Wednesday, 23 April 2014

I knew it!

I knew it! 
As soon as I heard the headlines this morning on the radio (BBC radio 4) I knew what would happen.  Tony Blair says something that needs saying - the very thing that our current bunch of politicians, journalists, movers, shakers and Uncle Tom Cobley ‘n’ all are too deaf, dumb and blind to say. But because Tony Blair, the most reviled figure in the western hemisphere and beyond is the one who’s saying it, the message goes down the plughole with the rest of the bathwater.
No sooner did I click on the Guardian, as directed by the BBC website, than zillions of comments confirmed what I already knew. Most of the great British public have turned into zombies and antisemites. 
  I’ll just spell it out. Tony Blair has become known as, in no particular order:
  •  The person responsible for an illegal war,
  •  A war criminal, 
  • Tony B Liar. 

So when he says something we need to hear, it will be drowned in a sea of denial.
Brace yourself and look at the comments below all the Guardian’s reports related to his speech.  It seems that because Tony Blair is now a pariah,  a mouthpiece of Netanyahu, spawn of the devil, everything he says is tainted. His speech, made with the intention of trying to waken us up, has had the opposite effect. We’ve descended into a deeper slumber. If only he’d persuaded someone popular to make his speech.  

But who? I know. Russell Brand. Too immature. Alan Titchmarsh? No. Too mumsy. How about Mary Berry? Hmm.
Suggestions on a postcard please.

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Why Google News is better than BBC News

Google News is a great source of news. Better than the BBC in fact.

Today, Google News shows that many a UK news site is updating their readers with the latest news from Abu Hamza's trial:

Abu Hamza: '9/11 Made Everybody Happy'
Sky News-9 hours ago

US jurors hear Abu Hamza's praise for September 11 attacks
Reuters UK-13 hours ago

Abu Hamza was 'happy' about 9/11 attacks terror trial jury hears
Daily Mail-12 hours ago

Abu Hamza trial sees him praising 9/11 hijackers hours ago

Abu Hamza in US terror trial: "Everyone was happy when the planes crashed on 9/11" hours ago

The BBC News website isn't reporting this story though.

It mentioned the start of Hamza's trial on April 17th, but hasn't returned to it since - which is funny, given that the BBC is the world's largest broadcast news organisation and has the wherewithal to keep its readers up to date with the news, when it wants to. 

Monday, 21 April 2014

Dear Sir (Coda)

Just as a coda to Sue's post...

Jim Al-Khalili, Dan Snow, Adam Rutherford, Natalie Haynes, Dr Alice Roberts, Richard Herring, Tony Hawks et al are surely engaging in a spot of either confirmation bias or sleight-of-hand when they write...
Repeated surveys, polls and studies show that most of us as individuals are not Christian in our beliefs or our religious identities
...because such surveys also show something else - and something that runs completely counter to their line of argument.

YouGov's most recent survey on the topic Is Britain a Christian country? backs up their claim that most British people aren't religious, but it also shows that most people disagree with them about whether Britain is a Christian country and, even worse, that most British people actually believe that Britain should be a Christian country.

Now, that's something they forgot to mention in their letter, didn't they?

According to that YouGov poll,
76% Britons say they are 'not religious', but 56% say Britain is Christian, & 61% agree it should be.
Most Britons say that they do not belong to any particular religion and are not religious, our poll shows, with just 5% of Britons saying that they are 'very religious'.
However, most say that Britain is a Christian country anyway, and almost three in five Britons feel that Britain should be a Christian country in any case. Just one in five people says that Britain should not be a Christian nation.
Even among those who say that they are not at all religious, there are sizeable numbers who feel that Britain is, and should be, a Christian country.
Yes, just one in five people in the United Kingdom agree with Polly Toynbee, Dr Evan Harris, Peter Tatchell, Terry Pratchett, CJ De Mooi & Co.

I myself am 'not religious', but I would also say that Britain is Christian and that it jolly well ought to be Christian. I'm, therefore, much more in tune with the mood of the nation than Tim Minchin or Ken Follett (which is nice). 

Whatever David Cameron's motives (and cynical electioneering would be a good guess), his contention that Britain is a Christian country and ought to be a Christian country is one, therefore, that is shared by most British people. The view of these letter writers, in contrast, is shared by only a small minority of people.

So that's that then. Sorted.

Dear Sir

“SIR – We respect the Prime Minister’s right to his religious beliefs and the fact that they necessarily affect his own life as a politician. However, we object to his characterisation of Britain as a “Christian country” and the negative consequences for politics and society that this engenders.Apart from in the narrow constitutional sense that we continue to have an established Church, Britain is not a “Christian country”. Repeated surveys, polls and studies show that most of us as individuals are not Christian in our beliefs or our religious identities.At a social level, Britain has been shaped for the better by many pre-Christian, non-Christian, and post-Christian forces. We are a plural society with citizens with a range of perspectives, and we are a largely non-religious society.Constantly to claim otherwise fosters alienation and division in our society. Although it is right to recognise the contribution made by many Christians to social action, it is wrong to try to exceptionalise their contribution when it is equalled by British people of different beliefs. This needlessly fuels enervating sectarian debates that are by and large absent from the lives of most British people, who do not want religions or religious identities to be actively prioritised by their elected government.”

Signed by a shedload of who’s-whos, evidently canvassed from the bounteous food-bank of left-leaning, BBC-friendly, atheist celebrities, scientists and, I presume, one clone, who form the bulk of the UK’s  right-on intelligentsia, the letter comes at a particularly inappropriate time. 

Since we are unlikely to be ripping up our constitution, re-assigning the Royals, dismantling the Archbishop of Canterbury or whatever procedural changes this would necessitate, the whole argument is really a matter of semantics, but for argument’s sake, say the UK is officially declared Not Christian, doesn’t that leave a bloody great vacuum into which several Trojan Horses could gallop?

I thought Peter Tatchell kind of knew that the ‘Christian country’ fandango was a mountain out of a molehill, and the Tatchell /Humphrys cordiality hinted at an underlying consensus. “Depends how you define it, doesn’t it?” said Humph. Yes.

