Posts Tagged ‘John Humphries’

Review of Book on New Atheist Myths Now Up on Magonia Review Blog

November 1, 2019

The Magonia Review of Books blog is one of the online successors to the small press UFO journal, Magonia, published from the 1980s to the early part of this century. The Magonians took the psycho-social view of encounters with alien entities. This holds that they are essentially internal, psychological events which draw on folklore and the imagery of space and Science Fiction. Following the ideas of the French astronomer and computer scientist, Jacques Vallee, and the American journalist, John Keel, they also believed that UFO and other entity encounters were also part of the same phenomenon that had created fairies and other supernatural beings and events in the past. The magazine thus examined other, contemporary forms of vision and belief, such as the Satanic Ritual Abuse scare in the 1990s. It also reviewed books dealing with wide range of religious and paranormal topics. These included not just UFOs, but also the rise of apocalyptic religious faith in America, conspiracy theories, ghosts and vampires, cryptozoology and the Near Death Experience, for example. Although the magazine is no longer in print, the Magonia Review of Books continues reviewing books, and sometimes films, on the paranormal and is part of a group of other blogs, which archive articles from the magazine and its predecessor, the Merseyside UFO Bulletin (MUFOB), as well as news of other books on the subject.

I’ve had a number of articles published in Magonia and reviews on the Review of Books. The blog has just put my review of Nathan Johnstone’s The New Atheism, Myth and History: The Black Legends of Contemporary Anti-Religion (Palgrave MacMillan 2018).  The book is a critical attack on the abuse of history by New Atheist polemicists like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and so on to attack religion. He shows that the retail extremely inaccurate accounts of historical atrocities like the witch hunts and persecution of heretics by the Christian church and the savage anti-religious campaign in the Soviet Union in order to condemn religion on the one hand, and try to show that atheism was not responsible for the atrocities committed in its name on the other. At the same time he is alarmed by the extremely vitriolic language used by Dawkins and co. about the religious. He draws comparisons between it and the language used to justify persecution in the past to warn that it too could have brutal consequences despite its authors’ commitment to humanity and free speech.

The article is at: http://pelicanist.blogspot.com/2019/10/believing-in-not-believing-new-atheists.html if you wish to read it at the Magonia Review site. I’ve also been asked to reblog it below. Here it is.

Nathan Johnstone. The New Atheism, Myth and History: The Black Legends of Contemporary Anti-Religion. Palgrave Macmillan 2018.

