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Archive for April 2009

Skeptics in the Pub – evidence-based-policy-making versus policy-based-evidence-making

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Monday’s book talk at Skeptics in the Pub certainly wasn’t my best, though things warmed up a bit with the Q&A discussion at the end.

My main focus was on the value of scepticism in, and about, politics – and I put forward three key examples to try to illustrate this: the case of the Soviet pseudo-scientist Trofim Lysenko, the UK government’s misleading statements about Iraq’s “WMD”, and the South African authorities’ embrace of “AIDS denialism” in the year 2000.

All three of these cases arguably involved costly government decisions being made on the basis of bad evidence that had not been properly scrutinised.

Lysenko’s theories about agriculture were far-fetched and unworkable, but they were ideologically agreeable to the Communist regime, and after he rose to prominence the totalitarian nature of the Soviet system made it very difficult for anyone to challenge his authority. When Lysenko’s ideas were implemented in China, they contributed to a famine that is believed to have claimed up to 30 million lives.

The evidence cited by the UK government in support of its view that Iraq possessed chemical weapons was famously “dodgy”. It’s widely believed that the Prime Minister at the time, Tony Blair, lied about the strength of that evidence, and about the views of his own experts (many of whom, it later, transpired, had grave doubts about the claims being made), not only to the public at large and the UK’s Parliament, but also to many members of his own cabinet. One ex-minister, Clare Short, has suggested that Blair believed he was engaging in an “honorable deception” for the greater good. But whatever his motives, in lying to his own cabinet and Parliament, Blair was effectively shutting out of the decision-making process the very people whose job it is to scrutinise the evidence on which government policies are based. John Williams, one of the spin doctors involved in drawing up the famous “dodgy dossier” – which at the time the government insisted was the unvarnished view of the intelligence services – later admitted that “in hindsight we could have done with a heavy dose of scepticism” (though it should be said that some of his statements raise more questions than they answer).

In South Africa in the early part of this decade, President Thabo Mbeki chose to believe the unsubstantiated claims of fringe scientists and conspiracy theorists over those of established AIDS researchers – including members of South Africa’s own scientific community. Under the influence of denialists who insist that HIV is not the cause of AIDS, and that AIDS deaths are in fact caused by the lifesaving medicines given to people with HIV, Mbeki’s government chose to block the availability of anti-retroviral drugs in South Africa – even after the pharmaceutical companies had been shamed into slashing their prices and international donors were offering to fund the distribution. It was only after a series of court cases by the indefatigable Treatment Action Campaign that, in 2004, the authorities began to change their position. A recent study by Harvard University concluded that the deliberate obstruction of the roll-out of lifesaving drugs may have cost more than 300,000 lives.

The broad conclusion I think all of this points to is that the truth matters more in politics than ever before. Because of power and influence that governments now hold, the consequences of a bad policy implemented on the basis of bad evidence can adversely affect millions.

In an ideal world governments would be engaging in evidence-based-policy-making: deciding policy on the basis of the best available evidence – rather than policy-based-evidence-making: cherry-picking or concocting evidence to support a decision that has already been made. But obviously this doesn’t always happen, and as a result wholly preventable mistakes continue to be made.

“Don’t Get Fooled Again” now available in the USA

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Written by Richard Wilson

April 25, 2009 at 10:12 am

Don’t get fooled by “gay cure” pseudo-science. Rights groups protest Anglican homophobes’ London conference

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I won’t be able to make this but thought I should spread the word. The Anglican church does seem to have consistent form for dressing up the nastiest kinds of abuses in woolly platitudes. Grr…

From Nicholas Chinardet on Facebook:

A conference advocating techniques to help ‘cure’ people of homosexuality is to be held in London next weekend.

Held by the Anglican Mainstream Organisation, the event will have “a special focus on how religious professionals and friends/relatives can respond biblically and pastorally to those struggling with unwanted SSA (same-sex attraction)”.

This is my first attempt at organising a demonstration. I do however think that this vile event should not be let to happen unchallenged. A peaceful demonstration by proud gay people (and couples?) would I think be the right answer. Straight allies are very welcome too, of course.

Oh and invite your friends (even if you can’t make it). Thanks.

Date: 25 April 2009
Time: 13:00 – 15:00
Location: Emmanuel Centre
Street: 9-23 Marsham Street
Town/City:  London, United Kingdom

Click here for more details

Written by Richard Wilson

April 24, 2009 at 10:11 am

Denying Aids – The first definitive account of the history and development of AIDS denialism

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AIDS denialism matters because it kills people.

In South Africa at the beginning of this decade, the government of Thabo Mbeki was heavily influenced by a fringe group of conspiracy theorists who claim – in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary – that HIV is not the cause of AIDS and that the symptoms associated with the disease are in fact caused by the drugs given to HIV-positive patients.

When pseudo-science takes hold over government policy, the consequences can be catastrophic. Under the AIDS denialists’ influence, Mbeki’s government chose to obstruct the public distribution of anti-retroviral drugs in South Africa. A recent Harvard study concluded that this decision alone has led to more than 300,000 preventable deaths.  

AIDS denialism matters because it is continuing today, notwithstanding the fact that dozens of HIV-positive self-described “AIDS dissidents”, who believed so strongly in the ideology of denial that they refused to take anti-retroviral drugs themselves, have died prematurely from AIDS-defining diseases. AIDS denialism matters because its proponents are continuing to disseminate misinformation, and are continuing to lead people astray. 

Yesterday I had a fascinating discussion about these issues with Seth Kalichman, whose very readable book “Denying AIDS” gives the first definitive account of the history and psychology of this toxic ideology – from its origins in the US in the late 1980s to its devastating impact in South Africa in the last decade. In writing the book, Seth went undercover to interview and correspond with some of the movement’s leading lights – including the “godfather” of AIDS denialism, Berkeley virologist Peter Duesberg. 

As is normal for anyone writing or speaking publicly on this subject, Seth has been on the receiving end of all manner of brickbats from riled denialists, some of which he’s listed here.  It was great to meet up and compare notes with a co-conspirator (or have I said too much?!).

Also in attendance was Neil Denny, the producer of the excellent Little Atoms podcast, and the formidable Ben Goldacre, the author of Bad Science who famously trounced the AIDS denialist millionaire vitamin quack Matthias Rath after the guy filed a malicious libel suit over his coverage of Rath’s claims. Expect to hear Seth Kalichman on Little Atoms some time in the next few months.

Written by Richard Wilson

April 23, 2009 at 11:53 am

Poll: Will David Cameron be a Heath, a Macmillan, a Thatcher or a Major?

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Will Cameron be a Heath, a Macmillan, a Thatcher or a Major?

Written by Richard Wilson

April 22, 2009 at 1:00 pm

Book talk – Sceptics in the Pub, Monday April 27th

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Book talk – Sceptics in the Pub, 7pm, Monday April 27th

The Penderel’s Oak pub
283–288 High Holborn
WC1V 7HP (map)

Given the disasters, human and financial, that can result when governments lose their grip on reality, it’s arguably in politics that skepticism matters most. Yet from Thabo Mbeki’s disastrous dalliance with AIDS denial in South Africa, to the delusions that led to the Iraq war, our politicians often seem perilously credulous. In “Don’t Get Fooled Again“, Richard Wilson looks at why it is that intelligent, educated people end up time and again falling for ideas that turn out to be nonsense, and makes the case for skeptics to be actively engaged with the political process.

