign of hot weather now carries an accompanying health warning to contact the NHS help line. When did the weather forecast switch over to become another part of the paraphernalia for scaring people to death, whether it be via pending warnings of terrorist actions or economic disaster?
It is also surprising that a population that spends so much of every year complaining about bad weather has so easily accepted these doomsday warnings. Bad weather in the traditional context means rain, snow, cold and wind. Or I guess any weather taken to extremes. What is the rationale for disliking a bit of hot weather?
Maybe now Wimbledon has a roof it is some sort of perverse reaction that desires wind and rain in order that the shutters can come down. It would not be that surprising given the propensity of weather forecasts to also resemble sportscasts - predicting the weather for various events. Why is this? Sport has nothing to do with the weather and millions of people – shock horror – have no interest whatsoever in sport. It is time that the boys and girls at the meteorological office got back to just telling us what the weather is going to be. We don’t want health warnings or sportscasts, just the weather please.

Friday, 26 June 2009

What is the need for armed forces day?

The celebration on Saturday (27/6) of Armed Forces Day has raised disquiet in a number of places. Why the need for another day to honour the armed forces, surely the remembrance weekend in November is sufficient?What armed forces day smacks of is a glorification of war and those who take part in it. Let’s remember whilst extolling all the virtues of the armed services that those employed in this field are taken on in the main to kill foreign people in the names of everyone in this country.
The justification for these actions vary widely. Most would accept that fighting the Second World War was just given the activities of Hitler and the Nazis. But what of wars like Iraq and Afghanistan which are basically over the need to secure raw materials like oil – they do not come into the same category. To go back to the remembrance ceremonies in November, it has been a most unwelcome development of recent years that has seen the event very much skewed toward conflicts like Afghanistan and Iraq and away from the sacrifice of so many in the Second World War.
What is needed now is not a glorification of war with a number of futile jingoistic days but an examination as to why this country has got into a number of the conflicts it has over recent years. What was the justification for going to war in Iraq? It must be hoped that the newly established inquiry into the war in Iraq will come up with some answers. It is the least that the families of the 136 servicemen and women killed in that conflict deserve. It is also something that the 100,000s of Iraqis who have died deserve.
Maybe there should be another inquiry set up into the conflict in Afghanistan. The futility of this adventure has never been addressed. History should tell any politician that getting bogged down in Afghanistan will lead to disaster in the end. Britain last pulled out of Afghanistan in 1880, having gone into stop the Russians getting a foothold there. A century later Russian went in and after nine damaging years pulled out. During that foray the US supported the build up of the Mujahadin who fought the Russians. Among these “freedom fighters” was one Osama Bin Laden. Since 2001 the US and Britain have been in Afghanistan fighting the Taleban and Al-Qaeda. Some 137 service personnel have now been killed in this conflict. The lack of any rationale being outlined for remaining in Afghanistan is only matched by the seemingly incomprehensible deployment of more and more troops. While there has been much publicity around the withdrawal of forces from Iraq, much less is said about the default position which is redeployment to Afghanistan. There are now over 10,000 British armed forces personnel in Afghanistan with pressure for a greater commitment. One recent amazing recruit to the ranks of the warmongers was the “liberal” Guardian newspaper, which in a piece on 12 new policy initiatives for the Government came up with sending more troops to Afghanistan as the way to improve foreign policy.
If armed forces day were to have any value beyond the glorification of war then there should be some reflection on the number of service personnel who have lost their lives in these conflicts. There is also the damage done to those returning. A Ministry of Defence report suggested that six out of every 10 soldiers returning could be an alcoholic. Then there are those with mental disorders such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Using US figures those effected in mental health terms are likely to top the 20 per cent mark. Britain disgracefully still fails to properly recognise the damage done to soldiers in war for fear that those who have served might just claim a little compensation somewhere along the way.
So while the advocates of armed services day are happy to clap returning regiments as they march through market town centres, less are willing to accept that many of those returning represent a time bomb set to go off at any time. The prisons are full of soldiers with undiagnosed PTSD, who have committed serious crimes due to this condition. Many ex-servicemen also end up in rehab centres for alcohol and drug abuse, or if they are unlucky on the streets homeless.It is this terrible waste of life that should be marked on any armed services day not the glorification of war and those who do the killing.

