Tuesday 31 December 2013

Happy New Year!

Have a great 2014.

I'm off to party like it's 1999 - minus the dread that the world's about to end in a Y2K-induced meltdown.

Happy New Year!

Immigration: Good for Whom?

Incidentally, Radio 4 will be broadcasting an immigration debate tomorrow night - also provoked, no doubt, by the end on border controls on Romanians and Bulgarians - called Immigration: Good for Whom? 

The programme's website blurb states, "In the past year, two leading liberal thinkers have published controversial books warning against the dangers of excessive levels of immigration." The programme will feature both of those "liberal thinkers" - Prof Paul Collier of Oxford University and David Goodhart from the Demos think tank. 

Against them will be pitted Nazek Ramadan of Migrant Voices and Susie Symes, Chair of the Museum of Immigration and Diversity - two other voices from the "liberal" (i.e. left-wing) side of the political spectrum, albeit with a rather different take on immigration. 

The debate promises therefore to be neatly balanced between two wary left-wing supporters of mass immigration and two enthusiastic left-wing supporters of mass immigration. That's classic BBC impartiality for you. 

Sounds unmissable.

An Nou Fericit!

As everyone now seems to be aware, tomorrow - 1 January 2014 - we in Britain will be saying An Nou Fericit! and Щастлива Нова Година! ('Happy New Year!') to the first of an unknown number of Romanians and Bulgarian immigrants as border controls are lifted. 

Among those expected Romanian and Bulgarians newcomers, the most eagerly anticipated arrivals are surely the Roma. Bunting is presently being put out across the length and breadth of the country to welcome them - and, no, they won't steal it all! 

Putting its own bunting out, BBC Radio 4 broadcast an interesting documentary last night, Gypsy Pride and Prejudice, which looked at our own native Gypsy population and its place in British society (or, perhaps more accurately, not in British society). 

Elinor Goodman, former political editor of Channel 4 News, allowed us to hear the voice of Britain's Gypsies - and a very pleasant bunch they all seemed. Plus David Essex was on hand - and who doesn't like him? 

Elinor did interview some non-Gypsy residents from a village who objected to a planning application from some local Gypsies and asked them some nicely-loaded questions implying that there were less-than-wholesome reasons why the local residents were against the granting of that planning application. Their denials sounded suitably hollow, as the context demanded (and also, presumably, as the editing allowed). Plus a chap who sounded a bit like Pat Condell denounced multiculti, metropolitan, politically-correct lefties who defend Gypsies, saying they bring all the trouble and resentment on themselves. His neighbour, a pleasant Gypsy, disagreed.

All very reassuring. Nice Gypsies, not so nice non-Gypsies. Yes, there may be distrust on both sides and prejudice too, but the Gypsies are OK really and what could possibly go wrong when the Roma of Romania and Bulgaria finally arrive?

Well, apparently things aren't exactly all sweetness and light between the two Gypsy communities.

Despite the hand-wringing of some well-meaning non-Gypsy types, England's Gypsies are quite happy to be called 'Gypsies', much preferring that to being called 'Roma'. Plus, despite the nationalist aspirations of a few Gypsies who want a Europe-wide 'Romastan' (yes, really!), several of the English Gypsies interviewed were wary of their East European 'brethren'. It seems as if they think they could give them a bad name, as well as cause tensions. Oh dear.

Intriguingly, and returning to the issue of the pre-existing tensions between native Gypsies and native non-Gypsies, the most militant-sounding English Gypsy by some way on the subject was Jake Bowers. Jake's even gone so far as to coin the word 'Romaphobia' to describe the prejudice he believes Gypsies are subjected to (by us non-Gypsies).

It didn't come as a surprise to me to read that he was the man the BBC chose to present a programme aimed at the English Gypsy community (on BBC Three Counties Radio) a few years back. When the impartial BBC's on a mission to go 'social good', Jake's exactly the sort of guy they want. 

I for one am fully reassured anyhow and will be leaving my front door wide open tonight, putting out some Bulgarian red wine and some glasses for the newcomers and going to bed happy in the knowledge that Britain is about to become even more multicultural in 2014.

As they say in Bulgaria, Наздраве! (Cheers!)

"The Daily Mail, it's shit, isn't it?" Ha, ha, ha, ha.

Radio 4 comedians are a notoriously political lot. 

It's not that surprising then that a whole clutch of them - Mark Steel, "the renowned Jeremy Hardy" and 15 Minute Musical's Dave Cohen - is taking part in that dispiriting stunt, 'Bethlehem Unwrapped' (as Sue notes in her previous post.) Not surprising, but still depressing. 

The majority of Radio 4 comedians are on the Left politically and they aren't shy of expressing their political opinions on BBC programme after BBC programme - from The News Quiz to The Infinite Monkey Cage, from The Brig Society to The Mark Steel Lectures. We're even 'treated' to their opinions on the likes of I'm Sorry, I Haven't a Clue and Just a Minute.

Labour's David Blunkett has it right: “Sometimes actually it isn’t comedy, it’s comment and current affairs in the middle of what is supposed to be a comedy programme. There’s a bit more of that going on at the moment.” 

Nor are the Radio 4 comedians shy about being tediously predictable in their targets either: The Daily Mail, UKIP and Eurosceptics in general, the Bullingdon Club/Eton Tories, U.S. Republicans, coalition policies on the NHS and education, Putin, The Daily Mail, Michael Gove, and The Daily Mail. Oh, and for balance, Tony Blair. 

Just last night, for example, David Mitchell's The Unbelievable Truth (one of those 6.30 Radio 4 comedy shows) got less than twenty seconds into its stride before having a dig at The Daily Mail, and this was preceded by Dave Cohen's 15 Minute Musical, which had Michael Gove and his education reforms as its satirical target. 

15 Minute Musical is a clever concept and can be quite funny at times but, being a Radio 4 comedians' show, you always know where it will be coming from politically. There are never any surprises about that. 

