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Who’s calling the tune at Tory Party HQ?

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From Spin Profiles

In 2008, Channel 4′s Dispatches programme investigated Cameron’s Leaders Group[7].

According to Dispatches, Cameron has secured more that £50million in donations over the two and a half years since he became the Tory leader (in 2005). Norman Baker of the Liberal Democrats is reported to have complained that Cameron’s fundraising group met in Parliament at the taxpayers expense and he also asked for the names of the members of this ‘Leaders Group’. No names were divulged in the reply. The letter in response to his question simply stated that the group comprised of Cameron’s donors who had donated £50,000 or more to him and that a donation of this amount automatically grants the person membership. It was reported that members are then invited to attend special ‘Leaders Group’ meetings where they meet up with Cameron in person.

The Dispatches investigation dug deeper to establish the names of Cameron’s donors that had donated more than £50k and who were thus automatically members of this group with direct access to Cameron. This is who they found:

  • Ian Taylor of the Vitol oil company: In 2007, a subsidiary of this company (Vital SA) pleaded guilty to first degree grand larceny after paying $13million in ‘secret kickbacks’ to the Iraqi government in exchange for oil under the United Nations’ oil-for-food program. They were fined a total of $17.5million ($13 million in restitution to the Development Fund for Iraq)[8]
  • Paul Riddock personally donated more than £200,000. It is reported that his company was involved in short selling before new legislation came into force.
  • Michael Alen-Buckley personally donated £100,000. Buckley is chairman of RAB Capital an investment management company which he co-founded in 1999. In 2008, the decision to develop a huge open-cast mine in northern Bangladesh is being considered. RAB is backing GCM Resources which plans to undertake the project. If this goes ahead, the Observer reports that 572 million tonnes of coal will be mined, up to 120,000 people from Phulbari in Bangladesh will be displaced, a river will be diverted and a mangrove forest in this world heritage site will be destroyed[9].
  • Lord Irvine Laidlaw is reported to be Cameron’s biggest donor. It is reported that he promised to become a UK taxpayer in turn for a peerage, but then broke this promise. He lives in Monacco and is estimated to save a wopping £50million in tax by doing so.
  • Michael Ashcroft is reported to have donated over £10million over a number of years. He is not listed as a personal donor, however Dispatches uncovered that millions have made their way to Cameron through a ‘chain of companies’. Ashcroft is reported to own the Belize Bank (he used to live in Belize) with an address of 60 Market Square, which is the registered address for donations given to Cameron.

Ashcroft is also reportedly involved with Bearwood Corporate Services: which is a subsidiary of a subsidiary of a loss making company that is also registered as a donating company.

In 2008, Ashcroft serves as Deputy Chairman for the Tory party and a member of its management Board. He is also chair for the ‘Target Seat’ campaign which targets marginal seats…

Written by Richard Wilson

April 18, 2010 at 5:33 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

Broxtowe NG16 – the most racist postcode in Britain?

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I have to admit mixed feelings about the apparent leak of the British National Party’s full membership list. It seems almost inevitable that publishing the addresses of 12,000 followers of this widely despised racist group is going to lead to some bigoted old fascist getting attacked in their home, and I tend to feel that there are better ways of dealing with the problem.

I also think there’s some truth in the argument that, within modern British culture, the BNP serves a symbolic purpose that far outweighs its real political significance – as a convenient symbol of everything that’s nasty, despicable, and archaic about our country – and that sometimes, perhaps especially for guilty white lefties like me, having a go at the BNP can just be a quick and easy way of defining one’s self as a good, modern, liberal-minded sort of person, without having to confront any of those messy, less-than-liberal psychological impulses that lurk within us all.

Equally, having grown up with the echoes of World War II continuing to resonate – my grandmother still has stories about narrowly escaping death in Nazi air raids – and having gone to school with people who openly bragged about supporting the BNP and its racist policies, it seems tempting to agree that we can’t afford to take any chances, and that anyone who backs this neo-fascist outfit deserves to be publicly vilified.

Either way, I’ve been morbidly fascinated by the list, and what it tells us about the political party that everyone loves to hate. A quick bit of number-crunching reveals that the most popular BNP first name is “John”, and the most common surname “Smith” – though “Peter Smith” appears to be the most common full name among BNP members, by my reckoning.