The Trojan Horse issue came hard on the heels of John Humphrys’s interview with Peter Tatchell. Now, there’s the rub. The Trojan Elephant is another one of these annoying topics that are always danced around like those handbags girls used to dance round in the olden days.
The real issue is, do we care that Islam is the most rapidly growing religion (perhaps the only rapidly growing religion) in this country? Without being racist, Islamophobic or politically incorrect, why is it okay to write a letter to the Telegraph saying that because practicing Christians are outnumbered by ‘non-practising Christians, atheists and other religions ’ we mustn’t be characterised as a Christian country - surely this is opening the door to our potential, predicted, imminent outnumbering by Muslims. In other words, if proportionality is the determining factor, it’s leaving the door open to the UK becoming another Islamic state.

Now, why don’t we, honestly, wish such a thing to befall upon the UK? It seems that the only reasons we can openly argue are superficialities such as gender segregation, and if provable, connections to terrorism and violence.
 As far as gender segregation is concerned, where it occurs in class it can easily be pooh-poohed as a matter of preference rather than religion-based regulation. 
Personal choice, cultural or parental influence are all used to defend this practice where it occurs in schools, and without being politically incorrect, who could argue against that without putting themselves into the opposite position than the one intended?  Like, unwittingly proposing we force pupils to sit in mixed-gender order, like one of those posh dinner parties I’m always attending. 
Come on.
So because we can’t criticise Islam as a religion, even though it largely manifests itself, in practical terms, in rituals, dogma, taboos, denigration of outsiders not to mention political ideology, and we can criticise Christianity, which hardly manifests itself at all in practical terms, we’re stuffed.

The reason we are alarmed at the Trojan Elephant is that we can see it happening, and we’re too bloody “Christian” to do anything about it. 

What is the Today programme like? It habitually cuts short a riveting discussion to go to some urgent sports report or some other trivial non-issue. This morning’s was about a kind of rap band, called something like Wu-Tang clap trap, who created some artificial publicity for their album by claiming that making just one copy of their album and burying it in the desert makes it as valuable as an original work of art. The interview with Evan was based on that spurious concept.  Evan, and presumably the Today programme’s editors, accepted this misconceived premise, when the equation was obviously quite wrong.  If their rap music was of any merit, and it’s a big IF, it would be the ‘one-off’ live performance that might equate with the original art work; its digital reproduction (discs and downloads) would than equate to the digital reproduction of the artwork ( prints and publications.) 
I wanted to hear more of Jack Straw, who’s attitude teeters wildly back and forth between apparently “understanding” the “Asian’ grooming issue one minute, condemning Israel as a “stealer of land” the next, and back again to being moderately daringly critical of creeping Islamisation.

The item that displaced Jack Straw was (they deny it) ‘affiliated’ with this unfortunate fellow, whose deed might have generated even more publicity, had they thought to use it as an artwork, or buried it in the desert as a one-off. Sorry.

Start the Week

As reported here back on Good Friday ("reported" eh? - ed), Radio 4's Today editor, Jamie Angus, believes the debate over man-made climate change is settled:
I think, you know, when Justin and I and the programme team discussed that interview, we thought we'd allowed it to drift too much into a straight yes/no argument about the science. And, of course, the settled view of the expert scientists is just that: Settled.
Some agree and some disagree about whether the science really is settled but, even if it is, the public debate about it sure as heck isn't. Hence the disagreement. 

And what an unpleasant debate it often is, isn't it? The two sides sling insults at each other - "alarmist!", "denier!" - and keep telling their respective followers (in classic ad hom fashion) to "follow the money" - "They are in the pay of Big Oil!", "They are in the pay of Big Green!" 

As examples of that, take environmentalist George Monbiot and scientist Joanna Haigh:
Almost everywhere, climate change denial now looks as stupid and unacceptable as Holocaust denial.
     [George Monbiot, The Guardian]
I slightly object to the use of the word 'sceptic' because there's absolutely nothing wrong with being sceptical. All good scientists are sceptical, so I tend to to refer to those people you mean as 'climate change deniers' because they deny it's happening and choose various reasons.
     [Joanna Haigh, The Life Scientific
Both George Monbiot and Joanna Haigh will be on this morning's Start the Week - a special edition centred around the creator of the Gaia Hypothesis, James Lovelock. I'm betting the insult 'denial/denier' puts in an appearance at some stage.

In an interview with The Guardian's Stephen Moss, James Lovelock takes on this kind of attitude:
Lovelock's new book is likely to be claimed by both sides in the climate change debate. He has pulled back from the alarmist predictions of The Revenge of Gaia, published in 2006, and now says the rate of global warming is slower than he anticipated. "I was a little too certain in that book," he admits. "You just can't tell what's going to happen." He says the oceans store most of the heat from the sun, tempering the impact on the atmosphere, and our lack of understanding of the likely effects of the warming of the oceans makes it very difficult to predict the long-term impact. "It could be terrible within a few years, though that's very unlikely, or it could be hundreds of years before the climate becomes unbearable."
Won't this give succour to climate change deniers? "It's just as silly to be a denier as it is to be a believer," he says. "You can't be certain." He says climate change scientists should adopt the same level of statistical stringency as exists in medicine. So we need to take the politics out of climate science? "Oh sure, but we're tribal animals. We can't help being political."
Lovelock sees environmentalism today as a form of what he calls "urban politics". "It's become a religion," he says, "and religions don't worry too much about facts." 
This morning's Start the Week should be quite lively then.

Sunday, 20 April 2014

New broom at BBC Two

BBC Two has a new controller (and not a fat one). She's called Kim Shillinglaw.

She worked for the Guardian (specifically Observer Films) before moving to ITV and Channel 4, finally joining the BBC in 2006, where she helped develop Horrible Histories. She worked in BBC News, including Newsnight. She then became the head of science and natural history in 2009, overseeing the rise of Brian Cox. 

According to the Guardian, Kim's achievements have been to put more science programmes into the BBC's schedules and more female experts and presenters on screen.

She shares BBC director of television Danny Cohen's concerns about the lack of women of TV comedy shows, once tweeting "Why are only women on Mock the Week compilations laughing cutaways? They never get to speak. Surely not because not funny?" 

Her husband, Steve Condie, also worked for the BBC as a history development executive. He also worked on Newsnight. He left the BBC in 2012, and now works for Oxford Scientific Films.

Her hobby is collecting animal bones. 

Just thought you'd like to know.