The targets for this series have been Simon Cowell, Julian Assange, Nigel Farage, Morrissey, Michael Gove and (tonight) Vladimir Putin. 

The Julian Assange episode was, as you would expect, pretty sympathetic to the Wikileaker's cause. The Nigel Farage episode smeared UKIP as racist and its supporters as far-right and ended with a hymn to EU generosity towards the UK (as Nigel saw the error of his ways and embraced the EU) and the Michael Gove episode made all the usual cheap, left-wing digs about his educational reforms (as well as getting in a few of the usual Bullingdon Club references). Yes, the latter did also have a dig at Ed Balls, but for what? Yes, for promoting academy school - an attack, inevitably, from the Left.

The problem with the left-wing bias of the Radio 4 comedians is so acute (and so noticeable) that even the BBC - never an organisation to willingly 'fess up to bias - felt the need to admit that, yes, there is a problem. 

The defence offered by Caroline Raphael, Radio 4’s commissioning editor of comedy, was that it's "very difficult to find comedians from the right"...

...which, with a shrug of its shoulders, thereby excuses BBC Radio 4 of any responsibility for the problem.

As a result, on marches that monstrous regiment of Radio 4 comedians, free forever to make their endless jokes about The Daily Mail, how posh George Osborne is, how racist UKIP is, how stupid right-wingers (and religious Christians) are, etc, etc, etc, day in and day out, with no counterbalance from the Right (or religious Christians).

That's great for them, of course, but not so great for those who don't share their point of view. Or for the BBC's reputation for impartiality.

Monday 30 December 2013

Playing racist chicken

I haven’t anything original to add to the debate about the so-called art installation ‘Bethlehem Unwrapped” that has been erected outside St James’s Church Piccadilly, but the whole thing seems so ignominious and unhelpful that I want to say something, original or not. 

The BBC seems to have avoided the subject, despite the fact that the Rev Lucy Winkett is involved, and Jeremy Hardy and Mark Steel are performing for the cause. They’re all all BBC regulars, and the BBC’s favourite popular philosopher of the spiritual kind, Giles Fraser, has ‘weighed in’ over at the Guardian.

The perpetrators of this, and other recent crude gestures, vehemently insist that they have nothing to do with antisemitism, but their actions creep closer and closer to the real thing. It’s as if they’re trying to see how close they can get to the precipice, like a game of racist chicken. 

I’ll never be able to watch Masterchef again without feeling a little uncomfortable each time a chef plates up a spoon-shaped dollop of desert

There’s a radio 4 ‘profile’ of Lucy Winkett, the rector of St. James’s Piccadilly.  Apparently she has a marvelous singing voice, and is an all round good egg. Everyone questioned was unable to think of a single flaw the Rev Lucy might have. I can think of one. 

“I’m Lucy Winkett rector of St. James’s Piccadilly. This Christmas we’ve built huge wall right  across the front of our church. We’d really like you to come and see it because it’s what the people of Bethlehem are experiencing today.”

Mindlessly disseminating propaganda with antisemitic overtones is a flaw, surely. If Lucy Winkett has deluded herself into genuinely believing that the people of Bethlehem are entirely peace-loving, and not part of a movement calling for a third intifada, let’s hope the real wall stays in place so that her theory hasn’t a chance of being put to the test.  

The Bethlehem Unwrapped director, Justin Butcher has something of the Will Self about him. I  bet they’re mates. “We’ve spent eight months planning this replica of the separation wall” he boasts. “This is a festival of hope, reaching out to the people of Bethlehem behind the wall’ he continues. “an eight meter high separation wall surrounding it” proclaims he, inaccurately. He is delighted with himself for organising a childish stunt based on prejudice and ignorance and aligning the church with haters who indoctrinate their children and each other with the crudest most virulent antisemitism imaginable.

Don’t people look angelic when they gaze wistfully heavenwards?  They are thinking pious thoughts about the poor peace-loving Palestinians who have been brutally separated from their prey. 

“Stand up against the wall with Jeremy Hardy” announces Butcher. “Jeremy Hardy versus the Israeli army!  Mark Steel!!”  “Come down, make your mark on the wall. Send a message to the people of Bethlehem this Christmas”  

“The River to the Sea” for example. “Free Palestine”, or how about a nice swastika fashioned out of the letter ‘S”.  Peace! Stuff like that. Oh yes, and ‘This wall saves lives’

St. James’s has put out a pious statement that it
‘… opposes all forms of racism including antisemitism and supports the right of the State of Israel to exist with secure internationally recognised borders’.
But Melanie Phillips tends to be dismissed as a ‘she would say that” Zionist apologist, although she is a terrific writer, which must be irritating for those who don’t like her politics.
Melanie Phillips explains:

·      The ‘wall’ does not surround Bethlehem.·      For most of its length it is not a wall at all but a simple chain link fence.·      It has been constructed not to oppress Palestinians but solely to prevent Israelis from being    murdered by Arabs.·      This security barrier has had to be built as a wall alongside one area of Bethlehem because a fence here – cheek by jowl with Jerusalem ­– would be insufficient to prevent the very real threat of some of its inhabitants murdering large numbers of Israelis.·      The undoubted hardships caused by this barrier are solely the result of the ever-continuing attempts by some of those living behind it to murder yet more Israelis.·      Since this security barrier was constructed, the number of Israelis murdered in terrorist attacks has decreased by some 70 per cent – while the number of attempted attacks remains high." 

“Bethlehem is a real place cut off by a concrete wall and that it has very little in common with the fantasy, Narnia-like version that is the stuff of Christmas cards.”  says Giles Fraser. Yes, and the Palestinians have very little in common with the three wise men, away in the manger and while shepherds wash their socks by night all seated round the tub. Or Santa Claus.
“The online reaction to this installation has also been predictably binary. For some it is a powerful testament to Israeli government brutality; for others it's another example of Christian antisemitism seeping into the liberal church. And some of the graffiti on the Piccadilly wall reflects this same for-us-or-against-us division. Some have written about its illegality under international law; others have written that this wall saves lives.”

