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Parliamentary aides offered perks by cigarette firm in advance of tobacco legislation debate

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In “Don’t Get Fooled Again” I highlight the exposure of columnist Roger Scruton, who was revealed to have taken money from Japan Tobacco in exchange for placing pro-smoking articles in several major newspapers – and the attempts by another columnist, Terence Blacker, to mitigate his actions.

Now it’s been revealed that Japan Tobacco, the world’s third largest tobacco company, may again have been seeking to exert hidden influence,  by offering entertainment perks to UK Parliamentary aides in the run-up to a debate on health in which a clampdown on cigarette sales will be considered.

From The Guardian:

The world’s third largest tobacco company is offering entertainment perks to parliamentary researchers as legislation that will ban the display of cigarettes is before peers and MPs.

Japan Tobacco, the firm behind brands such as Benson & Hedges, Silk Cut, Camel and Winston, offered a “fun evening” watching the Strictly Come Dancing tour at the 02 Arena at the Millennium Dome in London.

The company invited at least two MPs’ aides, including the researcher for Norman Lamb, the Liberal Democrat health spokesman…

Andrew Forth, Lamb’s researcher, and James Tobin, the researcher for Greg Mulholland, the Lib Dem MP for Leeds North West, turned down the offer.

“They told us there were lots of researchers going,” Forth said. “It strikes me as pretty dubious for a tobacco company to be inviting research staff out to such an event which serves no real work purpose in advance of what is pretty controversial legislation which will have a big impact on them. Good working relationships between researchers and issue groups are both vital and useful. This seems to go too far.”…

Lord Liverpool, Lord Stoddart, Lady Knight, Lady Golding and Lady Goudie have objected to the ban on the display of cigarettes. Earl Howe, the Tory health spokesman, plans to vote against a number of the measures and has tabled an alternative policy calling for adults who purchase cigarettes for children to be prosecuted.

Written by Richard Wilson

February 24, 2009 at 7:12 pm

AIDS and HIV: Connie Howard follows in Neville Hodgkinson’s footsteps

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Vue Weekly’s Connie Howard, who I took issue with here over her Jan 15th article urging “respect” for Christine Maggiore’s position on HIV and AIDS, has made some comments on this blog in response.

She also recently penned another article for Vue, in which she claims that:

One friend, who asked to remain nameless (for obvious reasons), tells me he has watched all but one of his HIV-positive friends die over the years—friends who did as they were told, who took their antiretroviral meds. He, also HIV-positive and so far refusing treatment, is alive and well… As my friend said, what set Christine Maggiore apart was her willingness to be unflinchingly realistic about the risks and toxicities of treatment, the unanswered questions and the potentially relatively lower risk of non-drug approaches. Does that not sound reasonable?

The implication of Howard’s piece seems to be that taking AIDS medications carries a grave health risk, while the dangers to those with HIV of refusing conventional treatment are “potentially relatively lower”. This is quite a big claim to make, as it appears to run counter to what the overwhelming majority of experts on AIDS believe, and could have serious impacts on public health if taken seriously.

Like the former Sunday Times medical correspondent Neville Hodgkinson (and the authors of Continuum Magazine), Howard’s argument centres on an HIV-positive individual who, she claims, remains in good health despite his refusal to take anti-retroviral medications, and has managed to outlive others who accepted conventional treatment.  Unlike Hodgkinson, Howard declines to give any identifiable details about the case, citing “obvious reasons”.

The risks of journalists basing a serious public health claim on an un-named, unverifiable source should also be “obvious”.

Jody Wells  – the seemingly-healthy HIV-positive medication refusnik presented in Hodgkinson’s article  – was dead within a few years of the piece being published.  So too, tragically, was Sylvie Cousseau, and many of the other cases cited in Continuum Magazine. Because these claimed counter-examples to the conventional science on AIDS and HIV were named, it was possible to verify the details, and follow what happened to them afterwards. But as the case presented by Howard is wholly anonymous, there is no way of independently checking the facts, whether Howard has reported them accurately, or even whether the person she cites actually exists.

Christopher Booker embraces recycling

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Journalist Christopher Booker may affect to doubt the human impact on the environment, and the wisdom of recycling targets for our household rubbish,  but he appears to have fewer qualms when it comes to filling up space in his weekly Sunday Telegraph column.

