Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Remembering the ones that didn't come home

Speaking to former victims while putting together this piece, I had a very small glimpse of how horrific the life of a hostage is. At the time, the chances of the Baghdad Five (as they were then) being released seemed bright. The hope was punctured less than a week later with the discovery of the first bodies, those of Jason Cresswell and Jason Swindlehurst.

The release of Peter Moore is a triumph against all odds, and should be celebrated as such. But let us not forget the four men who did not return home. In all likelihood there was little that could have saved them once they were captured by the ideologically-driven lunatics of the Islamic Shia Resistance group - their status as Western security guards meant that survival was unlikely. Still, questions should be asked, and answered truthfully by those whose job is now to recover the body of Alan McMenemy.

Remember Jason Cresswell, Jason Swindlehurst, Alan McMenemy and Alec MacLachlan.

Thursday, 10 December 2009

Hold on tight...

Someone's got a sense of humour at the Economist, as the last line of this story on Vietnamese currency shows:

"Memories of soaring inflation remain fresh, making savers loth to hold on to their dong."

Friday, 4 December 2009

Telegraph articles

Here's a sheaf of articles from my time on the Telegraph foreign desk:

Singaporean beauty queen caught with her pants down after a fraudulent lingerie-buying spree

Obama off to Copenhagen to win the 2016 Olympics for Chicago (whoops)

The tragic results of a crash involving a lorry-load of bees

Migrants arrested in the Calais Jungle clearances almost immediately released

The dark side of YouTube: viral internet murder in Chicago

The Telegraph's first report of the Conakry massacre

Where I've been

Sorry for the shamefully long pause in blogging. I've been busy, but that's not really an excuse for missing three months.

Here's what I've been up to in the meantime:

- Internship at the Telegraph. An amazing insight into how a top newsroom works that confirmed that journalism is exactly what I want to do.

- Moving to Berlin. I'm studying at the Freie Universitaet as part of my third year course and enjoying the chance to live in one of my favourite cities.

- Working as a stringer. I'm now NewsBase's man in Berlin, reporting on the German oil and gas industry. Since it's a subscription service, I can't publish sample articles here quite yet, though.

More posting to follow very soon.

Sunday, 20 September 2009


Over the weekend, I was accidentally exposed to coverage of the Lib Dem conference. Instead of falling into the stupor this usually induces, I spotted some classic West Midlands slang getting a national airing. Bostin, "superlative usually substituted for great, similar to crackin" was broadcast to the nation thanks to a Clegg cheerleader later identified as Birmingham councillor Karen Hamilton. That's well bostin.

Saturday, 19 September 2009

Should Brown blunder more?

While John Major was under pressure as Prime Minister (pretty much any time between 1990 and 1997), he once said: "When your back's to the wall, it's time to turn around and fight." This line gives a flavour of why, as his government lurched from sleaze to sniping to occasional outright criminality, Major was never hated. Pitied, yes, seen as shy, dull , aloof, even incompetent by some, but always as fundamentally decent. Even his defiance seemed inept.

To me, a child at the time, he seemed nice, in the way that an absent-minded distant relative is nice. No matter how many revelations emerge about him as Thatcher's silent assassin, he will always be seen by a large chunk of the population as a decent man. Perhaps there is a lesson for Gordon Brown here.

Quite simply, Labour stands a cat in hell's chance of winning the next election. Favourable election boundaries will soften the blow, but nowhere near enough to stop 2010 being a mirror image of 1997. The problem for Labour is that is faces threats Major's Conservatives never faced: its base is either apathetic or deserting. to the Tories, the Lib Dems, even the BNP. The threat is to Labour's very existence as a major force.

Against this background, the only real focus can be damage limitation. One painless way to help preserve the Labour brand would be for Gordon Brown to abandon any hope of appearing charming, easy-going, even, hardest if all, fully in control. Out with the awkward mistimed smiles that punctuate sentences at random intervals, out with the voice coaching and the choreographed activist extras. Even with the super-smooth Tony Blair, there came a point when slick presentation became a greasy sheen. With Brown, the impression is that he is concentrating so hard on being comfortable in his own skin that what he is saying comes a distant second.

Allowing presentation to slip a little might actually help matters. Most people find public speaking as excruciating as Brown clearly does, and would run a mile to avoid that strained, cringeworthy YouTube appearance. It might even, if done well, convey an austere getting-on-with-the-job vibe.

However, the likelihood is that it won't help Brown much - he'd still bear all the current ridicule, and there's no hope of his transforming into a BoJo-esque charming bungler. It probably won't help Labour much next year. But being nice, a little inept and overwhelmed could just uncouple the mess of the current administration from the Labour brand in some people's minds. Labour are clutching at straws, after all, and this one looks stronger than most.

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Seumas Milne tries to rehabilitate Stalin

I'd like to draw your attention to this piece by the Guardian's Seumas Milne, in which he attempts to absolve Stalin's USSR of all guilt for the Second World War. To be blunt, I find it offensive. Much as I am tempted to, I'll avoid going through the article to knock every claim down point-by-point (although given the treatment usually meted out to Milne's pieces, someone will doubtless do this elsewhere).

Milne's central argument is that the Soviet Union cannot be blamed in any way for the start of the war, despite signing a deal with the Nazis that gave them complete freedom to invade Poland and to do what they wanted there. He also believes that this pact was in no way aggressive, despite the fact that it handed the Soviets large chunks of Poland, which they invaded a mere 16 days after the Nazis. Worst of all, he argues that no Soviet atrocity can ever be compared to a Nazi atrocity.

In his desperate attempt to show that no comparison can be drawn between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, Milne is drawn into a contorted intellectual game of limbo, supporting his case with comparisons and claims that range from the merely spurious to the downright disgraceful. I feel I should add at this point that I am in no way seeking to excuse any Nazi action, and that I believe that war would have broken out in Europe regardless of the pact, simply because Hitler was an insane man with monstrous views. I also have the greatest respect for the many millions of Soviet war dead, but merely object to attempts to rehabilitate Stalin, another insane man with monstrous views.

However, I feel it is absurd to pretend that having a guarantee of non-aggression in the east did not make the Nazi invasion of Poland easier, or that Hitler did not use the extra time he gained in Poland to act more brutally. To claim that a pact to carve a country in two was "an instrument of defence, not aggression" is simply absurd. Whereas the Munich Agreement was an act of cowardice and misjudgement and Poland's own 1934 non-aggression treaty an attempt at self-defence, ideologically-driven expansionism - the imperialism Milne claims to hate so much - was an essential part of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact from the very beginning.

The part of Milne's piece that really sticks in my throat is his refusal to acknowledge that Communist atrocities count quite as much as Nazi ones. Since someone killed for being Jewish is just as dead as someone killed for being a 'class enemy', and in both cases these killings occurred as part of vast, precisely brutal programmes of state repression, the only remaining conclusion is that Milne believes that Soviet repression was somehow more justifiable (incidentally, this also ignores Communism's own spasms of anti-Semitism - thinly-disguised pogroms occurred throughout Stalin's reign, and there was a major purge of Jewish party members in Poland in the 1950s and 60s).