The wisdom of Giles Fraser. A powerful testament to Israeli brutality? The brutality of separating innocent civilians from fanatics who have been whipped up into murderous frenzies with the same perverted zeal we saw only the other day in Woolwich. 

“Thirteen times the shepherds thrust their knives into the women, breaking bones, tearing flesh, even impaling one to the ground. As the Jew played dead, she watched the ßChristian friend hacked to death before her very eyes.The shepherds returned home glorifying and praising Allah for all that they had seen and spread the word concerning what had they had done. ‘Today near the town of David two Jews have been slaughtered,’ they declared. They plotted and schemed, boasting to their neighbours, ‘this will be a sign, they will find two of their own, all meanly wrapped in bloody clothes and in the bushes laid.’ And everyone who heard of it, was amazed.”

A below-the-line commenter has countered her affecting testimony with tales of atrocities carried out by Israeli settlers who been given unforgivably lenient punishments by the Israeli courts for murdering innocent Palestinians. This appalls me, but there is one fundamental difference. Neither the Israeli public nor the Israeli press condone these aberrations. They do not erect statues to them, name streets after them glorify their actions or pay their families lifelong salaries. Using this argument to justify the St. James’s stunt is like bringing up Baruch Goldstein or Anders Breivik every time a Zionist or a right-wing commentator expresses an opinion one disagrees with.      

My view of this barrier is quite different than that of these (pro Palestinian solidarity tourists) visitors. The heightened security for which it is responsible has changed all lives for the better. For local Israelis, its physical presence is felt only where, for a short distance, the barrier actually assumes the form of a wall. This is where Route 60 skirts the Arab town of Beit Ja’ala, south of Jerusalem and runs adjacent to Bethlehem. It is here, at the height of the Second Intifada, that automatic weapons were fired from rooftops in Beit Ja'ala onto the road. Today this extended wall strategically blocks the line-of-fire from the town onto this section of the highway. Apart from a single grey lookout tower positioned to oversee the southern end of Beit Ja’ala and the valley beneath it, there is nothing that suggests the wall's security purpose. There is no unsightly barbed wire; rather, its brick facade is stylized and decorated with shrubbery and young trees. At this point along its route the wall might be confused for a standard highway acoustical barrier. A different section of this wall situated closer to the eight-lane (four in each direction), permanent checkpoint is admittedly more ominous. It is much higher, rising some 25 feet, and its grey exterior is makes it appear much more foreboding. It would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, for potential suicide bombers to physically negotiate any section of this barrier, or for snipers to again menace the thousands of daily local commuters, Jews, Arabs, or even overseas tourists, that travel this highway.
Along Route 60 near Beit Ja’ala the security barrier does not divide private Arab property. No one is physically separated from their workplace or field. In fact, a large vehicular and pedestrian tunnel, a complicated and costly engineering undertaking, was created beneath Route 60 to allow residents of Beit Ja’ala direct access to the neighboring village of Hussan. Foreign visitors are not impressed by this costly accommodation to the needs of local residents. In their eyes, this wall is an expression of human separation and repression. Even though it is a proven deterrent to terrorism, this barrier remains a sore in the eyes of every group I meet. As with the checkpoints,  this barrier seems a greater evil in the eyes of many visitors than the murder of innocents at the hands of terrorists that is prevents. 

Giles Fraser thinks the separation barrier is a monstrosity. So it may well be. But where the church is very wrong is in its implied conclusion, which is that tearing down the barrier would have a peaceful outcome. They might think abolishing restrictions on Palestinians’ everyday lives would amount to stage one on the rocky road to reconciliation, as though the Palestinians were a homogenous body of ManelaGhandis. They must surely know that is wishful thinking. 
I understand that some of the organisers had not heard of the Fogel family, largely thanks to the BBC’s selective reporting. If the indeed the organisers have relied solely on the BBC to accurately and impartially report the Israel/Palestine situation, that would account for their dogged anti-Israel activism. 

Saturday 28 December 2013

Judging the (European) judges

Some senior British judges are now echoing the concerns expressed by many British people (including me) that the unelected judges of the European Court of Human Rights are aggressively asserting their right to overrule British laws, as devised by our own sovereign elected parliament, and that that's a bad thing. 

Anyone from a planet orbiting Alpha Centauri who enjoys watching what the neighbours are getting up to behind closed clouds (especially over Britain) and who keeps tuning into BBC News (through their ever-so-fetching green antennae) might infer (from the BBC) that those concerns are exclusively held by right-wing politicians, right-wing newspapers and right-wing members of the public - though it's quite clear (to me, a proud Earthling) that plenty of left-wing voters also share those concerns, as do a good number of left-wing British politicians. 

So when this morning's Today reported on this very story it wasn't surprising (to me) that the BBC's Mike Thomson chose a Conservative MP, Dominic Raab, to be his ECHR critic of choice.

Against the Tory MP (for whom Today's non-Tory listeners might be expected to feel a knee-jerk lack of sympathy), Mike Thomson pitted (a) Ben Emmerson, UN human rights lawyer (and partner at Cherie Blair's Matrix Chambers), (b) Rupert Skilbeck of the George Soros-funded Open Society Justice Initiative, (c) Roderick Liddell, official representative of the ECHR and (d) Paul Mahoney, a British judge on the ECHR.

Every single one of those four speakers represented the pro-ECHR side of the argument. So that's 4 against 1 - which sounds biased to me.

Make that 5 against 1 though, because the report also featured a woman with a Middle Eastern-sounding name - and a hard luck story - residing in Germany who believes that the ECHR doesn't have anywhere near enough powers to overrule national laws. Yes, she wants more ECHR intervention.

OK, the Conservative MP got a second bite of the cherry but it was the most aggressively pro-ECHR speaker, Ben Emmerson, who was given both the first and last word, denouncing the views of all of us who share Mr Raab's concerns (in a particularly forthright manner).

So far so biased then.

