Thursday, November 23, 2006

Is "Obese" Correct?

British doctors are having a debate over whether it is OK to call kids "obese". See here. It is felt that the term might "stigmatize" fat kids.

I would think it might have the reverse effect -- by "medicalizing" a normal condition. Kids who already get called "Fatso" and "Fatguts" don't feel bad about it? Tell me another one!

I think fatties might feel that it is a defense to say: "I'm not fat. I'm obese. I can't help it". And they might be right about that.

If the doctors REALLY want to help fat kids not to feel victimized, they might start telling the unpopular truth -- that moderately overweight people live longer than slim people. Even the very overweight live roughly as long as slim people.

If there's one thing far worse than the BNP, it is using a botched political prosecution of that far-right party as another stick to beat free speech and jury trials

Comment by Mick Hume

The state stages a transparent politically-motivated trial of weak opponents, in order to lay down the law on the limits of official tolerance. Unfortunately the authorities fail to persuade the jury, which finds the dissident politicians not guilty. In response to this embarrassing failure to get their way, government ministers declare that the law must be changed, in order to ensure that their enemies are found guilty of crimes against society next time.

To some, this might sound like the stuff of a police state in a ‘banana republic’, or perhaps of the sort of dystopian futuristic drama beloved of the BBC. But in fact it is what happened in the UK last week, when the leader of the British National Party was cleared of stirring up racial hatred by attacking Islam, and New Labour ministers had an authoritarian tantrum in response.

(However, it is funny you should mention the BBC, as the broadcasting corporation was heavily involved in this little piece of real-world political theatre – scarier than anything seen in its conspiracy dramas.)

The case was prompted by an undercover BBC documentary. The BBC secretly filmed a meeting of BNP supporters, during which Nick Griffin, the party leader, condemned Islam as ‘a wicked, vicious faith’. In the media-inspired furore that followed, Griffin and Mark Collett, BNP publicity director, were charged with incitement to racial hatred. Griffin repeated his views on Islam from the dock. After their first trial, the jury failed to reach a verdict. Last Friday a second jury found them both not guilty.

On hearing of this disgraceful display of independent thinking by the jurors of Yorkshire, New Labour and the rest of the anti-racist establishment immediately threw all of its toys out of the pram. No less a figure than chancellor Gordon Brown, prime minister in waiting and a man not noted for hot-blooded political speeches, immediately intimated to the BBC that this sort of thing would not be tolerated on his watch. ‘I think any preaching of religious or racial hatred will offend mainstream opinion in this country and I think we have got to do whatever we can to root it out from whatever quarter it comes. And if that means we have got to look at the laws again, then we will have to do so.’

Other New Labour ministers were quick to join the chorus, while one anti-racist campaign condemned the verdict as ‘a travesty of justice’ because ‘the BNP are guilty of inciting racial hatred’, as if the party should have been on trial for its views in general, rather than Griffin for anything specific he might have said or done. Insiders pointed out that the government’s attempt to introduce a tough law against incitement to religious hatred had been defeated earlier this year; surely the failure of this prosecution for incitement to racial hatred proved that law was needed now? And there were mutterings about the problem of trying such cases before unreliable juries – particularly when, as almost every report made clear, this was an ‘all-white’ jury.

Here on spiked we have no sympathy or time for racists. But this carry-on is far more worrying than anything the BNP might say. The political motives behind the prosecution were transparent. First the BBC played its self-appointed role as broadcasting wing of the Commission for Racial Equality, with a programme clearly scripted to ‘expose’ the fact that the BNP is not a friend of immigrants and Islam (shock horror!). Then the state stepped in and announced the decision to prosecute the BNP pair the day before the launch of last year’s General Election campaign – a campaign in which bashing the BNP became a ploy for all the major parties to demonstrate their decency. It now seems that even West Yorkshire police were concerned that this heavy-handed exercise would present the BNP with a ‘no-lose opportunity’, whatever the eventual outcome of the trial.