Written by Richard Wilson

April 21, 2009 at 10:06 pm

The evidence that torture “works”

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If the CIA made drinks commercials…

This week’s release by the Obama administration of further details of the CIA’s interrogation policies under Bush-Cheney has triggered a renewed debate about whether or not torture “works”. Some people argue that torture is pointless because the person undergoing it will tell whatever lies they think you want to hear in order to get the torture to stop.

But it seems to me that this is only a problem if you’re concerned about extracting evidence that is accurate and truthful. If what you’re really after is information that is simply going to be politically useful, then the War on Terror surely gives us ample evidence that torture does, indeed, work.

To take just one example, in February 2003, US secretary of state Colin Powell announced disturbing evidence of links between Al Qaeda and the Iraqi government. An unnamed ‘senior terrorist operative’ had told US interrogators that Iraq had offered chemical and biological weapons training to Al Qaeda members over a number of years. One high-ranking militant had allegedly visited Iraq several times, ‘for help in acquiring poisons and gases’.

This was clearly useful information – it added weight to US government claims of a link between Iraq and Al Qaeda at a time when the Bush administration was working hard to build public support for its invasion of Iraq. By strengthening the idea that the Iraqis were on the same side as the people who had carried out 911, the information also helped win a tacit acceptance of the use of torture by US forces in Iraq itself, at places like Abu Ghraib, Camp Nama and Forward Operating Base Tiger.

It subsequently emerged that the ‘terrorist operative’ who’d been the source of this information, Ibn al Shaykh al Libi, had made his WMD claims after being subjected to freezing temperatures and controlled drowning (aka “waterboarding”). In November 2005, CIA sources told ABC News that they had concluded that Libi ‘had no knowledge of such training or weapons and fabricated the statements because he was terrified of further harsh treatment’.

Clearly, in this case, the information extracted through torture was neither true nor accurate, but it did nonetheless help the Bush administration to persuade Americans that Iraq was implicated in 911, and that the 2003 invasion was therefore necessary and justified.

If governments are forbidden to torture people who might be in a position to yield such “useful” (albeit false) information, then we’re depriving them of a vital tool for justifying controversial policies that might otherwise meet intractable public opposition. Had the US government not been able to use torture in the run-up to the Iraq invasion, then it would have been incapable of producing much of the key intelligence suggesting that Iraq had WMD and was linked to Al Qaeda.

In fact, it seems possible that without the use of torture-intelligence, the political campaign would have been impossible to get off the ground and that the invasion itself, with all that it entailed, would therefore never have happened. The consequences of such a grim scenario for a whole range of US and UK companies – from Halliburton and Blackwater to Aegis and BAE - seem barely imaginable.

The Liam Byrne instruction manual

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From The Daily Mail

The document, modestly entitled Working With Liam Byrne, reads like a script from the BBC’s political sitcom The Thick Of It about the farcical control-freakery of New Labour in power…

Mr Byrne’s list of do’s and don’ts declares: ‘Coffee/Lunch. I’m addicted to coffee. I like a cappuccino when I come in, an espresso at 3pm and soup at 12.30-1pm.

‘The room should be cleared before I arrive in the morning. I like the papers set out in the office before I get in. The white boards should be cleared.’

‘If I see things that are not of acceptable quality, I will blame you.’

On briefings for questions, he orders officials to tell him ‘not what you think I should know but you expect I will get asked’.

Mr Byrne, 38, even dictates what font size briefing notes should be in (a rather large 16 point), and insists that they should take up no more than one sheet of paper.

He also warns staff: ‘Never put anything to me unless you understand it and can explain it to me in 60 seconds,’ and he goes on: ‘I am often not very clear or my writing is illegible. If I’m in the middle of thinking about something, I might ask you to come back – don’t be put off by this.’

Byrne, who was last month promoted to the Cabinet, where he is responsible for co-ordinating Government departments, has a near obsession with manipulating the media.

He tells his officials: ‘We need to produce a grid . . . outlining [the] story of the week. Once something has been slotted into a grid, my expectation is it will be delivered. Moving something from a grid slot is a very, very big deal.’

Key messages must be set out in ‘big speeches’ and repeated at ‘every, repeat every, opportunity’…

His ‘rules for quotes’ demand a soundbite for every occasion. ‘The precise words you use are crucial. Officials use language that is more appropriate for a dinner party than a newspaper. Insert at least one element from the key message sheet…

Tory MP Philip Davies said: ‘This is not a briefing note for civil servants – it’s a briefing note for slaves. Making sure the Minister gets his cappuccino on time and his soup piping hot is apparently more important than how the country is being run.’…

While cowards flinch and traitors smear…

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From The Sunday Times

It is known as the Strategy Committee but… its real purpose is more sinister than the anodyne name suggests. While the Future Planning Committee of Armando Iannucci’s new political comedy is in reality a war cabinet, the Strategy Committee is engaged in a different type of warfare, where the enemy is not only the Tories but anybody who stands in the way of those who attend.

Round the table when it convenes on Wednesday afternoons in Downing Street sit Ed Balls, the children’s secretary; Tom Watson, the junior cabinet minister; Charlie Whelan, political director of Unite, the UK’s biggest trade union; and, until last week, McBride. Other ministers and Labour MPs drop in — Liam Byrne, the cabinet minister, often plays a prominent role – but these four are the main cast.

According to Downing Street insiders, the committee had been set up last autumn, following Lord Mandelson’s return to the government, as a “sop” to the ambitious Balls who was unhappy about Mandelson’s new role.

Officially the committee meets to discuss how to secure Labour a fourth term in government. Unofficially, insiders claim that it has become a platform for Balls to pursue his personal ambitions: to become chancellor at the next reshuffle and then leader of the opposition at the next election, if the government falls.

According to Labour figures, who are increasingly worried about what they see, this committee is a symbol of a highly damaging cabal that has sprung up inside Downing Street. Insiders say the objectives of the key players are less about saving the nation from economic disaster and more about positioning themselves for life after a Labour defeat. “There is now an operation within an operation at No 10,” according to a well placed source. “It is a leadership campaign in all but name. Everyone can see it’s not in Gordon’s interests except Gordon himself, who just doesn’t seem to realise what’s going on.”

According to a senior Downing Street adviser who has never spoken out before, McBride played a central role in this operation – doing dirty work not for Brown, but for Balls.

The whistleblower claims that Balls has been acting as McBride’s puppet master, using the spin doctor to shore up his own power base.

“Everyone has always assumed that Damian worked to Gordon, but it’s actually Ed who pulls his strings,” said the insider…

The whistleblower, who has had a ringside seat watching the bitter rivalries and power struggles inside No 10, was prompted to speak out after Balls gave an interview last week in which he distanced himself from the disgraced spin doctor, referring to him formally as “Mr McBride” as if he were some renegade official he barely knew. “I couldn’t believe what I was hearing,” said the whistleblower. “It was an incredibly dishonest interview. For Ed to suggest he barely knows Damian is an absolute joke.”

Indeed, Balls championed McBride while both men were working at the Treasury under Brown and pushed for him to be taken to No 10 when Tony Blair stood down in the summer of 2007, despite the opposition of many ministers and civil servants.

The long-running operation allegedly involved deliberately undermining cabinet colleagues who were seen as a potential threat.