Barry Cryer jokes

Broadcasting House today. Barry Cryer. Jokes. Including parrot jokes.
(1) A couple going out for dinner, and she's in the bathroom trying on a new dress, and she came out of the bathroom and said to her husband, "Does my bum look big in this?" He said, "Oh be fair, love, it's quite a small bathroom".
(2) A parrot in a cage in the window, and a woman walked past in the road, and the parrot said, "You're a fat cow", and she was outraged and complained to the parrot's owner, and he said, "Behave or I'll sellotape your beak up". So the parrot stopped. And two hours later the same woman walked past the window and the parrot said, "You know what I'm thinking." 
(3) A woman walked into a shop to buy a parrot, a beautiful blue-and-gold job, and she said to the man, "How much?", and he said, "Twenty quid". 
She said, "Twenty pounds? He's beautiful."
He said, "Well, I have to be quite frank with you. It's got a bit of form. It's got a bit of history. He was in a brothel and, to put it delicately, he's got quite an extensive vocabulary."
She said, "I'll take a chance on that", took the parrot back to her flat, took the cover off. The parrot looked round her flat and said, "New place. Very nice".
Two daughters walked in. The parrot said, "New place. New girls. Very nice indeed."
And her husband walked in, and the parrot said, "Hello Keith."

Easter at the BBC

Kate Chisholm of The Spectator is impressed with BBC Radio's coverage of Easter:
Given the decline of Christian belief in the UK, it’s surprising to discover there’s quite so much about the Easter story on the airwaves this week. You might have assumed that no space would have been found in the schedules for a retelling of the central but yet most difficult Christian narrative....
Yet on the evening of Good Friday, Radio 2 gave us an hour-long meditation uncompromisingly entitled At the Foot of the Cross [actually, it was two hours-long]. No avoiding, then, the implications of that story — the bloodied hands and feet, the rejection, the pain, the utter despair, and the apocalyptic rupture of the Temple curtain at the hour of three, when the skies darkened and the last words of Christ echoed through Calvary. On 4, there was not only a Good Friday meditation by the Archbishop of York but also The Archers put Chris on the Cross, quite literally, as the Ambridge villagers acted out the Passion with Neil Carter’s blacksmith son taking on the central, sacrificial role. (‘The hunky young farrier with his chest out,’ as Kirsty so memorably foretold a week earlier.)
Radio 3, meanwhile, devoted The Essay all week to five meditations on Christian themes by the journalist Madeleine Bunting. 
Charles Moore was impressed with the latter too. As was I.

Radio 4 today gave us not one but two Easter Sunday services - a lovely Roman Catholic Sunrise Service at 6.35 am and an extended Anglican Easter Sunday Service from Stratford-upon-Avon at 8.10 am, complete with music by Haydn and Vaughan Williams. The close of the Bishop of Warwick's Shakespeare-tinged sermon ran as follows (for those of you with a taste for Church of England sermons):
The Orthodox icon of the Resurrection is at one and the same time the icon of the descent into hell. The good news of Easter is not pie in the sky when we die. It does not bypass or deny the horrors of Good Friday. The risen Christ bears the marks of his wounds. He comes to his wounded world and to us in the darkness and struggles of our real lives to draw us into the light of his resurrection life.

So this ‘quintessence of dust’ - your life and mine - is destined for glory, for resurrection life, and that means now!  So we can pray with Herbert: Rise heart, thy Lord is risen/Sing his praise without delays,/Who takes thee by the hand, that thou likewise/With him may’st rise.’ 
BBC TV hasn't been holding back either. 

BBC One had The Great North Passion on Friday, and today gave us Easter Worship from Leicester Cathedral at 10.00 am, Pope Francis's Urbi et Orbi (Easter message and blessing) at 11.00 am, a repeat of an old Easter edition of Songs of Praise at 11.20 am, plus a new Easter edition of Songs of Praise at 5.10 pm. [This was lovely but, in typical BBC style, pointedly 'rubbed our noses in diversity': Bill Turnbull is treated to a Polish traditional Easter meal, learns about the Moravian custom of remembering the dead and visits a stunning Greek Orthodox church - all within the boundary of Yorkshire. Young Catholics from across the county sing some old favourites, and there is a performance by the BBC Radio 2 Young Choristers of the Year.]

BBC Two gave us Easter from King's and, somewhat more tangentially, Messiah at the Foundling Hospital (Handel's Messiah is an Easter work, not a Christmas one - though I don't mind when it's performed!), plus King of Kings on Good Friday. 

Credit where credit's due to the BBC here - as I suspect Polly Toynbee, A.C. Grayling, Andrew Copson and Richard Dawkins won't be saying (a feeling I'd have shared with them in years gone by). 

No one can reasonably accuse the BBC of ignoring/downgrading Easter this year.

The Impermanence of Things

This morning's Something Understood meditated on the theme of freedom. It was presented by an evangelical Christian Spectator writer, who made a passing dig at public sector waste and featured The Beatles' anti-tax classic Taxman among his selection of music.

Of course it didn't really. As if it ever would! 

No, this morning's Something Understood actually meditated on the theme of impermanence and was presented by a Buddhist Guardian writer, who made a passing dig at zero hours contracts and featured a Billy Bragg song among her selection of music.

Still, it wasn't bad, and featured a fine poem by Philip Larkin called The Trees...

The trees are coming into leaf
Like something almost being said;
The recent buds relax and spread,
Their greenness is a kind of grief.

Is it that they are born again
And we grow old? No, they die too.
Their yearly trick of looking new
Is written down in rings of grain.

Yet still the unresting castles thresh
In fullgrown thickness every May.
Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.

'Sunday' in Belfast

This morning's Sunday on Radio 4 was an Easter Sunday special from Belfast, presented by William Crawley.

Its themes were (1) the criticism of the government for failing to include the Church in plans for the future of Northern Ireland, (2) the dangers of commericialisation at Easter, (3) the role of faith groups in Ukraine, (4) the rise of Islam in N Ireland, (5) food poverty, (6) the legacy on the ground of the Good Friday agreement, and (7) the question of whether there should be an amnesty for those involved in the Troubles - a range of familiar and expected Sunday topics, I'm sure you'll agree. 

Here's what happened (with the blurb from the Sunday website in bold italics).

1. Bishop Harold Miller of the Church of Ireland has said the absence of the church in the plan for the future of Northern Ireland is "regrettable" 

William introduced the Bishop of Down and Dromore as being critical of the government over this issue. Bishop Harold expressed himself far less aggressively than that might suggest, regretting the absence of the church's role, suspecting that it may be that - due to past history - the church is seen as part of the problem rather than part of the solution, and expressing the belief that the church can very much be part of the solution.

