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A little bit of history repeating itself… George Monbiot on the lies told in the run-up to the First World War

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From The Guardian

Another anniversary, almost forgotten in this country, falls tomorrow. On November 12 1924, Edmund Dene Morel died. Morel had been a shipping clerk, based in Liverpool and Antwerp, who had noticed, in the late 1890s, that while ships belonging to King Leopold were returning from the Congo to Belgium full of ivory, rubber and other goods, they were departing with nothing but soldiers and ammunition. He realised that Leopold’s colony must be a slave state, and launched an astonishing and ultimately successful effort to break the king’s grip and free Congo’s enslaved people. For a while he became a national hero. A few years later he became a national villain.

During his Congo campaign, Morel had become extremely suspicious of the secret diplomacy pursued by the British Foreign Office. In 1911, he showed how a secret understanding between Britain and France over the control of Morocco, followed by a campaign in the British press based on misleading Foreign Office briefings, had stitched up Germany and very nearly caused a European war. In February 1912, he warned that “no greater disaster could befall both peoples [Britain and Germany], and all that is most worthy of preservation in modern civilization, than a war between them”. Convinced that Britain had struck a second secret agreement with France that would drag the nation into any war which involved Russia, he campaigned for such treaties to be made public; for recognition that Germany had been hoodwinked over Morocco; and for the British government to seek to broker a reconciliation between France and Germany.

In response, British ministers lied. The prime minister and the foreign secretary repeatedly denied that there was any secret agreement with France. Only on the day war was declared did the foreign secretary admit that a treaty had been in place since 1906. It ensured that Britain would have to fight from the moment Russia mobilised. Morel continued to oppose the war and became, until his dramatic rehabilitation after 1918, one of the most reviled men in Britain.

Could the Great War have been averted if, in 1911, the British government had done as Morel suggested? No one knows, as no such attempt was made. Far from seeking to broker a European peace, Britain, pursuing its self-interested diplomatic intrigues, helped to make war more likely.

Germany was the aggressor, but the image of affronted virtue cultivated by Britain was a false one. Faced, earlier in the century, with the possibilities of peace, the old men of Europe had decided that they would rather kill their children than change their policies.

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…”

“Against the evidence” – New Statesman piece

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The New Statesman has just published an article I’ve written, coinciding with the publication of “Don’t Get Fooled Again” (a version read by a strange robotic voice can be found here…)

Throughout the 1960s, the tobacco industry famously spent millions promoting a small group of vociferous “sceptics” who, in the face of overwhelming evidence, continued to deny the link between smoking and cancer. The strategy paid off. Long after a clear scientific consensus had emerged, much of the public still believed that the case remained unproven.

In a sceptical age, even those disseminating wholly bogus ideas – from corporate pseudo-science to 9/11 conspiracy theories – will often seek to appropriate the language of rational inquiry. But there is a meaningful difference between being a “sceptic” and being in denial. The genuine sceptic forms his beliefs through a balanced evaluation of the evidence. The sceptic of the bogus variety cherry-picks evidence on the basis of a pre-existing belief, seizing on data, however tenuous, that supports his position, and yet declaring himself “sceptical” of any evidence, however compelling, that undermines it.

While it is easy to guess the motivations of an industry-funded scientist denying the dangers posed by his commercial sponsor, or a far-right historian expressing “scepticism” about the Holocaust, other cases are more puzzling. It is difficult to explain why, for example, a respected academic would dismiss the mountain of proof that HIV causes Aids. But several have, notably the Berkeley virologist Peter Duesberg.

HIV is a type of “retrovirus”. Duesberg has argued for decades that retroviruses rarely, if ever, harm their hosts. Rather than modify this theory in the light of evidence that one such virus was killing millions, Duesberg in the late 1980s announced his “scepticism” about that evidence, and has stuck to his guns ever since.

Early on, these ideas found a receptive audience among HIV sufferers, desperate for an alternative prognosis. The cause was later taken up by conspiracy theorists convinced that Aids was a money-spinning fabrication of the global pharmaceutical industry.

In South Africa, at the beginning of this decade, Aids scepticism gained currency with a political class dismayed at the prices being charged for life-saving medicines. Under the influence of Duesberg and his fellow “dissidents”, Thabo Mbeki’s government chose to delay for several years public provision of anti-HIV drugs. The economist Nicoli Nattrass estimates that this decision – made amid one of the world’s worst Aids epidemics – may already have cost hundreds of thousands of lives.

Bogus scepticism does not centre on an impartial search for the truth, but on a no-holds-barred defence of a preconceived ideological position. The bogus sceptic is thus, in reality, a disguised dogmatist, made all the more dangerous for his success in appropriating the mantle of the unbiased and open-minded inquirer.

Richard Wilson’s “Don’t Get Fooled Again” is out now, published by Icon Books (£12.99)

“More doctors smoke camels”!

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The Cigarette Century

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cultural history of the cigarette might not seem like the most obvious choice for a compelling read. But Harvard medical historian Allan M Brandt’s extraordinary work, ‘The Cigarette Century’ is a book that that strays a long way from the obvious. Brandt is both a meticulous historian and an eloquent writer – the book is reportedly the product of 20 years of research. In charting the rise and fall of the cigarette – from its humble and disreputable origins in the 19th century to its pre-eminence in the 1950s, and its gradual decline, in the face of growing evidence of its deadly effects – Brandt also recounts the evolution of modern American society; the growth of mass-production, the growing sophistication of industry lobbyists in Congress and – crucially – the birth of the advertising and public relations industries.