“This is how it works,” said the whistleblower. “Ed identifies someone as a potential rival and gets Damian to brief against that person to the media. Gordon, who’s an avid reader of the papers, then reads that so-and-so is being disloyal to him. Gordon then freezes that person out. Thus that person is weakened and Ed’s objective is achieved.”

Written by Richard Wilson

April 18, 2009 at 10:42 pm

A Place At the Table – Camden People’s Theatre April 16th – May 2nd

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From Indie London

DAEDALUS Theatre is presenting A Place at the Table at Camden People’s Theatre – from April 15 to May 2, 2009…

A Place at the Table draws on Burundian traditions and mythology and varying accounts of the recent history of the Great Lakes region of Africa in what is described as a bold new work of visual and verbatim theatre.

The international company includes artists from Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda and Democratic Republic of Congo, and campaigner Richard Wilson, who has spoken on and written about Burundi extensively since his sister, Charlotte Wilson, was killed in the country in the year 2000, is an advisor.

Performers include Naomi Grosset, Lelo Majozi-Motlogeloa, Jennifer Muteteli, Anna-Maria Nabirya, Susan Worsfold and Grace Nyandoro (singer).

Melchior Ndadaye, the first democratically elected president of Burundi, was assassinated in October 1993, just three months after his election. His assassination was one of the root causes of the subsequent ten year civil war in Burundi, and is closely tied to the causes and effects of several other conflicts in Rwanda and Democratic Republic of Congo, particularly those related to Hutu and Tutsi ethnicity.

A Place at the Table is directed, designed and produced by Paul Burgess, who has recently designed Cradle Me (Finborough Theatre), Our Country’s Good (Watermill Theatre), On the Rocks (Hampstead Theatre), Triptych (Southwark Playhouse), The Only Girl in the World (Arcola Theatre) and Jonah and Otto (Manchester Royal Exchange).

Written by Richard Wilson

April 15, 2009 at 8:02 pm

Guido Fawkes savages the Telegraph’s forelock-tugging political journalists

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From Guido Fawkes in The Telegraph

There are a lot of bitter, jealous journalists at the Telegraph and you have behaved shamefully over the McBride story.  You even tipped off Downing Street in advance as to exactly what I was up to. It reflects on you a lot more than it does on me.

You revealed sources, broke a confidence, breached a signed non-disclosure agreement and behaved like patsys for McBride.

You still failed to spoil the story.  Your political team is about as weak as it gets, that is why you sucked up to Downing Street.

The Telegraph was once run by gentlemen for gentlemen.  This would never have happened under Deedes or Charles Moore.

Written by Richard Wilson

April 13, 2009 at 9:19 am

Bloggers versus blaggers

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I knew very little about Derek Draper before he began threatening to sue the blogger Paul Staines (aka “Guido Fawkes”) for libel. Staines had drawn attention to the fact that Draper, a former government spin doctor who has now reinvented himself as a psychotherapist, had been making some highly questionable claims on his CV. Draper is also the brains behind a new political blogging project, “Labourlist”, which seeks to be the party’s answer to the popular “Conservativehome” website.

The Labour party reportedly believes that the “blogosphere” has a right-wing bias – or to put it another way, that a majority of the most widely-read UK political blogs are written by people with conservative leanings. Labour party bigwigs seems especially concerned about the influence of “Guido Fawkes” and another blogger, Iain Dale, among others.

The government’s view that the blogosphere is politically skewed, and that this bodes ill for our democracy, has been given increasing prominence in the last few months. In media interviews, Paul Staines is routinely described as “the right-wing blogger behind Guido Fawkes”, to the extent that he has started to retaliate by immediately referring to his interviewers’ presumed political leanings in response. It does seem a bit odd that, when mainstream columnists like David Aaronovitch or Polly Toynbee are interviewed on the radio they’re allowed just to be David Aaronovich or Polly Toynbee, rather than, always, “the right-wing columnist David Aaronovitch”, or “the left-wing columnist Polly Toynbee”, yet bloggers like Paul Staines get pigeon-holed from the off with a particular political label – as if this the most important thing that there is to say about them.

The reason I read Guido Fawkes is not because I share the full range of Paul Staines’ political views  (I don’t) but because he’s an entertaining writer with an outstanding talent for uncovering juicy unreported facts about our political system. You don’t have to be right-wing to be concerned about MPs’ dodgy expense claims, or government spin doctors planning to run malicious smear campaigns against their political opponents. I suspect that most of us are far less bothered about a writer’s personal politics than about the accuracy and veracity of what they have to say.

There’s also a wider issue here: beyond the basic requirements of owning a computer and an internet connection, there are far, far fewer “barriers to access” on the internet than in the mainstream UK news media, where a small number of big companies control 90% of the market, and where it now seems almost inconceivable that an independent new player could ever make a serious inroad. On the internet, the opposite is the case. New websites are being started every day and the picture is constantly changing. If it’s true that Guido Fawkes, Iain Dale and Conservativehome are, just at the moment, getting significantly more readers than other political blogs, then this can only be because they’re writing things that lots of other people want to read. This would soon change if they ever became complacent (just as the staunchly pro-Labour, blog “Harry’s Place”, once cited as a leading light in the “blogosphere”, now seems largely to have disappeared from view).

To suggest that the current popularity of these particular websites is in some way sinister or threatening just seems to highlight how far removed from reality Labour ministers now are. It’s difficult to avoid the impression that  what really bothers them is rather that the immense diversity of the online media makes it far harder to stitch up and manipulate.

It also seems a bit misleading to focus exclusively on independently-run blogs when making claims about the political character of the UK’s internet media. It’s actually very easy to find left-wing voices blogging online – it’s just that many of them will be writing on the Guardian website (which still gets far more readers than Iain Dale and Guido Fawkes put together) rather than using their own standalone blog. Perhaps conservatives and libertarians are, by disposition, more likely to start their own individual project than write for an existing site. Or perhaps the relative popularity of right-leaning blogs simply reflects a disenchantment among right-leaning readers at the shambolic state of traditional conservative  media outlets like the Telegraph, the Spectator and the Daily Mail.  But either way, it seems to me that the notion of a “right-wing bias” within the online media is somewhat overblown.

What the myth of “right-wing bias” does perhaps do is allow Labour party operators like Damian McBride and Derek Draper to justify their sense that they are being unfairly victimised by the online media – that there isn’t (in that much-loved New Labour phrase) a “level playing field” and that, by implication, playing dirty is in some way more acceptable.

Telegraph gets fooled again by UK government spin around McBride smear campaign

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Damian McBride is desperately trying to throw a smokescreen up tonight with a planted frontpage story in the Telegraph which downplays what he has been up to.  Andrew Porter, the Telegraph’s lobby correspondent, is Damian McBride’s  regular drinking companion and tame mouthpiece, so it is no surprise whatsoever to Guido that the Telegraph is being used by Downing Street for damage limitation.

The Telegraph implies that Guido has sold the story to the Sunday newspapers – that is completely untrue – Downing Street tried that same line against the Home Office whistleblower.  They are also trying to make out that the story is just about Damian McBride sending gossipy emails to his pal Derek Draper.  Utter lies…

Downing Street under Gordon Brown has been particularly vicious in smearing opponents.  Other well known Labour insiders besides Damian McBride – including a government minister – are involved in the operation.  Guido has hard evidence that Tory MPs have been smeared, and that a particularly vicious concerted smear operation was mounted against George Osborne, smears that Damian McBride – a civil servant – knows and admits in writing are untrue, yet he was still instrumental in spreading.  Some well known lobby journalists have knowingly gone along with it.  This is a lot bigger than some minor bloggers spat.