The top 45 BNP first names all appear to be men’s names (though “Colin” and “Darren” came in at a disappointing 24th and 27th place respectively), with men making up more than 75% of the BNP’s membership. The most common BNP women’s names were Julie, Susan and Patricia, and two thirds were a “Mrs” rather than a “Ms” or a “Miss”…

There are more BNP members in Leicester (409) than in the whole of London (316) – but the single most popular BNP postcode was Broxtowe NG16, in Greater Nottingham, with 57 closet racists peeping out from behind the net curtains.

The top ten most BNP-afflicted towns in the country appear to be:

Town/city BNP members
Birmingham 423
Leicester 409
Nottingham 393
London 316
Leeds 276
Newcastle 262
Blackburn 259
Derby 232
Coventry 228
Peterborough 227

Written by Richard Wilson

November 20, 2008 at 9:26 am

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

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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.

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

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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.

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

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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…”

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

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

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

According to the BAN:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

According to the Columbia Journalism Review:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Catholic aid charity Caritas claims to have stopped supporting LRA rebels, demands thanks from the Ugandan government

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See also: Catholic aid charity Caritas accused of materially supporting LRA terror group

From the Caritas website

Caritas had provided food aid to rebel groups while the peace process that began in 2006 was in place at the request of the Ugandan government and international mediators in line with its humanitarian mission. Caritas ended all food aid distributions once negotiations collapsed and has supplied no food aid since April 2008. The Ugandan government is aware of all these steps.

Government Minister for Disaster Preparedness, Professor Tarsis Kabwegyere said on 30 September, “Caritas should stop giving food to the rebels so that they get under pressure to sign the peace agreement. But as long as they continue to get supplies, they will see no reason of ending the rebellion. There is a moral question on why (rebel leader) Kony continues to receive food. Whoever is sending food to the jungles is committing a mortal sin especially if they are Christians”.

Caritas Uganda National Director Msgr. Dr. Francis Ndamira said, “We would like to clarify this statement which is likely to mislead the public and the world which is already too anxious and waiting for that day of signing the peace agreement. Caritas Uganda is not currently supplying food and medicine to the rebels. When the (peace agreement) signing flopped, Caritas also ended its mandate.

“It is therefore surprising for Hon. Prof. Kabwegyere to make such misleading and irresponsible statements of that kind. On the contrary, he should thank Caritas Uganda and the entire Catholic Church leadership for the peaceful contribution we have made in the peace process and also the spiritual and material help which the respective Churches have given to the suffering people in Northern Uganda.”

More on Booker’s bogus claims about asbestos

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Alongside his more grandiose claims about the “magic mineral” (which I highlight in detail in “Don’t Get Fooled Again”), Sunday Telegraph columnist Christopher Booker has repeatedly alleged – echoing John Bridle – that white asbestos (chrysotile) cement is safe because the toxic fibres cannot physically be released from the cement in a “respirable” form.

This claim was examined in detail in a lab investigation by the Health and Safety Executive, in November 2007. The HSL found that:

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

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

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

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

Epidemiology has shown that chrysotile is a human carcinogen. Animal experiments have shown no evidence that the chrysotile asbestos extracted from the weathered surface of A/C products is less carcinogenic than UICC standard chrysotile asbestos…

See also: “Booker’s 38 bogus claims promoting white asbestos”, and “Bridle unbuttoned”.

Booker unbridled…

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From George Monbiot’s latest column in The Guardian:

So what can you say about a man who makes the same mistake 38 times? Who, when confronted by a mountain of evidence demonstrating that his informant is a charlatan convicted under the Trade Descriptions Act, continues to repeat his claims? Who elevates the untested claims of bloggers above peer-reviewed papers? Who sticks to his path through a blizzard of facts? What should we deduce about the Sunday Telegraph’s columnist Christopher Booker?

This week Richard Wilson’s book Don’t Get Fooled Again is published. It contains a fascinating chapter on Booker’s claims about white asbestos. Since 2002, he has published 38 articles on this topic, and every one of them is wrong. He champions the work of John Bridle, who has described himself as “the world’s foremost authority on asbestos science”. Bridle has claimed to possess an honorary professorship from the Russian Academy of Sciences, to be a consultant to an institute at the University of Glamorgan, the chief asbestos consultant for an asbestos centre in Lisbon, and a consultant to Vale of Glamorgan trading standards department. None of these claims is true. Neither the institute at the University of Glamorgan nor the centre in Lisbon have ever existed. His only relationship with the Glamorgan trading standards department is to have been successfully prosecuted by it for claiming a qualification he does not possess.

