Friday, 29 August 2014

Prayer for the Day

That forensic review of BBC Radio 4's output on Tuesday 26 August, which I envisioned in the previous post, would have to have begun somewhere and, as the yearning Christian atheist in me would want me to begin the day with a prayer, I would surely have had to have started it with Prayer for the DayRadio 4's daily religious offering at 5.43am.

Thinking about it, Prayer for the Day is an intriguing BBC Radio 4 institution - as is Thought for the Day on the Today programme, the Daily Service (longwave only), Sunday Worship, and the ever-delightful Bells on Sunday

As it's overwhelming Christian in its guest selection (like Thought for the Day), I'm guessing that the Polly Toynbee-like secularists of this world would be deeply agitated by it. 

Yet still it persists in the Radio 4 schedule, and I'm glad about that. 

The prayer came from Rev Mike Starkey, and the Rev Mike began with an interesting fact:
Twenty years ago today some pioneering surgery was carried out in the UK. The world’s first ever battery operated heart was fitted at Papworth Hospital in Cambridgeshire. Arthur Cornhill had only been given a few months to live. In a four-hour operation surgeons at Papworth fitted him with a ‘bionic’ heart pump made of titanium and plastic.
Channeling my inner Richard Dawkins, I thought, "That's interesting. Science and reason to the rescue!" (Actually, I didn't think any such thing. I've only just thought of that now. But I'm trying to think artfully, like a Thought for the Day speaker). 

Rev Mike, however, is no Prof Robert Winston and his factoid didn't lead to further scientific insights. Instead, it served as a hop to allow him to skip and jump into matters literary and metaphorical - my better angel said, "Just like George Herbert", while that pesky devil on my other shoulder whispered, "In true 'Rowan Atkinson-style Anglican vicar' fashion":
Down the centuries the heart has become one of our most powerful metaphors. It represents our hopes and dreams, our likes and loves, our values and priorities. I say ‘hand on heart’ when I want to convince you I’m telling the truth. If I’m helping somebody make decisions I’ll ask them what their heart’s telling them. A broken heart means an end to something that seemed to promise love and fulfillment. When Tony Bennett left his heart in San Francisco we know what that meant: something deep about emotions and identity. 
And, then also in 'Rowan' fashion (whether Atkinson or Williams), came the inevitable abrupt leap towards God:
Our love affair with the heart actually goes back thousands of years. In the Bible the heart represents our intellect, our feelings and our values, our innermost selves. The Bible writers encourage us to set our hearts on things that aren’t trivial or transient.
God is close to the brokenhearted. We’re told God wants to remove our hearts of stone and give us new hearts. And in 4th century north Africa, St Augustine wrote of our hearts being forever restless till they find their rest in God.
And finally came the prayer of the day itself: 
Heavenly Father, at the beginning of this new day, examine my heart. If it’s been broken, I pray for healing. If it’s become hard I pray for softening. If it’s restless I pray I will find my rest in you. Amen.
That's a prayer I can add a wishful 'Amen' to too. I'd skip all the 'ifs' though, and concentrate on the 'I pray's.

Excuses, excuses

What with having a full-time job, a family, and friends who persist in asking you to do things with them, it's a hard life being a blogger.

It really is, and, to be honest, I don't envy myself being one. In fact, it's so bad that I demand violins. (Are Hilary Hahn and Nicola Benedetti available?)  

As a blogger, you keep intending to post important pieces - pieces bound to resound around the blogosphere and beyond - and to conduct scorchingly incisive in-depth surveys into the BBC's output which, in some sort of other world to this one, might very well shake that wicked corporation to its fabulously wicked core, but you end up having to spend agreeable hours with your family or going for walks, meals or nights-out with your friends, or doing extra hours at a job you like, and then, after all that, ending up feeling too happy or too knackered to put finger to laptop....

...and, thus, a thousand illuminating masterpieces about what Ed Stourton said to bishop about the actress, or about why Marcus Brigstocke's comedy really isn't a laughing matter, melt into thin air and, like the cloud-capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces, the solemn temples, etc, dissolve and leave not a pair of breasts behind.
We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep. Sir, I am vex'd;
Bear with my weakness; my, brain is troubled:
Be not disturb'd with my infirmity:
If you be pleased, retire into my cell
And there repose: a turn or two I'll walk,
To still my beating mind.
I was intending to conduct a forensic examination of a single day's worth of Radio 4 broadcasting (this past Tuesday's output) but, despite having listened to quite a bit of it, I've arrived at Friday night and still have had no time to really work on it. Nor will this weekend allow me much space to get qwerty with it either. And, then, by next Tuesday, many of the programmes from last Tuesday will dissolve from the BBC i-Player. 

So, here I am of a Friday night, realising that I've no realistic chance of doing what I hoped to do on the beginning of the week. Do I regret that? Yes, a bit. But I'll be having fun not doing it too. So that's all right then.

I thought I'd share that with you, and then wish you a lovely weekend.

Thursday, 28 August 2014

A good pair of ears

You’ll all be aware of the BBC’s hard-hitting series HardTalk. There’s a web page that states its aim. I think HARDtalk was originally conceived as a vehicle for the definitive, serious, intellectually honest examination of pressing issues of the day. 
A young-looking Stephen Sackur adorns the page, finger pointing incisively at an off-camera interviewee, who would no doubt be shaking in his boots. 

QUESTION: If you’re endlessly curious about what makes powerful people tick and you love to ask questions, what’s the best job in the world? ANSWER: Presenting HARDtalk

Hmm. What if it’s several years later and you’re  jaded, worn out and immersed in BBC groupthink? 

“A good interview starts with exhaustive research and ends with intense exchanges that can be a revelationStephen Sackur”

Whereas a poor interview doesn’t bother with all that exhaustive stuff and goes for the populist, superficial reiteration of the BBC’s predictable assumptions.

"We have the time to dig deeper with our guests. To take them to the territory where the tough questions lie. But it only works if we have done our homework.”
Quite right, and if we haven’t done our homework it’s a load of crap.
"A good interview starts with exhaustive research and ends with intense exchanges that can be a revelation. Having plenty of on-the-ground reporting experience from the world’s hotspots doesn’t do any harm either."
Sackur’s list of a HARDtalk presenter’s vital assets
  • A thick skin. (check)
  • Unquenchable curiosity (curiosity now quenched)
  • A good pair of ears (decorative)
  • Brilliant research from a crack production team (production team on crack?)