Still, in the hallowed 8.10 spot (is it as hallowed on Saturday though?) came two interviews.

The first interview was conducted by the aforementioned Mike Thomson, making the 5-1 bias in his report up to a 6-1 bias by interviewing Judge Dean Spielmann, the Luxembourgish President of the European Court of Human Rights. Mike gave him a interview so soft you could have slept on it in. Judge Spielmann defended his Court and firmly asserted its supremacy over British parliamentary law and Mike even coaxed him into denouncing the UK government too. 

By this stage I was getting slightly het up. (I'm not the type to get very het up).

Still, it has to be said that James Naughtie's subsequent interview with Lord Judge, the judge who was formerly Britain's top judge, softened my unease slightly as it was hardly more challenging than Mike Thomson's interview with Judge Spielmann. I judge both interviews to have been pretty gentle ones.

That's all for the good though, as I was interested in both what Judge Spielmann and Lord Judge had to say, and to have the chance to hear their positions without overly intrusive BBC interviewing was a blessed relief. 

It lalso gave me the chance to form my own views on what each of them was saying. (I was absolutely appalled by what Judge Spielmann had to say and pleased by what Judge Judge had to say. Still I was glad to have heard what Judge Spielmann had to say nonetheless and I can kind-of see where he's coming from as a result.)

So, less spinning please BBC (as per Mike Thomson's report) and more unobtrusive juxtaposing of intelligently-expressed contrasting opinions please (as per those 8.10 interviews). 

The Tsar speaks

Apropos of nothing (as someone - can't remember who - used to say)...

There's a news headline sitting on the My Blog List panel at the right-hand side of our blog at this very moment which calls out to be drawn attention to:

How times change! The Tsar turns out to be more liberal than Putin.

As I say, 'apropos of nothing'.

Christmas leftovers

As the effects of that enormous Christmas turkey continue to wear off (and, no, I don't mean Still Open All Hours), here's a little pre-New Year BBC-related reading from the newspapers to while away a few minutes of your tedious post-Christmas Saturday morning. I leave you to form your own opinions. 

The BBC has banned Sir Tim Berners-Lee from having an atheist deliver Thought for the Day as he guest edited Radio 4’s Today programme, saying it must be spoken by a believer.
Sir Tim, who was invited to edit the flagship news programme on Boxing Day, had intended to employ an atheist to read the traditional Thought for the Day, in order to best represent Britain as a whole.
But, he has disclosed, the move was prohibited by the BBC, which insists the slot must be filled by a religious leader.

Sir Barney [White-Spunner, head of the Countryside Alliance] is particularly exercised about the BBC and its coverage – or lack of it – of rural issues. “We do not think the BBC is balanced or fair. It gives a view of rural England as seen from central London and when the BBC say we try to give a balanced view they mean a balanced view between two people in central London, not between central London and the countryside.”
The Countryfile programme, for example, gives a “metropolitan view” of rural England, and skirts around important farming issues such as shooting. He wants the BBC to appoint a rural affairs editor to rebalance its coverage. The corporation, he complains, is “redolent of an attitude that says we are in some way a rather Neanderthal lot”. 

David Blunkett has suggested that comedy shows such as Mock The Week and Have I Got News For You should be reclassified as current affairs programmes in order to face tougher scrutiny from libel lawyers.
The former Home Secretary said that the line between what is considered comedy and what is targeted abuse towards politicians has become blurred and may now require tougher regulation.
Mr Blunkett said: “The protection that broadcasters in particular have is ‘Well, everybody knows this is comedy don’t they?’ So it’s not libellous, it’s not dangerous in the sense that it’s targeted and therefore vicious towards an individual. And I think we need to watch that.”
The Labour MP for Sheffield Brightside and Hillsborough told the Radio 4 documentary, When Comedy and Politics Collide: “Sometimes actually it isn’t comedy, it’s comment and current affairs in the middle of what is supposed to be a comedy programme. There’s a bit more of that going on at the moment.”
Mr Blunkett’s blindness was targeted in the BBC comedy Mock The Week two years ago. A joke in a 2010 episode said: “Sometimes Ministers would break up boring Cabinet meetings by convincing David Blunkett he was black.”

Lord Patten of Barnes is a “busted flush” and must resign as the chairman of the BBC Trust after being damaged by scandals over Jimmy Savile and payoffs to executives, according to Greg Dyke, the broadcaster’s former director-general.
“The BBC has a problem in the sense it’s got a busted flush as chairman,” he said. “I am surprised (Patten) is still there. It would probably help if he wasn’t.”
Mr Dyke, who ran the corporation between January 2000 and 2004 and is now chairman of the Football Association, denounced the confusion in the BBC’s leadership and called for its supporters rally in its defence.
He is the second former director-general to round on Lord Patten after Mark Thompson, who left the job last year, accused him of misleading Parliament over payments to departing executives.

Latvia becomes the 18th nation to adopt the euro with a promise of huge bail-outs if its economy fails.
Six weeks after entering the euro, Latvia applies for a €5 billion bail-out.
The first same-sex marriages take place in Britain, with Sir Elton John going top of the charts with his new song, Kiss The Groom. 
The first same-sex divorces take place in Britain.
David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband pose for a ‘selfie’ in front of the Cenotaph on Armistice Day.
On the anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s death, the BBC repeats all 100 programmes it had broadcast to mark his passing in 2013, and screens several dozen specially commissioned new ones. 

Thursday 26 December 2013

Local shop

So. The M & S thing turned out to be a molehill, not the mountain it was cracked up to be. The current ‘truth’ appears to be (at the time of writing) that one solitary devout Muslim checkout assistant refused to handle pork’n’booze, whereupon the management okayed their fundamental right to practice quaint cultural practices.

So. Not, as was recklessly disseminated in the media, M & S management dictating a policy of appeasement with all the unforeseen ramifications and counter-productivity entailed.   It seems that the group who most objected to this impracticable proposal were Muslims.