The New Atheists is a term coined to described the group of militant atheists that emerged after the shock of 9/11. Comprising the biologist Richard Dawkins, the journalist Christopher Hitchens, the philosophers Daniel C. Dennett and A.C. Grayling, the neuroscientist Sam Harris, the astronomer Victor Stenger, and others, they are known for their particularly bitter invective against all forms of religion. The above claim to stand for reason and science against irrationality and unreason. But while they are especially protective of science, and who gets to speak for it or use its findings, they are cavalier regarding theology and the humanities, including history.
Johnstone is appalled by this attitude. Instead of respecting history and its scholarship, he compares Dawkins, Harris et al to hunter-gatherers. They are not interested in exploring history, but rather using it as a grab-bag of examples of atrocities committed by the religious. In so doing they ignore what historians really say about the events and periods they cite, and retail myth as history. These he regards as a kind of ‘Black Legend’ of theism, using the term invented in the early twentieth century by the Spanish historian Julian Juderas to describe a type of anti-Spanish, anti-Roman Catholic polemic. He states his book is intended to be just a defence of history, and takes no stance on the issue of the existence of God. From his use of ‘we’ in certain points to describe atheists and Humanists, it could be concluded that Johnstone is one of the many of the latter, who are appalled by the New Atheists’ venom.
One such religious doubter was the broadcaster John Humphries,  the author of the defence of agnosticism, In God We Doubt. Humphries stated in the blurb for the book that he considered himself an agnostic before moving to atheism. Then he read one of the New Atheist texts and was so shocked by it he went back to being an agnostic. The group first made its debut several years ago now, and although New Atheism has lost some of its initial interest and support, they’re still around.
Hence Johnstone’s decision to publish this book. While Dawkins’ The God Delusion was published almost a decade ago, the New Atheists are still very much around. They and their followers are still on the internet, and their books on the shelves at Waterstones. Dawkins published his recent work of atheist polemics, Outgrowing God: A Beginner’s Guide a few weeks ago at the beginning of October 2019. He accompanied its publication with an appearance at Cheltenham Literary Festival, where he was speaking about why everyone should turn atheist.
The events and the atrocities cited by the New Atheists as demonstrations of the intrinsic evil of religion are many, including the Inquisitions, the witch-hunts, anti-Semitism, the Crusades, the subjugation of women, colonialism, the slave trade and the genocide of the Indians, to which they also add human sacrifice, child abuse, censorship, sexual repression and resistance to science. These are too many to tackle in one book, and it confines itself instead to attacking and refuting New Atheist claims about the witch-hunts, the medieval persecution of heretics, and the question of whether Hitler was ever really Christian and the supposed Christian origins of Nazi anti-Semitism and the Holocaust.
The book also tackles historical movements and figures, that the New Atheists have claimed as atheist heroes and forerunners – the ancient Greek Atomists and two opponents of the witch-hunts, Dietrich Flade and Friedrich Spee. It then moves on to examine Sam Harris’ endorsement of torture in the case of Islamist terrorists and atheist persecution in the former Soviet Union before considering the similarity of some New Atheist attitudes to that of religious believers. It concludes with an attack on the dangerous rhetoric of the New Atheists which vilifies and demonises religious believers, rhetoric which could easily provoke persecution, even if its authors themselves are humane men who don’t advocate it.
Johnstone traces these atheist myths back to their nineteenth and pre-nineteenth century origins, and some of the books cited by the New Atheists as the sources for their own writings. One of the most influential of these is Charles MacKay’s 1843 Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. In many instances he shows them to be using very dated, and now refuted texts. With some of the modern works they also draw on, examination shows that often they ignore the authors’ own conclusions, which may differ considerably, or even be the complete opposite of their own.
In the case of the witch-hunts, Johnstone traces the oft-quoted figure of over nine million victims to an early nineteenth century German author, Gottfried Christian Voigt, who extrapolated it from the murder of the thirty witches executed in his home town of Quedlinburg from 1569 to 1683. He assumed this was typical of all areas throughout the period of the witch-hunts. The figure was picked up by the radical neo-Pagan and feminist movements of the 1970s. But it’s false. The real figure, he claims, was 50,000. And its intensity varied considerably from place to place and over time. The Portuguese Inquisition, for example, only killed one witch c. 1627. In other places, the inquisitors were conscientious in giving the accused a fair trial. Convictions for witchcraft were overturned and evidence was taken to prove the accused’s innocence as well as guilt. The Roman Inquisition also demanded the accused to provide a list of their enemies, as their testimony would obviously be suspect.
In regions where the discussion of witchcraft had resulted in the mass trial and execution of the innocent, the religious authorities imposed silence about the subject. Johnstone rebuts the statement of some Christian apologists that the Church was only complicit in these atrocities, not responsible for them. But he shows that they were an anomaly. Nearly all societies have believed in the existence of witches throughout history, but the period of witch-hunting was very limited. The problem therefore is not that religion and belief in the supernatural leads inexorably to persecution, but how to explain that it doesn’t.
He shows that the Church moved from a position of initial scepticism towards full scale belief over a period of centuries. The witch-hunts arose when maleficium – black magic – became linked to heresy, and so became a kind of treason. As an example of how secular and political motives were also involved in the denunciations and trials, rather than just pure religious hatred, he cites the case of the priest Urbain Grandier. Grandier’s case was the basis for Aldous Huxley’s novel, The Devils of Loudoun, which was filmed by Ken Russell as The Devils. Here it appears the motives for the trial were political, as Grandier had been an opponent of the French minister, Cardinal Richelieu. Johnstone also considers that as secular societies have also persecuted those they consider to be politically or morally deviant there exists in humanity a need to persecute. This means finding and identifying an anti-group, directly opposed to conventional society, whose existence and opposition demonstrates the value of that society.
KEN RUSSELL’S ‘THE DEVILS’ (1971)
The medieval persecution of heretics may also have been due to a number of causes and not simply due to the malign attitudes of religious believers. There was a period of nearly 700 years between the execution of the Roman heretic, Priscillian, in the fourth century and the revival of persecution the early eleventh. This arose in the context of the emergence and development of states and the expansion of papal and royal power, which involved church and crown extending their power over local communities. At the same time, the papacy attempted reforming the church, at first in response to popular demand. However, it was then faced with the problem of clamping down on some of the popular reform movements when they threatened to run out of its control.
As the case of the Waldensians shows, the line between orthodoxy and heresy could be an extremely fine one. Johnstone also raises the question here of whether one of the most notorious medieval heretical groups, the Cathars, ever existed at all. It is possible that their existence is an illusion created by the categories of heresies the inquisitors had inherited from the Church Fathers. These were forced onto a group of local communities in the Languedoc, where popular piety centred around the Good Men and Women. These were highly respected members of the community, who were believed to live exemplary Christian lives. They were therefore due proper respect, which to the inquisitors looked like heretical veneration.
Hitler’s Christianity is also highly debatable. The little reliable testimony states that he was indeed Roman Catholic, but doesn’t provide any evidence of a deep faith. He certainly at times claimed he was a Christian and was acting in accordance with his religious beliefs. But an examination of some of these quotes shows that they were uttered as a rebuttal to others, who stated that their Christian beliefs meant that they could not support Nazism. This raises the question of whether they were anything more than a rhetorical gesture. There is evidence that Hitler was an atheist with a particular hatred of Christianity. This is mostly drawn from his Table Talk, and specifically the English edition produced by Hugh Trevor-Roper. The atheist polemicist, Richard Carrier, has shown that it is derived from a French language version, whose author significantly altered some of the quotes to insert an atheist meaning where none was present in the original. However, Carrier only identified a handful of such quotes, leaving forty requiring further investigation. Thus the question remains undecided.
Johnstone also examine the Nazi persecution of the Jews from the point of view of the theorists of political religion. These consider that humans are innately religious, but that once secularisation has broken the hold of supernatural religion, the objects of veneration changes to institutions like the state, free market capitalism, the New Man, Communism and so on. Those who follow this line differ in the extent to which they believe that the Nazis were influenced by religion. Some view it as a hydra, whose many heads stood for Christianity, but also Paganism in the case of Himmler and the SS. But underneath, the source of the real religious cult was the race, the nation and Hitler himself. If these theorists are correct, then Nazism may have been the result, not of a continued persecuting Christianity, but of secularisation.
He also considers the controversial view of the German historian, Richard Steigmann-Gall, whose The Holy Reich considered that the Nazis really were sincere in their Christianity. This has been criticised because some of the Nazis it examines as examples of Nazi Christian piety, like Rudolf Hess, were minor figures in the regime, against vehement anti-Christians like Alfred Rosenberg. He also shows how the peculiar views of the German Christians, the Nazi Christian sect demanding a new, Aryan Christianity, where Christ was blond and blue-eyed, and the Old Testament was to be expunged from the canon, were similar to certain trends within early twentieth century liberal Protestantism. But the German historian’s point in writing the book was not simply to put culpability for the Nazis’ horrors on Christianity. He wanted to attack the comfortable distance conventional society places between itself and the Nazis, in order to reassure people that they couldn’t have committed such crimes because the Nazis were different. His point was that they weren’t. They were instead uncomfortably normal.
DEMOCRITUS
The New Atheists celebrate the ancient Greek Atomists because their theories that matter is made up of tiny irreducible particles, first put forward by the philosophers Epicurus and Democritus, seem so similar to modern atomic theory. These ancient philosophers believed that these alone were responsible for the creation of a number of different worlds and the creatures that inhabited them by chance.
Some of these were forms that were incapable of surviving alone, and so died out. Thus, they appear to foreshadow Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection. New Atheist writers bitterly attack Aristotle, whose own rival theories of matter and physics gained ascendancy until Atomism was revived in the seventeenth century. The natural philosophers behind its revival are credited with being atheists, even though many of them were Christians and one, Pierre Gassendi, a Roman Catholic priest. Their Christianity is thus seen as nominal. One also takes the extreme view that Galileo’s prosecution was due to his embrace of the atomic theory, rather than his argument that the Earth moved around the Sun.
But scholars have shown that the ancient atomic theory grew out of particular debates in ancient Greece about the fundamental nature of matter, and cannot be removed from that context. They were very different to modern atomic theory. At the same time, they also held beliefs that are to us nonsense as science. For example, they believed that the early creatures produced by atoms were fed by the Earth with a milk-like substance. They also believed in the fixity of species. Even where they did believe in evolution, in the case of humanity, this was more Lamarckian than Darwinian. Aristotle’s views won out over theirs not because of religious narrow-mindedness or ignorance, but because Aristotle’s had great explanatory power.
The scientists, who revived it in the seventeenth century, including Boyle and Newton, were sincere Christians. They believed that atoms created objects through divine agency because the ancient Greek explanation – it was all chance without a theory of momentum – genuinely couldn’t explain how this could occur without God. As for Galileo, the historian who first suggested this extreme and largely discredited view, believed that he was a victim of papal politics, and that there had also been a party within the Vatican and the Church, which supported his theories.
Discussing the two witch-hunters celebrated by the New Atheists as atheist, or at least, Sceptical heroes, the book shows that this was not the case. Dietrich Flade seems to have been accused because he had fallen out with an ecclesiastical rival, Zandt, for being too lenient on the accused witches. But he also appears to have been protected by the church authorities until the accusations of witchcraft by accused witches became too many to ignore.