"HARDtalk isn’t about shouting, or point-scoring. It's about asking the intelligent questions our audience would be asking if they had the chance to sit in the HARDtalk chair.
Unfortunately the HARDtalk of today is all about shouting, not allowing full answers, rudeness and pandering to the ill-informed.
"As long as the privilege is mine, I’ll cherish it."

With reference to the episode shown late last night with Stephen Sackur and Yuval Steinitz, the Israeli minister of intelligence, characterised by rude interruptions and an unresponsive attitude towards answers to a somewhat crass line of questioning, this episode highlighted a disparity between HARDtalk’s stated aspirations and its present day incarnation.

After a comparatively gentle opening, Stephen Sackur established a pattern of putting a dumbed-down series of Hamas propaganda-driven questions about the current 'truce' and ignoring Mr. Steinitz’s answers.

Hamas has succeeded, posits Sackur. How? By getting Israel to “ease the blockade, for example”
Wrong! There never was a blockade of humanitarian aid and supplies. Only tunnel-constructing matter. Hamas has basically agreed to the status quo.

Stephen Sackur gurned his way through the lengthy emotive question in this clip:

“How close, and you can tell me now, because the ceasefire is in place, how close did the Netanyahu government come... to giving a green light to the full military reoccupation of Gaza, we know that you in the cabinet were briefed upon it by military commanders, how close did it come to that?”

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with such a question if it was put in the spirit of the genuine curiosity of which the website boasts.

But it was not put in that spirit. The expression  of contempt on Sackur’s face told a different story. 
His delivery implied a widely held but mistaken assumption that Israel is an all-powerful military entity with malevolent expansionist aspirations. 

The BBC’s perception of a possible reoccupation of Gaza seems to be one of a trigger-happy jackbooted army marching in with the express intention of oppressing the people and terrifying the life out of them.

In fact if Israel does have to implement this last resort plan, Gaza may very well be freed from the tyranny and corruption of Hamas. 

The reconstruction would undoubtedly be speedier and more thorough and the  quality of life for the ordinary Palestinian in the street would improve dramatically.
Israel doesn’t desire it. It would be an unwanted strain on them. But lazy, Israel bashing types prefer to assume that the greedy Jews of Israel can’t wait get their hands on anything going.

Mr. Steinitz pointed out the disparity between the world’s condemnation of Israel for doing precisely what is accepted as par for the course in the case of every other country in war.

“I’m surprised that you are surprised by the international reaction when more than 2000 people have been killed, mostly civilians, when UNICEF says that more than four hundred and fifty children have been killed inside Gaza, and you are surprised that the international community has a problem with that?” said Sackur, with a furrowed brow and more animation than a souped-up Fiona Bruce.

“Look, we also have a problem with that. This is a terrible tragedy that Hamas brought upon itself and unfortunately also upon the people of Gaza, but I’m surprised, Stephen, that you think that it’s irrelevant that Hamas, in the past when it was possible for it, sent hundreds of suicide bombers to our streets killing more than one thousand Israeli civilians and only when it was pushed from the West Bank into Gaza they shifted the tactic because it’s impossible to rely on suicide bombing from Gaza and now they’re launching rockets from Gaza into Israel..”

SS: (interrupting)
“But are you prepared here and now to say to me now that it’s over..”

YS: (interrupting)

“Just a moment, let me complete that answer. The Hamas aim to destroy the state of Israel. the Hamas behaviour, to use the suicide bombing strategy against Israeli civilians, the Hamas future, ultimate goal, to bring total destruction to six million Jews and to the Jewish state, this is very relevant to our current fighting with Hamas and....”

SS: (interrupting
“I understand the point you’re making...”

YS: (interrupting)
“It’s also very relevant that Hamas has started the violence and refused so far eleven ceasefire proposals. Don’t forget Stephen, the ultimate commitment of any democratic government is to protect its citizens. Our citizens are under daily bombardment of hundreds of rockets from gaza on a daily basis...”

“I understand the point you’re making...”

YS: (interrupting)
“Luckily enough they caused less civilian casualties than the suicide bombing strategy because we have very strong rocket defences.”

Onwards and upwards; to the ‘deliberate’ bombing of UN facilities when “you knew” there were civilians sheltering therein - “Are you prepared to admit you got it wrong?”

“There is some hypocrisy in this criticism”

Yuval Steinitz reminded  the viewers that when the US and Britain found themselves in similar circumstances in Iraq or Afghanistan, and did their best to avoid civilian casualties, they were fighting against terrorism and we are fighting to defend our people against terrorism - . “I didn’t hear such criticism then.”

“Are you saying that that condemnation (Ban Ki-moon etc) “from your friends” means nothing to Israel?” gurned Sackur.

The good pair of ears were now well and truly switched to off position and the questioning turned to the UN enquiry, and “will you or won’t you” accept its findings.

From then on Sackur’s interruptions, deafness and facial expressions descended into parody. It’s as if he suddenly remembered that the anti-Israel majority would have to be placated and if he deigned to give Mr. Seinitz a fair hearing, the BBC would be bombarded with complaints from the ‘we are all Hamas now’ lobby.

Insider's Guide

Here is something for everyone interested in the coverage of the Israel/Hamas war.

I came across it, as you probably did, via a link on Harry’s Place, where one of Hadar’s excellent articles from BBC Watch is cross posted, and which you’ve undoubtedly already read. (If not, do it now.)

This essay entitled: An Insider’s Guide to the Most Important Story on Earth appeared in Tablet August 26th.
Matti Friedman writes as a former AP reporter but, this important essay equally begs questions of the BBC. 
In the light of widely disseminated testimonies of senior BBC reporters stating categorically that they saw little or no evidence of Hamas using ‘human shields’, firing rockets from schools hospitals and mosques (In fact they hardly appear to have come across any official Hamas operatives at all) and most surprisingly, that they were not intimidated, nor was their copy compromised, by Hamas. 

