Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Britain: Restaurant reviewers now allowed to say what they think (Maybe)

We read:

"Restaurant critics, and newspaper proprietors, were celebrating yesterday after a judge upheld their rights to publish unflattering reviews of bad food and lousy service. Sir Brian Kerr, the Northern Ireland Lord Chief Justice, overturned the award of 25,000 pounds to Goodfellas pizza restaurant in West Belfast against The Irish News. Ciarnan Convery, the pizzeria owner, sued the newspaper for libel over a highly critical review of his restaurant in August 2000.

Sir Brian's appeal court decision had been keenly awaited, with implications around the world for publishers of restaurant reviews. Sitting with two appeal court judges, he ruled that the jury that decided that the restaurant had been defamed had been misdirected by the trial judge. He ordered a retrial, adding that while he thought a properly directed jury would have found in favour of The Irish News he could not be certain. It will now be up to Mr Convery to decide whether he wishes to pursue the case farther.


New British restrictions on blogging

We read:

"Sir Gus O'Donnell, the Cabinet Secretary, is to set out new guidance to civil servants to cover blogging and online social networks following the demise of the "Civil Serf" blogger, The Times has learnt. Sir Gus will shortly issue guidelines to tell officials whether they can start up blogs or use social networking websites such as Facebook and YouTube, and even if they can change details on Wikipedia.

A Cabinet Office spokesman denied that the move was directly linked with the Civil Serf blogger, believed to work for the Department for Work and Pensions, who has embarrassed Westminster with her revelations about officials and ministers. The 33-year-old Londoner, who has yet be named, has ridiculed Gordon Brown, the Prime Minister, and Alistair Darling, the Chancellor, as well as accusing the Government of recycling old policies and creating "cheap headlines"....

The new code is likely to restrict information disclosed on blogs or social networks and limit the individuals who can interact with them.


I suppose it was inevitable. Any control that they can exert, they will.

Pre-emptive censorship is a cross we all bear

London Underground has banned posters for the play Fat Christ, just in case they cause offence. This safety-first attitude is crucifying free speech

There is no undisputed depiction of Jesus, who in the past has been portrayed variously as black, Chinese, alien and gay. Over the years, unconventional representations of Christ and far-flung speculations about his true identity have attracted the ire of the devout and the sensitive. The latest depiction of Jesus to be deemed offensive is the promotional poster for Fat Christ, Gavin Davis' comedic play, which opened in London last night. The poster was refused advertising spots on the London Underground. Perhaps suggesting that Jesus suffered from slow metabolism or indulged in fatty food is the ultimate form of blasphemy these days, when obesity is seen as a mortal sin.

Fat Christ is the story of Jack Taylor, a chubby man looking for his big break in life. His endeavours so far have left him and his pregnant wife so poor that he has to support them by cleaning windows. Jack makes a deal with a top London art dealer to crucify himself. The promotional poster shows Jack tied to a wooden cross, wearing pink-striped boxer shorts and sporting a beer belly. A trickle of fake blood is running down his check and he has a sullen look on his face.

Davis' play doesn't seem to make any serious claims about the way Jesus led his life - it's about a chubby loser-type who ends up portraying Jesus. Other, more notorious cases of `Jesus controversies' involve claims about Christ himself. A well-known example is Dan Brown's smash hit novel The Da Vinci Code, which claimed Jesus was really just a regular human being who married and had non-immaculately conceived kids with Mary Magdalene. This row was topped in 2005, when the BBC televised the musical Jerry Springer: The Opera, in which Jesus appears as a singing talkshow guest. The BBC received 55,000 complaints from a wide spectrum of Christians, censorious media watchdogs, sensitive souls and upholders of politically correct standards. Then there was the `Mullet Jesus' t-shirt, showing Christ with a bad haircut, and, of course, Cosimo Cavallaro's `My Sweet Lord', a nude statue made out of chocolate, which was removed from The Lab Gallery in Manhattan last year.

It is not just `cranky Christians' who are upset by fantastical and playful representations of the Son of God. Others, who believe we all have the right to be protected from offence, come out in their support, even on their behalf. This was the case with the Fat Christ poster, as officials at Transport for London (TfL), which is apparently committed to avoiding offending members of the public, stopped it from being viewed by commuters.

But what exactly did TfL see as potentially offensive in a comic image of a chubby man tied to a cross? Today, when the mullet is unfortunately back in fashion and when it's broadly considered rude to claim that being compared to blacks, gays or Chinese (and, in some circles, aliens) is an insult, what counts as really unacceptable when it comes to portraying Jesus Christ?

Well, the promoters of Fat Christ, who applied for five advertising spots in just one underground station, found out that drawing parallels between Jesus and unhealthy lifestyles is beyond the pale. Davis has said that the poster accurately reflects his play's content and theme and that he doesn't believe it to be blasphemous. Didn't he realise that simultaneously evoking the images of Jesus and all those anti-social slobs who are dragging down the National Health Service, supporting `evil' fast-food outlets and fuelling the food industry's carbon footprint is pure sacrilege?

Perhaps if Davis chooses to do a follow-up play that is less offensive to TfL officials, he could have Jack Taylor look to Jesus for inspiration on how to lose weight. That is what Don Colbert, a Florida doctor, has done. Apparently concerned about the `obesity epidemic' in the US, he advocated the `Jesus diet' in his bestselling book What Would Jesus Eat?. We're told that Jesus was primarily into `natural foods in their natural states - lots of vegetables, especially beans and lentils.He would have eaten wheat bread, a lot of fruit, drunk a lot of water and also red wine.And he would only eat meat on special occasions.' (1) Anyway, who needs fast food when you're able to feed thousands of hungry people with just five loaves of bread and two fish?

As for now, TfL has decided that the public does not share Davis' sense of humour and so it took a precautionary measure, a pre-emptive strike against hurt feelings. As a TfL spokesman said: `Millions of people travel on the London Underground each day and they have no choice but to view whatever adverts are posted there. We have to take account of every passenger and endeavour not to cause offence in the advertising we display.' (2) In other words, the TfL officials censored the Fat Christ poster in accordance with the contemporary commandment `thou shalt not potentially offend anybody, anywhere - ever'.

spiked has on several occasions criticised the prevailing `tyranny of the minority', where it is now enough for a handful of individuals - sometimes even just one person - to cry offence in order for official guardians of etiquette to ban ads, posters and television shows (3). But the Underground ban of the Fat Christ poster displayed the tyranny of no one. Here, no complaint was necessary for TfL to decide that people would be offended before they even had been offended.

This pre-emptive censorship in the name of protecting the public is a worrying display of restriction on artistic expression. And it's not just quirky, fringe theatre plays that get such a treatment. Earlier this month, London Underground refused to allow a poster for a Royal Academy of Arts show on the sixteenth-century German artist, Lucas Cranach the Elder. It showed the artist's nude painting of Venus. London Underground justified the ban in exactly the same terms as its decision to censor the Fat Christ poster (4), and argued that the poster breached guidelines barring advertisements which `depict men, women or children in a sexual manner, or display nude or semi-nude figures in an overtly sexual context' (5). Eventually, after widespread media coverage ridiculing the decision, TfL admitted it had made a mistake and retracted the ban.

So far, Fat Christ hasn't been so lucky. But wouldn't Jesus have agreed that a bunch of TfL chiefs censoring comical and artistic posters in the name of no one is not really kosher?


Hatred of ancestral ties from Britain's bureaucrats

A while ago I was on a plane from Helsinki to London. On one side was a Finnish businessman reading a newspaper written in a script utterly baffling to anyone brought up speaking a Latin or Anglo-Saxon language. On the other sat a young man from New Zealand. He was travelling in Europe and on his way to visit relatives in Lincolnshire, where his grandparents had lived before emigrating.