The other Sceptical hero, Friedrich Spee, was a Jesuit priest, who became convinced of the innocence of those accused of witchcraft through attending so many to the stake. He then wrote a book condemning the trials, the Cautio Crimenalis. But he was no sceptic. He believed wholeheartedly in witchcraft, but considered it rare. The use of torture was wrong, as it was leading to false confessions and false denunciations of others, which could not be retracted for fear of further torture. Thus the souls of the innocent were damned for this sin. But while good Christians were being burned as witches, many of the witch-hunters themselves were in league with Satan. They used the hunts and baseless accusations to destroy decent Christian society and charity.
But if the New Atheists are keen to ascribe a wide number of historical atrocities to religion without recognising the presence of other, social and political factors, they deny any such crimes can be attributed to atheism. Atheism is defined as a lack of belief in God, and so cannot be responsible for inspiring horrific acts. Johnstone states that in one sense, this is true, but it is also a question about the nature of the good life and the good society that must be constructed in the absence of a belief in God. And these become positive ideologies that are responsible for horrific crimes.
Johnstone goes on from this to attack Hector Avelos’ statement that the Soviet persecution of the Church was only a form of anti-clericalism, which all societies must go through. Johnstone rebuts this by describing the process and extent of Soviet persecution, from the separation of church and state in 1917 to the imposition of atheism by force. Churches and monasteries were closed and religious objects seized and desecrated, religious believers arrested, sent to the gulags or massacred. These persecutions occurred in cycles, and there were times, such as during the War, when a rapprochement was made with the Orthodox Church. But these periods of toleration were always temporary and established for entirely pragmatic and utilitarian purposes.
The goal was always the creation of an atheist state, and they were always followed, until the fall of Communism, by renewed persecution. The wartime rapprochement with the Church was purely to gain the support of believers for the campaign against the invading Nazis. It was also to establish state control through the church on Orthodox communities that had survived, or reappeared in border areas under Nazi occupation. Finally, the attack on the clergy, church buildings and religious objects and even collectivisation itself were done with the deliberate intention of undermining religious ritual and practice, which was considered the core of Orthodox life and worship.
Sam Harris has become particularly notorious for his suggestion that atheists should be trusted to torture terrorist suspects because of their superior rationality and morality compared to theists. Harris believed it was justified in the case of al-Qaeda suspects in order to prevent further attacks. But here Johnstone shows his logic was profoundly flawed. Torture was not introduced into medieval judicial practice in the twelfth century through bloodthirsty and sadistic ignorance. Rather it was intended as a reasonable alternative to the ordeal. Human reason, and the acquisition of evidence, was going to be sufficient to prove guilt or innocence without relying on supposed divine intervention. But the standards of evidence required were very high, and in the case of a crime like witchcraft, almost impossible without a confession.
The use of torture was initially strictly limited and highly regulated, but the sense of crisis produced by witchcraft resulted in the inquisitors abandoning these restraints. Similarly, Harris’ fear of terror attacks leads him to move from reasonable suspects, who may well be guilty, to those who are simply members of terrorist organisations. They are fitting subjects for torture because although they may be innocent of a particular offence, through their membership of a terrorist organisation or adherence to Islamist beliefs, they must be guilty of something. Finally, Harris also seems to see Islamism as synonymous with Islam, so that all Muslims everywhere are seen as enemies of the secular Western order. This is exactly the same logic as that which motivated the witch-hunts, in which witches were seen as the implacable enemies of Christian society, and so exempt from the mercy and humane treatment extended to other types of criminal.
From this Johnstone then goes on to consider how the New Atheists’ image of atheism and the process of abandoning belief in God resembles religious attitudes. Their belief that atheism must be guarded against the dangers of falling back into religious belief mirrors Christian fears of the temptation to false belief, such as those of the Protestant reformers towards the persistence of Roman Catholicism. At the same time, their ideas of abandoning God and so attaining the truth resembles the Christian process of conversion and membership of the elect. And the vitriol directed at the religious for continuing to believe in God despite repeated demonstrations of His nonexistence resembles the inquisitors’ attitude to heretics. Heresy differs from error in that the heretic refuses to be corrected, and so must be compelled to recant by force.
The book also shows the dangers inherent in some New Atheist rhetoric about religious believers. This runs in contrast to much New Atheist writing, which is genuinely progressive and expresses real sympathy with the marginalised and oppressed, and which advocates trying to see the world through their eyes. But no such sympathy is granted religious believers. They are described as children, who may not sit at the same table as adults. Or else, following the logic of religion as a virus, proposed by Dawkins, they are described as diseased, who do not realise that they have been infected and even love their condition.
Bringing children up religious is condemned as child abuse. A.C. Grayling is shown to have a utilitarian attitude in his own advocacy of secularisation. He first states that he supports it for creating multiculturalism, but then contradicts himself by stating that he looks forward to it undermining religion. This was the same attitude the Soviets initially adopted towards religion. When it didn’t disappear as they expected, they resorted to force. Peter Boghossian wants atheist ‘street epistemologists’ – the atheist version of religious street preachers – to attack believers’ religious beliefs in public. They are to take every opportunity, including following them into church, in order to initiate ‘Socratic’ discussions that will lead them to questioning their faith.
Johnstone states that this is an implicit denial of theists’ right to conduct their private business in public without atheist interference. It’s in line with the New Atheist demands that religion be driven from the public sphere, into the churches, or better yet, the home. The metaphor of disease and infection suggests that what is needed is for religious believers to be rounded up against their will and forcibly cured. It’s the same metaphor the Nazis used in their persecution of their victims.
He quotes the atheist philosopher Julian Baggini, who is dismayed when he hears atheists describing religion as a mental disease from which believers should be forcibly treated. As for the statement that religious upbringing equals child abuse, the seriousness of this charge raises the question of how seriously the New Atheists actually see it. If Dawkins and co. really believe that it is, then their lack of demand for state intervention to protect children from indoctrination, as they see it, from the parents shows that they don’t treat child abuse seriously.
The New Atheist rhetoric actually breaks with their concrete recommendations for what should be done to disavow believers of their religious views, which are actually quite mild. This is what Johnstone calls the ‘cavalierism of the unfinished thought’. They may not recommend coercion and persecution, but their rhetoric implies it. Johnstone states that he has discussed only one of several competing strands in New Atheist thinking and that there are others available. He concludes with the consideration that there isn’t a single atheism but a multiplicity of atheisms, all with differing responses to religious belief. Some of them will be comparably mild, but most will involve some kind of frustration at religion’s persistence. He recommends that atheists should identify which type of atheist they are, in order to avoid the violent intolerance inherent in New Atheist rhetoric. This agrees with his statement at the beginning of the book, where he hopes it will lead to an atheist response to religion which is properly informed by history and which genuinely respects religious believers.
The book is likely to be widely attacked by the New Atheists and their followers. Some of its conclusions Johnstone admits are controversial, such as the view that the Cathars never existed, or that the persecution of heretics was an integral part of the forging of the medieval state. But historians and sociologists of religion repeatedly show that in the persecutions and atrocities in which religion has been involved, religion is largely not the only, or in some cases even the most important reason. Johnstone’s views on witchcraft is supported by much contemporary popular and academic treatments. His statement that the figure of over nine million victims of the witch-hunt is grossly exaggerated is shared by Lois Martin in her The History of Witchcraft (Harpenden: Pocket Essentials 2002). The Harvard professor, Jeffrey Burton Russell in his Witchcraft in the Middle Ages (Ithaca: Cornell University Press 1972) also shows how Christian attitudes towards witchcraft passed from the scepticism of the Canon Episcopi to belief as the responsibility for its persecution passed from the bishops to the Holy Office.
Early law codes treated maleficium – black or harmful magic – purely as a civil offence against persons or property. It became a religious crime with the development of the belief that witches attended sabbats where they parodied the Christian Eucharist and worshiped Satan. A paper describing the scrupulous legality and legal provisions for the accused’s defence in the Roman Inquisition can be found in the Athlone History of Witchcraft and Magic In Europe IV: The Period of the Witch Trials, Bengt Ankerloo and Stuart Clarke eds., (Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press 2002). Other writers on religion have noted the similarity between the late medieval and early modern witch-hunts and paranoid fears about Freemasons, Jews and Communists in later centuries, including the Holocaust, Stalin’s purges and McCarthyism. They thus see it as one manifestation of the wider ‘myth of the organised conspiracy’. See Richard Cavendish, ‘Christianity’, in Richard Cavendish, ed., Mythology: An Illustrated Encyclopedia (London: Orbis 1980) 156-69 (168-9).
The Soviet persecution of the Russian Orthodox Church is described by Rev. Timothy Ware in his The Orthodox Church (London: Penguin 1963). Ludmilla Alexeyeva also describes the Soviet persecution of the Orthodox Church, along with other religions and national and political groups and movements in her Soviet Dissent: Contemporary Movements for National, Religious and Human Rights (Middletown, Connecticutt: Wesleyan University Press 1985). R.N. Carew Hunt’s The Theory and Practice of Communism (Harmondsworth: Penguin 1950) shows how leading Communists like Lenin believed atheism was an integral part of Communism and the Soviet state with a series of quotations from them. An example of Lenin’s demand for an aggressive atheism is his speech, ‘On the Significance of Militant Materialism’ in Lenin: Selected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers 1968). 653-60.
It is also entirely reasonable to talk about religious elements and attitudes within certain forms of atheism and secular ideologies. Peter Rogerson in many of his well-reasoned articles in Magonia pointed out how similar some of the sceptics’ attacks on superstition and the supernatural were to narratives of religious conversion. His attitude is shared with some academic sociologists, historians and political theorists. Peter Yinger’s section on ‘Secular Alternatives to Religion’ in The Religious Quest: A Reader, edited by Whitfield Foy (London: Open University Press 1978) 537-554, has articles on the ‘Religious Aspects of Postivism’, p. 544, ‘Faith in Science’, 546, ‘Religious Aspects of Marxism’, p. 547, ‘Totalitarian Messianism’ 549, and ‘Psychoanalysis as a Modern Faith’, 551. For some scholars, the similarities of some secular ideologies to religion is so strong, that they have termed them quasi-religions.
While some atheists resent atheism being described as religion, this term is meant to avoid such objections. It is not intended to describe them literally as religions, but only as ideologies that have some of the qualities of religion. See John E. Smith’s Quasi-Religions: Humanism, Marxism and Nationalism (Macmillan 1994). New Atheism also mimics religion in that several of the New Atheists have written statements of the atheist position and edited anthologies of atheist writings. These are A.C. Grayling’s The Good Book and Christopher Hitchens’ The Portable Atheist. The title of Grayling’s book is clearly a reference to the Bible. As I recall, it caused some controversy amongst atheists when it was published, as many of them complained that atheism was too individual and sceptical to have a definitive, foundational text. In their view, Grayling’s book showed the type of mindset they wanted to escape when they left religion.
The fears of the terrible potential consequences of New Atheist rhetoric despite the avowed intentions of its authors is well founded and timely. There have been sharp complaints about some of the vitriolic rhetoric used to attack particular politicians in debates about Brexit which has resulted in assault and harassment. At the same it was reported that anti-Muslim hate crimes spiked after the publication of Boris Johnson’s column in which he described women wearing the burqa as looking like letterboxes. Neither religion, nor secularism and atheism should be immune from criticism. But Johnstone is right in that it should be correctly historically informed and careful in the language used. Otherwise the consequences could be terrible, regardless of the authors’ own humane feelings and sympathies.

