Oct 2009

Misleading media Part 324,078

It irritates me immensely when newspaper sub-editors insist upon placing misleading headlines above a story. Fair enough if it’s a comment-piece and there’s an argument for the creative use of ambiguity. But when it’s an article purporting to be a news report, I find it very annoying indeed. It’s sensationalist and manipulative and undercuts the information within the article. In what other way is this information being ‘sexed up’, one is forced to wonder. Can I actually trust any of it?

Of course, this is far from an original observation and I’m hardly the first person to lament the sensationalism of the mainstream media nor the untrustworthiness of the information provided. Still it rankles.

In The Guardian, for instance, we have an article headlined: ‘Death tourism’ leads Swiss to consider ban on assisted suicide. Well, it turns out — and one only needs to read the article beneath the headline to discover this — that while a ban has been “considered” (I’m not suggesting the headline is a lie, merely misleading), the Swiss are almost certainly not going to introduce one preferring instead to adopt tighter regulations…

The new rules would include requiring patients to obtain two medical opinions proving their illness was incurable and probably fatal within months. These doctors must state that the dying person had the mental capacity to assert their wish to die, and prove they had held this wish for some time. The new proposal would also require assisted dying groups to provide better written records to stop organisations profiting from patients wanting to die.

All of these are probably quite sensible proposals (particularly the last one) and fail to come anywhere close to constituting an outright ban. But “Swiss to tighten assisted-suicide regulations” doesn’t make quite as good a headline.

I really wish that the media would stop doing this (leastways those elements of the media who claim to be “responsible”… tabloids obviously would cease to exist without such sensationalist and misleading tactics) as it gradually erodes our willingness to trust any information they provide.

Actually, that may itself be a good thing.

2 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion

Oct 2009

Is AA Gill a psychopath?

OK, first up, let’s be clear about a couple of things. Although I have a Masters Degree in Psychoanalytic Studies, I’ve remained (as yet, anyways) in the academic side of the discipline. I have no clinical training or experience and am not professionally qualified to assess anyone’s mental health. I believe my grasp of theory is pretty strong by now, but diagnosis is its own unique set of skills and I make no claim to them.

Secondly, my entire knowledge of British restaurant critic, AA Gill, is gleaned from a single article in The Guardian containing but one or two direct quotations from the man. I’ve never read his writing as restaurant criticism doesn’t interest me in the slightest. So even if I did have the requisite clinical training, I don’t have anywhere like sufficient data to make a diagnosis.

I wanted to declare this because some of my regular readers, knowing my area of study, may assume that I’m making some kind of formal diagnosis here. That’s just not the case. On top of that, there’s a chance — albeit a slim one — that I may decide to pursue clinical psychoanalysis at some point in the future and I don’t want to be on record as doing anything so sloppy or unethical as making a public diagnosis of a person. Especially based upon such limited data. Even Freud himself, who was arguably rather cavalier about rushing to a diagnosis, would have balked at such a thing.

Nonetheless, when a person announces to the media that they have travelled to Africa and shot a baboon for the express purpose of getting “a sense of what it might be like to kill someone”, then they are pretty much inviting a public analysis of their behaviour. Such extreme, and I’d suggest spectacularly misjudged, pronouncements cannot be expected to remain unanalysed. Any semi-intelligent person who tells the world that they have an urge to be “a recreational primate killer” (his words) having already admitted that they were merely using the baboon as a stand-in for a human being, must accept that those of us in the field of psychoanalysis (whether academic or clinical) will inevitably view his comments through the lens of our learning.

And quite frankly, it’s a lens that does not show Mr. Gill’s claims and behaviour in a positive light. The Guardian article includes the following paragraph which — along with the “recreational primate killer” comment — reveals, I’d argue, a very dark aspect of his personality…

Gill admitted he had no good reason for killing the animal. “I know perfectly well there is absolutely no excuse for this,” he wrote. “There is no mitigation. Baboon isn’t good to eat, unless you’re a leopard. The feeble argument of culling and control is much the same as for foxes: a veil for naughty fun. I wanted to get a sense of what it might be like to kill someone, a stranger. You see it in all those films: guns and bodies, barely a close-up of reflection or doubt. What does it really feel like to shoot someone, or someone’s close relative?”

