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Archive for November 2nd, 2008

Don’t Get Fooled Again and Real England at the Radical Bookfair

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I’ve just come back from a brief but very enjoyable trip to Edinburgh, where I was giving a talk on “Don’t Get Fooled Again” at the Radical Bookfair, organised by Word Power books. I was speaking alongside Paul Kingsnorth, who talked about his excellent book “Real England”, charting the damaging effects of top-down economic development on local communities across the country.

Paul traces the problem, at least in part, to the dominant and still largely unquestioned assumption that economic growth must trump all other public ‘goods’ – particularly those which are less easily measured and enumerated – and the belief that any form of development constitutes ‘progress’ – even when this involves the destruction of longstanding local traditions.

I’m still getting the hang of book talks, so I kept mine simple (perhaps overly so, given the sophistication of the audience). I focussed on the bogus claims made by the UK government – and aggressively hyped by large sections of the media – in the run-up to the war in Iraq, and putting forward the argument I make in “Don’t Get Fooled Again” that we need a law to make lying in public office a criminal offence.

The event really came alive when the audience got involved – one of the first points from the floor came from a former Labour councillor and MEP, who identified the common thread between both talks as the lack of democratic accountability. The same political disenfranchisement that gave local people so little say over the changes being imposed from the ‘top down’ on their communities was at work even at the heart of the Blair government – where the full facts about Iraq were kept to a tiny circle of people around the Prime Minister, with other cabinet members often being kept in the dark.

Other contributors talked about the difficulty of knowing which parts of the media to trust, given that even peer-reviewed scientific journals are subject to a form of ‘selection bias‘. Where scientific research has been commissioned by a commercial enterprise, such as a pharmaceutical company, that company may have a vested interest in submitting for publication only the results which present their products in a positive light, while quietly shelving studies that tell a less rosy story.

In response to one question, I mentioned an excellent website where the UK government’s bogus claims about Iraqi WMD have been forensically broken down by the writer Chris Ames. As I couldn’t remember the full details, I thought it might be useful to post the link here. I also thought it might be helpful to give some links to three excellent media watchdog websites, the Center for Public Integrity, the Media Standards Trust, and Sourcewatch.

Paul Kingsnorth pointed out how ironic it is that so much sound and fury has been raised over the punishment to be meted out to two comedians leaving lewd ansaphone messages when so little has been done to hold to account the senior politicians who took us into a disastrous war on bogus grounds.

It was fantastic to be able to meet so many people who had read and enjoyed “Don’t Get Fooled Again”, and having spent so much time recently dodging brickbats in various online discussions, it was very refreshing to have a proper, civilised face-to-face discussion. My only regret was that I couldn’t stay for longer – due to family commitments I had to rush back to London that same day – but I very much hope to do more of this kind of thing in future.

But by far the most surreal moment – in a good way – came just before I was due to go on and speak, when I caught sight of the man who had been my boss’s boss’s boss many years ago when I was still working in London as a profoundly unsuited IT bod. It turns out that Peter Cox, formerly the systems director of a major UK retail firm, has now reinvented himself as a writer, first with a book about English cricket, and now with “Set into Song” – an in-depth look at the music of Ewan MacColl, Charles Parker, Peggy Seeger. Peter was due to give a talk about his new book later that evening, but unfortunately I had to head back.

On the way home I had a chance to read a lot more of Paul Kingsnorth’s fascinating book, which works both as an engaging portrait of many important – yet often ignored – aspects of England, and also has some interesting things to say about the current state of our political system. Best of all, the book got totally trashed – twice – by those fascinating folks over at Spiked Online, which (unless you believe that climate change science really is a racist liberal conspiracy to demonise the working classes) has to be something of a badge of honour. I’m looking forward to finishing it.

Written by Richard Wilson

November 2, 2008 at 6:30 pm

In his 41st article on the subject, Booker accuses the BBC of “moral corruption” for highlighting the health risks of asbestos

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Earlier this week the BBC’s Today Programme reported a rise in the number of teachers, doctors and nurses dying from the incurable cancer mesothelioma, having been exposed to asbestos in schools and hospitals. The programme highlighted the case of Mary Artherton, a former nurse who had been diagnosed with the disease after working in three hospitals where asbestos was present.

“I was absolutely horrified when I heard the news”, she told the BBC. “I’d nursed people with mesothelioma in the past. I know the prognosis was very poor and it just frightened me, completely.”

The BBC had previously highlighted a new campaign by the Health and Safety Executive to raise awareness of the risks of asbestos exposure among plumbers, electricians and other tradespeople:

The HSE says research suggests exposure kills on average six electricians, three plumbers and six joiners every week and it fears those numbers could grow in the future because of complacency.

It believes only one in 10 current tradesmen recognises the danger and is launching a campaign to raise awareness.

The HSE’s new campaign was also publicised by the UK’s largest cancer charity, Cancer Research UK:

When a person comes into contact with asbestos, they breathe in tiny fibres of the substance and these can irritate and damage the cells lining the lung. Up to 80 per cent of people diagnosed with mesothelioma have been in contact with asbestos, and the risk is greatest among tradesmen who can be exposed to the substance at work. According to the HSE, at least 4,000 people die as a result of asbestos every year. But scientists believe this rate could rise, since people who have been exposed usually do not develop mesothelioma for between 15 and 40 years. The organisation’s new campaign, ‘Asbestos: The hidden killer’, is designed to improve awareness among tradesmen, many of whom underestimate the risk that asbestos still poses despite the ban.

In response to the BBC’s coverage, the Sunday Telegraph columnist Christopher Booker has written his 41st article misrepresenting the science around asbestos, and accusing the BBC of “moral corruption” for highlighting the health risks of asbestos exposure:

Last week, the BBC was again publicising the latest scare over asbestos, launched by the Health and Safety Executive and supported by all those who stand to benefit by it, from asbestos removal contractors to ambulance-chasing lawyers (and the trade unions which get £250 for every referral to solicitors specialising in compensation claims).

In the article, Booker also repeats his false claim that the HSE had previously described the risks of white asbestos cement as “insignificant or zero”.

In previous articles he has repeatedly misrepresented one paper by two HSE statisticians, Hodgson and Darnton, which he says drew such a conclusion. The editor of the journal which published that study recently commented here that:

“The paper does not say that the risks from asbestos cement are probably insignificant – it uses this phrase for the chrysotile risks at the lowest exposures. At higher (but still low) exposures, the authors gave estimates of lung cancer risk about 30-40 times lower than those from crocidolite, and did not regard this as insignificant..

The 500 times difference… may apply to the relative risk of mesothelioma, a much less important disease than lung cancer in chrysotile exposure…”