None of this deters Mr Booker. Armed with Bridle’s claims, for the past six years he has waged a campaign against asbestos science. White asbestos cement, he maintains “poses no measurable risk to health”. He contends that “not a single case” of mesothelioma – the cancer caused by exposure to asbestos – “has ever been scientifically linked with asbestos cement”. A paper commissioned by the UK’s Health and Safety Executive, he says, “concluded that the risk from white asbestos is ‘virtually zero’”.

Booker tells me he has read this paper. Oh yes? The term he quotes – “virtually zero” – does not appear in it. It does show that white asbestos (chrysotile) is less dangerous than brown or blue asbestos. But, while there is uncertainty about the numbers, it still presents a risk of mesothelioma, which depends on the level of exposure. People exposed to a high dose (between 10 and 100 fibres per millilitre per year (f/ml.yr)) have a risk (around two deaths per 100,000 for each f/ml.yr) of contracting this cancer. Only when the dose falls to less than 0.1 f/ml.yr does it become “probably insignficant”. But Booker’s columns contain no such caveat. He creates the impression that white asbestos is safe at all doses. The paper he misquotes also cites five scientific studies of exposure to asbestos cement, which record “high levels of mesothelioma mortality”.

Two years ago, John Bridle’s misleading CV and dodgy record were exposed by the BBC’s You and Yours programme. So the BBC immediately became part of the conspiracy: in Booker’s words “a concerted move by the powerful ‘anti-asbestos lobby’ to silence Bridle”. He suggested that the broadcasting regulator Ofcom would clear Bridle’s name. In June this year it threw out Bridle’s complaint and published evidence even more damning than that contained in the programme. So has Booker changed the way he sees “Britain’s leading practical asbestos expert”? Far from it. He tells me that “my view of Ofcom has plummeted”: it too has joined the conspiracy.

We are not talking about trivia here. This is a matter of life and death. How many people might have been exposed to dangerous levels of asbestos dust as a result of reading and believing Booker’s columns?

“Against the evidence” – New Statesman piece

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The New Statesman has just published an article I’ve written, coinciding with the publication of “Don’t Get Fooled Again” (a version read by a strange robotic voice can be found here…)

Throughout the 1960s, the tobacco industry famously spent millions promoting a small group of vociferous “sceptics” who, in the face of overwhelming evidence, continued to deny the link between smoking and cancer. The strategy paid off. Long after a clear scientific consensus had emerged, much of the public still believed that the case remained unproven.

In a sceptical age, even those disseminating wholly bogus ideas – from corporate pseudo-science to 9/11 conspiracy theories – will often seek to appropriate the language of rational inquiry. But there is a meaningful difference between being a “sceptic” and being in denial. The genuine sceptic forms his beliefs through a balanced evaluation of the evidence. The sceptic of the bogus variety cherry-picks evidence on the basis of a pre-existing belief, seizing on data, however tenuous, that supports his position, and yet declaring himself “sceptical” of any evidence, however compelling, that undermines it.

While it is easy to guess the motivations of an industry-funded scientist denying the dangers posed by his commercial sponsor, or a far-right historian expressing “scepticism” about the Holocaust, other cases are more puzzling. It is difficult to explain why, for example, a respected academic would dismiss the mountain of proof that HIV causes Aids. But several have, notably the Berkeley virologist Peter Duesberg.

HIV is a type of “retrovirus”. Duesberg has argued for decades that retroviruses rarely, if ever, harm their hosts. Rather than modify this theory in the light of evidence that one such virus was killing millions, Duesberg in the late 1980s announced his “scepticism” about that evidence, and has stuck to his guns ever since.

Early on, these ideas found a receptive audience among HIV sufferers, desperate for an alternative prognosis. The cause was later taken up by conspiracy theorists convinced that Aids was a money-spinning fabrication of the global pharmaceutical industry.