To summarise:
Perceived importance of a story indicated by comparative volume of press coverage.  (I read somewhere that there were more than 700 reporters dispatched to cover Gaza/ Israel in addition to the same number that were already there) I suppose that’s almost one reporter per casualty :-(
News organizations have nonetheless decided that this conflict is more important than, for example, the more than 1,600 women murdered in Pakistan last year (271 after being raped and 193 of them burned alive), the ongoing erasure of Tibet by the Chinese Communist Party, the carnage in Congo (more than 5 million dead as of 2012) or the Central African Republic, and the drug wars in Mexico (death toll between 2006 and 2012: 60,000), let alone conflicts no one has ever heard of in obscure corners of India or Thailand. They believe Israel to be the most important story on earth, or very close.
Superficial background analysis of Palestinian society, politics and aspirations.
The Hamas charter, for example, calls not just for Israel’s destruction but for the murder of Jews and blames Jews for engineering the French and Russian revolutions and both world wars; the charter was never mentioned in print when I was at the AP, though Hamas won a Palestinian national election and had become one of the region’s most important players. To draw the link with this summer’s events: An observer might think Hamas’ decision in recent years to construct a military infrastructure beneath Gaza’s civilian infrastructure would be deemed newsworthy, if only because of what it meant about the way the next conflict would be fought and the cost to innocent people. But that is not the case. The Hamas emplacements were not important in themselves, and were therefore ignored. What was important was the Israeli decision to attack them.

There has been much discussion recently of Hamas attempts to intimidate reporters. Any veteran of the press corps here knows the intimidation is real, and I saw it in action myself as an editor on the AP news desk. During the 2008-2009 Gaza fighting I personally erased a key detail—that Hamas fighters were dressed as civilians and being counted as civilians in the death toll—because of a threat to our reporter in Gaza. (The policy was then, and remains, not to inform readers that the story is censored unless the censorship is Israeli. Earlier this month, the AP’s Jerusalem news editor reported and submitted a story on Hamas intimidation; the story was shunted into deep freeze by his superiors and has not been published.)
No coverage of Israeli politics or political history.
The fact that Israelis quite recently elected moderate governments that sought reconciliation with the Palestinians, and which were undermined by the Palestinians, is considered unimportant and rarely mentioned.

Misleading framing
The “Israeli-Palestinian” framing allows the Jews, a tiny minority in the Middle East, to be depicted as the stronger party. It also includes the implicit assumption that if the Palestinian problem is somehow solved the conflict will be over, though no informed person today believes this to be true.

A knowledgeable observer of the Middle East cannot avoid the impression that the region is a volcano and that the lava is radical Islam, an ideology whose various incarnations are now shaping this part of the world. Israel is a tiny village on the slopes of the volcano. Hamas is the local representative of radical Islam and is openly dedicated to the eradication of the Jewish minority enclave in Israel, just as Hezbollah is the dominant representative of radical Islam in Lebanon, the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and so forth.

Age-old antisemitic assumptions
When the people responsible for explaining the world to the world, journalists, cover the Jews’ war as more worthy of attention than any other, when they portray the Jews of Israel as the party obviously in the wrong, when they omit all possible justifications for the Jews’ actions and obscure the true face of their enemies, what they are saying to their readers—whether they intend to or not—is that Jews are the worst people on earth.

Wider story
Understanding what happened in Gaza this summer means understanding Hezbollah in Lebanon, the rise of the Sunni jihadis in Syria and Iraq, and the long tentacles of Iran. It requires figuring out why countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia now see themselves as closer to Israel than to Hamas. Above all, it requires us to understand what is clear to nearly everyone in the Middle East: The ascendant force in our part of the world is not democracy or modernity. It is rather an empowered strain of Islam that assumes different and sometimes conflicting forms, and that is willing to employ extreme violence in a quest to unite the region under its control and confront the West. Those who grasp this fact will be able to look around and connect the dots.

My highly selective potted summary doesn’t do justice to this must-read essay. If you’re interested in the subject (in the title of this website) please read the essay in toto. 

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Feeding Jews to the crocodiles

 Austria’s foremost claim to fame may be that it is the birthplace of many major classical composers, but it also happens to be a well-known snake-pit of antisemitism. 

It seems there is a Chechen problem in Austria in the shape of radicalised Muslim immigrants, some of whom are off to Syria for a first-hand dose of Jihad.
According to an analysis published by the newspaper Der Standard, Austria has emerged as a central hub for jihadists seeking to fight in Syria because Austria's geographic location provides easy access to land routes through the Balkans.
The current president of Austria is Heinz Fischer. Despite the problems associated with the domestic situation outlined above he thinks the solution to the current global and European problems is to denounce Israel. (Harry's Place)
What caught my eye was a below the line comment -
The Holocaust made sure that the Jews are no longer a force to reckon with in Europe.” It seems apparent that many a present-day politician is resorting to feeding the Jews to the crocodile, having forgotten that it will eat him last. It will eat him.

I’d just seen a comment on Conservative Home in response to the question, what shall we do with the drunken sailor? Or more precisely: "How should Britain counter the Islamic State group? Take our latest monthy (sic) survey"  

Under the header “Some thoughts” A contributor offers the following suggestion (number 2 of a set of three.)
2. Cease to give the impression that we support Israel (99 % of British Muslims view our apparent preference for the Israelis with acute suspicion or worse) and instead work, by diplomatic means only, for to just Two State solution for Palestine. 
A couple of commenters (2 out of 69) indicated that they were not happy about sacrificing the Jews ‘to placate the fifth column in our midst’, to which the original poster replied with an unpleasant remark to do with MPs displeasing Muslims by being ‘friends of Israel.

This brings to mind the advice that a former British Ambassador to Amman gave to Margaret Thatcher in the 1970s.  
"It is presumably in the national interest to do what we can to counter Arab fears and suspicions that the leader of HM opposition is already a prisoner of the Zionists."
The gentleman in question is charming enough. I met him at a friend’s house. He has a great deal of admiration for Yassir Arafat and holds the kind of Arabist views that Oxbridge-FCO types imbibe from birth. With the exemplary manners of his ilk,  he held forth on the topic, undeterred by not being particularly au fait with the facts. (at least not of the ‘other’ side of the story) Self confidence carried him through.   

I don’t think much has changed. 