Drawing on confidential industry documents – many of them released under legal duress following a series of law-suits in the 1980s and 1990s – Brandt shows how tobacco companies deliberately sought to suppress evidence of the cigarette’s harmful effects, and deployed cutting-edge PR techniques to manipulate public opinion, creating the impression that the science around smoking and cancer was ‘unproven’ long after a clear consensus had emerged among experts.

In “Don’t Get Fooled Again” I show how the techniques developed by the tobacco industry have become the standard tactic for an industry fighting a rearguard action against overwhelming scientific evidence of the dangers of its products.

Written by Richard Wilson

August 21, 2008 at 1:38 pm

Astro-turfing in Acholi-land – the role of the Catholic Church in Northern Uganda

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There must be potential for a good few PhD theses in examining the role played by the Catholic Church in recent efforts to shield Uganda’s “Lord’s Resistance Army” rebels from prosecution by the International Criminal Court. When arrest warrants were first issued in 2005, the move was immediately condemned as a threat to peace by senior Catholic clergy in Uganda, and the church has been active in opposing it ever since. 

“The entire Acholi population has said, ‘Let us forgive for the sake of peace,’“, announced Father Matthew Ojara earlier this year. “We do not believe in punishment in the sense of imprisoning someone. Once reconciliation is done, you have to walk free and live with your brothers and sisters. There are no prison cells or house arrest. That’s a Western practice.”

But this view contrasts sharply with that we hear from other sources. In August last year the International Center for Transitional Justice released the results of a survey of 2,875 adults from the regions most affected by LRA violence. 

According to allafrica.com: “Most respondents wanted those responsible for war crimes and violations of human rights to be held accountable. They distinguished between LRA leaders and lower-ranking LRA members, who, in many cases, had themselves been abducted as civilians. Only a minority (17%) said that the rank-and-file should face trial and/or punishment. Many wanted to see LRA leaders face trials and/or punishment such as imprisonment or death (41%), although many others (52%) also indicated that they favored options including forgiveness, reconciliation, and reintegration into communities.”

One particularly salient issue, it seems to me, is the extent to which religious leaders have sought to speak on behalf of “The entire Acholi population”.

International media coverage on this issue often seems to take at face value claims made by the likes of Ojara about the views of victims, and the inherently forgiving nature of ‘Acholi culture’.

Neither has there been much comment on the irony that many of those most vehemently rejecting the ICC as a ‘western’ imposition – and urging adherence to what they say traditional Acholic culture demands – are fully signed-up members of the single largest ‘western’ religion, Roman Catholicism. 

Internationally, one of the organisations most active in lobbying for the ICC warrants to be suspended – and calling, in more or less euphemistic terms, for the LRA to be offered financial payoffs – has been the US-based “Uganda Conflict Action Network”.

Since Uganda-CAN was established in mid-2005, the organisation’s founders, Peter Quaranto and Michael Poffenberger, have made dozens of media interventions portraying the ICC indictments as an obstacle to peace, urging that the US, as a non-signatory, intervenes to “impact the talks in ways that European countries cannot“, highlighting LRA demands for guarantees of their “physical and financial security”, and suggesting that “creative inducements” could persuade the LRA leader to sign a peace deal.

Uganda-CAN – which was launched just months before the ICC issued its arrest warrants for the LRA leaders (and was relaunched recently under the name “Resolve Uganda”) – is itself an initiative of the Washington-based “African Faith and Justice Network“, which – according to its website – was founded by three Catholic missionary congregations in 1983, and whose “support base is primarily built on the Catholic missionary community”.

But the Resolve Uganda website now makes very little of its religious affiliations, listing AFJN as only one among a number of ‘partners’, and presenting itself as a ‘grassroots’ organisation founded and run by students. It’s only when we dig a bit deeper that we learn that one of those “students”, Resolve Uganda’s head honcho Michael Poffenberger, was formerly “Associate Director of the Africa Faith and Justice Network”.

Wikipedia has a little more on the Uganda-CAN phenomenon – along with a handy definition of the PR tactic commonly known as “astroturfing”.

ABC News and the bogus ‘Iraqi-anthrax’ claims

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Writing in today’s Comment is Free, Dan Gillmore details how, in the early stages of the run-up to the 2003 Iraq invasion, the TV channel ABC News ran a series of sensational stories claiming to have compelling evidence linking the Iraqi regime to the ‘anthrax attacks’ of September and October 2001.

“A substantially false story that helps make the case for war by raising fears about enemies abroad attacking the US is released into public debate because of faulty reporting done by ABC News”, Gillmore writes. “How that happened and who was responsible is itself a major story of public interest”.

Gillmore argues that anonymous sources who lie and mislead journalists have lost their right to have their anonymity respected. He challenges ABC news to ‘out’ the “four well-placed and separate sources” who fed them bogus claims about the source of the anthrax used in the 2001 attacks.