Archive for July, 2010

In his latest column for the Observer (‘Stick up for the BBC’, 25 July), Will Hutton calls the liberal intelligentsia to the barricades in defence of the Beeb, ‘the last bulwark against rule by the mob’. It’s likely that the dinner party set of Islington or lushest Surrey, bless them, will sympathise but rather not commit to getting down and dirty for the BBC of all causes. Nonetheless, Hutton’s call is interesting because it touches on a sensitive leftie nerve.

Let’s face it, we comrades do like to have a go at Auntie. Whether it’s a rant about coverage of G20 protests, the war in Iraq or the gratuitous offence to taste and decency that is regular appearances by Michael Gove, it kind of proves our anti-establishment street cred to moan about this most paternalistic of British institutions. And I know this is going to go down like the Hindenburg with some but that puts us squarely in league with some very dubious company. The National Viewers and Listeners Association for example. The Daily Mail. And Alastair Campbell.

Yet there are some on the left, myself included, who realise that Hutton might have a point here. The BBC has many, many faults but what is the alternative? If it crashes and burns because no one gives a toss or we’re content to just moan, what are we left with? A deregulated, James Murdoch wet dream, that’s what.

So good on you, Will Hutton! I am with you on this one and so should everyone who claims to be left of centre. Only there’s one wee problem. As much as you urge Auntie to “make some dramatic moves” to bolster her defences against the barbarians at the gates (cutting down the bureaucracy, for example, and restoring trust in programme-makers and journalists)  you’ve failed to spot the fifth columnists within who are at this moment sneakily unlocking the same gates. It’s a kind of Siege of Derry in reverse.

If it’s evidence you’re after, have a look at a policy paper by Phil Ramsey of the Centre for Media Research at the University of Ulster, Response to the BBC Strategy Review 2010, which details how, at the very time it is under attack from the free market, the BBC is actually ceding ground to those who would wish to see it destroyed. With a pithy weariness not heard since de Gaulle witnessed the surrender of France, Ramsey concludes that:

Putting Quality First displays an excessive support for marketisation and employs the language of market fundamentalism throughout. This is unfortunate given that the very premise of public service broadcasting runs counter to greater marketisation in the media sector and the very existence of the BBC depends on making strong arguments to the contrary.

But Ramsey doesn’t simply critique what’s wrong. He also makes the very important point that the BBC and its supporters should stop being so defensive and start asserting the positive aspects of a service which, compared to the fees extracted by subscription TV, is incredibly good value. And it’s radio and internet, not just TV.

The thing is, Will Hutton, what we first have to do is root out this enemy within and then, ramparts secured, resist the dastardly Murdochs and the dark forces of the Daily Mail – not quite like the defenders of the mysterious French castle in Monty Python’s Holy Grail but just as offensive: a sustained, calibrated counter-attack on all fronts against the free-market nostrum that media independence is best guaranteed by profit. Otherwise, it will be the BBC beating a final, humiliating retreat into the wilderness that is niche market, subscription-only broadcasting.  

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The contradictions between a newspaper’s editorial and advertising content are often amusing, sometimes bewildering but now and again so glaring they deserve exposure. I’m thinking here about an opinion piece that appeared in the Guardian on Friday, 23 July, Israel turns upon its own’, by Rachel Shabi. The article looks at growing intolerance and racism in Israeli state and society towards sections of its own people, Israeli Arabs (the enemy within), Israeli peace and human rights activists (traitors and Arab-lovers) and increasingly, the majority of Jewish citizens whose origins are Middle Eastern rather than European (thus second class).  It’s been a long time coming, she writes, but “what we’re seeing today is just the unleashing, in more blatant form, of a long- incubated  racism, both institutional and incidental – a casual, acceptable prejudice.” 

It’s a powerful and troubling article,  well worth reading for anyone wanting an informed understanding of Israel and Israeli society. However, I was surprised to buy the Guardian the very next day and discover on page 33 of its Weekend magazine an advertisement placed by the Israeli tourist board that had the following copy:

“Few countries pack as many hidden gems into such a small space as Israel. From the energy and excitement of Tel Aviv to the rich cultural experiences of the Dead Sea, the magical mystery of Jerusalem to the sun and relaxation of Eilat, Israel is the ideal year-round destination.”