Here Milne comes up with his most ridiculous denial of logic - that the "acknowledgements" in Russia of that country's part in Soviet crimes go further than "apologies" for the crimes of colonialism in Britain and France. This is true, but only in the narrow sense that the British and French governments haven't issued formal apologies for these crimes, although they fully acknowledge they took place. The Russian Ministry of Defence, however, still occassionally publishes denials of Second World War atrocities on its website, especially the Katyn massacre of Polish officers. Apologies are rarely more than brief statements of 'regret' or a 'mistake' and a Kremlin initiative to make 'falsifying history' a crime has recently become law.

To wind up his increasingly farcical article, Milne attacks the Baltic states, all independent before World War II, for not accepting their post-war annexation by the Soviet Union with complete good grace. Almost in passing, he does make a valid point that the countries need to confront the issue of their Nazi collaborators, but omits to mention that their hostility towards the Soviets might be somewhat fuelled by the mass deportations of hundreds of thousands of Balts to Siberia in the late 1940s.

Seumas Milne is absolutely right that the full horror of Nazism must not be downplayed. However, this horror is not diluted by acknowledging other horrific events that took place elsewhere. The sacrifices made ordinary Soviet citizens to defeat Nazism were huge, but we cannot and should not ignore the aggressive deals and murderous programmes of oppression ordered by the Soviet leadership. Wilful blindness to Red repression is offensive, absurd and wrong.

- To demonstrate that the Left certainly don't have a monopoly on offensive historical revisionism, US commentator Pat Buchanan has had this article pulled from conservative sites for claiming that Hitler didn't want war and that his territorial desires were reasonable. Read at your peril.

- Mikhail Bulgakov's 'The Master and Margarita' is one of the great Russian novels, offering an unforgettable take on Stalinism, religion and love. The acclaimed 2005 Russian miniseries is available on a video-sharing website near you and is highly recommended.

Sunday, 6 September 2009

Why one teenager from Lens matters so much

This piece started off as a comment on Rob Marrs' excellent Left Back In The Changing Room blog, before growing something of a life of its own. It basically boils down to: why trading in child football players is wrong, and why the football transfer system is basically a good thing.

Commenting on the transfer ban Chelsea have been hit with for illegally signing French prodigy Gael Kakuta, Rob usefully clears up the distinction between bog-standard tapping-up (essentially testing the water for a possible transfer and encouraging the player to ask for one) and what Chelsea appear to have done in the Kakuta case - encouraging a minor to break an existing contract. He then goes on to argue that the entire transfer system is "massively unjust and possibly illegal" in that it restricts players' choice of employer in a way that isn't found in any other walk of life.

Firstly, Rob is absolutely right in saying that watching clubs trading in minors is unedifying. Few people want to see multinational corporations offering kids, usually from poor backgrounds, eye-watering financial inducements to move to a country where they are unhappy, don't speak the language and fall behind in their studies. All of these seem to have happened in the case of Kakuta, who admits he regularly went back to Lens on the Eurostar to watch his old team-mates.

The reason that Chelsea are the first high-profile case of a club being punished for this is not a sign that governing bodies such as Fifa and UEFA consider this trade above-board, just that the rules are pretty unclear but Chelsea have broken one of the few clear ones. Clubs aren't supposed to sign minors, but there are all sorts of loopholes. Manchester United allegedly arranged a job in Manchester for the father of young Italian Federico Macheda so his family could claim they had moved for 'non-footballing reasons', which is perfectly legal.

A ban on transfers for all under-18s, as Fifa and players' representatives are now seeking, would prevent kids being involved in deals they can barely understand, as well as clear up the rules. Clubs would have fewer opportunities to give dodgy deals a fig-leaf of legitimacy, and those breaking the rules could be hit with proportional punishments. Rob points out that Chelsea have been fined over 20 times more than the Ivory Coast FA were for the crushing to death of 19 fans in a stampede, and argues that this shows Fifa have skewed priorities. The problem here is the same as for any fine - ability to pay. £682,000 is a drop in the ocean for Roman Abramovich, who have only really been affected by the signings ban, but the same sum would cripple a small national FA. Since an FA is responsible for everything from discipline to schools football, this would be in nobody's interests.

Where I really do differ from Rob, though, is the question of whether the transfer system as a whole is as unjust as he thinks. The key point is that you just can't compare football to plumbing - sport is a unique business because it makes its money solely from competition. There could never be a sporting monopoly because there would be nothing to see. Sport therefore requires uniquely sensitive regulation to ensure competition remains healthy, and preventing players from moving clubs at will while under contract is part of that.

Allowing completely free movement of players doesn't really compare to the Bosman ruling, which just abolished cartoonishly unjust restrictions that prevented a player from leaving a club even after his contract had expired. Fixed term contracts allow clubs, financially unstable as so many of them are, at least a chance to plan for the future. The first result of any 'new Bosman ruling' would be a rash of bankruptcies which could make Leeds' fall from grace look small.

The money in the game - the result of rich old men wanting to buy adoration (see Blackburn's Premiership title, Silvio Berlusconi at Milan, even poor old Mike Ashley) - would simply move into wages, propelling footballers into circles of wealth even further beyond fans' imagination. If Real Madrid had been able to nab Cristiano Ronaldo for nothing, he might easily have become the world's first £500,000 a week player, outstripping even brand Beckham.

The most disturbing consequence of allowing players to break contracts prematurely, however, would be the complete and immediate evisceration of domestic football in large parts of the world. Earlier this year, a small drop in the number of transfers resulted in a bankruptcy crisis for Argentinian football clubs so severe that many received state aid to prevent the national league collapsing. The fact is that all South American football is heavily dependent on European clubs buying up young talent at high prices, and an end to this would destroy some of the world's oldest and most respected teams. Closer to home, Serbian and Croatian football works in a similar way (think of the money Man U paid for two Partizan Belgrade starlets in January), while Portuguese clubs are a massive import warehouse for Brazilian talent. That's an awful lot of wrecked clubs and disenfranchised fans without even looking at the English lower leagues. The reality is that without transfer fees, there's nothing to stop European Champions League clubs simply setting up harvesting operations around the world and bypassing local fans entirely except to sell them merchandise.

Of course the transfer system isn't perfect and never will be, although a ban on transfers for under-18s would make it better. All sport, especially the highly commercial game of football, occupies a unique niche and needs special regulation to reflect that. The irony is that giving players more freedom to move clubs could easily end up restricting fans' choice drastically.

Finally, here a few things I found while scratching around the internet researching this post:

- an excellent article on Sampdoria's only Serie A title

- a pretty good compilation of goal celebrations, but what makes it is Aylesbury United's appearance about three minutes in. Enjoy.