Andrew Neil’s ‘This Week’ BBC Show Axed

February 18, 2019

Last week was not a good one for Andrew Neil, the presenter of the Beeb’s politics shows ‘This Week’ and ‘The Daily Politics’. It was reported on ITV News on Friday that his show, ‘This Week’, was being axed. The article about it in this weekend’s I for 16-17th February 2019, by Keiran Southern on page 16, entitled, ”This Week’ ends as Neil quits his late-night show’ read

The BBC’s long-running politics show This Week is to end after presenter Andrew Neil announced he was stepping down.

The BBC1 show, which airs on Thursdays after Question Time, will be taken off air this summer when its current series ends, the corporation said.

Neil has fronted the show since it began in 2003 and regular guests include the former Tory MP, Michael Portillo, and Shadow Home Secretary, Diane Abbott.

Fran Unsworth, BBC’s director of news, said: “We couldn’t imagine This Week without the inimitable Andrew Neil, one of Britain’s best political interviewers. After 16 years, Andrew is bowing out of late-night presenting on the show, at the top of his game.”

Neil will continue to present Politics Live on Thursdays, Ms Unsworth added, and the BBC wants to keep the 69-7ear-old “at the heart” of its political coverage.

This Week is known for its informal look at politics, while Ms Abbott and Mr Portillo formed an unlikely TV double act, despite being on opposite sides of the political divide.

The announcement comes amid uncertainty surrounding the BBC’s news output – it is under pressure to cut £80m from its budgets and to attract younger audiences.

Earlier this week, BBC journalists wrote to the broadcaster’s director-general to oppose the decision to shorten its News At Ten programme after it emerged it would be cut by 10 minutes to make way for youth programming and Question Time.

Middle East editor Jeremy Bowen and other foreign correspondents have asked Lord Tony Hall to reconsider.

Last year, Sunday Politics, hosted by Sarah Smith, was axed and replaced by Politics Live, which airs Monday to Friday.

Other people, who are sick to death of the Beeb’s right-wing Tory bias, including Andrew Neil, are actually quite delighted and amused. The good fellow at Crewe, who does the Zelo Street blog, posted a piece on it on Friday, whose title said it all ‘Andrew Neil Nearly Out the Door’. He noted that despite Hall defending Neil over his ‘crazy cat woman’ remark to the Observer’s Carole Cadwalladr, the cancellation of one of Neil’s vehicles shows that the comment and the outrage it sparked has had an effect.

The deputy political editor of the Heil on Sunday, Harry Cole, was furious, tweeting

“A bloody outrage. Will only give succour to Corbynistas and sad sacks like Jukes and Carole who are modern equivalent of green ink dickheads who pester management. Since when did boss class start listening to loons before the viewers? Bring back #ThisWeek and make @afneil DG”. Which brought forth the reply from Peter Jukes

Harry Cole defending Andrew Neil, and desperately trying not to look like a member of the boss class.

Rather more damaging to Brillo and his supposed impartiality was another photo Carold Cadwalladr unearthed, showing Neil in the company of the former Ulster Unionist MP, David Burnside, who was formerly the PR man to Cambridge Analytica shareholder, Tchenguiz, who was in his turn the publicity man for Dmitryo Firtash, a Ukrainian oligarch wanted by the FBI. And Nigel Farage, now desperately trying to claw his way back into British politics with his wretched Brexit Party.

Zelo Street also noted that this was in addition to the discomfort Neil was bringing the Beeb with his continued association with the Spectator, now increasingly Alt Right, which specializes in climate change denial, pro-Brexit propaganda, and vicious islamophobia from pundits like Douglas Murray. As well as the snobbery and elitism of James Delingpole and anti-Semitism and Fascist propaganda from their other long-running contributor, Taki. Who a few weeks ago embarrassed the magazine by praising the Greek neo-Nazi group, Golden Dawn, as just ‘patriotic Greeks’, who were just a bit rough around the edges. Like when one of them murdered left-wing journalist, perhaps, or when the attack and demolish market stalls belonging to illegal immigrants and attack and beat asylum seekers from Africa and the Middle East.

The Zelo Street article concluded

In any case, Andrew Neil should be grateful that he’s been allowed more or less free rein to reinvent himself as a broadcast journalist after falling out with Rupert Murdoch. Now he’s got more dosh than he knows what to do with, it’s time to yield to youth.

He’s at the top of his game? Good. Then he may be remembered well. Time to go.

