Richard Wilson's blog

richardcameronwilson AT yahoo dot co dot UK

Archive for November 2008

A little bit of history repeating itself… George Monbiot on the lies told in the run-up to the First World War

leave a comment »

From The Guardian

Another anniversary, almost forgotten in this country, falls tomorrow. On November 12 1924, Edmund Dene Morel died. Morel had been a shipping clerk, based in Liverpool and Antwerp, who had noticed, in the late 1890s, that while ships belonging to King Leopold were returning from the Congo to Belgium full of ivory, rubber and other goods, they were departing with nothing but soldiers and ammunition. He realised that Leopold’s colony must be a slave state, and launched an astonishing and ultimately successful effort to break the king’s grip and free Congo’s enslaved people. For a while he became a national hero. A few years later he became a national villain.

During his Congo campaign, Morel had become extremely suspicious of the secret diplomacy pursued by the British Foreign Office. In 1911, he showed how a secret understanding between Britain and France over the control of Morocco, followed by a campaign in the British press based on misleading Foreign Office briefings, had stitched up Germany and very nearly caused a European war. In February 1912, he warned that “no greater disaster could befall both peoples [Britain and Germany], and all that is most worthy of preservation in modern civilization, than a war between them”. Convinced that Britain had struck a second secret agreement with France that would drag the nation into any war which involved Russia, he campaigned for such treaties to be made public; for recognition that Germany had been hoodwinked over Morocco; and for the British government to seek to broker a reconciliation between France and Germany.

In response, British ministers lied. The prime minister and the foreign secretary repeatedly denied that there was any secret agreement with France. Only on the day war was declared did the foreign secretary admit that a treaty had been in place since 1906. It ensured that Britain would have to fight from the moment Russia mobilised. Morel continued to oppose the war and became, until his dramatic rehabilitation after 1918, one of the most reviled men in Britain.

Could the Great War have been averted if, in 1911, the British government had done as Morel suggested? No one knows, as no such attempt was made. Far from seeking to broker a European peace, Britain, pursuing its self-interested diplomatic intrigues, helped to make war more likely.

Germany was the aggressor, but the image of affronted virtue cultivated by Britain was a false one. Faced, earlier in the century, with the possibilities of peace, the old men of Europe had decided that they would rather kill their children than change their policies.

Richard Norton-Taylor on the UK authorities’ latest abuse of the “national security” trump-card

leave a comment »

In “Don’t Get Fooled Again” I argue for ultra-scepticism about government trump-card excuses for evading public accountability.

Recent years have seen a profusion of unverifiable claims from UK politicians about the disasters that would result from them coming clean about what they’ve been up to. These range from catastrophic breaches of “crown copyright”, “commercial confidentiality”, and “MPs privacy”, to the joker played by cornered politicians the world over, that revealing the truth would damage “national security”.

One of the most transparently bogus cases in recent months has been the revelation that the UK government withheld, for four years, a police report accusing the Foreign Office of “inconsistency and contradictions, falsehoods and downright lies” in its handling of the notorious Julie Ward murder case.
The authorities claimed, preposterously that “national security” would be compromised if their mendacity was publicised – and have still made no apology for this additional abuse of power.

More worrying still, according to the Guardian’s Richard Norton-Taylor, the UK Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee is now urging that the government award itself sweeping new powers to suppress any news story that it chooses to regard as a threat to “national security” (for which, going on past form, we might reasonably substitute “the reputations of government ministers”).

Norton-Taylor writes that:

it is ironic that some members of the cross-party committee – chaired by former foreign office minister Kim Howells – is using “national security” in defence of their quest for new ways to curb the media precisely at a time the high court is inviting editors to oppose the government’s use of “national security” to cover up extremely serious allegations.

Two high court judges have invited the media to challenge the goverment’s claim that information relating to the mistreatment and, it is alleged, torture, of Binyam Mohamed, a British resident detained in Guantánamo Bay cannot be disclosed for reasons of “national security”.

Ministers first obtained the information from the US. Britain’s national security in this case means the American threat to stop sharing intelligence with the UK if the information is revealed.

Jacqui Smith, the home secretary, has asked the attorney general to investigate possible “criminal wrongdoing” by MI5 and the CIA by colluding in torture. The ISC has not been told the full story of the role of Britain’s security and intelligence agencies in the Mohamed case and others involving the secret rendition of terrorist suspects by the CIA.

The parliamentary committee should regard the media not as an enemy, but as an ally in the search for the truth behind “national security” claims and as a protector of fundamental rights.

