Friday, 26 February 2010

A line on workplace bullying

IS Gordon Brown a workplace bully?
I don’t know. And I doubt very much whether Christine Pratt really knows either.
Some things I do know, though.
Bullying bosses can make life hell for their victims. And it can be very hard to report them, or even know who to tell.
I don’t mean physical bullying, which I’ve never seen or experienced in a work environment. I mean the aggressive use of hierarchical power, which can be far worse.
Not shouting or throwing things around, but verbal intimidation; unreasonable demands; maybe implicit threats; a pattern of broken promises.
It can create stress, destroy confidence, sleep, health, marriages.
It’s not a rare thing, either. It’s endemic in our society. In many fields of work, bullies prosper. Often, I suspect, without realising the effect they have or how colleagues see them.
The use of fear as a tool of management is commonplace. Call it Alex Ferguson’s hairdryer and it’s even widely approved.
Though whether the hairdryer is really bullying I’m not sure, never having been in the Manchester United dressing-room. Whatever Ferguson’s methods, they clearly work, and many of his players appear to love him.
So how are we to react to the tacit admission that Gordon Brown is a passionate boss who sometimes shouts at people?
Does it make him like Ferguson, or something worse?
Either way, does it lower him in our esteem, and with a General Election looming, too?
Or does it improve his image to be seen as a “strong” leader?
After all, Winston Churchill was hardly averse to throwing his considerable weight around. Or using his highly sharpened wit as a weapon.
Do you imagine Margaret Thatcher was all sweetness and kindliness to staff and colleagues when the cameras weren’t rolling?
Both Thatcher and Churchill benefited from being considered tough, even by those who loathed their politics. So maybe this latest attempt to discredit Brown will backfire.
It certainly hasn’t shown up the hitherto unknown Mrs Pratt in a very good light.
Let’s leave aside her timing and her motives, interesting though they might be.
By revealing that someone at No.10 had called the National Bullying Helpline she didn’t just break confidentiality, she drove a horse and cart through it.
If ever I was tempted to ring their number, I certainly wouldn’t do it now.
Whoever phoned from Downing Street (if anyone really did) is now in a very uncomfortable position indeed if there was any truth in the bullying claim.
But more than betraying that person’s trust, more than perhaps smearing Brown, Pratt has broken the code upon which all helplines depend.
In doing so, she has damaged not just her own charity.
By sowing a gritty grain of doubt, she has hurt the Samaritans, Childline and every other service that relies on trust, anonymity and confidentiality.


IT struck me first when watching those ads for razorblades in which he appeared with fellow sporting stars Roger Federer and Thierry Henry.
It hit me again with a thud when watching his self-flagellating apology for marital misdemeanours.
Despite obvious racial differences, Tiger Woods is a dead-ringer for Tony Blair.
Is that why his televised grovelling seemed to me so phoney? Such a calculated display of fake emotion?
Exactly who was Tiger saying sorry to?
If it was his wife, why go on TV to do it? If it was any or all of the other women he’s slept with, why do it at all?
If it was his fans – well, what’s his sexual behaviour really got to do with them anyway? It’s his fabulous golf-playing they really care about.
If it was his sponsors… Yes, that’s it of course.
It’s all about image. And that is all about money.
Coming on the day the Accenture World Matchplay Championship began (without him), Tiger’s declaration of regret cocked a snook at a sponsor that had dropped him.
But I was amused at the complaint from rival golfer Ernie Els that the timing was “selfish”.
What, a top sports star – and one in an individual sport at that – selfish? Who could believe such a thing?
Truth is, if Tiger wasn’t massively self-centred he’d never have got as good at golf as he is.
And that goes for Els, Ian Poulter and all the other top guys too.
It probably goes for anyone who reaches the top of any tree. Like Blair, for instance. Or John Terry.
In fact, I wouldn’t care to vouch for Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Barack Obama or Mother Teresa always doing their share of the shopping and cleaning.
Not that I’d put Tiger, or Blair, in their category in other respects. And I’m not for a moment suggesting any of them ever shared Woods’s particular weakness.
(Sex addiction? Sounds to me like a convenient excuse for self-indulgent lack of self-control. Self-destructive perhaps, self-centred certainly. All about self, and therefore the exact opposite of love.)
But when it comes to anyone highly successful, in any field, maybe “selfish” is the inevitable flip side of “focused”.