See: http://zelo-street.blogspot.com/2019/02/brillo-almost-out-of-bbc-door.html

Unsworth’s cancellation of his show, rather than handing it over to someone else to present, also says something about the show’s audience. It’s viewers are clearly people, who want it to be helmed by an older White man, whose backgrounds is very much in establishment, centre-right journalism: Neil was editor of the Sunday Times and The Economist. And Zelo Street has quoted other journos at the Spectator that he is another Thatcher cultist, who wishes Maggie was still around running the country. Presumably it’s the same kind of audience that avidly supports John Humphries on Radio 4’s Today programme, another massively overpaid, right-wing White man of mature years. Which would indicate that the audience for these two is also largely made up of right-wing, very establishment White men who are middle-aged to elderly.

It seems to me that Neil’s show needn’t be axed, but could easily be handed over to someone else, someone younger, who was rather more impartial, or at least less publicly biased. It struck me that the team on the Beeb’s breakfast news could probably do it, Charlie Stayt, Naga Manchetti and Louis Minchin. And the rise of the new left-wing media on the internet has show what very incisive minds there are well outside of the establishment media. Like Novara Media’s Ash Sarkar, and The Canary’s Kerry-Ann Mendoza and Steve Topple. They’re all young, Sarkar and Mendoza are both BAME, while Topple definitely had a countercultural appearance with his Mohican coiffure. But they’re all very shrewd reports, who keenly analysed and dissected the news. And their example shows that out there is a vast pool of talent, which is currently being ignored by the current media political establishment.

Of course the Beeb’s refusal to appoint someone else to present the show may also be partly based from their experience of what happened to Newsnight after Paxo left: its audience collapsed. But rather than cut back on current news reportage and analysis altogether, the Beeb could actually launch a replacement instead, presented by younger people and aimed at younger people. You know, all the millennials and younger, who are trying to make their voices heard in a political climate dominated by the old and middle-aged. The people a genuinely functioning democracy needs to get involved and interested in political debate.

But I’m sure this would be a step too far for the Beeb. You’d have the establishment media whining that the Corporation was dumbing down, that it was ‘Yoof TV’ after the various tasteless disasters in youth programming spawned in the 1990s by Janet Street-Porter and others of her ilk. As well as the more serious fact that the establishment is absolutely terrified of millennials and what the Victorians used to refer to as ‘the rising generation’ because they’re generally more left-wing than their elders in the political establishment. You know, all those pesky kids in America and Britain, who are backing Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn against the corporatists in the Democrat Party, Trump and the Republicans, and Tweezer, the Tories and the Blairites over here. Young people, who want socialism rather than the tired, destructive Neoliberalism of the past forty years.

But the political, media and industrial establishment is absolutely petrified of them and their views. They don’t want them to be heard. And so they’d rather axe one of Neil’s shows than hand it over to them. Which shows how paralyzed the Beeb is in trying to hang on to its aging, establishment audience at the expense of trying to bring on board young, and potentially radical talent.

Chunky Mark on the Conservatives’ War against Social Media

December 13, 2017

This is another post on the same general topic as the piece I’ve just put up about Google trying to scare people away from RT America, by claiming that their comedian, Lee Camp, is influenced by Vladimir Putin. Well, obviously, ’cause Putin’s a notorious underground comedian with some great one-liners. Er, no, he isn’t. And claims that he’s influenced the content and bias of RT America are greatly exaggerated. According to Abby Martin, the people at RT America are there because it’s the only media outlet that allows leftists and Socialists to express their views, not because they’re fans of the Russian president.

But the Tories and media over here are trying to do the same, spreading lies and fear and about RT in Britain, and alternative media generally. In this clip from Chunky Mark, the Artist Taxi Driver, the shouty media commentator tears apart two front-page stories on the tabloids. One is from the Heil declaring that ‘Social Media Is Tearing Britain Apart’, while the other claims that Twitter is full of paedos. Chunky Mark immediately rebuts the first claim by saying that it’s the Mail that’s tearing Britain apart.

He makes the point that the Tories and Conservative media, including the Beeb and the right-wing press, are scared of the new media because it’s giving a voice to ordinary people. They’re seeing through the right-wing lies peddled by John Humphries and Nick Ferrari. Ferrari has been declared ‘journalist of the year’, despite a sycophantic interview with Theresa May, in which he asked her if she had any cookery books. The media hates Jeremy Corbyn, because he genuinely cares about people. They, on the other hand, just want to find and demonise scapegoats – Muslims, immigrants, the poor, the disabled. They’re scared, and so they’re doing their level best to scare people away from social media, and what the people on it are saying about them. They are trying to take your agency away, the agency that sees through their lies and propaganda

Chunky Mark’s right. It was social media that brought Obama to power when people thought he was a genuine, radical candidate, rather than another corporate shill intent on keeping America’s highly profitable imperialist wars going. Momentum in Britain has exerted a massive influence in favour of Jeremy Corbyn through the Net. But it hasn’t just been Momentum. Ordinary people everywhere have spontaneously backed the Labour leader. And that really frightens the Tories and their mouthpieces in the media. The masses are getting out of control! They aren’t accepting what the Beeb or the papers say! The corporate elite might lose some of their money and power. The papers are losing their authority to dictate what the public thinks, as is the Beeb. And if that goes, so does all their advertising revenue, ’cause what business is going to pay to advertise with a paper nobody reads, or takes very seriously. Hence, massive panic on the right.

As for the claim that Twitter is alive with paedophiles, I’ve no doubt paedophiles are on there. Along with just about everyone else. But this all harks back to the massive scare the Scum and the other papers worked up about paedophiles well over a decade ago, which was lampooned by Chris Morris in the infamous ‘Paedogeddon’ special of Brass Eye. Rebecca Wade was in charge of the Scum at the time, and under her stirred up such a panic that lynch mobs were prowling the streets. Private Eye reported a case in Cardiff where an angry mobs vandalised the offices of a paediatrician. Because obviously paedophiles are going to announce their presence with a brass plaque and academic letters after their name. It was a successful move for the papers, as it sold many more copies despite the fear it was spreading and the harm it posed to ordinary, decent people.

I think Nick Ferrari used to be one of the Scum’s journos. He’s one of the reasons my parents stopped watching the Alan Titchmarsh Show. He was on their just about every day, or however often it was screened, giving his own right-wing opinions, to which Titchmarsh responded without demur. And the Beeb’s John Humphries a little while ago managed to cause widespread offence when he said something on the lines that if you were poor, it was your own fault, and the rich shouldn’t be punished for it. Which just tells you that however much Humphries is paid, it’s way too much. And I’ve no doubt that Humphries attitude is common throughout the Beeb and its management.

The Conservatives and establishment media are very scared about the threat the internet and social media pose to their ability to ‘shape the narrative’ and tell people what to think. Which is why they’re running scare stories about Russian influence on RT, the socially disruptive effects of social media, and the threat of paedophiles stalking us all through cyberspace. That’s there, but they’re deliberately exaggerating the danger.

Producer of Radio 4’s ‘Today’ Programme Promises Guest Editor Will Be AI

September 30, 2017

Sarah Sands, the new producer of Radio 4’s Today current affairs programme got into the news this week because of the controversy over her intention to expand the range of topics the programme covers. Sands has plenty of experience in the arts, but little as a political journalist. She’s already expanded the programme so that its coverage includes the arts, science, culture and fashion. The programme’s got 7 million listeners, and there are fears that she’s dumbing the show down. The I quoted John Humphries as complaining that she was filling it with ‘girls’ stuff’, as well as a fashion designer or journalist, who described how, when he interviewed her, it was clear he had no understanding or interest in the subject.

Sands has also said that she intends to line up a series of guest editors for the show, one of which will be an A.I. This was followed by a quote from her where she said that it was certain that Artificial Intelligence would outstrip human intelligence as sure as night follows day, but should humans bow to the superhumans?

