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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.

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Written by Richard Wilson

November 2, 2008 at 6:30 pm

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