Does HIV cause AIDS? How much more evidence do you need?

It beggars belief that a decade after Thabo Mbeki and other AIDS denialists were completely discredited by a mountain of evidence (see a good summary here if you must), respectable media outlets still question whether the virus is caused by HIV. The latest in this shameful line is The Spectator, which at least has the (probably false) humility to ask whether it should be questioning the link (the answer is no, because it puts people’s lives at risk if they believe this garbage).

According to the Spectator, a Nobel Prize-winning scientist has said that you can shrug off HIV infections if you have a healthy immune system. This is the argument put forward by South Africa’s disgraced former health minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang (who reckoned eating raw garlic would sort you out if you got infected). In all my time working in the HIV/AIDS field in Africa and the West (intermittent but over quite a long period), I’ve met one person who contracted HIV but didn’t end up needing antiretroviral drugs.  The Spectator would have it that this person (a scientist himself, as it happens) is one of multitudes.  Surprising, then, that he describes himself as a “human pincushion,” as so many researchers have tested him to find out what stops HIV turning into AIDS. If people like him were so numerous, you’d think the scientists wouldn’t have to subject him to painful jabs so often.

The BBC’s BNP triumph

BBC Milks Question Time

Hats off to the BBC.

It could have announced that Nick Griffin was appearing on Question Time a couple of days ago, and then hoped the whole thing would pass off as quietly as possible.

But that would have been boring. Positively Reithian. How much better to turn the appearance of the BNP leader into… an event! Here’s how it was done:

Trail the decision to invite Britain’s favourite fascist onto Question Time at the end of the silly season, ensuring a six-week, slow burn for the story.

Begin to run cross-platform coverage under suitably-provocative banners like “Who’s Afraid of the BNP?”

Use party conference season to gin up interest in who else will be on the show, making sure the big announcements (a cabinet minister!) get plenty of coverage.

Wait eagerly for the inevitable attacks on your decision to give the BNP airtime.

Get your top brass to respond to them with much earnest head-shaking (“this is hurting us, more than it’s hurting you… but we’re doing it for the children democracy”).

As the big day approaches, up the pace of your coverage – a special on Newsnight (make that two!), prominent slots on all of your news and current affairs programmes, regular briefing for the print media.

Then the day of broadcast…

…rile up the demonstrators, leave the gates open long enough for them to invade your offices, then switch on the 24-hour rolling news coverage…

…fuel speculation over whether the guest-of-honour will make it through the crowds, then smuggle him in through a back entrance (having tipped off the paparazzi so they get good snaps)…

…make the whole thing interactive (Have Your Say! phone-ins, Twitter, etc) – a chance for everyone to be involved.

As soon as the programme is over, start milking it for all it’s worth. Get Richard Bacon to ask a BNP councillor how well he thinks his leader’s done. Tell Nicky Campbell to use his phone-in to ask “Was Nick Griffin’s appearance on Question Time a triumph for democracy?” And, of course, Join the Discussion on Our Blog! (how could you not?).

Now obviously, there were some missed opportunities (why no BNP theme for EastEnders? And surely Radio 3 should have had a Wagner special) – but all in all, a proud day for our public service broadcaster.

Hopefully, in its review of the affair, the BBC Trust (“getting the best out of the BBC for licence payers”) will not look simply at Question Time itself, but will explore the multi-media phenomenon in the round.

How many broadcast hours were dedicated to the event? Website inches? Weeks of work by the BBC’s queens and kings of media hype?

And how good were the results from making the news, rather than just reporting it? What were the ratings/hits/coverage like? How long has the BBC spent on the front pages? Are people talking about its ‘event’ at work?

Parliament: more global, less local (part 4)

In the first three parts of this series (1, 2, 3), I have suggested reforms to make the British parliamentary system better equipped for what could be an especially turbulent period in our history. I proposed: greater devolution; a slimmer, punchier House of Commons; and a House of Lords with a mix of elected, co-opted and politically-appointed members.

Now: some thoughts on elections, which are – as things stand – the epitome of everything people hate about the public sector (inconvenient, confusing, dingy, etc). With a little redesign, we could make them so much more entertaining, user friendly, and festive: fit for the modern media age.

Consider. We live in the age of live. The online revolution has destroyed many business models, but it is driving the value of one-off events through the roof. Rock stars release albums to promote their live shows (ten years ago, it was the other way round). Sky’s business model is based on the capture of live sport, especially football.

Master manipulator, Derren Brown, understands this better than anyone. His recent series was structured deliberately as a series of events – designed to provoke and gel together a stream of frenzied media and online coverage.