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Toilet humour

Found in a BBC article about Aeroflot's aging fleet:

"If you are unlucky enough to be allocated the seats placed in two strange alcoves at the back of the plane, it feels and smells like you are actually sitting in the toilet."

I can understand the use of 'smells', but 'feels' opens up a whole new tactile world.

Donkey business in Azerbaijan

It was reported today that two Azerbaijani bloggers have been arrested shortly after posting a video of a spoof press conference starring a donkey as a protest against the country's unaccountable politicians and timid state-controlled media. The video is pretty funny, so here it is, with subtitles:

Andjan Hajizade and Emin Milli have been charged with 'hooliganism', a catch-all law found in most post-Soviet countries and a favourite of state officials, since it is usually vague enough to make the tiresome job of proving anything much easier and attracts fairly heavy penalties (up to five years in jail in this case). Hajizade and Milli claim they were attacked in a restaurant and promptly arrested for starting a brawl. As a result of what could well be a ham-fisted state reprisal, their video has gone global.

Since Azerbaijani politics and interviewing tactics are hardly common knowledge, here's a quick guide. The country's president since 2003 is Ilham Aliyev, who succeeded his dad Heydar, a former KGB and Politburo man. Father and son share a habit of winning around 80% of the vote in elections (often after the opposition have either boycotted the vote or alleged large-scale fraud) and have attracted repeated claims of massive corruption involving the country's huge oil revenues. The bloggers' video has been widely seen as a satire of the unchallenging treatment the country's media gives politicians - asking visiting dignitaries about their flight can and does happen.

What makes the video's popularity so much of a headache for the Azerbaijani government is its nailing of many of the cliches of the servile state-controlled (either directly or via pliant tycoons) TV news found in many post-Soviet countries. A common feature is footage of press conferences where reporters ask questions as a pre-planned springboard for the speaker to spout forth on his subject of choice, often run as a lead item. Here's Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko demonstrating the principle in faintly ludicrous military get-up. Incidentally, last week he admitted rigging the 2006 election, but only to reduce his share from the 'actual' 93% to a more believable and "European" 80%. The other major component of many shows tends to be interminably dull footage of staged 'meetings' between leaders and their underlings, designed to convey a macho getting-on-with-the job vibe, as capably shown here by Russia's then-president Vladimir Putin and prime minister Mikhail Fradkov.

In short, the main aim of much TV news in the former Soviet Union is to show leaders going about their daily business and looking in control, instead of dealing with the annoyance of discussing how the country should be run. Unsurprisingly, this does nothing to stimulate debate and everything to render opposition invisible in every way short of street protest. If a violin-playing Azerbaijani donkey can get people to ask the inconvenient questions, then he has my full support.

Small-town values

I live in a small town. I don't mean this in a Hockey Mom and Joe Six-Pack sense, which just puts me in mind of Jon Stewart's comment that he must surely be both, since he's "an alcoholic who picks kids up from school". Home for me, when not at university, is a small and rather unimportant place. So I felt a small flash of pride when I came across this piece in the local paper:

"Felice Tocchini, who works at Fusion brasserie in Stoulton, will launch his new biscuit, which can be dunked for more than a minute, at the opening ceremony of Worcester Feast tomorrow."

My warm glow at rural Worcestershire's innovation faded slightly with two thoughts. Firstly, the article makes no mention of taste, which could mean that the Mayor has to undergo one of those grin-and-bear-it moments familiar to the innocent victims of TV chefs when he tries the first one. Secondly, we already have a biscuit that screams 'Dunk me!' - the mighty Hobnob.

Saturday, 29 August 2009

A glourious mess

Quentin Tarantino is a very strange man. After all, he is the film geek turned master director who has admitted that September 11th "didn't affect him" because he'd seen it done in a Hong Kong action movie (see Johann Hari) and the skilful builder of tension through seemingly innocuous dialogue who abandoned his talent in favour of endless homages to gore-fests past, even putting his name to the awful Hostel.

The good news is that he brings that tension back in Inglourious Basterds, stretching scenes tight before they explode into violent fireworks. The bad news is that some of the mindlessness is back too. Most of the film is spent painstakingly involving the viewer with conversations that grow more menacing with each digression, the rest on kicking the viewer out as hard as possible.

The film ultimately ends up as a geek's triumph, a feature-length 'look-what-I-can-do' showreel that veers from an opening scene so good one German reviewer recommended Tarantino should chuck cinema altogether in favour of the stage (unlikely) to digressions including Spaghetti Western lettering splashed across the screen and an Open University-style demonstration of the chemical properties of nitrate film. When Mike Myers comes on as a British general in a scene played absolutely straight apart from his Austin Powers accent, you start to wonder if Tarantino isn't trying to show he could have made that film too (he could - the scene is hilarious). When Churchill arrives, you half expect the British Bulldog to have Ray Winstone's cockney growl.

Inglourious Basterds is by turns menacing, poignant (dead characters are resurrected on film) and, in the riotously ahistorical ending, ridiculous enough to be genuinely funny. The product of a struggle between two directors, one the slick pop-culture early 90s Tarantino, the other the B-movie obsessed teenager who made Death Proof, this film is a complete mess. The problem is it's all done with such enjoyably glorious style.

Thursday, 27 August 2009

It wasn't us, we'd have just smashed the windows...

A particularly cretinous BNP councillor denies attacking a local Muslim leader, in this report from the Guardian.

Councillor Pat Richardson, leader of the BNP group on the local council, said her party was not behind the attacks on Ramjanally. "Firebombing is not a British method. A brick through the window is a British method, but firebombing is not a way of showing displeasure," she said.

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Sex, Sloanes and Scotland

Yesterday's Times 2 featured a very interesting piece by Stefanie Marsh attacking the British university system and listing the myriad disappointments of her time as a language student at Edinburgh.

Being a language student at Edinburgh as well as one of the "geeky, petulant" newspaper "oddballs" Marsh likes so much, I thought I'd offer my take.

University, apparently, is about nothing more than the forced seasonal 'fun' of charades stretched taut over three (or in Edinburgh, four) years. Considering that for most people, the sole point of charades is a way to pass the bloated Boxing Day afternoon while watching two distant relatives squabble themselves to the point where they refuse to speak to each other for a decade, Marsh's comparison is more than a little odd.

Of course university isn't all about gurning drunken larks, unless you're in one of the sports clubs whose initiations all seem to follow the same pattern: "We made them drink a pint of sambuca, vomit it up and then drink it again. Awesome." Yes, Edinburgh can be viciously, two-duvets cold. And yes, it is a particularly class-ridden university, with populations of Scots and Sloanes at polar opposites.