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Censorship or exposure - how should the media cover the BNP?

The election of two British National Party (BNP) candidates as Members of the European Parliament has thrown up a number of dilemmas for those working in the media.
The resounding question concerns reporting. Should it be treated as any other party, made subject to scrutiny and thereby exposed for the racist body it is? Or should it in the spirit of Margaret Thatcher’s broadcasting ban of the 1980s and 90s on Sinn Fein be totally censored out and denied the oxygen of publicity?
The coverage of the BNP in the run up to the European Elections gave the party plenty of opportunity to put its views over. It had a party political broadcast going out on prime time television. This broadcast was put together carefully, emphasising the BNP as standing for law and order in communities. There was no mention of the racist policies that demand the repatriation of ethnic minorities.
Many papers and broadcast outlets did exposes of the BNP and its leader Nick Griffin. There was also concern voiced that the party’s vote would increase due to the disgust among the public at the expenses scandal at Westminster.
There is though a very real danger of the BNP gaining more and more votes as a result of getting media coverage. The vote this time was up to 943,000.
The group Unite Against Fascism has stated that it will confront the BNP right across the country in order to expose its racist policies. The most reported of these efforts so far came at a BNP press conference at Westminster, following its victory, which had to be abandoned due to eggs being thrown at Griffin. How successful this approach is has to be open to question.
The concern is that the publicity allows the BNP to portray itself as the victim, the voice crying in the wilderness, the truth teller. This will invigorate those that voted for it and inspire others to follow suit.
The other approach would be to effectively censor out the BNP, denying them the oxygen of publicity in the way that Margaret Thatcher claimed she was doing with the broadcasting ban. So for the BNP, this would mean not covering their various activities. It could mean having the likes of Griffin dubbed. The problem is that this approach seems likely to again add to the allure of the organisation and possibly strengthen the resolve of those who support it.
The key really is to address the background factors that are feeding into support for the BNP. The constant anti-immigration coverage of many right wing newspapers and the BBC helps create a fertile ground for the BNP to exploit. These outlets give a disproportionate weight to the views of the wholly unrepresentative Migration Watch, often to the exclusion of any other view. Nor has the pandering to the BNP agenda by the Labour Party helped matters. Look at how the BNP have used Gordon Brown’s mantra of 'British jobs for British workers' to their own advantage. So it is addressing the factors that fuel the BNP’s growth that need to be targeted. The oxygen of publicity has no doubt helped the BNP grow but now to an extent the cat is out of the bag. There is a discontented electorate, many of whom believe - due to much of the warped coverage of papers like the Daily Express and Daily Mail - that their very ways of life are under threat due to immigration. This in turn provides the soil in which views sympathetic to the BNP continue to grow. The BNP needs to be exposed via robust reporting and interviewing but the background factors fuelling their growth like the unfavourable immigration coverage in the media also need to be addressed.

Friday, 19 June 2009

Is President Obama the Guardian’s new God?

The Guardian newspaper could at best be described as sceptical when it comes to religion and faith. It is not as vibrantly anti-faith as say the Independent because it no doubt sees a lot of sales value in a subject that more than 80 per cent of population profess to believe in.
There are though signs that the Guardian sceptics have created their own God in the shape of US President Barack Obama. There is never seemingly a critical word written of the new president. Whilst the Guardian is not unique in adopting this pose, most journalists seem to have suspended all critical faculties when it comes to the first black US president. However there is something very strange going on at the Guardian.
Take the recent fly incident with the President. A fly landed on the President, he swatted it and then pointed to where the dead corpse lay on the carpet for the camera. A little light story, maybe a paragraph on one of the foreign pages on a slow news day? Not for the Guardian, the whole of page three was given over to this momentous event. This followed the week before when in doing a two page spread of 12 points of new direction for the Labour Government the Guardian for some strange reason chose putting more troops into Afghanistan as the foreign policy option. Again supporting the new US president in his hour of need.
No need to get things out of proportion on the same day as the paper did page three on the fly story it ran an excellent piece on torture and UK complicity on its front page. But the question is has President Obama become the Guardian’s new God? Do all journalists have to salute the flag and sing hail to the chief every morning before starting work? These are vital questions that need answers – the very future of the liberal establishment could be at stake.