Slightly off topic, a thought about the Rotherham grooming inquiry that is dominating the headlines today
The BBC is relaxing into a newfound freedom from the shackles of not-mentioning-the-racial-origin of the guilty men! It looks as though they’re really enjoying it.
It’s as if the news about ISIS has emboldened them or something. It’s ‘say what you like’ time. 
“At last, we can say “men of British/Pakistani  origin” says the BBC. "And we can go to town on blaming the police and social services for sweeping the whole lot under the rug for fear of being thought racist.” 
But they’ve forgotten that the BBC itself was just as bad, if not worse than the police and social services, at the business of turning a blind eye to racial profiling of any kind, lest they commit racism. The nearest was the sotto voce “Asian” but more often than not it was merely 'men.'
Perhaps if it weren’t for fear of the press and the BBC making a big deal out of allegations of institutional  racism, these institutions might have come out into the open long ago, saving children years of suffering.

So the long-term I/P ceasefire has been relegated to second place in the headline charts. I can’t wait to see how things pan out, BBC wise.

Matthew Parris wrote a ridiculous article in the Times (£) on Saturday. “Don’t lump all Muslims in the extremist camp.”
A few letters responding to it in today’s paper drew it to my attention. Matthew took some insulting Islamophobic Tweets and comments he’d read recently, and substituted “Jew” for “Muslim’ then said: “See? How d’you like that?” I think he was trying to make a point about Islamophobia.

Two glaring oversights Matthew. Firstly, as today’s letter writers observed, the Jews don’t behead, crucify or shoot each other, nor do they wish to establish a global caliphate, advocate the death penalty for apostasy or demand that we adapt this country to suit their many and varied religious practices. So your analogy or whatever it was meant to be was useless in an apples and pears kinda way. You might as well have used the term “Gays”. Equally sensitive and equally inappropriate. You could call it “Don’t lump all gays into being extremely camp”

The second one is, since you asked, well, Jews do get such insults and antisemitic remarks  all the time, from ignoramuses and antisemites, online and off, so your pseudo psychological experiment was ill-conceived and, really, quite offensive.
If he’s trying to shame Islamophobes by accusing them of ‘tarring all Muslims with the same brush’ I do wonder why a gay man would defend a group of people who use quite a broad brush themselves. ’They’ do tend to be institutionally ‘homophobic’. 
He’s a bit like Robert Winston, who is fond of equating Jews and Muslims in an all encompassing gesture of politically correct wishful thinking.

Monday, 25 August 2014


We all need a good laugh from time to time, what with the state of the world being as it is at the moment, and what could be funnier than a post about Islamic State?

Well, the Twitter hashtag #AskIslamicState has been trending in spectacular fashion since Saturday. Here's a flavour of what people have been asking them:

Human trafficking, persecuted Baha'is, Ferguson riots, Mormons, Methodism, Oscar Romero and John Sentamu's prayer vigil

So here's what happened on this week's edition of Sunday and my reactions to it:

Human trafficking

It began with the issue of human trafficking, and the question: "Should businesses be legislated to ensure they take more of an active role in stopping human trafficking?" The Rev Steve Chalke [Sunday's Christian evangelical of choice] said "yes," that companies should be made more accountable for their involvement in the trade. He felt the government wasn't living up to its own pledges to tackle the issue firmly enough by failing to enshrine in law that companies will be held responsible if they are, in some way (what way exactly?) found to be involved. William Crawley invited him to spell things out in more concrete terms but Steve didn't take the bait and kept things pretty vague and ethical instead. 

It's an excellent cause, and one that Sunday keeps doing its bit to promote, but Steve's naming of a specific company in one of whose trucks some trafficked people were found didn't exactly reassure me. Was that a one-off for that company? Was he saying that the company was knowingly involved in the trafficking? Could it not be that that one of that company's lorries was used without any knowledge on the company's part? And, if so, how is it right that they should be prosecuted for it? Just how would legislation help here? Steve Chalke's example didn't convince me that framing some piece of partly-thought-through legislation was necessarily a good idea. 

The persecution of Baha'is in Iran

Sunday also returned to the subject of the persecution of Baha'is in Iran. There's is a 170-year-old faith that has never been accepted in that country, and now the Iranian Revolutionary Guards are building a sports centre on a cemetery in the southern city of Shiraz which holds particular significance for them as it contains the graves of ten Baha'i women murdered by the Islamic Republic (in 1983) for refusing to convert to Islam. The city was also where the faith was founded in 1844.

William Crawley pointed out that - in contrast to high-profile, fast-moving persecutions of religious minorities in neighbouring Arab countries (especially in Syria and Iraq) - the slow-burning persecution of the Baha'is in theocratic Iran has had a very low profile. His interviewee, Dr Nazila Ghanea, associate professor of International Human Rights Law at Oxford University, thanked the programme for shining a spotlight on the issue. She told us that some of the disinterred bodies have already been thrown into a canal by the Revolutionary Guards and that the Guards publicly rejoiced in forcing their will on "this perverse sect". 

We learned on a previous edition of the programme, there have been over 200 executions of Baha'i in post-revolution Iran. Nazila amplified the point here that there are employment bans against them, their kids are excluded from schools and universities, they are not allowed to work in the civil service, 700 of them have received prison sentences in the past ten years, and the state has destroyed the homes of both of the faith's founders. (To repeat myself here: Iran is an apartheid state, and what is its 'cuddly' president doing to prevent this? Has he spoken out against it?) 

Nazila Ghanea did point out though that a decent number of Iranian academics, journalists and a prominent Iranian cleric - Ayatollah Tehrani - have expressed solidarity with the Baha'i:
There's a tremendous energy in civil society and solidarity that says, 'We will not accept this.' So this is kind of the reverse of what is happening in neighbouring countries. This is the government trying to instigate and perpetuate a persecution against all odds for more than 35 years and the Iranian people saying 'no' and they don't want to be part of this incitement and hatred.
It would be good to think this is true, but civil society in Iran has already proved itself to be powerless in the face of a determined regime and its brutal guardians. International pressure is still very much needed.

The riots in Ferguson, Missouri

It was refreshing, hearing the following interview with Bishop Larry Jones of the Greater Grace Church, St. Louis, to listen to someone who emphatically was not engaged in what David Vance at Biased BBC would call "race hustling". Pastor Jones came across as a very decent man, aware that there is a problem but seeking to resolve it rather than inflame it. His church has been a focal point for healing the wounds, holding a prayer meeting that involved the family of Michael Brown and the local police chief. He's convinced that most of the local police are well-intentioned, and denounced the rioters, saying their actions were not those of angry hotheads but involved highly deliberate and targetted looting, "like something a terrorist would do". When William Crawley raised the issue of the "overwhelmingly white local council" in Ferguson, Pastor Jones replied that "the citizens of the city need to go and vote". He also expressed his hope that the Rev Al Sharpton will not use his eulogy at Michael Brown's funeral to go down the political route but simply to give comfort to the family and bring the community together.