As we all know, tourist advertising like this demands a certain degree of suspended disbelief on the part of the consumer. Even at the height of the troubles in Northern Ireland, the Northern Ireland Tourist Board produced some wonderful stuff. While foreign governments issued regular warnings to citizens about the risks of travelling to the “wee North”, the good old NITB was busy producing visions of a rural idyll untouched by violence or sectarianism. The disconnect was always blackly amusing for we Northerners, a welcome diversion while the army raided the house or a full-scale riot raged outside…or both.

So indulge me here while I apply some of the same black humour to the wishful thinking of the Israeli tourist board:

“Few countries – apart from Northern Ireland maybe – pack as many hidden gems and illegal settlements into such a small space as Israel. From the energy,  excitement and terrorist attacks of Tel Aviv to the rich cultural experiences and high security of the Dead Sea, the magical mystery of West Jerusalem (avoid the Arab East of the city while we demolish their houses and clear them out)  to the sun, relaxation and rocket attacks of Eilat, Israel is the ideal year-round destination for tourists and big ships loaded with American military hardware.”

The BBC has recently reported on unusually high rates of genetic defects among children born in Fallujah after 2004, when US forces launched an overwhelming assault against Iraqi insurgents in the city (BBC2, Newsnight, 21 July). While it’s good to see the Beeb tackle stories like this, its inhibited approach presents a problem for its “mission to explain”. The reporter, John Simpson, tells us about the international medical research study  into the defects and provides examples, explaining that some are too horrific to show on TV; it’s hearbreaking stuff and Simpson tells it with his usual human touch. But from this point in the story it becomes apparent that the research is highly contested by the relevant authorities and for good reason.

The Iraqi government has tried to discredit the study by challenging its methodologies, while the US has refused to comment. Why? Because, as Simpson mentions only briefly towards the end of his film, the cause of these terrible birth defects might well be the type of weapons used by US forces in the battle of Fallujah six years previously. Unfortunately, that is all we are told. We are not told what kind of weapons these are and how they might cause such genetic destruction among the population, a baffling omission because this is a problem first publicised in the wake of the Gulf War in 1991.

The weapons in question are likely to be artillery shells tipped with DU, a depleted or degraded form of processed uranium, which maximises their ability to penetrate armour and concrete or underground bunkers. When the shells explode they produce a cloud of highly poisonous and radioactive dust, which settles in the immediate environment and is therefore likely to be inhaled by unprotected military personnel or civilians in the vicinity. In dust form it can be easily disturbed and spread further afield; and being radioactive, it stays in the environment for a considerable length of time. As for the true scale of the problem, it has been estimated that 300 tons of the stuff were used during the Gulf War in 1991, while large quantities were also used in Kosovo in 1999, Afghanistan in 2001 and poor old Iraq again in 2003/04.

So while the study reported in Simpson’s film compared levels of birth defects in Fallujah since 2004 with those in Iraq’s neighbours for the same period, it didn’t refer back to the first Gulf War and its legacy of similar clusters in cities such as Baghdad and Basra. In sum, it gave us no clue that this is not a new problem. Western militaries know the dangers of the weapons they use, including DU, both to their own personnel and to innocent civilians yet they continue to use them and deny their appalling effects. It’s hardly surprising, then, that Western governments should try to persuade their publics that the substance is no more dangerous than the normal background radiation that one might absorb on a sunny afternoon in the park. And when reporting the story, the western media seem to operate on a glaring internal contradiction: reporting the evident dangers of DU to soldiers and civilians yet somehow accepting official denial. Take this Q&A from the BBC, 4 January 2001:

  • What is depleted uranium, and why are people worried about it? Depleted uranium…is mildly radioactive in its solid form, and poses little if any cause for concern. But…[when] a weapon made with a DU tip or core strikes a solid object, like the side of a tank, it goes straight through it and then erupts in a burning cloud of vapour. The vapour settles as dust, which is chemically poisonous and also radioactive. Both the US and the UK acknowledge that the dust can be dangerous if it is inhaled, though they say the danger is short-lived, localised, and much more likely to lead to chemical poisoning than to irradiation.” (!!!!)

