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Points of Agreement

Apart from spending the day haunted by the smell of coconuts at random moments –  before realising it was my hair oil (actual thought I had during the day: “Am I being stalked by a coconut?”) – I found myself punching the air at various points as well, cheered by these three articles:

One Now I have to say this slowly because like the amazing Dan Hodges article a few weeks ago, I’m a little thrown, but anyway: Danny Finklestein wrote at once the most sensible and necessary article in the defence of human rights, and the Human Rights Act today. It’s in the Times so click here if have a subscription. That we need to have someone point out that human rights “are not a joke” and that it’s absolutely stark raving mad to want to pull up the drawbridge and pull away from common sense  shows what a sad state of affairs we’re in, and the fact that a “Conservative case” needs to be made, seeing as they are the ones squawking about doing it (while Labour looks on sweetly doing…well…nothing to protect one of their greatest legislative achievements) is rather unfortunate too, as this should really be beyond party politics. But at the same time, he hit all the right notes. Yay for human rights!

Two A wonderful interview with poet Benjamin Zephaniah on Britishness, including a rendition of one of his poems on the topic. All of this made my heart sing! (as so often with Zephaniah) Yes to mutable, broad Britishness!

“For me Britishness is being a part of these islands. I say that very carefully because I also respect Scottish people if they want to go separate. I’d be happy just to have England, and not have Britain actually. While we have this concept of Britishness, it’s being a part of these islands, and if you really want to be a part of these islands, I think by definition you have to accept multiculturalism. Not just diversity. Diversity can mean all kinds of things. Multiculturalism is what it says on the tin: Multi. Many cultures. Living together. As I alluded to before, the Celts, the Jutes, and all these people were different cultures. I come from Birmingham which was started by a tribe called the Beorma tribe, and they were seen as a very odd tribe, and they came and they settled they used to keep cows and bulls, and they had this place where they kept bulls, and that became The Bull Ring, and today it is a shopping centre.

That’s multiculturalism.

I don’t know if it’s still true now, but certainly a few years ago they were saying that the most popular food in Britain was an Indian curry. And some people thought it was a very British thing to have a curry. There are lots of other things which people think of as really British that came from somewhere. I mean what could be more British than living out in the countryside in a beautiful bungalow with a thatched roof? But where did the word ‘bungalow’ come from? Bengal, yeah. The English language also borrows from other cultures. So it’s being a part of that, that I think is Britishness. I actually think that in a very odd way, actually I don’t think it’s that odd at all, but when you hear racists saying “Britain is a white country”, I think that is anti-British. Because Britain has never been fixed. Britain is like its weather – you know it’s the weather but you don’t know where it is going from one time to another. We know we are British.”

Three A long, detailed, informative blog post by Mining in Malawi on oil prospecting on Lake Malawi, the main players and the risks as identified by UNESCO – and so much more. Finally, all the details in one place!

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IDS watch

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: is anyone monitoring Iain Duncan Smith? How has he survived two reshuffles? How does he just get to “reset” a project that has cost *hundreds of millions of pounds* and it’s not front page news? If I could do infographics I would look at the amount wasted by DWP on IDS’s legacy project and the amount spent on the unjust, punitive bedroom tax, among other measures. How can we allow policies that disproportionately affect ethnic minorities and the disabled, causing hardship and distress, and allow IDS to obfuscate and waste money like this?

The answer is, of course, that when it comes to austerity and welfare, it’s ideological. That there was a need to cut the deficit is beyond doubt, but what’s going on now fails on its own terms. It’s just perverse that the coalition is willing to fritter away millions in the pursuit of dismantling the state and the safety net.

