Tuesday, October 24, 2006


It was the day that a host of BBC executives and star presenters admitted what critics have been telling them for years: the BBC is dominated by trendy, Left-leaning liberals who are biased against Christianity and in favour of multiculturalism. A leaked account of an 'impartiality summit' called by BBC chairman Michael Grade, is certain to lead to a new row about the BBC and its reporting on key issues, especially concerning Muslims and the war on terror. It reveals that executives would let the Bible be thrown into a dustbin on a TV comedy show, but not the Koran, and that they would broadcast an interview with Osama Bin Laden if given the opportunity. Further, it discloses that the BBC's 'diversity tsar', wants Muslim women newsreaders to be allowed to wear veils when on air.

At the secret meeting in London last month, which was hosted by veteran broadcaster Sue Lawley, BBC executives admitted the corporation is dominated by homosexuals and people from ethnic minorities, deliberately promotes multiculturalism, is anti-American, anti-countryside and more sensitive to the feelings of Muslims than Christians. One veteran BBC executive said: 'There was widespread acknowledgement that we may have gone too far in the direction of political correctness. 'Unfortunately, much of it is so deeply embedded in the BBC's culture, that it is very hard to change it.'

In one of a series of discussions, executives were asked to rule on how they would react if the controversial comedian Sacha Baron Cohen -- known for his offensive characters Ali G and Borat - was a guest on the programme Room 101. On the show, celebrities are invited to throw their pet hates into a dustbin and it was imagined that Baron Cohen chose some kosher food, the Archbishop of Canterbury, a Bible and the Koran. Nearly everyone at the summit, including the show's actual producer and the BBC's head of drama, Alan Yentob, agreed they could all be thrown into the bin, except the Koran for fear of offending Muslims.

In a debate on whether the BBC should interview Osama Bin Laden if he approached them, it was decided the Al Qaeda leader would be given a platform to explain his views. And the BBC's 'diversity tsar', Mary Fitzpatrick, said women newsreaders should be able to wear whatever they wanted while on TV, including veils. Ms Fitzpatrick spoke out after criticism was raised at the summit of TV newsreader Fiona Bruce, who recently wore on air a necklace with a cross.

The full account of the meeting shows how senior BBC figures queued up to lambast their employer. Political pundit Andrew Marr said: 'The BBC is not impartial or neutral. It's a publicly funded, urban organisation with an abnormally large number of young people, ethnic minorities and gay people. It has a liberal bias not so much a party-political bias. It is better expressed as a cultural liberal bias.'

Washington correspondent Justin Webb said that the BBC is so biased against America that deputy director general Mark Byford had secretly agreed to help him to 'correct', it in his reports. Webb added that the BBC treated America with scorn and derision and gave it 'no moral weight'.

Former BBC business editor Jeff Randall said he complained to a 'very senior news executive', about the BBC's pro-multicultural stance but was given the reply: 'The BBC is not neutral in multiculturalism: it believes in it and it promotes it.' Randall also told how he once wore Union Jack cufflinks to work but was rebuked with: 'You can't do that, that's like the National Front!' Quoting a George Orwell observation, Randall said that the BBC was full of intellectuals who 'would rather steal from a poor box than stand to attention during God Save The King'.

There was another heated debate when the summit discussed whether the BBC was too sensitive about criticising black families for failing to take responsibility for their children. Head of news Helen Boaden disclosed that a Radio 4 programme which blamed black youths at a young offenders', institution for bullying white inmates faced the axe until she stepped in.

But Ms Fitzpatrick, who has said that the BBC should not use white reporters in non-white countries, argued it had a duty to 'contextualise' why black youngsters behaved in such a way.

Andrew Marr told The Mail on Sunday last night: 'The BBC must always try to reflect Britain, which is mostly a provincial, middle-of-the-road country. Britain is not a mirror image of the BBC or the people who work for it.'