Written by Richard Wilson

November 11, 2008 at 10:00 am

Committee to Protect Journalists “outraged” over arrest of award-winner Alexis Sinduhije

leave a comment »

From the Committee to Protect Journalists

By Joel Simon/Executive Director

Alexis Sinduhije founded Radio Publique Africaine (RPA) in 2001 to bridge Burundi’s ethnic divide. Divisions between the Hutu and Tutsi ethnic groups have sparked widespread and lingering violence throughout the country.

Breaking from the past, Sinduhije hired former fighters from both ethnic groups at RPA and trained them to be serious and responsible journalists.

In 1994, CPJ honored Sinduhije with an International Press Freedom Award. During the week he spent with us, we got to know a man of deep principle whose quiet demeanor belies his fierce determination and courage. RPA remains one of the most popular and critical radio stations in Burundi, but government harassment forced Sinduhije into hiding twice in 2006. In 2007, Sinduhije launched his candidacy for president for the country’s 2010 elections.

On November 3, he was arrested and charged under an arcane anti-conspiracy law barring meetings of more than three people.

As I told The Washington Post, we recognize that Sinduhije’s recent arrest has nothing to do with his journalism. Yet we worry about our friend and colleague and are outraged by his unjust treatment.

Named one of Time magazine’s top 100 most influential people, Sinduhije has been a voice of reason and common sense in Burundi. The government may be trying desperately to silence him, but his voice must be heard.

Survey shows that just 22% trust UK government ministers to tell the truth

leave a comment »

From the BBC:

Public trust in senior politicians has fallen in the last two years, according to a survey carried out for the Committee on Standards in Public Life.

The survey suggests 22% of people think government ministers tell the truth – down from 27% in the 2006 survey.

Committee chair Sir Christopher Kelly called the results “deeply disturbing”.

And he said a cause was that greater openness “meant people become aware of things which previously were carried on but they didn’t know about”.

Burundi government in breach of EU aid terms – European Union “deplores” arrest of Alexis Sinduhije

with one comment

alexis1

Acclaimed opposition activist Alexis Sinduhije has been detained without charge since November 3rd

Click here for more information about Burundi’s Movement for Security and Democracy.

From South Africa’s Independent Online:

Bujumbura – The European Union condemned on Monday the arrest of opposition leaders and activists in Burundi and warned the central African country that such action violates the terms of EU aid to Bujumbura.

In a statement received by AFP, the European Union said it was “surprised” to hear that opposition leader and former journalist Alexis Sinduhije and 37 members of his party were detained on November 3.

“The EU deplores this detention, which comes as journalist Jean-Claude Kavumbagu, trade unionist Juvenal Rududura and several former lawmakers are also held without trial,” it said.

“The EU considers that these arrests do not comply with the democratic and pluralist values which underlie the important years-old economic and social partnership between the EU and Burundi.”

Last week Britain said the arrests raised “concerns about the ability of Burundians to exercise their civil and political rights”, while the US embassy in Bujumbura called them “unacceptable”.

Sinduhije, 42, founded Radio Publique Africaine in 2001 in a bid to foster reconciliation between Tutsi and Hutu communities.

He became one of Burundi’s most prominent journalists, before he launched the Movement for Security and Democracy in December 2007 and vowed to run for the presidency in 2010.

In April, he was picked by Time magazine in its annual selection of the world’s 100 most influential people.

Mischief-maker infiltrates Sunday “Torygraph”

leave a comment »

Today’s Sunday Telegraph column from Christopher Booker was disappointingly dull, but I did find some consolation (since corrected, unfortunately) while searching for it on the Sunday Telegraph website. Presumably someone in the web team was having a dull morning:

torygraph31

Written by Richard Wilson

November 9, 2008 at 10:42 am

US State Department calls for release of Alexis Sinduhije

with one comment

From the Washington Post

The State Department protested the Burundian government’s arrest Monday of an aspiring presidential candidate and former journalist who was named one of the world’s 100 most influential people this year by Time magazine.

Burundian authorities arrested Alexis Sinduhije at his political party’s headquarters in Bujumbura on Monday, along with other party staff members.

“We believe that is unacceptable. We believe he should be released immediately,” Russell Brooks, spokesman for the State Department’s Bureau of African Affairs, said Friday. “It remains our hope the government of Burundi will work to advance the cause of political freedom and speech in Burundi and allow citizens to exercise universally recognized rights.”

An ethnic Tutsi reporter who adopted a Hutu war orphan, Sinduhije has become a national celebrity in Burundi, a small central African country that has been plagued for more than 15 years by violence between the two ethnic groups.

In 2001 Sinduhije founded Radio Publique Africaine, an independent radio station that promoted reconciliation between the groups.