But should devout Muslims patronise M & S at all, let alone work there?  These leaflets were handed out by an angry little mob picketing the brand new flagship M & S in Manchester city centre following the massive IRA blast that flattened the area around Manchester Cathedral.

Lovely, is it not, with its decorative Al Dura images and list of dodgy facts. Sorry for bleeding into the sidebar. More on this topic here.

So why, prey, are traitorous Muslims working for Zionists??

Don’t they know that M & S is a Jewish shop, for Jewish people?  This is a kosher shop; the strangers you would bring would not understand us, our customs
We’ll have no trouble here in Royston Oy vehzey.

Monday 23 December 2013

Quiz: Radio 4 presenter anagrams

As every website seems to feel the need to do a Christmas quiz, here's one for you tonight.

Can you unscramble the following anagrams of BBC Radio 4 presenters? 
1. Dire media (5,4) 
2. Hoard clerics (7,5)
3. Aha, me using jet! (5,8)
4. A rotund red swot (6,8)
5. I shun Islam? Ha! (6,6)
The answers lie in the comments section below.

The Infinite Monkey Cage

I do rather like Radio 4's The Infinite Monkey Cage

It's a robustly pro-science programme in the network's overwhelmingly arts-dominated schedule and almost every edition features bona fide scientists sharing their insights with the listening public. The results can often be fascinating and informative and the programme has covered a vast range of scientific fields over the course of its nine series.

Today's edition, for example, featured immunologist Dr Sheena Cruickshank of Manchester University. She specialises in parasitic worms and shared something that I found very interesting - so much so that I'll share it with you here (though not quite as much as I first shared when I posted this piece!).

Parasitic worms are something which we, in countries like the United Kingdom, don't suffer from any more. In the past, however, they've been a significant problem, and even King Richard III suffered from them -  as we recently discovered. 

Many countries though do have a serious problem with parasitic worms and some 2 billion people around the world still suffer from the the little blighters.

Parasitic worms, indeed, are the main reason why children in many countries don't go to school. Deworming in Kenya has, therefore, resulted in school attendance rising by 20% there. 

Intriguingly, according to Sheena Cruickshank, whilst we in the UK (and the U.S. and Europe) may not suffer from parasitic worms any more we do suffer a lot from allergies. In contrast, countries where worms are a serious problem don't have a significant problem with allergies. Why is that? (I'll leave that question hanging in the air).

I suppose the downside with The Infinite Monkey Cage is that its comedy + science format can force some of the serious scientists who appear on it to feel the need to try to be funny, resulting in some of them seeming over-larky - something which can make listeners squirm (like Richard III with his worms). Plus some of the comedians can spoil the programme by being either unremittingly jokey or seriously dull. 

What though of the two presenters, Robin Ince and Brian Cox?

They are, I suppose, a BBC arts graduate Radio 4 controller's dream pairing for such a programme: a left-wing 'Radio 4 comedian' [you know the type]...and Brian Cox [the BBC's go-to-for-everything-scientific man of the moment].

Still, I have to say that I don't have an issue with Brian Cox on The Infinite Monkey Cage. He's quite an engaging presence and doesn't intrude too much. 

Neither does Robin Ince, though he's less to my taste. 

I like his enthusiasm for science, but he rarely makes me laugh. I don't mean to be unkind but his level of humour is on a par with that of Marcus Brigstocke. (Ouch!) Plus, being a Rightie, I always await with a sense of grim inevitability his invariable left-wing/right-on crack, whatever it may be - a dig at Boris Johnson, Sarah Palin or the Daily Mail maybe - followed by the equally inevitable dutiful half-laugh from the audience. (Today we were 'treated' to another time-honoured right-on whinge about girls being given girls' toys and boys being given boys' toys). 

Still, even Robin Ince's 'humour' can be forgiven for the shafts of genuine laughter and scientific illumination provided by The Infinite Monkey Cage

Foreign affairs

The BBC is reporting more and more Muslim-related news, so they must be aware that something’s up.  Al Qaeda is flourishing in Iraq, Prince Charles has noticed that Muslim extremists are persecuting Christians in the Middle East (who knew he was so observant) Marks and Sparks has made some impracticable concessions to “Muslims” and Anjem Choudary has been “given a platform” on the Today programme.

Remember the ‘yes/no” game? You know, someone asked a load of quick-fire questions and if the contestant said ‘yes’ or ‘no’ a gong banged and the contestant had his head chopped off. Not really, but it was almost impossible to win. Such fun for the audience. 

I think that was what John Humphrys was trying to do the other day when he failed to trick Anjem Choudary into saying  ‘condemn’ and ‘condone’ on the Today programme. Chouders knew he must not do so. They wasted a hell of a lot of airtime on this futile panto, when Humph should have been asking some penetrating questions that could easily have led to  Choudary hoisting himself on his own foreign policytard.

Instead Humph was trounced, and all because of a childish Paxo-tactic, forcing the issue into the siding of terminal futility.

What’s more, Humph must have known Choudary would never cave in, owing to the fact that he had demonstrated the same intransigence and stated his position clearly and unequivocally on another BBC’s platform - Hardtalk with Stephen Sackur  in May; only the particular atrocity he refused to condone or condemn at that time was different, namely the “London bombings”. 

Humphrys’s fruitless pursuit of something that was never gonna happen wasted precious air time; time in which anyone with an ounce of gumption would have probed the precise nature of “the Muslims’ “  objections to “the government’s foreign policy”. 

‘Foreign policy’ is blurted out tediously and predictably by angry Muslims because they know that citing it always seems to floor their BBC interlocutors or at the very least it put them on the back foot. Humphrys sank into defensive mode, started spluttering and all was lost.
Apologists for Islam use foreign policy blindly and uncomprehendingly to justify doing what the hell they like. Foreign policy, foreign policy, foreign policy. There! All they have to do is wait for the gong denoting victory.