Seeing ordinary people with lots of goodies is just insufferable to our self-declared Leftist "betters"

If the reams of scary reportage on Britain's unprecedented levels of personal debt, competitive misery and shopping addiction are anything to go by, then we have finally bought wholesale into an ugly, regressive morality tale of the helpless consumer. Over the past decade, commentators have been competing to see who can present the most alarmist research on the psychological damage, spiritual impoverishment and moral decay caused by our compulsive spending and consuming. The recent high profile campaign to cure childhood of various modern ills cited `mass marketing' as one of the big three toxins. Spendaholic Britons are apparently in the paralysing grip of a debt crisis: `Credit card lending rose by œ400m last month.. On average every man, woman and child in the UK owes at least 2,300 pounds.'

Yet pathologising our spending habits has created a demeaning, damaging vision of the human subject as a vulnerable, selfish automaton; a hopeless, amoral being. This commentary on our `sick' spending and Pavlovian response to advertising is symptomatic, not just of therapy culture, but of a deep ambivalence towards what are, in fact, some of our more healthy impulses and ambitions.

Before interrogating the political message of these distortions, it is worth challenging the hysterical tone of the debt statistics in particular. The `on average' nature of the figures cited above, for example, means they include a majority of `typical' middle-income households. Is 2,300 worth of debt so crippling to this group? Surely such a sum is comfortably covered by the average earnings of those involved? Or take Credit Action's panicked estimation that `Britain's personal debt is increasing by 1million every four minutes.' Is this so terrifying if it includes, in the main, households that take out loans for home improvements or new cars? No, but these planned investments in assets add up to the image of a rational consumer, not the impulsive, `frivolous', irresponsible one contemporary experts prefer to cast us as.

Spendaholics and the politics of behaviour

There is a long history of preaching against the corrupting potential of wealth. It began with ancient creeds, surfaced in general Christian teachings and Puritan doctrines, then re-emerged in the nineteenth century bohemian revulsion towards bourgeois, commercial `vulgarity'. What distinguishes today's anti-consumer sermons, however, is their tendency to cast `the masses' as greedy cartoon demons, and the eco-friendly, middle-class thrifties as the saints. Lifestyle `downsizers' occupy the moral high ground by virtue of their lack of desire for stuff, and their ability to declutter - materially and therefore spiritually.

The crude equation is: more stuff = sad, less stuff =happy. As Professor Andrew Oswald of Warwick University tells the BBC: `During the past 25 years, people have had material things far more, and yet it doesn't seem to have generated greater happiness.' An American book reporting from the frontline of decluttering, is soon to clutter our shelves. It describes, in anthropological terms, a couple's attempt to spend nothing for a year (other than on the absolute basics: mortgage, heat and food). Early reviews praised the lessons learnt about freedom from consumerist tyranny.

So why are we slaves to the 2006 version of the slavish consumer? Daniel Ben-Ami has argued previously on spiked that `We live in a world in which there is an unprecedented degree of cynicism about the benefits of economic growth.affluence .is typically subject to numerous caveats. Among other things it is accused of damaging the environment, leading to inequality and failing to make people happy.' The concepts of affluence and happiness are diametrically opposed today. So, imagery of consumerist hell reflects our ambivalence towards material growth generally. But what it further reflects is the new politics of behaviour.

Even if the loan sharks were banging down all our doors, why has this suddenly become anyone else's business or cause for alarm? It is precisely the private nature of disposable income and personal loans that so disturbs the lifestyle experts. It is one of the few, albeit banal, arenas left where people exercise unmediated control over their immediate material circumstances. Even then, we are not free from moral condescension regarding the eco or ethical credentials of our purchases, but it is still excess money, to do with as we see fit.

What also upsets the lifestyle experts is aspiration. One of the rhetorical cliches deployed in this debate, to reinforce a picture of humanity as despairing, vulnerable and in need of expert guidance, is the portrayal of ambition as a competitive sickness. What Alain de Botton recently called `status anxiety' not only adds to the picture of our damaged passivity, it also reduces aspirational desires and social interaction to banal, cold forms of one-upmanship.