If there is one thing worse (and a lot worse) than the feeble far-right, it is the state using that little political faction as the pretext for another political clampdown on liberty and democracy. After all, it is not the BNP that is now planning to introduce new laws further to limit freedom of expression, laying down new rules about what we are allowed to say about religion, or floating ideas in high places about the ‘problem’ of jury trials. Griffin can only vent his illiberal prejudices at private meetings of his party activists. The government has the power to try to turn its illiberal prejudices into public custom and law.

Chancellor Brown’s statement that we cannot tolerate opinions which ‘offend mainstream opinion in this country’ sums up the outlook of the political class today. There is a powerful mood of conformism, of intolerant tolerance, an attitude of ‘You cannot say THAT!’ which seeks to restrict the terms of public debate. And in this climate, offending what is deemed to be ‘the mainstream’ often seems to be considered the worst offence of all. You can have all the ‘diversity’ you want, so long as it does not diverge too far from the centre. The mainstream is the only stream in town (see The age of intolerant tolerance, by Mick Hume).

As we have consistently argued on spiked, however, free speech is not divisible. Expression cannot be half-free. And the ‘freedom’ to say only what does not offend the mainstream is no freedom at all. Indeed, as champions of free speech from Mill to Orwell have long pointed out, it is only the fringe, ‘extreme’ or unconventional opinions that need protecting – mainstream opinion is quite capable of looking after itself.

If defending fully free speech is important as a general principle, it is also politically vital in the particular circumstances of today. The unresolved problems of division and tension in our society are not going to be addressed by burying them underground and forcing everybody to abide by an empty etiquette of tolerance. That is simply storing up more explosive trouble for the future. We need genuine tolerance that allows the expression of views with which you vehemently disagree, more clear opinions and sharp debate not less, a no-holds barred argument about the sort of society in which we want to live. That must involve the liberty to criticise Islam, Christianity or any other religion as wrong or even ‘wicked’ – the freedom for Griffin and the BNP to attack Islam, for Muslim radicals to denounce the Pope, or for Sir Elton John to call for a ban on all religion as homophobic. It also, of course, includes the freedom of religious types to tell the likes of me that we are going to hell.

The law on incitement is a dangerous instrument that needs to be handled with great care even when it applies to a real crime such as murder. When we are dealing with racial or religious hatred, however, incitement laws have no place. It is a peculiar situation where feeling hatred itself is, quite rightly, not a crime, but incitement to that non-crime can itself be deemed a criminal offence. The criminal law is here intruding into the realm of ideas and thought-policing, and it should be shown the door again. If a racist instructs somebody to go and attack a mosque, and hands him the petrol can, he should be held responsible. But if somebody were to hear the likes of Nick Griffin say Islam is wicked, and then takes it into his head to launch such an attack, the speaker cannot be held to account for the actions of another. However unpleasant words might be, we need to insist upon the distinction between speech and deed (see ‘Free speech’ is more than a slogan, by Dolan Cummings).

I recall a case from America a few years ago, where a racist firebrand who told a crowd of (largely armed) supporters that America would be better off without blacks and Jews was found not guilty of conspiracy to murder. As his defence lawyers argued, in a free society, so long as we are dealing with words rather than violent actions, people should be free to hate.

As I always have to insist at this point, we are not interested in upholding any human right to be racist. This is not primarily about Griffin and Co, it is about freedom for the rest of us – our liberty to listen to all of the arguments, stupid as well as sensible, and judge the truth for ourselves. That is the freedom the authorities now seem to fear most of all. The venom that they direct against the BNP reflects their fear that the simpleton white working classes are putty in the hands of such rabble-rousers. Lord Falconer, the Lord Chancellor, backed Brown’s call for a change in the law after last week’s case, on the ground that ‘what is being said to young Muslim people of this country is that we as a country are anti-Islam and we have got to demonstrate without compromising freedom that we are not’. It sounded as if he was suggesting that the BNP speaks for Britons! Solution? Shut them up – without compromising freedom, of course.

Whatever else it might be the BNP does not represent Nazism on the march. Indeed, in some ways it embodies an eccentric version of the fashionable political attitudes of the age: Griffin has welcomed the rise of the politics of ethnic diversity, in which whites vote BNP while Muslims vote RESPECT, and both he and Collett emerged from court wearing blue ribbons for their cause.

