My exclusive report on the first day of the Ashes having not watched any play whatsoever

November 25, 2010

Peter Bloody Siddle.

That is all.

At least, until I watch the ITV4 highlights.

My interview with Norman Finkelstein

November 24, 2010

Norman Finkelstein is speaking at the University of Birmingham again tonight. So I thought that I would dig this interview I conducted with him for Redbrick out of the archives. I interviewed him in November 2008, and it didn’t get published until January 2009. It’s quite ironic reading the passages about Barack Obama’s Presidency now.

I enjoyed the interview, and think it’s one of the best ones I’ve conducted. My main problem with Finkelstein is the same issue of contention I have with journalists like John Pilger and Noam Chomsky: everything is a bit too black-and-white with them. I think that comes through in the article. Still, it’s an interesting piece and I hope you like it:

Norman Finkelstein was at the University of Birmingham giving a talk called “Israel and Palestine: Roots of Conflict, Prospects for Peace”, arranged by the University’s “Friends of Palestine” society.

He is one of the most controversial academic writers on Middle Eastern politics. Finkelstein’s most famous works, and one of his most controversial, is The Holocaust Industry. Published in 2000, its central thesis is that Israel exploits the memory of the Holocaust to cover up its own human rights crimes.

He no longer holds an academic position of his own. For six years he taught at DePaul University before being denied tenure there in 2007. Although never out the news, what we discussed in the interview seems more relevant than ever, after hostilities broke out once more in the Gaza strip.

How does Finkelstein think we can create “roots for peace”? “The UN General Council proposed a two-state settlement based on the June 1967 borders. All world votes and the same group abstain: Israel, America, Marshall Islands and Australia. There is no debate on how to solve it – it’s the least controversial international dispute.”

Why does this not happen? “For the same reason the British didn’t leave India until after World War Two. For the same reason France didn’t leave Algeria. Power doesn’t concede without a demand. The Israelis have to be forced out.” Can it be done peacefully? “No.”

This seems a little extreme. Both Israelis and Palestinians are limited in their ability to compromise by their extremist elements. Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by a member of a far-right Orthodox Jewish group in 1995 for merely proposing that Israel should withdraw from the West Bank. Similarly, Hamas, who won the Palestinian Authority elections in 2006, do not even recognise Israel has a right to exist.

We talk about Barack Obama’s victory in the US Elections, which at the time of the interview was only four days old. Finkelstein sees the election as a significant moment. “It is a genuine credit to the American people. The early part of my life [Finkelstein was born in 1953] was not much past the era of black lynchings. Now they have elected an African-American as President. You would be blind to deny something fundamental has changed for the better. I am hardly a flag-waving patriot, but you have to look in honour and respect of what happened.”

Finkelstein, however, continues by saying: “Obama is a typical centre-right Democrat. I have no expectations. His Presidency will be similar to the Clinton era but without the economic prosperity, in a general and literal sense.” He gives the example of appointing Rahm Emanuel as chief of staff, a former member of the Clinton administration. Finkelstein then goes one step further. “Barack Obama is a typical wretched opportunist conman”. He must have noticed my eyebrows raise at this comment, because he continues: “He is! I don’t see why we should be politically correct about these things.”

Finkelstein does not think Obama’s election will see a great change in America’s Middle-East policy. “It will probably get worse, because he has to prove to the world he is not a Muslim”. So what does he think of the comments of “Joe the Plumber”, who said that Obama’s election would lead to the death of Israel? “In America the political system is detached from reality. Some of the labels they were giving Obama – calling him a socialist and a communist – I wish they were true!”

On Finkelstein’s personal website is a link to a piece entitled “In Defence of Hezbollah”. In 2006 he met one of their top officials in Lebanon. Hezbollah’s military wing is considered a terrorist organisation by the British government. Why does Finkelstein think they should be defended?

“Because of the same reason the Communist parties helped end the occupation of Axis forces during World War Two. Whatever you might say about Nasrallah, is he really more brutal than Stalin?” That would admittedly take some doing, but Nasrallah did say that it’s alright for all the world’s Jews to live in Israel, “because it will save us the trouble of going after them worldwide”, which doesn’t sound like the talk of a reasonable man.

In any case, is comparing ending the Israeli occupation of Palestine to the occupation of Europe by the Nazis a little unfair? “You can use any you like. It is still an occupation. The resistance in Afghanistan versus the Soviets were the same who would turn into Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Nobody minded when gave we them weapons to fight the Red Army.” I am not convinced that comparing Israel to Al-Qaeda is an altogether more flattering comparison.