Our lack of altruism and vicious competitive detachment from others is continually emphasized in subsequent modern studies. According to BBC News, researchers at Warwick University have discovered most people need to feel richer than their neighbours, even when they do not know them - to the point where we would cost ourselves money in order that our `imagined rivals' might be poorer. The use of `imagined rivals' increases the sense of our irrationality and diminished autonomy, as does the cash rich, time poor debate. As Professor Judith Schor tells the BBC: `Spending then has to compensate for the fact that we're losing time - we're losing control of our lives.'

What academics like Professor Andrew Oswald term the `culture' or `curse' of `comparison' is apparently the central virus of modernity, infecting every area of our lives. Britain's politics of behaviour and happiness policies turn to the minutiae of our domestic and internal lives for purpose. They address us sternly and unconvincingly on this subject, citing the main obstacle to our happiness targets as our desire for more stuff: `The pursuit of wealth stops us pursuing the things that make us happy.' We are compelled, in the eyes of the experts, to shop mindlessly in an attempt to heal our mental wounds. Describing buying in these pathological terms then subtly leads to other agendas of behaviour modification: `Instead we should be concentrating on friendships, relationships and health.'

The creation of recent concepts such as `ethical debt' reveals similar political motives. The `problem' is no longer discussed in simply economic, but social terms. As a leader in the Observer put it: `Debt to finance university education is more worthwhile than the more widespread borrowing for lifestyle accoutrements - new cars and kitchens. This consumer debt is the real.social problem.' [So wonderful to have such wise guidance]

Notions of control

The addiction cycle is obsessively applied to the shopping experience. According to the BBC News article, when we shop we don't exercise consumer choice, or indulge in harmless escapism, but experience a hunger and high: `compulsive and uncontrollable buying affected between two and five per cent of adults.' Then there is the withdrawal: `the shopping buzz does not last for long', increasing doses: `The pleasure from having extra things wears off', and finally the treatment: `one manufacturer has released an anti-depressant drug it claims can help combat the urge to spend.'

Just decades ago, in contrast, there existed a far more powerful sense of human agency and control regarding personal budgets. For instance, the poet Al Alvarez, in his autobiography of the shabby genteel Oxbridge set of the 1950's, talks of his friends' spending habits as metaphors for their character. Hopelessly generous eccentrics would fritter meager post-war inheritances on parties or daft whims. They lived blissfully on the breadline, oblivious to the causes of their eventually hand-to-mouth existence, because it was the result of such deeply ingrained traits. Equally, other mean-spirited characters manifested their repressed nature in spectacular acts of tight-fistedness. Ultimately, at this time, there was the sense that it was your innate, often charming qualities that dictated how you spent, not sinister external forces.

Instead, in our therapy culture, we are cast as victims of a spending disease, attacking us from the outside. We are passively lured by advertising, or `pushed' by opportunistic creditors. Our spending is now dictated, not by delightful individual quirks, but homogenous psychological problems that manifest themselves in ways beyond our understanding or control. These are habits that require the intervention of a psychologist or debt counsellor. Shopping has become the act of blindly and mindlessly `compensating' for past emotional traumas with the purchase `high'.....

The spiritual corruption of overspending is normally presented as afflicting working class consumer souls far more deeply than middle-class ones. `Chav' baiting is founded on a disgust of conspicuous consumption and the perceived vulgarity and psychological chaos that ensues: for example for lottery winners, or young Premiership footballers.

Working class children and their junk pushing parents, are also felt to be in greater need of protection from the pressures of perfection. Ed Mayo, head of the National Consumer Council, wrote in the Guardian recently: `Our research shows that children who have the least want the most. This "aspiration gap" is most marked in the poorest households. Poorer children tend to get more pocket money and will get crisps and snacks in their lunchboxes - but these are the children most likely to be disappointed when birthdays come around.'

