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Archive for October 2008

Outgoing chief prosecutor warns against “mediaeval delusions” and “the paraphernalia of paranoia”

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Ken MacDonald, the outgoing chief prosecutor of England and Wales, has warned against paranoid fears over terrorism being used to justify giving the government ever more “sweeping powers”, the BBC reports.

“We need to take very great care not to fall into a way of life in which freedom’s back is broken by the relentless pressure of a security state”, he said in his final speech.

Following the heavy defeat of government proposals to allow itself to detain people for 42 days without charge, Home Secretary Jacqui Smith has announced plans to create a giant database to monitor the telephone, email and internet usage of everyone in the UK – ostensibly on the basis that this will help to fight terrorism. Opposition parties have described the plan as “Orwellian”.

In his speech, Ken Macdonald urged resistance to what he called the “paraphernalia of paranoia”:

“Of course, you can have the Guantanamo model. You can have the model which says that we cannot afford to give people their rights, that rights are too expensive because of the nature of the threats we are facing.

“Or you can say, as I prefer to, that our rights are priceless. That the best way to face down those threats is to strengthen our institutions, rather than to degrade them.

“We would do well not to insult ourselves and all of our institutions and our processes of law in the face of these medieval delusions.”

In “Don’t Get Fooled Again” I look at the strange nexus between journalists who whip up public fears over terrorism in order to sell more newspapers, and politicians who exaggerate the threat so as to justify their demands for ‘sweeping powers’ to invade our privacy, evade public scrutiny, and control our behaviour.

Veteran journalist Seymour Hersh on US atrocities in Iraq

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From UC Berkeley News

In the evening’s most emotional moment, Hersh talked about a call he had gotten from a first lieutenant in charge of a unit stationed halfway between Baghdad and the Syrian border. His group was bivouacking outside of town in an agricultural area, and had hired 30 or so Iraqis to guard a local granary. A few weeks passed. They got to know the men they hired, and to like them. Then orders came down from Baghdad that the village would be “cleared.” Another platoon from the soldier’s company came and executed the Iraqi granary guards. All of them.

“He said they just shot them one by one. And his people, and he, and the villagers of course, went nuts,” Hersh said quietly. “He was hysterical, totally hysterical. He went to the company captain, who said, ‘No, you don’t understand, that’s a kill. We got 36 insurgents. Don’t you read those stories when the Americans say we had a combat maneuver and 15 insurgents were killed?’

“It’s shades of Vietnam again, folks: body counts,” Hersh continued. “You know what I told him? I said, ‘Fella, you blamed the captain, he knows that you think he committed murder, your troops know that their fellow soldiers committed murder. Shut up. Complete your tour. Just shut up! You’re going to get a bullet in the back.’ And that’s where we are in this war.”

Written by Richard Wilson

October 25, 2008 at 5:00 am

Weapons of Mass Derision

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Gordon Brown’s controversial use of the “Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act” to freeze Icelandic assets in Britain was taken by many here in the UK as further evidence that ‘sweeping powers’ given to the government ostensibly to fight terrorism will inevitably being used for other purposes.

But the move has also triggered an outpouring of mass derision among Icelanders, with 12% of the population of the country signing an online petition, and hundreds putting together their own quirky photographic protests, many of them with a distinctively Icelandic feel.

In “Don’t Get Fooled Again” I argue that mockery is a vital tool in the fight against fearmongering politicians who seek to enhance their own powers or evade scrutiny by exploiting public anxieties over terrorism.

Written by Richard Wilson

October 24, 2008 at 10:46 pm

UN treaty body considers further restrictions on chrysotile asbestos

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Interestingly, Christopher Booker’s latest article downplaying the health risks of white asbestos comes just before the week in which the UN will debate whether to place further restrictions on international trade in the material. The 120 member Rotterdam Convention is “aimed at helping developing countries more effectively manage potentially harmful imported substances”. If state parties agree to place chrysotile on the treaty’s “watch list” of hazardous materials, then any country exporting it will be obliged to ensure that the recipient country has given its explicit consent to receive it.

Russia and Canada, both major exporters of chrysotile asbestos, are strongly opposed to any such moves, but a debate is raging in Canada over the government’s longstanding efforts to block restrictions on the asbestos industry – including its multi-million dollar subsidy to the industry lobby group, the Chrysotile Institute, to which both “Professor” John Bridle and Christopher Booker have been linked.

Canadian Medical Association condemns government support for Chrysotile Institute’s “death-dealing charade”

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From the Canadian Medical Association Journal

Asbestos mortality: a Canadian export

Next week, a handful of Canadian bureaucrats will fly to Rome for the 4th Conference of the Parties to the Rotterdam Convention, a treaty governing trade in substances that harm human health and the environment. Their mission? If past experience provides an accurate guide, they will be there, on behalf of the Government of Canada, to protect this country’s asbestos industry, even if that means contributing to asbestos-related illnesses and deaths in the developing world.

That is a harsh indictment, but Canada is the only Western democracy to have consistently opposed international efforts to regulate the global trade in asbestos.1–3 And the government of Canada has done so with shameful political manipulation of science.

Years ago, Australia, Chile and the European Union proposed adding chrysotile (the predominant asbestos fibre used today) to the list of substances governed by the Rotterdam Convention. The convention requires the exporting government to notify the importing government before a dangerous substance is shipped in their direction, so that the importing government can exercise informed consent about whether to receive the substance.4 In essence, it is a regime of politeness. The convention does not ban trade in hazardous substances and need not take away even a gram from Canada’s asbestos exports — unless, of course, an importing country’s government, when asked for consent, thought better of it and said no.