He was travelling on an ancestry visa that entitled him to come to Britain for five years without having to show he had a job waiting for him. This visa was available to him because he had at least one grandparent born in Britain. At Heathrow, the Finn and I move effortlessly though the gates for EU citizens. The last I saw of the young Kiwi, he was queuing up at immigration control for overseas aliens.

Until 1973, when Britain joined the EEC, Commonwealth citizens were able to move relatively freely in and out of the country. The ancestry visa was introduced to allow those who retained close connections with Britain a straightforward entry route after nationality laws introduced in the 1971 Immigration Act threatened to make this more difficult.

Recently, the Government published a Green Paper on immigration and citizenship that raised the question of whether the ancestry visa should be abolished. This is a consultation document and is not final policy; but since it is the second time in four years that the Home Office has suggested scrapping the ancestry visa, someone in Whitehall clearly considers it to be expendable.

The Green Paper states: "Given that the proposed immigration system provides explicit routes to the UK for those coming as economic migrants, family members or refugees, we need to decide whether a Commonwealth national's ancestral connections to the UK are sufficient to allow them to come here to work without the need to satisfy a resident labour market test. We are therefore asking this question as part of the consultation contained within this paper."

This consultation continues until May 14 so here, for what it's worth, is my contribution. No. It should, emphatically, not be scrapped. How can it be possible to allow, for instance, 800,000 east Europeans - or Finns, for that matter - to come here as they choose, as they are entitled to under EU law, yet deny a similar right to people who share a head of state and carry the insignia of the Union on their own flags?

It is not as though many people actually use this route into the country and most go home in any case. In 2006, only 8,490 ancestry visa holders came to the UK, mainly from Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. Most of them are youngsters visiting the "old country" to work for a few years before going home. Recently, the Edinburgh executive has been encouraging some of the four million Canadians of Scottish heritage to move to Scotland to offset the declining population and birthrate.

Yet the Government in London seems intent upon making this much more difficult. Under the new points-based system for immigrants, which started operating at the beginning of this month, non-EU nationals will be unable to get into the country legally to work or to settle here permanently unless they are highly qualified or wealthy. There are few Aussie students who will fall into that category.

Labour is happy to invoke our history when it wants to make a song and dance about its commitment to Britishness; yet it is content to dispense with one of its most potent manifestations. The ancestry visa is, after all, a symbol of that historic legacy.

You would have expected a mighty outburst of indignation from Parliament about this, yet there has hardly been a squeak. Only Austin Mitchell, the Labour MP for Great Grimsby, who once worked in New Zealand as a university lecturer, has tabled a Commons motion expressing "shock" at the proposal. So far it has been signed by 43 MPs. As Mr Mitchell points out: "The dominions sprang to our aid when we needed them in two world wars and since. Their inhabitants are of British descent. They are keen to maintain Commonwealth ties and associations with this country."

For good or ill, we are members of the EU and it is part of the deal that all its citizens have an unfettered right to travel to this country, as we do to theirs, to work and settle permanently. But we are so keen on emphasising our European credentials that we are in danger of turning our backs on our own people, who twice in the last century helped rescue Europe from the tyrants who wished to run it.

The cemeteries of France and Belgium are the final resting places for many Commonwealth citizens who lost their lives in defence of this country. Does that count for anything in the Government's "consultation" or is this just outdated, old-fashioned thinking? Mr Mitchell's motion puts this well. The ancestry visa, it says, is a historic and a moral obligation and "even to consider getting rid of it will produce shock, anger and dismay in Commonwealth countries which fought two world wars shoulder to shoulder with the United Kingdom, and have maintained close relations since".