Monday, 15 June 2009

Why is the think tank Compass so white?

Compass has vision but it needs to develop community diversity if it is to achieve its broad church goals

The most striking visual impact of the left of centre think tank Compass’s No Turning Back conference last Saturday was the whiteness of the participants.
Hundreds of people crammed into the Institute of Education to hear a variety of speakers plotting out visions for a new politics.
Compass chair Neal Lawson hailed Communication Workers Union General Secretary Billy Hayes as a trade union leader who cares about his members and “gets it.”
Billy proved those credential by calling for accountability from the political elite who should have nationalised the banks rather that bail them out with tax payers money.
It has been a central plank of the Compass agenda that Royal Mail remain operating in the public sector. Compass together with the CWU have forged proposals suggesting a not for profit model not dissimilar to Network Rail could be developed for the mail service.
Emphasising the broad tent theme of the conference, Green Party leader Caroline Lucas outlined her proposals for “qualitative development rather than quantative growth.”
One of the most direct contributions came from War on Want director John Hilary who pointed out how most governments attending the G20 conference were seeking to put the wheels back on an already busted neo-liberal system rather than head off in a new direction.
Compass chair Neal Lawson was the man who kept this show on the road. He is clearly a man who sees things as they are and asks why, while dreaming of how things could be and says why not? Keeping the mail public, ending the Trident nuclear deterrent scheme, restoring civil liberties and regulating the markets for social good all form part of that dream agenda.
Neal though has a historical perspective, so did not trash new Labour completely, pointing out there had been achievements. But new Labour had reached the end of the road, he declared. “The problem is we stopped being a part of social democracy”…“We can only succeed in the rich soil of society, not being anti-business but pro-society.”
So how can an organisation that wants to be based in the rich soil of society appear at first sight at least to be so lacking in ethnic diversity?
A major mover in Compass is Labour MP Jon Cruddas who has outlined the need to recreate the broad church politics of the Labour Party, bringing together trade unions, environmentalists, non governmental organisations and faith groups . He is keen to see a broad coalition - of the type so successfully mustered by the Obama team in the US - created.
The breadth of the agenda up for discussion at Compass was in line with this agenda but the participants seemed to come from a very narrow homogenous group. One important part of that coalition, namely faith was clearly lacking.
Neal Lawson gave a nod in the direction of faith when he paid tribute to the success of the community based London Citizens in holding new Tory Mayor Boris Johnson to the concept of a living wage. The faith groupings though were clearly not represented at the Compass conference in the same way as they were at say the Strangers into Citizens rally on May Day calling for the regularisation of undocumented workers. It remains a big challenge for both forward thinking groups like Compass and the Labour Party as to how they are going to bring in a wide number of progressive ethnic groups to their work. Taking a lesson from London Citizens they might find that faith is the key to bringing a greater diversity to that new vision. Maybe, just as Tony Blair qualified the success of his project on the Labour Party coming to love Peter Mandelson, the success of the new vision for Labour will only be achieved when people of all races and faiths learn to love the Party once again.