You might think that Canada’s government could have no possible objection to the convention and the polite rule of notice and informed consent. Yet you would be wrong. For several years, Canada has led a ferocious diplomatic opposition to listing chrysotile under the convention. Not a single Western democracy supports Canada’s position, so Canada has made allies of a few less picky countries including Iran, Russia and Zimbabwe.5

According to the Rotterdam Convention’s review committee, which assesses substances before they are listed under the convention, “chrysotile is unequivocally a human carcinogen.”6 The World Health Organization (WHO) and other international agencies agree.7–9 Even Canada’s government acknowledges that “all forms of asbestos fibres, including chrysotile, are carcinogenic.”5

However, Canada argues that “chrysotile is a less potent carcinogen … and consequently poses a lower health risk.”5 In an argument redolent of the tobacco industry’s playbook on light cigarettes, Canada defends chrysotile on the basis that it is safer than other forms of asbestos.

But to say that chrysotile is safer is not to say it is safe. To be sure, chrysotile is chemically different than other forms of asbestos, called amphiboles. Exposure to amphibole asbestos causes notorious occupational and environmental illness and death: WHO estimates 100 000 preventable deaths occur globally each year, mainly from mesothelioma and lung cancer.7 Whether the same diseases would result if asbestos was limited to pure chrysotile is endlessly debated.

Yet the debate is largely irrelevant. It is questionable whether “pure chrysotile” even exists: mines are not pristine environments and often contain mixed chrysotile and amphibole. Occupational exposure to chrysotile with even a trace amount of amphibole contamination (0.002%–0.310%) is sufficient for amphibole to accumulate in the lungs over a lifetime.10 Disturbingly, Canada’s government does not regularly monitor exported asbestos for amphibole contamination, so its claim to purvey a pure, safe product is made without evidence and is doubtful.

The fact that chrysotile can be contaminated with amphibole is an inconvenient truth that is often overlooked in industry-funded studies (see related News article, page 886).11 It is only by discounting the industry-funded publications that a clearer picture emerges. In studies of exposure to putatively pure chrysotile, there is a lesser, but still significant, rise in lung cancer and mesothelioma.12–15 In the latest meta-analysis, some chrysotile sources appear equally potent as amphibole in causing lung cancer.16,17 It is no wonder that WHO recommends that “the most efficient way to eliminate asbestos-related diseases is to stop using all types of asbestos.”7

And stopping the use of asbestos is precisely what Canada is doing — but only in Canada.

In a practice that reeks of hypocrisy, Canada has limited the use of asbestos to prevent the exposure of Canadians to the danger, but it continues to be the world’s second largest exporter of asbestos.18 Fully 96% of the asbestos that is produced in Canada is for export, primarily to developing countries such as India, Indonesia and Thailand, where it is mainly turned into asbestos cement for construction.5

Canada maintains that its export trade need not be dangerous, if the importing countries practise safe use and put “regulations, programs and practices equivalent to Canada’s … in place.” This argument seems self-serving. Most developed countries, including Canada, have concluded that their occupational health and safety systems were no match for handling asbestos safely, and so they transitioned to using effective and affordable alternatives.19 For Canada to pretend that India, Thailand and Indonesia can succeed in managing asbestos safely, when developed countries have failed, is fanciful.

Canada is more than just a major asbestos exporter. To keep the export industry alive, it has become an avid asbestos cheerleader. Ottawa has poured more than $19 million into the Chrysotile Institute, an advocacy group formerly called the Asbestos Institute before that name became unfashionable.5 Along with funds from the Government of Quebec, the institute is dedicated to promoting the safe-use canard and defending the beleaguered mineral from its critics.

Strangely, Canada’s largesse runs out when it comes to helping developing countries deal with the decades-long aftermath of asbestos exposure. There are “no Government of Canada chrysotile asbestos programs that provide direct financial support to developing countries.”5 It is subterranean ethics where Canada takes the wealth from asbestos exports, but abandons developing countries to their own devices to care for people made ill by asbestos or to institute alternatives to asbestos cement, which appear to be about 30% more expensive.20

A year ago, it appeared that Canada might rethink its position. Health Canada convened an international committee of scientific experts to study the risks of chrysotile exposure. The expert committee delivered its report in March, and Health Canada promised to publish it soon after. Yet as this issue goes to press, the report has been kept secret for over half a year, and sources tell CMAJ the blockage is in the prime minister’s office. In contrast, the US Environmental Protection Agency has convened a similar expert group — except that their process is transparent and the public is invited to attend the meetings.21 Small wonder that the chair of the Health Canada committee has since written to the government, lamenting that “Canada has a pretty bleak reputation in most of the health science world.”22

Sadly, the criticism is deserved. For Canada to export asbestos to poor countries that lack the capacity to use it safely is inexplicable. But to descend several steps further to suppress the results of an expert committee, pour millions of dollars into an institute that shills for the industry and oppose even the Rotterdam Convention’s simple rule of politeness is inexcusable. Canada’s government seems to have calculated that it is better for the country’s asbestos industry to do business under the radar like arms traders, regardless of the deadly consequences. What clearer indication could there be that the government knows what it is doing is shameful and wrong?

Canada’s government must put an end to this death-dealing charade. Canada must immediately drop its opposition to placing chrysotile under the Rotterdam Convention’s notification and consent processes and stop funding the Chrysotile Institute. More importantly, Canada should do its part in alleviating the global epidemic of asbestos-related disease by ending the mining and export of chrysotile, as the WHO recommends.

Footnotes

With the Editorial-Writing Team (Paul C. Hébert MD MHSc, Rajendra Kale MD, Barbara Sibbald BJ, Ken Flegel MDCM MSc and Noni MacDonald MD MSc)

Competing interests: None declared for David Boyd. See http://www.cmaj.ca/misc/edboard.shtml for the Editorial-Writing Team’s statements.