Female Mormon missionaries

Next came a report from Jane Little about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. She was given "a rare glimpse inside the church's busiest training centre in Utah". [About 36,000 are trained there each year]. The Mormons have recently lowered  the age at which men can become missionaries ('elders') to 18 and the age at which women can become missionaries ('sisters') to 19. Since that change some 30,000 more missionaries have joined their ranks. The world's doorbells are about to be rung even more.

Sunday's angle on this was a feminist one: Why is there still a disparity between the starting age for male and female missionaries, and why are women only allowed to serve for 18 months while men are allowed to serve for two years? Jane Little kept asking those questions and kept getting the same answer: "We don't know".

There were some interesting insights here, such as the fact that students have nine weeks to study a language like Mandarin before being sent to Taiwan (China still being off limits). During their mission (totally unpaid), they keep away from their families, aren't allowed to watch TV and mustn't drink alcohol. They are paired with members of their own sex only. Scripture, gym and many language classes form the bulk of the intense training. No one gets to choose what languages they learn or where they will be sent. They could be sent to Texas, Manchester or Papua New Guinea. (Bizarrely, just in case it's the latter, they all have to have their wisdom teeth removed. Presumably something to do with cannibals there?)

Is British Methodism on the verge of extinction?

William Crawley's introduction laid out the problem: A recent survey has revealed that the Methodist Church in the UK is "a Christian movement in steep decline", with a fall in membership of a third over the past decade, leaving just over 200,000 Methodists in total. The number of children attending services has more than halved over the past decade and the Church is aging rapidly.

Looking at the Methodist Church's own website puts this into context:

  • The Methodist Church is Britain’s fourth largest Christian denomination. 
  • There are now 209,000 Methodists in Britain, part of the worldwide Methodist family of over 61 million committed members and a further 20 million adherents. 
  • There were 800,000 British Methodists in 1906 and over 600,000 in 1980. 
  • There are 4,800 local Methodist churches in the UK. 
  • 5% of Methodists meet in city centre churches, 6% in  inner city churches, 5% in estate churches, 34% in suburban churches, 28% in small Towns and 21% in village/rural churches. 
  • There are around 1,780 active ordained Methodist ministers.
  • There are 80 Methodist schools with around 25,000 pupils across the country. 
  • The majority of current members are retirement age.
The issue was discussed with Sunday regular and Professor Linda Woodhead of Lancaster University and General Secretary of the Methodist Conference, Revd Dr Martyn Atkins.

Why the decline? Linda put it in the context of dramatic falls in all the historic British churches but said that, because the Methodist Church is smaller and has less resources than the Church of England, its in a tougher position. Plus the Church's membership is literally dying out and not being replaced. There was also speculation about whether the Church's unique brand - such as its concern with social action, its promotion of women and lay people - has been weakened by having been adopted so strongly by, say, the Church of England.

William Crawley was surprisingly aggressive here (for reasons that escape me).

The beatification of Archbishop Oscar Romero

Pope Francis has, according to William Crawley, "swept aside" lingering Vatican objections and confirmed that the process of beatification has begun for the murdered Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero, killed by a right-wing death squad in 1980 whilst celebrating mass. Bob Walker noted that he had been an outspoken critic of those death squads, but also of the army and the left-wing guerrillas for their acts of extreme violence.

This latter point is important as Oscar Romero has become something of a cult figure on the internationally-minded Left - a kind of Sandinista-style Marxist-Christian of the 'liberation theology' variety, standing up for the poor, demanding that the country's wealth be shared with the poor, denouncing capitalism and being martyred for his troubles.

However, I was reading a very interesting take on Archbishop Romero at First Things magazine which suggests that a fair amount of projection might be going on from both his supporters and critics. This was the kind of radical priest who also condemned anti-US leftists for failing to condemn the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, who called leftist guerrilla attacks "terrorist" and "seditious", and said of liberation theology, “Since Marxist materialism destroys the Church’s transcendent meaning, a Marxist church would be not only self-destructive but senseless”.

That's a very different side to the man than the one that's usually presented. The BBC News website recently described him as "one of the main proponents of Liberation Theology - an interpretation of Christian faith through the perspective of the poor" and presents him purely as a left-wing figure. [In that same article, the BBC's John McManus uses the phrase "Romero's Liberation Theology"].

First Things is a conservative Christian publication, however, so could be taken as a partial source (as indeed it is) but even one of the non-conservative vox pops in Bob Walker's report, Julian Filochowski, said that "He was certainly not a proponent of liberation theology". (Julian prefers to think of his beliefs as a "theology of the Beatitudes".

There's obviously more to Oscar Romero than meets the eye then.

The calls for Oscar Romero to be beatified have been aired on Sunday before, especially when the decision to beatify John Paul II was taken. As then, this report by Bob Walker gave us only the views of supporters of that cause.

The Archbishop of York's prayer vigil for peace

From one "meddlesome archbishop" to another: Rt Rev John Sentamu, the Archbishop of York - someone who describes Oscar Romero as his "greatest hero".

He was interviewed by William Crawley about why he's begun a prayer vigil for peace. (It's the first time he has done such a vigil for many years.) He will be praying and fasting from 6am to 6pm for seven days. "Why now?", asked William Crawley.

The archbishop began by telling the story of his last prayer vigil, during the 2006 Lebanon-Israel war. He prayed for seven days and, after starting on Sunday, "by Monday all the fighting ceased". (He seems to believe there was a connection between those two things).

So why this time?:
So I'm doing it this time because there were pictures particularly which came out of Gaza where small children were near the seashore,  running away from where they saw violence was happening and then they were absolutely bombed and died and then, of course, if you look at more devastation, and then, of course, the kidnapping of the American journalist Foley again brought back memories of the BBC reporter Alan Johns[t]on when they kidnapped him in Gaza and we prayed day in and day out for his release.   
The Archbishop has clearly been as fixated on Gaza as the BBC (and us, for that matter).