2. Also as the Church of England launches a twitter campaign #EasterMeans, Kevin Bocquet asks What is the meaning of Easter? 

Kevin reported (as the programme so often does now) from Manchester. Linda Woodhead of Lancaster University (a 'Sunday' favourite) was his expert 'talking head.' She wasn't particularly concerned about the issue of commercialisation of Easter [the actual theme of this report]. Kevin pointed out a "posh chocolate shop" selling a £75 Easter Egg before speaking to various vox pops in Manchester, asking them what they think of when they hear the word 'Easter'. The answers came: chocolate,, Easter Eggs, shopping, "having to go to church" and "Jesus" (a Catholic). Not many seemed to be intending to go to church. 

In the middle of the Arndale Centre he met Rogers Govender, Dean of Manchester Cathedral, who was cleaning the shoes of passers-by, in imitation of Jesus's washing of feet. The dean wasn't particularly bothered that people are shopping either, but Kevin kept worrying away about the billions of pounds that businesses make at Easter. Linda Woodhead said that religion has always been commercialised, reminding us about the money-making that surrounded relics and pilgrimage sites in the Middle Ages.

Larger shops are not allowed to open on Easter Sunday. Stephen Springer, a retail analyst, said that this irritates them, especially as online shopping is growing and proving both popular and profitable. Technology is undermining the ban. 

Finally, Fr Paul Canon from Salford, a Catholic, agreed that they have to interact with the secular society, and wasn't that bothered about commercialisation either. An active church will lead to its higher profile, he argued.

3. And from the Ukraine we speak to Sergei Golovin a scientist and pastor speaks to William ahead of his Easter service in Chernivtsi.

There must have been a last-minute change of plan here, as Fr Golovin was dropped and the Lib Dem MP Simon Hughes took his place. He's just come back from Ukraine. He says that people there are grateful for British & EU interest in them.

[Simon Hughes & Labour's Baroness Blood (below) takes this year's tally of party politicians to: Labour = 8, Liberal Democrats = 6, & Conservatives = 3.]

4. And we explore the rise of Islam in Belfast 

Oh yes, it's 'the world's fastest growing religion' time, and it's now growing in Northern Ireland, with the number of Muslims there doubling in the past decade. 

William went to meet a man who came from Turkey in 2009, settling in Belfast. He's happy, but... Prompted by William, he said that if he were more visibly Muslim he'd face more problems (he's relatively light-skinned) especially as his wife wears a headscarf and has had some problems). He says Muslims are "still outsiders" there. William suggested they might need a bigger mosque. They've been trying for one for years, came the reply. 'Will Muslims face problems if one is built?', William wondered.

Then he went to the Belfast Islamic Centre to meet a man who grew up as middle-class Irishman in Belfast, with links to Republican politics and a traditional Catholic upbringing. He has now converted to Islam, complete with beard and traditional Muslim clothes. "Have you experienced discrimination here?" asked William, pushing the same angle he'd been pushing throughout.

5. As new figures released by the Trussell Trust demonstrate the extent of food poverty in the UK William asks what that means for the people of Northern Ireland with Rev Kevin Graham from the Church of Ireland and Cormac Wilson - Regional Senior Vice President, Society of St Vincent de Paul.

Though the government strongly disputes the Trussell Trust's figures, that didn't stop the 'Sunday' website from asserting that they "demonstrate the extent of food poverty in the UK" or William Crawley from asserting, "This week we learned there's been a MASSIVE increase in people receiving food handouts", saying the numbers have "practically doubled".

Shouldn't 'Sunday' be less assertive when dealing with such a hotly-disputed political issue? 

Rev Kevin Graham said that 11,697 came to food banks in N Ireland, a five-fold increase. Cormac Wilson said "there's been a great increase in need". Kevin blamed static incomes, zero hours, welfare sanctions and the public sector pay freeze. "I would be in total agreement", said Cormac. Kevin wants fairer welfare reform, and William invited him to expand on what the government should be doing. He said they should bring in a living wage and social energy tariffs, "It's obviously a worsening problem," said William.

Someone from the government, someone sceptical of the Trussell Trust's figures or someone who doesn't think that there's a food poverty crisis in this country at all really should have been invited on for the sake of balance. [This being 'Sunday' though that was always unlikely to happen. It's an subject area where balance rarely ever seems to even enter into 'Sunday''s collective head].

6. In a special Easter programme from Belfast, William meets Baroness May Blood asking how Northern Ireland has changed since the signing of the Good Friday agreement. 

William talked to Labour peer Baroness Blood, beginning with the issue of peace walls. She hopes for "a Belfast without peace walls", One is very near to her home. It was built in 1994, the day of the IRA ceasefire, "The million pound wall", it's called, and - like other peace walls - it's now a tourist attraction. ("Troubles tourism", William called it. Baroness Blood didn't seem too bothered about that).

He talked to her on Good Friday. She says that politically, Northern Ireland is "not much advanced" since then. 

What of faith? "Faith doesn't seem to have the same respect" these days, she said. There are 29,000 people in the Shankill area. Only 3% go to church now. She said that's partly because the province is becomingmore secular, partly because of the growth of new, community churches, away from established churches. She says it's very rare to hear priests being called "reverend" now, and that they're usually called by their first names. (She still addresses them formally though). 

Will Easter Sunday ever happen, politically in Northern Ireland?, William asked. Not in her lifetime, she replied.

7. Two victims of the troubles Jude Whyte and Ann Travers debate on how best to deal with the past in Northern Ireland.   

The question here was: Should there be an amnesty? After all, sacrifice, forgiveness, reconciliation and a new beginning are the messages of Easter, said William. 

Both guests, well-known in Northern Ireland, lost relatives to terrorists in 1984. Jude Whyte is in favour of an amnesty, hoping it would pave the way for a truth & reconciliation forum. Ann Travers, in contrast, believes it's wrong to take hope away from victims and opposes an amnesty, saying it would send the wrong message to present-day terrorists. William conducted this section as fairly as you would expect of someone will a huge amount of experience of handling this issue.