To be sure, a British general election is gripping, but almost inspite of itself. We’ll soon be having the first British general election of the Twitter era, but as always the results will dribble in the middle of the night (thus ‘were you still up for Portillo?’).

That didn’t matter a jot in the print era – and television has learned to make the most of the bad timing. But it’s surely wrong for the new media age. When we next go the polls, most of the British public will be asleep when we get to the climax.

So I suggest:

  • A Democracy Day every two and a half years – with a general election in June and a mid-term in November.
  • All elections – Westminster, devolved government, councils, European parliament, referenda, etc – will be held on one of these days (by-elections would be the only exception).
  • Voting would be as easy as possible, with polls open throughout the week before, and voting could be made compulsory (with a ‘none of the above’ option, of course).
  • Democracy Day would be a public holiday – with polls closing at 6 o’clock.
  • Sunderland would then do its usual party trick and gets its result out within the hour. The rest of the action would then unfold across prime time; even in the closest years, the result would be clear before the nation went to bed.
  • The TV audience would be huge; Twitter and its ilk would go berserk (think of all the local coverage from counts); while election parties and victory rallies could happen at a sensible time.

Continue reading

Fascism goes prime time

This evening, Nick Griffin, the leader of Britain’s neofascist British National Party, makes his debut on the BBC’s flagship panel discussion show, Question Time.  A former Cabinet Minister (and longtime anti-apartheid campaigner), Peter Hain, is leading the charge against providing Griffin with such a platform.  Others (including me) think that in a society based on free speech, the best approach to the BNP is to shine a bright light on it and expose its shameful policies for what they are – but worry that the format, presenter and panellists on tonight’s show will provide the party with a platform without managing to dissect and rebut its policies effectively.

Either way, the one must-read I’ve seen this week on emerging fascism comes from John Michael Greer on the other side of the Atlantic. Greer expresses fury at “the insistence, so often heard from radicals of the left and right alike, that America is a fascist state”.  None of the wingnuts who make these wild claims really need fear being dragged out of their beds at night to ‘disappear’ into a mass grave, he observes – “and for today’s smug and pampered American radicals to wrap themselves in the mantle of victims of fascism, while relying on civil rights no fascist system grants its citizens, displays a profound disrespect for those who have actually suffered under totalitarian regimes”.

Imagine, he suggests, what fascism might really look like in America.  Imagine:

that sometime in the next year or so you start hearing media reports about a rising new figure in American politics. He’s young and charismatic, a military veteran who won the Distinguished Service Cross for bravery under fire, and heads a vigorous new third party that looks as though it might just be able to break the stranglehold of the established parties on the political system. Some of his ideas come straight from the fringes, and he’s been reported to have said very negative things about Arabs and Islam, but he’s nearly the only person in American public life willing to talk frankly about the difficulties Americans are facing in an era of economic collapse, and his party platform embodies many of the most innovative ideas of the left and right. Like him or not, he offers the one convincing alternative to business as usual in an increasingly troubled and corrupt system.

Would you vote for him?

He continues,

One of the problems with the continual use of fascism as a bogeyman by political extremists is that it becomes far too easy to forget how promising fascism looked in the 1920s and 1930s to many good people disgusted with the failings of their democratic governments.

But what really stands out in his piece is the observation that “such a figure could as easily emerge from the left as from the right” – perhaps even, he suggests, from communities like the peak oil or anti-globalisation scenes, which are rapidly losing faith in the capacity of mainstream politics to achieve results. Continue reading

On the web: the EU’s global influence, Obama’s leadership, and inside the financial crisis…

- With Czech ratification of the Lisbon Treaty now looking increasingly likely, attention shifts to the implications for the EU’s global influence. Benita Ferrero-Waldner, the current External Relations commissioner, offers some thoughts on the future EU foreign policy setup here. Hugo Brady, meanwhile, identifies some of the qualities needed in a new President of the European Council – “the job appears”, he suggests, “to require its holder to be a walking paradox: charismatic but modest, highly effective but non-intimidating, a consensus builder but also a decision-maker”. Pascal Lamy, he argues, might just fit the bill.

- In the London Review of Books, David Bromwich explores President Obama’s tendency toward the conciliatory gesture and major pronouncement, assessing the consequences for delivering meaningful outcomes. “[H]is pattern has been the grand exordium delivered at centre stage”, Bromwich argues, “followed by months of silence”.  Writing in the WSJ, meanwhile, Bret Stephens offers a critical perspective on the President’s commitment to human rights.