Mr Mitchell says that New Zealand officials inquiring about the proposal were left in no doubt that civil servants and ministers in the Home Office "did not consider themselves bound to New Zealand by historical ties". He adds: "This is an amazing betrayal of the Commonwealth, a failure to understand history, and a brutal incomprehension of loyalties, totally unworthy of officials who claim to be 'putting British values at the heart of the immigration system'." Perhaps at some point on Commonwealth Day, a senior member of the Government could set aside a few minutes to ensure this wretched idea is buried, this time with a stake through its heart.


Britain deliberately creates more dependants on the State

More of that lovely CONTROL!

We all know that governments never do anything just for its own sake. They like to "send a message". It might be about smoking, fatness, booze, driving, community - they've gotta send it. We can't be trusted to know how to behave (unlike ministers, who have no vices). So messages are sent. In Budget week they come thick and fast. Don't drink, shun plastic bags, recycle, drive less. But there is a core message, an important one, directed ever more stridently at the poorest people in Britain and designed to deny hope and resourcefulness. If you are poor, the Government's message is simple: "You are not in charge of your life and prosperity. We are. Trust us. Keep on voting for us or you're stuffed."

The means by which the message is transmitted is the creaking tax and benefit system. Looming changes in income tax mean that those earning more than 18,500 a year, which is lowish but not too uncomfortable, will be better off when the basic tax rate drops by 2 per cent. But given the abolition of the 10 per cent tax rate, coupled with the continuing feebleness of the personal allowance (you can earn 104.51 a week before you start paying a fifth of it to the exchequer - whoopee!), the lowest earners are hit. Those on 10,000 a year will now pay two or three quid a week more in tax. However, says the message, that's OK because they can promptly apply for "working tax credits", "family credits" and other benefits.

However doughtily and responsibly you work for your 200 quid a week, even if you need every penny of it to survive, the Government will make you hand over a lump and then give it back, ceremoniously, via its huge and expensive bureaucracy. The message is that if you are poor, you must be kept in the status of client and petitioner. It would presumably save billions in administration if you just let low earners hang on to their wages; it would also fortify that sense of personal and family responsibility that government claims to like. Applying for state benefits as a fit person of working age makes everyone feel lousy, unless - or until - they are so desensitised and deprived of pride that they no longer care. But the abolition of the low tax band and the feeble personal allowance has made benefit-claiming inevitable for more people, for longer.

In the financial-Sunday-section jungle I noticed something else. It was a warning to buy-to-let landlords with tenants on housing benefit. They are usually paid directly, the money bypassing the tenant's pocket. Now an experiment is being run in nine authorities in which the tenant handles the rent money. Cries of dismay from landlords: "We envisage some, used to surviving on 55 pounds per week... being tempted to use the funds for other purposes."

The author cites problems in Blackpool where "insiders are blaming the scheme for intensifying the local drink and drugs problem". Another difficulty is that many would-be responsible tenants still can't find a "basic bank account" if there is the slightest irregularity in their desperate past. Meanwhile, the effect of this small attempt to trust individuals is, the piece says, panicking landlords in deprived areas into selling and making property prices fall. Well, hoorah; why should poorer people pay your mortgage while you watch your investment soar? Let housing associations buy them.

But to me the mystery is that for so long we have happily lived with this presumption that the poorer you are, the less you are to be trusted handling money. Which can only be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Housing benefit - in this expensive country - is a necessity for many. But being expected to conserve and ring-fence the rent yourself has to be better than being babied by the pretence that your rent is not your business. In the same way it is better to keep your own proud earnings - right up to a liveable level - than to hand chunks over and immediately beg nanny government to give them back.

Designers of welfare may contest all this as impractical, romantic, a recipe for chaos. They hug their barely hidden assumption that if you are poor you are ipso facto feckless: drugged, drunk, dumb or spendthrift. A few indeed are, and need special treatment. But in the wider human context the opposite has generally proved true. The poor are not feckless by nature, but careful. Ask any of the vastly successful organisations that offer "microcredit" in developing countries. They lend tiny sums to families, often women, to start businesses; they charge stiff interest yet their repayment record is extraordinarily high - better than many mainstream banks. History and anthropology do not throw up many examples of poor people wasting money. If we have indeed grown a feckless, helpless client population who can't be trusted, it is state messages that have made them that way.