Update: As is his way, David Vance at Biased BBC has a pithier take on today's edition of Sunday:
I was up early this morning and tuned into the SUNDAY programme on Radio 4 presented by my old pal William Crawley. There was a story about how ISLAM was the fastest growing religion in the UK,  a story about the terrible “poverty” facing the UK that requires Food Banks and the like and a story about the need for an amnesty for terrorists in Northern Ireland. That was in about 30 minutes. The bias is so easy, so institutionalised, that it just flows out naturally.

The Islamic extremist threat to charities

The head of the Charity Commission, William Shawcross, has told his old newspaper The Sunday Times that Islamic extremism is becoming the deadliest problem faced by charities:
I’m sure that in places like Syria and Somalia it is very, very difficult for charities always to know what the end use of their aid is, but they’ve got to be particularly vigilant,” he says. “The problem of Islamist extremism . . . is not the most widespread problem we face in terms of abuse of charities, but is potentially the most deadly. And it is, alas, growing.
This is the second story on Radio 4's news bulletins this morning and the third story on the BBC News website, so it isn't being ignored.

The BBC News website article, however, gets it slightly wrong, saying
Islamic extremism is the "most deadly" threat to charities in England and Wales, the Charity Commission has said.
Chairman William Shawcross warned that while the issue is not currently widespread, it is growing. 
Mr Shawcross didn't, in fact, say that it's the "most deadly" threat; he said it's "potentially the most deadly", which is something quite different.

Moreover, he didn't say the problem "is not currently widespread"; he said it "is not the most widespread problem we face", which, again, is something rather different, isn't it?

Coda: Though the BBC was initially doing rather well with the Operation Trojan Horse story, even taking an active role in reporting it, the corporation has gradually began sinking back into its bad old ways, and it's striking that none of the revelations begin reported by Andrew Gilligan in the Telegraph are presently making their way onto the BBC News website, which - except for reporting a speech by Labour's Tristram Hunt - has been quiet on the story since Thursday, when Phil Mackie's Operation Trojan Horse: Will we ever learn the truth? was published. That article had the feel of an attempt punctuation mark, probably a full stop. The news has moved on dramatically since then, and no such punctuation mark is possible, but the BBC website is failing to keep up.

Update: Aha. 12.47 today. A new BBC article on the subject: Extremist 'takeovers' in Birmingham schools? And Double Aha. 13.08 today. A second new BBC article on the subject: Ofsted chief Wilshaw takes charge of Trojan Horse

Saturday, 19 April 2014

Breaking news....Muammar Gaddafi killed in Libya

I must be losing track of time as I get older. I could have sworn that Colonel Gaddafi was killed by our nice Libyan allies (and hasn't that turned out wonderfully!) well over two years ago, but it appears that it has only just happened. 

The current third 'Most Read' article on the BBC News website is...and, yes, it really is ...Muammar Gaddafi killed in Libya

Maybe this is Einstein's gravitational time dilation in action though. Gaddafi was quite a big man after all, and I'm quite short. 


I hate being a perennial sourpuss when it comes to blogging, so I'm going to recommend that you make an effort to catch the third and final part of Radio 4's most recent Classic Serial, Dante's Divine Comedy, Paradiso, while you can.

Failure to do so will see you damned for all eternity. After all, the sign at the entrance to Hell reads, "Abandon hope all ye who failed to catch Paradiso on Radio 4."

You can listen at 9 o'clock tonight [now] or on the i-Player for the next nineteen hours. 

The whole thing, as adapted by Stephen Wyatt and narrated by John Hurt, was staggeringly good. 

I will confess (as it's Easter Saturday) that I read everyone's favourite part of the Divine Comedy, the Inferno, many years ago, and continued half way up Mount Purgatorio before giving up (and tumbling back to Hell). The joys of Paradiso remained untasted, until this week. 

Beautiful poetry, thanks to Dante; interesting background information, thanks to Stephen Wyatt; fine performances; and gorgeous music too. (I recognised snatches of the Messe de Notre Dame by the greatest of all medieval composers, Guillaume de Machaut). 

I haven't heard anything as good as thing on the radio for years and I'd willingly subscribe to the BBC if they kept doing things like this.

And they very well might, as tomorrow's Classic Serial is Ring for Jeeves, with Martin Jarvis as Jeeves.

Martin Jarvis's recent solo readings of P.G. Wodehouse's Jeeves stories on Radio 4 have been another recent treat (and one that I probably ought to have mentioned earlier).

Despite the years of gentle teasing he had to put up with, thanks to the team responsible for Dead Ringers, the man is an acting genius ("He Do the Police in Different Voices"), and if you ever get a chance to hear him reading Wodehouse don't miss it!

In anticipation of tomorrow then, Happy Easter!

P.S. Talking about subscribing to things, I'm now a subscriber to The Spectator, on the grounds that they deserve a little financial support. And I'm not regretting it.

Among the many fine articles there - including Mark Steyn's glorious rallying cry in defence of free speech (oh, why isn't he a regular of Radio 4's A Point of View?....he asks, rhetorically) - is a piece by Christopher Booker on 'the greatest picture in the world', Piero della Francesca's Resurrection.

It is a magnificent painting, as you can see below.

“Have you enlisted Katty too?”

Oh, for David Preiser's take on this at Biased BBC (David is presently missing, presumed kidnapped. I suspect a police search of Mark Mardell's basement might restore him to us)...

The Times is reporting that Jay Carney, Barack Obama's official spokesman, has 'become the story' - something official spokesmen are famously not supposed to become. 

Republican critics are aghast that he and his wife, writer Claire Shipman, photographed in their kitchen in Washingtonian Mom magazine, have been found to have decorated their walls with two 'two framed Soviet-era propaganda posters, one featuring a female factory worker and the other a Red Army soldier with the legend in Russian asking, “Have you enlisted?”'

According to The Times, "the simple explanation for the posters is that the couple both worked as award-winning journalists in Moscow during the collapse of the Soviet Union."

Still, it's got the American Right a-buzzing, and is (therefore) 'a story'.

David P would be especially interested in this because one of the BBC's least impartial journalists, Katty Kay, who heads the BBC's American outfit, is - in one of  those strange BBC twists of circumstance - the business partner of Claire Shipman. (They've just published another book together, which The Times mentions - without mentioning Katty).

Were he not AWOL from Biased BBC, I'm sure that David would be checking the BBC News website to check out his suspicion that the BBC wouldn't be reporting this story. He'd find, not to his surprise, that they aren't reporting it. 