In short, university is a sink-or-swim experience - and it has to be. "Dumping" school-leavers in a melting pot of class, race and politics is the only way most of them will feel the chill of the real world. This is often a fairly literal process in Edinburgh in January when you're torn between toughing it out under your Tog level 15 shield or explaining an increased heating bill to disapproving flatmates. In any case, how on earth are the worlds of the Sloanes and native Scots ever supposed to make contact, if not by mixing the crowds together in this "sociological experiment"? In my experience, at least, it isn't quite as doomed as Marsh makes it out to be, anyway. Put people together and they may well find they like each other more than they expected, especially when sexual attraction enters the mix. A melting pot, however imperfect, beats segregation any day.

Marsh also seems slightly trapped in a slightly feudal social scale, in thrall to the Sloanes that "dominate" her life in a way I can relate to, having gone to a minor private school (albeit on a scholarship). After all, it can be hard to resist someone who not only behaves like they own the place, but in all probability has a relative who actually does. Thankfully, of Edinburgh's current 'Sloane' population (now clad in Jack Wills' finest), those who don't mix into the main student body tend to drink themselves into dinner-jacketed port-sodden oblivion, only emerging to unsuccessfully contest campus elections.

Where Marsh comes closer to the mark is on the lack of pressure to learn. This is absolutely true, especially for someone who spent their final school year being coached for the essay-a-week Oxbridge pressure cooker, but again, it has an upside. Self-reliance and independence as a student are surely positive, and most sixth-formers long for the chance - this is why the trend of helicopter parenting is so disturbing. Besides, any half-decent lecturers will reward effort, but won't feel obliged to tell their adult charges to work. The cold shock of what is not the real world, but university's approximation of it, is an excellent rite of passage. Long may it continue.

*This doesn't really fit anywhere above, but Marsh's claim that "a person educated in communist Yugoslavia or Russia" is better-educated than any product of the British system is utter nonsense. The Soviet system was unafraid of teaching the classics - for example Dumas' Three Musketeers is for primary school children - but trying to come up with an interesting interpretation could mean you'd be blackballed from any job of even vague significance. Hardly a triumph of "analytical thought".

Saturday, 25 July 2009

Harry Potter, Jesus and Freudian literary criticism

Here's a rather strange perspective on the Harry Potter franchise from Bidisha, a freelance arts critic who roams the highbrow circuit and is a constant reminder that , to go by one name, you really do need a certain level of name recognition. This doesnt have to be at the level of a Madonna or an Ataturk, but at least somewhere around the Cher mark.

Here, she attempts to explore the darker side of Harry Potter, starting off promisingly by examining the prominence of damaged children in the novels and the notion of the absued becoming abusers (Voldemort), but then flies off the handle by claiming J.K. Rowling's boy wizard is "one sick puppy...Hamlet meets Jesus."

This illustrates just how easy it can be for a Freudian view of literature to accelerate into a world of twisted absurdity. It can certainly be a useful tool in the hands of someone expert in psychology and literature, but in my experience as a student of literature, all too often ends up as the application of identikit theories to anything that remotely resembles them in the text.

It's very easy to do, as my own one-minute Freudian reading of Harry Potter shows:

1. Harry Potter usually prefers to disarm his opponents rather than harm them.
2. Wands are phallic instruments of power (anything longer than it is wide can be phallic).
3. Harry Potter is all about a boy wizard's castration fantasy.

Or it could just be that having your kid hero disarming his opponents rather than killing them is rather more publisher- and parent-friendly. Make your own mind.

Inside the hostage machine

Sunday Herald, 14.06.09

By Daniel Bach, Ren Deakin and James Ellingworth

The second anniversary of the kidnapping of five Britons, including two Scots, in Baghdad has just passed. Just over a week ago, another Briton, Edwin Dyer, was executed by an al-Qaeda cell in Mali.
To the outside world, it often appears as if these captives languish in sweltering terrorist hideouts forgotten by everyone but their loved ones. But from the moment a Briton is taken captive by a terrorist gang, a huge system – spanning the military, the intelligence services and the government – swings into operation: the so-called “hostage machine”.
When the hostage machine cranked into life in Whitehall for Edwin Dyer, he was 2,500 miles away. It was January, and he had spent the day enjoying the vibrant African music and dance festival Tamadacht N’Azawagh, amid the dunes of the Sahara on the border between Mali and Niger. But by nightfall, Dyer and his three European companions were in the hands of a Tuareg rebel band, who subsequently sold them to the Al-Qaeda in North Africa group.
The sequence of events which followed Dyer’s kidnapping is well-known to British military top brass, civil servants and intelligence chiefs. Some 18 months earlier, the same protocols had swung into action when, just outside the heavily fortified Green Zone in Baghdad on a blisteringly hot afternoon, British IT consultant Peter Moore, 35, was delivering a lecture when he and his four bodyguards were snatched from the Iraqi finance ministry by an organised group demanding: “Where are the foreigners?”
A former British military hostage negotiator who now runs a private security firm says that, despite the two cases beginning in different ways, they were tackled by the British government using the same routine.
Of Edwin Dyer’s case, he says: “These guys haven’t been specifically targeted, they’ve been picked up by ‘ordinary decent criminals’ who very quickly assess what they’ve got and have then sold them on.”
Of the Baghdad case he says: “Political extremists will adopt a very military-type hierarchy. They select their target, they will do surveillance, look at various options for lifting the guy ... In a lot of cases they’ll do a dry run of the operation itself to see if it works. Once they are happy it’s going to work, then they’ll do the attack.”
Developed over years, Whitehall has a standard operating procedure in place to resolve the abduction of British subjects within established parameters, which exclude conceding political demands or paying a ransom – although the government is unlikely to stand in the way of a ransom payment from the hostage’s employer.
“Government policy is not to do nothing,” says Professor Paul Wilkinson, an international relations expert and former director of the Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at the University of St Andrews. “On the contrary, the Foreign Office has developed considerable expertise in working with governments and foreign agencies to try and uncover the nature of the kidnappings.
“Sometimes it is very difficult to tell who is in control of the situation, calling the shots and making the decisions,” he adds, which makes intelligence gathering a crucial part of the initial process.
The Foreign Office begins to co-ordinate with foreign intelligence agencies and local governments and seeks a channel to the kidnapping cell – moderate Islamists in the Arab world often keep an eye on local radicals, for example.
A former British intelligence officer with experience of top-level Whitehall decision-making describes the start of the process: “Normally, what happens is that a senior civil servant is put in charge, possibly from the Cabinet Office, possibly from the Foreign Office. You’d have the Foreign Office at the meeting, you’d have SIS [MI6] obviously, people from the Ministry of Defence. You might have people from domestic ministries, depending on the implications.”
If a military solution is not deemed possible, the intelligence agencies are called on to find out where the hostages are, who is holding them and whether a deal or rescue is possible.
Phil Bigley is the brother of Ken Bigley, the hostage from Liverpool who was captured and killed in 2004 by a Jihadist terrorist cell led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. He says: “I heard within a few hours of them discovering Ken’s identity. Within an hour of my getting the phone call, Merseyside Police had dispatched three family liaison officers to my house, and they lived with us. They gave us tremendous support and kept us up to date.
“Al-Zarqawi’s was the worst group that my brother could have been with ... this was statistically going to end very badly. The Foreign Office weren’t going to let us forget that, so they weren’t building up hope. The strongest memory I have is that of feeling absolutely helpless. I had no control over whether my brother would live or die.”
Shortly before his murder, Ken Bigley managed to escape with the help of some members of the cell in an attempt linked to MI6, but was recaptured at a terrorist checkpoint and later beheaded. Video footage of his death was released by Al-Qaeda in Iraq and sent shockwaves through Britain. His remains have never been found.
Those liaising between the frontline of the operation and the families believe that controlling the flow of information is crucial to getting the captive back alive.
The negotiator says: “We don’t want them doing any harm unwittingly by speaking to the media and saying things out of place that could damage the operation.”
While this is going on, a base known as a Red Centre is set up in the country where the kidnapping has taken place. All operational decisions are taken from here.
From the earliest stages of the incident it is clear that demands need to be understood. Groups either want money or are ideologically driven. Often a key negotiating chip is prisoner exchanges – a Brit for an al-Qaeda operative, for instance. Both the Mali and Baghdad hostage-takers have called for prisoner releases as a condition for freeing their captives.
In Mali, the terrorist captors from Al-Qaeda in North Africa demanded the release from a UK prison of hard-line cleric Abu Qatada, a Jordanian once labelled Osama bin Laden’s “right-hand man in Europe.” Last month in an internet posting, the group promised the execution of Dyer if a 20-day deadline for Abu Qatada’s release was missed. The deadline passed. Dyer was executed.
British and Iraqi officials say that central to the resolution of the situation in Baghdad is the release of Khais al-Ghazali, a former spokesman for hard-line Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who is currently in military custody suspected of involvement in the killing of five US soldiers. If he is freed, the captors say, progress will be made in the release of the five Britons.
The pressures on the hostage during captivity fall into two distinct categories: self-induced pressures, i.e. the hostage’s own fears about their situation; and system-induced pressures which come from the captors, such as confinement, poor diet and threats.
Colin Eglington, a Briton who was held in an Iraqi chemical weapons factory as part of Saddam Hussein’s human shield strategy in 1990 during the first Gulf War, attempted to mitigate his circumstances as best he could. “Despite the lack of food, I tried to keep fit and took on an attitude to try and not provoke them, and a feeling of acceptance, an attempt not to react, so they couldn’t see the chink in your armour and get enjoyment out of it, like a bully at school.
“They play their mind games. They like to show you who is in power. The guards would say, ‘Oh, you’ll be going home tomorrow, you’ll be going home very soon.’ Whenever they wanted to come and punch you, they could.”
A hostage incident can end in one of three ways: the captive is either rescued, released or killed. Wilkinson says: “The thing to remember is that a number of people have been rescued from capture, not through military operation, but through successful negotiation. Rescues are possible and have been done spectacularly through special forces. It must not be assumed the worst will happen.”
The silence surrounding the current abductions in Iraq suggests a wide-ranging operation is under way to secure the Britons’ release.
The negotiator confirms this assessment: “Red Centre is based in Iraq, there are boots on the ground, and there is a huge effort to get these guys back ... I know guys who are intimately involved with this operation. It’s not getting out in the news because that’s the strategy they’ve chosen. Even though this is two years old, they’re still talking. Do you know what? The hostages are not dead yet.”