It’s time the BBC’s ‘heroes of the devil’s advocate’ started deconstructing it rather than swallowing it whole. It should not be beyond the wit of a jobbing devil’s advocate to demolish this meaningless excuse of a grievance by thrashing out the specifics robustly and in detail. There are so many flaws and illogicalities to pick from that flinging a couple back should be a doddle.  

Shaykh Ibrahim Mogra, the BBC’s favourite kindly moderate Muslim gave the self same excuse to Ed Stourton on Sunday. Foreign policy. 
“Rather than talking about the causes [the West killing Muslims] we seem to be talking about the symptoms of this difficulty.” says Mogra in silky tones. “Muslims see these things [the West killing Muslims] on the internet, and they get angry.”  (I paraphrase)

“We’ll talk about foreign policy later” Ed assured us, “But right now we’re talking about the mosques.” 

“There is no radicalisation in mosques. Move along now, nothing to see here.”   says the good Shaykh.

Dr Brooke Rogers from King’s College agrees.  Back to foreign policy. At last Dr Rogers addresses the issue:

“When you actually engage with individuals who are expressing this anger and these grievances against foreign policy, if you start drilling down to the policy issues themselves they actually struggle to name the leaders in the conflicts and they are very very weak in their understanding of the history of the conflict as well.” states she, boldly.

Interesting Ibrahim Mogra, essentially the foreign policy question is a vehicle for something else.”  ventures Ed.

Ah, now we’re getting somewhere. But “no,”  purrs Mogra. “When Muslims see pictures on the TV where there’s drones killing hundreds and thousands of innocent Muslims it’s bound to anger them....”   WTF? questions the listener.

“Do forgive me. I’m very sorry, but now we must ask some passers by where they think Jesus would be born if he were born today.” interrupted Ed with an abruptness that could genuinely be described as spooky. 

This is a major issue of our times and yet what does Ed Stourton do? Cut it off just when it’s getting to the nub of the matter. Cut it off just so they could broadcast some inane vox-pops?
Did someone in the edit suite (is there one?) pull the plug, or was it down to Ed’s discretion? Was the interview pre-recorded?  The mind boggles.

Friday 20 December 2013

Any Cause for Carolling will do

Lest you think the title of that last post followed by an ominous silence meant anything well, no, it didn't...only that the pre-Christmas rush has left little time for blogging and, despite there being so much of importance going on in the news and in the world of BBC reporting, this post is just to say that things will be very slow here in the coming couple of weeks (well on my part anyway), bursting out anew in 2014. 

Actually, it's not just to say that at all.

The one BBC programme I've had the time to listen to closely was Jeremy Summerly's A Cause for Carolling on Radio 4 - a ten-part history of the Christmas carol. 

As Christmas carols fascinate me, I took a few notes about particular Christmas carols and, in the spirit of of Christmas (and ignoring the title of this blog altogether), I thought I'd share them with you here. 

The title of the series comes from Thomas Hardy's poem The Darkling Thrush, though it's another Hardy poem I think most about at Christmas.

The Oxen 
Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
   "Now they are all on their knees,"
An elder said as we sat in a flock
   By the embers in hearthside ease.
We pictured the meek mild creatures where
   They dwelt in their strawy pen,
Nor did it occur to one of us there
   To doubt they were kneeling then.
So fair a fancy few would weave
   In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
   "Come; see the oxen kneel,
"In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
   Our childhood used to know,"
I should go with him in the gloom,
   Hoping it might be so.

A lovely example of a 'choir carol' (the type where the congregation just listens as the choir does its stuff), setting very old English words (probably from the 15th Century) but with newly composed 20th Century music by Basil Ord, organist and choirmaster at King's College, Cambridge. It was the famous Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at King's which made his setting so famous. 

Inspired by the example of Mrs C.F. Alexander's Once in Royal David's City, several American hymn writers began writing other carols for children, such as this one. There's some uncertainly about who wrote its words though - an uncertainty partly exacerbated by what seems to have been a marketing ploy which originally attempted to present it as having been written 400 years earlier by Martin Luther himself. The tune by which we know it, 'Cradle Song', was composed by schoolteacher William J. Kirkpatrick. 

No ancient carol this - neither its lyrics nor its music - but still a beautiful and well-loved Anglican anthem composed in the winter of 1927 by the dissolute Peter Warlock (aka Philip Heseltine). The words were thought up by a journalist friend of his, Bruce Blunt, as he walked between a couple of pubs one night. They wrote it to help finance a heavy Christmas booze-up and got it published in the Daily Telegraph. That does seem rather in the old spirit of Christmas carols, though rather less in the spirit of Mrs C.F. Alexander!

This, "the quintessential Medieval carol" (in Jeremy Summerly's words), dates back to Tudor England (isn't that "Renaissance" rather than Medieval"?) and The Pageant of the Shearmen and Tailors. Ah, but that play was performed in Medieval Coventry. Old and new in Tudor England. It's a song from a show then - specifically the bit of the show which deals with Herod and the Massacre of the Innocents as the mothers sing lullabies to their ill-fated infants while Mary and Joseph exit stage left.

Jeremy Summerly's favourite Christmas carol. As a kid, I enjoyed it too - especially that long, falling sequence ('burden') on 'Gloria'. Can anyone resist that?  Originally a dance (from 16th Century France), a 20th Century bell-ringer called George Woodward decided to set it to some words of his own devising. His composer friend Charles Wood then gave it new harmonies. 

Jeremy Summerly: "Don't worry so much about the lyrics. Listen to the drive and energy. It has the feel of a West Country wassail about it and if the 14th Century Franciscans had been around today they'd have tweaked the words and brought it firmly into the fold." 

Quite how old this folk carol is no one seems quite sure but it became known through the pioneering collections of antiquarians Davies Gilbert and William Sandys (in the 1820s and 30s) who took it to be a Cornish carol.  

This is the only Christmas carol mentioned by name in Dickens's A Christmas Carol. It seems to have been around since the latter half of the 17th Century, though no one knows who wrote it.