From Iain Dale

Number Ten are seeking to play down the seriousness of McBridge-Gate, describing it as juvenile. The Telegraph and the BBC have fallen for the spin. No matter. They will revise their opinions when they see the contents of the emails which will presumably be published in tomorrow’s newspapers.

Downing Street also played down the planned website RED RAG, which, they say, never saw the light of day. Really? Dizzy has proved otherwise. There’s no content on it, but it’s registered and ready for lift off. The fact that they even thought such a site was a good idea and could remain secret says it all really.

Damian McBride is a special advisor, paid by the taxpayer. He is not paid to smear Tories. He’s paid to give advice to the Prime Minister.

By chance, I met Derek Draper in Dean’s Yard recently, after his appearance with Guido on the DAILY POLITICS. He wanted to be friends again. I explained that I couldn’t have a professional or personal relationship with someone who behaves as he has done and insinuated that I hold racist views. I then asked him about receiving emails from Damian McBride. He denied to my face that these emails existed. There’s a word for that. It’s called lying. I wonder what a professional psychotherapist would make of it.

Written by Richard Wilson

April 11, 2009 at 12:01 pm

Ben Goldacre’s extraordinary exposé of the Matthias Rath tragedy

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What follows is an extract from Ben Goldacre’s excellent book “Bad Science”, which he has made available on his website under a “Creative Commons” license, and asked people to distribute. Goldacre was unable to include the chapter in the hardback edition of the book because, at the time, Matthias Rath was suing him, and The Guardian, under the UK’s absurdly costly libel laws. I’m including the chapter here in full because I find it an outstanding account of one of the greatest scandals we’ve yet seen in this century, and the clearest possible illustration of the damage that pseudo-science can do. Many thanks to BSE for sending me the link.


This is an extract from
BAD SCIENCE by Ben Goldacre
Published by Harper Perennial 2009.

You are free to copy it, paste it, bake it, reprint it, read it aloud, as long as you don’t change it – including this bit – so that people know that they can find more ideas for free at


The Doctor Will Sue You Now

This chapter did not appear in the original edition of this book, because for fifteen months leading up to September 2008 the vitamin-pill entrepreneur Matthias Rath was suing me personally, and the Guardian, for libel. This strategy brought only mixed success. For all that nutritionists may fantasise in public that any critic is somehow a pawn of big pharma, in private they would do well to remember that, like many my age who work in the public sector, I don’t own a flat. The Guardian generously paid for the lawyers, and in September 2008 Rath dropped his case, which had cost in excess of £500,000 to defend. Rath has paid £220,000 already, and the rest will hopefully follow.  Nobody will ever repay me for the endless meetings, the time off work, or the days spent poring over tables filled with endlessly cross-referenced court documents.

On this last point there is, however, one small consolation, and I will spell it out as a cautionary tale: I now know more about Matthias Rath than almost any other person alive. My notes, references and witness statements, boxed up in the room where I am sitting right now, make a pile as tall as the man himself, and what I will write here is only a tiny fraction of the fuller story that is waiting to be told about him. This chapter, I should also mention, is available free online for anyone who wishes to see it.

Matthias Rath takes us rudely outside the contained, almost academic distance of this book. For the most part we’ve been interested in the intellectual and cultural consequences of bad science, the made-up facts in national newspapers, dubious academic practices in universities, some foolish pill-peddling, and so on. But what happens if we take these sleights of hand, these pill-marketing techniques, and transplant them out of our decadent Western context into a situation where things really matter?

In an ideal world this would be only a thought experiment. AIDS is the opposite of anecdote. Twenty-five million people have died from it already, three million in the last year alone, and 500,000 of those deaths were children. In South Africa it kills 300,000 people every year: that’s eight hundred people every day, or one every two minutes. This one country has 6.3 million people who are HIV positive, including 30 per cent of all pregnant women. There are 1.2 million AIDS orphans under the age of seventeen. Most chillingly of all, this disaster has appeared suddenly, and while we were watching: in 1990, just 1 per cent of adults in South Africa were HIV positive. Ten years
later, the figure had risen to 25 per cent.

It’s hard to mount an emotional response to raw numbers, but on one thing I think we would agree. If you were to walk into a situation with that much death, misery and disease, you would be very careful to make sure that you knew what you were talking about. For the reasons you are about to read, I suspect that Matthias Rath missed the mark.

This man, we should be clear, is our responsibility. Born and raised in Germany, Rath was the head of Cardiovascular Research at the Linus Pauling Institute in Palo Alto in California, and even then he had a tendency towards grand gestures, publishing a paper in the Journal of Orthomolecular Medicine in 1992 titled “A Unified Theory of Human Cardiovascular Disease Leading the Way to the Abolition of this Disease as a Cause for Human Mortality”. The unified theory was high-dose vitamins.

He first developed a power base from sales in Europe, selling his pills with tactics that will be very familiar to you from the rest of this book, albeit slightly more aggressive. In the UK, his adverts claimed that “90 per cent of patients receiving chemotherapy for cancer die within months of starting treatment”, and suggested that three million lives could be saved if cancer patients stopped being treated by conventional medicine.  The pharmaceutical industry was deliberately letting people die for financial gain, he explained. Cancer treatments were “poisonous compounds” with “not even one effective treatment”.

The decision to embark on treatment for cancer can be the most difficult that an individual or a family will ever take, representing a close balance between well-documented benefits and equally well-documented side-effects. Adverts like these might play especially strongly on your conscience if your mother has just lost all her hair to chemotherapy, for example, in the hope of staying alive just long enough to see your son speak.

There was some limited regulatory response in Europe, but it was generally as weak as that faced by the other characters in this book. The Advertising Standards Authority criticised one of his adverts in the UK, but that is essentially all they are able to do. Rath was ordered by a Berlin court to stop claiming that his vitamins could cure cancer, or face a €250,000 fine.

But sales were strong, and Matthias Rath still has many supporters in Europe, as you will shortly see. He walked into South Africa with all the acclaim, self-confidence and wealth he had amassed as a successful vitamin-pill entrepreneur in Europe and America, and began to take out full-page adverts in newspapers.

˜The answer to the AIDS epidemic is here,” he proclaimed. Anti-retroviral drugs were poisonous, and a conspiracy to kill patients and make money. “Stop AIDS Genocide by the Drugs Cartel said one headline. “Why should South Africans continue to be poisoned with AZT? There is a natural answer to AIDS.”  The answer came in the form of vitamin pills. “Multivitamin treatment is more effective than any toxic AIDS drug. Multivitamins cut the risk of developing AIDS in half.”

Rath’s company ran clinics reflecting these ideas, and in 2005 he decided to run a trial of his vitamins in a township near Cape Town called Khayelitsha, giving his own formulation, VitaCell, to people with advanced AIDS. In 2008 this trial was declared illegal by the Cape High Court of South Africa. Although Rath says that none of his participants had been on anti-retroviral drugs, some relatives have given statements saying that they were, and were actively told to stop using them.

Tragically,Matthias Rath had taken these ideas to exactly the right place. Thabo Mbeki, the President of South Africa at the time, was well known as an “AIDS dissident”, and to international horror, while people died at the rate of one every two minutes in his country, he gave credence and support to the claims of a small band of campaigners who variously claim that AIDS does not exist, that it is not caused by HIV, that anti-retroviral medication does more harm than good, and so on.