In South Africa, at the beginning of this decade, Aids scepticism gained currency with a political class dismayed at the prices being charged for life-saving medicines. Under the influence of Duesberg and his fellow “dissidents”, Thabo Mbeki’s government chose to delay for several years public provision of anti-HIV drugs. The economist Nicoli Nattrass estimates that this decision – made amid one of the world’s worst Aids epidemics – may already have cost hundreds of thousands of lives.

Bogus scepticism does not centre on an impartial search for the truth, but on a no-holds-barred defence of a preconceived ideological position. The bogus sceptic is thus, in reality, a disguised dogmatist, made all the more dangerous for his success in appropriating the mantle of the unbiased and open-minded inquirer.

Richard Wilson’s “Don’t Get Fooled Again” is out now, published by Icon Books (£12.99)

Un-named UK cabinet minister admits lying to the public

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The BBC recounts a refreshing admission from an un-named UK cabinet minister about his conduct in public office. “There just comes a point where you say, ‘I can’t go on lying”, he is reported to have said; “you can’t go on saying ‘I think Gordon Brown is the man to lead us to victory’ when you don’t believe it”.

Interestingly, this admission of dishonesty appears only as a sideshow in the BBC’s story, the main focus of which is the growing disquiet among Labour MPs over Gordon Brown’s leadership. It’s almost as if we have got so used to our politicians brazenly lying to us that it only becomes newsworthy when they decide to start telling the truth.

It might seem strange, after all the lies told in the run-up to the Iraq war, in which thousands have so far died, that the un-named minister should choose this moment to draw a line in the sand over issues of public integrity. 

But one thing has changed since 2003. Whereas the lies over Iraq have done little harm, so far, to the people that told them, Labour’s elite knows that failure to resolve the current crisis over Gordon Brown’s leadership will likely leave them out of work and out of power within 2 years.

Bridle unbuttoned… Ofcom’s damning ruling against bogus expert who claimed white asbestos posed ‘no measurable risk to health’

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For a number of years, a businessman with links to the asbestos industry, calling himself “Professor” John Bridle has been trying to convince the world that white asbestos poses ‘no measurable risk to health’.

In October 2006, the BBC’s You and Yours programme ran an exposé of Bridle and his claims, accusing him of “lies”,”self-aggrandizement” and running unaccredited tests on asbestos samples on the basis of his purported expertise. Following a complaint by Bridle, the broadcasting regulator Ofcom carried out a detailed review of the programme’s claims. Their findings (see pp45-63 of this pdf), issued earlier this year, make for damning reading: 

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

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

Ofcom found as follows:

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

In “Don’t Get Fooled Again” I take a close look at John Bridle’s claims, and at his success in persuading some parts of the media to take them seriously.

“More doctors smoke camels”!

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The Cigarette Century

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cultural history of the cigarette might not seem like the most obvious choice for a compelling read. But Harvard medical historian Allan M Brandt’s extraordinary work, ‘The Cigarette Century’ is a book that that strays a long way from the obvious. Brandt is both a meticulous historian and an eloquent writer – the book is reportedly the product of 20 years of research. In charting the rise and fall of the cigarette - from its humble and disreputable origins in the 19th century to its pre-eminence in the 1950s, and its gradual decline, in the face of growing evidence of its deadly effects – Brandt also recounts the evolution of modern American society; the growth of mass-production, the growing sophistication of industry lobbyists in Congress and - crucially – the birth of the advertising and public relations industries.

Drawing on confidential industry documents – many of them released under legal duress following a series of law-suits in the 1980s and 1990s - Brandt shows how tobacco companies deliberately sought to suppress evidence of the cigarette’s harmful effects, and deployed cutting-edge PR techniques to manipulate public opinion, creating the impression that the science around smoking and cancer was ‘unproven’ long after a clear consensus had emerged among experts.

In “Don’t Get Fooled Again” I show how the techniques developed by the tobacco industry have become the standard tactic for an industry fighting a rearguard action against overwhelming scientific evidence of the dangers of its products.

Written by Richard Wilson

August 21, 2008 at 1:38 pm

“I don’t see any reason why I or my company should follow some arbitrary set of ethical values” – Thatcher PR guru signs for Belarus dictator Lukashenka

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The moustache will have to go – and
let’s not even talk about the combover

The FT reports that “Lord” Tim Bell’s PR company, Bell-Pottinger, has been taken on by the government of Belarus, described by the US as “the last remaining true dictatorship in the heart of Europe”.

