Friday, 30 November 2012

Ownership is key to any real press change

Leveson's report  provides a thorough review of the press but fails in his conclusion to address the key issue which is the need for plurality of ownership. No one individual or group should be allowed to own more than one newspaper or television channel. Until such stipulations are enacted the media will remain the domain of in the main a group of powerful right wing individuals who use the press to promote their own prejudices and interests. A major divesting of ownership plus encouragement for new publications could see a genuine restoration of a plurality that would serve the common good.

Guardian letters - 1/12/2012

Metro - 3/12/2012

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Troubles could resume in North of Ireland without peace dividend

The situation in the north of Ireland has crept back into the national media agenda in Britain over recent months.

The reason for this reappearance has been increasing levels of violence. There was the murder of prison officer David Black, rioting around the marching season and bombs being found in various places.

The symbiotic link between violence in the north and coverage in the British media has always been there. Indeed, many believe that it was when the bullets and bombs stopped going off that the north slipped from being a national to regional news story at best.

Issues like the failure of the peace dividend to materialise and the growing tensions below the surface that could result in the Troubles reigniting again have been of little interest. But there is an important story about the north that really does need telling before those bombs and bullets do start to fly again.

The story is that really very little has changed. There are now more than double the number of peace walls keeping the communities apart than there were in 1998. The two communities are more divided than ever.

Sectariansim, racism and homophobia remain prevalent, much more so than in other parts of Britain. The recent furore over wearing the poppy around Remembrance Sunday, underlined just how stark these divisions remain.

Children continue to go to the schools of their faith denomination and are taught the version of history that their particular tradition believes is correct.

As the project co-ordinator of the anti-sectarian unit of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, Trademark, Mel Corry said: there is “a benign apartheid” operating in the north of Ireland. The main political parties seem happy with this situation.

Corry believes that the peace process created the space whereby people could be brought together. “Few though are taking advantage of that space,”said Corry, who is worried that as the economic recession deepens and Westminster politicians continue to fail to deliver the promised peace dividend that violence could erupt once again.

If this thesis is accepted, that really very little has changed, then what is there to stop it all erupting again, as austerity bites deeper. The north of Ireland is the most dependent on the public sector for providing employment of any part of Britain, yet the Coalition Government is in the process of dismantling that sector.
The economic indices that existed at the time when the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998 have changed. Then there was a belief that the GFA would stop the violence, deal with some of the problems and in time Ireland would unite.

The economic drivers of a united Ireland would see to that. Business interests from both sides of the divide would see the advantage of a united Ireland in a European context, rather than remaining as a regional outpost of Britain. Now though with the Republic looking an even bigger economic basket case than Britain, the terrain has somewhat changed.
Many of the youngsters today have grown up in a period of relative peace, so have not seen the devastation caused by violent conflict. If things continue to get worse, disillusioned youth could drift toward the paramilitary organisations that remain ready to restart the violence.

Some efforts have been made to deal wth the legacy of the past but not enough. The new Irish revisionists, who like to peddle the line that the past doesn’t matter, let’s deal with the present and future get too much of a hearing.
Failure to deal with the legacy of the past and genuinely build for a new future will result in the past being repeated. If the economic situation continues to deteriorate to that point then all the ingredients are there for the Troubles to restart in earnest. The warnings from history are there, only delivery of the peace dividend and some serious work by politicians and community group representatives to bridge the ever growing divides between the communities will stop a return to the Troubles.