He'd also be bound to be checking out Katty Kay's Twitter feed to see if she's keeping her gob shut - and, yep, she sure is , even though she's the top BBC presenter in the U.S. and knows Jay Carney very well, and knows Claire Shipman even better.

Of course, The Times is reporting it as if it's an out-of-season 'silly season' story. Which, in a sensible world, it would be. 

Newsnight, David Axelrod, Operation Trojan Horse, Marine le Pen and Gabriel Garcia Marquez

The final Newsnight this week dropped Ukraine from its prime position. The deal in Geneva was obviously not as exciting as the 'bang bang' earlier in the week [as Jeremy Paxman might put it], so into third place in the programme's running order it duly went. 

Into prime position instead went the boring Westminster bubble story exciting Newsnight scoop that the Labour Party has hired West Wing star American strategist David Axelrod to help make Ed Miliband electable. If it worked for Obama, it's bound to work for Ed. 

Even though Newsnight and Kirsty Wark were clearly excited, Laura K's report was slightly ironic in tone and featured just one talking head - Jonathan Freedland of The Guardian. His contribution was similarly ironic [and, I suspect, true]:
In a way I do think some of these American advisors are slightly taking candy out of the hands of a baby by taking this money, these people, big fat contracts to work for British political parties, cos the truth is they haven't run a parliamentary campaign, a nationwide parliamentary campaign, and their experience - though glamorous and fascinating - is very, very different. I'm not sure how much their wisdom is exportable to Britain, but it will certainly make those advisors and SPADs with their DVD collections of The West Wing feel thrilled when they get up to work in the morning, and that's why they want him here. 
The studio discussion afterwards featured Republican Party strategist Frank Luntz and The Times' hard-to-place-politically Rachel Sylvester. They weren't especially wild about David Axelrod's appointment either.

Next came another report on the Operation Trojan Horse affair in Birmingham. 

It really is surprising that the BBC is playing an active part in reporting this story. It's not what I would have expected from them. From Channel 4 maybe, but not from the BBC. 

Still, they have generally been treading carefully (as is their way), and Chris Cook's report for Newsnight was as over-cautious as can be. It went out of its way to balance all shades of opinion except those supporting the government's choice of a former anti-terror chief to investigate the matter. As a result it rather lost the plot (in more than one sense).

The report promised something new. A scoop. Newsnight had "discovered" something - new documents "that reveal concerns over extremism in one school were flagged up four years ago". 

Amazingly little was made of this though. Chris Cook mentioned them, but didn't give us a good look at them or describe their contents in any great detail. It was a damp squib of a scoop, at least in the ultra-cautious way it was presented. What did the documents actually say, and why didn't Newsnight tell us? 

If you set against this weak Newsnight report a piece of real investigative journalism - and a genuine scoop - such as Andrew Gilligan's Telegraph report this weekend, based on a leaked copy of an official report into the affair, you'll see the difference between nervous, don't-offend-anyone-from-a-sensitive-minority BBC reporting and proper, no-fear-or-favour investigative Telegraph journalism. 

Talking of Muslims, Laura Kuenssberg then turned up in France talking to Marine le Pen, leader of the Front National. 

The interview was a strange affair, conducted through an unseen/unheard interpretor yet appearing as if it was a normal interview, complete with terrier-like interrupting from Laura. How was this done? Were some of Laura's interruptions superimposed on some of Mlle le Pen's answers? Or did Laura interrupt despite not having a clue what Marine le Pen was actually saying? Or does Laura understand French, but Marine doesn't understand English? 

Laura had two main lines of questioning, and stuck with them. Mlle le Pen told her that she seemed more interested in asking her questions than listening to the FN leader's answers. 

Her main line of questioning was to ask about Mlle le Pen's view of UKIP, again and again. Why? Those suspicious of Newsnight's motives might well suspect an attempt on their part to smear UKIP by association. (UKIP has made it clear that there's going to be no deal with the FN because of its record on anti-Semitism.) 

Her second line of questioning concerned Marine le Pen's "offensive" views on Muslims. Mlle le Pen's views sounded positively mild compared to some of the stuff many of us read online, but Laura put on a 'horrified' expression and interrupted. 

The response to this interview on Twitter was striking. Expressions of admiration and disgust for Mlle le Pen mingled, but almost everyone agreed on one thing - Laura was 'handed her ass on a plate' [or variants thereof]. Left-wingers despaired at the way Marine le Pen had outgunned poor Laura Kuenssberg here. 

As we've said before, Laura isn't a natural interviewer. Sometimes that works to her (and our) advantage. When she's up against a formidable figure like Marine le Pen, someone well beyond the BBC's nice liberal comfort zone, she's likely to struggle and (as here) go under.

Still, at least she gave every impression of not liking Marine le Pen, so the BBC will forgive her.

From the Right to the Left next, as Newsnight marked the passing of yet another leading left-winger, this time the Nobel Prize-winning Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Given that he has regularly topped polls of the 'greatest living novelist' among literary types, Newsnight's commemoration of his life and works was understandable. 

We heard from author Ian McEwan; writer A.L. Kennedy; & Gaby Wood, Telegraph Head of Books.

No one spoke any ill of him, of course (even anything that might be true). 

I have One Hundred Years of Solitude on my book shelf. I bought it, many years ago, for 50p in a second hand book shop, as I've always liked the sound of 'magic realism'. All I've now got to do is read it. 

Ah, magic realism! Like listening to a nightingale singing as a cello plays the Londonderry Air, which is just how Newsnight played itself out on Thursday. Altogether now. 'Oh Danny boy, tweety-tweety-tweet-tweet, the pipes, tweet, tweet, the pipes, trilllllllll, are tweeting'.

Newsnight, Keith Blakelock, self employment, Central African Republic and Irish dancing

Wednesday's edition continued the pattern so far in beginning with Ukraine. It then dealt briefly with the South Korean ferry disaster before moving on to a report about the murder of P.C. Keith Blakelock

P.C. Blakelock was stabbed 43 times by a Tottenham mob during the 1985 riots. Some of whom were evidently trying to decapitate him. His family have never found justice. 

Newsnight was evidently very pleased with itself for having obtained the first T.V. interview with Nicky Jacobs, the man recently found not guilty of Keith Blakelock's murder. No doubt (being good left-liberal types) they thought it was their duty to give him a platform.