We went blackberry picking yesterday morning. We go to the same place every year - a headland near the village of Silverdale called Jack Scout which not only offers a huge expanse of brambles but also provides panoramic views over the world's most beautiful bay, Morecambe Bay (as they say in the brochures), with Morecambe and Heysham to our left, the Furness peninsula to our right, and the Lakeland Hills beyond (plus spectacular views of our local nuclear power station.) We watched a couple of oil rigs moving apart on the horizon, before drawing the fairly obvious conclusion (after a few minutes) that one of the oil rigs was actually a ferry making for Heysham harbour. I then closed my right eye and tested out the extent of left eye's failings. The horizon turned from a straight line into a blurry wave. I wasn't best pleased and took the following 'selfie' with a camera adapted to match the perspective I get through my left eye:

This year's harvest was far bigger than preceding years, though, curiously, there was no clumps of victorious-looking plump blackberries, merely a sea of medium-sized, mediocre blackberries - a flourishing, boring, egalitarian community of blackberries. Like Sweden.

Similarly, the pestering flies that like to troll your ears whilst you're busy, quietly picking away, seemed even more abundant than usual, and I wished I'd brought a can of deodorant along to ruin their day (though, in compensation, perhaps also give them the Lynx effect with the lady flies). 

Still, as the family wandered about picking and then ate a picnic, I was pestered by something other than flies - the question of what to write about yesterday morning's Sunday

I have to write something about it, don't I? I mean, I always write about Sunday. It's my thing. And I ought to write something about it today, I suppose. But what? Maybe I could just blag my way through with something about blackberries, poor eyesight and flies? Surely not, as that would make Is the BBC biased? read more like a diary, so, no, I won't mention any of that stuff.

This is a blog about BBC bias, so concentrate, Craig! What BBC bias did yesterday's Sunday demonstrate? 

Oh, that reminds me of that old joke: Why did the supermodel stare at the orange juice carton? Because it said "concentrate" on it! 

Darn it, stop distracting myself! Old jokes have nothing to do with BBC bias. (And 'Why did Jon Donnison stare at the orange squash carton? Because it said "concentrate" on it!' wouldn't be much of an improvement either.) Oh but....

Concentrate, man! What BBC bias did today's Sunday demonstrate? And how should I describe it? 

Ah, maybe I could rant about it?:
Typical bloody Sunday! They invite on some do-gooder, namby-pamby, latte-supping, Guardian-reading Christian type to bash the government and business, and then follow that with the latest installment of their never-ending campaign to have commie 'liberation theology' archbishop Oscar Romero turned into a saint. Then they bang on about race and the riots in Ferguson (like the race hustlers they are) and round this all-you-can-eat-buffet-of-bias with that do-gooder, namby-pamby, latte-supping, lefty, Guardian-reading Archbishop of York praying for world peace - meaning pretty much peace in Gaza it turns out. I don't pay my license fee to put up with this kind of 24/7 bias. Scrap the BBC!
That's not really me though. So what to do instead? Plod though the programme as usual? 

Well, some of the blackberries have already been consumed in a delicious blackberry crumble and it's now Monday, and the sun has taken its hat off, so why the heck not?

All humour will be surgically removed from the following post.

Saturday, 23 August 2014

Hamas is to Israel as IS is to us

I happened to have the television tuned to BBC News 24 in the afternoon when some breaking news came through. I think the presenter was Nicholas Owen. He did look a little perplexed while announcing that Hamas had executed eighteen suspected collaborators. 

I thought that news was very important. Evidently the BBC thinks otherwise, because it hasn’t made many headlines. 
It’s important because it clearly puts Hamas alongside IS. You know, ruthless and barbaric with no moral equivocation. No human shields to be seen. No sacrificial lambs. No input from Israel. Just violent and reckless, like Islamic State, the Islamists that everyone agrees represent evil incarnate. 

Despite the BBC happily describing both Hamas and Islamic State as “Islamist” groups, the way they approach them clearly differs. Let’s not pretend that we can’t tell whose side the BBC is on.  Every sentence, every bit of news has a subject and an object, a passive and an active, a protagonist and a villain. 

A thin veneer of objectivity is applied to most news and current affairs, not just the Middle East. It’s not hard to figure out which perspective the news comes from, and it’s quite plain what harm can be done beaming bias into all those millions of living rooms.
 The people at that demonstration are convinced that Gaza is experiencing a holocaust comparable to Hitler’s industrial extermination of the Jews. They think Israel is ‘worse than the Nazis’. They advise Hamas not to give up! Why? Why do we think they believe these outrageous myths? They must have got it from somewhere.

People seem to believe that while Hamas and IS are both islamists, Hamas are benign and IS are malignant. We’re told that Islamism is nothing to do with Islam.

Benjamin Netanyahu and other members of Israel’s government have tried in vain to point out the similarities between Hamas and IS, but the BBC isn’t having it. At least one person’s Twitter feed attempts to mitigate the case against Hamas by claiming that there was some kind of judicial procedure before these executions. Must have been speedy. The fact that collaborating with Israel is a crime deserving of summary execution was taken as read.

 Douglas Murray set it out in his Express piece  but the BBC is at pains to promote the alternative view. Even though everyone is horrified at the widely disseminated and disturbingly graphic beheading video, (and for some inexplicable reason doubly so because the man in black is speaking in Ali G-ese, which means he’s one of ours) the execution of some of their pet Palestinians at the hands of some of their other pet Palestinians, bothers them not one jot. Perhaps if Hamas had sawn off eighteen heads with a rusty penknife it might have made a headline.  Pun accidental.
The BBC has invested so much effort into pleading the case for Hamas that it would be considered rude to draw attention to the similarities between a barbaric Islamist outfit that sacrifices children because of their openly stated aim of ridding the region of Jews and infidels and habitually executes suspected traitors on the slightest whim, and another barbaric Islamist outfit that beheads, crucifies, executes and slaughters anything that moves.  Mustn’t say it. Terrible slur on Hamas.  Off-message.   

It might have been Nicholas Owen

Even though the obvious is looming as large as a heard of elephants rampaging through Broadcasting House and trump trump trumping into the open-plan newsroom behind Nicholas Owen live on air as he announces that Hamas has just demonstrated their similarity to Islamic State, we’re supposed to just say goodbye to the circus and downplay, dodge and deny all comparisons between Hamas and IS.
Forget the semantics over Islamism and Islam proper. Who cares? If the Jihadis continually screech Allah Ackbar all day long, who’s going to bother to dance on the heads of pins any more? They do this in the name of Allah and I think that means they are Muslims. 