Despite repeated assertions by computer scientists that next year, or perhaps the year after, no, wait, by the mid 2020s, or sometime soon at any rate, computers will be more intelligent than humans, I remain unconvinced. They’ve been saying that ever since I was at school in the 1970s and 80s. And even before then. The philosopher Hubert L. Dreyfus wrote a book, What Computers Still Can’t Do: A Critique of Artificial Intelligence, detailing the repeated failures of the attempt to recreate human-level intelligence in machines. One edition of his book was published 20 years ago in the 1990s, but I’ve still got no doubt that nothing much has changed in the intervening years. And looking round Waterstone’s a little while ago I saw a similar book on the shelves, with the title Humans Are Seriously Underrated.

So I really don’t see computers overtaking human journalists any time soon.

And then there’s the question of who this automated editor will be. Somehow I don’t it will be the great, computer-generated vid jockey, who appeared on Channel 4 in the 1980s: M-M-M-Max … Headroom!

Yes, the AI presenter with the big hair, big suits with massive shoulderpads, and an ego to go with it, as well as a fixation with golf and S-S-Severiano Ball-ll-ll-osteros. And also a massive electronic stutter.

Max was one of the biggest things on TV at one point, talking to Terry Wogan, David Letterman, and had his own chat show, whose guests included Boy George and Rutger Hauer.

Here’s a reminder from YouTube what the big guy was like.

This should be the only AI to guest edit, and front, the Today programme.

And yes, I realise it was actually Matt Frewer in rubber mask, suit, and wig, and the only thing that was really computer generated were the patterns behind him. But even so, he had style. And if you can bring back Elvis by hologram, you should be able to do the job for real and generate Max properly on computer this time.

Kenneth Surin on Media Bias, and the Tories Feasting while Millions Starve

April 21, 2017

Kenneth Surin, one of the contributors to Counterpunch, has written a piece giving his analysis of the obstacles facing Jeremy Corbyn in his battle with the right-wing media, the Blairites, and the Tories. He points out that the tabloids, with the exception of the Mirror, are solidly right-wing, or owned by the very rich, who will naturally be biased towards the Tories. The Groaniad is centre, or centre-left, but its hacks are largely Blairites, who will attack Corbyn. He suggests that some of this vilification comes from the fact that Corbyn is not a ‘media-age’ politicians, but speaks as ordinary people do, rather than in soundbites. He makes the point that the Tories have copied Blair in trying to promote a Thatcherism without Thatcher’s scowls and sneers, and so Labour has no chance electorally if it decides to promote the capitalist status quo. He notes that Labour lost Scotland to the SNP, partly because the SNP placed itself as rather more Social Democratic than Labour. As for Labour ‘rust-belt’ heartlands in the Midlands and North of England, he thinks their dejected electorates now find UKIP and its White nationalism more palatable. He also states that the less educated working class, abandoned by Labour’s careerist politicians, also find UKIP more acceptable.

He suggests that if Labour wants to win, it should have the courage to abandon Thatcherism, and also attack the millionaires that invaded the party during Blair’s and Miliband’s periods as leader. These, like the Cameron’s Chipping Norton set, are obscenely rich when 8 million people in this country live in ‘food-insecure households’. And he goes into detail describing just what luxurious they’re eating and drinking too, far beyond anyone else’s ability to afford. Artisanal gin, anyone?

He also recommends that Labour should embrace Brexit, as this would allow the country to get rid of the massive hold a corrupt financial sector has on the country.

See: http://www.counterpunch.org/2017/04/20/the-uk-general-election-corbyns-vilification-and-labours-possible-fight/

I agree with many of his points, but profoundly disagree on others. Promoting Brexit won’t break the dead hand of the financial sector over this country. Quite the opposite. It’s being promoted by the financial sector because it will allow them to consolidate their stranglehold on the British economy by making the country an offshore tax haven for plutocratic crims.

I also think he overestimates the electoral strength of UKIP. Since Brexit, they’ve been on their way down and out. Many of the people, who’ve voted Leave have since been aghast that they won. They only wanted to give the establishment a nasty shock. They did not really want to leave Europe. Also, UKIP at heart was a single-issue party. Alan Sked founded them to oppose European federalism. Now that the Leave campaign succeeded – sort of – they’re struggling to get votes, and have been going through leaders as though it was going out of fashion. They have tried to pick up votes through some very unpleasant racist and Islamophobic policies and statements by their leading members. This has contributed to a disgusting rise in racist incidents. However, UKIP’s electoral base tend to be those aged 50 and over. The younger generations are much less racist and prejudiced against gays. Please note: I realise that this is a generalisation, and that you can find racist youngsters, and anti-racist senior citizens. Indeed, it was the older generation that did much to change attitudes to race and sexuality in this country. So the demographics are against UKIP. Racism and White nationalism also won’t save them from defeat, at least, I hope. The blatantly racist parties – the BNP, NF, British Movement and the rest of the scum – failed to attract anything like the number of votes or members to be anything other than fringe parties, often with trivial numbers of members. One of the contributors to Lobster, who did his doctorate on the British Far Right after the 1979 election, suggested that the NF only had about 2000 members, of whom only 200 were permanent. Most of the people, who joined them were only interested in cracking down on immigration, not in the intricacies of Fascist ideology. Also, many right-wingers, who would otherwise have supported them, were put off by their violence and thuggery. One of the Tories, who briefly flirted with them in the early ’70s quickly returned to the Tory party, appalled at their violence. Since then, the numbers of people in the extreme right have continued to decline. As for UKIP, even in their heyday, their strength was greatly – and probably deliberately – exaggerated. Mike and others have shown that at the time the Beeb and the rest of the media were falling over themselves to go on about how wonderful UKIP were, they were actually polling less than the Greens.

But I agree with Surin totally when it comes to throwing out once and for all Thatcherism and its vile legacy of poverty and humiliation. He’s right about the bias of the media, and the massive self-indulgence of the Chipping Norton set.

Surin writes

The context for analyzing this election must first acknowledge that the UK’s media is overwhelmingly rightwing.

Only one tabloid, The Daily Mirror, avoids hewing to rightwingery.

Of the others, The Sun is owned by the foreigner Rupert Murdoch, known in the UK for good reasons as the “Dirty Digger”.

The Nazi-supporting and tax-dodging Rothermere family have long owned The Daily Mail.

Richard “Dirty Des” Desmond (the former head of a soft porn empire) owns The Daily Express.

A Russian oligarch owns The Evening Standard.

Of the so-called “quality” newspapers, only The Guardian is remotely centrist or centre-left.

All the other “quality” papers are owned by the right-wingers or those on the centre-right.

Murdoch owns The Times, basically gifted to him by Thatcher, who bypassed the usual regulatory process regarding media monopolies to bestow this gift. The Times, which used to be known in bygone days as “The Old Thunderer”, is now just a slightly upmarket tabloid.

The tax-dodging Barclay brothers own The Daily Telegraph.

Another Russian oligarch owns The Independent.

The BBC, terrified by the not so subtle Tory threats to sell it off to Murdoch, and undermined editorially by these threats, is now basically a mouthpiece of the Tories.

This situation has, in the main, existed for a long time.

The last left-wing leader of the Labour party, Michael Foot, was ruthlessly pilloried by the right-wing media in the early 1980s for all sorts of reasons (including the somewhat less formal, but very presentable, jacket he wore at the Cenotaph ceremony on Remembrance Sunday).