Sadly, soon after this piece was published, the bodies of two of the Baghdad hostages, Jason Creswell and Jason Swindlehurst, were found.

Location, location, location

Scenery and low prices pull in English and expats to fuel a boom in property sales on the west coast

By James Ellingworth, Sunday Herald 14.06.09
NESTLING ON the bank of Loch Leven, just down the road from Glencoe, Ballachulish is best known as the dividing point between the north and south divisions of shinty.
This quiet former slate-quarrying village, with its picture-postcard views seems an unlikely place to spark a revival in the troubled Scottish property market. Yet, according to industry experts, that is exactly what is happening.
As the recession bites, property on the west coast is soaring in popularity, with English couples and expat Scots deserting the overseas glamour spots of the boom years to seek their own piece of the Argyll coastline.
"We've seen the trend of late of a lot of people coming out of Dubai, and British people buying all sorts of property in the west of Scotland because it looks like good value to them," says Simon Rettie, managing director of Rettie and Co estate agents, based in Edinburgh.
"People are buying in the west as the prices begin to correct because it's a good opportunity to get in the market."
The type of buyer has also changed, with strong interest from south of the border replacing "Americans buying two or three properties", according to Rettie. Many of the new buyers are Scots living in England or abroad, or English people with strong links to Scotland. Sailing enthusiasts are also well represented, given the spectacular coastline.
Mark Gibson, from Cumbria, is typical of the new buyers. The 40-year-old engineer and his wife Sue have just bought a cottage in Ballachulish dating from the 1700s for around £250,000.
"I've been going to Scotland for a number of years and I keep coming back several times a year. We got married half a mile from where the house is, and it's a place that we've talked about moving to permanently in the future.
"The attraction for us is the scenery and the picturesque nature of the terrain. We'd been toying with the idea for a while and looking at locations."
Asked whether the current economic climate was a motivation for the move, Gibson says it "played a role" - house prices in the area are down 15% on two years ago, but starting to rally - but says he would have moved to Scotland soon regardless.
Glasgow estate agent Geoff Lockett confirms strong interest in property on the west coast. "There are more buyers than ever from down south.
"The people who want to live up here are generally English, while the people buying second homes are predominantly Scots ex-pats living down south or abroad. The second-home buyers tend to have more of a Scottish connection."
Although the Gibsons will use their new house as a second home to begin with, they have not ruled out a permanent move and plan to let out part of the property. "The house won't be left empty, I don't believe in that. It is going to be used at all times," Gibson insists.
He is also keen to dispel fears of an English invasion in Argyll, saying he plans to become part of the community and already knows people in the area.
Lockett claims the new arrivals add a lot to the area without forcing locals out. "These properties have been of this holiday cottage type for the past 50 years. The majority of the population in Argyll live within the villages and towns, so it doesn't really affect the overall population that much.
"The people who are coming up to earn a living as part of a lifestyle change actually probably add a hell of a lot to the community financially. They'll probably improve the property and benefit the economy."

News piece from the Herald

Here are a few highlights from a recent internship at the Herald and Times Group over in Glasgow, ranging from highish-brow features to a fashion piece for the Glasgow Evening Times.