Norman Finkelstein paints a picture of a world where the only wrongdoers are the United States and Israel. The reality is not that one-sided. The rockets that Hamas are firing into Israel do constitute war crimes. Israel is surrounded by groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, and countries like Iran, who wish it wiped off the map.

Hamas is a vile group of Islamists who are suppressing dissent in Gaza and lead an increasingly authoritarian rule. But the international community’s shunning of Hamas since their election win in 2006 has only made the situation worse. To use a cricketing analogy, you can only bowl to whoever the opposition send in to bat. The only way to make peace is to somehow negotiate with Hamas.

At the time of writing, a ceasefire has been declared in Gaza. Over 1000 Palestinians have been killed, including 350 children. Israel and its supporters maintain that the firing of rockets into Gaza is justified, after Hamas fired rockets into Israel, and that most of those killed are Hamas operatives. But you cannot fire rockets into an area the size of the Isle of Wight with a population of 1.5 million and then be surprised that the your killing of innocent civilians is condemned worldwide.

Peace in the Middle East is increasingly elusive, and I am sure that many will think I am a fruitcake for even thinking you can negotiate with Hamas. One thing is for certain: rockets are not the answer.

Why everyone should listen to the Ashes on Test Match Sofa

November 23, 2010

I’m not going to preview the Ashes, because people far more informed about this sort of thing than I am have already done so.

I do, however, want to rave about one of my favourite discoveries of the year. If you are without Sky and wish to follow the Ashes this winter, you should keep in touch with what’s happening Down Under by listening to Test Match Sofa.

In case you are unaware of the sofa’s backstory, there’s a good account of it by Andrew Miller here. Basically a group of cricket tragics were made redundant, and thought they might as well start a cricket commentary team. After beginning with the Ashes series in 2009, they covered England’s tour of South Africa last winter, the 20/20 World Cup and now cover matches not involving England as well. Just this week they’ve provided commentary on New Zealand-India and South Africa-Pakistan.

Their method is wonderfully simple. Watch cricket on TV, talk about what’s happening, get drunk. And it’s proving increasingly popular; getting over 10,000 listeners by the end of this summer, which isn’t bad for a site that relies on word of mouth to get recommended.

I now cannot listen to Test Match Special after listening to Test Match Sofa, because the latter is far more entertaining. It just sounds like a group of friends sat at home talking about cricket. Which is fitting, because that’s what it is. Their great and glorious leader Dan Norcross is a wonderful mimic – his Richie Benaud in particular is a joy to behold.

However, Test Match Sofa fundamentally works because its presenters know their cricket. Their commentary team have over 200 years of club cricket experience between them, and having seen them play against a Lord’s Taverners side in September I can confirm they can all play rather well. They obviously have a great love and knowledge of the game, and that shines through. Manny Cohen in particular has a good eye for a batsman’s technique and what weaknesses he may have. A lunchtime discussion they had over the summer on “Ultimate Cricketing Bastards” had some well-informed discussion of the Bodyline and D’Oliveira affairs.

So why don’t you give them a try tomorrow evening, when the first Test starts? Give the other – dare I say it, the proper – TMS a listen.

I am a genius (and other outbreaks of hyperbole)

November 21, 2010

Because my procrastination knows no bounds, I’ve been re-reading some of my old articles for Redbrick. [modesty blaze] Some of them are rather good [/modesty blaze]. I like this one, my satirical column from just over three years ago (although Lembit Opik may have read my comments about how personality matters more than policy nowadays rather too seriously, seeing as he is currently campaining to be Mayor of London in the I’m A Celebrity jungle).

In the column, I preview the impending Lib Dem leadership contest:

Nick Clegg is a trendy, David Cameron-type. But if you were going to vote for a David Cameron type, wouldn’t you just vote for David Cameron?

Bow down and worship my soothsaying skills, all of you.

Fantastic Headlines 13 and 14

November 21, 2010

It’s been a while since I’ve posted any in this occasional series. I’ve been collected a few of them, and here’s two that tickled me relatively recently.

First up, this one from the Daily Telegraph. I’m not quite sure what exactly makes this fantastic. It could be the hyperbole. It could be the linking of two things that have no connection whatsoever. Either way, it made me chuckle:

World Cup 2018: death of Paul the Octopus summed up a tough week for England bid

Secondly comes this one. Perhaps it’s the fact that a fictional character is blamed for something. It’s probably also that the headline includes something about owls.

India blames Harry Potter for dwindling owl population

If you see any fantastic headlines worthy of addition to the series, please leave them in the comments, tweet or e-mail me.

