Facebook, “fake news” and junk news

Since the 2016 election in particular, there has been a lot of discussion about how social media helps to disseminate “fake news”, often without really enumerating what that term means. Last week Facebook asked me to fill in a survey (and gave an audible signal to do so every time I opened the app) about what I knew about the news, featuring a series of multiple-choice questions about political events and celebrity gossip. I gave up about halfway, as I was late for work and I wasn’t sure what to do if I didn’t know — there was no “don’t know” option, so do I leave it blank or just take a wild guess? But it didn’t ask me what I thought of the stories Facebook continually allows to be spewed onto my news feed.

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On Ian Brady and the death penalty

The front page of the Daily Mirror the day after Brady and Hindley were jailed; its headline reads "Brady and Hindley go to jail for life" and includes mug-shots of both. A smaller story has the headline "Watery beer upsets an MP".Last week Ian Brady, a serial murderer of children from the 1960s, died in a “special hospital” (a high-security hospital which takes criminals who are mentally ill) aged 79. He had been convicted of three murders of children in 1966; he admitted to two more in 1985. His victims were of both sexes and between 10 and 17. He had been transferred from prison to the hospital in the 1980s after having been diagnosed as a psychopath; his accomplice, Myra Hindley, who helped lure and torture their victims although Brady did the actual killings, served out her time (she died in 2003) in prisons. According to Mark Easton on the BBC website, “Brady’s mug shot has become visual shorthand for psychopathic evil”; Martin Kettle in the Guardian the next day noted his and Hindley’s importance in the debate about abolishing the death penalty, which was abolished between the crimes and their being charged; Brady and Hindley “became the totemic faces of a Britain that they believed had ‘gone soft’ on crime”; he suggests that now that Brady is dead, “Britain can perhaps finally lay to rest the long and lingering possibility from the 1960s that hanging will ever return”. I’m not so sure.

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On Corbyn, trains and renationalisation

The front of a Networker train in red, white and blue Network SouthEast livery from the early 1990s, at a station.Earlier today I heard Owen Jones, the Labour-supporting Guardian columnist and author of Chavs and The Establishment, on Radio 4’s Today programme defending Jeremy Corbyn’s plans to “re-nationalise” the railways if he became prime minister. He explained that the action would not be costly as it would simply consist of waiting until each franchise came to its end and then not renew it; he also explained that the East Coast railway service had good levels of customer satisfaction when it was in public ownership.

This policy smacks of the timidity which has characterised Labour policy since the 90s. It also really sounds like an easy way of selling a policy without acknowledging that it will cost money to rebuild British Rail and its various business divisions (InterCity, Network SouthEast, the various Regional Railways divisions, ScotRail and so on) or new equivalents. This, however, has to happen if re-nationalisation is to ‘take’; if the franchise apparatus is still in place by the time of the general election following this one, a Tory government only has to reopen tendering for the re-nationalised regions. If the railways are fully re-nationalised, re-privatising them will be a headache for the next government; if they are not, it will be easy.

I support re-nationalising the railways. It needs to be done properly. Corbyn’s current plan won’t deliver that.

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Adult education versus university tuition fees

A Victorian stone building with two storeys, with a small round and larger octagonal tower in the foreground. Both towers have pointed spires and the larger tower have paintings of people set into them.Earlier this week Jeremy Corbyn announced that if Labour wins the election next month, they will abolish university tuition fees, which were brought in under Labour in 1998 and were increased dramatically by the Coalition. This is expected to shore up their vote among students who face massive debts; £76bn is owed in student loans in England, with some fees exceeding £10K per year from next year and interest also rising to 6.1%. The policy is estimated to cost between £7.5bn and £11bn, and the question is bound to be asked where that money is going to come from. When I heard it I said I agreed with reducing or even abolishing tuition fees in principle, but I believed investing in adult education was more important, and someone asked me why. So, here’s why.

