From David Maughan Brown in York: ‘Diatribes of bilge’?

Nuclear explosion!

March 10th

Oprah Winfrey’s interview with Meghan and Harry, aired on ITV on Monday evening, has been described as a ‘bombshell interview’ whose ‘shockwaves swept around the world’.  The Daily Mail, our representative tabloid for the day, talks about ‘a string of incendiary accusations unleashed by Harry and wife Meghan’ and tells us that Buckingham Palace has been ‘paralysed with horror and dismay as Prince Harry stands accused of blowing up his family with his bombshell interview.’  And it was apparently no ordinary bombshell: ‘palace insiders’, we are told, described a mood of ‘intense personal shock and sadness’ that the prince had pressed the ‘nuclear button on his own family … people are just reeling.’ * Paralysed people ‘reeling with shock’ after being hit by a nuclear explosion whose shockwaves have swept around the world should probably take time off to be thankful that they have enough life left in them to do their reeling.

Apart from the implication that security had been withdrawn from Harry and Meghan’s family, and that Archie had been denied a title, on racial grounds – hinted at in particular via a reported conversation with an unnamed royal who had speculated on the shade of darkness of the unborn baby Archie – the most telling ‘bombshell’ was perhaps Meghan’s revelation that she had become suicidal and sought help from Buckingham Palace, but had been refused.   Almost submerged among the more striking claims was the assertion that there exists an ‘invisible contract’ between the royals and the tabloids informally stipulating favourable press in exchange for access.**  If that is true, and there is no reason whatever to suppose that it might not be, one can only assume that, for whatever reason (and one can guess), Meghan Markle was not regarded as coming under the terms of that invisible contract.

There can be no question that the Press’s treatment of Meghan Markle has been one of the principal determining factors in this whole sorry saga.   But, with the notable exception of today’s excellent editorial in The Independent,*** even the very few inhabitants of the more enlightened wing of the Press’s unstately home seem reluctant to acknowledge this.  Sunday’s The Observer (7/3/21), for example, carried three substantial articles about the interview.  In the first, by Vanessa Thorpe (p.5), nothing whatever is said about the press; the second, by Andrew Gumbel (pp.40-1), talks about them ‘feeling’ they [Harry and Meghan] had gone to USA ‘with some assurance that they wouldn’t be hounded by the paparazzi the way they felt they were’, and thereby calls into question whether they really were hounded by the paparazzi or simply ‘felt they were’; the third, a carping article by Catherine Bennett titled ‘In the battle of Meghan versus the Firm, who do we cheer on? How about neither…’(p.49), makes very fleeting reference in passing to ‘when Meghan was herself bullied by the UK press’ but doesn’t bother to linger on that insight.

In this instance one had to look to David Olusoga, Professor of Public History at the University of Manchester, on the BBC’s Today  programme yesterday to get to the nub of the issue where Harry and Meghan were concerned:  ‘‘This is the story of a black princess, a moment when Britain projected this image around the world and this was the opportunity for us to become the nation we pretend we are…. I’m interested in the fact that we didn’t.  We allowed our press to hound this woman and hound her family and it says something about us.  And the Royal Family are just another institution of this country, and in some ways these issues reflect the wider country.  It isn’t just about the royal family; it is about us as a nation’.   The BBC, seeing the Tory private sector fetishists in full cry in its rear-view mirror, intent on eviscerating it to get at its licence fee, inevitably felt it had to ‘balance’ Olusoga’s incisiveness by inviting no less an authority of Britain and the Royal Family than Meghan’s estranged father Thomas Markle to share his expertise with us: ‘I have great respect for the royals and I don’t think the British royal family are racist at all. I don’t think the British are racist.’  So that is settled then.

Olusoga’s repetition of ‘hounding’ allows the full force of the metaphor to come through:  in the ‘tally ho!’ world shared by both the tabloid press and traditional fox-hunting the quarry is regarded as vermin, ‘fair game’, onto which the hounds – whether fox-hounds or news-hounds – can be set, with the goal being to tear the quarry to shreds, either literally or metaphorically.  Harry had seen what happened to his mother who was, as nearly literally as it is possible to get, hounded to her death in an underpass in Paris – hunted down by the paparazzi.   When he saw the same thing in danger of happening to his wife he would have had to be insane not to want to find a way to protect her from the hounds.