There is no comment on how ludicrous this official denial really is because to do so would breach the requirements of journalistic balance and objectivity. According to these, official statements must stand unchallenged. But there’s more:

  • “What actual evidence exists that DU can be harmful? There is no scientifically proven evidence that it is harmful…”
  • “What research has been done on the ground? In Iraq it is almost impossible to do any research that will satisfy Nato governments…”

Scientific research, then, is only valid when it satisfies the propaganda needs of NATO, although I wasn’t aware that the illegal occupation of Iraq was NATO-led.  Member states like France opposed it, while Turkey was kept well out of it.

Anyway, it wasn’t long before the “Coalition of the willing” got the kind of scientific research they could have faith in: a study commissioned by the EU, which – surprise surprise! – concluded two months later, in March 2001, that there are  no risks from use of DU weapons.

The head of the research study, Professor Ian McCauley from Trinity University, Dublin, told the media there was “no reason to be afraid” but that one should take precautions nevertheless. He recommended that, “Warning signs should be put up where there are large concentrations of depleted uranium”, but assured us that civilians need not worry because: “In the case of the average back garden, there is as much uranium as you would find in a shell”.

Information provided by the US government’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and also the World Health Organisation (WHO) would seem to suggest that the Professor is scientifically correct. However, the quantities of DU deployed by US troops in the battle of Fallujah were of a higher order than normal levels of uranium in the environment; it is unlikely, after all, that anyone keeps a big bag of DU in the garden shed or uses it for barbeques or fireworks.

The problem is that the number of these shells used and the amounts of DU contained in each one is classified military information. The Professor may or may not have been made privy to that information, we can’t know. Even if he had been he would not have been allowed to say so. That’s what happens to scientists when they work on difficult research for government and corporations such as BP. We may never know for certain, then, how much poison was released into the environment in Fallujah and if it is indeed the cause of high rates of birth defects among the civilian population. Instead, we’re left with homely little analogies as a way of reassurance.

As for the news media, put someone on TV with a white coat  and the title “leading scientist” or “Professor” and reporters are more than likely to believe what they say as long as it fits the story. There are very few genuine, specialised science correspondents left these days (BBC Newsnight’s Susan Watts is one of a dying breed) who know what they’re talking about, who are not likely to be in awe of science and scientists and who will not be slow to ask real questions about evidence and data.

To end with, here is a non-scientific thought experiment to highlight how science and intelligence is used in propaganda.  In the run up to the invasion of Iraq, we were assaulted with a bewildering battery of scientific evidence and security service intelligence that turned out to have been either false or highly manipulated:

  • Saddam Hussein had built up a fearsome stockpile of weapons of mass destruction.
  • Saddam had used such weapons before, during the war with Iran, and would not hesitate to use them again.
  • Saddam had fostered links with Al Quaida and was probably behind the 9/11 attacks in 2001.

The immediate conclusion? The “facts” are very official looking, thus must be authoritative and incontrovertible. This man is evil and must be stopped. Now compare and contrast that with the facts of Fallujah:

  • Since the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, the rate of birth defects among the infant population of Fallujah stands at 80 per thousand, a twelve-fold increase on the rate before 2003; by comparison, the rate in Jordan is 17 per thousand and in Egypt 20 per thousand .  
  • In 2004, American troops launched a devastating assault on Fallujah, using an undisclosed amount of DU-tipped artillery shells.
  • Higher than acceptable levels of radioactive contamination of the environment, such as in Fallujah after the assault, can lead to a range of health problems including genetic damage and birth defects.

The conclusion from these facts? There is no causal link between them. Scientific studies that prove such an inconvenient link are unreliable while studies that disprove it are reliable.  

But we all know the truth now about the case for war in Iraq so maybe it’s safe to dismiss the official science and draw our own conclusions about what’s happening to the children of Fallujah?

A new four-part series started on BBC NI last Monday evening (19 July), called The Trouble With Northern Ireland.  It’s available on BBC iPlayer until 14 August so have a look at it and see what you think.  This is my take on it.

The series claims to tackle “the thorny issue of identity” in this troubled little corner of Ireland, a worthy enough objective but ultimately doomed to fail. Why? Because it’s a BBC NI programme about Northern Ireland.  In structure, content and ideological assumption, the programme avoids serious analysis of the very problem it sets out to explore because to tackle it head on would be to run up against the requirements for balance, confront uncomfortable truths and risk offending somebody. That is why it is packed with talking heads from a painfully balanced array of the usual suspects – local comedians, arty folk and politicians. And that is why it takes a decidedly light touch.