This is also known to Classical Music lovers as 'In dulci jubilo', and originated in Germany in the 14th Century (or even earlier). Luther may have added a verse to it, and J.S. Bach arranged it. The Victorians translated it into English (taking it from the Finnish 17th Century collection Piae Cantiones) and arranged it anew, making it a popular British carol. A couple of short notes were mistranscribed into long notes creating an extra bar in each verse, leading J.M. Neale to write the hymn's most memorable phrases 'News! News!' and 'Joy! Joy!' in an attempt to cover up the mistake. Arrangements continued thereafter, with Mike Oldfield taking In dulci jubilo to No.4 in the charts in 1976.

Apparently this has something to do with Medieval fertility rituals. Also, apparently, Wenceslas was 'Good Duke Wenceslas' not 'Good King Wenceslas' and, anyhow, was only 'good' in comparison to his 'bad boy' brother. The tune is based on a 13th Century spring song called Tempus adest floridum ('The flowers are springing/and the time is burgeoning') and gained a new lease of life in mid 19th Century when the high church Oxford Movement hymnwriter J.M. Neale gave it new lyrics (again taking it from Piae Cantiones). The Oxford Movement, with its keen antiquarian interests, played a key role in bringing back medieval music into the Anglican Church.

Do you know, I've know this carol since I was a wee nipper (my dad couldn't stand it) yet I still wasn't fully conscious of the fact that this hymn isn't in fact called 'Hark the Herald Angel Sing' (a singular mistake - and minus the '!' too).

The words were written by Methodist founder John Wesley's hymn-writer-extraordinaire brother Charles - though, as often seems to be the case with Christmas carols, the original words weren't quite what we know today: "Hark! how all the welkin rings / Glory to the King of Kings".

It went through a few tunes before, a century later, finding its famous match with Felix Mendelssohn's music. Strangely enough, Felix had originally written the tune to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the printing press, but his tune was soon pressed into a new, Christmassy use.

Cecil Sharp, the leader of England's folk song revival at the start of the 20th Century, collected the words and music of this carol from a Gloucestershire folk singer. It seems to have had old English roots. Sir Henry Walford Davies arranged it and made it popular.   

A 1985 piece by Judith Weir which Jeremy Summerly feels is likely to last and which has already been taken up quite widely - a thoroughly modern setting of a medieval Scottish text. 

Setting an 1871 poem by Christina Rossetti found in a posthumous collection of her works, Gustav Holst wrote this carol for the English Hymnal in 1906. Some say that the alternative setting by organist/composer Harold Darke, written in 1909, is more beautiful but I'm sticking with the great Gustav's version. 

An unusual carol in being in triple time. It's English, from the 17th Century, possibly from landlocked Derbyshire.

The quintessential American carol? Ah, no. The words are by Englishman Isaac Watts, dating from the 1710s, and the tune is an English Methodist one dating from the 1830s. The influence of Handel's Messiah has been strongly detected (especially the chorus Lift Up Your Heads).

A 1956 carol written by American composer Jester Hairston. Its original calypso rhythm has been smoothed out over the years by its many pop interpreters, but it's still a winner. 

This - every sniggering teenage schoolboy's favourite carol - came into being around 1740 to the Latin words 'Adeste fideles'.

Given that European composers like Liszt wrote pieces based on it I assumed that the tune may have had a European origin. Shame on me for that! There's a decent possibility that it may have been written by Thomas Arne of old England - the very same Thomas Arne famous for Rule Britannia and an early form of God Save the Queen - at least according to this BBC programme.

Oddly, Wikipedia fails to mention Arne, suggesting a more likely candidate to have been John Francis Wade.

Was it a Jacobite rallying-call though - the "faithful" being the followers of Catholic Bonnie Prince Charlie, summoned to arms? Well, at least one modern academic thinks so.

I was inclined to be sceptical but Wikipedia says John Francis Wade was a Jacobite and fled our shores when the rebellion failed. Given that Wikipedia is universally acknowledged to be 100% infallible (is it possible to be less than 100% infallible?), then maybe it's true after all!

This one - perhaps better considered an Advent carol - has mixed origins. It's based on the plainchant Veni, Veni Emmanuel. The words fuse various 8th Century sources and the tune derives from a 15th Century French melody.

Quintessentially English? Not quite, as the words were written in 1863 by an American Episcopal priest the Rev. Phillips Brooks whilst on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. The tune, however, couldn't be more English. It's based on a Surrey folk tune (a tune called 'The Ploughboy's Dream') collected by Ralph Vaughan Williams in 1903. One night Rev. Brooks was sat astride his horse in the fields outside Bethlehem, He looked south towards the Church of the Nativity and found himself admiring the darkness and stillness of Bethlehem's streets.
(Update: On Radio 3's Private Passions the present Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, named O Little Town of Bethlehem as a favourite carol and regretted the almost total neglect of one verse from Rev. Brooks's original hymn - a neglect so strong that Private Passions had trouble finding a recording which included it:
Where children, pure and happy,
Pray to the Blessed Child;
Where misery cries out to thee,
Son of the Mother mild;
Where charity stands watching,
And faith holds wide the door,
The dark night wakes, the glory breaks,
And Christmas comes once more.
That's a rather beautiful verse, isn't it?

The words of  Once in Royal David's City were written by the queen of Victorian hymnody Mrs C.F. Alexander (known for such gems as All Things Bright and Beautiful and There is a Green Hill Far Away) and come from her collection Hymns for Little Children. It elucidates the line from the Apostles' Creed "Conceived of the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary". The music was written by an organist called Henry Gauntlett. This child's carol is now used as the processional hymn in the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols. 

A carol composed by the Victorian organist/composer Sir John Goss at the invitation of the king of Victorian carol arranging, Sir John Stainer. It appeared in Stainer and Bramley's landmark 1871 collection Christmas Carols New and Old as one of the new ones.  

Lots of people are aware that this is early 19th century German ('Stille Nacht') and written by church organist Franz Gruber. I've got something in the back of my head that church mice are involved in some way, though I can't remember quite how. Maybe Franz used to soothe them to sleep with his beautiful hymn, thus counteracting all the cheese they'd eaten that day (sparing them nightmares about cats)!