In a warm review for the Spectator last month of the new book by fellow Sunday Telegraph pundit James le Fanu, Booker informed readers that “the greatest stumbling block” in Darwin’s theory of evolution was that:

evolution has repeatedly taken place in leaps forward so sudden and so complex that they could not possibly have been accounted for by the gradual process he suggested — the ‘Cambrian explosion’ of new life forms, the complexities of the eye, the post-Cretaceous explosion of mammals. Again and again some new development emerged which required a whole mass of interdependent changes to take place simultaneously, such as the transformation of reptiles into feathered, hollow-boned and warm-blooded birds…

What is psychologically fascinating about the mindset of the Darwinians is their inability to recognise just how much they do not know. As Le Fanu observes in a comment which might have served as an epigraph to his book, ‘the greatest obstacle to scientific progress is not ignorance but the illusion of knowledge’. Blinkered in their vision, armoured in the certainty that they have all the answers when they so obviously don’t, neo-Darwinians such as Richard Dawkins rest their beliefs just as much on an unscientific leap of faith as the ‘Creationists’ they so fanatically affect to despise.

In his column for today’s Sunday Telegraph, Booker tells readers that “one great stumbling block” for Darwin’s theory of evolution is that:

evolution has repeatedly taken place in leaps forward so sudden and so complex that they could not possibly have been accounted for by the gradual process he suggested – “the Cambrian explosion” of new life forms, the complexities of the eye, the post-Cretaceous explosion of mammals. Again and again some new development emerged which required a whole mass of interdependent changes to take place simultaneously, such as the transformation of reptiles into feathered, hollow-boned and warm-blooded birds…

What is fascinating about the Darwinians is their inability to accept just how much they do not know. Armoured in their certainty that they have all the answers when they so obviously don’t, neo-Darwinians such as Richard Dawkins rest their beliefs just as much on an unscientific leap of faith as the â Creationists’ they so fanatically affect to despise. It is revealing how they dismissively try to equate all those scientists who argue for ‘intelligent design’ with Biblical fundamentalists, as their only way to cope with questions they cannot answer.

In Don’t Get Fooled Again, I highlight Christopher Booker’s recycling of the asbestos industry’s pseudo-science in downplaying the health risks of white (“chrysotile”) asbestos.

George Monbiot launches the Booker prize for pseudo-science…

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It had to happen sooner or later…

From George Monbiot at the Guardian

Today I am launching a new and much-coveted award. It is called the Christopher Booker Prize. It will be presented to whoever manages, in the course of 2009, to cram as many misrepresentations, distortions and falsehoods into a single article, statement, lecture, film or interview about climate change. It is not to be confused with the Man Booker Prize, although that is also a prize for fiction.

The prize consists of a tasteful trophy made from recycled materials plus a one-way solo kayak trip to the North Pole, enabling the lucky winner to see for himself the full extent of the Arctic ice melt. Later this week, I will publish the full terms and conditions and unveil the beautiful trophy, which is currently being fashioned by master craftsmen in mid-Wales.

Booker attacks… BBC Newsnight science editor Susan Watts

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Having disproved man-made global warming, refuted Darwin’s theory of evolution, and proved that white asbestos is “chemically identical to talcum powder”, Christopher Booker this week returned to one of his favourite themes, the all-round-general-beastliness of the BBC.

…while the BBC was refusing to show an appeal for aid to the victims of Israeli bombing in Gaza, on the grounds that this might breach its charter obligation to be impartial, a rather less publicised row was raging over Newsnight’s doctoring of film of President Obama’s inaugural speech, which was used to support yet another of its items promoting the warming scare. Clips from the speech were spliced together to convey a considerably stronger impression of what Obama had said on global warming than his very careful wording justified. While that may have been unprofessional enough, the rest of the item, by Newsnight’s science editor, Susan Watts, was even more bizarre. It was no more than a paean of gratitude that we now at last have a president prepared to listen to the “science” on climate change, after the dark age of religious obscurantism personified by President Bush.

For the record, the full text of Obama’s inaugural address, including his comments on global warming, can be read here.

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

Poll: Is it right for the Sunday Telegraph to mislead the public about the health risks of asbestos?

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The Sunday Telegraph columnist Christopher Booker has now written at least 41 different articles in which he repeatedly denies, downplays or misrepresents the scientific evidence around the health risks of white asbestos, often echoing the PR messages of the industry-funded “Chrysotile Institute”.

But is it fair for us to expect newspapers and newspaper columnists to tell the truth? YOU DECIDE:

Health experts urge Canadian government to stop funding the Chrysotile Institute

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In “Don’t Get Fooled Again”, I highlight Sunday Telegraph columnist Christopher Booker’s ongoing campaign to downplay the health risks of white asbestos. Both Booker and his main scientific source, John Bridle, have been linked to the industry-run “Chrysotile Institute”, whose claims about asbestos Booker’s columns often echo.

Now a group of health experts in Canada, one of the world’s largest exporters of white (chrysotile) asbestos, have called on the Canadian government to stop subsidising the Chrysotile Institute and it’s “nonsensical claims”:

The Canadian government is funding censorship and perversion of scientific information, charge a number of health experts in a strongly worded letter sent today to Prime Minister Harper.

The experts, from the Université de Laval and other universities across Canada, ask the Prime Minister to stop funding the Chrysotile Institute (formerly the Asbestos Institute) in his government’s January 27 budget.