So the first edition tackles difficult and challenging issues such as how people in the North speak, how they apparently use semiotics to work out each other’s identity, and what a terrible time they used to have travelling by air to England and trying to pass off their strange Northern Ireland bank notes as legal tender. No new insights there, then. In fact, not one of the talking heads says anything that sounds controversial or unreasonable. They’re all people the producers can trust to behave themselves because they’ve proven themselves on this kind of programme before, which in turn gives it a wearily familiar and parochial feel. Yet, for these very reasons, The Trouble With Northern Ireland is actually rather unbalanced in terms of true representativeness.

The producers may have been very careful to select these talking heads with a view to balance but it’s an internal exercise without any relevance to the real Northern Ireland. If you are going ask a question when you know what the answer’s going to be before you even start making the series – i.e. “identity in Northern Ireland is an age old problem no one can agree on!” – then it seems a terrible and somewhat dishonest waste of time and money. And if you can’t trust Billy from the Shankill or Emer from the Falls to say what they really think of each other because it’s just too risky to broadcast, you’ve defeated the point.  Even if  that’s just about  production values – “Billy and Emer are not very televisual and articulate” or “They’re not ‘household names'” –  it still has unfortunate implications, specifically for the very notion of regional, public service television.

Furthermore, the opening programme operates on other problematic assumptions about Northern Ireland: that it is a real, sovereign country, that Belfast is its capital city and therefore the sole, over-bearing focus of life in the north. As a good friend of mine from Derry once said, it’s like Belfast sucks the economic and cultural lifeblood out of the rest of the North, much like a relentless vampire. Yet for a large minority of people, this is not a real country and Belfast is not a real “capital city” as such. It’s the largest city and it’s a good city in many ways but it’s not the capital and it should not serve as a shorthand substitute for the north. Now this has always been a sore point for people here, especially those of us from west of the river Bann. There will never be agreement about it and it is not even unique to Northern Ireland. All countries in the world have their regional rivalries and tensions. It’s just a matter of owning up to them, not pretending they don’t exist. 

You see, Northern Ireland is in effect divided demographically, culturally and geographically by this river running right up the middle from south to north, a river that serves as a kind of Berlin Wall of the mind. But you wouldn’t know this from the first installment of The Trouble With. For the producers, and by extension the BBC in Belfast, Northern Ireland is Belfast and Belfast is Northern Ireland, an assumption deeply ingrained in British and even international media representations of the North and which therefore shapes popular perception as well. I’ve had visitors from Scotland, England, Germany, Holland and the US who express surprise on arrival that there is more to the north than Belfast and that so much of it is rural rather than urban. Their only reference points up until their first visit were media representations of Northern Ireland as a bombed out urban dystopia or as the Giant’s causeway (the latter a fitting analogy for a place where people chuck lots of big rocks at each other).

I don’t know. Maybe the following editions of the series will give us a more rounded, representative view of the place – we shall wait and see – but if the first edition is anything to go by, the signs are not promising. This, though, has nothing to do with the intentions of individual producers. It is an institutional and ideological bind from which they will never escape because BBC Northern Ireland looks for consensus where none exists – about what Northern Ireland is and who its people are. The default position then is to take  “issues” that can be addressed and discussed without conclusion rather than problems which demand a serious approach and some hard talking to solve (for a more general insight into this problem, see Robert Fisk as cited in my post, below, The BBC Listens to Your Complaints, 15 July).  

No, it’s time it gave this up, accept that the people will be divided for generations to come and tackle more important issues instead, issues that actually unite people here across class and sectarian lines: e.g., employment, health, education, environment and sustainable development. And time, too, to drop this line up of “Norn Iron” comedians, broadcasters, politicians and reality TV stars. It’s a tired format and not truly representative of anything here. 

For another perspective on the problem of TV and Northern Ireland, have  a look at this post from the excellent blog, Media Studies Is Shit: Is Northern Ireland on the verge of a TV Make over.

Select reading

Butler, D. The Trouble with Reporting Northern Ireland. Aldershot: Avebury, 1995. Out of print.  