Pop? Classical? A category-defying carol from John Rutter full of jazz harmonies and lively syncopations which has entered the modern choir stalls.

The Sussex Carol

Cecil Sharp and RVW again, digging into old English carolling. Vaughan Williams heard the tune being sung by an old lady in Sussex and wrote it down. The words ("On Christmas night all Christians sing") are credited to an 17th Century Irish bishop - though he may merely be the man who (in the spirit of RVW) wrote them down for posterity.

First appearing it William B. Sandys' Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern of 1833, this is believed to be a traditional English folk carol though its pre-Sandys origins are shrouded in mystery.

An American carol, written by the Reverend John Henry Hopkins Jnr for his nephews and nieces to perform in a Christmas pageant.

Did you know that only one Christmas carol was legally permitted to be sung in the Church of England following the restoration of the English monarchy in 1660?

That carol was When Shepherds Watched Their Flocks By Night.

They weren't singing the tune we all know so well though - or at least not only that tune. No, they sung dozens and dozens of tunes (possibly well over a hundred of them) to the words of that approved hymn.

The tune we associate with those words, however, doesn't come from that time but from even earlier - the Renaissance (specially the England of young Edward VI). The tune appears to have been composed by the Tudor composer Christopher Tye, and soon took on a life of its own.

The familiar words of 'While Shepherds Watched' were matched with this old tune in the early 1700s. It is possible, though not certain, that Irish-born poet laureate Nahum Tate wrote them.

Only in 1782 was the legal monopoly of When Shepherds Watched revoked as Hark! The Herald Angels Sing and O Come all ye Faithful joined it in the licit embrace of the Anglican communion.

Merry Christmas!

Monday 16 December 2013

And that's that

Just as a coda to the BBC's Nelson Mandela coverage, here's some more statistical evidence that the BBC went OTT with its coverage.

Comparing the number of BBC website articles that were published about Margaret Thatcher over the ten days between her death and funeral (8-18 April 2013) with those published about Nelson Mandela over the ten days between his death and funeral (5-15 December 2013) reveals:

287 News articles about Margaret Thatcher on the BBC website following her death
451 News articles about Nelson Mandela on the BBC website following his death 

...which is 57% more BBC online coverage about the former South African president than about the former British prime minister.

Sunday 15 December 2013

The BBC v free schools (2)

As you may recall, various right-leaning commentators took the BBC to task for spinning a recent report about free schools to make it look worse than it was. They accused the BBC of having an "anti-free schools bias".

Toby Young, in particular, specifically charged BBC online education correspondent Hannah Richardson with having written a "misleading article", accusing her of "Left-wing bias". 

Just to test the grounds for this allegation, I've checked back through the BBC News website and tracked down all of Hannah's articles which focus (to a lesser or greater extent) on the issue of free schools. (I've not included all those articles where they are mentioned merely in passing, usually when some union leader is denouncing them in a speech).

Here are those articles in chronological order:
22 Jul 2010 
"The creation of Swedish-style free schools in England could increase social segregation but net limited improvements, a leading academic claims.
Dr Susanne Wiborg, of the Institute of Education, also says it could lead to many private providers running schools."
14 Aug 2010
"Private firms are lining up with parent groups to run the Conservatives' flagship "free schools" in England.
These are the new schools that Education Secretary Michael Gove wants parent or teacher groups to set up and run with public funds."
24 Nov 2010
"The National Union of Teachers warned the expansion of the academies and free schools programme was a wrong move that would a two tier education system."
2 Dec 2010
"Plans to shake up the schools system could lead to increased segregation, the Department for Education's own research warns.
Boosting school choice could lead to parents selecting schools for their "peer groups", a study on the impact of its Schools White Paper says."
14 Jan 2011
"A community-led group in Suffolk has become the first in England to get formal approval for their plans to open a new "free" school."
7 Jan 2012
"The government's flagship free schools programme is unlikely to boost access to good schools as they are too expensive, research has suggested.
The Bristol research said it was "inconceivable" more than one parent-founded school would be set up in an area with spare places."
20 Mar 2012
"The government should tackle the growing crisis in primary school places rather than approve more free schools, says shadow education secretary Stephen Twigg."
13 Dec 2012
"A flagship new free school where pupils practise transcendental meditation twice daily has been reprimanded by the government after it failed to put any of its pupils into compulsory national curriculum tests."
15 Oct 2013
"Michael Gove has been urged to monitor free schools more closely after a Muslim faith school was closed temporarily because of safety concerns."

17 Oct 2013

"Described as "dysfunctional" and "in chaos", there can be no doubt that the problems at the Al-Madinah School go right to its core.
Rated inadequate in all four inspection areas, Ofsted said problems at the Derby school were "myriad".
Not only does it lack the basic structures needed to operate, it is said to be close to "collapsing".
Al-Madinah is the second free school to be put into special measures, after Discovery Free School in May 2013."
24 Oct 2013
"Checks on inexperienced staff who want to be head teachers at free schools have been scrapped, despite warnings from civil servants."
11 Dec 2013
"The government's flagship free school programme will cost at least three times the sum originally allocated, the public spending watchdog has found."
13 Dec 2013
"The government has ordered the closure of a failing free school for the first time after education inspectors found standards there unacceptably poor."
As you can see from that list, Hannah has been consistently and almost unremittingly negative in her reporting of free schools since the very beginning. (The exception is First green light for community's free school plan.) 

Critiques from anti-free school academics, criticisms from union leaders and Labour, negatively-spun leaked reports, heavily-spun academic/civil service reports, plus every whiff of bad news about free schools (especially about the only two which have got themselves into serious difficulties) has been seized upon by Hannah Richardson.  

I'd say that this provides pretty clear evidence that Toby Young is correct about this particular BBC reporter's anti-free school bias and that she is in danger of being seen as a campaigning journalist if she's not careful. 

Don't you agree?