Knighthoods awarded to Dracula and young Nick

James Ellingworth, The Herald, 13.06.09

A string of well-known personalities across the UK received awards in the Queen's birthday honours list, with knighthoods going to golfer Nick Faldo and horror actor Christopher Lee.
Sir Nick is one of the most successful British golfers of all time, with six majors to his name in a career spanning more than 30 years and 96 major competitions, which included 92 weeks as world No 1.
Despite being on the losing side as captain of Europe's Ryder Cup team last year, he is ranked as the best performing player ever in the tournament, having racked up 25 points in the course of 12 appearances.
Sir Christopher shot to fame playing Dracula alongside Peter Cushing in the Hammer horror films of the 1970s, as well as international assassin Scaramanga in the James Bond film The Man With The Golden Gun. In recent years, his most notable role has been as the evil wizard Saruman in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Among those also knighted was Sir Andrew Motion, who stepped down as Poet Laureate earlier this year. Further recognition for British poets comes in the form of a knighthood for Sir Christopher Ricks, who is soon to step down from his post as Oxford University Professor of Poetry.
TV chef and bestselling author Delia Smith, already an OBE, has been made a CBE for services to the food industry, an award she described as "a very, very great honour".
Actor Jonathan Pryce has been made a CBE for services to drama. He is another former Bond villain, best known for his role as evil media baron Elliot Carver in Tomorrow Never Dies.
Sue Johnston will graduate from the Royle Family to the Royal Family when she receives an OBE in recognition of an acting career famously including her role as Barbara in the Manchester-set BBC comedy, while Likely Lads star James Bolan becomes an MBE.
Among the sports stars honoured are former England cricketer Graeme Hick, who becomes an MBE, as does Charlotte Edwards, who captained the England women's cricket team to victory in this year's world cup in Australia.
In the diplomatic list Vidal Sassoon becomes a CBE for promoting British hairdressing. In all, 984 people receive awards in the 2009 birthday honours, up from 959 last year. Of the total, 72% are "unsung heroes" being recognised for public service in local communities.

Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Mrs Thatcher, are you trying to seduce me?

James Ellingworth finds that there are those who quite enjoy being under the heel of an Iron Lady

The Student, 03/03/09

“Prime Minister, you look to die for,” the voiceover purrs as the camera lingers on Maggie’s lips in a manner that suggests this BBC drama will be something along the lines of an M&S advert: “This is no ordinary Iron Lady...”
With the acting somewhere between Elizabeth I and Lady Macbeth, even wearing a ruff at one stage, Margaret veers between reviling Thatcher for her politics and worshipping her as a sex symbol, a feared but desired dominatrix of the right wing.
A two-hour drama about a 1990 Conservative party leadership contest might not seem like automatically riveting viewing, but this portrait of the downfall of a uniquely polarising figure is compelling, despite some heavy-handed treatment and occasional ridiculous moments, including a string of brutal verbal assaults on opponents, and some slightly clumsy attempts to show her vulnerability.
Not only does she break down as she announces her resignation to the Cabinet, there is also a bizarre scene with an awkward attempt at psychological analysis of a phrase she uttered during her resignation, “It’s a funny old world”, producing the following awful pseudo-Freudian dialogue:
“I was Daddy’s but not Daddy’s girl, do you see? That’s what they laugh at now isn’t it? Me as a man. That’s funny ha-ha. Me as a man. Ha-ha. It’s a funny old world.”
When the script isn’t trying to delve into Thatcher’s childhood, it does manage to present an interesting portrait of Thatcher’s control over her exclusively male circle of admirers and rivals.
A string of flashbacks show how she exerted her authority over them - in a forceful manner somewhere between a matronly schoolmistress and a lion-tamer, -and creating as an end - and in the process creating a group so cowed and obedient that none of them is willing to tell her she cannot go on.
The scenes when the realisation sinks in on both sides that she is finished are excellently poised, her shocked silences balanced with despair, even tears on the part of her closest acolytes. In keeping with the drama as a whole, the acting ranges from the sublime to the ridiculous, sometimes within the same scene.
In the lead role, Lindsay Duncan is spot-on in echoing Thatcher's voice - hectoring, forceful and unnaturally deep - which was the product of voice coaching taken by the Iron Lady to make her seem more masculine. Margaret also shamelessly plays on Thatcher as a sex symbol, to the point of having her look permanently 20 years younger than in reality.
This leads to some very odd moments, especially in her scenes with her daughter, which imply that Maggie must have given birth at some point in primary school.
The men around Thatcher are largely played by the same group of actors who circulate around BBC dramas playing posh men, endlessly cropping up in Hustle, Spooks and Doctor Who, here spending most of their time skulking around darkened offices as TV politicians always do.
There are some excellent performances among them, in particular Thatcher’s perennial rival Michael Heseltine, who is is portrayed as a superb snarling Tigger of a man, swearing profusely as he bounces around the set; and John Major , who becomes is a sinister silent assassin, biding his time as his rivals destroy one another.
On the other hand, Norman Tebbit, the Iron Lady’s enforcer, has an accent that migrates from his native north London to the Yorkshire moors, sometimes within the same sentence. The Queen is strangely dumpy, looking more like Aunt Bessie than Elizabeth II.
Overall, Margaret shows occasional flashes of potential greatness as a psychological portrait of such a difficult subject, aiming for politics as Shakespearean tragedy, but is all too often let down by a cack-handed approach, and some moments that are truly bizarre.
It’s a funny old world.

Brown on student politics

Gordon Brown, Prime Minister and ex-News Editor of the Student, comments on the futility of student politics

Pipes and promises have mixed uneasily this week with the realities of student power.
Despite the talk of food, failures and flats (did they promise 300,000 or 400,000?) and the usual diplomatically announced campaign meetings that never take place, today's climax to a week's electioneering will not belie the real victor. Apathy is streets ahead.
Who in fact wants to make himself a student politician? The wild-eyed idealist, the worried incompetent or the shaggy radical?
Beyond the facades of second-hand rosettes, lewd posters, non-candidates and even modesty (with in Churchill's phrase a lot to be modest about), two types of student politician can be detected: the politician who wants to see ideas put into action (and usually doesn't wait around very long if they aren't), and the politician who wants to see himself in action.
The ego trip is by far the most compelling explanation for the student politician. Either he is conscious of his own social inadequacies or he is dreaming up a career in real politics. But who ever makes it? Is the SRC debate - home of irrelevant debate and pissed-off members - really the breeding ground for our nation's leaders?
The most important thing about a student politician, however, is that he cannot do much. Once at the top of his greasy pole, he is supported, like a rope the person it hangs, by a diffuse, disorganised and apathetic student body whose interest does not even reach to the level of throwing flourbombs.
His mandate is a myth - only highly emotional issues like the South African shares [the University owning shares in companies in apartheid South Africa] give him power from below - and I know for sure that when the results are known, the University secretariat will be counting the vote, taking out their log tables and working out their percentages to prove how unrepresentative the new president is: "Ah, Mr Turberville - Drummond - Manley - McLean. I see 8.7 per cent of the students wanted you."
And at the other extreme our student politician is told he is below a University administration of professors and bureaucrats to whom power comes naturally.
He may attend sherry parties (and hopefully vomit) and sip tea with the powers that be but he himself is not a power. He and his funds are responsible in theory and in practice to someone else.
Sooner or later (and for most unfortunately it is later) our student politician will have to come face to face with the dreadful truth that the realities of power are that he doesn't have any.
What he is doing is manning the University's least popular committees and making up the numbers at formal occasions: propping up in fact an undemocratic and authoritarian system (which he doesn't believe in) without being able to change a thing.
So can a politician achieve anything? I believe he can - only by first realising the limits of the possible. That his actual power is minimal; and that his real power is as a propagandist - in providing ideas and policies for changing the whole of university government, and as an administrator - putting money to better uses.