McLaughlin, G. and S.Baker. ‘”Housetraining the paramilitaries”: the media and the propaganda of peace’, in Coulter, C. and M.Murray. (Eds.) Northern Ireland After the Troubles. A Society in Transition. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2008; pp. 253-271.

McLaughlin, G. & S. Baker. The Propaganda of Peace: The role of media and culture in the Northern Ireland peace process. Bristol: Intellect Books, 2010.

Rolston, B. & D.Miller. (Eds.) War and Words: The Northern Ireland Media Reader. Belfast: Beyond the Pale, 1996.

As quoted in my recent post (And Now the Markets…Part 2, 12 July), Henry Liu argues that:

“While the culprits of the global credit meltdown of 2008 have been bailed out with the public’s future tax money, the sovereign debt crisis across the globe is blamed on innocent wage earners for receiving supposedly unsustainably high wages and excessive social benefits that allegedly threaten the competitiveness of economies in a globalized trade regime designed to push wages down everywhere.”

In the UK, there is a large section of the population in the UK who have yet to feel the pain. This is because there are many more job losses and pay freezes to come, especially in the public sector and when they do come, they will not be evenly distributed socially and/or geographically.  A recent edition of Money Watch (BBC2, 14 July) presented a colour-coded map of the UK, showing which regions would best cope with the tough times yet to come. Unsurprisingly, the area best able to cope will be the south-east of England, allowing for a few black spots in greater London, which is relatively less reliant on public sector jobs, while major urban areas of northern England and Scotland will be vulnerable to the harshest effects.

This is why I posted the quote below from Neil Kinnock’s famous speech from 1983 (15 July). If you are in a public sector job, with a family to keep, a mortgage and personal loan(s) to repay, with maybe even a couple of maxed-out credit cards, and your employer announces a pay freeze or lays you off, or if you are currently unemployed and social benefits are your life line, then things are going to get ugly or uglier still.

I’m not saying this to scaremonger; it’s just very difficult right now to look forward to the next few years with any confidence. I’m saying it because I wonder how prepared the left in Britain really is for the crisis? And when I say “the left”, I’m not talking about the Labour Party, which is too tainted by the neoliberal order that created this mess in the first place. I’m not entirely sure yet what the answer is but I’ve been reading up on the IMF-sponsored destruction of Argentina’s economy in 2002 and can’t help feel there are lessons we can learn from how the Argentinian people responded to that assault on their livelihoods and dignity. I’ll talk about that in my next post.

If you’ve ever been pissed off about BBC coverage of controversial events or issues and you want to complain, you should. But, courtesy of Media Lens, here’s what happens when you do.  Have a look, too, at what Robert Fisk has to say about the BBC and its issue with problems.  And when it comes to giving out about the box in the corner, it’s always worth hearing from Jim Royle:

“Public accountability at the BBC?  My arse!”

This is Neil Kinnock, speaking, two days before the British General Election on 9 June 1983, which Margaret Thatcher won to hold power and vindicate much of his darkly pessimistic warnings. Twenty-seven years later, with the Tories back in power, it speaks to us once again.

“If Margaret Thatcher is re-elected as prime minister on Thursday, I warn you.

I warn you that you will have pain–when healing and relief depend upon payment.

I warn you that you will have ignorance–when talents are untended and wits are wasted, when learning is a privilege and not a right.

I warn you that you will have poverty–when pensions slip and benefits are whittled away by a government that won’t pay in an economy that can’t pay.

I warn you that you will be cold–when fuel charges are used as a tax system that the rich don’t notice and the poor can’t afford.

I warn you that you must not expect work–when many cannot spend, more will not be able to earn. When they don’t earn, they don’t spend. When they don’t spend, work dies.

I warn you not to go into the streets alone after dark or into the streets in large crowds of protest in the light.

I warn you that you will be quiet–when the curfew of fear and the gibbet of unemployment make you obedient.

I warn you that you will have defence of a sort–with a risk and at a price that passes all understanding.

I warn you that you will be home-bound–when fares and transport bills kill leisure and lock you up.

I warn you that you will borrow less–when credit, loans, mortgages and easy payments are refused to people on your melting income.

If Margaret Thatcher wins on Thursday–

– I warn you not to be ordinary

– I warn you not to be young

– I warn you not to fall ill

– I warn you not to get old.”