His reporting has drawn international praise. The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists honored Sinduhije in 2004 with its International Press Freedom Award. He has also appeared as a guest on PBS‘s “Charlie Rose” show.

“We wanted to set an example of how relations between the ethnic groups could be humanized,” Sinduhije said in explaining his journalistic mission at the 2004 award ceremony. “We hired former fighters, both Hutu and Tutsi . . . to become fighters for peace and truth.”

Joel Simon, the committee’s executive director, said Sinduhije’s radio station “was a beacon” for those searching for an “alternative to the kind of politics of racial division which had brought Burundi to the brink of genocide.”

Simon said Sinduhije has been repeatedly threatened, beaten and jailed for his work as a reporter. Sinduhije left journalism in December 2007 to compete in Burundi’s 2010 presidential election. The government has refused to formally register his political party, the Movement for Security and Democracy.

“We don’t think this is a press freedom case,” Simon said, noting that the charges were nevertheless “trumped up.” He said, “We’re obviously very concerned about him, and this treatment illustrates the environment in which Burundi’s election is taking place.”

Burundi’s U.N. ambassador, Augustin Nsanze, declined to comment on the arrest.

Over the years, Alexis Sinduhije has been immensely supportive of efforts to get to the truth over the Titanic Express massacre, and secure justice for all Burundi’s victims. Click here for more background on his arrest.

Harvard study blames Mbeki’s AIDS denial for 330,000 deaths

with one comment

In “Don’t Get Fooled Again” I trace the growth of the insidious cult of AIDS denial, from its origins in the US in the early 1980s, to the moment it was embraced by the South African government of Thabo Mbeki.

The economist Nicoli Nattrass has estimated that 340,000 lives could have been saved had Mbeki not blocked the distribution of lifesaving drugs, under the influence of AIDS “dissidents” including the virologist Peter Duesberg, who insists that HIV does not cause AIDS and is harmless.

Now a study by the Harvard School of Public Health has arrived at a very similar figure, estimating the death toll resulting from Mbeki’s decision to withhold the drugs as “more than 330,000″. The prominent South African HIV treatment access campaigner Zackie Achmat has called for Mbeki to be held to account for his government’s failure, either through a judicial inquiry, or a revived “Truth and Reconciliation Commission”.

I tried “adding value” to Hazel Blears’ weblog, but all I got was this lousy error message…

with one comment

Yesterday I wrote about Communities Minister Hazel Blears’ widely publicised attack on political bloggers, in which she claimed that:

There are some informative and entertaining political blogs, including those written by elected councillors. But mostly, political blogs are written by people with a disdain for the political system and politicians, who see their function as unearthing scandals, conspiracies and perceived hypocrisy.

Unless and until political blogging adds value to our political culture, by allowing new and disparate voices, ideas and legitimate protest and challenge, and until the mainstream media reports politics in a calmer, more responsible manner, it will continue to fuel a culture of cynicism and despair.

Just as an experiment, and in the spirit of “adding value”, I went over to Hazel Blears’ blog earlyish yesterday and left a fairly friendly comment about the debate that she’s started.

I got a friendly on-screen message back suggesting that the comment would go up within 1 working day of being received. No sign of it yet…

I suppose it’s possible that the comment, despite my best efforts, fell foul of Blears’ decency rules in some way. According to the note on the website, “all comments are subject to approval by Communities and Local Government, as outlined in our terms and conditions“.

If you then click on the link to find out what these “terms and conditions” are, you currently get this message:

Technical problem

Sorry! An error has occured whilst trying to deliver the page to you. Apologies for any inconvenience caused.

I can’t think of a more appropriate slogan for the UK government online media experience. Welcome to the future of blogging, New Labour style!

See also: “Blears lays the blame”, “That Hazel Blears Speech”, “Hazel Blears, bloggers and the end of civilisation”,“Hazel Blears, bloggers and professional politics”,”Not Nihilistic, Realistic”

*UPDATE 11/11/08: I’m pleased to say that the comment was published yesterday, with a cordial reply from Hazel Blears.

US Embassy in Burundi urges release of Alexis Sinduhije

with 2 comments

Alexis Sinduhije outlines his political vision earlier this year

Four days ago, the acclaimed Burundian journalist Alexis Sinduhije was arrested for holding an “unauthorised” meeting of his new multi-ethnic political party, the Movement for Security and Democracy. It says something about the state of the world – and the internet’s potential for positive political action – that the message first came through to many of Alexis’ supporters through the MSD’s Facebook page.