At various times during the peak of the AIDS epidemic in South Africa their government argued that HIV is not the cause of AIDS, and that anti-retroviral drugs are not useful for patients. They refused to roll out proper treatment programmes, they refused to accept free donations of drugs, and they refused to accept grant money from the Global Fund to buy drugs. One study estimates that if the South African national government had used anti-retroviral drugs for prevention and treatment at the same rate as the Western Cape province (which defied national policy on the issue), around 171,000 new HIV infections and 343,000 deaths could have been prevented between 1999 and 2007. Another study estimates that between 2000 and 2005 there were 330,000 unnecessary deaths, 2.2 million person years lost, and 35,000 babies unnecessarily born with HIV because of the failure to implement a cheap and simple mother-to-child-transmission prevention program. Between one and three doses of an ARV drug can reduce transmission dramatically. The cost is negligible. It was not available.

Interestingly, Matthias Rath’s colleague and employee, a South African barrister named Anthony Brink, takes the credit for introducing Thabo Mbeki to many of these ideas. Brink stumbled on the “AIDS dissident” material in the mid-1990s, and after much surfing and reading, became convinced that it must be right. In 1999 he wrote an article about AZT in a Johannesburg newspaper titled “a medicine from hell”. This led to a public exchange with a leading virologist. Brink contacted Mbeki, sending him copies of the debate, and was welcomed as an expert.

This is a chilling testament to the danger of elevating cranks by engaging with them. In his initial letter of motivation for employment to Matthias Rath, Brink described himself as “South Africa’s leading AIDS dissident, best known for my whistle-blowing exposé of the toxicity and inefficacy of AIDS drugs, and for my political activism in this regard, which caused President Mbeki and Health Minister Dr Tshabalala-Msimang to repudiate the drugs in 1999″.

In 2000, the now infamous International AIDS Conference took place in Durban. Mbeki’s presidential advisory panel beforehand was packed with “AIDS dissidents”, including Peter Duesberg and David Rasnick. On the first day, Rasnick suggested that all HIV testing should be banned on principle, and that South Africa should stop screening supplies of blood for HIV. “If I had the power to outlaw the HIV antibody test,” he said, “I would do it across the board.” When African physicians gave testimony about the drastic change AIDS had caused in their clinics and hospitals, Rasnick said he had not seen “any evidence” of an AIDS catastrophe. The media were not allowed in, but one reporter from the Village Voice was present. Peter Duesberg, he said, “gave a presentation so removed from African medical reality that it left several local doctors shaking their heads”. It wasn’t AIDS that was killing babies and children, said the dissidents: it was the anti-retroviral medication.

President Mbeki sent a letter to world leaders comparing the struggle of the “AIDS dissidents” to the struggle against apartheid.  The Washington Post described the reaction at the White House: “So stunned were some officials by the letter’s tone and timing during final preparations for July’s conference in Durban that at least two of them, according to diplomatic sources, felt obliged to check whether it was genuine.  Hundreds of delegates walked out of Mbeki’s address to the conference in disgust, but many more described themselves as dazed and confused. Over 5,000 researchers and activists around the world signed up to the Durban Declaration, a document that specifically addressed and repudiated the claims and concerns–at least the more moderate ones–of the “AIDS dissidents”. Specifically, it addressed the charge that people were simply dying of poverty:

The evidence that AIDS is caused by HIV-1 or HIV-2 is clearcut, exhaustive and unambiguous… As with any other chronic infection, various co-factors play a role in determining the risk of disease. Persons who are malnourished, who already suffer other infections or who are older, tend to be more susceptible to the rapid development of AIDS following HIV infection.  However, none of these factors weaken the scientific evidence that HIV is the sole cause of AIDS… Mother-to-child transmission can be reduced by half or more by short courses of antiviral drugs … What works best in one country may not be appropriate in another. But to tackle the disease, everyone must first understand that HIV is the enemy. Research, not myths, will lead to the development of more effective and cheaper treatments.

It did them no good. Until 2003 the South African government refused, as a matter of principle, to roll out proper antiretroviral medication programmes, and even then the process was half-hearted. This madness was only overturned after a massive campaign by grassroots organisations such as the Treatment Action Campaign, but even after the ANC cabinet voted to allow medication to be given, there was still resistance. In mid-2005, at least 85 per cent of HIV-positive people who needed anti-retroviral drugs were still refused them. That’s around a million people.

This resistance, of course, went deeper than just one man; much of it came from Mbeki’s Health Minister, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang. An ardent critic of medical drugs for HIV, she would cheerfully go on television to talk up their dangers, talk down their benefits, and became irritable and evasive when asked how many patients were receiving effective treatment. She declared in 2005 that she would not be “pressured” into meeting the target of three million patients on anti-retroviral medication, that people had ignored the importance of nutrition, and that she would continue to warn patients of the sideeffects of anti-retrovirals, saying: “We have been vindicated in
this regard. We are what we eat.”

It’s an eerily familiar catchphrase. Tshabalala-Msimang has also gone on record to praise the work of Matthias Rath, and refused to investigate his activities. Most joyfully of all, she is a staunch advocate of the kind of weekend glossy-magazine-style nutritionism that will by now be very familiar to you. The remedies she advocates for AIDS are beetroot, garlic, lemons and African potatoes. A fairly typical quote, from the Health Minister in a country where eight hundred people die every day from AIDS, is this: “Raw garlic and a skin of the lemon–not only do they give you a beautiful face and skin but they also protect you from disease.”  South Africa’s stand at the 2006 World AIDS Conference in Toronto was described by delegates as the “salad stall”. It consisted of some garlic, some beetroot, the African potato, and assorted other vegetables. Some boxes of anti-retroviral drugs were added later, but they were reportedly borrowed at the last minute from other conference delegates.

Alternative therapists like to suggest that their treatments and ideas have not been sufficiently researched. As you now know, this is often untrue, and in the case of the Health Minister’s favoured vegetables, research had indeed been done, with results that were far from promising. Interviewed on SABC about this, Tshabalala-Msimang gave the kind of responses you’d expect to hear at any North London dinner-party discussion of alternative therapies.

First she was asked about work from the University of Stellenbosch which suggested that her chosen plant, the African potato, might be actively dangerous for people on AIDS drugs. One study on African potato in HIV had to be terminated prematurely, because the patients who received the plant extract developed severe bone-marrow suppression and a drop in their CD4 cell count–which is a bad thing–after eight weeks. On top of this, when extract from the same vegetable was given to cats with Feline Immunodeficiency Virus, they succumbed to full-blown Feline AIDS faster than their non-treated controls. African potato does not look like a good bet.

Tshabalala-Msimang disagreed: the researchers should go back to the drawing board, and “investigate properly”. Why?  Because HIV-positive people who used African potato had shown improvement, and they had said so themselves. If a person says he or she is feeling better, should this be disputed, she demanded to know, merely because it had not been proved scientifically? “When a person says she or he is feeling better, I must say ‘No, I don’t think you are feeling better’? I must rather go and do science on you’?” Asked whether there should be a scientific basis to her views, she replied: “Whose science?”