Friday, 12 February 2010

To boldly go where no phone has gone before

WERE Gene Roddenberry and his fellow Star Trek creators exceptionally gifted at seeing into the future?
Or did their vision so captivate the young minds of future developers that they helped shape the world to come?
Were those flip-open communicators used by Messrs Spock and Kirk a smart prediction? Or did they in fact influence the later design of mobile phones?
My money’s on the latter. And if it comes off – no, make that when it comes off – I think we’ll have the late, great Douglas Adams partly to thank for the next truly world-changing advance in phone technology.
An advance that will make the flip-open pocket-sized handset seem quaint and almost medieval.
It was always one of the quirks of the Star Trek universe that those boldly going humans seemed able to converse easily with all the humanoid aliens they encountered on all those new worlds.
The explanation for it was the universal translator. A nice neat fiction produced simply to paper over an obvious credibility gap.
The idea was developed delightfully by Adams in his Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy with the invention of the babelfish.
This small, yellow, leech-like creature lives in the ear canal of larger creatures, such as man. There, as a by-product of its own mysterious nutrition process, it converts speech patterns into brainwaves. And so it acts as a real-time universal translator.
Brilliant. And not wholly credible. Yet, like so much of Adams’s weird world, not wholly in-credible either.
The notion of being able to translate instantly and seamlessly between, say, Vogon and Golgafrinchan – or Gaelic and Hungarian – is so irresistible someone clever was bound to try to make it reality.
My grandmother was pretty good.
In 1945-46, she was employed as a translator at the Nuremberg trials.
As the chief surviving Nazi war criminals faced world justice, evidence was heard in a variety of European languages. Without reliable simultaneous translators, the whole process would have become almost impossibly unwieldy.
Which is how my grandmother, equipped with headphones and microphone, was able to put her fluency in English, Russian, German, French and Yiddish to good use.
As I said, pretty good – to me, awe-inspiring. Not many people could have done that.
But no one could ever have done what Google is promising for a future generation of phones.
Real-time translation between 6,000 languages.
Pick up a phone in Ipswich, speak into it in English, and have a conversation with someone speaking Japanese in Tokyo. Or Bengali in Kolkata. Or Swahili in Stowmarket. Or whatever, wherever.
Mind-blowing. And among all the ever-growing array of communications technology on offer, something actually worth having.
For that to be so, though, it will have to be a great deal better than some of the automated translation services currently on offer, clever though they are.
I had occasion the other day to translate a short Bible passage from English into Chinese (don’t ask).
Since I know no Chinese I used the online Babelfish service (and you know where that got its name from).
And just to check what I was sending, I used the same system to translate the message back.
The phrase “our virgins are defiled” returned as “our loyal female volleyball team becomes the tandem advance”.
Entertaining maybe, but not very Biblical. And hardly guaranteed to increase the sum of human understanding.
Google’s own translator does, admittedly, do better. From the same original phrase it produces: “Has tarnished our virgin.”
A lot closer, but still no cigar.
Nevertheless Franz Och, the company’s head of translation services, is confident.
He says: “We think speech-to-speech translation should be possible and work reasonably well in a few years’ time.”
I rather hope he’s right – even if it does mean another major step along Google’s route to world domination.
Maybe, though, we should heed Douglas Adams’s warning: “The poor babelfish, by effectively removing all barriers to communication between different races and cultures, has caused more and bloodier wars than anything else in the history of creation.”
A case of ‘be careful what you wish for’?
Nous verrons. Zobaczymy. We shall see.


I RATHER expected my column last week (“Should religious bigots have rights over us all?”) to stir up an angry response among some of our more devout readers.
What I wasn’t expecting was the chorus of approval I in fact received – some of it from avowed Christians.
There was a dissenting voice from a Jehovah’s Witness who claimed that by avoiding blood transfusions they get better medical care than the rest of us. I’ll leave that one aside.
But most who responded seemed to share my loss of patience with those who claim superiority on the basis of their religious faith.
Geoff from Stoke surprised me most: “I’m right with you on religious bigots. Your piece reads like Jesus on similar subjects.”
Possibly the first time I’ve ever been likened to Jesus.
But I do think the world might be a better place if people paid more attention to what Jesus said (or is reported to have said) than to his supposed divinity or the alleged details of his death.

