Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Why the mass media hysteria about terrorist attacks?

The recent terrorist attack at Westminster, resulting in the deaths of five people (including the attacker) sent out reverberations around the world.
The media coverage seemed to be all about hyping the event, turning the whole thing into some sort of melodrama for an anxious public.

The apocalyptic language adopted would make someone coming from another context think the capital was under nuclear attack.

Facts were at a premium, things like what had happened, the number of people injured and killed and who was responsible lacking.

The lack of this basic information was all the more remarkable given that a large number of journalists are based at Westminster on a permanent basis.

The coverage followed the usual 24 hour news routine of reporting terrorist incidents. There is a lack of information, lots of speculation and then a hyping of what has happened.

In the London incident, there quickly followed a lionising of the emergency services, particularly the police and ambulance service for doing their jobs. Then the "we shall fight them on the beaches" language of the defiant Londoner. The Prime Minister’s solemn words about how Londoners will carry on going to work, going about their business.  

After the initial hysteria, the next day things move to a deeper look at what happened, who can be blamed and what can be done to make sure such a thing does not happen again.

So in this narrative the role of the police and security services nicely illustrates the contrariness of the model of reporting. At one point, the police are being praised for protecting the public. But then it is time to blame the police for letting the attacker get so far, where were the armed officers etc? Then it is revealed that the security services once monitored the attacker, so blame starts circling as to why he was not under surveillance. The impossibility of monitoring every possible threat is a view hardly heard in this febrile atmosphere.

Then the question as to what can be done to stop it happening again. The real answer is very little - such attacks are always likely to happen. Unless, we want to totally give in to terrorism, hand over all liberties and accept life under martial law in a police state then it is something that has to be lived with.

There is another narrative to the one adopted by the media in this case, namely that such an attack was inevitable. It was surprising that it did not happen sooner. London has escaped lightly, compared to other places like Paris and Brussels, where there has been a much bigger loss of life.

This narrative continues that the police handled the situation well, with a number of officers showing immense bravery. The public reacted well, not panicking and showing much courage in many cases. There is no need to take draconian measures.

A big question that remains is why has the oxygen of publicity been so liberally provided for these terrorists? Given that the Westminster attack came in the same week that Sinn Fein leader Martin McGuiness died, it seems apt to reflect on how during the years of the Troubles, he and other Republican leaders were silenced. Their words were spoken by actors in an attempt to deny the oxygen of publicity. Also, in those days, there were bombs going off across London. Remember, in 1979, the Irish National Liberation Army blew up the car carrying Airey Neave right in the Palace Yard at Westminster. In 1993, there was the Bishopsgate bomb. In those days, the attitude was very much that people continued going about their daily business – they were not going to be cowered. Bomb attacks that dwarfed incidents like the Westminster attack were routinely played down not amplified in the national media.

So why the change? The approach seems to have gone to the opposite extreme. The world of 24 hour news has no doubt played a part. The need to fill schedules did not exist in the 1970, 80s and 90s. The need for something to be happening all the time when it clearly isn’t. The febrile approach that then results.

There is no sense of proportion in the coverage today. In terms of numbers, had four people (discount the attacker, who was the fifth) died in a road  accident on the M11, it would have hardly got a mention on the national news, let alone the blanket coverage of the Westminster attack.

More people die every year due to road traffic incidents than terrorism. There is a most disdainful hierarchy of death operating in the media, whereby a life lost due to terrorism seems to have a far higher public value than lives lost in other ways.

What are the media trying to achieve with the present way of covering terrorist incidents? Guardian and Evening Standard columnist Peter Jenkins accused the BBC in particular of aiding the terrorists by the blanket coverage they gave to the Westminster attack. He recalled the more downbeat approach of the days of the war with the IRA. He certainly has a point, the level of coverage given to the Westminster attack gave huge publicity to the terrorists.

A number of media outlets seemed to glory in the moment, trying to make the attack out to be something much greater than it was. The desire to scare people in order to bring in new measures or just impact? It certainly says something when you see senior politicians and policemen effectively calling for calm and defending the liberties that remain.

What the Westminster attack should cause is a time for some serious reflection as to how media outlets in the UK treat such stories. The media is there to educate and inform on these occasions, not entertain. A greater focus on facts and the projection of calmness rather than hysteria would help greatly. People need reassurance in such instances not hysterical posturing. And in terms of countering terrorism, giving such incidents a disproportionate level of coverage does help the terrorists but does nothing to reduce the threat.

Monday, 27 March 2017

Utopia for realists..and how we can get there

This well-argued account puts forward a blueprint for radical change, offering a real program for mobilisation and action.

The bold premise of Utopia for Realists is that by implementing the Universal Basic Income (UBI), cutting the working week to 15 hours and opening borders to migration that poverty can largely be eradicated.