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On hijab, ‘neutrality’ and threat

Last week I heard a conversation between Shelina Janmohammed, the author of Love in a Headscarf and Generation M and a columnist for The National, a Dubai-based newspaper, and the LBC presenter Sheila Fogerty, about hijab and others’ attitudes to it. This had been prompted by a call from a woman to the station the night before who claimed that the country was becoming ‘overwhelmed’ by Muslims. Some of the responses sent to the two women on Twitter claimed that Muslim women’s dress, the face-covering in particular, was considered ‘threatening’, a long-standing claim of people seeking to ban it. Fogerty suggested that the caller the previous night might be “just racist”, and although I didn’t hear the call (I very rarely listen to LBC), this is a reasonable assumption when someone calls a radio station and spouts bigotry about a minority.

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Before you trust the Tories on mental health …

The entrance to a hospital, with a sign on a red-brick wall saying "Humber NHS Foundation Trust: West End, 2062-2068 Hessle Road". A red brick building with a bright blue door stands in the background, while right behind the sign stands a tree whose leaves droop down to partly obscure the building.So, today it was announced that Theresa May has promised new legislation on mental health if her party wins next month’s election, which will “rip up” the 1983 Mental Health Act under which people can currently been detained (the term ‘sectioning’ refers mostly to sections 2 and 3 of that Act) on the basis that “it has allowed the unnecessary detention of thousands of people and failed to deal with discrimination against ethnic minority patients”. According to the Observer’s advance copy of her announcement:

“On my first day in Downing Street last July, I described shortfalls in mental health services as one of the burning injustices in our country,” May will say. “It is abundantly clear to me that the discriminatory use of a law passed more than three decades ago is a key part of the reason for this.

“So today I am pledging to rip up the 1983 act and introduce in its place a new law which finally confronts the discrimination and unnecessary detention that takes place too often. We are going to roll out mental health support to every school in the country, ensure that mental health is taken far more seriously in the workplace, and raise standards of care.”

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Royal fake news?

A black and white photograph of Prince Phillip and a male companion on horseback; Phillip is holding a horse-whipSo, yesterday it was announced that Prince Phillip, the 95-year-old Prince Consort to the Queen, was retiring from public royal duties as of this coming autumn. This followed an awful lot of speculation after it was revealed that the household staff had been called to an “emergency meeting” yesterday morning; there were suggestions that he or the Queen might have died or Princess Kate (Prince William’s wife) might be pregnant again. The revelation, when it came, must have disappointed a lot of people, but was predictable, as a household staff meeting would not be used to announce such a major event as a royal, let alone the Queen, dying. However, the ‘event’ became the major news story the whole day, as pundit after pundit and royal ‘friend’ after royal ‘friend’ came on to discuss the prince’s years of public service, and even Jeremy Corbyn paid the usual obsequious tributes. What nobody, including Corbyn, mentioned is that the prince has a long history of making racist and otherwise offensive comments.

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Review: Colombia with Simon Reeve

Simon Reeves standing outside a wooden tent-like building in a FARC campA few years ago I wrote two reviews on here of programmes featuring Stacey Dooley, a BBC presenter who features on ‘youth-oriented’ documentary programmes, and I was pretty scathing about her manner and about how she didn’t do justice to a lot of the subject matter. The two reviews get a lot of hits every time she’s on the TV. Sadly, Stacey Dooley is not the only BBC presenter that does not take the subject matter as seriously as it should: two weeks ago the BBC put out Colombia with Simon Reeve, in which the young presenter does a tour of the country which is just emerging from a decades-long civil war involving FARC, the Marxist guerrilla group which funded itself through drug trafficking and kidnappings, and right-wing paramilitaries funded by wealthy landowners and international corporations; in the hour-long programme he visits the capital Bogotá, the city of Medellín, some islands on the Caribbean coast, a port city where the paramilitaries had once dominated, and meets a leader of FARC known as “The Medic”.

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BADD 2017: On dignity

The logo for Blogging Against Disablism DayThis post is part of Blogging Against Disablism Day 2017.