If I was to don my tin foil conspiracy theory hat, I’d say these are the actions of a group of ideologues who know that they may not be here to finish the job after the election, so they’re inflicting the maximum amount of damage now, in the hope that it cannot be reversed. And Labour, of course, has next to nothing to say on this for fear of being cast as the party of “welfare cheats”. They won’t even try to speak about the suffering and hardship being felt by so many, or the fact that the majority of those on benefits are pensioners. They will play it safe, hoping that they can just squeak past the finish line at the election with the support of people like me, who cannot abide what’s happening now but have no other viable political choice. I suspect that the hobbled vision may not be as successful as they hope.

And where does that leave us? Clegg, with no mandate, as king maker to either party, who will continue this project to fundamentally alter the State beyond all recognition, supplanting a democratic mandate with a consensus won through the demonisation of immigrants, the poor, the disabled and the unemployed, and fashioning a nastier, smaller-minded nation that’s as much afraid of its own shadow as these groups so helpfully cast as the dangerous “other”?

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Telling Stories

This weekend the Observer published a strong, moving article about the nature of foreign reporting, in particular the propensity of news networks to parachute in special correspondents at a moment’s notice, who may miss or misinterpret a story as they struggle to get up to speed, often supplanting the freelancers (or “stringers”) or local journalists who have been faithfully plugging away at a story (before it got sexy). Every African, and I’m sure many others,  has a example of this, such as the CNN “Kenya election violence” nonsense before the last election, which was not only wrong but inflammatory and which spawned a hashtag by the Kenyan twitterati: #someonetellCNN .

The article also pointed out the changes to news gathering and reporting more generally, which should be of concern to us all, given how important the media is:

“The western news media are in crisis and turning their backs on the world, but we hardly ever notice. Where correspondents were once assigned to a place for months or years, reporters now handle often 20 countries. Bureaux are in hub cities, far from many of the countries they cover. And journalists are often lodged in expensive houses or five-star hotels. As the news has receded, so have our minds.

To the consumer, the news can seem authoritative. But the 24-hour news cycle rarely gives us the stories essential for us to understand the important events of our time. The news machine, confused about its mandate, has faltered. Big stories are often missed. Huge swaths of the world are forgotten or shrouded in myth. The news both creates these myths and dispels them, in a pretence of providing us with truth.”

Actually this article made me think of something I read by a female stringer in Syria, who in 2013 blew the lid open on the conditions she had to work under and the lack of support from her news organization. She pointed out that stringers often undertake dangerous work for little pay, but that their role is so important. (I would add; local journalists too, like the 18 year-old Syrian kid who took photographs for Reuters and died earlier this year – though there are other ethical questions here given his youth and lack of protection)

“People have this romantic image of the freelancer as a journalist who’s exchanged the certainty of a regular salary for the freedom to cover the stories she is most fascinated by. But we aren’t free at all; it’s just the opposite. The truth is that the only job opportunity I have today is staying in Syria, where nobody else wants to stay. And it’s not even Aleppo, to be precise; it’s the frontline. Because the editors back in Italy only ask us for the blood, the bang-bang. I write about the Islamists and their network of social services, the roots of their power—a piece that is definitely more complex to build than a frontline piece. I strive to explain, not just to move, to touch, and I am answered with: “What’s this? Six thousand words and nobody died?”

There is a tension the media industry, which is at once a business and a public information service. Managing editors have to balance the books and all of the outlets (with the exception of some, like the Guardian that have a governing Trust rather than an owner) have to walk the editorial tightrope of independence and pissing off the person that pays the cheques. It’s what makes Murdoch’s dominance of the industry so frightening.

It’s said that the media “doesn’t tell us what to think, but is remarkably successful at telling us what to think about.” What makes the news, how often and in what frames can have a profound influence on public awareness of an issue and subsequent policy decisions.

Reports like these from stringers, and others by local journalists, show that we should all be concerned about what gets reported, why, how and by whom.

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Unexpected Instrumentals

This Friday, I’ve decided to post three of my favourite songs – a quirky mix with unexpected instrumentals, or in the case of Manu Chao, unexpected sounds (radio clips? a goat?)