REFERENCES

1. Castleman BI, Joshi TK. The global asbestos struggle today. Eur J Oncol 2007;12:149-54.
2. Brophy JT, Keith MM, Schieman J. Canada’s asbestos legacy at home and abroad. Int J Occup Environ Health 2007;13:235-42.
3. Ladou J. The asbestos cancer epidemic. Environ Health Perspect 2004;112:285-90.[Medline]
4. Rotterdam Convention on the prior informed consent procedure for certain hazardous chemicals and pesticides in international trade. Norwich (UK): The Stationary Office; 2004. Available: http://www.pic.int/en/ConventionText/ONU-GB.pdf (accessed 2008 Sept 17).
5. Office of the Auditor General of Canada. Canada’s policies on chrysotile asbestos exports [response by the Minister of Foreign Affairs to Environment Petition no. 179]. Ottawa (ON): The Office; 2006. Available: http://www.oag-bvg.gc.ca/internet/English/pet_179_e_28915.html (accessed 2008 Sept 22).
6. Secretariat for the Rotterdam Convention on the Prior Informed Consent Procedure for Certain Hazardous Chemicals and Pesticides in International Trade. Annex V: draft decision guidance document: chrysotile asbestos. Annex to document no: UNEP/FAO/RC/COP.3/11. Available: http://www.pic.int/home.php?type=b&id=70 (accessed 2008 Sept 22).
7. World Health Organization. Elimination of asbestos-related disease. Geneva: The Organization; 2006. Available: http://whqlibdoc.who.int/hq/2006/WHO_SDE_OEH_06.03_eng.pdf (accessed 2008 Sept 17).
8. International Agency for Research on Cancer. Asbestos. IARC Monogr Eval Carcinog Risks Hum 1987;(Suppl 7):106-16.
9. International Labour Organization. 2006. Resolution concerning asbestos: adopted by the 95th session of the International Labour Conference, June 2006. (UNEP/FAO/RC/COP.3/INF/17). Available: http://www.pic.int/home.php?type=b&id=70 (accessed 2008 Sept 22).
10. Tossavainen A, Kotilainen M, Takahashi K, et al. Amphibole fibres in Chinese chrysotile asbestos. Ann Occup Hyg 2001;45:145-52.[Abstract/Free Full Text]
11. Pearce N. Corporate influences on epidemiology. Int J Epidemiol 2008;37:46-53.[Abstract/Free Full Text]
12. Yano E, Wang ZM, Wang XR, et al. Cancer mortality among workers exposed to amphibole-free chrysotile asbestos. Am J Epidemiol 2001;154:538-43.[Abstract/Free Full Text]
13. Mirabelli D, Calisti R, Barone AF, et al. Excess of mesotheliomas after exposure to chrysotile in Balangero, Italy. Occup Environ Med 2008; Jun 4. Epub ahead of print.
14. Hein MJ, Stayner LT, Lehman E, et al. Follow-up study of chrysotile textile workers: cohort mortality and exposure-response. Occup Environ Med 2007;64: 616-25.[Abstract/Free Full Text]
15. Li L, Sun TD, Zhang X, et al. Cohort studies on cancer mortality among workers exposed only to chrysotile asbestos: a meta-analysis. Biomed Environ Sci 2004;17:459-68.[Medline]
16. Berman DW, Crump KS. A. Meta-analysis of asbestos-related cancer risk that addresses fiber size and mineral type. Crit Rev Toxicol 2008;38:49-73.[Medline]
17. Berman DW, Crump KS. Update of potency factors for asbestos-related lung cancer and mesothelioma. Crit Rev Toxicol 2008;38:1-47.[Medline]
18. Canada Minerals Yearbook 2006. Chrysotile. Ottawa (ON): Natural Resources Canada. Minerals and Metals Sector; 2007. Available: http://www.nrcan.gc.ca/mms/cmy/content/2006/20.pdf (accessed 2008 Sept 17).
19. Virta RL. Asbestos substitutes. In: Kogel JE, Nikhil C, Trivedi JM, et al., editors. Industrial minerals and rocks: commodities, markets and uses. 7th ed. Littleton (CO): Society for Mining, Metallurgy and Exploration; 2006.
20. Tri DD, Toan NN, Cong NT. Possibility of using substitute materials for asbestos and non-asbestos fibro cement roofing tiles to reduce environmental pollution and increase workers’ health protection in Vietnam. Proceedings [CD-ROM] of the Global Asbestos Conference; 2004 Nov 19–21; Tokyo, Japan. Tokyo, Japan: World Asbestos Congress; 2004. Available: http://worldasbestosreport.org/gac2004/pl_7_04_e.pdf (accessed 2008 Aug 22)
21. Federal Register/ Vol 73, No 108/ Wednesday, June 4, 2008/Notices. US Environmental Protection Agency. Science advisory board staff office: notification of an upcoming meeting of the science advisory board asbestos committee. Washington: The Register; 2008. Available: http://www.epa.gov/fedrgstr/EPA-MEETINGS/2008/June/Day-04/m12503.pdf (accessed 2008 Sept 22).
22. Daubs K. Asbestos report ‘misused:’ scientists. Ottawa Citizen 2008 May 28. Available: http://www.canada.com/ottawacitizen/news/story.html?id=4c342ebe-2633-4ea4-bc06-34797b8ed932 (accessed 2008 Sept 17).

Don’t Get Fooled Again, a public forum with with Richard Wilson and Paul Kingsnorth, at the 12th Edinburgh Independent Radical Book Fair 2008

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Saturday 1 November 2008 at 2.00pm
Venue:
Out of the Blue Drill Hall
30-38 Dalmeny Street
Edinburgh
EH6 8RG
Scotland
UK

Admission Free! Donations welcome!