In Belarus, according to Amnesty International’s report for the past year:

“Any form of public activity not sanctioned by the state, including religious worship, was liable to prosecution and rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly were disregarded. Opposition activists were given long prison sentences for the peaceful expression of their views, or activists were harassed and prosecuted under the administrative code for lesser offences and fined or detained for short periods.”

It may seem ironic that a dictator who routinely denies freedom of expression to his own people should now be given a helping hand buffing his image in the international media, but Lord Bell is untroubled. “Everybody is entitled to an advocate,” Bell is reported to have said – citing the PR industry’s classic piece of self-justifying spin, which seeks to equate the ‘right’ to expert help in manipulating the media with the right to adequate legal representation. Then, with surprising candidness: “I don’t see any reason why I or my company should follow some arbitrary set of ethical values about what it should or shouldn’t do.”

If the industry’s past form is anything to go by, we should now be on the look-out for navel-gazing op-ed pieces denouncing the ‘demonisation’ of the Belarus government, intimate magazine features showing the ‘softer side’ of Alexander Lukashenka, the Belarus ‘strongman’ (that most exquisite of Orwellian euphemisms), news reports quoting un-named ‘sources’ bigging up the Belarus regime (and smearing critics), and perhaps even a Channel 4 appearance from rent-a-pundit Shirin Akiner.

Alongside Margaret Thatcher (whose advice from Bell reputedly even covered details about hairstyle and clothing) and her son Mark, Bell-Pottinger is said to have worked with British Nuclear Fuels, Imperial Tobacco, BAE Systems, the Iranian leader Mahmoud Ah­madinejad and, interestingly, the ubiquitous Thaksin Shinawatra.

In Don’t Get Fooled Again, I look at the arguments and methods used by the PR industry to rebrand and sanitise even the most insidious of governments and policies.

Written by Richard Wilson

August 14, 2008 at 9:48 pm

Astro-turfing in Acholi-land – the role of the Catholic Church in Northern Uganda

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There must be potential for a good few PhD theses in examining the role played by the Catholic Church in recent efforts to shield Uganda’s “Lord’s Resistance Army” rebels from prosecution by the International Criminal Court. When arrest warrants were first issued in 2005, the move was immediately condemned as a threat to peace by senior Catholic clergy in Uganda, and the church has been active in opposing it ever since. 

“The entire Acholi population has said, ‘Let us forgive for the sake of peace,’“, announced Father Matthew Ojara earlier this year. “We do not believe in punishment in the sense of imprisoning someone. Once reconciliation is done, you have to walk free and live with your brothers and sisters. There are no prison cells or house arrest. That’s a Western practice.”

But this view contrasts sharply with that we hear from other sources. In August last year the International Center for Transitional Justice released the results of a survey of 2,875 adults from the regions most affected by LRA violence. 

According to allafrica.com: “Most respondents wanted those responsible for war crimes and violations of human rights to be held accountable. They distinguished between LRA leaders and lower-ranking LRA members, who, in many cases, had themselves been abducted as civilians. Only a minority (17%) said that the rank-and-file should face trial and/or punishment. Many wanted to see LRA leaders face trials and/or punishment such as imprisonment or death (41%), although many others (52%) also indicated that they favored options including forgiveness, reconciliation, and reintegration into communities.”

One particularly salient issue, it seems to me, is the extent to which religious leaders have sought to speak on behalf of “The entire Acholi population”.

International media coverage on this issue often seems to take at face value claims made by the likes of Ojara about the views of victims, and the inherently forgiving nature of ‘Acholi culture’.

Neither has there been much comment on the irony that many of those most vehemently rejecting the ICC as a ‘western’ imposition - and urging adherence to what they say traditional Acholic culture demands - are fully signed-up members of the single largest ‘western’ religion, Roman Catholicism. 

Internationally, one of the organisations most active in lobbying for the ICC warrants to be suspended – and calling, in more or less euphemistic terms, for the LRA to be offered financial payoffs – has been the US-based “Uganda Conflict Action Network”.

Since Uganda-CAN was established in mid-2005, the organisation’s founders, Peter Quaranto and Michael Poffenberger, have made dozens of media interventions portraying the ICC indictments as an obstacle to peace, urging that the US, as a non-signatory, intervenes to “impact the talks in ways that European countries cannot“, highlighting LRA demands for guarantees of their “physical and financial security”, and suggesting that “creative inducements” could persuade the LRA leader to sign a peace deal.

