Monday, December 31, 2007 

The year of the Madeleine.

You can't really say that 2007 was anything but eventful. At long last, we were freed from the tyranny of Blair and Blairism, only for it to be replaced by revolutionary Brownism - indistinguishable and just as incompetent. He started so well that even I was encouraged to begin with; then it all came crashing down. One party politics though has in actuality remained the defining ideology. Neither the Tories or the Liberal Democrats offer anything approaching a genuine alternative, let alone even an illusion of change. If anything, the Conservatives have shifted further to the right - emboldened by the inheritance tax cut pledge. The side is only held up by their opposition to the extension of detention without charge for "terrorist suspects", which provides the party with liberal credentials that it doesn't deserve. With Nick Clegg replacing the dignified but doomed Ming Campbell, the lack of difference is all too enveloping.

Little in reality has changed. We enter a new year with a Brown government that has been reacting, not leading to the various catastrophes, from the losing of the child benefit discs, Northern Rock, David Abrahams' donations, to the continuing prison overcrowding and refusal to compromise over ID cards or extended detention limits. In Iraq, the troops numbers may have come down slightly, but their continuing presence has no rhyme or reason behind it, while we leave the translators we owe a debt to to the mercies of the militias and bureaucrats deciding whether they potentially live or die. Afghanistan remains as intractable as before, with the Tories denouncing any attempt whatsoever to talk to the Taliban and bring the lunacy that there's a military solution to an end. The assassination of Benazir Bhutto, however flawed she was, has plunged the region into further turmoil. The one silver lining is that the tension over Iran's nuclear programme has been alleviated thanks to the National Intelligence Estimate. There is no way now that Bush can lead an attack prior to his leaving office.

Iraq itself has been becalmed to an extent, but at what cost and for how long are questions without answers. The fall in violence has not been down to the surge, but to the
salvation council model which has spread across the country. Former Sunni militants have turned decisively away from the takfirists of the Islamic State of Iraq, isolating both them and the foreign recruits which overwhelmingly made up their numbers. Of real concern however is whether the fragile accord between the Sunni and Shia groups holds where it exists, as is whether the former insurgents now being armed by the US on the councils eventually turn their guns on the occupiers. Despite the fall in violence, the numbers of American dead, just short of 1,000, are the highest to date. At least 18,000 Iraqis have died in violence this year, and you'd imagine that is most certainly a fraction of the real number.

Back home, we faced the most inept terror attacks since Kate Nash took to a microphone. The laughable attempt to blow first a nightclub then Glasgow airport up using patio gas canisters with nails packed around them was mostly responded to in the manner it warranted: contempt. Only the Sun went overboard, unable to come up with an original or distinct way to respond,
resorting to facile flag-waving. Middle England was flooded, while northern working class England, similarly underwater previously, got ignored.

We'd be deluding ourselves if we thought that any of the above was the real story of the year. There was only one, and that occurred when Madeleine McCann vanished from the family apartment in Praia Da Luz back in May. That is the one indisputable fact that's been established, even 7 months later. Everything else has been pure conjecture. Where she went, whether she was murdered or abducted, and who was involved has been open to the public ever since. The coverage has never managed to strike the right note from the very beginning: first it was
vapid emotional pornography, faux concern and caring from journalists only interested in extracting the necessary pound of flesh for their masters. It couldn't have been exemplified more than by how Robert Murat was at first implicated by a Sunday Mirror journalist. When that got stale, the Portuguese investigation itself was turned on for its "incompetence", or in other words, failing to find Madeleine for the poor, devastated and distressed McCanns, brimming with casual xenophobia and prejudice. It's hard now looking back to see it as anything other than a reaction to how the police weren't providing the media with any solid information because of the Portuguese legal system. The third act, the announcement that the McCanns themselves were being made arguidos, and their subsequent flight back to the UK, with the media unable to decide whether they were guilty as hell or the victims of the most unbearably hurtful slur, was capped by their decision to hire an ex-journalist as their spin doctor/spokesman. Their stomach-churningly bad decision to make a tape at Christmas addressed to Madeleine was the icing on the cake for a couple that have never understood the very basics of how the media work. That's not their fault, but even they must be amazed at how 7 months later their daughter's disappearance is still front page news. If the Diana inquest hadn't resumed that beaten and battered dead horse, then she could be described as the new one.

2008 stretches only slightly less bleakly than 2007 did. Still, musn't grumble, right?

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Friday, July 27, 2007 

Scum-watch: Floody hell.

The Sun really does seem to be a roll at the minute when it comes to trying to scare those already flooded into even further bouts of ennui, depression and anxiety. Yesterday, in the calm, measured manner for which the newspaper is renowned, it splashed on its own investigation, headlined "THE TOXIC TIDE". For anyone doubting just what sort of toxicity the newspaper was talking about, it helpfully illustrated the problem with the stock poison warning label, the skull and crossbones. Not wanting to be possibly outdone, it listed just about every possible disease that might be lurking in the filthy water:

Experts confirmed that water samples collected by The Sun on the outskirts of Gloucester bore traces of animal and human faeces.