All Welcome!

Cafe and Bar Open!

Why is it that intelligent and educated people are, time and again, fooled by ideas that turn out to be nonsense? From different perspectives Richard Wilson and Paul Kingsnorth discuss the impact of deception and delusion on our daily lives.

Richard Wilson is the author of Don’t Get Fooled Again: The Sceptic’s Guide to Life .

‘…provides the reader with the analytical tools to avoid being taken for a ride, as well as being entertaining and informative.’ Patrick Neale, The Bookseller

Paul Kingsnorth is the author of One No, Many Yeses. His Latest book is Real England: The Battle Against the Bland .

‘An understated but still very effective polemic about the damage done to our real quality of life over the last few decades, and our collective failure to do very much about it.’ Jonathon Porritt , Chairman, Sustainable Development Commission

Written by Richard Wilson

October 23, 2008 at 2:00 am

“Professor” John Bridle’s links to the asbestos industry

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When the Sunday Telegraph columnist Christopher Booker first introduced his readers to John Bridle, he described him as “UK scientific spokesman for the Asbestos Cement Product Producers Association”, but since then he has been rather more coy about Bridle’s industry links.

As long ago as 2002, the British Asbestos Newsletter produced an article highlighting John Bridle’s track record. The BAN quotes an article written by Bridle himself (the original source is available on subscription here), which states that he: “retired from the asbestos cement industry in 1999 after 38 years working at all levels of the industry”.

According to the BAN:

Records at Companies House confirm that Bridle held several directorships in the late 1980s…

Mr. Bridle told Roofing Magazine: “The industry has given me an extremely interesting life… I have seen the world. I have met a lot of interesting people and I have an enormous fondness for an industry which I think the so called experts are going to destroy if they’re not careful.”

BAN also reports on Bridle’s association with the “Asbestos Cement Product Producers Association” – the industry body mentioned by Booker in his first article on John Bridle:

Bridle has been acting as the UK technical consultant to the Asbestos Cement Product Producers Association (ACPPA)… The purpose of the group is spelled out by Bridle: “the ACPPA is a world wide association dedicated to supplying scientific information for the safe handling of Chrysotile.”

The following details about the Asbestos Cement Product Producers Association (ACPPA) were found in the 38th edition (published 2002) of the Encyclopaedia of Associations:

“Asbestos Cement Product Producers Association
PMB 114
1235 Jefferson Davis Hwy.
Arlington, VA 22202
Denis Hamel, Dir.
PH: (514) 861 1153
FX: (514) 861 1152
Founded: 1972 Members: 20. Staff: 2. Budget: $39,500.
Description: Promotes and defends the use of asbestos cement building materials. Libraries: Type: reference; open to the public. Holdings: books, periodicals, monographs, Subject: a/c pipes and sheets.”

…the office of the ACPPA is at the same address as the Asbestos Information Association/North America and the Association of Asbestos Cement Product Producers (AACPP)…The Director of the ACPPA is Denis Hamel. Hamel is also a director of the Montreal-based Asbestos Institute (AI), “a private organization established in 1984 by the companies producing asbestos, unions and the Canadian and Quebec governments” to “promote the safe use of asbestos in Canada and throughout the world.”

In 1983, the year before the Asbestos Institute was created, the building materials supplier US Gypsum had, according to Corporate Watch, become embroiled in a major public controversy over the use of asbestos in its products, and hired the PR firm Hill and Knowlton to help limit the damage:

Documents released as part of a court case brought by the State of Baltimore against US Gypsum showed how the issue was handled.

H&K advised Gypsum that the “the spread of media coverage must be stopped at the local level and as soon as possible” and that Gypsum should create an industry group to “take the heat from the press and industry critics.” H&K also suggested that Gypsum enlist scientists and doctors as “independent experts” to downplay issues about the health risks associated with asbestos. “The media and other audiences important to U.S. Gypsum should ideally say, ‘Why is all this furore being raised about this product?’ We have a non-story here,” concluded H&K’s advice.

According to the Columbia Journalism Review:

One focus of this strategy was to plant stories on op-ed pages “by experts sympathetic to the company’s point of view.” The plan included placing articles attesting to the safety of asbestos.

Although a Gypsum spokesman told The Daily Record that the company did not implement the advice, court papers show that Gypsum planted op-ed pieces in papers in Baltimore and Detroit. An interoffice Gypsum memo reads: “Attached is an excellent series run over four days, beginning March 3 [1985] in the Detroit News. Our consultant, Jack Kinney, very actively fed much of this information to the special writer, Michael Bennett. SBA is exploring ways of more widely circulating these articles.” (As recently as June 30, 1991, the Baltimore Sun published an article by Bennett which claimed that the risk of asbestos exposure was comparable to “smoking one half a cigarette in a lifetime.”)

This example in particular seems to have striking parallels with the Booker and Bridle case. According to the asbestos campaigner Jason Addy, an email obtained under Canadian freedom of information laws shows that John Bridle was in direct contact with the Asbestos Institute in February 2002, and specifically discussed the article by Christopher Booker that was due to run that Sunday.

According to Addy (click here for the HTML version), Bridle told the Asbestos Institute that: “The Sunday Telegraph are supporting these moves”, and that “Sunday we have Booker article {I will mail this to. you this afternoon} {1 million readers}… This should give us all a good weekend”.

In 2003, the Asbestos Institute was relaunched as the “Chrysotile Institute”, but John Bridle’s association continued. A 2006 Chrysotile Institute press release trailed a presentation in Bangkok in which:

Professor John Bridle, Chief inspector of the UK Asbestos Watchdog, will highlight cases in the United Kingdom where a combination of “bad science, bad regulation and a campaign of demonisation” has resulted in bankruptcies and a climate of fear about products and materials that present “no measurable risk to health”.