One Molotov Jukebox- I Need It. I discovered these guys at a festival in Shoreditch a few years ago, under a bridge….fun times. Anyway, the lead, Natalie Tena, you may recognise from Game of Thrones as Osha or Harry Potter, in which she played Tonks. I like her accordion.

Two Manu Chao – Me Gustas Tu. This is the soundtrack to my year in China.

Three Gangstagrass  – I’m Gonna Put You Down . Well, you weren’t expecting banjo/bluegrass with hip hop, were you? (Also, they sing the title song for Justified, one of the most underrated but thoroughly enjoyable TV shows ever, starring the delectable, drawling slice of hotness that is Timothy Olyphant but with some of the best written characters I’ve seen in a while)




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Last night, on my way home I saw this tweet from Vicky Beeching:

Her coming out as a gay Christian will no doubt comfort and inspire others (and probably horrify a fair few too). She is so very, very brave.

Here is the interview with her by the Independent.

I was struck by her comment on integrity.

“What Jesus taught was a radical message of welcome and inclusion and love. I feel certain God loves me just the way I am, and I have a huge sense of calling to communicate that to young people. When I think of myself at 13, sobbing into that carpet, I just want to help anyone in that situation to not have to go through what I did, to show that instead, you can be yourself – a person of integrity.”

It’s important to be honest about who you are and bring all of you to bear, living authentically from your heart. Too often we (wider society, in the Church and beyond) have forced people who might be gay, or queer, or in any way different to the norms we expect of men or women to hide their lights or dim them – mostly for our own comfort and convenience. In doing so, I believe we make it hard for them to live with integrity – dignity even. This can wound; it can even kill. And it deprives us collectively as a society of so many bright and beautiful lights, each unique in their own way, as we all are, and who make the sky more lovely to look at.

Shine bright, Vicky. It’s good to see you.

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Reasons why I don’t like pandas #32

I know, they’re cute. They look cuddly and they’ll go extinct if we don’t help them. My main gripe is, pandas don’t seem to want the help.

They are fertile for two days a year. They often kill their cubs if they have more than one. They have phantom pregnancies and low (virtually non-existent) libidos. I mean….if they were rats we wouldn’t be this bothered.

Thankfully, I’m not the only hard-hearted misery guts that thinks so. Thank you, Washington Post: “Try not to get too excited about the rare birth of panda triplets“:

The birth of one panda is virtually a miracle, let alone three. The giant panda is a species that is practically begging to go extinct — or at least it seems that way.”

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Lies and Diversity

Damn Lies

Considering that we’re in the fact-free immigration summer (albeit somewhat off the agenda at the moment given Gaza, Iraq and other foreign crises), you’d think more lies on top of the heap of mendacious government spin wouldn’t make a difference. But then, there’s Iain Duncan Smith. Every time he speaks out I am horrified afresh. Despite the overbudget, overdue computer system, despite welfare sanctions harming the most vulnerable and disabled, despite the fact that his project is more ideology than reality-based – he has survived a reshuffle and sails resolutely on, the wind of self-righteousness swelling his sails.

Most recently, he doubled down on the welfare reforms, praising the “recovery” that has more jobs but lower pay, and more insecure work bolstered by zero hours contracts, some of which actually prevent people from taking on other work but offer them no guarantees for the week, so you could make money to pay the bills – or not. Who knows? Scarily, the government will make even more cuts in the next parliament.

But what drives me crazy is the fact that Duncan Smith is rarely challenged on his fantastical statistics. Thank goodness, then for Polly Toynbee (read the whole article, it’s worth it, but here’s an extract)

“Politicians may deal in terminological inexactitudes, but I can’t think of many black-is-white, war-is-peace practitioners as downright deceptive as Iain Duncan Smith. Originally, the question was whether to put it down to simple stupidity, as he didn’t understand that the numbers he promised were impossible. Yesterday, poring over his big speech on welfare reform, a few of the more polite experts spoke of his “magical thinking”. But his motives and state of mind hardly matter to the millions affected by his evidence-free, faith-based policy-making.”