Overstating the case of the pathological spender however has now moved beyond class politics and become a morality tale of the modern human condition. It's all-encompassing cultural reach is reflected in TV schedules (Spendaholics, Spend, Spend, Spend, Bank of Mum and Dad, Britain's Streets of Debt, Skint, Shiny Shiny Bright New Hole In My Heart - to name just a few), government policy and a general tone of media despair. On the whole this mood goes unchallenged.

But surely we need to remind ourselves of the immediate transformative effect of so called `stuff'? Stuff is what we are surrounded by, dressed in, dictates our levels of physical comfort, can provide us with knowledge, entertainment, aesthetic pleasure, cultural enrichment, enhanced potential for communication and social stimulation. What is so spiritually deadening or morally offensive about that?

Doing up your house, upgrading your mode of transport, treating yourself, family and friends to a good time, buying great cultural experiences and holidays, buying time-saving gadgets. These are major sources of pleasures in life. Certainly shopping cannot compete with more substantial, free sources of happiness such as friendship and love. It certainly cannot compensate for a culture lacking in political purpose or pursuits of intellectual discovery; but neither will it stain our souls or damage our psyche.

In the face of today's anti-consumerist sermons, we need to restate a case for the power of new things to transform our immediate experience and material surroundings. A variety of commentators, philosophers and experts might wish to pathologise our desires for comfort, diversion, stimulation, increased leisure-time, and our aspiration to improve our physical living conditions. But `stuff' can change our quality of life, and even has some potential to change society at large, especially in the developing world. Those interested in progress, and concerned by all this fatalistic doom-mongering about the human condition, need to defend our quite healthy materialist impulses. Here's to raising the aspirational bar for all.


A world without people

There are an increasing number of commentators who believe that the planet would be better off without the presence of human beings on it. The current issue of New Scientist goes one step further to speculate what it might look like.

The premise of the article is that human beings disappear overnight. `The sad truth is, once the humans get out of the picture, the outlook starts to get a lot better,' says a conservation biologist from California. Nature would be able to reclaim the fields and pastures, and make new habitats in deserted buildings. `Light pollution' would disappear from the skies. Forests would return to their natural state. Nuclear reactors might catch fire or explode, but even there ecosystems would thrive. Strangely, it's not all good news for nature. Some ecosystems have thrived in the presence of human activity and might fail if we were to disappear.

In terms of leaving a legacy, however, the mark of mankind will be pretty shortlived in the great scheme of things. As the article concludes: `The humbling - and perversely comforting - reality is that the Earth will forget us remarkably quickly.' What would be more accurate is that without the presence of an intelligent lifeform, the Earth would be a pointless rock flying through space.

What is remarkable is that the producers of Britain's most widely read science magazine, who should be celebrating the increasing capacity of human beings to understand and shape the world, have so little regard for humanity's interests. Instead, they seem to dismiss the great progress we have made in conquering the problems that nature confronts us with, prefering to fantasise about our demise. While environmentalists speculate about humanity destroying itself through `ecocide', it is the increasingly fashionable desire to dismiss our existence as pointless which is more likely to herald disaster.



Universities should drop entry requirements by up to two A level grades for students from "disadvantaged" backgrounds in order to widen participation, according to a government-commissioned study. Admissions tutors should lower the bar for pupils in care, those attending poorly-performing schools, those who suffer from long-term disability or sickness and those who have to look after sick relatives, it said. The tutors should also collaborate with each other to ensure that more deprived children enter the top universities.

Academics at Leeds University found that while most universities had a programme to encourage more applications from working-class backgrounds, systems varied and only a few hundred were recruited annually by this route.

The study, published tomorrow, follows the release of Ucas figures last week that showed that 5,400 fewer students from "lower-income backgrounds" had started university this year, amid fears of increasing debt over higher fees. The authors of the study praised those universities that chose pupils on the basis of their potential, even if their grades were lower than the entry requirements. "We know of heavily oversubscribed courses where admissions tutors have made offers of an A and two Bs to impressive applicants in disadvantaged circumstances who have demonstrated appropriate personal qualities, while rejecting other applicants with three predicted As," they wrote. "Admissions tutors prepared to do this have our strong support."