Professor Bridle will detail his work with the UK Government to try and help British businesses and homeowners who are suffering from over-zealous implementation of bad regulations, based on outdated science.

The same statement claimed that Bridle: “has recently been awarded a prestigious honorary degree in ‘Asbestos Sciences’ by the Russian Institute of Occupational Health. His new professorship makes him the foremost authority on asbestos science in the world.”

Writing in his 2007 book “Scared to Death”, Christopher Booker hails Bridle’s visit to Thailand as a “victory”. The Thai health minister, after meeting with Bridle and another industry consultant, was “sufficiently impressed by their evidence to announce that his country would now be reconsidering its decision to ban white asbestos”.

According to John Bridle, the Chrysotile Institute was so pleased with Christopher Booker’s chapter on asbestos in “Scared to Death” that it had “arranged with the book’s publishers for the right to reprint the section of the book covering the asbestos story”.

Bridle’s own company, Asbestos Watchdog, was also reportedly distributing copies “FREE for a limited time only”, subject to £3.65 postage and packing…

Earlier this month, the Canadian Medical Association Journal condemned the Canadian government, which has funded the Chrysotile Institute to the tune of $19 million, for its “shameful political manipulation of science” around asbestos. According to the Journal:

“Most developed countries, including Canada, have concluded that their occupational health and safety systems were no match for handling asbestos safely, and so they transitioned to using effective and affordable alternatives. For Canada to pretend that India, Thailand and Indonesia can succeed in managing asbestos safely, when developed countries have failed, is fanciful.”

Although Booker has now endorsed John Bridle’s expertise on at least 13 separate occasions, I could only find one further reference to his industry links, and it was an oblique one.

In 2006 Booker reported that “One leading asbestos company was so alarmed by the practices rife in the industry that it even gave Asbestos Watchdog [Bridle's company] significant financial backing.”

Booker’s praise for the asbestos industry’s answer to “Doctor” Gillian McKeith

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In his many Sunday Telegraph articles downplaying or denying the health risks of white asbestos (this latest gem now brings the total to at least 40), Christopher Booker has endorsed the bogus expert John Bridle on at least 13 separate occasions, describing him variously as “UK scientific spokesman for the Asbestos Cement Product Producers Association”, “an experienced South Wales surveyor and qualified chemist”, “a scientifically trained surveyor”, “a fully-qualified expert”, “our expert John Bridle”, “the asbestos expert John Bridle”, “one of the country’s leading asbestos experts”, “a genuine asbestos expert”

…an “honorary professor” of the “Russian Occupational Health Institute, part of the Russian Academy of Sciences”, “John Bridle of Asbestos Watchdog, the firm launched through this column to fight the nationwide racket”, “Professor John Bridle of Asbestos Watchdog, the firm set up with the aid of this column to puncture the bubble of hysteria surrounding asbestos”, and “Professor John Bridle, Britain’s leading practical asbestos expert”, (see also here and here for more references).

Click here for more background on “Professor” John Bridle’s links to the asbestos industry.

Booker has also stated, falsely, that the UK government’s Health and Safety Executive “fully supports what Asbestos Watchdog is doing”, that the HSE is “closely collaborating” with John Bridle, and that the agency has given Bridle its “official support”.

When, in 2006, the BBC’s You and Yours programme ran an investigation exposing John Bridle’s bogus claims, highlighting his 2005 trades descriptions conviction for making false assertions about his qualifications, and accusing him of “lies”,”self-aggrandizement” and running “unaccredited tests”, Christopher Booker was outraged – and perhaps also a little embarrassed.

Before the programme had even been broadcast, Booker was denouncing the BBC through his Sunday Telegraph column, accusing them of falling for “distortions and untruths”, and being part of a “concerted move by the powerful ‘anti-asbestos lobby’ to silence Bridle”.

According to Booker:

Some charges are laughable, such as that Bridle falsely claims to have been made in 2005 an honorary professor of the prestigious Russian Academy of Medical Sciences. Confirmed by the academy’s official certificate, this was widely reported in Russia at the time as the first occasion on which anyone had been so honoured.

In reality, the BBC made no such allegation. The programme-makers in fact noted that Bridle had produced a certificate from an institution calling itself the Russian Academy of Medical Sciences which named him an “honorary professor”. What they took issue with was Bridle’s claim that this little-known organisation was in any way connected to the internationally-renowned Russian Academy of Sciences – and with Bridle’s repeated assertions that his honorary professorship was from this similarly-named yet wholly separate body.

Booker also claimed that:

The BBC charges [Bridle] with falsely claiming to have advised the Conservative Party leadership.

Yet in 2002 when, after a briefing from Bridle, Iain Duncan Smith, then the party’s leader, wrote to the Government asking for the regulations to be delayed until they could be debated by Parliament, Bridle (and I) gave extensive written and verbal briefings to John Bercow, the front-bench Tory spokesman who led the debate, as You and Yours could have confirmed by consulting Hansard.

In reality, again, the BBC did not actually say this. The programme-makers not only made it clear that Bridle had briefed John Bercow – they carried an interview with Bercow in which he made it clear that he now believed that Bridle had seriously misled him. What Bercow himself took issue with in the programme was the claim that the Conservative front bench was, or had ever been, a “client” of John Bridle. Bercow described this claim as “wrong, far-fetched and misleading”.

The following week, Booker wrote that:

As a vicious hatchet job, the BBC did everything that the “anti-asbestos lobby” could have wanted. With a fine array of selective evidence, distortion and misquotation, it chose all the right interviewees to blacken Bridle’s character unmercifully.