The BNP is an empty receptacle for the disaffection of sections of the white working class who have never read its programme, but feel intensely alienated from the mainstream of the political class. And this cack-handed attempt to crack down on its views from on high will hardly alter that state of affairs. Indeed, the tragedy is that the BNP has now been able to claim the high ground as the champion of free speech. It will have turned many a stomach to see Griffin standing on the steps of the court boasting that ‘They can’t take our FREEDOM!’ But the government’s response – to threaten to change the law to do just that – is more sickening, and can only make matters far worse.

It is high time we had a campaign for free speech and genuine tolerance, in defence of jury trials and democracy, and against illiberalism in all its forms, whether it is directed at immigrants or white voters. No doubt that might ‘offend mainstream opinion’, and upset New Labour as well as the BNP. But it’s a free country – isn’t it?



Eton College is leading a rebellion that could result in it dropping A levels in favour of an alternative examination system with no coursework and tougher questions. Tony Little, Eton Head Master, said that "Pre-U" examinations being developed at Cambridge University would offer pupils more stimulation and a system of testing that rewarded creativity and lateral thinking. He said that A levels forced children to "think inside a very small box" and discriminated against highly imaginative pupils, whose exam answers were often marked down because they were considered too sophisticated. "We are very interested in adopting it and in looking at anything that thinks afresh and in a creative way, which has a stimulating syllabus. We want the best courses that challenge our students and, if that means doing the Pre-U instead of A Level, then we will do it."

Eton is among at least 100 leading independent schools to have shown strong interest in the Pre-U. Others include Harrow, Dulwich College, Winchester and Charterhouse. But there are fears of the creation of a two-tier examination system for rich and poor pupils, with independent schools opting for the Pre-U and state schools remaining with the discredited A-level system. Graham Able, Master of Dulwich College, who is on a steering group advising on the Pre-U, said the diploma would better prepare pupils for university. "It will take us back to the original idea of A levels from the 1950s as a qualification for university entrance," he said.

Barnaby Lenon, Head Master of Harrow, said that A levels were flawed because too many pupils got top grades, examiners made too many mistakes when marking and coursework was vulnerable to cheats. "The Pre-U combines the flexibility of A level with regard to subject choice together with the promise of harder questions and reliable examining," he said. Richard Cairns, headmaster of Brighton College, said that he believed that most independent schools would be in favour of the Pre-U when it is introduced in 2008. "A levels do not discriminate enough at the top end of the ability range. If government reforms to A levels are not satisfactory, we will go with the Pre-U and so will most others," he said.

Kevin Stannard, of Cambridge International Examinations, said that about 20 state schools and colleges had also expressed an interest in the Pre-U. "They represent the tip of the iceberg," he said, adding that he expected more state schools to sign up once it had been officially recognised. Growing support for the Pre-U will put pressure on the Government to speed up reforms of the A-level system. It has promised to make A levels harder. An extended essay will be introduced, together with more open-ended questions in place of those that lead students through a series of highly structured answers. Coursework is also being cut back to reduce plagiarism. A new A+ grade is being considered. Many heads fear that these reforms may be too late, as they will not be ready before September 2008, the date the Pre-U is due to begin.

Dr Stannard predicted that 2008 would mark a turning point. "Schools will have to choose between the reformed A level, the Pre-U and any other alternative," he said. One alternative, the International Baccalaureate (IB), has been adopted by about 90 independent schools, but most have retained A levels as well. After an initial surge of interest, support has levelled off. Many schools find it too prescriptive and too heavily weighted towards very academic pupils. Andrew Boggis, Warden of Forest School, in East London, and chairman of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference of independent schools, says that neither Pre-U nor IB is the answer. He has called for the reform of A levels, with coursework being dropped from final grades. A government spokesman said that A levels were here to stay. "However, as standards in schools rise, we need to make sure that we are stretching and challenging all students, particularly our brightest," he said.


Britain: The ‘school meals revolution’: a dog’s dinner

Scare stories about kids eating 'shit' have created a crisis in school dinners. What a shock!