Every Labour leader since then, with exception of Tony Blair, has been undermined by the UK’s media. Blair’s predecessor, Neil Kinnock, was derided endlessly by the media (“the Welsh windbag”, etc), even though he took Labour towards the right and effectively prepared the ground for Blair and Brown’s neoliberal “New Labour”.

***
Corbyn, the leader of the Labour party, has been vilified ever since he was elected as party leader by a percentage higher than that achieved by Blair when he was elected leader (59.5% versus Blair’s 57% in 1994).

The disparagement and backbiting of Corbyn has, alas, come from the Blairite remnant in his party as much as it has come from the Conservatives and their megaphones in the media.

But while this is to be expected, a powerful source of anti-Corbyn vituperation has been The Guardian, supposedly the most liberal UK newspaper. Its journalists– most notably Polly Toynbee, Jonathan Freedland, Suzanne Moore, Anne Perkins, and Owen Jones– have done as much as Murdoch to undermine Corbyn.

To some extent this viciousness on the part of the Blairite faction, and its media acolytes, is understandable. Corbyn, who voted against the war in Iraq, believes Blair should be in the dock of the international court at The Hague for war crimes. The Conservatives, always a war-loving party, want no such thing for Blair, even though he defeated them in 3 general elections. Blair however is a closet Conservative.
***
Labour needs to go on the attack, on two fronts especially.

The first is Thatcher’s baleful legacy, entrenched by her successors, which has been minimal economic growth, widespread wage stagnation, widening inequality as income has been transferred upwards from lower-tiered earners, mounting household debt, and the extensive deindustrialization of formerly prosperous areas.

At the same time, the wealthy have prospered mightily. Contrast the above-mentioned aspect of Thatcher’s legacy with the world of Dodgy Dave Cameron’s “Chipping Norton” social set, as described by Michael Ashcroft (a former Cameron adviser who fell out with Dodgy Dave) in his hatchet-job biography of Cameron. The following is quoted in Ian Jack’s review of Call Me Dave: “Theirs is a world of helicopters, domestic staff, summers in St Tropez and fine food from Daylesford, the organic farm shop owned by Lady Carole Bamford”.

The Tories and their supporters are partying away as a class war is being waged, and Labour has been too timid in bringing this contrast to the attention of the electorate: the Chipping Norton set feasts on Lady Carole’s organic smoked venison and artisanal gin (available to the online shopper at https://daylesford.com/), while UN data (in 2014) indicates that more than 8 million British people live in food-insecure households.

“New” Labour did have a credibility problem when it came to doing this– Ed Miliband had at least 7 millionaires in his shadow cabinet, and another 13 in his group of advisers. So, a fair number of Labour supporters are likely to be connoisseurs of Lady Carole’s luxury food items in addition to the usual bunch of Tory toffs.

The austere Corbyn (he is a vegetarian and prefers his bicycle and public transport to limousines) is less enamoured of the high life, in which case the credibility problem might not be such a big issue.

Organic, artisanal food, holidays in St. Tropez, helicopters, smoked venison – all this consumed at the same time as Dave and his chums were claiming that ‘we’re all in it together’. We weren’t. We never were.

And remember – many members of the media, including people like Jeremy Clarkson, were part of the Chipping Norton set. And some of the BBC presenters are paid very well indeed. Like John Humphries, who tweeted about how he was afraid Labour was ‘going to punish the rich.’

As he is benefitting from a massive shift in the tax burden from the rich to the poor, it’s fair to say that he, and the wealthy class of which he is a part, are literally feasting at the poor’s expense. Furthermore, the affluent middle and upper classes actually use more of the state’s resources than the poor. So Labour would not be ‘punishing the rich’ if they increased their share of the tax burden. They’d only be requiring them to pay their whack.

Vox Political: Owen Smith Insults Voters with Mental Health Problems

August 24, 2016

Mike over at Vox Political has also put up a couple of stories today on the outrage Smudger has caused with a tweet sneering at the mentally ill. Smiff tweeted that with him ‘you won’t have some lunatic in charge of the Labour party’. Mike states that as someone, who has known many people with mental health problems and has blogged about the considerable obstacles they face, he cannot find words to describe his opinion of Smudger.

Many others weren’t shy of showing their feelings towards Smiff for this insult. Mike gives a few of their comments in his article. They state that such comments about the mentally ill should be unacceptable. Several of them are by people, who suffer from mental illness, and who therefore feel personally insulted by Smith.

See: http://voxpoliticalonline.com/2016/08/23/owen-smith-has-just-banged-the-final-nail-in-his-campaigns-coffin/

Smudger has realised the offence he’s caused, and tried to explain it away. He appeared on Radio 4’s Today programme, where John Humphries asked him if that made him unsuitable for the Labour leadership. Smudger told Humphries that he was talking about himself, not Jeremy Corbyn, and that it did not make him any the less suited for the leadership of the Labour party. He was sorry for any offence, and would have to be a bit less colourful about his language in future.

Mike comments drily that it’s too late.

See: http://voxpoliticalonline.com/2016/08/24/owen-smith-says-he-was-the-lunatic-does-that-make-it-any-better/

I think it’s very clear that Smudger wasn’t talking about himself when he used the term ‘lunatic’. The tweet was ‘With me, you won’t get a lunatic as head of the Labour party’. He is stating very clearly that he isn’t a ‘lunatic’, so the epithet must refer to someone else. It could, of course, refer to no-one in particular, but considering the insults heaped about Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters as ‘Trots’, ‘rabble’, ‘dogs’ and so on by the Blairites, it’s reasonable to assume he was referring to Jeremy Corbyn, or someone from the Left like him.

As for the outrage it’s generated, I’m not surprised. Depression and anxiety are on the rise, caused by austerity. The situation has become much worse for those with mental health issues through the stress of the Work Capability Test introduced by Tony Blair. The professional body representing medical health professionals – doctors, psychiatrists and psychologists, have stated that the stress of taking the tests has made their condition worse for 290,000 mentally unwell people, sometimes seriously so. Mental health services are being cut as the NHS services are rationed as part of the government’s privatisation of the NHS. There are extremely long waiting times for those with depression to see a psychiatrist. Students are also at risk of developing mental health problems. It’s been estimated that about 1 in 4 of them will suffer from depression at some point. Again, I can’t say I’m surprised, given the increased pressure to get a good degree, and faced with a mountain of student debt. Again, partly caused by Blair and Mandelson, when they decided to introduce tuition fees.

Faced with a government and Blairite faction in the Labour party that is at best indifferent to the needs of the mentally ill, those with such problems and their carers are bound to be outraged by Smudger’s apparent contempt.

Government Cuts: The BBC Defends their Bias

January 11, 2014

Who Needs Cuts

I’ve just started reading Who Needs the Cuts, by Barry and Saville Kushner, published last year by Hesperus Press. It’s a fascinating book, written in straightforward, uncomplicated language by two professionals in the political sphere. According to the blurb, Barry Kushner is a regeneration consultant supporting organisations working in the third sector, and now a city councillor in his home town of Liverpool. Saville Kushner is professor of Public Evaluation at the University of Auckland, who has written widely on democracy and public knowledge and worked for a short while for UNICEF in Latin America.