In his 2007 book “Scared to Death” (co-authored with Richard North), Booker devotes a whole chapter to asbestos, and continues his attack on the BBC over its exposé of John Bridle, describing the programme as a “farrago of make believe”, and a “carefully-planned operation to discredit him” based on “hearsay evidence given by Bridle’s enemies”.

While Booker makes the most of John Bercow’s “trenchant speech” in Parliament in 2002 (following a briefing from John Bridle), he chooses not to tell his readers that, by 2006, Bercow had come to a very different view, and had actually been one of the BBC’s key sources in its exposé of Bridle’s bogus claims.

According to Booker:

Bridle was legally advised that, although the programme was blatantly defamatory, to sue the BBC for libel would be a gamble. With a bottomless purse of licence-payers’ money, its lawyers could afford to run up the costs to such an astronomic level that, on a limited budget, he would find it hard to stay in the game. More effective, he was advised, would be first to mount a complaint to the broadcasting regulator Ofcom, on the grounds that the BBC had broken pretty well every professional rule in the book…

A formal complaint was duly lodged. For months, the BBC continued to spin out the resulting exchanges. By the time this book went to press, Ofcom had not yet given its verdict.

According to John Bridle, the Chrysotile Institute, an asbestos industry funded lobby group, was so pleased with this particular chapter of “Scared to Death” that it “arranged with the book’s publishers for the right to reprint the section of the book covering the asbestos story”.

Earlier this year, Ofcom gave its verdict on the BBC’s investigation:

This edition of “You and Yours” included a report on Professor John Bridle, who it introduced with the words: “the man behind Asbestos Watchdog who claims to have saved people millions of pounds, but the claims about himself are littered with lies”. The programme stated that Professor Bridle, an asbestos surveyor, portrayed himself as “the world’s foremost authority on asbestos science”. The programme claimed that Professor Bridle’s views on the safety of one type of asbestos were contrary to those held by the British Government, the Health and Safety Executive and the World Health Organisation, among others. The programme also questioned Professor Bridle’s credentials and expertise in testing for the presence of asbestos.

Professor Bridle complained to Ofcom that he was treated unfairly in the programme as broadcast in that he was unfairly portrayed as a liar and charlatan; his expertise and qualifications were questioned along with his business credentials; it alleged, wrongly, that he carried out unauthorised white asbestos “testing” and that he had claimed that asbestos posed no measurable risk to health; and, it failed to include “evidence” provided by him that offset the criticisms made in the programme.

Ofcom found as follows:

Ofcom considered that the programme makers took reasonable care to satisfy themselves that the information presented in the programme relating to Professor Bridle’s expertise, qualifications, business practices and his claims about testing asbestos had not been presented in a way that was unfair to Professor Bridle. Nor had relevant information been omitted or ignored. Professor Bridle had been offered an opportunity to contribute. Ofcom therefore found no unfairness to Professor Bridle in the programme as broadcast.

Corruption watchdog warns over risks of doing business with UK companies

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A report by the anti-bribery group within the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has warned that companies doing business with Britain risk “legal and reputational damage because of the lax anti-bribery law and enforcement”. The OECD’s stinging report follows the international outcry over the UK government’s intervention to suspend the criminal investigation into corruption allegations against the arms manufacturer BAE systems.

Booker struggles on through the blizzard of facts…

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Today’s Sunday Telegraph has yet another article from Christopher Booker on white asbestos, in which he endorses John Bridle, and repeats his bogus scientific claims.

Booker today states that white asbestos when mixed with cement is “quite harmless because the fibres locked in the cement cannot escape in respirable form”, this was looked at in detail by the Health and Safety Executive last year (see: link). The HSE concluded that:

“As would be expected in a sample of asbestos cement most of the chrysotile fibres were encapsulated in the cement matrix, often as quite large fibre bundles which are clearly visible to the eye.

When the cement is broken or crushed the chrysotile fibres are released from the cement. The fibres released were examined by analytical transmission electron microscopy (TEM) to determine whether they had been altered and were no longer identifiable as chrysotile asbestos….

The analysis carried out showed that the asbestos cement contained fibres of chrysotile asbestos and released chrysotile asbestos fibres to air when sufficiently disturbed…

Claims being made in Internet articles and in some sections of the newspaper industry are not supported by this investigation.”

Paedophiles in league with Al Qaeda…

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Terror alert level: Flopsy

Not to be outdone by this week’s Morris-esque Foxnews pseudo-story about the Satanic-Islamic robot baby, the Times has waded in with a surreal piece of fearmongering flimmery of its own – “Dangerous and depraved: paedophiles unite with terrorists online”.

As Rachel North points out, that this comes hot on the heels of the announcement of government plans to monitor and record the activities of every internet and phone user in Britain.

Jenni Russell on the UK government’s crisis of trust

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From Jenni Russell in The Guardian:

Only four months ago, when Smith gave a speech to the Smith Institute on the necessity of parliament’s shoving through the imminent plans for 42-day detention, the tone was much more disdainful. Then we, the audience, were given an imperious lecture that amounted to: We know what the threat is and you don’t, so we must be given whatever powers we need. I said at the time that listening to the speech was like wrestling mentally with jelly. Other than “trust us, we’re the government”, there wasn’t much of an argument involved.

Now, of course, thanks to the Lords, the opposition, the Labour rebels and vociferous opponents around the country, No 10 and the Home Office have had to learn a little humility. Bullying and threatening hasn’t been enough to get the key measures it sought, like 42 days and secret coroners’ inquests, past parliament. And since the government now plans a surveillance project that will dwarf anything that has gone before – a giant database that will track every call, text, email and web visit that we make – they have been forced, belatedly, into attempting to persuade us a little more and hector us a little less.