It was an interview that many will have found uncomfortable watching though, not least this deeply unpleasant exchange concerning his non-presence at the murder of the police constable:
Kurt Barling (interviewer): Was there a moment in your mind at 16 where you thought “Ah, I’ve missed the main event”?
Nicky Jacobs: It did cross my mind, because like I said at that time the wickedness that the police used to do to the black community, yeah it was celebration time.
How would Keith Blakelock's family have felt on hearing that? Has Newsnight ever offered them a platform? 

The following feature on the rise of self employment discussed the question, 'Has entrepreneurship taken off, or is there another reason?' 

Jim Reed's report interviewed a self-employed lady who says becoming self-employed "was the best decision" she's "ever made", and another self-employed lady who would prefer regular, employed work. His report balanced the 'ups' and 'downs' for the government. His talking head was Danny Alexander MP (Lib Dem), pushing the 'ups', and the 'downs' figures came from the Labour-friendly Resolution think tank. Then came a Jeremy Paxman interview with Nicola Smith of the TUC and Allister Heath, editor of City A.M., representing contrasting perspectives. All fair enough, I think.

Next came the Central African Republic

The last time Newsnight did a report from there we at 'Is' took it to task for presenting a deeply misleading introductory account of the origins of the crisis:
The country is now ravaged by what some human rights groups have described as 'ethnic cleansing'. It was set off after a coup which unleashed Christian militias upon the Muslim minority.
Thankfully, they've now learned their lesson and gave a much more accurate description this time:
The country has been tipped into chaos since a mainly Muslim rebel coalition seized power a year ago, started abusing the Christian population and set off waves of revenge attacks which have driven great numbers of Muslims out of the country.
Tim Whewell's report focused on the peace-making activities of two remarkably jolly religious leaders there - the country's leading archbishop and the country's leading imam. [How very BBC!] They really didn't seem to be making much headway though, as Tim admitted. 

This report was much more balanced than his last one (which focused almost entirely on the plight of the Muslims of the C.A.R.). Here were heard upsetting stories from both sides of the conflict. It was a very decent report, all in all, and all credit to Tim Whewell for that. 

And all credit to Ian Katz too for ending the programme with some fine Irish dancing. Reelly good stuff! (unlike that pun).

Newsnight, the cost of living, sexism, Facebook jihadis, Lord Tebbit and the Kop

Like Monday's edition, Tuesday's edition of Newsnight began with Ukraine before moving on to Labour's Cost of Living Crisis campaign in the light of the latest stats seemingly undermining Labour's case. As Jeremy Paxman's introduction put it:
Now, inflation in this country is now running at its lowest rate for four years, 1.6%. Figures out tomorrow are expected to show that wages are rising by more than inflation. A year ahead of the election this is good news for the Conservatives. The shadow chancellor Ed Balls was steadfastly maintaining today that the improvement didn't mean the cost of living crisis was easy. Well he might because Labour already has had to change its economic attack on the government once.
Laura Kuennsberg's report asked whether it's still "a crisis" or only a crisis now for Labour strategists. That couldn't be taken as evidence of pro-Labour bias by even the most biased anti-BBC-bias blogger! Yes, Paul Johnson of the respected, independent IFS popped up, as he so often does, to give Labour some crumb of hope that things will still be worse for people in 2015 than they were in 2010 or even 2008, but the problems for Labour weren't downplayed here and Jeremy Paxman didn't give shadow Treasury minister Shabana Mahmood an easy time of it either. His opening question was:
OK. So growth is up, inflation is down, wages are going to be above inflation. Do you want to apologise to the Conservatives?
Still, the programme's left-liberal instincts re-emerged in the following discussion of sexism in the UK, following a South African U.N. investigator's statements about how sexist Britain is. This is classic Newsnight territory under Ian Katz.

The programme gathered together an all-female panel consisting of the former editor of the Guardian Women's page and founder of Louise Chunn, Guardian writer Nesrine Malik, and founder of Everyday Sexism and new Guardian columnist Laura Bates. The Guardian, The Guardian and The Guardian. Former Guardian deputy editor Ian Katz must have fancied a re-union.

Interestingly, though they all thing there's a problem with sexism in the UK, both Louise Chunn and Nesrine Malik described Rashida Manjoo's statement that Britain is the world's most sexist country as "ridiculous", pointing to the likes of Saudi Arabia and South Africa as examples of countries with far worse records on women's rights that Britain. Even Laura Bates (above), as ideologically rigid a feminist as it's possible to imagine, grudgingly admitted Dr Manjoo went a little bit too far here.

The following report on the effects of social media on radicalisation was also typical of Ian Katz's Newsnight in looking at the social media aspect of a story:
From what has emerged from the world of espionage and counter-espionage it seems received wisdom that the greatest terrorist threat to this country comes from radicalised young men who travel to Syria to fight in the civil war and then return to Britain. But how do these networks form? How does a young man get drawn into an experience so utterly alien to his life here?  A group of researchers from King's College, London have unearthed the vital role played by social media.
Richard Watson's report on "the world's first social media jihad" looked at the type of sites jihadis use, the sort of videos they post [including one jihadi pulling a severed head from a bag full of heads in Syria] and who 'follows' who online. His talking heads were Shiraz Maher of King's College, London and Islamic scholar Sheikh Musa Admani, representing the 'nice side of Islam'. 

Dr Maher said that many British and European radicals are going to join ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham, which wants an Islamic caliphate in the area, and which is good at branding itself, which young Muslims who want to fight in Syria find alluring. He outlined their research as follows:
On Twitter we've collected more than 18,000 individual unique users who either follow a foreign fighter or are followed by a foreign fighter. On Facebook we collected more than 4,000 pages that were 'liked' by the foreign fighter community. And once we pull all that data together we were able to build quite a unique picture, with other information as well, about who's the most popular, whose the most important within these networks.

They found that numbers 1 and 3 on the 'most popular' list were the American cleric Ahmad Musa Jibril and the Australian convert Musa Cerantonio, both of whom post in English. Jibril has 145,000 'likes' on his Facebook page. Jibril preaches against democracy, asserts Islam's supremacy and urges the spurning of 'kuffars'. Cerantonio is open in supporting ISIS, says the new caliphate's capital will be Jerusalem (which is presently "full of the Zionists") and extremely anti-American, calling for assassinations. 

Sheikh Musa Admani dismissed their "interpretations" of Islam, saying that they are "selective passage quoting" from the Koran, adding that "the Koran supports freedom".