For the past couple of years, my BADD posts have focussed on the issue of people with autism and learning disabilities and the way they are treated in the British psychiatric system, and how they are prone to ending up there for reasons of funding, finding suitable care and lack of understanding on the part of professionals. Some have died; the inquest for Thomas Rawnsley, who died early in 2015 in a Sheffield care home, is still pending. Last year, I mentioned the cases of young people being sent hundreds of miles from home for inpatient mental health treatment as there was none available in their home areas. In the two areas mentioned, namely Hull and Cornwall, a new unit has been approved, though of course that means young people are still being sent away right now. In this post I want to talk about an issue which has come up twice, which is the lack of regard for the personal dignity of people experiencing inpatient treatment, and the impact this must be having on people’s future mental health.

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If we ever leave a legacy…

Picture of Tony Blair, a clean-shaven white man in his 40s with matted dark hair, wearing a dark grey suit with a blue tie with small yellow deocrations, waving to crowds from a doorstep with the number 10 on the door, with his wife Cherie, a white woman of similar age wearing a red jacket with shoulder-length brown hair, embracing him.Today all the papers are marking the 20th anniversary of the Blair landslide, in which Tony Blair’s Labour party won a majority of 179, unmatched before or since, defeating John Major’s Conservative government and ending 18 years of Tory rule. It’s worth noting that his majority was bigger than Clement Attlee’s in 1945, and Attlee remained prime minister for only six years, losing an early general election in 1951 despite gaining more votes than the Tories; Blair served for ten years and Gordon Brown for three more. Today’s papers are heavy on reminiscence of the day of victory, of the atmosphere and of Blair’s and his team’s behaviour as they refused to believe there was a victory or show any sign of celebration until it was confirmed. The Observer (which I took at the time, and which led with celebratory stories about new Labour policies for several Sundays running following the result) has an interview with Blair in today’s paper, in which he proclaims that Labour can win an election any time it wants to by going back to “winning ways”, which shows how out of touch he is with today’s realities.

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UKIP, the ‘burqa’ and FGM

Paul Nuttall, a white man with a short beard, wearing a yellow and purple tartan cloth cap and jacket and a yellow and purple striped UKIP tie, standing next to Richard Gibbins, a shorter white man with glasses, wearing a black rimmed hat, cream jacket and a black and white tuxedo and bow tie underneath; both wearing UKIP rosettes, standing outside a converted shop unit on a corner with 'Paul Nuttall' displayed in big letters above the doorway along with posters showing UKIP promises.Over the weekend the so-called UK Independence Party published as part of its 2017 election manifesto an “integration agenda” which includes a ban on face coverings, which it describes as a “deliberate barrier to integration and, in many contexts, a security risk too”, the abolition of postal votes on demand which “have led to a boom in electoral fraud and vote-stealing, especially among minority communities”, a ban on “sharia being implemented in the UK” and regular checks on girls “from groups at high risk of suffering FGM”, both annually and whenever they return from overseas. While UKIP has always been known, under Lord Pearson’s leadership and now Nigel Farage’s, as a party hostile to Muslims in particular and allied with anti-Muslim politicians in Europe such as Geert Wilders, in this case they are clearly looking for policies now that their major goal looks set to be delivered.

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NHS compensation is rightful and necessary

Last Monday I saw an article in the Times in which a woman called Susanne Cameron-Blackie, who it turns out was the writer behind the now-removed Anna Raccoon blog (see earlier entry; she was a great supporter of Mark Neary when he was trying to get his autistic son home in 2010), who is calling for people injured by NHS treatment to stop suing it for compensation (paywalled) as it only takes away money that could be used on other patients. Ms Cameron-Blackie has terminal soft-tissue cancer which has left her “virtually paralysed”, and “is determined to spend her final weeks battling to cut the spiralling costs of litigation against the NHS”; last year, such litigation cost the NHS £1.5bn. She was given a hysterectomy without her consent after an out-of-wedlock pregnancy in the 1960s; more recently, she was given someone else’s medication, leaving her in agony.