The indefatigable US-based campaign group Human Rights Watch quickly issued a statement calling for Alexis’ release – and drawing attention to the Nkurunziza-regime’s wider pattern of suppressing political opposition. This has reportedly now been followed by this message from the US Embassy in Bujumbura:

The United States regards the incarceration by Burundian authorities of Burundian journalist Alexis Sinduhije as unacceptable. Mr. Sinduhije was arrested on November 3 in Bujumbura, reportedly to be questioned for conducting an illegal meeting. To date, he has not been charged. We believe Mr. Sinduhije should be freed immediately. It remains our hope the Government of Burundi will work to advance the cause of political freedom and speech in Burundi and allow citizens to exercise universally recognized rights.

adolphe

Torture-happy General Adolphe Nshimirimana is rumoured to be behind the attack on Sinduhije

According to the veteran Burundian statesman Gratien Rukindikiza, Alexis was arrested at the behest of the appropriately-named secret police chief, General Adolphe Nshimirimana – Burundi being the only country I know in the world where any variation of the name “Adolf” is still in common use.

Nshimirimana, who has previously been implicated in the systematic torture of Palipehutu-FNL “suspects”, has, according to Rukindikiza, accused Alexis, without evidence, of recruiting fighters for the Congolese Tutsi warlord Laurent Nkunda – and also levelled the same allegation at Rukindikiza himself.

“That story made me laugh”, Rukindikiza says. “If I was recruiting for any cause, I would recruit thousands of agronomists to help fight famine with modern agricultural methods”.

This latest episode in Burundi’s ongoing political saga has echoes of the Nkurunziza regime’s abortive attempt, back in 2006, to implicate virtually the entire political opposition, both Hutu and Tutsi, in a fictitious plot to assassinate the President. Then as now, the Burundian authorities sought to tie Alexis Sinduhije to the nefarious conspiracy – yet he emerged more popular than ever.

In “Don’t Get Fooled Again” I argue that bogus conspiracy theories are not the exclusive preserve of dodgy men in pubs. Dodgy men in government are often at it too – and Adolphe Nshimirimana’s latest fabricated conspiracy smear against Alexis Sinduhije seems like a very good example.

The Burundi authorities’ 2006 attempt to squash all political opposition on the pretext of a bogus conspiracy fell apart under pressure from the international donors who continue to bankroll much of the country’s budget.

As the 2010 elections approach, it will be interesting to see how far Europe and the US will be prepared to go in insisting that the authorities do more than pay lip service to “good governance” – even if this means puncturing the bubble of wishful thinking at the international level about Burundi’s “forgiving” President, Pierre Nkurunziza.

Veteran Liberal MP’s asbestos industry links exposed

with one comment

The Daily Mirror has picked up on a story that’s been doing the rounds in Rochdale for a while – the revelations about dubious links between the veteran Liberal MP (now retired) Cyril Smith and the asbestos manufacturer, Turner and Newall. Documents recently obtained by local campaigners show that during the early 1980s, as public health concerns over asbestos grew, Smith wrote to the company – whose factory was based in his constituency – asking them to write him a speech which he would then read out in Parliament, passing it off as his own independent view. In the speech, Smith claimed that “the public at large is not at risk”, but failed to reveal that he was simply parroting the industry’s line. The following year it was disclosed that Smith owned 1,300 shares in Turner and Newall. Smith was unrepentant when questioned recently about the case by the Mirror: “Of course the speech was extremely useful to me because it made it sound as if I could speak intelligently on a subject I knew little about”.

Ronald McDonald lookalike blames bloggers for “culture of cynicism and despair”

with 4 comments

blearsron2

Communities Minister Hazel Blears

In a speech pre-released to today’s Guardian, the UK government minister Hazel Blears has picked up Tony Blair’s refrain about the “feral media” being responsible for cynicism and disengagement in British politics. According to Blears:

mostly, political blogs are written by people with a disdain for the political system and politicians, who see their function as unearthing scandals, conspiracies and perceived hypocrisy.

Unless and until political blogging adds value to our political culture, by allowing new and disparate voices, ideas and legitimate protest and challenge, and until the mainstream media reports politics in a calmer, more responsible manner, it will continue to fuel a culture of cynicism and despair.

It always amuses me when New Labour politicians throw up their hands in aggrieved incomprehension at the fact that so many of us rate their honesty and integrity somewhere near that of estate agents.

But the reason we so deeply distrust both our politicians and our estate agents is not because of some right-wing blogger’s conspiracy. It’s because both groups have a hard-earned reputation for dishonesty and cynicism. The current political elite has a long-standing track record of deliberately deceiving the British public – from the big lies over Iraq (see: http://iraqdossier.com/blairslies) to the individual lies routinely told to the families of British citizens murdered overseas (both in my own family’s case and the now-notorious deception meted out to the family of Julie Ward).