"This is not Islam", he said. "No serious cleric of knowledge would recognise it".

This is a familiar message from the BBC, though one (this report suggests to me) that doesn't seem to be getting through to those it most needs to get through to - the would-be jihadis. 

After all that, it was pleasant to see Lord Tebbit on Newsnight, talking mainly about his new children's book and about coping with disability. His wife, as you will know, has been disabled since the Brighton bombing. 

It was a good-natured, interesting interview with Jeremy Paxman, but Paxo did keep pushing away at a particular point - at first indirectly, then more directly - about whether Britain is more compassionate these days, later shading into whether the Conservatives are more compassionate these days, and whether he likes that. I could have done without this apparent anti-Tory point-scoring attempt on Newsnight's part, but there you are. You can't have everything.

Finally, Newsnight - being a BBC current affairs programme - just had to have something about Hillsborough. The programme played out with the Kop singing You'll Never Walk Alone

Newsnight, Nigel Evans, death row, and Morpurgo v Gove

Looking back over this week's editions of Newsnight, Monday's edition spent its first quarter of an hour discussing Ukraine before moving on to discuss the fall-out from Nigel Evans's acquittal.

Rod Liddle wrote an interesting piece about this in the Spectator:
The lowbrow public may not know how to spell Barack Obama, or be entirely au fait with the name of the country of which he is leader. But...they are worried about the hyperbole from our political elite over the Ukraine, and on an entirely different issue they are not prepared to simply swallow bundled charges of historical sexual abuse against famous or slightly famous people without asking questions. In other words, unlike the elite, they do not appear to have been distracted by a politically charged (on both issues) crusading zeal, but are guided instead by common sense and fairness. Perhaps this is because they are too thick to understand the bigger issues; that, I think, is what our liberal elite would tell you.
The former deputy speaker Nigel Evans, a charming, witty and good-natured man, was finally cleared last week of nine counts of sexual abuse of young men, including one charge of rape. Fighting the patently absurd case against him has cost him his job (with its extra salary), his entire life savings in legal fees (which will not be repaid, despite his total innocence) and 11 months of sheer, unmitigated torture. He is understandably bitter, furious that his case was prosecuted by the police with a ‘zeal’, as he put it; a zeal occasioned by a politically driven obsession, I would reckon. On the evening after he was cleared of all charges, the liberal elite’s favourite media conduit, Newsnight, interviewed one of Evans’s supposed victims, repeating all the charges. I hope Evans sues them.
That refers to an earlier edition of Newsnight, but Monday night's edition wasn't much different. 

It featured a gentle, interruption-free interview with the Conservative MP who facilitated the legal action against Mr Evans, Dr Sarah Wollaston, She sounded more aggrieved on her own behalf than concerned about Mr Evans. Then Jeremy Paxman interviewed Nigel Evans's friend, Ann Widdecombe. He began by asking her twice about Nigel Evans's drunken and licentious behaviour. 

Miss Widdecombe was on Newsnight because the man they'd wanted to interview - Nigel Evans himself - had turned them down. I think I can understand why he turned them down. They would probably have re-tried him, live on TV. 

Next came a story about the death penalty in America - the kind of story that tends to crop up quite regularly in the features section of the Guardian, especially if there's a racial angle to the story

Newsnight sought out an interview with Glenn Ford, a black man convicted by an all-white jury who has now been freed from death row after thirty years. 

Preceding that interview, sympathetically conducted by Jeremy Paxman, came a report which stated that 60% of Americans still support the death penalty, with 35% against it. It featured just one talking head. That talking head was from Reprieve and she was opposed to the death penalty -as might have been expected from "the liberal elite's favourite media conduit, Newsnight". 

Monday's final feature was an interview with children's author Michael Morpurgo about whether fiction about World War One helps or hinders out understanding of it. Being Newsnight a political angle was placed on it, with Michael Gove's criticisms of certain kinds of writing about the war being made the main bone of contention. 

Newsnight knew exactly what they were going to get from Michael Morpurgo. His outspoken criticisms of Michael Gove over this very point have been widely reported. Jeremy Paxman duly invited him to say what he thought about Mr Gove's criticisms, and pacifist-inclined Mr Morpurgo duly disagreed with the Education Secretary, and re-stated the standard liberal take on the First World War. 

It would be good to watch a Newsnight interview with a writer who agrees with Mr Gove some time in the near future. I won't be holding my breath on that front though. 

The closing credits featured the short version of a remarkable timelapse video that's 'gone viral' (Ian Katz's Newsnight loves social media things that 'go viral'). It captures the transformation of Dutch filmmaker Frans Hofmeester's daughter Lotte from newborn to teen, in just over four minutes.

Friday, 18 April 2014

Shock news! 'Today' editor says BBC gets its about right on climate change

...still, there is one thing I can do tonight, blog-wise, that puts the question 'Is the BBC biased?' back at the forefront of our attention, and that's to transcribe part of Roger Bolton's Feedback interview with Today editor Jamie Angus, namely the bit about the BBC's coverage of global warming.

Please see what you make of it (though I can probably guess!):
Roger Bolton: I want to raise this question of balance, specifically in relation to climate change. The programme has come in for some criticism, particularly over a story in which Today interviewed Nigel Lawson, who's a former MP, a former chancellor of course, but a non scientist who's sceptical about climate change, alongside a climate change expert and scientist, and this is from Liz from Lewis who is very concerned about the presence of Nigel Lawson on Today.
Liz: I was seriously disturbed by the interview. It seems to me an extraordinary idea of balance that's involved here to say that when you have a whole group of people, all experts in their field, who say one thing, balance means finding somebody with no expertise in that area to say the opposite.
Roger Bolton: So, Jamie Angus, in this case about the fact, if you like, of climate change, do you need to balance your discussions?
Jamie Angus: The BBC's reviewed its coverage of climate change and climate science and it's set out some admirably clear guidelines for us to follow. We are able to put on air people who take a differing view from the majority view of climate science; however, that coverage should be proportional, and I think that any reasonable listener who'd listened to Today's coverage of climate change across the past three months would probably find that Lord Lawson was the only climate sceptic, if you like, who'd appeared in that period, and I think, you know, when Justin and I and the programme team discussed that interview, we thought we'd allowed it to drift too much into a straight yes/no argument about the science. And, of course, the settled view of the expert scientists is just that: Settled. And I believe that our coverage reflects that over the long term.