Only one person was explicitly exonerated during the interview from complicity in ‘The Firm’s’, or ‘Buckingham Palace’s’, stiff-upper-lipped refusal to take Meghan and Harry’s plight seriously and defend them against the hounds.   That one person was the Queen herself.  It was obviously not coincidental that news of the impending Oprah Winfrey interview galvanized the rest of ‘the PaIace’, by contrast, into a very belated inquiry into allegations that Meghan had herself bullied members royal staff.    It was very clear from the interview that there was a mutual and very genuine warmth and fondness between the Queen, Meghan and her grandson, and that warmth is reflected in the Queen’s public response to the interview:   ‘The whole family is saddened to learn the full extent of how challenging the last few years have been for Harry and Meghan. The issues raised, particularly that of race, are concerning. Whilst some recollections may vary, they are taken very seriously and will be addressed by the family privately. Harry, Meghan and Archie will always be much-loved family members.’ 

With depressing predictability, Britain’s gutter-press, whose excretions just happen to be the printed media’s best sellers, seized on five words from the 60 word statement:  ‘Whilst some recollections may vary…’  This they interpret as a covert assertion that Meghan was lying through her teeth, effectively endorsing the awful Piers Morgan’s ‘Pinocchio Princess’ label for Meghan.  The Daily Mail’s online headline could not be a starker contrast to the Queen’s restraint:  ‘PIERS MORGAN: Meghan and Harry’s nauseating two-hour Oprah whine-athon was a disgraceful diatribe of cynical race-baiting propaganda designed to damage the Queen as her husband lies in hospital – and destroy the Monarchy.’ ***  Whatever else eventuates from the interview one good outcome has been Morgan’s unlamented departure from ITV’s Good Morning Britain.  

Piers Morgan was not about to go quietly and, as is the wont of the more contemptible tabloids, hid behind ‘freedom of speech’ as the catch-all weapon of his defence:  “I believe in freedom of speech, I believe in the right to be allowed to have an opinion…. If I have to fall on my sword for expressing an honestly held opinion about Meghan Markle and that diatribe of bilge that she came out with in that interview, so be it.”****  His noble act of falling on his, now rather tarnished, sword as a martyr to the cause of freedom of speech, which seems to have pre-empted his being fired by yet another employer, brings an appropriate end to this episode of his own series of diatribes of bilge. Unfortunately it won’t be the last of the series.

All of which brings me back to David Olusoga: ‘It isn’t just about the royal family; it is about us as a nation.’  Exactly so.  The likes of Piers Morgan can get away with expressing their repugnant opinions because a sufficiently large section of the nation apparently has sufficient thirst for the diatribes of bilge to keep newspapers in business that are often a shameful national embarrassment.  Their diatribes feed off and indirectly fuel an undercurrent of racism and xenophobia.   Princess Diana was hounded to her death; Harry is obviously right, that cannot be allowed to happen to Meghan, and if it takes living in California to ensure that doesn’t happen, so be it.   Rather than cleaning up the sewage by closing down the offending tabloids, to a crescendo of whines about ‘freedom of speech’, the nation should follow the excellent lead set by the population of Liverpool who have boycotted The Sun ever since its appalling coverage of the Hillsborough disaster.  If nobody buys the bilge, the offending tabloids won’t survive, and the nation will be a lot cleaner and healthier. But I’m not holding my breath.

* https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-9340143/Queen-holds-crisis-talks-Harry-Meghans-bombshell-Oprah-interview.html

** https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/tv/reviews/harry-and-meghan-interview-oprah-review-b1813834.html

*** https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/press-media-meghan-harry-diversity-b1814801.html

**** https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-9338343/PIERS-MORGAN-Meghan-Harrys-nauseating-two-hour-Oprah-whine-athon-disgraceful-diatribe.html

From David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Noli me Tangere

Noli me Tangere.

October 9.  An obvious victim of the quarantine measures imposed since March is touch.  Parents cannot hug children and grandchildren living elsewhere.  Relatives of the sick or dying cannot give physical reassurance.  The bereaved cannot ease their pain by embracing each other.  

It is timely, therefore, that this week Radio 4 is broadcasting a set of programmes on the topic.

They are made by Claudia Hammond, a rare presenter capable of moving between academic research and popular communication through her regular BBC series ‘All in the Mind.’

In conjunction with the Wellcome Collection and front-line academics she has conducted global surveys on loneliness (to which I contributed), rest and relaxation, and now touch.  Nearly 40,000 respondents from 112 countries answered a series of questions about attitudes and practices.

The subject was chosen as a means of measuring the impact of increased virtual contact through the use of social media, and of growing sensitivity to the need for consent, particularly by women, in physical encounters.  The interviews were conducted in the first three months of 2020, and only glimpsed the impact of the pandemic at the very end of the project.   In presenting the results, however, Claudia Hammond talked to researchers who are currently focussing on the consequences of current forms of lockdown.

This is the beginning rather than the end of a discussion of this feature of the pandemic, but some truths begin to be visible.  In this realm, as in so many others, coronavirus struck populations already struggling with needs and aspirations.  Amongst the sample, nearly three quarters thought touch important, and over a half stated they did not have enough in their lives.  A mere three per cent believed they had too much.  The shortfall was attributed to a lack of social interaction more generally, and a change in attitudes about consensual physical contact.  Those with a positive attitude towards touch reported greater wellbeing and lower levels of loneliness. 

Michael Banissy, the London University professor in charge of the research, referred to a persistent longing for touch rather than a widespread crisis. The patchwork of further research since the lockdowns began suggests that this longing has grown.  An American survey found a shortfall not so much in the levels of contact as in the quality.  It is where it is most needed, in care homes, in hospitals, at funerals, that the lack is most acutely felt.  There is an interesting suggestion that amidst the social dislocation, the baseline for an acceptable level of physical embrace has risen.  As memories of the warmth of touch are re-visited, the enforced restrictions become more painful. 

What to do as prohibitions on physical contact are re-imposed?  Virtual hugging apparently has some effect.  The American survey found that long walks in the open air buffered the consequences of diminished touching. And then there is the sharp rise on both sides of the Atlantic in the purchase of soft, huggable, pets.

The tortoise I once owned (see Diary April 28) won’t do at all. 

From David Maughan Brown in York: Signs and signals

September 28th

Every time a significant new announcement is made with regard to Covid-19 regulations, which seems to be around twice a week these days, the BBC News dutifully does the rounds of the four countries of the supposedly ‘United’ Kingdom’ in turn, so that those of us in England can be kept up to speed with the invariably much more sensible variations on the theme being proposed in the other three countries.  Not, of course that the BBC would ever be likely to venture such a value judgement at a time when the right wing of the Conservative Party (i.e. about 90% of it) is baying for the BBC’s blood on the wholly specious grounds that it has a left-wing bias.  What I am finding increasingly irritating about this regular tour of the UK’s four constituent parts is not the regular reminder that Nicola Sturgeon and Mark Drakeford, the Scottish and Welsh First Ministers respectively, are so much more articulate than their English counterpart, whose stumbling inarticulacy, however plummy, so often gives the lie to the notion that he is a good communicator.  What gets me much more viscerally is the glaring absence of a signer in the background whenever Boris delivers one of his portentous orations, by stark contrast with the ever-present signers helping the First Ministers to communicate with the people in their countries who are hard of hearing.

It is beyond comprehension both that Boris would not narcissistically want to admire his own speeches, and that he would not be compulsively drawn to watch his Scottish and Welsh counterparts’ speeches, not because he is interested in what they are saying, which might require too much concentration, but to prove to himself how much better he is at oratory.  Does he not notice the signers in the background?  Does he think that English superiority and exceptionalism must mean that we don’t have any people in England who are hard of hearing?  Are the signers, to him, simply an unusually animated part of the furniture that isn’t worthy of his attention? Or does he perhaps think that what they are doing is translating spoken language into signs for the benefit of the backward descendants of the Celts and Gauls who inhabit the mountainous outer reaches of the UK and haven’t in consequence yet developed to the point of being the proud owners of a spoken language?   Or does he, quite simply, not care?  And what about the Minister of State for Disabled People, Work and Health (sic)?  Or the Minister of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (sic)?  Or any of the rest of our Cabinet of the talentless?  Do they neither notice nor care either?  Or is it that, just like the First Ministers of the other countries they only get to speak to Boris once every three months and our ministers are so awed by the privilege that they don’t want to rock the boat by asking awkward questions?

If the absence of signers is signalling to those who want to read the signs that our government in England (the government, in theory, of the whole United Kingdom) is a lot less caring and inclusive than the governments of the Scotland and Wales, it has not been the only sign over the past six months that has signalled that we have plenty to worry about where our government is concerned.   A handshake is normally a sign of greeting and friendship; when Boris Johnson invites the cameras to photograph him shaking hands with Covid patients in hospital it signals a reckless braggadocio that, all too literally, bodes ill.   The meaning of ubiquitous signs saying “Stay at Home” is crystal clear – until Dominic Cummings jaunts off to County Durham and cabinet ministers from the Prime Minister downwards, falling over themselves to claim that he has done nothing wrong, signal that the injunction only applies to some people, not everyone, and half the population, picking up the signal, thinks ‘what the hell’ and starts following the Cummings example and interpreting the advice and regulations to suit themselves.

My personal assumption about the reason for the absence of signers from our screens when Johnson is exercising his oratory is that the necessary animation of a signer in the background inevitably attracts the attention, however fleetingly, of viewers who aren’t hard of hearing, and Boris is always desperate to have the full gaze of the nation exclusively, and he no doubt assumes admiringly, focussed on himself.  Of all the warning signs visible on our screens over the past six months signalling that the consequences of Covid-19 are going to be very dire for our incompetently governed country, the most telling sign, paradoxically, has probably been that glaring absence of signers.   What it signals, at least to me, is that we are being told what to do, rather than led, by a self-obsessed narcissist with a hand-picked Cabinet of the like-minded who are ultimately interested only in themselves and their chums.  All talk of inclusivity and ‘levelling-up’ is simply window-dressing.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Land of Hope and Glory

August 26th

I promised, or perhaps threatened, in my last entry to return to the cultural war that continues to rage around the Last Night of the Proms – mainly, I suspect, because free-market Tories (is there another kind?)  have seized on it as another stick with which to beat the BBC in their campaign to do away with the license fee.   

The particular occasion for this latest spewing of right-wing bile was the BBC’s decision that, given that choral music is a known disseminator of the Covid-19 virus, ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ and ‘Rule Britannia!’ should be played, but not sung, at the Last Night of the Proms this year.   The words of both songs, as culturally appropriated in the 21st century, unashamedly glorify Empire, which many people find embarrassing.  As one might have expected, the BBC’s decision has revitalised the conservative ‘erasure of history’ argument, and, even more predictably, provoked an intemperate rant from Johnson who asserted that it is ‘time we stopped our cringing embarrassment about our history’, an embarrassment which he described in cringe-worthy Public Schoolese as ‘wetness’. 

The words of ‘Rule Britannia!’ were written in 1740 and interesting, for me at least, mainly for the punctuation of the first line. (‘You can take the English Professor out of the Department but you can’t take the Department out of the Professor,’ they say.)  The first line was an exhortation: ‘Rule Britannia! Britannia rule the waves’.   When we used to bawl it out as loudly as we could at a very ‘English’ preparatory school in the wilds of the Southern Highlands of what was then Tanganyika in the 1950s, we added a tell-tale ‘s’ and sang ‘Britannia rules the waves’, changing it from an injunction into a statement, which, even in the 1950s, was an exaggeration.   If Britain’s claim to rule the waves was tenuous in 1740, in a way it wasn’t in the 19th century, it is entirely untrue now, but my guess is that 95% of the singing flag-wavers at the Proms will, probably inadvertently, have been adding that undeniably jingoistic ‘s’. 

The triumphalist words of ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ are more revealing in the context of Johnson’s declaration that we should ‘get over’ what he called ‘our bout of self-recrimination’ about our past.  The words were written by A.C. Benson in 1901 in the immediate aftermath of the Anglo-Boer – usually referred to in UK as the ‘Boer’ war by way of distracting attention from the fact that Britain was the aggressor, in much the same way as ‘NHS Test and Trace’ is an attempt to deflect attention from the fact that the associated chaos and incompetence is entirely attributable to the government and not the NHS.  The words were written soon after the death of Cecil Rhodes, and the line in the chorus, ‘Wider still and wider shall thy bounds be set’, clearly echoes Rhodes’ vision of an ever expanding British Empire on which the sun never sets.   So when it comes to there being no need for national self-recrimination, the Anglo-Boer war is as good a place to start as, say, the massacres committed by British troops at Amritsar or on Bloody Sunday.

Concentration camps were not invented by the Nazis, they were first used in Cuba in the 1890s and shortly after that they were used more extensively by the British to intern Afrikaner women and children, and an unknown number of black South Africans, during the Anglo-Boer war, before being used by the British to the same deadly effect in Kenya and Malaya.  They ‘concentrated’ the civilian population in prison camps to prevent them from offering assistance to the Boer guerrilla fighters, while they ‘scorched’ the earth by burning all crops and homesteads to the same end.   It is estimated that somewhere around 28,000 Afrikaner women and children died of disease or starvation in the concentration camps in South Africa in 1901-2, of whom around 22,000 were children.   A further 20,000 black South Africans are estimated to have died in racially segregated camps over the same two years.  Twenty-two thousand dead children would not normally be associated with either ‘Hope’ or Glory’, nor were they much cause for triumphalist celebration then, let alone now.  And Boris clearly thinks that we shouldn’t be bothered with self-recrimination about them – I suppose they were just another bunch of foreigners.

The Right Honourable the Viscount Alfred Milner, who was the High Commissioner to South Africa and Governor of the Cape Colony at the time, would have been a shoe-in for Boris Johnson’s cabinet had he only been with us now.  Recognising belatedly that all those women and children dying on his watch might result in some regrettably bad press down the line, he wrote, refreshingly frankly (Dominic Cummings would have sorted that out): ‘It is impossible not to see that, however blameless we may be in the matter, we shall not be able to make anybody think so, and I cannot avoid an uncomfortable feeling that there must be some way to make the thing a little less awfully bad if one could only think of it.’  Cummings and Johnson would have been able to think of it.  Part of Milner’s problem, of course, was that the NHS wasn’t around at that time so he couldn’t label them ‘NHS Concentration Camps’.   In the meantime our Culture representative in the government of all the talentless, Oliver Dowden, says: ‘Confident forward-looking nations don’t erase their history [however ‘awfully bad’], they add to it.’  To which one can only respond by saying that nobody is trying to ‘erase history’: the BBC merely thinks it is not a good idea to celebrate some aspects of that history.  But the telling last word, and the strand of culture it represents, should perhaps be left to Piers Morgan as a representative spokesman for the jingoists who have responded to the BBC with such frothing outrage:  “The BBC needs to grow a pair & stop grovelling to such insane ‘woke’ cancel culture nonsense that most Britons find utterly absurd.”  The ‘pair’ he is referring to are, all too obviously, not breasts.

From David Maughan Brown in York: ‘News’?

August 11th

In an earlier blog some weeks ago I voluntarily offered up a plea of ‘guilty’ to spending too much time watching and listening to the ‘News’, even though nobody had actually accused me of doing so.  The point was made to me a couple of days ago, in not particularly accusatory fashion it must be said, that I almost invariably listen to the 7.00 am, 8.00 am and 1.00 pm BBC news and usually watch Channel 4 news (generally much more probing than the BBC) at 7.00pm and the BBC news at 10.00pm.  How sad is that?  The only plea I could make in mitigation was that I hardly ever watch the rolling news on any channel.   I couldn’t even claim that the only reason I indulge this vice is because there is nothing else to do under lockdown, or that I do it in search of something to blog about, because (while I’m coming clean I may as well make a full confession) I tended to do the same before lockdown.  

I suspect that this addiction has its origins in the two decades I spent in South Africa under apartheid when the South African Broadcasting Corporation was one of the main instruments the Nationalist government used for disseminating its unhinged racist propaganda and its paranoid perception of itself as the target of a ‘total onslaught’ from the rest of what it perceived as a communistic world.   For most of those years I was lecturing in a very traditional English Department, which saw itself as a global heir to F.R.Leavis and the New Criticism.  While students at all levels might have been good at analysing poetry, they were, with few exceptions, not applying any of the analytical skills they were acquiring to the language or subject matter of the all too often pernicious media they were consuming.   So, with considerable effort, I managed in the early 1980s to drag a Media Studies course onto the curriculum in the hope of enabling the students to discover that, if history is written by the victors, so the ‘News’ is not a neutral given but is, to a greater or lesser extent, selected for consumption, and controlled by, representatives of the dominant group in any society.   The withering, and wholly ignorant, contempt in which Media Studies as an academic discipline is held by conservatives, and many Russell Group universities (is there a difference?), in spite of the complex and rigorous body of theoretical work behind it, is obviously a reflection of the extent to which they would much prefer what goes into the print and broadcast media not to be subject to rigorous analysis.

So my self-exoneration when it comes to news addiction is that watching and listening aren’t a matter simply of accepting what one is being told or shown but, rather, a questioning of why it is being selected for our consumption in preference to the myriad other things that have happened nationally and globally, and of trying to analyse what lies behind the particular way in which it is being presented.   Sometimes, of course, the interesting thing is what is not being reported on, as with the long silence that suddenly fell on the ‘world-beating’ Test and Trace statistics.  What are we supposed to do, for example, with the daily list of the number of redundancies recently announced at major UK companies, or the wholly unsurprising drip of ‘news’ that their sales are down and their profits have dropped through the floor?   Why is Donald Trump’s being ushered away from a microphone because the US secret service have seen a suspicious man with a gun near the White House (Newsflash: said suspicious man has just been shot) seen as one of the three or four most important things to have happened in the world for the past 12 hours?  To raise our hopes?   One can assume that the difference between the BBC News and Channel 4 News has to do with Tory jabbering about the license fee, and I assume that very precise increases in the official Covid death statistics trotted out every day aren’t intended to depress us as much as to distract our attention from the very much worse ‘excess deaths’ statistics.   But, unlike the apartheid media in South Africa, the broadcast media in UK pose many more questions than they provide answers, and there lies a major part of their addictive interest for me.  

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Five Giants

Lord Hennessy

June 23.  This week, BBC Radio 4 is running programmes under the heading of: “Re-think.  People’s Hopes and Dreams for the world post-corona.”   It launched the series with a talk by Peter Hennessy on yesterday’s World at One programme.

Peter Hennessy, Lord Hennessy, is, for those who do not know his work, the leading historian of modern politics in Britain.  As a Times journalist and later an academic, he has written widely and authoritatively on the practice of government in Britain since the Second World War.  His views repay attention.  This is what he said:

“It is possible that out of our experience of a cruel, capricious and deadly pathogen something of real and enduring value could emerge.  That out of tragedy could come possibility and purpose.  Is there a usable piece of our past to guide us, to give us hope?  I think there is.

The Covid 19 experience has sharpened our sense of the duty of care we have one for another, that a state has for its people, all of its people, to a degree we’ve not felt collectively since World War II and its aftermath.  We heard it week after week on Thursdays at eight when we clapped, cheered and rattled our pots and pans in salute to the NHS front line and other key workers.  It was the sound of people, rediscovering themselves. 

There are too many differences between six years of total war and the likely length of the Covid emergency for easy comparisons to be made, but what we can learn from those war years is just how powerful and beneficial a never-again impulse can be if it is poured into the making of a new deal for the British people.  The great World War II coalition led by Winston Churchill and Clem Attlee began to plan for exactly that on the back of what was and still is the most remarkable report ever produced for a British government.  In late 1942, Sir William Beveridge, the leading social arithmetician of his day, identified what he called five giants on the road to recovery, and he put them in capital letters: Want, Ignorance, Idleness, Squalor, Disease.  The report was a best-seller. Beveridge’s great insight was that all five giants had to be struck simultaneously if the hard crust of deprivation was to be shattered.  After the war, governments of both parties were fuelled by a Beveridge-ite consensus for over thirty years. 

Through the grim Covid weeks and months of 2020, can we see the possible outline of a new Beveridge, a new post Corona banner we can all rally round, a banner emblazoned with the heraldry of a new consensus?  We can. I think there is a hard edged, not a fudged consensus to be crafted, using five priorities.  Social care.  Something must be done, and fast.  A big public-private push on social housing.  Getting technical education right at last after a hundred and fifty years of trying.  Combatting and mitigating climate change.  Preparing our country and our people for the full impact of artificial intelligence on our productive capacity and our society.

If our politicians could pick up this new consensus and run with it, finding the right tone and pitch of language in which to express it, the early twenty-twenties could be one of the most creative and productive patches of our history and a worthy memorial to the Covid fallen.  It has taken a pathogen for us to find and refresh our shared duty of care, but rediscover it we have.”

More tomorrow on this vision.  Others may wish to comment on his optimism, and on the five giants he has chosen to slay.

Add Mss (2)  May 21 Being Local.  “The NHS has decided to write its own track and trace programme, rather than install the simpler and operational Apple / Google app.  To no-one’s surprise, it is already in trouble and missing deadlines.  At this level, the bespoke solution is a mistake.”  Thus it transpires.  The only comfort is that in spite of the words spoken at the launch of the project, a computerised app seems no longer to be crucial, whoever designs it.  A voice on the phone, preferably from the locality of the infected person, is what you need.  And we have had telephones since 1875.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Testing, testing, testing…

30th April

Today is the glorious day by when government promised that the number of Covid-19 tests would have been ‘ramped up’ to the point where the UK would be carrying out 100,000 a day.   It can only be hoped that anyone who has been holding his or her breath waiting for this to be achieved won’t have expired in vain by now.  The BBC’s health correspondent, analysing the situation on the 1pm news, gave us the disappointing information that we wont know for a few days, because it takes time for the results to be processed.   In the meantime he assured us that ‘people can book on line for testing kits to be sent out.’  But the good news, the really, really good news, is that eligibility for tests has been expanded so that ‘anyone who needs to leave home to work’, the over 65s, hospital patients and staff, and care home staff and residents can now be tested ‘even if they don’t have symptoms’.  This, he assured us, meant that we are now just one step away from ‘whole population testing’.

Where does one even begin to comment on such obsequious drivel?  For a start, you don’t have to have the results of the tests to know how many tests have been carried out, and we do, in fact, know that the figure is only somewhere around 52,000.  It is nowhere near the 100,000 promised. The government plaintively says there is more capacity, which just begs the question as to why they can’t organise for the capacity to be fully utilised.   People can indeed, at least in theory, book on line for testing kits, but it is painfully clear that the available number of testing kit slots is hopelessly inadequate.  And the good news about the expanded eligibility is simply ridiculous.  How stupid does the BBC think we are?  The number of people to whom eligibility has been expanded is apparently around 25 million; the total population of the UK is over 65 million.  So the ‘just one step’ we are away from whole population testing is a mere 40 million.  Even at the rate of 100,00 tests a day, which we are still only halfway towards meeting after a month of Ministers ‘doing their very best’, meeting the demand from those of us to whom eligibility has now been extended would take us to Christmas, and the ‘just one step’ beyond that would take well over another year.