And there, perhaps, is a clue, if not exoneration. This is a continent that has been brutally exploited by the developed world, first by empire, and then by globalised capital. Conspiracy theories about AIDS and Western medicine are not entirely absurd in this context. The pharmaceutical industry has indeed been caught performing drug trials in Africa which would be impossible anywhere in the developed world. Many find it suspicious that black Africans seem to be the biggest victims of AIDS, and point to the biological warfare programmes set up by the apartheid governments; there have also been suspicions that the scientific discourse of HIV/AIDS might be a device, a Trojan horse for spreading even more exploitative Western political and economic agendas around a problem that is simply one of poverty.

And these are new countries, for which independence and self-rule are recent developments, which are struggling to find their commercial feet and true cultural identity after centuries of colonisation. Traditional medicine represents an important link with an autonomous past; besides which, anti-retroviral medications have been unnecessarily – offensively, absurdly – expensive, and until moves to challenge this became partially successful, many Africans were effectively denied access to medical treatment as a result.

It’s very easy for us to feel smug, and to forget that we all have our own strange cultural idiosyncrasies which prevent us from taking up sensible public-health programmes. For examples, we don’t even have to look as far as MMR. There is a good evidence base, for example, to show that needle-exchange programmes reduce the spread of HIV, but this strategy has been rejected time and again in favour of “Just say no.” Development charities funded by US Christian groups refuse to engage with birth control, and any suggestion of abortion, even in countries where being in control of your own fertility could mean the difference between success and failure in life, is met with a cold, pious stare. These impractical moral principles are so deeply entrenched that Pepfar, the US Presidential Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, has insisted that every recipient of international aid money must sign a declaration expressly promising not to have any involvement with sex workers.

We mustn’t appear insensitive to the Christian value system, but it seems to me that engaging sex workers is almost the cornerstone of any effective AIDS policy: commercial sex is frequently the “vector of transmission”, and sex workers a very high-risk population; but there are also more subtle issues at stake. If you secure the legal rights of prostitutes to be free from violence and discrimination, you empower them to demand universal condom use, and that way you can prevent HIV from being spread into the whole community. This is where science meets culture. But perhaps even to your own friends and neighbours, in whatever suburban idyll has become your home, the moral principle of abstinence from sex and drugs is more important than people dying of AIDS; and perhaps, then, they are no less irrational than Thabo Mbeki.

So this was the situation into which the vitamin-pill entrepreneur Matthias Rath inserted himself, prominently and expensively, with the wealth he had amassed from Europe and America, exploiting anti-colonial anxieties with no sense of irony, although he was a white man offering pills made in a factory abroad. His adverts and clinics were a tremendous success. He began to tout individual patients as evidence of the benefits that could come from vitamin pills – although in reality some of his most famous success stories have died of AIDS. When asked about the deaths of Rath’s star patients, Health Minister Tshabalala-Msimang replied: “It doesn’t necessarily mean that if I am taking antibiotics and I die, that I died of antibiotics.”

She is not alone: South Africa’s politicians have consistently refused to step in, Rath claims the support of the government, and its most senior figures have refused to distance themselves from his operations or to criticise his activities. Tshabalala-Msimang has gone on the record to state that the Rath Foundation “are not undermining the government’s position. If anything, they are supporting it.”

In 2005, exasperated by government inaction, a group of 199 leading medical practitioners in South Africa signed an open letter to the health authorities of the Western Cape, pleading for action on the Rath Foundation. “Our patients are being inundated with propaganda encouraging them to stop life-saving medicine,” it said. “Many of us have had experiences with HIV infected patients who have had their health compromised by stopping their anti-retrovirals due to the activities of this Foundation.”  Rath’s adverts continue unabated. He even claimed that his activities were endorsed by huge lists of sponsors and affiliates including the World Health Organization, UNICEF and UNAIDS. All have issued statements flatly denouncing his claims and activities. The man certainly has chutzpah.

His adverts are also rich with detailed scientific claims. It would be wrong of us to neglect the science in this story, so we should follow some through, specifically those which focused on a Harvard study in Tanzania. He described this research in full-page advertisements, some of which have appeared in the New York Times and the Herald Tribune. He refers to these paid adverts, I should mention, as if he had received flattering news coverage in the same papers. Anyway, this research showed that multivitamin supplements can be beneficial in a developing world population with AIDS: there’s no problem with that result, and there are plenty of reasons to think that vitamins might have some benefit for a sick and frequently malnourished population.

The researchers enrolled 1,078 HIV-positive pregnant women and randomly assigned them to have either a vitamin supplement or placebo. Notice once again, if you will, that this is another large, well-conducted, publicly funded trial of vitamins, conducted by mainstream scientists, contrary to the claims of nutritionists that such studies do not exist. The women were followed up for several years, and at the end of the study, 25 per cent of those on vitamins were severely ill or dead, compared with 31 per cent of those on placebo. There was also a statistically significant benefit in CD4 cell count (a measure of HIV activity) and viral loads. These results were in no sense dramatic – and they cannot be compared to the demonstrable life-saving benefits of anti-retrovirals – but they did show that improved diet, or cheap generic vitamin pills, could represent a simple and relatively inexpensive way to marginally delay the need to start HIV medication in some patients.

In the hands of Rath, this study became evidence that vitamin pills are superior to medication in the treatment of HIV/AIDS, that  anti-retroviral therapies “severely damage all cells in the body–including white blood cells”, and worse, that they were “thereby not improving but rather worsening immune deficiencies and expanding the AIDS epidemic”. The researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health were so horrified that they put together a press release setting out their support for medication, and stating starkly, with unambiguous clarity, that Matthias Rath had misrepresented their findings.

To outsiders the story is baffling and terrifying. The United Nations has condemned Rath’s adverts as “wrong and misleading”. “This guy is killing people by luring them with unrecognised treatment without any scientific evidence,” said Eric Goemaere, head of Médecins sans Frontières SA, a man who pioneered anti-retroviral therapy in South Africa. Rath sued him.

It’s not just MSF who Rath has gone after: he has also brought time-consuming, expensive, stalled or failed cases against a professor of AIDS research, critics in the media and others.

But his most heinous campaign has been against the Treatment Action Campaign. For many years this has been the key organisation campaigning for access to anti-retroviral medication in South Africa, and it has been fighting a war on four fronts.  Firstly, TAC campaigns against its own government, trying to compel it to roll out treatment programmes for the population. Secondly, it fights against the pharmaceutical industry, which claims that it needs to charge full price for its products in developing countries in order to pay for research and development of new drugs – although, as we shall see, out of its $550 billion global annual revenue, the pharmaceutical industry spends twice as much on promotion and admin as it does on research and development. Thirdly, it is a grassroots organisation, made up largely of black women from townships who do important prevention and treatment-literacy work on the ground, ensuring that people know what is available, and how to protect themselves. Lastly, it fights against people who promote the type of information peddled by Matthias Rath and his ilk.

Rath has taken it upon himself to launch a massive campaign against this group. He distributes advertising material against them, saying “Treatment Action Campaign medicines are killing you” and “Stop AIDS genocide by the drug cartel”, claiming–as you will guess by now–that there is an international conspiracy by pharmaceutical companies intent on prolonging the AIDS crisis in the interests of their own profits by giving medication that makes people worse. TAC must be a part of this, goes the reasoning, because it criticises Matthias Rath. Just like me writing on Patrick Holford or Gillian McKeith, TAC is perfectly in favour of good diet and nutrition. But in Rath’s  promotional literature it is a front for the pharmaceutical industry, a “Trojan horse” and a “running dog”. TAC has made a full disclosure of its funding and activities, showing no such connection: Rath presented no evidence to the contrary, and has even lost a court case over the issue, but will not let it lie. In fact he presents the loss of this court case as if it was a victory.