Analysis revealed disturbing levels of bacteria and viruses, including salmonella, hospital superbug C.Diff and cryptosporidium.

Dysentery, gastroenteritis, gastritis and meningitis could all be contracted by the rapid spread of infection, causing crippling stomach pains, diarrhoea, and possible long-term effects in children.

And if that wasn't enough:

One of the biggest fears was that there could be an outbreak of deadly cholera.

Is bacteria (sic) thrives in warm, dirty water and the disease spreads between people who consume contaminated food or water.

The disease — most dangerous for young children — ravages the gut, causing chronic diarrhoea.

That can lead to severe dehydration, rapid kidney failure and death.

Or if that doesn't get you, E.coli will:

The E.coli 157 bug can also be lethal. It surfaced in Britain in the 1980s and is passed on by eating infected food or drinking contaminated liquid. It kills by damaging the kidneys.

Dysentery is also caused by a form of bacteria, spreading rapidly through food, infected water and physical contact with victims.

It leads to chronic stomach cramps, then diarrhoea and possibly kidney failure.

Strangely, nowhere in the entire article is the obvious pointed out: unless you for some reason feel like drinking the water, the chances of catching anything are slight. Thankfully, we have the BBC, which last week the Sun said needed to have the stables cleaned out and the jobsworths sacked in order for trust to be restored, to bring some clarity to the issue:

Professor Kevin G Kerr, consultant Microbiologist at Harrogate District Hospital said: "Some areas of the world experience serious outbreaks of diseases such as cholera and typhoid after major flooding.

"But large-scale outbreaks of infection would be very unlikely in the UK, partly because these diseases are very rare in this country but mainly because water companies are able to provide clean drinking water - either bottled or from bowsers - to people without tap water."

Dr Ken Flint, a microbiologist at the University of Warwick, said: "As long as people don't drink the flood water they won't get a water borne disease."

And environmental microbiologist Dr Keith Jones, from Lancaster University, said: "Despite the dire warnings about outbreaks of disease following flooding, they rarely happen.

"Although there is the potential for an increase in enteric disease after flooding, if you follow the advice given by the Environment Agency and the Environmental Health Officers, you should be safe."

Indeed, no disease outbreaks were reported in the flooded areas of the US affected by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

And there is no evidence from previous UK floods, such as Carlisle and Lewes, that bugs in the water caused an increase in gastro-intestinal illness and enhanced surveillance by the Health Protection Agency has not detected increased reports of infection in areas that are currently affect flooding either.

Not content with just over-hyping the deadliness of the flood water, today's Scum instead decided to err, over-hype the deadliness of the water contained in the bowsers, while having a good old bash at those favoured bogeymen, the one-dimensional, omnipresent yet invisible yobs:

FURIOUS flood victims last night slammed yobs who ruined their emergency water supply.

Gangs of youngsters urinated in a desperately-needed water bowser and tipped bleach into another.

They also emptied one of the mobile tankers of its precious water within 15 minutes of its arrival in Cheltenham, Gloucs — then stood by laughing.

All splashed on the front page, with the headline "POND LIFE" just to hammer home the disgraceful behaviour of these feral youngsters. Oddly, especially for an exclusive that led the paper, the story was nowhere to be seen on the news page by tonight. (I had to search for it.) Could that possibly be related to the BBC yet again having to clarify the Sun's voluminous apoplexy?

Gloucestershire police have said they have received about ten reports of criminal damage to bowsers and one unconfirmed report of urine in one of the containers.

One would presume that the unconfirmed report came from err, the Sun. In any case, "Guinnessman" in the comments on the article has the solution:

Why can't the powers-that-be have the nerve to declare martial law in the worst affected places. That way, these little scum-bags could be shot.

Out of 3 pages of why-oh-whying, calls for parents to give their youngsters a good beating to sort them out and diatribes about chav scum, it's left to the usual one person there often is on these threads to insert just a tiny amount of sanity:

Come on - where's your sense of humour? Kids will always be kids! Can't you see the funny side of peeing in the water? Have you forgotten what its like to be young?

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Monday, July 23, 2007 

Any movement that forgets about class is a bowel movement.

Isn't it interesting to measure the response to the floods currently affecting the West Midlands and south-western England to that which followed the similar deluges which left vast swathes of Yorkshire and northern England underwater at the beginning of the month? While the situation now is certainly more serious than it was in the north, with water and power supplies coming under strain, it's hard not to see that there are far more factors at work here than just the amount of water to drop from the sky.