Naughty and NICE

November 19, 2010

In the week that saw the wrecking of the Conservative party headquarters by student demonstrators the Coalition Government continued, more quietly, in its ongoing project of vandalism against the machinery of the British state.

This time it’s the National Institute of Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) facing the axe. There have been many cruel and callous acts by this government during the six and a bit months it has been in office and it’s difficult to know where to begin when writing about them because cruelty and callousness often defy rational analysis.

Sheer stupidity, on the other hand, is easier to get a handle of and this move is profoundly and irredeemably stupid.

NICE was one of Labour’s more successful creations. It was designed to provide uniformity of access to innovative treatments and to control costs within the NHS by assessing every new treatment by a single standard. Treatments judged to be cost-effective would be offered to all NHS patients, whereas treatments judged too expensive would be rejected.

This idea was so simple and so effective that it soon began to attract international attention attention, as this New York Times article shows, with many other countries talking of introducing similar policies. Dr. Donald Berwick, the Administrator of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), in the US, described NICE as an “extremely effective, … conscientious, valuable and- importantly- knowledge building- system.”

The importance of NICE was that it tackled one of the major problems facing all advanced healthcare systems. The fundamental aims of healthcare – the treatment of ill health and the extension of lifespan – are goals without any natural limit. The ultimate logical aim, of immortality and perfect health, are forever out of reach and a country could very well expend all its resources in the effort.

This is particularly true given an intellectual property based model of healthcare innovation that means that drug developers can pretty much charge whatever they want and the end of the era of rapid advances in medical technology meaning that vast amounts of money could be spent on incremental improvements in outcome. NICE proved very effective at containing drugs costs by providing a clear non-negotiable cap on what the NHS would pay for treatments. It also helped to shield British patients from over-hyped and ineffective treatments.

Naturally, the pharmaceutical industry didn’t take this challenge to its control over drugs pricing lying down, whipping patients into a frenzy over “life-saving” treatments that were being denied, and creating fake patient advocacy groups. The tabloids relentlessly pushed this narrative, carrying multiple, emotive articles highlighting patients stories, and blaming NICE relatively poor cancer outcomes in the UK; a claim that makes no sense – the months of survival benefit these drugs have shown in clinical trials does not translate into years of advantage on a population level.

This campaign has often led to NICE being steadily undermined, a process that began with the Labour government intervening to ensure the approval of Herceptin for breast cancer in 2006, and continues with the coalition, first creating a separate fund to pay for refused cancer treatments, effectively neutering NICE in price negotiations, before removing its powers to approve or refuse new drugs altogether.

Health Secretary, Andrew Lansley, wants to replace this function with what he calls “value based pricing”. This will mean companies negotiating directly with the Department of Health over prices, and drugs being approved or refused directly by local GP consortia.

This plan is riddled with potential problems.

The DoH will be subject to extensive lobbying by industry and political pressure not to be seen to be denying drugs to needy patients – the ball will be entirely in the drug companies’ court and they know it.

GPs have neither the time, objectivity nor clout to handle these negotiations. Dr Ben Goldacre has written that it would take GPs 600 hours a month to read all the studies relevant to primary care alone, and that drugs companies are adept at massaging the data to favour their products, for example by failing to publish negative data and using positive data in multiple studies in different journals. These are tricks that are difficult to spot by all but the most careful reader, and certainly to busy GPs, themselves subject to corporate marketing and “hospitality.”

This plan effectively removes the ability of the NHS to force the pharmaceutical companies to lower prices, the GPs don’t have the clout to stand up to big multinational corporations and the government certainly doesn’t have the political will. It’s safe to say that the champagne corks will be popping in the boardrooms of those companies and their lobbyists (lobbyists such as the one wheeled out to defend the changes in the Guardian editorial linked to at the top of this paragraph) at the news.

Further to the reforms of the funding of the new medical treatments, we hear the news that many of the regulatory functions of the Food Standards Agency (FSA) with ”food networks” including representatives of the food companies to discuss “voluntary not regulatory approaches.”

We can see very clearly where Lansley’s political sympathies lie. He cannot plead ignorance, certainly on the issue of healthcare. He has spoken about the issue many times with Private Eye’s “MD” columnist (aka Phil Hammond), who has christened him “la-la Lansley,” assuring him that he has fully understood the need for rationing in the NHS.