Friday, 16 November 2012

Former prisoner tells how he turned life around

Lynden has just finished a shift working at a call centre in central London. He’s looking fit and happy with life. Few of those milling around Victoria station on Friday night would have thought that less than three years ago Lynden was a habitual criminal.
Now 30, Lynden spent his early years travelling around the UK courtesy of the criminal justice system. Over a decade he was constantly in and out of prison. “There were two 2.5 years sentences, one for three years and three one year stretches,” recalled Lynden, who spent time in Feltham, Dover and Rochester prisons serving these sentences, mostly for drug related offences.
He first got involved in drugs when experimenting with cannabis at the age of 12. He later moved onto class A drugs like crack and heroine. It was the need to feed his drug habit that led to the life of crime. Burglaries became a way of life - a means to get the money he needed to buy the drugs. “When I was in prison was the one time I could stay clean,” recalled Lynden.
It was while in prison that Lynden decided he had to get off the drugs and start building a life. Three years ago, he met his partner Lara, who he had known since childhood. She was a friend of his brothers. “I knew if I went back to prison I would not be able to keep her,” said Lynden.
His last sentence was served in Wandsworth Prison, where he undertook a 12 step programme that helped get him off the drugs. This continued in partnership with Westminster Council for two months when he came out of prison. “I was doing work and going to drug meetings for 12 months,” said Lynden, who at this time also came into contact with Pact’s (Prison Advice and Care Trust) Basic Caring Communities programme. The BCCs operate with Bristol, Brixton, Forest Bank and Wandsworth prisons.
The programme involves five people supporting a prisoner when he comes out. They work together to support the prisoner and each other. “I knew I needed to get away from the people I had been hanging around with before,” said Lynden, who recalled meeting with the group at least once a week, sometimes two. He also got phoned daily by members of the group over an 18 month period. “We talked over what I would like to do, what I’d been doing – it was day to day stuff,” said Lynden. One member of the group also helped him to get onto the Open University degree course that he is now doing in economics and politics. “I enjoyed the meetings and became friends with people in the group,” said Lynden. “I’m still in touch with Chris (one of the BCC group members) on the phone.”
Lynden is pleased that he has got clear of the criminal drug world but stresses change is only possible if the individual really wants it to happen. “You can’t change people who don’t want to change,” said Lynden. “But it is important to have people there supporting if someone is about to wobble.
Lynden has now settled with Lara in their own flat. She is a care worker. He continues to work at the call centre and study. In time, he hopes to become a teacher.
But Lynden also wanted to put something back, so he joined the BCC programme as one of the volunteers. He has helped out with three different people. He tells how there have been different problems with homelessness and lack of food in one case for someone who was just out of prison.
Lynden has become the face of Pact’s initiative for the Year of Faith. The year began on 11 October and runs to 24 November 2013.
The former inmate is a keen supporter of the BCC programme. “If there was more support for the BCC programme and more volunteers more could be done,” said Lynden, who would like to see more of an emphasis on rehabilitation in the criminal justice system. He cites probation as an example of where things could be done differently. “It’s not about support anymore but monitoring. There are bigger numbers of people to deal with but the approach is less effective,” says Lynden.
Since coming out of prison Lynden has resumed playing football and is a keen supporter of Arsenal. He thinks there need to be more programmes like the BCC, with the opportunities being offered to access education and sport.
He believes it is important for people who have been inside and experienced the prison system to come out and join initiatives like BCC. “People who have experienced life inside find it easier to build a rapore with those coming out,” said Lynden. “It is a very worthwhile cause with hidden benefits, showing someone some kindness can start a process.”
Lynden believes people have the capacity to change, if given the right support. “It is a belief in human beings that means you think they are worth a second chance,” said Lynden.
Looking forward he is now very happy, “living the dream.”
“I am just counting my blessings,” said Lynden, who hopes to one day have children and continue on with his education to become a teacher.
As our interview ended, the talk turned to football. I was trying to continue the rehabilitation process further by converting him from supporting Arsenal to West Ham, when a quite aggressive guy came up. Not happy with one donation, the man continued to stand his ground. Lynden dealt calmly with the situation, questioning the man as to whether he had been fighting and advising he should “lay off the booze.” The man moved on.
In that brief moment it was possible to see where Lynden had come from and also where he could go. A man of quiet authority, who has learned more in his three decades of life, than most do in a lifetime. Someone also who could become a very good teacher.