While Polly Toynbee, in one of her more cogent pieces pointed out that if the floods had taken place in Chelsea the media would have been in full baying for blood mood, while it was only in half if that on the matter, she in fact didn't take her point to its logical conclusion. It's not the media with whom the full fault lies here; it's the political parties, and their own warped sense of priorities, which have been influenced by the power exercised especially by the tabloids which has made this latest breaking of the banks far more newsworthy.

At the very heart of why the north is far less important than south is that the voters there have been taken for granted under New Labour. From the beginning, New Labour was about the betrayal not just of everything that Labour formerly stood for, but also the very people who it was initially set up to represent. Of all the regions that suffered the most under the floods at the end of June beginning of July, nearly all of them have Labour MPs with invariably large majorities. The worst affected areas, Hull and Toll Bar near to Doncaster, are all Labour strongholds, Hull having the constituencies of both John Prescott and Alan Johnson, while Sheffield, similarly hard hit, counts David Blunkett amongst its representatives. The few exceptions to the rule, with Nick Clegg of the Lib Dems holding Sheffield Hallam, and Greg Mulholland grabbing Leeds North West are more down to the role of the student population and their opposition to the Iraq war and top-up tuition fees than any other real love for the party they belong to. Seeing as Labour still has a majority of 60 or so, and that so many former/current ministers are based in the area, you would have expected far more coverage/demands that something must be done than that which we actually had. While it was fun for the television reporters to put on their wellies and stand in knee-deep water, while hearing the stories those who had lost everything told, the newspapers lost interest relatively quickly, with the reporters following suit shortly afterwards.

What few, especially Labour MPs would dare to breathe was the real reason behind this was the class factor. While the region is by no means homogeneous, it's become regarded both by the media and by the political class as being populated by the kind of people who can be safely ignored. Once we called them the working class, but in a country in which the class distinctions have meant to have been broken down, referring to them as such now could almost be taken as offensive, and if that doesn't apply, then mentioning anything to do with class quickly brings the usual accusations of envy and usage of obsolete pejoratives. Hull might have been effectively devastated, with up to 10,000 homes needing urgent repairs and damages to schools running into the millions, but after all, wasn't Hull just a few years ago announced as the worst place to live in the UK by Channel 4, that doyen of the ultra-bourgeois property and lifestyle programmes? Who could possibly care about such proles who won't move outside of such a vulgar, brash, depressing place?

At the same time, the very fact that the area is dominated by Labour has meant, especially with Brown's ascension to the prime ministership, that few have dared to be openly critical themselves and potentially bring down a media storm on their new leader's head. With the Conservatives still decimated and likely to stay that way, there's been few effective voices other than local councillors visibly complaining about the lack of help which the area has received.

What a difference the fact that the water was this time deposited over the very heart of middle England has made! We're talking of the very area where New Labour myths were created: if the party could win over the support of the upper middle classes in the shires, the families living in such previous no-go Labour areas as Gloucester and Cheltenham, anything was possible. The emergence of Worcester woman, who couldn't give a fig for ideology or the outdated ways of the past but cared deeply about the public services and quality of life, was the very embodiment of everything that Blair's newly liberated party wanted to stand for. The unexpected victories in such cities and towns in 1997 spurred the leadership on to every greater flights of fancy. Such gains needed to be held at whatever cost, even if it was highly unlikely to be possible. Those voters up in the north could be counted upon even if Blair turned out to be Pol Pot in disguise. It was the Daily Mail/Telegraph heartlands that needed to be pampered with their every whim addressed. So it has turned out to be, with only Worcester and Gloucester still staying with Labour in 2005, but by God did they try.

How predictable that even now Labour knows a true "crisis" when it sees one. There wasn't an emergency up in Sheffield, Leeds, Doncaster and Hull, even though 7 people died in the chaos (it was left to the Environment Agency to describe it as "critical" and the FBU to say it was the biggest rescue operation they'd undertaken in peacetime); there most certainly is out in the jungle of Tewkesbury and Oxford, such a one that Brown himself needed to take a helicopter ride to see the swathes of hard-working, family loving, non-feckless countryside under metres of effluent coloured and flavoured water. This time too, the Tories had something to be concerned and outraged about, with John Redwood, that vulcan and symbol of disgusted Britain demanding to know why the government hadn't bombed the rain clouds into submission. The only plus is that David Cameron was so concerned about his deluged constituency that he flew straight off to Rwanda to deal with more pressing matters. Meanwhile, the BBC decamps Hugh Edwards and numerous other correspondents to the most hard hit areas, leaving sex kitten Natasha Kaplinsky to man the fort in White City, while the tabloids get ready to howl about their precious readers' destroyed homes and ruined lives.

This does of course ignore the fact that every single one of these people, regardless of their background, has lost something as a result of an act of God, however much the blame will now be thrown about. It's easy to forget however, when in the eyes both of a government and a media, some animals are still more equal than others.

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