Hazel Blears need only look at today’s headlines to see what it takes to move people away from “a culture of cynicism and despair”.

It wasn’t the fault of bloggers, or the media, that the US public was so deeply disillusioned with the government and policies of George W Bush. And neither was it any profound change in tone or attitude by the media or the blogging community that has restored a sense of hope and optimism. It was the emergence of a politician who stood by his principles and opposed the war in Iraq rather than going along with it for political expediency, who has condemned the rampant fear-mongering that the Bush government (often ably assisted by our own) has so often engaged in, and who emphasizes the need for honesty and integrity in politics. Whatever the future holds, it’s clear that the political mood in the US right now is anything but “cynical”.

It seems to me that if Hazel Blears and her New Labour colleagues want to win back our trust, and end the culture of cynicism and despair here in the UK, they could do worse than to take some lessons from Barack Obama.

UPDATE – click here for a characteristically feisty response from one of Hazel Blear’s targets, the blogger Paul Staines, aka “Guido Fawkes”.

Human Rights Watch condemns Burundi ruling party’s attack on Alexis Sinduhije

with one comment

Click here for more background on this story.

From Human Rights Watch

(Bujumbura, November 5, 2008) – The detention of political activist Alexis Sinduhije and 36 others by Burundian police on November 3, 2008, highlights the growing obstacles to the free exercise of civil and political rights in Burundi, Human Rights Watch said today. Sinduhije, well-known as a former radio journalist, has been trying since February to form an opposition political party, the Movement for Security and Democracy (MSD).

The detentions follow extensive harassment of leaders of several parties opposed to the dominant National Council for the Defense of Democracy-Forces for the Defense of the Democracy (CNDD-FDD).

“It looks like the ruling party is calling in the power of the state to silence the voices of dissent,” said Alison Des Forges, senior Africa advisor at Human Rights Watch.

Dozens of police armed with Kalashnikovs entered the MSD headquarters shortly after noon on November 3, indicating they had information that an illegal meeting was being held. A search warrant that they contended legitimized their entry was delivered two hours later, carried no docket number, and listed another premises – Sinduhije’s residence – as the place to be searched. It gave the charge against Sinduhije as “threatening state security.” Police officers searched and confiscated several documents, one of which they said contained “subversive material.” They proceeded to arrest everyone on the premises, including political activists, a receptionist, and a driver who was later released.

When a Human Rights Watch researcher present at the time of the search and arrests questioned police officers about irregularities, they responded that they were only “executing orders” given by Regional Police Commissioner David Nikiza, who had delivered the search warrant.

Asked to comment on the irregularities, the police spokesman, Pierre Chanel Ntarabaganyi, responded that the party itself was illegal and that therefore the search and subsequent detentions were justified.

Interior Minister Venant Kamana has refused to register MSD as a political party, claiming that a party cannot include “security” among its goals because security is the exclusive province of the state.

Taken into custody on November 3, Sinduhije and the others were still being held at several city jails as of the evening of November 4, without any charges having been formally entered against them. Police officers interrogated Sinduhije, in the presence of his lawyer, about statements in the confiscated documents criticizing President Peter Nkurunziza’s development policies. They suggested such statements might lead to a charge of “insulting the President.” They also interrogated him about efforts to recruit party members among young people, some of them former combatants in rival forces during 10 years of civil war.

Two other MSD members were arrested last week in Cankuzo province, one for allegedly distributing party cards, the other for having such a card in his possession.

Ntarabaganyi, the police spokesman, told a Human Rights Watch researcher that Sinduhije and the others had been arrested for holding an unauthorized meeting. A ministerial ordinance issued in early October 2008 requires political parties to obtain official authorization for meetings rather than simply informing officials of their intent to meet, as had previously been the case. Burundian law does not require groups other than political parties to obtain authorization for meetings.

Other parties have also faced harassment. Since late September 2008, police have arrested at least 25 members of UPD-Zigamibanga, a party opposed to the CNDD-FDD. Most were arrested in Ngozi province on charges of participating in an unauthorized meeting and released after paying a fine, but two others were detained in Kayanza province on charges of insulting President Peter Nkurunziza after they criticized his education policy during a private conversation.

Most local authorities on the provincial and communal levels are CNDD-FDD members. Even before the new ordinance on meetings was issued, some of them used their authority or that of the police to hinder political meetings or to shut down press conferences by opposition parties including the Democratic Front in Burundi (Frodebu), the Democratic Alliance for Renewal (ADR), and the CNDD (a party different from CNDD-FDD).