On the evidence of this speech, the strategy is not having much success. Persuasion is all about emotion backed up with argument, and the emotion was still reserved for “we know best; we truly do!” while the arguments still weren’t there.

Since the last few years of Tony Blair’s time in Downing Street there has been much agonising from the Labour leadership over the decline of public trust in politicians. This is a problem, we are told, because without our being able to take the government at its word on at least some things, the effective functioning of the state becomes impossible. The public therefore ought to be more trusting of politicians, and the current mood of scepticism is clearly – according to Alastair Campbell – the fault of the media.

The very fact that the government seriously expects us to be swayed by this kind of argument seems, to me, to illustrate the real problem with painful clarity. Democracy is clearly in trouble when voters feel the need to be suspicious of every public statement that their government makes on any remotely controversial issue – just as your relationship with your doctor or dentist would be under considerable strain if you felt that you were dealing with a mendacious quack trying to rip you off at every turn.

It seems that the government is asking us to believe that the solution to our democratic crisis is simply for voters to set their doubts aside and trust in the political class again – despite all the examples of state mendacity we’ve seen in recent years. But this seems akin to expecting a patient who’s repeatedly been juiced by their dentist to deal with their concerns simply by suppressing them – and then handing over their money for yet another appointment.

It seems to me the wiser course of action would be to start looking around for a better dentist – and perhaps also seek to get the old one struck off, to stop him from doing more damage in future…

Written by Richard Wilson

October 18, 2008 at 10:31 am

More on Lord West’s distinguished ministerial career…

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From The Guardian, 15 November 2007:

At 8.20 yesterday morning, Lord Admiral Alan West of Spithead, Gordon Brown’s chief security minister, seemed pretty clear in his own mind.

Did he think the police needed more than 28 days to question terrorist suspects?

“I want to have absolute evidence that we actually need longer than 28 days,” the former first sea lord told the BBC.

“I want to be totally convinced because I am not going to go and push for something that actually affects the liberty of the individual unless there is a real necessity for it. I still need to be fully convinced that we absolutely need more than 28 days and I also need to be convinced what is the best way of doing that.”

But less than an hour later, following a breakfast with the prime minister, West had changed tack.

Sounding just as certain as he had barely 45 minutes before, he declared he was “personally convinced” that the 28-day limit needed extending.

“I personally, absolutely believe that within the next two or three years we will require more than that for one of those complex plots. So I am convinced that is the case.”

Written by Richard Wilson

October 17, 2008 at 1:00 am

“Another great plot is building up again” claims UK terrorism minister

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Lord West: Be afraid

Amid the UK government’s heavy defeat in the House of Lords over its demand for “sweeping new powers” to lock people up without charge, the terrorism minister Lord West has claimed – without offering any evidence – that “another great plot is building up again, which we are monitoring“.

According to West, who was in charge of the government’s attempt to get the 42-day detention proposals through the House of Lords, “The [terrorist] threat is huge. It dipped slightly and is now rising again … There are large complex plots. We unravelled one, which caused damage to al-Qaida and the plots faded slightly”. But West claims that another malicious conspiracy has now been discovered.

In “Don’t Get Fooled Again” I argue that conspiracy theories are not the exclusive preserve of dodgy balding men in smoky pubs – dodgy balding men in government sometimes fall for them too.

Strictly speaking, anyone who postulates a secretive, evil plot on the basis of weak or non-existent evidence, is putting forward a conspiracy theory. Recent examples of state-sponsored conspiracy theories include the UK and US governments’ bogus claim that Iraq was harbouring “Weapons of Mass Destruction”, and the suggestion, which we now know was made on the basis of a torture-tainted confession, that the Iraqi regime had offered chemical weapons training to senior members of Al Qaeda.

Given this track record, it seems prudent to treat Lord West’s new – yet decidedly vague – assertions with a heavy dose of scepticism.

Terror Alert Level: Comfortably numb

South African government turns its back on AIDS denial

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Hot on the heels of the resignation of President Thabo Mbeki – and the removal of his notorious Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, the South African government has drawn a line under the era of AIDS denial that began soon after Mbeki’s accession to the Presidency in 1999.

President Motlanthe’s new Health Minister, Barbara Hogan, who was reportedly one of the few MPs to speak out on HIV and AIDS during Mbeki’s time in office, made a speech at an international AIDS vaccine conference in Cape Town in which she stated unequivocally that HIV causes AIDS, and that time had been lost in the struggle against the disease.

Written by Richard Wilson

October 15, 2008 at 6:00 am

The ultimate tabloid scare story

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I had previously thought that the art of tabloid pseudo-news had reached the acme of platonic perfection in the story by the Sun and Evening Standard about asylum seekers eating swans.

But Foxnews has gone one better, with the ultimate racially-charged nonsense non-story: “Parents Outraged Over Baby Doll They Say Mumbles Pro-Islam Message“.

Some parents who bought the Fisher-Price “Little Mommy Real Loving Baby Cuddle and Coo” doll insist that amid it’s incoherent electronic baby-talk they can distinctly hear the phrases “Islam is the light” and “Satan is king”. Worse still, according to Gary Rofkahr of Owasso, Oklahoma: “There’s no markings on the box to indicate there’s anything Islamic about this doll”.

Written by Richard Wilson

October 15, 2008 at 12:01 am

Free Jean-Claude Kavumbagu!

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I owe Jean-Claude Kavumbagu a huge personal debt for the help he gave me while I was writing “Titanic Express”, and for his efforts to keep up the pressure on the case within the Burundian media.