‘It is about one decent man’s heroic battle against an uncaring, bureaucratic system; about the exploitation of dinner ladies and everybody else who has to struggle away on the front line in a country which no longer values leadership, principles and standards; about the corruption of childhood; and the loss of virtue.’ So said a columnist in the Daily Telegraph after celebrity chef Jamie Oliver launched his Channel 4 TV campaign – nay, crusade – to rescue British school meals from multinationals, and children from their own bad eating habits and feckless parents. What has been the upshot of Oliver’s ‘heroic battle’? Increased bureaucratic monitoring of parents; fewer children eating school meals; even greater exploitation of dinner ladies; and local authorities struggling to pay for all this new found ‘virtue’.

New rules on meals, including restrictions on vending machines, came into force in September. This week, the BBC reported on the results of a survey conducted in 59 local authorities to find out how they had fared. In 35 of them, fewer children were eating school meals – that is, they are no longer having a hot dinner during the day. Of these, 71 per cent felt that Oliver’s campaign was one of the reasons. As it happens, Oliver is far from being solely responsible. But he has been the most high-profile promoter of an obsession with freshly prepared food, locally-sourced, at the expense of ‘junk’ containing salt, sugar and fat. If he’s happy to accept the plaudits, he should also take a few brickbats.

The fresh-food obsession has been cut-and-pasted into a school meals service that doesn’t do that kind of thing, and which has been in steady decline. With staff not accustomed to actually doing much cooking, instead just heating pre-packed food, the jump to food preparation has been mainly at their expense. Across the country, dinner ladies have been working late and starting early to get everything done – usually without extra pay. This is hardly a surprise. In the original series, Jamie’s School Dinners, his sidekick and long-suffering school cook Nora Sands seemed to have her life taken over by the demands of making and promoting Jamie’s food.

In May this year, spiked‘s Brendan O’Neill interviewed Cathy Stewart, a dinner lady in Hackney in London and a union rep, for the New Statesman. ‘Overnight, we were expected to start seasoning meat and peeling hundreds of carrots - but that takes time and we’re not being paid for it’, said Stewart. ‘They want dinner ladies to become professional chefs. But they won’t give us the resources we need. We have outdated equipment and we don’t have enough staff.’ (2) Stewart was balloting members about industrial action.

When the food is finally ready, many children are turning their noses up at it. It’s not just that the food is unfamiliar – it’s also not actually allowed to taste of anything. In post-Jamie’s School Dinners Britain, salt is treated like nerve poison rather than an essential element of flavour, and is banned from canteen tables. When given a choice, kids have tended to choose the ‘junk’ and vote with their feet against the new options. School caterers in Denbighshire in North Wales found that 40 per cent fewer children ate meals on ‘healthy’ food days (3).

If the kids don’t like the food, they will struggle to find alternative sustenance like crisps and chocolate bars in school. The ban on ‘tuck’, along with the extra costs of ingredients, has been a double whammy for school food budgets. As the follow-up Channel 4 programme, Jamie’s Return to School Dinners, showed at Kidbrooke School, this didn’t stop children from eating sweets and savoury snacks. It simply meant that they bought them on the way to school instead – enriching local shopkeepers and depriving the school of important revenue; a sum that ran well into five figures in Kidbrooke’s case.

In other schools, it is reported that children have set up their own ‘black markets’ in junk food, selling sweets to each other behind the bike sheds or in the toilets, as if they were dealing in deadly substances. This might show that children are as wily as ever when it comes to breaking the rules; it also suggests they are developing a pretty screwed-up attitude to the joys of food in general (see The junk food smugglers).

If the sums are getting uncomfortable at Kidbrooke, they’re downright serious in Denbighshire. A report has warned councillors in the county that the school meals service is ‘no longer financially viable’ after servings were down by 100,000. The service lost £81,000 in the last year – a major blow for a relatively small local authority. Part of the problem was the decision to go for locally-sourced meat – a nice subsidy to farmers which looks like a luxury now that sales are down.