Burundi has ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights as well as the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. Both of these treaties require Burundi to protect fully the rights to freedom from arbitrary detention and to freedom of association. To avoid arbitrary detention, persons detained on suspicion of having committed a criminal offense must be informed of the charge against them as quickly as possible, allowed access to a lawyer and to visitors, and be brought speedily before a judicial authority with power to order their release.

“Using the police to limit dissent and to discourage peaceful political activity violates the rights of Burundians and weakens the rule of law,” said Des Forges. “Officials should promptly release Sinduhije and others arbitrarily detained and permit Burundians the full exercise of their civil and political rights.”

Michael Lees slaps down the Sunday Telegraph over its latest claims on asbestos

with 2 comments

For the past six years, the Sunday Telegraph’s Christopher Booker has been trying to convince the world that white asbestos is harmless, regularly parroting the industry’s mantra that the material poses ‘no measurable risk to health’.

In his latest article – his 41st on the subject by my count – Booker repeats a number of the false claims he has made in previous pieces, and accuses the BBC of “moral corruption” for giving coverage to the Health and Safety Executive’s latest campaign to raise awareness of asbestos hazards among those most at risk. According to Booker:

It was telling that when Radio 4′s Today was promoting the HSE’s latest fad last week, it should have used Michael Lees, a veteran anti-asbestos campaigner, whose teacher wife died of mesothelioma, to support the claim that ever more teachers are dying from exposure to asbestos in schools.

Yet when the HSE had earlier investigated Mr Lees’s claims it found that they were “not borne out by the facts”. The mortality rate for female teachers was “in line with the average for the whole of the female population”.

Booker had previously described Mr Lees’ effort to raise awareness of the risk to teachers from asbestos in schools as “The bizarre death-by-drawing-pin scare”.

The Sunday Telegraph usually refuses to publish letters to the editor criticising Booker’s bogus claims, but it has recently begun allowing readers to comment on the online versions of his articles. His latest attack has now drawn this response from Michael Lees himself:

Christopher Booker has made statements about asbestos that are either incorrect or misleading as he has failed to understand, or has chosen to put to one side, the science, statistics and facts. What is of concern is that his statements undermine the good work that is being done by those he criticises.

The deaths from mesothelioma are not as he states calculated on “a complex formula based on no fewer than three arbitrary assumptions,” for they are based on a simple body count. That count shows that the HSE campaign targeted at the building maintenance trades is totally justified. For more than twenty carpenters, electricians and plumbers dying a week from asbestos exposure cannot be described as “the latest scare,” although that is precisely what Mr Booker does. He also equates the BBC report on asbestos in public buildings as being another example of the “moral corruption of the BBC.” He should not judge others by his own standards, for the BBC report was well researched and gave a measured, balanced view of the topic while highlighting the very real dangers from deteriorating and damaged asbestos in buildings. His views about chrysotile are not only incorrect but are contrary to all informed opinion, it also appears that he is unaware that crocidolite has been used, and amosite has been extensively used in the internal structure of schools and hospitals, and therefore as the materials have deteriorated over time they represent a very real and increasing risk to the occupants.

He is as wrong now as he was in his column in April 2006 in which he described my wife’s death as “bizarre.” Not only were his comments distasteful, they were also flawed through lack of the most rudimentary research which in his own words had “taken only seconds to find on the internet.” First he raised the matter of the number of asbestos fibres released from displaying the children’s work by inserting drawing pins in asbestos insulating board. He quoted then, as he has now from a letter sent to me by the HSE Head of Asbestos Policy. If Mr Booker had cared to spend a few seconds longer in his research, he would have discovered that the Government’s Scientific Advisory Committee, WATCH, had dismissed the figures quoted by Mr Booker, for WATCH concluded that the realistic worst case exposure of the teacher would be some 16,000 times greater. I wrote to the editor of the Sunday Telegraph giving the reasons why Mr Booker’s statements were incorrect, however my letter was not published.

The second issue raised in 2006 and repeated in Booker’s latest column concerns the number of teachers dying from mesothelioma. He has again failed to carry out more than the most superficial research. I would have hoped that, as he makes very public statements based on statistics, he understands Proportional Mortality Ratios (PMR), and that for the period between 1980 and 2000 the PMR of 100 amongst female school teachers shows that their deaths from mesothelioma are three times higher than one would expect in a profession where there should be little or no asbestos exposure. As the HSE Statistics Branch stated in connection with school teachers’ deaths “Even if the proportion of mesothelioma deaths amongst teachers was in line with the proportion of females that are teachers one could still draw the conclusion that there are too many deaths among a group which are supposed to have had very little asbestos exposure.” Over the years the numbers of school teachers dying from mesothelioma has been steadily increasing with 15 dying in the period 1980 to 1985 with the latest statistics showing that 64 died in the period 2001 to 2005. In my terms that supports the BBC’s supposition that even more teachers are dying from mesothelioma.