Uganda-CAN – which was launched just months before the ICC issued its arrest warrants for the LRA leaders (and was relaunched recently under the name “Resolve Uganda”) – is itself an initiative of the Washington-based “African Faith and Justice Network“, which – according to its website – was founded by three Catholic missionary congregations in 1983, and whose “support base is primarily built on the Catholic missionary community”.

But the Resolve Uganda website now makes very little of its religious affiliations, listing AFJN as only one among a number of ‘partners’, and presenting itself as a ‘grassroots’ organisation founded and run by students. It’s only when we dig a bit deeper that we learn that one of those “students”, Resolve Uganda’s head honcho Michael Poffenberger, was formerly “Associate Director of the Africa Faith and Justice Network”.

Wikipedia has a little more on the Uganda-CAN phenomenon – along with a handy definition of the PR tactic commonly known as “astroturfing”.

ABC News and the bogus ‘Iraqi-anthrax’ claims

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Writing in today’s Comment is Free, Dan Gillmore details how, in the early stages of the run-up to the 2003 Iraq invasion, the TV channel ABC News ran a series of sensational stories claiming to have compelling evidence linking the Iraqi regime to the ‘anthrax attacks’ of September and October 2001.

“A substantially false story that helps make the case for war by raising fears about enemies abroad attacking the US is released into public debate because of faulty reporting done by ABC News”, Gillmore writes. “How that happened and who was responsible is itself a major story of public interest”.

Gillmore argues that anonymous sources who lie and mislead journalists have lost their right to have their anonymity respected. He challenges ABC news to ‘out’ the “four well-placed and separate sources” who fed them bogus claims about the source of the anthrax used in the 2001 attacks.

Orwell alert… Some background on the “Central Office of Information”

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From the COI website:

“Central Office of Information was established in 1946 after the demise of the wartime Ministry of Information, when individual government departments resumed responsibility for information policy…

The Central Office of Information (COI) is the centre of marketing excellence for government. It provides strategic advice, consultancy, procurement and project management for public information campaigns… If you know which service you want to access, please find contact details on our services page. Alternatively, please contact the Marketing Manager…”

There’s more on the COI’s “services” here.

The creepiest thing I find out about it is that this government department has such a low profile. During the war it was called the “Ministry of Information” – famously the inspiration, in part, for Orwell’s “Ministry of Truth”, but it seems to have great success in staying under the radar since then…

Interesting that they unashamedly describe themselves as a marketing operation – and that the man in charge, Alan Bishop, was formerly the Chairman of the global advertising giant, Saatchi and Saatchi.

Written by Richard Wilson

August 3, 2008 at 7:09 pm

“It allows the Government to have more air time and get its message across to people” – Telegraph exposes covert UK government funding of TV documentaries on controversial political issues

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In “Don’t Get Fooled Again” I highlight the case of Armstrong Williams, the US columnist, who was reportedly paid $240,000 by the Bush administration to promote its education policies, with thousands also being channeled to journalists Michael Macmanus and Maggie Gallaher.  

Now the Telegraph has revealed that the UK government has so far paid nearly £2 million for a series of TV documentaries – at least eight in the last five years, several covering controversial government policies – without viewers being made aware that the government itself had paid for the coverage.

The Telegraph reports that:

Beat: Life on the Street, which was supported with £800,000 of funding by the Home Office for its first two series, portrayed PCSOs as dedicated, helpful and an effective adjunct to the police — despite the controversy about their role.

One Whitehall source admitted of the documentary: “It allows the Government to have more air time and get its message across to people.”

Ministers are so pleased with the way the series, which drew in audiences of three million people on ITV and changed the public’s perception of the officers, that they commissioned a third series, to be broadcast next year.

*UPDATE – Interestingly, today’s revelation by the Telegraph isn’t entirely new – back in 2006, the Times ran a story about “Beat”, reporting that the show was being funded through the Home Office’s only-slightly-chillingly-named ‘Central Office for Information’… According to the COI’s website, it is actually responsible for the whole government, and is managed not through the Home Office but through the ministerial Cabinet Office. More on the COI shortly…*