Diversity Hire

As always, Hugh Muir can be relied upon to excavate the Sayeeda Warsi resignation and tease out the nub of the issue of diversity in the workplace – it’s not enough to get brown faces at the table if you don’t listen to them. Of course, that doesn’t mean you do everything they say, but if you don’t get a decent hearing, get taken seriously, or if your views are dismissed out of turn, then of course, after a while, you give up.

And that’s not just a personal loss, the organisation loses out too. The point of getting more varied voices around the table is to have a better conversation and to effect change. And for political parties it’s not just electorally expedient to do so (Janan Ganesh makes this point brilliantly in the FT), it’s morally right to better reflect the country you may govern, with all its different constituencies.

“She brought diversity to government, not just because she is brown-skinned, northern and Muslim, but because her background and experiences gave her a different worldview. Diversity has to mean something other than different hues and genders around the board or cabinet table. It is also about the infusion of different perspectives from which new options and thinking might emerge.”

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Reporting on Suicide

This morning the front page of the Metro (which you really can’t avoid as a Londoner, it’s everywhere) had a lurid spread on how Robin Williams killed himself and why. I didn’t bother to read it but the headline jumped out at you. I admit, I was curious. But I didn’t because I feel like it’s none of my business. He’s gone; that is such a tragedy for all who knew and loved him, and a lurid expose that’s not aimed at helping anyone else in a similarly desperate situation is not worth it.

I was going to write something about the reporting when I saw, via Twitter (of course) the best blog on this, by a writer called Mary Hamilton. I think she said it all. An extract:

“Let’s be clear, this is not a hypothetical danger: a review of almost 100 studies worldwide has found a strong, coherent and consistent association between certain types of media reporting and increased risk of suicide in vulnerable people, and the Bridgend suicides should be known by every UK journalist as an example of how the media can make things worse.

This is happening in the UK, where funding is being stripped from already-stretched mental health services at the same time as punitive welfare policies strip money from the poorest and force severely unwell people to attempt to work despite disabilities that make it impossible for them to do so safely. A population that is already incredibly vulnerable is being made more so by lack of access to treatment and to funds. The UK is currently in the grip of an acute mental health crisis. This context is important.”

And further to that context, according to the Office of National Statistics, the leading cause of death for 20-34 year olds is suicide and poisoning:

Suicide and injury/poisoning of undetermined intent were the leading cause of death for 20-34 year olds, for 26% of men and 13% of women. Factors that could lead to these deaths include: traumatic experiences, lifestyle choices such as drug or alcohol misuse, job insecurity and relationship problems. “

We need responsible reporting about suicide that follows the best practice outlined by the Samaritans. However, we also need to address the root causes and ensure that those who need the extra support can access it swiftly.

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Taking Names and Busting Chops

Sayeeda Warsi is on fire. After resigning over the government’s (lack of a) stance on Gaza, she has shown that she is most definitely not going quietly. Her resignation got a lot of coverage, but was soon eclipsed by the Boris show (will he be both MP and Mayor? So much ankle for the press to nibble on).

However, she has spoken frankly to the Independent on Sunday about the Tory party’s shortcoming with regards to ethnic minorities and other issues, ensuring no doubt that this will lead news coverage on Monday morning. There’s a lot in there. Like:

“I don’t hold the fact that someone went to public school against them. I don’t hold the fact that they haven’t had the breadth of experience that some of us who didn’t go to public school have had. I don’t hold against them that they haven’t had to fight as hard to get the jobs that we have had to fight as hard to get. I hope that if I can be so understanding about their background, they can be understanding to those of us that haven’t had those opportunities.”

Every party has its problems, but on this issue, I can’t help thinking that this isn’t surprising given the party she chose to join. She’s right to point this out, but – surprised, much?!



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