We hear a great deal about the perils of taxing rich "non-doms", these weird creatures who may abandon London if asked to pay a bit more tax, having apparently chosen Britain as their home not out of affection or friendship but just to save a few quid of disposable income. It is wrong, say the experts, to send the poor non-doms the "message" that they aren't loved. In which case, why is it right to send poor Britons the message that they can't trust themselves but only the State? Alistair Darling could ramp up the personal allowance, make it transferable and turn his mind to ways of letting people keep earnings rather than claim benefits. Pigs could fly.


Britain returns to coal power

The Government will today anger environmentalists by signalling its support for a controversial new generation of coal-fired power stations and warning that Britain needs to burn more fossil fuels to prevent power cuts. John Hutton, the Secretary of State for Business, will say that "clean coal" has a crucial role to play in filling Britain's energy gap for the future. He will accuse the green lobby of "gesture politics" by opposing any coal-fired plants, putting energy supplies at risk and presenting a false "black and white" choice to the public over coal. Mr Hutton, the cabinet minister responsible for energy, will speak about the future of coal for the first time at a speech to the free market Adam Smith Institute in London.

But his speech is bound to raise questions about government environmental policy just two days before the the Chancellor, Alistair Darling, tries to reassure the green lobby by raising taxes on gas-guzzling vehicles. Mr Hutton's remarks will be seen as a clear sign that the Government will approve plans to build Britain's first coal-fired power station since 1984 at Kingsnorth, Kent. Green campaigners view the 1 billion pound proposal as a vital test of the Government's commitment to the environment. The energy company E.ON UK wants to demolish an outdated plant and replace it with two units using cleaner coal to supply 1.5 million homes by 2012. The firm claimed it would cut carbon emissions by nearly two million tones a year and could be a ground-breaking "clean coal" plant, with the carbon emitted stored under the North Sea.

Critics are worried the new technology remains unproved and a new coal programme would undermine efforts to secure a new worldwide agreement to combat global warming. A further seven coal-fired plants are in the pipeline if, as expected, ministers give the go-ahead to Kingsnorth. Other possible sites include Blyth, Northumberland; Tilbury, Essex; Ferrybridge, West Yorkshire; High Marnham, Nottinghamshire; Longannet, Fife and Cockenzie, East Lothian.

Ministers insisted they recognised the environmental concerns, claiming Britain was taking a global lead on clean coal power generation. They argued the Government could not afford to play fast and loose with energy supplies and must ensure "the lights stay on". Mr Hutton will tell the Government's critics that its commitment to "decarbonise" Britain's electricity mix by the middle of the century remains "non-negotiable". "But over this period, as we develop low-carbon technologies, we should be under no illusion - generation from fossil fuels will continue to play a key role," he will add.

Mr Hutton will say that nuclear and renewable sources jointly account for just over 20 per cent of UK electricity at present. By 2020, the nation may need to secure about 15 per cent of the total from renewables in order to meet its EU target. A new generation of nuclear plants might maintain or increase the nuclear contribution. But that would still leave a significant proportion of electricity, and the majority of overall energy, coming from fossil fuels, he will argue.

Mr Hutton will declare: "As a country we have to accept the reality that, even in meeting our EU 2020 renewables target, fossil fuels will still play a major part for the next couple of decades at the very least. And there is nothing wrong with that - provided we are meeting our international obligations to reduce our carbon emissions. "For critics, there's a belief that coal-fired power stations undermine the UK's leadership position on climate change. In fact the opposite is true. Developing economies need to be able to see by the actions that we are taking that it is possible to use indigenous energy reserves and decarbonise your economy.

"Leadership isn't about forcing people into making binary choices. Low carbon energy production or fossil fuels, particularly when the primary goal - substantial emission reductions - can be achieved without having to make binary choices in the short term. The world will use a mix of energy sources for the foreseeable future. Our leadership role is best promoted by the actions we take on capping emissions, carbon pricing and supporting the development of new CCS (carbon capture and storage) technology. Not by gesture politics that could put our future energy security at risk."

Environmental groups last night denied that they would be playing "gesture politics". Russell Marsh, director of policy at the Green Alliance, said: "The reason UK emissions have risen for the past 10 years is because we have increased our reliance on coal-fired generation. The Government cannot expect to meet its legally binding targets, soon to be imposed through the Climate Change Bill, if it sanctions a new fleet of unabated coal-fired power stations." Mr Marsh said that this week's Budget could only be viewed as "tinkering" on green issues if the Government went ahead with an expansion of both aviation and coal.

The minister will argue that fossil fuels will also play an important role in ensuring the flexibility of the electricity generation system for which demand fluctuates, particularly in winter. Neither wind nor nuclear power could fulfil this role, so back-up from fossil fuels will be needed, with coal seen as the most reliable source. Although gas is cleaner than coal, Mr Hutton will warn that an over-reliance on gas would leave us more exposed to the international gas market as Britain's own resources decline.

Within seven years one of the world's first commercial-scale clean coal demonstrator plants could be up and running in the UK, generating electricity from coal with up to 90 per cent less carbon emitted.


The honey cure

At 42 British pounds for a 120g jar, the world’s most expensive honey recently went on sale in Harrods. Life Mel has a list of purported health benefits as long as your arm ? the scientists who created it claim the usual nutritional advantages associated with honey are maximised because the bees that produce it gather pollen from herbs such as Siberian ginseng, echinacea and Uncaria tomentosa that boost the immune system. They say that 2 tsp of Life Mel honey a day, on an empty stomach, sucked slowly, will supply a shot of antioxidants that leave you better able to fight illness and disease.

Life Mel has already established a reputation as something of a miracle nectar: a study published in the respected Medical Oncology journal last year showed that 12 out of 30 cancer patients given the honey after chemotherapy did not experience the usual plummeting white blood-cell count; other patients reported improvements in their quality of life. However, even the researchers, at Sieff hospital in Israel, where the honey is produced, and Oldchurch Hospital in Romford, Essex, admit the sample was small, and that the proven benefits are slight.

But haven’t we heard it all before? Is honey really a cureall, or is this just a load of hype? Trials conducted at the honey research centre at Waikato University, New Zealand, look more promising. The director of the centre, Professor Peter Molan, has focused his investigations on another super-honey, manuka, which is produced by bees that collect pollen from the manuka bush, which grows wild in New Zealand.

According to Molan, all types of honey contain hydrogen peroxide -- once used in hospitals as a disinfectant for wounds because of its antibacterial properties -- which is produced from an enzyme, glucose oxidase, which the bees add to nectar. Manuka honey appears to contain other beneficial ingredients, yet to be identified, which help it to fight bacteria. Molan has found that eating 3 tsp manuka honey a day can help fight throat infections and reduce gum disease, as well as maintain good digestive health. He has also shown that, when eaten regularly, manuka also aids memory and reduces feelings of anxiety.

At Aintree Hospital in Liverpool and at the University of Wales, manuka honey has been shown to combat MRSA when applied to wounds; other researchers have suggested it may also be useful as a dressing for eczema, sunburn and acne.

Despite these benefits, experts are not convinced that we should all be dipping a spoon into the jar every day. Lisa Miles, a nutrition scientist with the British Nutrition Foundation, points out that while honey may have its uses in specific medical settings, it contains 16 more calories (64) per tbsp than sugar (48). “It is just liquid sugar,” she says. “It has a reputation as being healthier than sugar, but, nutritionally, there are few advantages. Honey is 75% sugar and counts as added sugar in the diet, so don’t be fooled.” The only thing guaranteed to happen when you eat more of it, she says, is that you will put on weight.


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