I would therefore suggest that before Mr Booker passes comment in his column, he considers both the facts and the potential damage that his misleading and incorrect statements will cause.

Crackdown in Burundi worsens – Nkurunziza’s thugs arrest Alexis Sinduhije

with 4 comments

I’ve just had a message from Burundi’s Movement for Security and Democracy, the political party founded earlier this year by the celebrated journalist Alexis Sinduhije.

In an email he sent on Saturday, Alexis reported that:

…there is more and more pressure against MSD from the government so that is a sign that we are a movement that is being taken seriously and a threat to the current power structure. In Kirundo and Ngozi they have been trying to arrest our colleagues out in the collines doing good work.

According to today’s message from the MSD, 30 party members, including Alexis himself, have now been arrested following increasing threats and harrassment by the authorities:

Today the police arrived at the permance de MSD with a search warrant. They then took 30+ of the MSD members that were there to the Jabe police station. Alexis remained in office and then was later taken in as well. He has not been allowed to see his lawyer and no reason for his detention. They claim they are under investigation for holding a meeting. Alexis has asked that the MSD members be realeased and only he be detained as he is the sole responsable.

Like Jean-Claude Kavumbagu, the campaigning journalist arrested in September, Alexis Sinduhije has been a huge help in raising the profile of the Titanic Express case over the years, and the book would have been considerably diminished without the input he gave to the campaign.

This latest move by the Burundian authorities to suppress the political opposition makes a further mockery of the PR efforts of international religious groups bent on presenting Burundi’s corrupt and authoritarian Christian evangelical President as the model of the “forgiving” African leader.

More information about Alexis Sinduhije’s work can be found at the MSD’s Facebook page.

04/11 Update from MSD:

Alexis spent his first night in police detention. He had a small cell to himself. He had a mattress but did not sleep. He has not been beaten or tortured.

His friends and supports around the world are organising support. The American, Dutch, British, French, Belgian , German, South African and Norwegian embassies are all informed.

International press has been informed as well. However given the fact that today is election day in the US we do not expect much attention.

He has not been allowed to see his lawyer yet.

Don’t Get Fooled Again and Real England at the Radical Bookfair

leave a comment »

I’ve just come back from a brief but very enjoyable trip to Edinburgh, where I was giving a talk on “Don’t Get Fooled Again” at the Radical Bookfair, organised by Word Power books. I was speaking alongside Paul Kingsnorth, who talked about his excellent book “Real England”, charting the damaging effects of top-down economic development on local communities across the country.

Paul traces the problem, at least in part, to the dominant and still largely unquestioned assumption that economic growth must trump all other public ‘goods’ – particularly those which are less easily measured and enumerated – and the belief that any form of development constitutes ‘progress’ – even when this involves the destruction of longstanding local traditions.

I’m still getting the hang of book talks, so I kept mine simple (perhaps overly so, given the sophistication of the audience). I focussed on the bogus claims made by the UK government – and aggressively hyped by large sections of the media – in the run-up to the war in Iraq, and putting forward the argument I make in “Don’t Get Fooled Again” that we need a law to make lying in public office a criminal offence.

The event really came alive when the audience got involved – one of the first points from the floor came from a former Labour councillor and MEP, who identified the common thread between both talks as the lack of democratic accountability. The same political disenfranchisement that gave local people so little say over the changes being imposed from the ‘top down’ on their communities was at work even at the heart of the Blair government – where the full facts about Iraq were kept to a tiny circle of people around the Prime Minister, with other cabinet members often being kept in the dark.

Other contributors talked about the difficulty of knowing which parts of the media to trust, given that even peer-reviewed scientific journals are subject to a form of ‘selection bias‘. Where scientific research has been commissioned by a commercial enterprise, such as a pharmaceutical company, that company may have a vested interest in submitting for publication only the results which present their products in a positive light, while quietly shelving studies that tell a less rosy story.

In response to one question, I mentioned an excellent website where the UK government’s bogus claims about Iraqi WMD have been forensically broken down by the writer Chris Ames. As I couldn’t remember the full details, I thought it might be useful to post the link here. I also thought it might be helpful to give some links to three excellent media watchdog websites, the Center for Public Integrity, the Media Standards Trust, and Sourcewatch.