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St George’s bank holiday? Not such a good idea

A Russian icon of St GeorgeSo, Jeremy Corbyn has announced that a Labour government would introduce four new UK-wide bank holidays on all four of the national saints’ days: St David’s Day on 1st March, St Patrick’s Day on 17th March, St George’s Day on 23rd April and St Andrew’s Day on 30th November. The idea of a St George’s day holiday or of making a bigger deal of the day (which is also Shakespeare’s birthday) has been mentioned a few times over the years, but this is the first time I have heard anyone suggest that all four days become public holidays throughout the UK; I guess the idea is we all celebrate a part of the UK together. However, it’s really not that great an idea and you will guess why just by looking at the dates: three of them are close together and close to other public holidays, while the other is less than a month before Christmas.

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Labour election broadcast a disaster

A still from a party political broadcast, showing a white woman with shoulder-length blonde hair wearing a pastel blue top and a tight pair of light grey trousers with a royal blue belt, standing in front of a yellow screen decorated with hand prints on paper.BBC iPlayer - Party Election Broadcasts: Labour - English Local Elections: 21/04/2017

I just saw the Labour Party Election broadcast, which is intended as being for the local elections next month (4th May), although it makes a nod to the general election on 8th June. It features a teacher telling a class of early primary-age children that, because of government cuts, her school can no longer afford a library or school visits and is likely to have to lay off teachers because it can no longer pay them. She then tells them that the Labour party will guarantee smaller class sizes, free school meals for all primary-age children; the camera then zooms in on her face, and she tells us that Labour will fund childcare and early learning, “progressively restore free education for all and guarantee quality apprenticeships and adult skills training”. Somehow I don’t think this video is going to inspire a lot of confidence in Labour’s ability to rebuild and manage the country’s education system.

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This is a Brexit election

A front page from the Daily Mail, showing Theresa May's face with the headline "In a stunning move, Mrs May calls bluff of the 'game-playing' Remoaners (including 'unelected' Lords) with a snap election and vows to ... Crush the Saboteurs".So, Theresa May has called a general election for 8th June, and Parliament has backed her up. After denying that she would have an election or a re-run of the Brexit referendum ever since she took the leadership, and since panic buttons started getting pressed after the pound sank to less than $1.20 after the pro-Leave vote, she announced yesterday morning that she would have one after all. There are various explanations: one of them was to distract from the news that some 30 individuals, including some Tory MPs, could face prosecution for expenses-related offences from the 2015 election, and another was to avoid a series of by-elections if some of them were imprisoned or disqualified over the charges. Anthony Barnett also suggests that Brexit negotiations with the EU are more difficult than anticipated:

Across the last two weeks it has become clear to May’s team that there will have to be an extensive transitional period. As the Irish Times reported, a senior Irish official in close contact with the UK over Brexit said, ‘I see signs in the contacts that we’re having, both at EU level and with the UK, of a gradual realisation that Brexit in many ways is an act of great self-harm, and that the focus now is on minimising that self-harm’. The only way to do this is with a transition agreement. But the EU have told the May government that if this is what the UK wants it is fine by the EU; however, the UK will have to remain within the full legal framework of the EU and this is non-negotiable.

I also suspect that May wants to take advantage of the weakness of the Labour leader and his unpopularity among the Parliamentary party. So far six Labour MPs have declined to stand for re-election, two of them citing age but one of them (Tom Blenkinsop) explicitly saying that Corbyn’s name is regularly mentioned on doorsteps as a reason why people are not voting Labour and one of them being Gisela Stuart, the pro-Brexit Birmingham Labour MP. However, this is the time for anti-Brexit voters to vote tactically to get pro-EU MPs into the Commons, especially where the incumbent is being replaced with an unknown or a pro-Leave MP is occupying a pro-Remain constituency.

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The United Airlines school of Sufism

Image of Muslim women in various colour headscarves kneeling in prayerLast week there was outrage after a man was manhandled off a United Airlines plane in Chicago, having boarded and taken the seat he had paid for, when the airline decided that their crew needed his seat more than he, a doctor with patients to attend to in Louisville, did. There was much outrage on Muslim social media, despite the fact that the man was not a Muslim, I suspect because we all knew it could have been one of us, and if it had been, the outrage would have been shared much less widely. A number of other stories of people being removed from aeroplanes after boarding or refused boarding in the first place because the plane had been overbooked, a scam in which airlines deliberately sell more tickets than there are seats on the plane, anticipating that some passengers will not show and they can pocket the difference. Usually, the passenger can be accommodated on a later flight, but this can often be much later.