Tablet - 17/11/2012

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Politicians should not lead Muslim witch hunt

The public pursuit of Abu Qatada proves only that Britain has advanced little from the days of the old witch hunts. A hate figure has been created for the public to focus its anger on. Most know little about the man and even less about what he is purported to have done. Note, the television reporter who recently proved the bias by referring to Abu Hamza in a report about Abu Qatada. Muslim clerics have become the hate figures of the 21st century.
In this febrile atmosphere, those who stand up for human rights such as Mr Qatada's solicitor Gareth Peirce, Liberty, Amnesty International and others deserve everyones gratitude. The government and Labour opposition have behaved disgracefully on these cases. We elect these people to represent us, safeguard our liberties and govern, not act as conductors of the witchhunters hate mob.

- Independent - 15/11/2012

- Times - 15/11/2012

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

No time left to indulge climate change deniers

A recent Daily Telegraph front page nicely encapsulated the sense of denial that still abounds over climate change.

A picture of devastation was accompanied by the headline: "The thriving community turned into a wasteland by Sandy," below the second story: "Death knell for wind farms."Hurricane Sandy blew in causing devastation across the US, just as the presidential election campaign was entering its final week. A campaign incidentally that had not featured climate change as a topic at all. The one politician to push the issue forward was not surprisingly Mayor of New York City Michael Bloomberg who saw the ravages being caused at first hand as a result of the effects of climate change.
Meanwhile, in sleepy hollow, otherwise known as the right wing of the Conservative Party, the new minister of state for the environment John Hayes was attacking wind turbines. Hayes gave a speech sounding the death knell for wind turbines, something the right of the Conservative Party and assorted odd bod celebrities have been campaigning to achieve for some time.
It remains extraordinary that the biggest threat facing the very survival of human kind today, namely climate change can still be treated with the gravity of a VI form debate.
In Little England the climate change deniers are still getting a disproportionate share of air time to put their side of the argument.

The lords of balance at the BBC have played a particularly active part in continuing to maintain the farce that there are two sides to this argument. The nature of this process is not just evident as climate change deniers, who receive some support from the oil, gas and other energy companies, are pitched against those who claim it is happening.

Another more subtle approach has crept in whereby climate catastrophe, whether drought, hurricane or storm are reported as isolated and separate incidents. There is no narrative joining these happenings together - the words climate and change in some cases seem deliberately to have been removed from the vocabulary.

The approach is difficult to understand. As scientists have been warning for some time now, there needs to be urgent action taken to address climate change. It really is the most indulgent form of naval gazing to still be arguing over whether it is happening or not. From the residents of New York who have been blown out of their homes to humble allotment holders like myself the evidence is clear for all to see.

This year has come as a rude shock to those of us with dreams of becoming self-sufficient and growing our own food. The drastic change in climate, from drought to flood has made growing vegetables desperately difficult. In the south, we have managed to come through with some decent crops, other allotment holders though living further north simply gave up due to the effects of the weather. It was simply too wet.

And these type of dramatic variants in climate look set to continue over the coming years. Growing your own in the future is going to become far more difficult. The change is not, as some tabloids would have us believe, all about a warming climate that will turn UK beaches into Mediterranean idylls, with vines growing inland.

What is difficult to understand is why the public discourse as undertaken in the media, involving the political class remains so backward. In the UK, steps have been taken to address climate change such as big investments in renewables, though this has been reined back since the present government took office. Chancellor George Osborne appears to be a committed member of the climate sceptic club. He neither seems to accept the threat or want to embrace the opportunity that green technology offers for economic growth. The UK has been retreating from the field when it comes to green technology, leaving it to the likes of Germany to once again take the lead.

The public debate needs to move way beyond tepid acceptance of maybe climate change is happening. No house should be being built now without full insulation and equipped with solar energy. The impetus needs to return to the renewables market.

Then there is the incredible amount of hot air being expended discussing where airport capacity can be expanded. This is totally unrealistic; the world has already reached the point of peak oil. The next few years are going to see oil exploration becoming increasingly desperate and expensive. As oil prices rise there will come a time when the tax payer is no longer willing to continue to subsidise air travel to the extent it does today. The cost of air travel will rise inexorably and reduce accordingly. Any new airport built now will be seen as a huge white elephant in 20 years’ time. Indeed, the way the airport debate is conducted, with the accepted truth being that passenger growth will continue forever, serves only to expose the land of denial most politicians inhabit.