What started out as a crusade has become mired not only in the hubris of Oliver’s fantasy of a ‘school meals revolution’ (replacing chips with ciabatta does not qualify as a revolution) but also in the dumping of every other modern food prejudice into the mix. For one thing, we’ve been forced to listen to Oliver’s tirades against parents and packed lunches (see Jamie Oliver: what a ‘tosser’ and Are packed lunches the ‘biggest evil’? by Rob Lyons). This tirade became a chorus of indignation from all right-thinking newspaper hacks when two mothers started supplying takeaway food to kids at a Rotherham school. The fact that the children were struggling to be fed in the ludicrously short lunchbreak, and didn’t much like the food when they did manage to get it, was simply ignored. Parents getting involved with schools is usually regarded as a wholesome example of community spirit - except when it’s off-message like this.

We also now have the prospect of ‘fat charts’ in schools, where children will be weighed by school staff to see if they are the ‘right weight’ for their age, height and gender (4). Such a measure will effectively institutionalise that age-old trend of bullying the fat kid of the class, where children who fall short of state-imposed waist measurements will be made to feel like outcasts not only by their peers but also by the school system itself. And these fat charts are also yet another example of the undermining of parents’ authority: the clear message is that mums and dads can’t be trusted to keep their children in shape, so the authorities will have to do it.

A significant chunk of the extra millions spent on school meals has actually gone to create the School Food Trust, a quango designed to promote healthy eating (5). Did we really need another body to tell us that kids are getting too fat, or remind us of the ‘Seven Deadly Sins: food facts that every parent should know’? And vilifying the catering giants like Sodexho might provide a thrill for those who hate big corporations, but having handed a swathe of school meals over to them, it might have been easier to take a more constructive approach to working with them.

Jamie Oliver, and the government ministers and journalists who fell at his feet, told us that schools are feeding our children ‘shit’, and today’s children will be the first generation to die before their parents. None of this was based in fact, but unsurprisingly such kneejerk scaremongering has had a negative rather than a positive impact. After Jamie has ridden off on his scooter into the sunset, the school meals service may actually settle down and recover - but only if staff and parents work very hard to fix it while quietly dropping or subverting many of his more nonsensical ideas, and while kicking against that new layer of school-meals bureaucracy that is at least as obsessed with lecturing mums, dads and their children as it is with replacing butter with olive oil.


Weird: NHS hospitals to advertise themselves

Spending the money on hiring more doctors and reducing their waiting lists has not occurred to anybody, apparently

NHS hospitals are to be allowed to attract patients by advertising, under a Department of Health code. A draft version says that the NHS needs to give “reliable information” to assist patient choice, and should not spend too much on advertisements. There is unlikely to be a cap on trusts’ spending but costly television advertising is likely to be ruled out.

In consultation with GPs, patients now have a choice, albeit limited, of which hospital to have treatment at. Under the new payment-by-results system, hospitals are being given funds per patient treated. The successes of hospitals could be presented to patients through advertising; some independent hospital chains already advertise their services to GPs.

Gill Morgan, of the NHS Confederation, said: “We are trying to change the NHS from being a service where you get what you’re given, really, to a service where patients are much more able to choose what they want.”

Jonathan Fielden, of the British Medical Association, said: “NHS hospitals will have no option but to invest in marketing tactics if they are to survive against private firms. It is a sad indictment of government policy to consider spending public money on advertising NHS services when hospitals are having to make cutbacks in patient care, and redundancies.” The department said that a code on advertising would be put out to consultation soon.


Nutty British "security": "It's a Boy's Own gift that will be stuffed into thousands of Christmas stockings, but a retired brigadier has discovered that the credit card-sized toolkit - complete with 5cm (2in) blade, compass, tweezers and toothpick - could put the recipients on the wrong side of the law. Tom Foulkes, 56, who spent 35 years working for the Ministry of Defence developing real weapons, was arrested, locked up and had his fingerprints and DNA sample taken after the kit was discovered in his overnight bag by police. The former Royal Engineer was preparing to board a Paris-bound train at Waterloo when an X-ray machine alarm was triggered by the toolkit. He was hauled from the station, placed in a cage in a van and taken to a police station for questioning. Four hours later he was released and cautioned"

Britain: What about the human rights of the general public? "A man who has been barred from every pub in his village after behaving aggressively towards staff at his local is being backed by a leading civil liberties group. Liberty is contending that the ban infringes the man's human rights."

1 comment:

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