Rutger Bergman builds his argument steadily, quoting for example of UBI from an experiment in the City of London in 2009, when 13 men living on the street were given £3,000 a year.

The result was not that they spent it all on alcohol and drugs but on accommodation. After 18 months, seven had a roof over their heads, with two about to move into apartments.

The men had joined classes and reconnected with families. What was more the experiment saved money, with the total cost working out at £50,000, rather than the £400, 000 per annum it was previously costing to keep them on the street.

The UBI case is strengthened with examples from Canada and the US where experiments were conducted in the 1970s, on giving out free money. One particularly intriguing case is how President Richard Nixon endeavoured to get UBI adopted in America, being thwarted finally in the Senate.

The central thrust of Bergman’s argument is that the evidence shows that when given a basic amount of money people act sensibly, they don’t stop working but do have more time for their families and education. Basically, that people are on the whole well intentioned, not lazy and always seeking to cheat the system.

The author goes on to argue for a shorter working week, bringing in the effects of automation in removing much paid work going forward.

The arguments are familiar for those who charted the economic developments of the 1970s. ~Then it looked like the shorter working week and earlier retirement was on the agenda.

Enter the neo-liberalism creed enacted under Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher which threw everything into reverse. Since that time people have worked longer for less, with requisite increases in levels of stress, mental illness and general unhappiness with life.

Bergman covers a lot of ground in what is a short book but his arguments are well put together and lucid. Too many economic accounts lose the reader in the detail, Bergman’s light touch keeps the reader engaged and up with some new exciting ideas.

Criticism of the book would centre on possibly trying at times to sew together too many ideas at one time, thereby sometimes losing the reader.

There is certainly a lot of ground covered from the inadequacies of Gross Domestic Product as a 21st century measure of international well-being to the effects of automation.

One of the many sobering statistics comes from an Oxford University study that suggests 54% of jobs in Europe are likely to be done by machines in the next 20 years. The figure is 47% for the US.

Bregman attacks what he calls “bullshit jobs.” These are jobs like HR managers, social media strategists and PR advisors who effectively create nothing and could be done without. Indeed, such work is often creating problems. Such jobs are compared unfavourably with valuable jobs like dustmen, farmers and teachers.

Bergman’s answer to the world’s problems is a massive redistribution of wealth, moving from the present grotesque inequalities that sees eight people owning as much of the world’s wealth as half of its population (3.5 billion). The means to achieve such redistribution will be implementation of UBI, a 15 hour working week and taxes on capital and not labour.

He also calls for an opening up of borders, arguing that if developed countries let in just 3% more immigrants that would provide a boost of US$305 billion for the world’s poor. The author notes with some irony how ever since the Berlin Wall came down in 1989; governments around the world have been putting up walls and barriers to stop people moving around.

The program offered by Bergman is a radical challenge to the left. He criticises the left for acquiescing in neo-liberalism, simply being prepared to manage the system better.

He claims the left has now been so beaten back that it only talks in negative terms about what it is against rather than what it is for.

The programme outlined in this book has much to recommend to the Jeremy Corbyn led Labour Party. Indeed, some of the ideas like UBI are already being considered as central planks of policy. Although, concepts like open borders, might take a bit more selling in the present febrile atmosphere.

Published by Bloomberg,  £16.99

Saturday, 18 March 2017

West Ham made to pay by Leicester, after giving away early goals

West Ham 2-3 Leicester City

Leicester City continued their recent revival with this narrow win over West Ham in a highly entertaining game at the London Stadium.

Manager Craig Shakespeare emphasised his team’s work ethic. “We scored the goals at the right time and knew that hardwork was paramount to success,” said Shakespeare, who confirmed his side had started on the front foot, where they left off against Seville in midweek.

West Ham manager Slaven Bilic was taken aback that his side had come away with nothing, having played some of the the best football they have all season in the last half hour. “There were a lot of negatives in the first half, positives in the second,” said Bilic. “We deserved something from the game, we created enough chances.”

In reality, West Ham were always playing catch up having given away a couple of soft goals in the opening minutes before pulling one back, only to once again  let revived England poacher Jamie Vardy nip in for a third in the 37th minute.

The game was a mere four minutes old when a hopeful Riyad Mahrez shot came through a group of players to finish up in the net. The ball bounced and alluded the unsighted home keeper Darren Randolph.

Two minutes later the visitors went two up, after Marc Albrighton nodded on a Mahrez free kick that was then met by the onrushing Robert Huth who headed home.

West Ham struck back in the 19th minute, with the inspiring Manuel Lanzini driving home a free kick from 20 yards, after Michail Antonio was fouled.

Then came Vardy’s goal, meeting a corner in the goal area to ram home.

In the second half, West Ham took almost total control but were constantly thwarted by the outstanding Kasper Schmeichel. Another Lanzine free kick was pushed round the post by Schmeichel at full stretch.

West  Ham reduced the deficit in the 62nd minute when Andy Carroll nodded a corner onto Andre Ayew who headed home.

Schmeichel though stood firm against any further encroachment, denying a Carroll header on the line then a point blank stop as the big striker unleashed a shot in the dying minutes.

So West Ham were once again denied but the fans certainly had good entertainment value for their money out of this match.

* published Morning Star - 20/3/2017 - Foxes continue unbeaten run

Monday, 13 March 2017

How ironic to see the actions of the Tory Party destroying the Union – as Nicola Sturgeon’s call for another Scottish independence referendum makes Brexit look a whole lot less likely

How amusing it is to see the actions of the Conservative and Unionist party systematically dismembering the Union that it allegedly holds so dear.

First, David Cameron carries through on his reckless decision to hold a referendum on EU membership. The arrogance of the man, that history is likely to judge to be one of the worst individuals to ever hold the office of Prime Minister, saw the leave side triumph.

Now, SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon has called for another referendum on Scottish independence – premised in the main on the sovereignty of the Scottish people in deciding they want to remain in the EU.

Sturgeon would seem likely to win such a referendum, given the narrowness of the defeat last time and the role that the then powerful Labour Party in Scotland played in securing a no vote. Let’s not forget the important role played in Scotland by leading Labour figures like Gordon Brown and Alastair Darling in securing the no vote. Labour saved the day for Cameron back then. He failed to learn the lesson though, blundering on to defeat on the EU referendum.

If Scotland goes ahead with the referendum this must stop UK negotiations to leave the EU in their tracks. Leaving the EU is already complex enough but will become a whole lot more so if Scotland becomes an independent country wishing to stay in the EU. The EU will simply refuse to negotiate until the Scottish referendum is complete.

The Brexit vote has also helped push the cause of Irish unification, bringing the north and south of Ireland together again in a desire to remain in the EU. And surely it can only be a matter of time before the penny drops with the Welsh – as those EU subsidies disappear – and they realise that too that it maybe better in the EU than outside.

So what a fine old pickle the Tories have got into over the Union. Cameron set the wheels in motion but Theresa May’s arrogant refusal to take on the concerns of those who want to remain in the EU – across Scotland, Ireland, London and some of the north - has helped make a bad situation a whole lot worse. Though for remainers, the actions of Sturgeon in calling for a new referendum must make the chances of ever really leaving the EU a bit remote.

*published Independent - 14/3/2016

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Deceptively comfortable win, as Chelsea dismiss West Ham enroute to the Premier league title

West Ham 1-2 Chelsea

Chelsea manager Antonio Conte was probably being over generous when he suggested if West Ham had scored their consolation goal in the 85th rather than the 92nd minute his side could have been in trouble.

Always the perfectionist, Conte was disappointed that his side had lost the clean sheet at the death, to Manuel Lanzini’s late goal. However, this should not take away from the dominance that Chelsea displayed for the whole of this match at the London stadium.

The game started off evenly with the two sides largely cancelling each other out in the middle of the pitch.

This all changed though in the 24th minute, with West Ham losing the ball to N’Gola Kante just outside their penalty area. The speed of counter attack of the visitors was breath taking, with Kante feeding Eden Hazard whose one-two with Pedro saw him set free to round keeper Darren Randolph and score.

West Ham almost hit back in the 40th minute when Robert Snodgrass put Lanzini through but he shot over.

Chelsea could have doubled their lead just before half time but for a double block from first Winston Reid and then Randolph.

The momentum though remained with the visitors after the break,  Diego Costa stealing in unchallenged to knock home Cesc Fabregas’s corner.

West Ham were then unlucky to see Sofiane Feghouli’s drive saved by Thibaut Courtois and a possible hand ball against Marcos Alonso denied.  

The clear difference between the sides was the speed and direction of counter attack from Chelsea. West Ham tended to be predictable passing the ball across the field, always looking to get Snodgrass or Sofiane Feghouli down the flanks to cross for Carroll in the centre.

Notably, the Chelsea centre backs were able to deal with Carroll, which severely reduced the West Ham threat.

West Ham boss Slaven Bilic was pleased that his team were getting in the crosses. “We wanted more players in the box though, not just Andy,” said Bilic, who believes that Chelsea will win the Premier league. “They will finish on top. If you compare them with other title contenders, Chelsea are more solid than Manchester City, Arsenal and Liverpool.”

Conte believes that his team will retain their 10 point lead at the top of the table until the end of the season. “This league will be tough to the end, it won’t be easy. I trust my players to show commitment and work hard,” said Conte.

*published Morning Star - 8/3/2017 West Ham leave it too late to mount comeback