Those last four words are what lifts Gill’s statements out of mere testosterone-fueled bloodlust (which, sadly, we must accept is too common an element of human psychology to warrant classification as being extremely abnormal) and into something a little more chilling. The desire to kill is not itself psychopathic, but the specific urge to inflict the grief of bereavement upon a stranger’s family is certainly moving in that direction.

To then go one step further and act upon that fantasy suggests the sort of escalation in Gills’ “urges” that would almost certainly concern a psychiatrist or psychoanalyst if they witnessed it in one of their patients. It’s a cliché in fiction, but it is nonetheless true; violent psychopaths begin with fantasies of killing people, progress to killing animals, discover it doesn’t fulfill the urge they feel and, the worst of them, wind up going further. They often revel in — to the point of receiving a powerful sexual charge from — the suffering they have caused to those around their primary victim. It’s an extreme form of sadism.

Given this, one is forced to wonder whether perhaps Gill’s decision to publicly announce his sadistic fantasies might not be a cry for help?

“Stop me before I kill again.”

UPDATE 11:56: One commenter writes… “I’m gonna shoot AA Gill to get a sense of what it’s like to kill a baboon”. Well, it made me laugh.

11 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion

Oct 2009

Cassetteboy vs Nick Griffin vs Question Time

Nick Griffin on Question Time.

2 comments  |  Posted in: Media » Video

Oct 2009

The BNP on Question Time in retrospect

Well, I’m disappointed it went ahead. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that Nick Griffin put in a stellar performance. He certainly didn’t. But I never expected him to. That was never the issue. He was always going to look either nasty or idiotic when forced to defend his views. Because his views are nasty and idiotic. That was never in doubt.

There were those who insisted it was actually a good thing that the BNP were appearing. In the comments to my previous piece on this, Joel argues that “it puts his neck closer to the noose so he can hang himself”. And there are many who share this view. He’ll be damned by his own words, they say, so let him speak.

I don’t share that view. Which is not to say it’s wrong. Merely that an appearance on Question Time doesn’t only damn him by his own words. It has other consequences too. Some of which are negative. “The BNP are not being normalised into society by being on Question Time, it’s just having a clown on”, wrote Joel. But I humbly suggest that it’s both. It almost always is. He may indeed have moved a few millimeters closer to the noose. But we tend to hang fascists after they’ve killed a bunch of people.

It’s taken the National Front decades to evolve to the point where their suited representatives now get invited on Question Time. This was never about an overnight bump in the polls, but about how the fascist voice slowly but surely enters everyday political debate. The next decade may well be a fertile breeding ground for fascism. I believe the global economy will begin to absorb the fact that the days of “growth” are coming to an end. I think resource depletion will become a mainstream and frightening idea and even if we succeed in shifting to a sustainable model, the transition period could involve major social upheaval. The kind of environment that the Far Right historically tends to exploit. The very last thing we should be doing as the global economy teeters on the brink is inviting the BNP, and those like them, into mainstream debate.

Just before Question Time last night the BBC News discussed the issue themselves. And the language used very clearly implied that this would be the first of several invites extended to the BNP leader. This very fact… that the BNP leader gets regular invitations to debate with the other parties before an audience of millions… makes it far more likely that Griffin will be replaced sooner or later by someone more effective at the job. And you can pretty much guarantee that by the BNP’s third appearance on Question Time, Dimbleby won’t be dedicating 90% of the show to picking them apart. There’ll be the inevitable couple of “BNP questions”, but otherwise Griffin will get to speak freely on subjects where his views may resonate with millions. I happen to think his positions on the Iraq / Afghanistan wars are fairly sound, for instance, and in that discussion he’ll come across as the sane one compared to the tories and labour. Last night there was one non-BNP question. Next time?

I’m also irritated by how reasonable he made Jack Straw appear. “Contributing to the credibility of Jack Straw” is itself an unforgiveable offence. Both Griffin and the BBC are responsible for that crime against the people.

Overall though, I’m worried that the BBC set a bad precedent last night. It’ll be a long time before we know for sure, but why even take the risk when it comes to fascism?

7 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion

Oct 2009

The air we breathe

Ladies and gentlemen, the future.


The Airpod, air-powered car.

That air stuff… it’s great when you think about it. A ubiquitous, but entirely unobtrusive mixture of gases that’s wrapped around our planet several miles deep and provides fuel for many of the processes that occur within our body. It isn’t so much “easily accessible” as it is “impossible not to access” under normal circumstances.