The researchers acknowledged fears that students being turned away with higher grades could mount legal challenges, but pointed out that most disadvantaged students admitted on this basis showed "no significant differences in their referral and withdrawal rates as compared with the university average".

Paul Sharp, co-author of Opportunity and Equity: Developing a Framework for Good Practice in Compact Schemes, said that universities put a lot of effort into widening participation, but needed to publicise it more and share good practice. He refused to endorse a compulsory scheme of lowering grades.

In 2003, the Government's White Paper on Higher Education pointed out that young people from the professional classes were "over five times more likely to enter higher education than those from unskilled backgrounds".

The next year, according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency, the proportion of state students decreased in 14 of the 19 leading Russell Group universities, with only 53.4 per cent of Oxford admissions coming from state schools. Geoff Parks, director of admissions at Cambridge, said that the report set out good principles but threw up several "potential minefields". Although he supported sharing good practice, there also came a point when colleges competed for the best students, he said. Under the Cambridge Special Access scheme, the university already accepted students with lower grades, he said. "But at the moment there needs to be a very large disadvantage to make it a B rather than an A," he said. "Unless we move to a system where the offers could be more finely graduated, it would be very difficult to make those adjustments."

An aide to Alan Johnson, the Education Secretary, said that he favoured the idea of universities assessing an applicant's potential and awaited the report with interest.


British schools as Orwell's "Big Brother"

No matter where you are, your school will see you and punish you for deviance

Three pupils were expelled last week from St George's School Harpenden, a prestigious state boarding school in Hertfordshire, for smoking cannabis during the summer holidays. But should schools be disciplining children for what goes on beyond the school gate?

Harpenden is an affluent commuter town. Its leafy roads and traditional high street do not point to an endemic drugs problem bought on by social exclusion, especially not involving St George's pupils where `there is a sense of real purpose and harmony based on Christian principles and our traditions,' according to the headmaster, Norman Hoare.

Rumours of drug abuse surfaced this autumn and an investigation was launched by the school. The subsequent expulsions were based on interviews held by St George's. Whilst cannabis use is illegal, the police told me that they would not be taking any action after concluding that there was too little evidence to pursue the matter.

Norman Hoare told BBC News: `The school has a duty to uphold the law and protect all students but none of our investigations showed that the drugs had been on our premises. The activities took place after school or at weekends and some of it started in July. That's one of the reasons we acted very quickly.'

Hoare's ideas on the boundaries of school authority are not shared by everyone. One angry parent contacted spiked, even though his children were not involved: `At what point does the school's jurisdiction end? I am completely opposed to the control of my children outside of school hours.' When I asked Norman Hoare why he had expelled students on the basis of drug use outside of school term, he replied that `the pupils who join the school are aware of our drugs policy'. However, his actions seem to go beyond the policy stated on the school's website: `A period of fixed term exclusion [ie, suspension] from school would normally be the penalty for involvement in purchase, possession, or consumption of illegal drugs or substance of abuse while under school jurisdiction.'

Events at St George's contrast with a case heard by the High Court in September. A school in Birmingham had its decision to expel two pupils for cannabis use overturned because their expulsion contravened government guidelines on exclusion for minor drug offences. These pupils were caught smoking on school grounds and some kind of punishment by the school was to be expected. But the St George's pupils were not caught by the police or anyone from the school; they were allegedly using cannabis outside of school term and were not dealing drugs.

St George's sees the alleged minor drug use of a few of its pupils outside school hours as its responsibility - parents are not to be trusted. In doing so, the headmaster was only following the lead of the New Labour government; it does not trust private individuals. The Anti-Social Behaviour Act of 2003 gives head teachers the authority to fine parents and issue parenting orders forcing them to attend counselling. Where once schools stood for moral guidance, they are now expected to play a much more interventionist and authoritarian role. As David Perks has noted elsewhere on spiked: `the government sees schools as a blunt weapon in a war against what it sees as feckless parents and feral children. Education policy has become part of a wider attempt to control people's behaviour.'

So how should we deal with children who experiment with drugs and why do they do it? I asked Patrick Turner, writer, lecturer and former drugs worker: `The same as we have traditionally done with alcohol. A degree of indulgence towards the desire to experiment and enjoy adult pleasures seasoned with a sensitivity to the circumstances and motives of the individuals concerned. Put simply, the risk associated with a stable, self-aware young person who has lots of support messing around with dope is not the same as that posed to the young person, say, in local authority care with a history of poor mental health.'

In fact, government guidelines on expulsion seem to fit well with Turner's statement: `Exclusion should only be considered for serious breaches of the school's behaviour policy, and should not be imposed without a thorough investigation unless there is an immediate threat to the safety of others in the school or the pupil concerned. It should not be used if alternative solutions have the potential to achieve a change in the pupil's behaviour and are not detrimental to the whole school community.' So, why has this school gone further? Norman Hoare had not heard about the Birmingham case in which the High Court ruled these guidelines took precedence over school decisions. I suspect when the St George's board of governers examines the expulsion they may well overturn it in light of the Birmingham case.

This episode is indicative of the mixed messages from government about drugs, and the contradictory positions they adopt. The government's downgrading of cannabis to a class `C' drug has added to the mess since the law itself is a combination of `hard' and `soft' signals. So while the maximum sentence for possession will fall from five years to two, penalties for adults supplying cannabis will remain at a maximum of 14 years compared to the five years for other class `C' drugs.

There is no right for children to experiment with cannabis, but it would be better to have childhood experimentation dealt with in a constructive manner. That means schools should not overstep the boundaries of their authority, and government should not politicise and proceduralise matters that are best dealt with informally.



A former British Communist reflects on the Hungarian revolution:

As I walked back from the podium to my seat in the audience, screams of `Trotskyist!' hit me from all sides. Communist Party comrades who had been my friends hurled abuse at me, their faces screwed up with hatred. By the time I got back to my seat I was shouting back, telling them that, like the AVO (Hungarian secret policemen) who were then swinging on lamp posts as a result of people's anger, their time on the end of a rope was nearing. I would not recommend this as a way to win political arguments.

The scene was the old Liverpool Stadium in 1956; the Liverpool District Committee of the Communist Party of Great Britain had organised a meeting to discuss the Hungarian uprising. In my intervention I had called for the Soviet troops to get out of Hungary, and demanded we pledge our full support for the Hungarian workers and students in their attempt to replace Stalinism. On returning to my seat I heard a member of the District Committee describe me from the platform as a Trotskyist provocateur. The shepherd had spoken and the witless sheep responded as the followers of Stalin, myself included, had always done in the past. The magic word was Trotsky, the revolutionary bogeyman of Stalinism.

More here

In memoriam: "Ideas shape the world. Last week a very important promoter of ideas, Ralph Harris, died at the age of 81. The liberal economic ideas that he popularised in the 1960s and 1970s became the basis of the Conservative reforms of the 1980s, and have remained the accepted basis of the Blair administration. No other British propagandist of ideas in the second half of the 20th century had anything like the same influence on national policy. Lord Harris of High Cross taught Margaret Thatcher. He converted a whole generation of politicians and journalists to the free-market ideas in which he believed; he converted most economists as well. [I knew Ralph Harris myself]

Would most of the "young people" mentioned in this report be black or Muslim? "Britain is becoming a nation increasingly afraid of its young people and this trend is causing problems for children as they grow up, according to a report released overnight. Britons are far less likely than their European counterparts to stop young people committing antisocial behaviour, because of fears of reprisals, being attacked, or verbal abuse, the study by the Institute of Policy Research (IPPR) found.... The IPPR said that 1.5 million Britons now thought about moving away from the area they lived in because of "young people hanging around". It said 1.7 million people avoided going out after dark because of their worries about antisocial behaviour which the vast majority blamed on a "lack of discipline".

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