“The Institute censors information from the world’s leading health authorities, distorts their views and puts forward nonsensical claims, for example that chrysotile asbestos disappears when it is mixed with cement and becomes harmless,” says Dr Colin Soskolne, Professor of Epidemiology at the University of Alberta. “This is not science; this is dangerous nonsense.”

“It is a slur on the reputation of the scientific community and people of Canada for the government to be funding such distortion of scientific information,” says Dr Tim Takaro, Associate Professor in the Faculty of Health Sciences, SFU. “But, more importantly, this misinformation puts people’s lives at risk. This is completely unethical and must stop.”

“Over the past 25 years, the government has given more than $20 million to support the dying asbestos industry in Quebec. Over 90% of the workers have lost their jobs; the remaining approximately 550 workers have had their wages slashed and work part-time; and in 2007, the asbestos mining company filed for bankruptcy protection,” said Kathleen Ruff, senior human rights advisor to the Rideau Institute. “It is time to stop this wasteful and unethical use of government funds. Instead, the government should help the remaining asbestos workers and the community with just transition assistance.”

Lizzy Siddal reviews Don’t Get Fooled Again

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From Lizzy’s Literary Life

We all know that you shouldn’t believe everything that you read in the press , or hear on the news, don’t we?  What’s the definition of lying?  Inventing stories, misappropriating the truth, lies of omission, spin?

Richard Wilson’s Don’t Get Fooled Again is an illuminating compilation of methods and examples  from both the 20th and 21st centuries in which governments and the general public have been duped by flawed thinking:

a)  Pseudo-science – 30 million deaths in China as a result of adopting  Lysenko’s agricultural reforms (already the cause of millions of deaths in Stalin’s Russia!).

b) Relativism - the uncounted number of deaths in Africa as a result of the success of those denying the existence of HIV and AIDS.

c) The power of vested interests and commercial journalism – the decade-long controvery over whether smoking was bad for your health.

d) Groupthink – spiralling terrorism leading inevitability to the second Iraq war and the excesses at Abu Ghraib.

Wilson doesn’t just detail the facts in his examples.  He explains the underlying psychologies.   It’s only by understanding these that we, as individuals, can choose not to get fooled again.  He offers  the following toolkit for spotting manipulation:

1) The antidotes to delusion are logic and evidence, preferably from multiple sources.

2) Remember – it’s not all relative!

3) Spot the false sceptic.  Remarkably credulous about facts which support their viewpoint but always demanding more evidence for those which do not.

4)  Beware of  groupthink.

I haven’t read a newspaper in years because of the underlying – and manipulative – bias of the writing.  I think I might just revisit that policy.  Armed with the above, it will be an interesting exercise.

Veteran Liberal MP’s asbestos industry links exposed

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

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.

“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.”

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…*

New York Times exposes undisclosed affiliations of news networks’ “military analysts”

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I’m currently re-reading Nick Davies’s excellent book, “Flat Earth News“, a detailed investigation of distortion, manipulation and in some cases corruption within the media.

One acute issue is the extent to which TV and radio news channels routinely run interviews with people presented as an “analyst” or “consultant” on some issue or another, without any mention of the fact that this person has a direct vested interest. The classic example – and one that I look at in “Don’t Get Fooled Again” – would be the interviewing of a supposedly unbiased scientific expert about the health risks of smoking, without the public being told that he or she takes a regular “retainer” from the tobacco industry.

Since the early days of PR the use of this tactic has grown exponentially, most especially with the build-up to the Iraq war, and its aftermath. One mild example was the BBC Radio 4 Today Programme’s interview a few months back with the mysterious Canon Andrew White, an Anglican clergyman based in Iraq, who gave a rosy account of the situation there and bemoaned what he said was an overly negative view often presented in the media. No mention was made of the fact that the organisation Canon White founded – the  “Foundation for Reconcilation and Relief in the Middle East” (FRRME) - has been heavily funded by the UK Ministry of Defence and various branches of the US government, along with the Orwellian “Iraqi Institute of Peace“, which the FRRME manages.

But this pales into insignificance alongside the exposé from the New York Times – highlighted on the Flat Earth News website - of the lengths the Pentagon has taken to co-opt retired US military officers as unofficial spokesmen for the administration, all the while presenting them as apparently neutral “military analysts” commenting on US policy in Iraq. A further corrupting factor was that many of these former high-ranking army officers had gone on to work for companies bidding for US government contracts for “reconstruction” in Iraq. Retired Lt Col Timur J Eads was one of a number who told the New York Times that they had often held their tongue when interviewed on air, fearing that “some four-star could call up and say ‘Kill that contract’”. Yet rarely, it seems, did the big US TV networks give the public any inkling that these “military analysts” had a clear financial stake in supporting the official US government line.