Friday, 5 February 2010

Should religious bigots have rights over us all?

I’M beginning to question my long-held view of religion.
I have long believed in freedom of belief, the right of others to their faith however weird or wacky it might seem to me. In short, in religious tolerance.
Trouble is, “religious tolerance” is starting to sound like an oxymoron, like “pale black” or “military intelligence”.
I’m growing very tired of religious groups’ claims to special privileges merely on the grounds of their superstition.
Like the supposed “right” of Muslims to wear the burkha (or, rather, the right of Muslim men to impose it on their women).
The “right” of Jehovah’s Witnesses to deny their children access to modern medical techniques such as blood transfusions.
The “right” of Christian fundamentalists to insist that their insane beliefs be given equivalent status in schools to genuine science.
And I’m sick and tired of the constant demands for “tolerance” when what they really mean is tolerance of their intolerance towards others.
Some Muslim extremists want to impose Shari’a law – to restrict everyone’s basic human rights to fit their particular religious outlook.
The Taleban want to re-impose their draconian, violent, inhumane rule in Afghanistan on the pretext of religion.
And the Pope wants Catholics to rebel against British equality legislation.
In other words, to insist on their “right” to deny basic human rights to others. To demand tolerance of their rampant intolerance.
It’s not that the Pope’s against equality. Just that he wants good, line-toeing Catholics to be more equal than others.
Many religious people talk as if morality was their exclusive property. It isn’t.
In fact, more often than not “religious morality” is simply an excuse to impose an arbitrary code on others.
A code based at best on out-dated principles. More commonly on the interpretation of those principles by contemporary (male) leaders who like to claim tradition (and God’s backing) for their own particular prejudices.
When people talk, as the Pope has this week, about “natural law”, it’s always their own prejudices they really mean.
He and other religious leaders wish to deny rights to others on grounds of gender or sexual orientation.
This isn’t morality. It’s bigotry. Baseless intolerance that should not be tolerated.
One Christian I heard supporting the Pope’s view put it very neatly.
“Trendy modern tinkering,” he said, “shouldn’t be allowed to change a 2,000-year-old tradition of natural justice.”
Quite right.
Crucifixion should be brought back right away. And stoning for Christians, of course.


I STOOD for an hour this week staring out of the window at the garden.
I really should do it more often, and not just wait for the RSPB to tell me the Big Garden Birdwatch has come round again.
I love to see the birds come and go, to enjoy their beautiful and varied shapes and colours, observe their inter-actions. If you can’t appreciate the variety and otherness of life in such ways, you aren’t really fully alive.
And of course the big watch, in which hundreds of thousands of people take part every year, provides the RSPB with invaluable data on the ups and downs of bird populations.
This year they were concerned to see how garden birds had coped with the harsh winter weather of December and January.
And I’m afraid the evidence of my notes suggests they have taken a severe hit.
In past years I’ve registered lively flocks of goldfinches and greenfinches. I haven’t seen any of either species this year – not just in the designated hour, but at all.
No coal-tits either, and though I ticked off great tits, blue-tits and long-tailed tits, the numbers were well down. As were those of dunnocks (just one this year) and chaffinches (three).
Most winters, our stock of fallen apples attracts the occasional woodpecker, and blackbirds in their dozens. I haven’t seen or heard a single woodpecker this year, and only three or four blackbirds at a time.
There was one joy for me in all the gloom, though.
Recent research suggests the blackcap has been evolving rapidly to take fuller advantage of British garden conditions, including feeders. My observation may provide further evidence of this.
Each year a pair of blackcaps have nested in a tree just outside our garden. This week, for the first time ever, I saw not just one but a pair together. And I didn’t just spot them briefly, either, but was able to watch them coming and going busily throughout the hour.
Oddly, both were male. I wonder what the Pope would make of that. Natural law indeed.


POOR old Prince Harry fell off his horse week. Ouch.
He was playing polo in Barbados “in aid of poor African children”. Some folk are all heart.
Pity those poor African kids will probably never know how much he put himself on the line for them.