Thursday, 11 June 2009

Guilty until proven innocent

The arrests of 12 Pakistani students in April on suspicion of terrorism hit the news headlines. Two weeks later there was less fanfare as all were released without charge.
The pattern of arresting people under anti-terror legislation and then releasing without charge is familiar to Irish people who experienced the tactic during the conflict in the North.
The comparative statistics make for compelling reading: 7,052 were arrested under the Prevention of Terrorism Act Between 1974 and 1991; of those 86 per cent were released without charge. Recent Home Office statistics show that between September 2001 and April 2008, just 13 per cent of those arrested under anti-terror laws were convicted of a terrorism related offence. So clearly the Muslim community is now being targeted in a similar way to the Irish during the Troubles.
The application of the PTA back in the 1970s helped bring the conviction of the Guildford Four and Birmingham Six. For the wider community the Act amounted to a method of political policing. People were frightened to put their heads above the parapet on the question of the political solution to the problems of the North. To do so would unfailingly result in at the very least in being pulled over under the PTA when travelling between Ireland and Britain. The powers available under the anti-terror laws meant that this detention could be anything from 10 minutes to seven days, no one new at the time when you were picked out of the queue.
A similar process is now going on with the Muslims as they are harassed. Arrests and releases to disrupt the community and the efforts of the intelligence services via a combination of intimidation and inducements to sign up informers. In terms of making the country more secure and resolving the conflict this approach did not work at the time of the Troubles and is not working now.
Another seamless development from the Troubles up to the present day has seen the government constantly pushing the envelope of exchanging liberties for security. This has gone virtually unchallenged by Parliament.
Pre-charge detention has been pushed from the seven days established under the PTA in 1974 up to 28 days under legislation of the same name passed in 2005. Perhaps even more insidious has been the effort to use secret evidence to often hold individuals without charge for years on end.
It is this process that the 10 remaining Pakistani students arrested back in April now face. When released, they were served with deportation notices on grounds of national security. So having not been charged with anything they were to be returned to Pakistan under a cloud of suspicion. Not surprisingly, all 10 have rejected this option. As a result despite their innocence they remain as Category A prisoners held in the prison system.
In July, the cases of the 10 students will move to the Special Immigration Appeals Commission (SIAC), which deals with appeals against decisions made by the Home Office to deport, or exclude, someone from the UK on national security grounds.
The SIAC process has all the appearance of a court but operates more like a Kafkesque star chamber. The appellants are not told what they are accused of doing to justify their deportation. Neither are their lawyers allowed to know this information. Special advocates operate who are allowed to see the intelligence against them.
One victim who could tell the students of the danger that this process represents is the Algerian Mustafa Taleb. A refugee, he was originally arrested back in 2003 in what was to become known as the “ricin” trial where no ricin was actually found. Taleb and seven others were finally acquitted in April 2005. Freedom though was not to last for long as he and a number of others were picked up following the London bombings, taken to prison and served with deportation orders justified on grounds of national security.
Eventually, the SIAC judges granted Taleb deportation bail to live under house arrest conditions, unable to go outside a proscribed area, tagged and only able to meet people vetted by the Home Office. Throughout this period of detention neither Taleb or his lawyers were told what he was accused of doing. He has become a victim of secret evidence.
Another Algerian man known only as G has been through a similar process only for longer. He was originally picked up under the Anti-terror Crime and Security Act that became law in December 2001. He was held without trial, released on house arrest style bail conditions then re-arrested after the London bombings and served with a deportation notice on national security grounds. He has been held in prison or house arrest style detention since 2001 under the aegis of the SIAC process. He has yet to learn what the intelligence is that justifies his detention.
It has been this insidious move toward conducting the justice system increasingly behind closed doors relying on secret evidence that has resulted in the formation of the Campaign Against Secret Evidence (CASE). The campaign came out of a House of Commons meeting in March that led to Early Day Motion number 1308 being put down calling for an end to the use of secret evidence in the legal process. So far 68 MPs including Labour MP John McDonnell, Conservative David Davis and Liberal Democrat Vince Cable have signed the motion. So the campaign is gathering pace.
Some of the issues will be discussed at a screening by Amnesty International of the film Hunger on 30 July. The event is being supported by the Irish Post and will include a panel discussion afterwards with lawyer Gareth Peirce and others.
So it can be seen the fight back has started. Ever more people in the Irish community are recognising the parallels between what happened to them over the years of the Troubles. Similarly, as the Muslim community learn more about those years so they increasingly see the similarity with their own situation. It must be time now for a broad coalition to be built across society that calls for the rolling back of the authoritarian structure that has been created on the basis of the false premise of offering security in exchange for liberty.