Who actually cares whether the true identity of the man in black is ever resolved. It’s obvious that he’s one of many. We know what they’ve been up to. We’re at war with them, surely. Hamas is to Israel as IS is to us. 
News of the executions of possible collaborators should have been a game changer, but it was buried in an impersonal report about the death of the little Israeli four-year-old boy who  was not even named by the BBC. 

'More or Less'

I was going to do a piece on More or Less's take on the BBC's coverage of the Gaza casualty statistics. It would have involved lots of transcribing and taken lots of time.

Thankfully Hadar at BBC Watch has already done it, including all the transcribing. Her piece is well worth reading. Its focus lies less in confronting More or Less's statistical findings than in undermining the integrity of the three organisations consulted by the programme  [the United Nations High Commission of Human Rights, the Al Mezan Centre for Human Rights in Gaza and the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem]. She argues that the programme breached BBC editorial guidelines by failing to point out their respective anti-Israel political activities. 

Unusually for More or Less, the programme didn't do its own statistical study of the casualty figures, so they didn't actually have any of their own 'findings'. It merely asked those three organisations to defend the controversial stats, which they duly did, and then framed their justifications with little other than the background story of the BBC website article that provoked the storm in the first time. 

Thus, what we got was was the UN plus two of the very groups the UN uses to compile their figures all saying that the much-disputed UN stats are robust and trustworthy - which surely prompts the thought, "Well, they would say that, wouldn't they?"

The other two main items on the programme were much more typical of More or Less - a take-down of the UK coalition government's numbers over the Troubled Families initiative and a take-down of the Guardian and the left-wing High Pay Commission over their fatally-flawed chief executive pay stats. 

Friday, 22 August 2014

'Newsnight' and the 'Laughing Jihadi'

On Wednesday night Newsnight featured a report from BBC reporter Secunder Kermani ("Disillusioned revolutionary, serial daydreamer, sporadic narcissist, @SecKermani") during which the views of a British-born IS fighter were broadcast to a sleepy BBC Two audience. 

This vicious Islam-besotted prat (whose 'alias' was given in honour of some dead al-Qaeda pervert) said that Islam allows the kind of atrocities IS commits, that he'd only return to the UK to plant a bomb, and [indirectly] that the brutal murder of Lee Rigby was justified. On BBC Two. 

I watched this and felt nothing but disgust for him. 

I also felt that I was actually hearing what some British Muslims really think, and hoped that it might be a wake-up call to a few BBC Two viewers.

Such people hate us, live among us, and would happily slaughter us with a clear conscience. We need to do something about them. And question their friends and family. Now.

Plus I was slightly taken aback to hear Newsnight's Richard Watson tell us that [according to the UK security services] some 260 out of the 500 or so British Muslims who have gone out to fight for IS and the barely-less-extreme al-Nusra Front [yes, by choice, the most extreme groups] have already returned to the UK, harbouring Allah knows what wicked intentions against us. 

I found this alarming, to put it mildly. 

The Daily Mail, however, reports that former security minister Dame Pauline Neville-Jones said the interview shouldn't have been aired on the grounds that it might boost the terrorists' reputation, their status...

...or, to put it in a way Dame Pauline probably wouldn't herself have put it, that over-bearded pondlife like this shouldn't have its ego (and silly beard) stroked by the BBC.

I can see her point. So we're in the middle of a classic 'oxygen of publicity' controversy here. 

But, if my reaction to this pervert was typical, then I'd say that the 'publicity' was poisonous air. 

However, I'm not a British Muslim, and if broadcasting this British Muslim's bigoted terrorist views gave any British Muslim succour and inspiration, then broadcasting such views would be dangerous, wouldn't it? 

Tricky territory this. What is a British broadcaster to do?

The BBC and less than half the story

This may take a little time and reading but it may be worth the effort to compare and contrast the reporting of the BBC and the New York Times regarding today's murders by Hamas.

Here's the BBC website's take [note in particular the sub-headline and the paragraphs that follow it]: 

Gaza: Hamas says 18 suspected informants executed
Hamas sources in Gaza say 18 people suspected of collaborating with Israel have been executed.
The killings came after an Israeli air strike killed three senior Hamas leaders on Thursday. Two more Palestinians died in overnight strikes.
Israel says there has been fire from Gaza - including a strike on Friday that killed a four-year-old boy.
More than 2,070 Palestinians, mostly civilians, and 67 Israelis, mostly troops, have been killed in six weeks.
A Thai national in Israel was also killed by rocket fire early on in the conflict.
The four-year-old Israeli boy was killed in a mortar attack on a southern village along the Gaza border, officials say.
Speaking after the death was confirmed, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Hamas would "pay a heavy price for the crime".
Hostilities between Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza resumed on Tuesday, scuppering efforts in Cairo to achieve a long-term ceasefire deal.
Hamas has insisted on a lifting of the economic blockade of Gaza as part of any longer-term deal.
Israel has vowed to pursue its campaign until "full security" is achieved through the disarmament of Hamas and other groups in Gaza.
'Forced by circumstances'
Hamas sources said Friday's executions had been carried out by what it called the Resistance, which may suggest the involvement of other armed Palestinian factions.
Hamas officials told Reuters that the first 11 executions were carried out at an abandoned police station.
Witnesses said another seven people were shot by men in Hamas uniforms outside the Al-Umari mosque in central Gaza.
After the first 11 executions, Hamas warned that "the same punishment will be imposed soon on others".
It added that "the current circumstances forced us to take such decisions", suggesting a link between the executions and the killing of the three senior Hamas leaders.

That makes it sound, does it not, as if the Resistance was "forced by circumstances" to "execute" these collaborators?