This comment first appeared in the Student in 1971. It has been edited for clarity

Candidates pledge pay cuts as race reaches its climax

The Student, 03/03/09

James Ellingworth

Three of the five EUSA presidential candidates have pledged to take a pay cut if elected, adding another twist to an already eventful campaign.
Liz Rawlings, Oliver Mundell and Benedict Robbins have all said that they will either give part of their salary, currently around £20,000, to charity, or plough it back into EUSA.
Robbins has even gone as far to say that, if elected, he will only claim a wage to cover his basic needs, describing the role of president as 'an act of service', adding: “I don't see why I need to get paid.”
Mundell said that he would donate any money above that required for his living costs to charity, and called for salaries to be set on an individual basis, according to the elected candidate's needs, adding that a typical EUSA wage should be 'around £11-12,000.'
Rawlings told the Student that she would 'absolutely' take a pay cut, saying: “If it's in line with the current economic climate, I wouldn't want to be earning more than other graduates.”
She added that she saw 'no need' for EUSA salaries to be above £16,000, but rejected Mundell's call for salaries to be set on an individual basis., saying: “I don't think that's helpful, or that any other graduate scheme would set their pay levels based on a student's background."
Tim Goodwin, president in the 2006-7 academic year, was the last EUSA figure to take a pay cut as part of a campaign pledge, returning £1,300 to the association, although current president Adam Ramsay recently revealed to the Student that he has donated a 'large chunk' of his salary to charity.
James Rodger, one of the two candidates who have not said they will cut their pay, said that this 'should not be an issue', and that “the pay is fair, for what is essentially a graduate-level job.”
“Having said that, however, I would consider supporting societies who needed money for particular events I was keen on through grants from my own pay cheque,” he added.
Thomas Graham told the Student: “If I am elected I intend to earn every penny I'm paid, working full-time and concentrating 100 percent on the job right from day one.”
One current EUSA sabbatical told the Student that sabbatical salaries are calculated by adding 25 percent to the rate of student support for postgraduate research students.
This figure would place the salaries of next year's president and vice-presidents around the £18,500 mark, equating to £1,200 per month after tax, although it would also mean that EUSA sabbaticals' salaries are set to increase below the rate of inflation.
The source also described the way salaries are paid as 'dodgy', saying that he had never signed a contract to cover his work for EUSA.
There was a further development after Mundell revealed that he had considered pledging to live off a £7,000 wage as part of a campaign for a minimum income guarantee for students, but had been discouraged by current sabbaticals Adam Ramsay and Guy Bromley.
Ramsay told the Student he had not 'forced' Mundell to drop the policy, but admitted having discussed the topic with him. He added that any pledge of this sort, while 'a very noble thing to do', could discourage poorer students from standing for EUSA positions.

Friday, 27 February 2009

It'll get worse before it gets worse

James Ellingworth argues that the current economic cloud has no silver lining at all

Published in The Student 24/2/08 [illus. Harriet Brisley]

Talk of a golden age tends to be the preserve of Middle England types fixated with swearing on the BBC or the evils of the EU, and conjures up images of the prim 1950s and smiles all round at the vicarage tea party. In short, it’s something you’ve probably never considered.
But that might be the future for many students – looking back at the boom years, an age of prosperity, stability and cheap flights, when firms queued up on campus to hand out smoothies and chocolate to entice students into a glittering career in accountancy.
The promised land is rapidly turning to a dystopia, as the boom turns out to have depended on the sleight-of-hand of international finance, a trick that looks ever clumsier as the economy sinks into a mire of now-worthless credit default swaps and bankrupt hedge funds.
With politicians and business leaders such as Bill Gates now predicting that the world will take anything up to a decade to recover from the recession, students and graduates are now faced with the horrifying prospect of emerging into a world struggling to hold on to the affluence they lived with only a few years before.
Add to this the state of the environment, slowly strangled by over-consumption, its demise heralded by increasingly dire warnings from the global scientific community, and the picture is one of fundamental insecurity.
In comparison to the current outlook, the period from 1990 to 2007 seems like a golden age.
The spread of cheap travel can be seen as symptomatic of the boom years’ greatest achievements and its greatest follies, ignoring the rot beneath the surface of the shiny, user-friendly brave new world. Growing up in the Ryanair generation allowed us to travel freely and easily to places our parents’ generation could never have dreamed of visiting. Combined with increased political freedom abroad, the ease of travel in turn made Western countries – and universities – more international and open than ever before.
Even now, the concept of a stag night in Prague (sealed off by the Iron Curtain when most of today’s students were born), or spending a year on a volunteering programme of any benefit besides boosting the tanned participant’s ego, is starting to seem slightly more ridiculous in people’s minds. Soon, it may start to seem quaint, then increasingly so, until it becomes an oddity. Like Edwardian big-game hunting on the African savannah, impulsive, mind-broadening travel will start to fade to sepia in the public consciousness, until it becomes the inaccessible product of a past age.
Just as the demands of the environment force us to consider imposing previously unheard-of restrictions upon freedom of movement, with potentially devastating consequences for internationalism, openness and multiculturalism, so the recession’s effects are giving rise to widespread doubt in what, even a couple of years ago, were the most basic tenets of our society.
As the state has been forced to rescue failing enterprises, there have been strong calls to use these newly nationalised sectors of the economy as engines of social change. The current uncertainty is magnified as interest groups mass to force their agendas on an economy newly subject to gusts of political populism – most disturbingly in the new wave of strikes for ‘British jobs for British workers’, now starting to be accompanied by shadowy murmurs about the ‘indigenous population’ by some in the major parties.
For new graduates, one of the most worrying aspects of the changing world will be the impact on jobs. With graduate vacancies soon to be at a premium, the danger is that your connections – who you know – will start to count for more than what you know. Our meritocracy, dependent on economic growth, will struggle to survive this creeping corruption. While the end of the irrational bonus structures that caused so much chaos is to be welcomed, the financial crisis may bring with it a general aversion to new ideas. When a graduate recruiter is discouraged from hiring bright young things with bold ideas in favour of a safe pair of hands, offering the opening to his golf partner’s son becomes more appealing.
On a global level, the picture is more mixed. The new US President may be a principled pragmatist with an uncommonly silver tongue, but the brand of hope that briefly united the States at his inauguration is already starting to look tarnished as he realises he too must fight the same old partisan battles. China and Russia, previously competing to wrest power away from America, are now facing challenges to their authoritarianism and corruption as the growth dies away, leaving the rich astronomically richer and those at the bottom with little to show for their countries’ periods of economic success.
In short, the outlook is bleak, with few signs for hope at home or abroad, as the entire system today’s students grew up with and imagined they would inherit faces a raft of new difficulties and restrictions, many of which were unimaginable even five years ago. The world is entering a state of flux, where new ideas will emerge, and those no longer applicable to the modern world will be forced out as we come to terms with the rotten underside of the world in which we grew up.
Losing any of the benefits of the boom years would be a great shame: a world where people and cultures mix less often, where cronyism is the way to get a graduate job, and where new ideas are rejected in favour of continuity, is in nobody’s interests. In large part, it will be up to today’s graduates to find a way to balance our desires to hold on to our achievements with the need to prevent their most harmful effects. We may have just seen the end of a golden age – but ruminating about its passing won’t help us get it back.