These moves completely contradict the Conservative portion of the Coalition’s stated raison d’etre of fiscal responsibility- in an era of tightening health budgets, diverting precious resources to a small and vocal group of patients, to little end, and to pay to patch up an increasingly unhealthy public. This cuts away the myths of Conservative principles, exposing their core values of deference to business, deference to wealth and pathological hatred of the state.

You can’t condone the violence, but you can understand it

November 16, 2010

Some of my friends sit around every evening
And they worry about the times ahead
But everybody else is overwhelmed by indifference
And the promise of an early bed
You either shut up or get cut up, they don’t wanna hear about it
It’s only inches on the reel-to-reel
And the radio is in the hands of such a lot of fools
Tryin’ to anaesthetise the way that you feel

Elvis Costello, Radio Radio.

This blog is called Paperback Rioter because it’s a cute pun, but there’s a semi-serious point behind that pun. I don’t do rioting: this blog really is a chronicle of “fear and loathing on the campaign trail”. I write, debate, attend meetings, will be campaigning for AV, go on the occasional march. But I don’t kick in windows or throw fire extinguishers off buildings. That’s not my style.

The reasons why are rather obvious. The right to protest does not equal the right to violence.

Also, violence does not help the cause of the protesters. The usual caveats about opinion polls apply obviously, but of those sampled for Yougov (see p5), 69% say that the violence damaged the protester’s cause, as opposed to only 11% who thought it helped the cause. Three quarters of those surveyed say that violent protest is never acceptable in a democracy. This comes from a survey where 65% sympathised with the demonstration and the majority of whom (52% to 35%) disagree with the government’s policy on tuition fees.

Those minimising or condoning the violence (of which there are quite a few) like to draw attention to the fact that the protests only got so much publicity because of the violence.

This implies that all publicity is good publicity, which is obviously not true. I’ve highlighted in the last paragraph that it probably damaged the cause amongst the general public. This Daily Mail front page about the activities of Labour MPs probably gave a lot of publicity to the Labour Party, but you’d be hard-pushed to say that all this publicity was beneficial:


Having said all that, this violence is understandable. It also isn’t just coming from the usual “rent-a-mobs”. As Laurie Penny observed in her brilliant, must-read Gonzo-style piece on the Millbank violence. This is just one example of many from her piece:

Not all of those smashing through the foyer are in any way kitted out like your standard anarchist black-mask gang. These are kids making it up as they go along. A shy looking girl in a nice tweed coat and bobble hat ducks out of the way of some flying glass, squeaks in fright, but sets her lips determinedly and walks forward, not back, towards the line of riot cops. I see her pull up the neck of her pink polo-neck to hide her face, aping those who have improvised bandanas. She gives the glass under her feet a tentative stomp, and then a firmer one. Crunch, it goes. Crunch.

Which begs the question: why are there angry protests happening now, when in 2003 New Labour tripled university fees to £3000 a year, just two years after their manifesto said that they “will not introduce top-up fees and has legislated against them”?

Some on the right have argued that because now “teh evul Toriez” are in power, the left has reverted to its default position of opposing everything they do. This is slightly paranoid of them, but might contain a grain of truth. New Labour could certainly get away with acts like introducing tuition fees and experience far less dissent from the left than if a Tory government had introduced a similar policy.

The anger is about more than that, though. It’s about 13 years of broken promises from a Labour government. It’s that almost 7 million people voted Liberal Democrat in May, a party who had pledged to scrap fees, and are now going to triple them now in government.

To understand the anger, then, we need to go back to that greatest of moral philosophers, George W. Bush:

Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me

It’s not as if scenes like this weren’t foreseen. In April, Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats (not to be confused with the Deputy Prime Minister of the same name) said there could be riots in the streets if savage cuts were implemented:

As Johann Hari has written, all that’s changed is that now Clegg is the chief cutter.

It’s hard to comprehend the scale of the Lib Dem betrayal. Clegg has used this opportunity to been able to drop a policy he tried to get rid of last year. After the party rebelled against him and voted to keep its policy of abolishing fees, every Lib Dem MP signed a pledge to abolish fees. It transpires that that the Lib Dems had no intention of keeping in a hung parliament:

[A] secret team of key Lib Dems made clear that, in the event of a hung parliament, the party would not waste political capital defending its manifesto pledge to abolish university tuition fees within six years

A democratic solution has therefore failed, so it’s no great surprise rioters are taking to the streets. We now need another democratic solution: backing the right to recall (another Lib Dem policy).

This would mean that MPs who break promises or are found guilty of impropriety would be vulnerable to a constituency petition. If ten per cent of constituents sign that petition, then that MP would face an immediate by-election.


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