Now before anyone looks at that strange little car and starts thinking either (a) that compressed air is the solution to our energy crisis, or (b) that I’m suggesting compressed air is the solution to our energy crisis, let me please request you stop thinking it. Because it’s not. And I’m not.

What I am suggesting, however, is that compressed air is a far better energy-carrier than batteries (or hydrogen fuel cells).

Let me qualify that statement.

Firstly, I’m not really talking about cars here. I still view the personal car as unsustainable, though there’s no reason compressed-air buses couldn’t be part of a future public transport system.

And secondly, I’m not speaking specifically about the energy-efficiency of compressed air Vs batteries.

What I am suggesting is that a wind-turbine powering your home / apartment building / housing estate (scale up as required) could be connected to an air-compressor during off-peak hours. Then when it’s calm and the turbine isn’t moving (or the sun isn’t shining, if solar panels are your primary generator) the compressed air can be used to produce electricity. It beats almost every other energy system I can think of hands down in the sustainability stakes. As well as the sheer elegance of the idea.

See the trouble with batteries is that they’re pretty short-lived, all things considered. They need to be replaced every few years and disposing of the old ones often involves dealing with nasty chemicals. With a compressed air system, on the other hand, you need a machine-shop and a bit of know-how (or the phone-number of someone with a machine-shop and a bit of know-how… hint: see the Yellow Pages under ‘Mechanic’) and you’ve got something that’ll last indefinitely. I’ve seen compressors in factories that have been lovingly maintained for thirty years and which, given continued loving maintenance, should last at least thirty more. I watched the mechanic in an Egyptian bottling plant manufacture spare parts for his compressor from a pile of off-cuts in the yard. No it wasn’t the prettiest piece of equipment I’d ever seen, with at least half of it having been replaced with local scrap over the years, but it still functioned to a high level of efficiency.

Compressed air is not without its dangers. But as an energy carrier it sure beats hydrogen in that respect. And compressor technology is old and proven. Over the decades we’ve made it pretty damn reliable. I have a hunch that “reliable” is exactly what we need right now.

Leave a comment  |  Posted in: Opinion

Oct 2009

The BNP on Question Time

Question Time is the BBC’s flagship political debate show in which a panel of four or five political figures discuss the issues of the day and answer questions posed by a studio audience. This week one of the panel members will be Nick Griffin, leader of the British National Party.

And in my view, this is a mistake. Generally I’m a fan of the BBC, but on this BNP issue they’ve got it wrong. Nick Griffin should never be invited to appear on Question Time.

Context is everything.

See, it’s fine to interview Griffin (on the BBC or anywhere else). Don’t get me wrong, I’m not proposing that the BNP or any other political party be censored. By all means invite him onto Newsnight and have Paxman grill him about the legality of his party’s constitution. But when you give a fascist a platform, you must ensure it’s a clearly labelled platform. That kind of ethnic nationalism needs to be ringfenced and signposted. We already know where it leads. And we’ve seen it happen enough times now to be aware that it’s not something that can be ignored. It’s not like we arbitrarily decided to repress some random political ideology. Just plucked it out of a hat on a particularly slow day at the UN. Racial supremacy and ethnic nationalism have a well-established track record. It’s a dangerous tendency and it tears apart societies when it gets strong enough.

Can you even begin to imagine a Britain where the BNP polled enough of the (white) vote to establish a government? Imagine the consequences of such a social divide! That’s what the BNP is actively seeking and campaigning for, never forget it; a disaffected Britain, paranoid and riven with internal fractures. An ugly place dominated by viciousness and suspicion and hatred of The Other. You’d imagine we’d have moved past that by now, learnt the lessons — the numerous lessons — of history. Does Britain really want ethnic violence on the streets? Because the BNP… they kind of do. And worse perhaps? You only need to ask the people of the Balkans how quickly things get out of hand when that kind of ideology gains enough traction.

So when the BNP — or any ethnic nationalist — appear in the mainstream media, that’s the context they should be presented in. Introduce them as fascists, let them speak their piece, then remind everyone they’ve just been listening to fascists.

What the BBC should not be doing, is inviting the BNP onto Question Time as though they were just another feature on the political landscape. This is effectively normalising the fascist voice. Removing the ringfence. Bringing it to the discussion and lending it the same weight as any other voice. That right there is a textbook example of ethnic nationalism starting to gain traction.

The BNP are a fit subject to be discussed on Question Time. They should not be participants.

2 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion