Friday, 23 January 2009

My imaginary friend just got off the bus

IT’S been one of the big questions – arguably THE big question – wracking the best brains of philosophers for centuries. Now it’s come down to the Advertising Standards Authority to settle the matter: Is there a god?
Some Christians, including an uppity bus-driver from Southampton, have got all hot under the collar about a British Humanist Association ad that proclaims: “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.”
Which seems like very sound advice to me. But that hasn’t prevented the posters being referred to the ASA.
On what grounds, I wonder?
The authority’s brief is to ensure that advertisements are “legal, decent, honest and true”. Which of those requirements does the BHA ad fail?
It’s certainly decent. It’s undoubtedly honest. If it’s true it must surely be legal. And that little word “probably” must make it true.
In my opinion it’d be true even without the “probably”.
Yup. It’s an opinion. Just as those who say there is a god – or fairies, or unicorns, or little green men on Mars – are only expressing their opinion.
Anyone who invokes the law, or the ASA, against the proposition that there is no god (probably or otherwise) had better watch out. You’re living in a glass house and shouldn’t throw stones.
Not far from my home is a poster that proclaims: “Jesus Lives!” I wouldn’t have to go far to find others claiming he’s saved me (what from?) or that he’s offering me eternal life.
Decent? I suppose so. Honest? Maybe. Probably.
But true? Go ahead and prove it.
There is just one other point I want to make about all this god-or-no-god stuff, though. And it applies to god-bashing atheists such as Richard Dawkins at least as much as it does to bible-bashing Christians or Koran-waving Muslims.
I don’t believe in Noddy, Humpty-Dumpty, the tooth fairy or Santa Claus either. I gave up my imaginary friend decades ago. But I don’t see why that non-belief should define who I am – or even be particularly important in my life.
So can we please just get on to the bit about stopping worrying?

Man City owe it all to Jesus

IT’S probably just as well Kaka turned down a record-smashing move to Manchester City. For several reasons.
OK, it might have been nice for all of us armchair sports fans to be able to watch a world-class footballer at work in the Premier League. But what effect would it have had on his team-mates to know that one among them was collecting half-a-million quid a week in wages while they had to make do with perhaps a mere tenth of that?
And what of next season after the destabilised City are relegated?
What would it do to the economics of the Championship to have one player picking up roughly the equivalent of Doncaster Rovers’ annual turnover every time he trots on to the field?
In these times when the average fan, even the average club director, is facing worries over money and jobs, how can we identify with young men whose pocket-money would fund a small hospital?
But perhaps more serious is the question of the horrendous paperwork – and potential major scandal – City have narrowly avoided.
Across the city at United, another highly talented South American forward is still, after two years, at the centre of a complicated controversy. One that could yet have dire consequences for his former club, West Ham. And has arguably already had a devastating effect on a club he is never likely to play for, Sheffield United.
(If you’re not following this, don’t worry. The Carlos Tevez affair has already baffled more football and legal brains than he’s had hot dinners or scored goals.)
The nub of the matter is that Tevez is “owned” not by any club but by an Iranian businessman, Kia Joorabchian.
Now consider Kaka. Who would City have paid that reported £103million transfer fee?
If a T-shirt can be considered a legal document, Kaka belongs to Jesus…

No more beating about the Bush

AT the time we thought Tricky Dick Nixon was the biggest scoundrel ever to have held the American presidency.
When he died in 1994 his funeral was attended by the serving president and four other ex-presidents. Even the candidate he cheated and beat in the infamous Watergate election of 1972, George McGovern, later said: “I think… Nixon will get high marks in history.”
Now, with the release of the film Frost/Nixon, his reputation is set for a cuddly makeover.
At the time we thought Ronald Reagan was the stupidest and most aggressive president. Remember The President’s Brain is Missing?
History seems to have decided (rather generously, I think) that he was a shrewd operator who brought the Cold War to a peaceful end.
So what will history make of George W Bush?
Even as Barack Obama takes over on a wave of high hopes, the Wall Street Journal is already trying to rehabilitate the reputation of his predecessor.
So let’s just have a reality check. Bigger scoundrel than Nixon. Stupider and more aggressive than Reagan.
Goodbye George. And good riddance.

Friday, 16 January 2009

A world of music and news

I BEGAN one of my early Evening Star columns with the words: “A bomb went off this morning in my corner of the office.”
It wasn’t literally true of course. But it seemed a good way of introducing my two linked subjects, the bombing of Belgrade by Nato planes and the then astonishing fact that I could hear it live on the internet.
It’s only a few weeks short of a decade since that day when I startled my colleagues by fitting speakers to my PC as the bombs fell. Maybe we should stop associating the net with the shock of the new.
Yet I still feel like a kid at Christmas with the excitement of my new toy – an internet radio.
The main reason for getting it was the mundane wish for a clear signal on Radio Three. The spin-off is that I can browse the radio stations of the world, country by country.
My nine-year-old was delighted to hear the latest single by Pink introduced in French. Her current favourite stations are Radio DumDum from India and a channel broadcasting Arabic pop music from Morocco.
I find that one curiously absorbing myself. Though I was disappointed to find the only listed channel in Mali, home of Africa’s most gorgeous music, playing Lynyrd Skynyrd.
Of course it doesn’t take much surfing to find that American music pervades the world as thoroughly as other aspects of US culture.
And I’m not immune myself. One of the first channels I assigned a preset button was, a stream of all things Bob, mostly unofficial recordings, coming from the basement of an obsessed fan.
A radio’s not just about music, though. It can be interesting and instructive to hear the news as it’s presented in a variety of countries, too.
On the day an Israeli attack left 40 dead in a school in Gaza, Israel Radio reported it as a “claim” by the Palestinians. The same bulletin told of a rocket fired into Israel and reported grimly that “a toddler was slightly injured”.
The imbalance would have been hilarious if it hadn’t been so serious. But biased reporting, especially in war, is hardly an Israeli invention or speciality.
Which brings me back to where I left off last week, with some inept TV reporting of the Gaza conflict.
In another illustration of the wonders of the web, last week’s column has been shared round the world after being picked up by a journalist in the Philippines.
And that has brought me reaction – all of it broadly supportive – from the USA, Canada, Australia, Germany, Italy, France and Portugal as well as around Britain.
It’s interesting how little respect people in all those countries have for their TV news channels. Those who read and responded to my comments, anyway.
I fear the silent majority everywhere probably swallow whatever they’re fed. Just as in Israel the majority seem to swallow the dangerous pap put out by their pernicious government.
There is in fact a substantial anti-war movement within Israel but you’d never guess it from listening to the state-owned radio or reading the mainstream Israeli press. For that you have to read the independent Haaretz newspaper (website, where you will find real news and a real examination of the moral issues of Gaza from within Israel itself.
The internet, of course, in the form of blogs, emails, dissident media such as Haaretz, even sites such as YouTube and Facebook, provides the real alternative to the output of government and mainstream media. The circulation of my words last week is just a tiny example.
But it provides an example of one of the dangers too.
One reader questioned whether I had made up the story of a TV interviewer mistaking an Israeli gap-year student for a fleeing Palestinian. I hadn’t.
But I had taken it from a report by another journalist in another paper – and I can’t be quite certain he hadn’t made it up.
By now, though, it’s all over the internet, where people no doubt believe it (as I still do – I think) whether it’s true or not.
The moral is that you can’t believe everything you read on the net. But at least you get a variety of outlooks to choose from.
And a variety of music. Right now I’m listening to some wonderful stuff by Mali’s Salif Keita. Broadcast, of course, from Paris.

WHAT do you think of Prince Harry’s use of racist language to a fellow soldier?
Personally, of course, I blame the parents. But I also blame the outdated macho culture that seems to persist, perhaps not surprisingly, in His Grandmother’s Armed Forces.
I heard one of Harry’s defenders this week describe the criticism of him as “political correctness gone mad”. A surprising accusation to level at the News of the World. And a cliché routinely trotted out by those who prefer rudeness, disrespectfulness and bigotry gone mad.

Friday, 9 January 2009

Let's go live to our man in Ignorance

WHAT is news? I've been a journalist for more than 30 years now so you might expect me to know. But it’s not as simple as you might imagine.
The line between news and opinion has always been a bit blurred (anything you read in The Daily Mail, or The Guardian, is almost by definition a matter of opinion). But it’s so fuzzy now that many readers, viewers – and, yes, journalists – no longer seem to know the difference. Or even recognise that there is a difference.
One reason for this is the rise and rise of the 24-hour news culture.
To much of the media, especially television, accurate reporting no longer seems to matter. It’s not as important to be right as to be first. Speed drives everything.
My dad was a news junkie. When I was growing up, the family would gather once a day round the telly. If it wasn’t for the six o’clock bulletin, it would have to be for the nine o’clock showing.
The day’s news – or at least a BBC editor’s idea of what mattered – was neatly encapsulated in 25 minutes. Today News 24 is on all round the clock. And that’s just one of several competing channels.
But there isn’t 60 times as much going on in the world today as there was. It’s just that the presentation of it is spread so much thinner.
No news bulletin in 1969 would have featured shots of a reporter standing outside a building saying: "Well, there's nothing much happening here at the moment."
Yet that's exactly what most TV news now seems to consist of. For some bizarre, mind-scrambling reason it's called "live".
If that's what newspapers are having to compete with, you wonder why they have had to change so much over recent years.
Yet change they have, driven not so much by a need to compete with TV as by the realisation that they can't. Not for immediacy or speed.
What they can do is offer more comment and analysis. They can (heaven help us) fill their pages with banal and tedious waffle about "celebrities", as if the world weren't already full enough of such twaddle. More vitally, local papers can get to the stuff down your street in a way TV, radio and national papers never can. Without worrying what the background looks like.
But let's go back now to our reporter standing importantly outside a building somewhere in the world where something might be about to happen.
Last time you saw him he was standing outside a different building in a different country. Doing exactly the same thing.
Back in the studio one of his colleagues is asking him, as they always do, what's going on. And do you know what? He hasn't got a clue.
How can he have? He's only been there for a few hours.
And he's got no time to find out what's happening, beyond the shallow and obvious. Because he's got to stand there and appear on our screens every 20 minutes.
With no hard facts to impart, all he can offer is a soundbite of uninformed opinion.
But today, in Gaza, he's lucky. Someone in his team has managed to grab a fleeing victim.
It's a chance to get at the real human story, the experience of being under bombardment. What was it like?
"Not too bad, really." The girl grins under her "Palestinian" checked scarf.
Um. So what are you going to do now?
"I'm going to my grandmother's house in Russia. It should be really lovely, with all the snow. Bye – happy new year."
Would that interview ever have made it onto our screens back in the days when the news was actually edited?

Friday, 2 January 2009

Shops fall after we dropped them

The cartoon said it all: “Prices slashed – while shops last.”
The post-Christmas sales frenzy has always been a bizarre phenomenon. A triumph for the collective mania that fuels capitalism – the elevation of price over value, the fetishistic desire for a “bargain”.
This time round the mania has been inflated by a sense of impending doom. A desire to raid the shops before they disappear forever. An impulse not unlike the urge that drives looters in a catastrophe.
And with all that comes, I suppose, a sense of history in the making and an unspoken desire to take part in it.
Exactly how historic current events prove to be is not for us to see or judge just yet, of course. But it seems a dead cert that 2009 will see a lot of familiar high-street names disappear.
And with that, possibly, could come a deep and lasting change not just in the nature of the high street, but ultimately in the nature of towns themselves.
It would give me some pleasure to see the out-of-town supermarkets go to the wall, but I fear that as ever it will be the small independent traders who end up suffering most.
When Napoleon said famously, and scornfully, that England was a nation of shopkeepers it was far from the truth. At that point. It became truer later.
But really what we have been is a nation of shopworkers. What we are about to become is a nation of former shopworkers. Hopefully, not all unemployed.
There’s a slight nostalgic sadness associated with the demise of Woolworth’s. It has at least been a supporter of high-street business against the ghastly out-of-towners.
In many small towns, such as Woodbridge, where I live, it has long been the only place to buy some of the basic natural commodities of life. Its disappearance will leave a gap which I hope the local traders will be able to fill to their own benefit.
But if Woolies is a loss, I can’t find it in me to regret the demise of Zavvi.
For one thing it hasn’t been around long enough as a brand to attract much loyalty. And for another – well, the writing was on the wall for the traditional record shop since long before that name came into being.
I suppose it was the history thing that drew me over the threshold of the Zavvi store in Ipswich on Boxing Day. Well, I happened to be passing on my way to the footy. And while I may criticise the strumpet appeal of commerce, I’m not altogether immune to it.
The one thing which has always brought out the compulsive purchaser in me is music. But even on the opening day of the great closing-down sale I couldn’t find a thing that tempted me to part with my cash.
Not that there aren’t 101 titles itching to add themselves to my already bloated CD collection. Just that I already try to ration my online buying and nothing even in Zavvi’s death-throes looked better value than I expect to get without leaving my keyboard.
Which is, of course, exactly why the record-store was dead in the water long before credit came to the crunch.
Most people just don’t buy their music that way any more. Which may have been a factor in Woolies’ fall and will surely see other old-fashioned record retailers go down the tubes soon.
Actually, apart from food – which I buy as locally as I can and almost all on foot - I hardly buy anything in conventional shops any more.
The internet is simply too convenient, too reliable. Almost everything is available somewhere online and you can compare products and consider their possible pitfalls without having to brave the blather of some in-store "assistant".
I may not be totally typical in this attitude, but it’s becoming more common. And that means we shouldn’t really weep too much over the collapse of shops.
It’s us what done it. We just didn’t like shopping enough.
And the result, I suggest, isn’t entirely a bad thing.
As long as all my lovely local food shops – the real ones, owned and run by local people – survive and prosper.