In contrast, here's the New York Times' take, which is considerably more informative - including descriptions of the executions and the baying (entirely male) crowds, the fact (it seems) that women were among the victims, plus recalls of past Hamas atrocities, mention of the number of rockets fired from Gaza into Israel, and the outright condemnations of Hamas by B’tselem and Human Rights Watch [sources which the BBC are usually happy to quote]:

Gazans Suspected of Collaborating With Israel Are Executed
GAZA CITY — One day after an intelligence coup enabled Israel to kill three top commanders of Hamas’s armed wing, as many as 18 Palestinians suspected of collaboration with Israel were summarily executed in public on Friday, in what was seen as a warning to the people of the Gaza Strip.
Masked gunmen in matching black T-shirts and pants paraded seven of the suspected collaborators, handcuffed and hooded, to their deaths before a boisterous crowd outside a downtown mosque after noon prayers, in a highly theatrical presentation. Photographs showed a pair of militants leaning over a doomed man on his knees against a wall, and masses of men and boys cheering and clamoring for a better view.
The Palestinians killed on Friday were not identified, but they were reported to have been arrested for or convicted of collaboration, a crime punishable by death under Palestinian law, before this summer’s bloody battles between Israel and Hamas, the militant Islamist movement that dominates Gaza.
Still, the style and timing — after Thursday’s Israeli airstrikes that killed the three Hamas commanders and the attempted assassination on Tuesday night of their boss, Mohammed Deif, whose fate remains unknown — indicated an intensified Hamas crackdown against those who inform on leaders’ locations.
“I think this has provoked, and let’s say triggered, this process,” said Hamdi Shaqqura, deputy director of the Palestinian Center for Human Rights, a Gaza group that has long monitored and condemned such extrajudicial killings. “If you speak to any regular citizen in Gaza, nobody is looking with mercy on these people. Why? Because people are being bombarded. A lot of the blame for bombardment of specific places is being put on collaborators.”
Al Majd, a website managed by the Internal Security Service of the Hamas government that ran Gaza until June, warned that future collaborators would be dealt with in the field, not in courthouses, to create deterrence.
The executions, the most public and numerous since the simmering Gaza conflict sharply escalated on July 8, came amid the third consecutive day of heavy rocket and mortar fire from Gaza into Israel. One mortar shell killed a 4-year-old boy on a kibbutz just outside Gaza, the first child and fourth civilian in Israel to die in the escalation, which has taken the lives of 64 Israeli soldiers and nearly 2,100 Palestinians, about 500 of them children.
The Israeli military said the shell had been fired from a Gaza City school used to shelter Gazans displaced by the fighting.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel vowed in a statement that “Hamas will pay a dear price for this severe terror attack,” and he said his forces “will intensify their activity” until the operation’s objective — restoring quiet — “is achieved.”
The Israeli military counted more than 120 rockets fired by 10 p.m. Friday, some sailing as far north as Tel Aviv and its suburbs, and nearly 500 since Tuesday afternoon, when a nine-day cease-fire and Egyptian-brokered talks toward a more durable truce collapsed. Five people were wounded, three by shrapnel from a rocket that exploded in a synagogue in Ashdod, a city not far from Gaza.
The Gaza Health Ministry said that a father and son had been killed in Qarara, near Khan Younis in southern Gaza, and that two others had died of wounds. More than 40 Gazans were wounded in an evening Israeli strike on a Gaza City home, the ministry said.
“We are currently attacking in the Gaza Strip very powerfully and will continue to do so in the coming hours,” Brig. Gen. Motti Almoz, the chief Israeli Army spokesman, said in a television interview on Friday night. “Every citizen in the Gaza Strip who has in proximity to him or his home weaponry, we view him to be a legitimate target,” General Almoz said. “We are asking him to leave the area because those targets are going to be attacked in the coming hours and coming days. We are here. We aren’t going to go anywhere until quiet arrives.”
The Friday executions, which followed the similar killings of three suspected collaborators reported by Palestinian news agencies on Thursday, echoed killings Hamas carried out during two previous Israeli military operations in Gaza. Gaza’s Interior Ministry, which handles judicial and security matters, declined to address the reported executions. But a statement published on many Palestinian websites — including some affiliated with Hamas — said a “revolutionary court” had been formed “in agreement with the war’s circumstances.”
Journalists, human rights workers and a witness said that either nine or 11 people, including two women, were killed Friday morning in a public park and at a bus stop near Al Azhar University in Gaza City, near the central prison where they were believed to have been held. Seven others, hands tied behind their backs, were killed as worshipers exited Al Omri mosque, another witness said, leaving bloodstains on the ground that bystanders photographed with mobile phones.
“There were about 20 masked gunmen in the area,” said the witness at the mosque, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal. “One of them said loudly that the death sentence is going to be carried out against seven collaborators.”
“They did not mention their names,” he added. “They shot them after that, and then the militants left. People were shouting, ‘God is great.’ ”
Mr. Shaqqura of the human rights center said his group was investigating reports that five other suspected collaborators had been killed more than two weeks ago. Its director, Raji Sourani, wrote urgent letters to Palestinian leaders on Friday “demanding that they immediately and decisively intervene to stop such extrajudicial executions,” according to a statement.
“In the middle of this onslaught on Gaza, we are in need to respect the rule of law and to respect human rights,” Mr. Shaqqura said in an interview. “More than any other time, it’s a challenge for us.”
During Israel’s last Gaza offensive, in 2012, masked gunmen left the bloodied body of Ashraf Ouaida in a traffic circle beneath a billboard showing a Hamas fighter, and hung a poster around his neck that accused him of helping Israel kill 15 Palestinian leaders. A few days later, six more suspected collaborators were killed vigilante-style, and the body of one was dragged through a Gaza City neighborhood by motorcycle.
At least a dozen collaborators who escaped from Hamas jails during Israel’s invasion of 2008-9 were summarily executed in the street.
Collaboration has been considered a heinous crime in Palestinian society since before Israel became a state. During its seven-year rule of Gaza, Hamas used vigorous prosecution and the occasional lynchings of suspected spies to enforce loyalty. But rights groups that document such cases said the number had been radically reduced from the period from 1987 to 1994, when an estimated 1,000 people were executed as collaborators.
Hagai el-Ad, director of the Israeli human rights group B’tselem, declined to speculate on why Hamas might have chosen Friday to kill the collaborators.
“This is something that cannot be justified, full stop,” he said in an interview. “Such actions are severe violations of international humanitarian law, and those involved in such actions are personally, criminally liable.”
Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director of Human Rights Watch, called the killings “a horrendous abuse” and said “renewed efforts are needed so that trials in Gaza respect defendants’ rights.”
What does that tell you about BBC reporting, and BBC bias?