Who wants to be a student politician? No-one

Published in The Student (note the new definite article) 24/2/08

Apathy towards student politics has again become a key feature of the EUSA [note: Edinburgh University Students' Association] elections, as a lack of candidates means that of 126 positions, only 41 will be filled by contested elections – one fewer than the number without any candidates.
The situation, which leaves postgraduate students in particular severely under-represented with only three candidates for 15 available seats after nominations closed on Thursday, has been branded 'disappointing' by senior EUSA figures.
Despite a high-profile poster campaign urging students to stand, even senior positions such as Societies' Convenor, Accommodation Officer and Postgraduate Convenor will be filled by uncontested elections.
There are no candidates for the posts of Community Officer and Schools and Induction Officer, which will go to by-elections in October, when the vacant postgraduate representative seats may also be filled.
Only five students are standing for 17 available seats for representatives from the Law School, with the positions of President, Vice-President, Secretary and Treasurer all left vacant.
This year's situation is a slight improvement on 2008, in which only 29 seats were filled by elected representatives, but is unlikely to be welcomed by EUSA figures, especially since it comes in the same week as an inquorate General Meeting.
One leading student politician told the Student: “After the effort we've put into trying to get people to stand we're disappointed. It needs to be better.
“I'd like to see many more contested elections, because they increase the validity of student representation, and allow candidates a platform put forward their vision for their position to the electorate.
"There are a low number of postgraduate representatives, which although higher than last year, is still a disappointing result. Having said that, postgraduates will not go unrepresented; the current cohort of 17 postgraduate reps will continue in their current positions until the summer, and many more postgraduate reps are likely to be recruited in the October by-elections."

Friday, 2 January 2009

Lies, damned lies and...

The white working class was THE ethnic group of 2008 in media circles, with the BBC even presenting a White Season in a rather lazy attempt to shock.

Little surprise then, that when some government research came out today bemoaning the supposed alienation of poor whites, it was picked up across the media spectrum, typically featuring the poisonous, pixie-ish Hazel Blears, who along with Phil Woolas, has started making ominous and disturbing noises about the "indigenous population".

Turns out this 'research' was the product of interviews with a total 43 people living on housing estates in carefully chosen parts of the country, making any results utterly worthless. It's hardly surprising that the government got the soundbite research they needed after spending enough time finding people to tell them what they wanted to hear.

Presenting the thoughts of a hand-picked selection of residents of Runcorn, Thetford and Widnes as research borders on fraud. It is precisely this sort of manipulation of information that feeds cynical and dismissive attitudes - as happens when each party seems to have its own set of crime statistics. All too often, the press response is unquestioning - a perfect example of what Nick Davies terms "churnalism".

Interestingly, the aptly-named Sir Michael Scholar, head of the UK Statistics Authority, today called for ministers' early sneak briefings on official statistics to end. Unsurprisingly, it turns out some naughty politicians have a habit of leaking favourable data. While the 'research' out today wasn't the UKSA's fault (they deal with the dreary but worthy stuff like the census), it makes sense to make the organisation more of a public service. Plus, it will make the whole topic much more fun, as the various parties enter a speed-reading race to get their statements out first.

Finally, here is some doggerel that really shouldn't be anywhere near the pages of a quality newspaper. Katyusha rockets are scarier with their mysterious Russian name - one way to fight them, at least psychologically, would be to translate it into English. Maybe militants would get embarassed about setting off a barrage of 'Little Katies'?

Thursday, 1 January 2009

Busily paving my road to hell

As a (perhaps overly optimistic) new year's resolution, I have promised myself that I will make this blog much more active. This starts here with the first of what will be regular selections of not necessarily the most relevant, but hopefully interesting pieces from around the web.

First up is a great piece by The Guardian's Marina Hyde suggesting some new year's resolutions for the Premier League, placed here because of this superb little aside on the subject of "the rampaging armies of middle-class thrift bores currently laying waste to features sections."

A seasonal article by The Times' Ben McIntyre on "the bard for hard times", Robert Burns.

Carole Seymour-Jones writes in The Telegraph on Pinter's human rights record, while Liberty are concerned about the police abusing public order powers when dealing with football supporters. An excellent reason to recommend watching Chris Atkins' excellent documentary Taking Liberties, which is still available on 4od, as far as I am aware.

On a lighter note, and in a rather contrived way to coincide with the start of the English transfer window, Rob Marrs of Left Back in the Changing Room has put up the answers for a brilliantly diverting quiz he posted last month.

Finally, Flight of the Conchords is back for a second series on Funny or Die. Enjoy!

Parlour Games

With 2009 just beginning, it's the perfect time to play a parlour game - fun for all the family guaranteed even if, like almost everyone, you don't actually have a parlour. Yes, it's...

Recession Roulette - "Casino Capitalism" for all the family

Experts have predicted that 10 to 15 retailers will shut in January - can YOU guess which ones?

The game can be played with any number of people, hopefully with drinks, and the rules are simple: Just think of a shop, like Woolworths, Adams or The Officers Club, that sells nothing anyone would ever want to buy and no-one you know goes to, and is thus ideal to follow in the despondent footsteps of Whittards and MFI. Try to aim for one that, like The Officers Club, is so bland and pointless that you'll never really notice it was ever there until they start selling the fixtures and fittings.

Here are a few suggestions to set you off:

Julian Graves - seems to exist solely so gullible people can buy prunes by the kilo. Will be desiccated if they ever come to their senses.

GAME - annoying purveyor of computer games. The kids buy theirs off the internet anyway, while their parents get them in the supermarket. The next Zavvi.

Any and all places that offer £25 haircuts for babies.

Once you have thought of a suitable chain, announce it to the assembled company and drink to its demise. You could make plans to meet up with your friends in a months time and give a small prize to whoever selected the company to go most spectacularly up the spout. However, such long-term planning is probably inadvisable in the current climate.