Paul Kingsnorth pointed out how ironic it is that so much sound and fury has been raised over the punishment to be meted out to two comedians leaving lewd ansaphone messages when so little has been done to hold to account the senior politicians who took us into a disastrous war on bogus grounds.

It was fantastic to be able to meet so many people who had read and enjoyed “Don’t Get Fooled Again”, and having spent so much time recently dodging brickbats in various online discussions, it was very refreshing to have a proper, civilised face-to-face discussion. My only regret was that I couldn’t stay for longer – due to family commitments I had to rush back to London that same day – but I very much hope to do more of this kind of thing in future.

But by far the most surreal moment – in a good way – came just before I was due to go on and speak, when I caught sight of the man who had been my boss’s boss’s boss many years ago when I was still working in London as a profoundly unsuited IT bod. It turns out that Peter Cox, formerly the systems director of a major UK retail firm, has now reinvented himself as a writer, first with a book about English cricket, and now with “Set into Song” – an in-depth look at the music of Ewan MacColl, Charles Parker, Peggy Seeger. Peter was due to give a talk about his new book later that evening, but unfortunately I had to head back.

On the way home I had a chance to read a lot more of Paul Kingsnorth’s fascinating book, which works both as an engaging portrait of many important – yet often ignored – aspects of England, and also has some interesting things to say about the current state of our political system. Best of all, the book got totally trashed – twice – by those fascinating folks over at Spiked Online, which (unless you believe that climate change science really is a racist liberal conspiracy to demonise the working classes) has to be something of a badge of honour. I’m looking forward to finishing it.

Written by Richard Wilson

November 2, 2008 at 6:30 pm

In his 41st article on the subject, Booker accuses the BBC of “moral corruption” for highlighting the health risks of asbestos

with 6 comments

Earlier this week the BBC’s Today Programme reported a rise in the number of teachers, doctors and nurses dying from the incurable cancer mesothelioma, having been exposed to asbestos in schools and hospitals. The programme highlighted the case of Mary Artherton, a former nurse who had been diagnosed with the disease after working in three hospitals where asbestos was present.

“I was absolutely horrified when I heard the news”, she told the BBC. “I’d nursed people with mesothelioma in the past. I know the prognosis was very poor and it just frightened me, completely.”

The BBC had previously highlighted a new campaign by the Health and Safety Executive to raise awareness of the risks of asbestos exposure among plumbers, electricians and other tradespeople:

The HSE says research suggests exposure kills on average six electricians, three plumbers and six joiners every week and it fears those numbers could grow in the future because of complacency.

It believes only one in 10 current tradesmen recognises the danger and is launching a campaign to raise awareness.

The HSE’s new campaign was also publicised by the UK’s largest cancer charity, Cancer Research UK:

When a person comes into contact with asbestos, they breathe in tiny fibres of the substance and these can irritate and damage the cells lining the lung. Up to 80 per cent of people diagnosed with mesothelioma have been in contact with asbestos, and the risk is greatest among tradesmen who can be exposed to the substance at work. According to the HSE, at least 4,000 people die as a result of asbestos every year. But scientists believe this rate could rise, since people who have been exposed usually do not develop mesothelioma for between 15 and 40 years. The organisation’s new campaign, ‘Asbestos: The hidden killer’, is designed to improve awareness among tradesmen, many of whom underestimate the risk that asbestos still poses despite the ban.

In response to the BBC’s coverage, the Sunday Telegraph columnist Christopher Booker has written his 41st article misrepresenting the science around asbestos, and accusing the BBC of “moral corruption” for highlighting the health risks of asbestos exposure:

Last week, the BBC was again publicising the latest scare over asbestos, launched by the Health and Safety Executive and supported by all those who stand to benefit by it, from asbestos removal contractors to ambulance-chasing lawyers (and the trade unions which get £250 for every referral to solicitors specialising in compensation claims).

In the article, Booker also repeats his false claim that the HSE had previously described the risks of white asbestos cement as “insignificant or zero”.

In previous articles he has repeatedly misrepresented one paper by two HSE statisticians, Hodgson and Darnton, which he says drew such a conclusion. The editor of the journal which published that study recently commented here that:

“The paper does not say that the risks from asbestos cement are probably insignificant – it uses this phrase for the chrysotile risks at the lowest exposures. At higher (but still low) exposures, the authors gave estimates of lung cancer risk about 30-40 times lower than those from crocidolite, and did not regard this as insignificant..

The 500 times difference… may apply to the relative risk of mesothelioma, a much less important disease than lung cancer in chrysotile exposure…”