In the first chapter, Barry Kushner describes what moved him to begin researching the issue of the government cuts, and led to the two brother actively campaigning against them. It came from him attending a meeting of a ‘Children with Disabilities’ planning group in a town in the north-west of England, which he had been brought in to support. The group had been set up to bring together the parents of disabled children, and government officials and care providers as part of Labour’s Aiming High for Disabled Children. The group had hoped to build a respite centre to allow parents and carers a break from the strains of looking after their children. At the last minute, Kushner was informed that the project had been cancelled thanks to Gideon George Osborne’s cuts, and Kushner was given the unenviable job of telling the parents this. Not only was Kushner upset by the sudden cancellation of this much-needed facility, he was profoundly dismayed by the way the parents themselves, who had put so much into getting the project going in the first place, where left crushed and defenceless against the politicians’ story that there was simply no alternative to the cuts. He remarks on how easy it was for all the hard work that had been put in giving parents the confidence to come together to work for improving things for disabled children and their carers to be destroyed in a matter of moments.

Also driving Kushner in his campaign was his experiences at Croxteth Comprehensive school in Liverpool, where he had been a teacher during Maggie Thatcher’s infamous reign in the 1980s. Croxteth had been one of the most deprived areas in the country, and the school was scheduled for closure. The parents and teachers responded to the news by occupying the school and taking it over. Three years later they won their campaign, and the school was saved. In 2009 Kushner attended a reunion of everyone, who had been involved in the occupation. One of those he met was ‘Sean’, who had been ‘a cute, mischievous’ boy of 11 when it all happened. Sean was now forty, and had just come of the drugs he’d been on for the past 22 years. He went through one of the photographs showing the other kids, who were at school during the occupation. At least seven of these children were now dead.

The Kushner’s state that the story that the cuts are necessary is extremely flimsy indeed, and compare it to Joe McCarthy’s tactics during the Communist witch-hunts in the US. McCarthy’s evidence of Communist infiltration was just as a extremely flimsy. At meetings he claimed to have a list of Communists, waving a bunch of papers that were supposed to have their names. In fact, he had no such list and in many cases those papers were completely blank. This tactic nevertheless cowed the press and much of officialdom into blandly accepting his specious claims. The Coalition, and Labour politicians like Alistair Darling, who also took on board the supposed necessity for the cuts, similarly have little real evidence to back up their claims, and are resorting instead to scare tactics. This, unfortunately, has been remarkably effective, with the even the victims of the cuts, like the parents in the above meeting, unable to rebut the arguments. It has left the nation defenceless against an austerity programme several times more severe than previous retrenchment programmes. The book is their response to these specious claims, and has arisen from their own campaign against it, which has led them to speak up and down the country, including in my own home town of Bristol.

It’s an excellent book, and I hope to post a full review, giving some of their arguments against the cuts in due course.

What strikes me now, having posted about the BBC’s right-wing bias, is the Kushner’s description of the way the BBC has promoted the line that the cuts are necessary. They note that there are numerous economists, who have stated that the cuts are not necessary, and that growth, when it occurs, will wipe out the debt. These other voices are either totally ignored by the mainstream media, or else relegated to a footnote. The Kushner’s wrote to some of the journalists and programme managers pushing this line, like the BBC’s economics editor, Stephanie Flanders, and Evan Davies. In her report for 9th of September 2011, Flanders claimed that the poor economic growth from which the country was suffering was due to good weather, the Japanese tsunami and the royal wedding. When she was asked why she didn’t mention that the slump in retail sales and manufacturing along with the redundancies caused by the cuts were also having an effect, and that consumer confidence was at an all-time low, Flanders gave the following reply:

‘We were providing the explanation provided by the ONS, the independent statistical body. If this was not emphasised yesterday, that was simply because there were other things to focus on in a 2.5 minute package, and the broad political and economic arguments about austerity are now so well understood by our viewers’. As Private Eye responds, when given similar brush-offs, ‘So that’s alright, then’. The Kushners note that her role in the BBC was news analysis, not reporting. Her actions in simply regurgitating the ONS’ view was more in line with her previous job as advisor and speechwriter to Larry Summers. They also note that she had also worked with the US treasury secretary as he led the deregulation of the banks, that ‘unleashed the whirlwind of mortgage-backed securities, credit default swaps, sub-prime mortgages and over-leveraged banks that sit behind the whole debt issue’.

Barry Kushner also states that they attempted to make their points known by writing into the BBC and the Guardian, sending a series of emails and taking part on phone-ins on the radio. They stated repeatedly in their correspondence and telephone calls that ‘although the BBC’s coverage reflected the political consensus it did not reflect the broader economic analysis represented by numerous economists and people on both sides of the political spectrum… We begged the question, doesn’t the BBC have duty to do this?’ They received the following reply from a senior executive at BBC News:

‘The Editorial Guidelines state that we strive to reflect a wide range of opinion and explore a range and conflict of views so that no significant strand of thought is knowingly unreflected or under-represented. However, reflecting a broad range of views is not the same as giving equal weight to all shades of opinion and nor are we required to give totally comprehensive coverage.’

They state that this attitude appears to be shared by journalists, even when they know that their analysis is incomplete. They wrote a letter to Evan Davies after he interviewed Unite’s general secretary, Len McCluskey. This, they state, was far more severe than anything he had dished out to Danny Alexander, George Osborne or the other government ministers. They wanted to know why this was so, and why Davies had prevented McCluskey from elaborating on his argument and why he had not subjected government ministers to a similarly intensive grilling. As an example, the Kushners state they wanted to know why ministers were not required to explain the significance of the low level of national debt and borrowing on their planning for the cuts? The Kushners have already made the point that despite the hysterical claims of the politicos, the national debt is at its lowest for 200 out of 250 years. The argument that somehow these cuts are necessary to pay of this massive national debt is nonsensical.

Davies replied: ‘I personally think there are arguments to be made for not dealing with the deficit at the moment. Indeed there are arguments for monetising it too. But these need to be set out by those who assert them, not by me.’

To which they comment: ‘So Evan knows the answers, but won’t tell us what they are? Aren’t journalists supposed to use their knowledge and experience to ask more intelligent, searching questions?’ From the book’s description about the way Davies prevented McCluskey from developing his arguments further, it’s actually worse than that. Davies clearly knows the opposing arguments, but not only does he not feel it is his job to present them, he is actively obstructing those who do.

Commenting on my last post about BBC right-wing bias, Anna listed a number of BBC journalists with right-wing connections, like Nick Robinson, who used to be part of the Union of Conservative Students. It’s clear from reading Who Needs the Cuts that the BBC, like much of the rest of the media, is actively promoting the Coalition’s flimsy message that the cuts are somehow necessary almost unquestioned. The book notes that both Andrew Marr and John Humphries have started interviews with politicians stating that the cuts are necessary, ‘but..’, and that this political message is so prevalent that it has turned Question Time into a ‘cutsfest’. The executives at the BBC and their Tory allies won’t suffer from the cuts, however, although the Tories are dangling the prospect of freezing the license fee and privatisation in front of the Beeb to make it come to heel whenever it appears to get a bit uppity. The people who really suffer are us, including disabled children and their families, and the deprived kids being denied a proper education, and left to die of drugs and squalor like those Barry Kushner taught in Croxteth. They’re the real casualties. And the Beeb won’t be reporting on them any time soon.

The Kushners lament that we are going back to Maggie Thatcher and her policy of cuts in the 1980s, though without the massive opposition she faced – they were also active on marching against her – or even Spitting Image. It was in the 1980s that I remember the issue of the Conservative bias of the news media was raised with a vengeance. One of the best comments on it was ‘News of the World’, by the Clash, now used as the theme music for the Beeb’s satirical news quiz, Mock the Week. If we’re going back to the ’80s, we may as well enjoy some classic rock. Enjoy!