The founder of TAC is a man called Zackie Achmat, and he is the closest thing I have to a hero. He is South African, and coloured, by the nomenclature of the apartheid system in which he grew up. At the age of fourteen he tried to burn down his school, and you might have done the same in similar circumstances. He has been arrested and imprisoned under South Africa’s violent, brutal white regime, with all that entailed. He is also gay, and HIV-positive, and he refused to take anti-retroviral medication until it was widely available to all on the public health system, even when he was dying of AIDS, even when he was personally implored to save himself by Nelson Mandela, a public supporter of anti-retroviral medication and Achmat’s work.

And now, at last, we come to the lowest point of this whole story, not merely for Matthias Rath’s movement, but for the alternative therapy movement around the world as a whole. In 2007, with a huge public flourish, to great media coverage, Rath’s former employee Anthony Brink filed a formal complaint against Zackie Achmat, the head of the TAC. Bizarrely, he filed this complaint with the International Criminal
Court at The Hague, accusing Achmat of genocide for successfully campaigning to get access to HIV drugs for the people of South Africa.

It’s hard to explain just how influential the “AIDS dissidents” are in South Africa. Brink is a barrister, a man with important friends, and his accusations were reported in the national news media –and in some corners of the Western gay press–as a serious news story. I do not believe that any one of those journalists who reported on it can possibly have read Brink’s indictment to the end.

I have.

The first fifty-seven pages present familiar anti-medication and “AIDS-dissident” material. But then, on page fifty-eight, this “indictment” document suddenly deteriorates into something altogether more vicious and unhinged, as Brink sets out what he believes would be an appropriate punishment for Zackie. Because I do not wish to be accused of selective editing, I will now reproduce for you that entire section, unedited, so you can see and feel it for yourself.



The document was described by the Rath Foundation as “entirely valid and long overdue”.

This story isn’t about Matthias Rath, or Anthony Brink, or Zackie Achmat, or even South Africa. It is about the culture of how ideas work, and how that can break down. Doctors criticise other doctors, academics criticise academics, politicians criticise politicians: that’s normal and healthy, it’s how ideas improve. Matthias Rath is an alternative therapist, made in Europe. He is every bit the same as the British operators that we have seen in this book. He is from their world.

Despite the extremes of this case, not one single alternative therapist or nutritionist, anywhere in the world, has stood up to criticise any single aspect of the activities of Matthias Rath and his colleagues. In fact, far from it: he continues to be fêted to this day. I have sat in true astonishment and watched leading figures of the UK’s alternative therapy movement applaud  Matthias Rath at a public lecture (I have it on video, just in case there’s any doubt). Natural health organisations continue to defend Rath. Homeopaths’ mailouts continue to promote his work. The British Association of Nutritional Therapists has been invited to comment by bloggers, but declined. Most, when challenged, will dissemble.”Oh,” they say, “I don’t really know much about it.”  Not one person will step forward and dissent.

The alternative therapy movement as a whole has demonstrated itself to be so dangerously, systemically incapable of critical self-appraisal that it cannot step up even in a case like that of Rath: in that count I include tens of thousands of practitioners, writers, administrators and more. This is how ideas go badly wrong. In the conclusion to this book, written before I was able to include this chapter, I will argue that the biggest dangers posed by the material we have covered are cultural and intellectual.

I may be mistaken.


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Written by Richard Wilson

April 10, 2009 at 10:12 am

Posted in AIDS denialism

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Duncan Campbell on Police misinformation around the G20 summit

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From The Guardian

Some of the miles and miles of footage that was shot has now been given to the Guardian and shared across the internet. It shows Tomlinson, who was not a demonstrator but one of the many people unable to leave the melee, being thrown to the ground a few moments before he died of a heart attack. Far from the police coming under attack, at this stage Tomlinson is only cared for by a demonstrator. Do the police have their own film of what happened?

What is also striking is that, so soon after the inquest into the death of the Brazilian Jean Charles de Menezes, assumptions about a suspicious death should be so swiftly made and the official version accepted so unquestioningly. One of the Met’s major problems in the wake of de Menezes was the feeling that misinformation about the circumstances of his death was allowed to linger too long in the public domain.

Of course, the police are under pressure to come up with instant information for the ever-increasing media outlets. A man has died. How? Why? Who was he? It is hardly suprising that the police’s best take on the incident – that they were the subject of attack by demonstrators as they tried to save a man’s life – is the one that gets passed out and then gets prime position in the coverage. But when did it become clear to the police, from their own intelligence and video footage, what had actually happened to Tomlinson?

The two lessons must be that, as always, we should never assume that the first official version of a death in suspicious circumstances is accurate. The second lesson must be that the police have now to review their tactics for future demonstrations.

A man with a weak heart died. Was he prevented from leaving a scene of mayhem, of police, mounted and in riot gear, of barking dogs and bonfires? We were meant to recall the G20 summit as the start of a new world order. It may now turn out to be a rather less glorious view of the mechanics of law and order.

Written by Richard Wilson

April 8, 2009 at 6:00 am

Growing concerns over Police brutality at G20 protests

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A colleague of mine was at last week’s G20 protests, and after witnessing police tactics which seemed to him to be excessively violent and heavy-handed, he decided to set up a Facebook group to prompt a public debate about the issue. In the last few days I’ve spoken to a number of people who were at the protests, and there seems to be a striking disparity between the firsthand accounts that I’ve heard, and the way that the protests were – at least initially – reported by the bulk of the media.

From Facebook

I decided to create this group having gone down to see climate camp, where unnecessarily aggressive police tactics against peaceful protestors made violence inevitable. However since the tragic death of an innocent bystander, who was inexplicably assaulted from behind by a riot policeman this group now stands in solidarity against all forms of disproportionate violence that were meted out against innocent bystanders or peaceful protestors.

Read the account below and watch this video to see the moment it happened

First let me put this in context, I was not involved with any group demonstrating in the city for the G20 protests. I work in marketing, for a charity and have never taken part in direct action. However, I am concerned about climate change – one of the issues on the G20 agenda. I wanted to see exactly what the climate camp contingent were about and what kind of message they wanted world leaders to hear. Considering the vast majority of scientific opinion believes we are in severe danger from climate change and lack of action thus far, I thought they might have pretty important reason to be out on the streets.

I also wanted to see whether reports of heavy handed police tactics’ on earlier demos was accurate.

I’m sorry to say that from what I saw, the police tactics were designed with nothing in mind other than to oppress a peaceful protest and make a violent situation inevitable… [continues]

Written by Richard Wilson

April 7, 2009 at 8:48 pm

Britain in decline? Panel discussion at the Oxford Literary Festival

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I’m just back from a fun afternoon at the Oxford Literary Festival, where I had come in as a late substitution at a panel discussion chaired by the legendary Martin Bell, on the theme of “Britain in decline”. Also on the panel was the Booker-shortlisted novelist Andrew O’ Hagan, my fellow Icon-author Kieron O’ Hara, whose book on “Trust” was one of the many influences for “Don’t Get Fooled Again”, and the excellent Paul Kingsnorth, with whom I spoke at last year’s Radical Bookfair in Edinburgh.