- Elsewhere, Dani Rodrik rails against those raising the spectre of protectionism, suggesting that “the world economy remains as open as it was before the crisis struck” and that the “international trade regime has passed its greatest test since the Great Depression with flying colours”. The Economist, meanwhile, provides an analysis of the falling dollar, while Jean Pisani-Ferry and Adam Posen assess the limitations of the Euro as an alternate global currency.

- Finally, behind the scenes of the financial crisis, and based on in-depth interviews throughout, Todd Purdum chronicles Hank Paulson’s time in office. Reuters has an extract from Andrew Ross Sorkin’s new book offering another take on the former US Treasury Secretary’s actions during the crisis. Daniel Yergin, meanwhile, examines the importance of finding a narrative for the crisis – crucial, he suggests, not only in understanding what happened but also offering a “framework for organising thinking for the future”.

Parliament: more global, less local (part 3)

Prompted by Bracknell’s open primary, I argued in part 1 and part 2 of this series that:

National politics is increasingly dominated by complex international issues, but today’s MPs are usually selected based on their views on local issues.

Local government should be given more powers (to tax as well as to spend), enabling MPs to be more nationally and globally focused.

We should slim down the House of Commons, probably by as much as half, with fewer MPs given more power, pay, and a greater media profile.

So… on to the Lords. I am in favour of radical reform to the upper house, with a design that is as different as possible from the Commons, and a structure that aims to inject relevant expertise into British political life.

The Commons – my proposed reform notwithstanding – will still be geographically based, with MPs representing their constituents in Westminster. The new Lords, in contrast, would not have local roots, but be a nationally-based chamber.

One – simple – option would be for a wholly elected upper house, with members drawn from national lists. I don’t favour this approach. The Lords would end up too much like the Commons – but with added political hackery (due to the need to smarm ones way to the top of a party’s slate of candidates).

Governments would also be robbed of a mechanism that allows them to bring expertise onto the front benches – often at short notice. Some think this is undemocratic. I think it is an essential adjustment to a system based purely on elections.

(David Cameron seems to agree, recently recruiting Sir Richard Dannatt to the Tory front bench to help the Conservatives ‘rebuild the military covenant’ with Britain’s armed forces.)

So here’s an alternative plan. It’s a mixed model – a fudge even. But aren’t compromises an integral part of the British constitutional tradition?

Again, as with the Commons, we’d hack the Upper Chamber down to size. The precise number can be argued over, but I favour 160 or so (around half the size of a remodelled Commons, and comfortably bigger than the US Senate which manages with only 100 members).

I’d split the Upper Chamber into three parts:

50% directly-elected members. I’ll go into more detail on length of terms in part 4 (yes, there’s more!), but if elections were held on a rolling basis, a relatively small list would be up for the vote each time round. Voters would be able to pick named individuals, rather than party slates, putting independents and party grandées on a level playing field.

25% appointed by political parties. Parties would use these seats mainly to draw talent from outside the Commons onto their front benches. I’d be quite happy for them to chop and change these members as they wished – allowing them maximum flexibility to govern or act as an effective opposition.

25% co-opted by the Upper Chamber itself. Purists won’t approve, but I’d give the new Lords the power to co-opt members for fixed terms. The system would mirror the upper house’s committee structure – with committees nominating individuals with expertise relevant to their areas of work, for approval by a full vote. The upper house would thus be provided with a mechanism to improve its overall relevance and quality.

So what to call the new Chamber? I’d suggest… the House of Lords, with members still given a life peerage. Becoming a Lord should be a big deal – an important job while actively serving, a lasting mark of respect thereafter… (Part 4 – on elections, tomorrow.)

NYT – Pls get the basics right on climate

Again, the preposterous idea that countries are holding back from offering cuts in emissions ahead of the Copenhagen climate talks, as they wait for the US Senate to consider domestic legislation. This time in the New York Times:

Among the chief barriers to a comprehensive deal in Copenhagen is Congress’s inability to enact climate and energy legislation that sets binding targets on greenhouse gases in the United States. Without such a commitment, other nations are loath to make their own pledges.

The EU (the world’s largest economy) has already agreed a 20% cut by 2020 on 1990 levels, and has said it will go to 30% if its partners make comparable efforts. Japan (the 4th biggest economy) has offered a 25% cut. As usual, the United States is the stand out. Its per capita emissions are double Europe and Japan’s – but it is yet to put any numbers on the table.

It is true, as the NYT reports, that most countries now agree that a deal will not be concluded at Copenhagen – but this is because the Senate has failed to get its act together – not because other countries are ‘loath’ to act.

Message to the NYT: stop bending the truth trying to make your lily-livered liberal readers feel better about themselves.

Page 205 of 491« First...102030...204205206...210220230...Last »