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Pictures from the Devil’s Punch Bowl

Devil's Punch Bowl, 16th April 2017One of my favourite parts of being a truck driver used to be driving down to Portsmouth, as this involved driving through the Devil’s Punch Bowl in west Surrey: the road used to skirt the side of a natural amphitheatre, producing sudden and spectacular views — but also, an awful lot of slow traffic, so it was best not to hit it at peak times. Then in 2011 they opened a tunnel under the site and closed and demolished the old road, which is now a track open to pedestrians and cyclists. I drove out there earlier this afternoon and walked along the old road, taking pictures of both the scenery and the trees.

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Lower Thames Crossing: the worst possible option

A map showing the preferred route for the East Thames river crossing, linking the M25 in Essex with the A2 in KentYesterday it was announced that the preferred route for the “East Thames Crossing”, a tunnel under the Thames east of the current easternmost crossing at Dartford, had been announced. The proposed route branches off the M25 north of the current Thurrock interchange, crosses over the A13 where it meets the spur road to Tilbury docks, crosses the Thames in a bored tunnel east of Gravesend before veering south-west to meet the A2 near a village called Thong (in other words, near the last junction on the A2 before it joins the M2). The consultation considered three other routes, among them a variant on the chosen route with additional improvements to the A229, which links the M2 to the M20 at Maidstone. If any of those options should have been chosen, it should have been that one. However, I responded to the consultation and my preferred route would have been none of those, but a new northbound bridge at Dartford.

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Nation 1.0? It never was

A globe from the time of the British empire, showing India large parts of Africa in pink, representing British possessionThere was an article last Tuesday in the Irish Times by Janan Ganesh: Britons don’t pine for Empire; they just want to be left alone, which claims that the people of ‘Deep England’ who voted to leave the EU last June did so not because they want “more of the world”, in the sense of a return to the imperial past, but rather less of it; a sort of “Nation 1.0” rather than “Empire 2.0”. The regions that were most associated with Empire voted to stay in (London, Bristol, Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, Scotland) while the provincial areas that had least to do with the Empire voted Out, such as Birmingham and most of rural and small-town England and Wales. Janan Ganesh is the author of a biography of George Osborne and spent two years as a researcher at Policy Exchange (a Tory think-tank that was the source of numerous anti-Muslim scare stories in the Blair era) and five as political correspondent for the Economist; in the early 2000s he wrote for the Guardian as a “Labour activist” but more recently called Corbyn supporters “thick as pigshit”. I think he’s wrong on three counts: the concept of “Deep England”, the lack of historic basis for “Nation 1.0” and the idea that the areas that voted Out were those unconnected to the Empire.

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Labour an “Apartheid party”? Really?

Picture of Ken Livingstone wearing a dark grey jacket, a yellow tie with a logo partly visible, and a blue scarf round his neck under his jacket. He is walking through a corridor with wooden doors with glass windows behind him.There’s an article in today’s Mail on Sunday by Dan Hodges, a Blairite columnist and former GMB union and Labour party staffer (and son of Glenda Jackson), proclaiming that anyone who remains a member of the Labour party after it failed to expel Ken Livingstone for his remarks about Hitler last year is a racist. He proclaims that it is now an “Apartheid party”, accepting everyone except Jews who are tolerated only as second-class citizens:

Imagine if a Labour member casually used the word ‘Paki’. Or accused ‘the blacks’ of being responsible for the slave trade. Or toured the airwaves claiming radical Muslims were Nazi collaborators. Retribution — rightly — would be swift and sure. But use those same slurs against Jews — ‘Zios’ is the favoured phrase — and you will be punished only with the Labour shrug.

He also accuses the anti-Corbynites who remain within the party of being responsible for “destroying [their] party”, including an anti-Corbyn MP who he doesn’t name but calls a “good, dedicated MP” who has “steadfastly refused to take the Shadow Cabinet shilling”, by talking of staying and fighting but in fact quietly acquiescing and not rocking the boat. It’s all quite ridiculous.

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