Jean-Claude, an ardent critic of corruption and human rights abuse in his country, was arrested in September 2008, and charged with “defamation”, simply for questioning President Nkurunziza’s expenditure at the Beijing Olympics.

Amnesty International has taken up the case, listing Jean-Claude as “a prisoner of conscience, detained solely for the peaceful exercise of his right to freedom of expression.”

I’ve just set up an online petition to raise the profile of the case, and press for Jean-Claude’s release:

http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/FreeJeanClaudeKavumbagu

Written by Richard Wilson

October 14, 2008 at 4:40 pm

“Little Atoms” interview now online

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…and can be heard here. With thanks again to Neil Denny and Resonance FM.

Written by Richard Wilson

October 14, 2008 at 10:15 am

Government abandons plans for 42-day pre-charge detention – but vows to try again later

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Having suffered a heavy defeat in last night’s vote at the House of Lords, the UK government has abandoned its attempt to give itself the right to lock people up for 42 days without charging them, but vowed to get us next time if a “terrorist emergency” arises.

Written by Richard Wilson

October 14, 2008 at 8:08 am

Don’t Get Fooled Again reviewed by Tom Cunliffe

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From A Common Reader

Scepticism about media, politics and finances comes naturally to most of us these days, particularly when people who should know better have brought the world to a state of economic crisis (did our rulers really not know that unfettered greed is no basis for an economic world-order?). It is refreshing to read a book like Don’t Get Fooled Again, which takes our vague feeling that “things aren’t quite right” and shows us that gut instincts are often quite correct, and we really shouldn’t believe the utterances of any institution or public figure without first submitting them to some pretty stringent tests.

Richard Wilson puts forward a good case for scepticism, reminding his readers that humanity has a long history of “meekly engaging in depraved acts of inhumanity on the basis of ideas that turned out to be total gibberish”.

Much of his book focuses on the public relations industry, citing a number of case studies to show how opinion can be manipulated. He devotes a whole chapter to the way tobacco companies in the 1950s manipulated news organisations to question the increasingly obvious link between smoking and lung cancer. The strategy consisted of getting an influential academic on-side (geneticist Clarence Cook Little in this case), and using him to question every scrap of evidence which research scientists gathered supporting the need for anti-smoking legislation.

Little insisted that it was not enough to show that lung cancer victims were smokers, but that until the cause of the link could be demonstrated under laboratory conditions, the link was irrelevant. Tests showing that mice contracted cancer when exposed to cigarette smoke were contested, but on the other hand, animal tests which were favourable to the tobacco industry were heavily publicised. Wilson shows that genius of the PR campaign was capitalising on the media’s love of “debate”.

A story really takes off when two sides are seen in opposition, even when it is obvious that the alleged “controversy” is falsely based. This can be observed every day on programmes like BBC Radio 4′s Today programme, when even the most blindingly obvious truth has to be contested by a protagonist with opposing views, with the result that equal weight is given to both nonsense and fact. One million people walked the streets of London to protest about the US/GB invasion of Iraq but this had no effect on those who wanted for a variety of reasons to believe the fantastic reports about Iraq’s offensive capability.

Wilson warns of the dangers of pseudo-science, and its ability to influence government and other decision-makers. Wilson traces this back to Trofim Lysenko, Stalin’s favorite scientist who’s wrong-headed ideas about agronomy led to mass starvation throughout Russia. Even worse, Lysenko’s ideas were taken up by Chairman Mao and his followers whose Lysenko-inspired agrarian reforms led to the worst man-made famine in history, with the loss of 30 million lives.

The chapter on “groupthink” describes that way in which a closed group of people can adopts a false belief and then support itself in perpetuating it despite mounting evidence suggesting its falsity. I found myself thinking again of the decision to invade Iraq taken by Tony Blair’s cabinet when I read Richard Wilson’s list of symptoms of groupthink:

  1. Invulnerability – everything is going to work out right because we are a special group
  2. Rationalisation – explaining away warnings that challenge the group’s assumptions
  3. Unquestioning belief in the morality of the group and ignoring moral consequences of the group’s decisions
  4. Sterotyping those who oppose the group’s view as weak, evil, impotent of stupid
  5. Direct pressure being placed on any member who questions the group couched in terms of “disloyalty”
  6. Self-censorship of ideas that stray from the consensus
  7. The illusion of unanimity among group members with silence being viewed as agreement.

I have worked on many large I.T. projects and have seen these processes at work when projects have begun to fail and careers and reputations are at risk. Project teams easily acquire the need to plough on despite all warning signals to the contrary until finally the project is abandoned far too late for anyone to be able to recover any benefits from it.

Wilson goes on to consider the HIV/AIDS denial movement, begun in America and then influencing the thinking of the South African government where “AIDS dissidents” have had a malign effect on public policy leading to the denial of effective treatment for many. President Tabo Mbeki immersed himself in AIDS denial literature and invited American AIDS dissidents to join a presidential advisory panel on AIDS and HIV, one of whose aims was to inivestigate “whether there’s this thing called AIDS . . . whether HIV leads to AIDS, whether there’s something called HIV”. By 2005, more than 5.5 million South Africans were infected with HIV and 1000 were dying each day from AIDS.

In his concluding chapter, Richard Wilson lists the common threads which run through false and illusory belief systems: fundamentalism, relativism, conspiracy theories, pseudo-scholarship, pseudo-news, wishful thinking, over-idealisation, demonisation of perceived enemies, groupthink. While many of the ideas in this book are nothing new in themselves, Wilson has gathered them together, with many fascinating examples from recent history, to provide a very useful handbook for people who know that things they read in the paper or hear on the television are “not quite right” and need to be challenged.

I was pleased to find that Richard Wilson has a blog Don’t Get Fooled Again in which he reports on many of the topics covered in his book.