I’m not convinced that there’s a generalised, across-the-board decline in the UK, and I also think there’s a natural human tendency to believe that things were so much better in the “good old days” even when they weren’t.

But within certain specific areas there are worrying signs of a change for the worse – perhaps most acutely within our political system. Few now doubt that lies were told by the UK government in 2002 and 2003, at the highest level, about the evidence of Iraqi “Weapons of Mass Destruction” . These lies formed the pretext for launching a war which killed hundreds of British soldiers, and thousands of Iraqi civilians – yet there appears to be no mechanism for holding those who misled the country (and its Parliament) personally to account. Worse, the lies have continued – on rendition, on Jack Straw’s complicity in torture in Uzbekistan, and – repeatedly – on official government statistics.

When, earlier this year, Justice Minister Jack Straw announced that he was using his powers to block the release of minutes of the UK cabinet meetings in the run-up to the Iraq war (meetings in which he, as the then-Foreign Secretary, would have featured prominently) – ostensibly on the basis that future cabinet ministers might feel unable to speak openly if they thought that their words might eventually be read by the people who voted for them and paid their salaries – one almost got the sense that he himself didn’t think that anyone would really believe that this was the genuine reason. He was in a position to use his powers to block the release of information that would certainly have embarrassed (and possibly incriminated) him – so naturally he was going to use those powers to cover his back. Once he’d made that the decision, the accompanying lie was perhaps the easiest part – after all he’d had plenty of practice.

While there’s clearly nothing new about politicians behaving dishonestly, back in 2003,  many people went along with what the government was saying about Iraq precisely because they just couldn’t believe that our politicians would lie about something quite so big and important as the circumstances that could lead to a war. Many people I spoke to at the time had the sense that, in our democracy, there were some lines that the political class just wouldn’t cross. What’s worrying is that this feeling now seems to have been replaced with a grudging acceptance that our politicians will routinely lie to us whenever it suits them, and that there’s nothing much we can do about it.

Coupled with this, there seems to be a growing tendency for the government to cite “trump card” excuses, such as “national security” to evade scrutiny of key government decisions or to justify controversial government policies – such as the Attorney General’s decision to halt a criminal investigation into one of Britain’s major arms manufacturers – and a company with links to the Labour party – BAE.

Lastly, and perhaps most worryingly of all, there have been ever-increasing demands by the government for “sweeping powers” – ostensibly to fight terrorism – to lock people up without charge, ban demonstrations, and monitor and record all our email, phone call, and web browsing activities. These demands are almost always made with the assurance that the powers will only be used in rare and exceptional circumstances – but once passed into law they quickly become routine.

This is a problem because the more we chip away at our ability to scrutinise what the government’s up to, and the more arbitrary powers we allow them to wield, the more we create opportunities for corruption and abuse.

At the moment it seems that, too often within our political system, the benefits of lying outweigh the costs, and until that equation changes it seems unlikely that the situation will significantly improve. I made a similar

Kieron O’ Hara talked about the sense of disillusionment over the hopes that were raised when the current Labour government was first elected in 1997, and about the rise of the “database state”, while Paul Kingsnorth discussed the decline of local community institutions and the “blandification” of town centres, although Andrew O’ Hagan also warned against over-generalising beyond specifics, and discussed the pessimistic atmosphere of what he called “declinism” that he’d experienced growing up in Scotland during the 1970s.

On the major points, there was relatively little disagreement voiced between the panel members – though I suspect that this may also have  stemmed from a reluctance to disrupt a good-natured discussion. The audience was more challenging – with one questioner arguing that society’s problems had more to do with a general decline in personal responsibility than the venality of politicians, which is after all nothing new.  Another challenged us to say what, specifically, we proposed could be done about the problems that we had outlined. Andrew O’ Hagan gave a very clear answer, which I felt was among the best of the discussion, arguing that the level of dishonesty and silence-in-the-face-of-dishonesty that we had seen in recent years among government ministers was a significant change from the behaviour of previous regimes, and that one thing we could all do was vow never again to vote for any of the individuals – whose names are well known – who have behaved so disreputably.

Written by Richard Wilson

April 4, 2009 at 7:44 pm

David Davis on UK government complicity in torture

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From The Guardian

Last week, the attorney general referred the case of Binyam Mohamed to the police. This confirms what many of us already knew or suspected, that there is a prima facie case to answer that government agents colluded in the torture of one or several of the detainees picked up in Pakistan. It is important to understand what is meant by “colluded” in this case. It does not mean that British agents wielded the instruments of torture or were present when the pain was being inflicted. But neither does it simply mean negligence, as was suggested by one ill-informed, so-called security specialist on the BBC.

What has happened is that British agents have co-operated with foreign powers when they had good reason to believe that they were torturing British citizens or residents, providing information and questions to these foreign governments. This often involved getting the foreign agencies to put questions A, B and C under torture, so that once they had the answers, British agents could turn up and put the same questions without torture.

Pakistani intelligence service agents have told researchers that this procedure was followed with several different subjects and several different British agents. This is not about one “rogue agent”. It is systemic… It is inconceivable that the requirement for a foreign secretary’s warrant was not included in the standard operating procedure of the agencies involved. Given the severity of the laws against torture, both British and international, it is also inconceivable that it was not clear that the law was being broken.

So one of two things has happened. Either a foreign secretary has approved complicity in torture, in which case that foreign secretary should be on a criminal charge, or the system has suffered a massive breakdown, in which case heads should roll at the agency. But it is going to be difficult for the police, even with access to all the papers and all the British officers, to get to the core of the breakdown. Indeed, that is not their job. They will be looking, quite properly, to bring a criminal case against an individual.

Written by Richard Wilson

April 2, 2009 at 10:08 am

UK “citizens” to be known as “suspects” from July 1st

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From The Independent

Civil liberties campaigners have condemned as “chilling” UK government plans to replace the term “citizen” with “suspect” on all passports and driving licences from July 1st.

The amendment was one among a number of changes approved by MPs last week as part of the controversial Coroners and Justice Reform Bill, which will also increase data sharing between government departments, and allow some inquests to be held in secret.

A Home Office spokeswoman, who asked not to be named, told the Independent that staff will be working around the clock to ensure that the changes are implemented smoothly. UK passport and driving licence holders will be asked to begin handing in their documents within the next few weeks.

The Home Office insists that the change enjoys broad public support, and merely formalises a policy that the government has been operating in practice for several years.

“Nothing is more important to us than the safety and security of the British public. This vital amendment clarifies our relationship with the people we are working so hard to protect, and will enable us to streamline our intelligence-gathering activities. Those raising questions clearly do not understand the nature of the threat we are facing.”

Update – 2nd April 2009 – As readers may have deduced, this article is somewhat less than wholly accurate, but perhaps it’s just a matter of time…

Written by Richard Wilson

April 1, 2009 at 11:00 am

Don’t Get Fooled Again now available in paperback

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I’m pleased to say that Don’t Get Fooled Again is out in paperback today and is available now from Amazon. The book looks at why it is that time and again, intelligent, educated people end up getting fooled by ideas that turn out on closer examination to be nonsense – from everyday high street scams to stock market bubbles and media spin, to the political delusions that led to the Iraq war and all that came with it.

Don’t Get Fooled Again has previously featured in The Guardian here and here, and you can also read online reviews here, here and here.

Written by Richard Wilson

April 1, 2009 at 6:00 am