* For more articles on secret evidence/detention see - Independent - 27/4/2009http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/paul-donovan-deportees-should-have-rights-too-1674767.html New Statesman - 17/4/2008http://www.newstatesman.com/society/2008/04/taleb-deportations-algeria Guardian - 28/3/2007http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2007/mar/28/immigration.immigrationandpublicservices

Thursday, 4 June 2009

Church must put victims before self preservation

The long awaited report of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse has finally revealed the true extent of abuse going on across Ireland for the best part of the last century. The report makes for shocking reading, throwing up many questions regarding the future of the Catholic Church itself. The 2,500 page document reveals massive abuse committed by 800 priests, nuns, monks and teachers. More than 1,000 witnesses testified to abuse in 216 schools and residential settings across Ireland between 1914 and 2000. Ninety per cent of witnesses reported physical abuse while 50 per cent reported sexual abuse. “Acute and chronic contact and non contact sexual abuse was reported, including vaginal and anal rape, molestation and voyeurism in both isolated cases and on a regular basis over long periods of time,” says the report.Central to the abuse were the Christian Brothers, which ran most of the institutions for older boys, whilst the Sisters of Mercy supervised care for girls. The report would have been published earlier but for the Christian Brothers taking a case through the courts insisting that the perpetrators not be named. One interesting reference in the report is to the managing of cases “with a view to the risk of public disclosure and consequent damage to the institution and the Congregation.”It is this need to protect the institution of the
Church at all costs that goes to the heart of the problem of the Church dealing with child abuse.The theme seemed to be taken up by Vincent Nichols just prior to his installation as the new Archbishop of Westminster. Archbishop Nichols referred to the “courage” of the religious orders and clergy to “face the facts from their past.” It was no doubt another ill judged piece of Catholic Church public relations spin. He did express his concern for all the victims but the overidding impression created in the media was of a greater concern for the welfare of the abusers than the abused.There can be little doubting the new archbishop’s credentials when it comes to the issue of child abuse and the Church. He took over as Archibishop of Birmingham back in 2000 when the diocese was hanging under a cloud of past abuse. He dealt with the problems in a transparent and accountable way. Archbishop Nichols also oversaw the operation of the Catholic Office for the Protection of Children and Vulnerable Adults (COPCA). This was set up in accordance with the recommendations of Lord Nolan, who had been called in partly as a result of the scandal that broke in the early years of Archbishop Nichols predecessor as Archbishop of Westminster Cormac Murphy O’Connor. The recommendations of the subsequent Nolan inquiry were followed pretty much to the letter. Some would argue the Catholic Church in England and Wales went too far. There have been priests accused and removed who may be innocent and the heavy duty regulation could drive some good people away from working with children due to the possibility of malicous accusations being made. The Catholic Church has certainly paid a heavy price for the child abuse scandals in countries like America, Australia and Ireland. Its reputation has been shot to pieces and is only just beginning to recover in some areas. There is though this recurring theme of refusal to make a full heart meant apology to the victims of these horrendous crimes and then make adequate reperation. The need to protect of the institution at all costs seems to continue to hold sway. This tendency was illustrated five years ago when a priest from an order called on the Church to hear the cries of the victims of child abuse. He regretted that the Church had not adopted a more holistic approach to the issue of child abuse, preferring instead to protect the institution of the Church rather than engage more fully with the suffering of the victims. He accused the Church of bringing heathy sexuality into disrepute:”If you do that then don’t be surprised if you get unhealthy sexuality,” he said. After these comments the order concerned was contacted by a charitable donor threatening to withdraw support due to the comments. The priest concerned has now left the priesthood. The Church in Britain and Ireland has now with the latest report and ongoing processes like COPCA revealed much of the abuse of the past and made some reperation. It would be wrong though to think that this is the end of the matter. There is much that has not been revealed to the public still, revered priests of the past who were actually hidden abusers. More of this dirty linen probably needs to come out in public before a genuine cleansing can be said to have occurred. There must be proper apologies made accompanied by reperations for the victims.The Church needs to have a root and branch look at itself. Rather than look backwards and bewailing the lack of people coming forward to become priests or nuns, surely the time has come to question this ministry. What is the role of the priest all about in the modern world? Depending on the parish concerned he may be pastor, social worker or policeman and usually a bit of all three. Why should he not be married or be in a relationship? These are issues that need to be looked at in a proper review of the institution of the Catholic Church. As the events of the last couple of weeks show the Catholic Church is in siege mentality mode. The position is that the institution is always right and must be protected at all costs. This is not right, the institution has in many cases been totally wrong, not least in the instances of child abuse. It must admit these errors make amends, reform and move forward. Failure to do so will result only in its own slow death.