The only place seemingly more backward on climate change than the UK is the US, where despite the devastation caused by Sandy the country seems to live in a collective denial. For a politician to discuss seriously addressing climate change is about as popular as advocating the abolition of the death penalty. The only hope can be that the words of Mayor Bloomberg and the devastation caused by increasing numbers of hurricanes do one day help the penny to drop.

The US is a huge carbon consumer and polluter that needs to accept the realities and act accordingly if the world is ever to seriously address climate change. Elsewhere, real steps need to be taken – the fundamental nature of the shift required in all our lives just to have any chance of survival needs to be accepted and most importantly seriously acted upon.

Morning Star - 12/11/2012

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Shame of Dale Farm provides witness to failed traveller policies

A year on from the eviction of Irish Travellers from the site at Dale Farm in Essex, what has been achieved?

The eviction cost £7.2 million. The funding for this action was provided from general taxation, as well as the coffers of Basildon Council tax payers.

The result, some 86 families were moved, most though not going that far. Some moved next door to park up on the plots of neighbours on the legal site. Another 20 plus families sit on an approach road to the original site.

So the “problem” of the travellers at Dale farm has not been solved but simply moved next door. The council recently served eviction orders on the 20 plus vans parked up on the access road, with the local families now gearing up for another expensive confrontation at sometime in the next few weeks.

The cleared site resembles in the words of the former local parish priest Dan Mason “a battle site from the First World War.” Huge coffin like holes have been dug, most of the dwellings crushed and scattered around the area.

Piles of religious statues, so important to the devoutly Catholic travellers, lie abandoned around the site. A few homes remain, isolated amongst this scene of devastation.

A recent visit by the all party parliamentary group for Gypsies and Travellers found the area rat-infested and covered with human excrement. They found it poses a health hazard. Impetigo, chickenpox and diarrhea have spread through the encampment, with children affected by vomiting bouts.

The MPs report found that many travelers have reported health complaints due to these unhygienic and unsuitable living conditions. A number of travelers suffer mental and physical illness.

The MPs expressed concern that families have no access to toilets. Some even had no electricity and sanitation was judged to be poor.

Many of the women at Dale Farm were prescribed antidepressants before the eviction and, more than a year later, are still on them.

The report said that mothers and young children were particularly vulnerable, with one baby born at the roadside encampment two weeks ago. The midwife visits to women living on the temporary site were suspended for eight months.

"The delegation found that many of the residents are highly vulnerable and have serious conditions such as Parkinson's disease, dementia, osteoporosis, Crohn's disease, bowel cancer, Down's syndrome etc," said a statement from the MPs.

There are also concerns that the Environment Agency may have found asbestos on the site, after the demolition of various properties. The Environment Agency report is imminent.

What has happened at Dale Farm has achieved nothing. It epitomizes the public order approach to the problems of the travelling community. The expensive action 12 months ago, succeeded only in moving the problem literally yards down the road.

Dale Farm amounts to a microcosm of the problems of the travelling population countrywide.

The last Labour Government took steps toward identifying potential sites around the country, with local authorities being encouraged to provide facilities that would mean some resolution to the problem.

The present government seems to have returned to the straight public order approach, which just amounts to criminalizing the travelling community, simply moving them on from one site to another. As long as there is no uniform obligation on local authorities to provide sites, then few will – where is the incentive?

In the absence of a universal obligation, the few authorities that do provide sites will simply become magnets for the whole travelling community of the UK.

Something needs to be done to address the problems of the travelling community. A new more tolerant approach that seeks to find equitable solutions between travelling and settled populations must mark the way forward. A statutory obligation needs to be placed on local authorities to identify and provide a certain number of sites. Health, education and welfare support for travelling communities also needs to be improved.

It is a real stain on the UK that in the 21st century this particular ethnic minority should remain very much second class citizens in a divided land.