So what is going on with the BBC?  In South Africa under apartheid we tended to idealise the BBC as a model of fearless independent broadcasting in comparison with the SABC.  But then, I suppose, we similarly tended to regard the British Bobby as a model to be followed before we learnt about the Guildford Four, the Birmingham Six, the Maguire Seven, and so on.  What is going on is that the BBC is fearlessly avoiding offending the Tory Party private enterprise fanatics who would like nothing more than to see the license fee done away with.  There is a certain amount of schadenfreude to be had from considering how close to apoplexy they, and the right-wing, mainly foreign, media barons who own and control the vast majority of the British media, must be finding themselves as they see a Tory government having effectively to nationalise more or less everything in sight, from paying the salaries of private sector workers to taking over the railways.   But in the meantime, as the government tries to duck its culpability for the now tens of thousands of coronavirus-related deaths and the BBC carefully avoids holding it to account for those deaths, those of us to whom eligibility for testing has so generously been extended know perfectly well that we will have to carry on for very many months trying to make absolutely certain that we never need a test.

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: following the science …

27 April. When the time came to choose my A levels, I thought that as well as History and English, it would be useful to take Maths.  This was immediately forbidden.  The school timetable could only cope with science or humanities.  No mixing.  So my third subject became Latin.  This may have helped my prose style over the years, but I have always regretted my lack of any engagement with the world on the other side of the fence.

In the course time I found employment as a history lecturer at Keele University.  Keele had been founded in 1949 by A. D. Lindsay, a visionary Oxford philosopher.  His premise was that the urgent task of post-war reconstruction would place scientists and engineers at the forefront of change.  It was critical, therefore, that they knew how to engage with politics, society, history and ethics if they were to make an appropriate contribution.  Conversely, those governing and administering the reconstructed country would need to be able to understand the work of the technicians.  The solution, therefore, was a higher education curriculum which required those undertaking specialist subjects to spend time studying, at least in outline, topics in other parts of the curriculum.  A physicist would do a first year course in Western Civilisation and take minor subjects in the social sciences and humanities throughout the degree programme.  A political scientist would spend quality time in a science laboratory.  By the time I arrived, some quarter of a century later, the vision had been weakened by the ingrained conservatism of the schools and the professions, but it still existed as a model which, by and large, the rest of the sector was failing to follow.  Its relevance to the forthcoming task of post-pandemic reconstruction can scarcely be understated.

The consequences of this failure are evident in the current crisis.  Britain has tended to address the task of politicians communicating with scientists by ensuring that figures such as Chief Scientific and Medical Officers are capable of engaging with non-specialists, not the other way round.  Thus it is that Johnson’s cabinet contains just two people with scientific backgrounds, Alok Sharma who studied Physics, and Therese Coffey, who, alone of her colleagues, has a Ph.D, in Chemistry.  She has been virtually invisible throughout the crisis.  

There are three farmers educated at agricultural colleges – perhaps they have transferable knowledge of rural epidemics such as BSE or Foot and Mouth.  Starmer’s shadow cabinet is no better.  In academic terms it is decidedly brighter than Johnson’s, but again only two scientists – Valerie Vaz,  Biochemistry, and Thangam Debbonaire,  Maths.  All the rest are social scientists or historians (except three who left school at sixteen).  The current debate over running the NHS is conducted by an Oxford PPE student for the Government and a Durham Philosophy and Politics graduate for Labour.  Margaret Thatcher has been repeated as a female prime minister, not as a research-level scientists.  Angela Merkel has demonstrated just how valuable such a background is in this crisis.

Then there is Dominic Cummings, by far the most powerful figure in Number 10.  He is currently in trouble for taking part in meetings of SAGE (the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies), then running round to the other side of the table and receiving its ‘independent’ advice.  Cummings is, I am sorry to say, an historian.  He was taught at Oxford by Norman Stone, Professor of Modern History, right-wing newspaper columnist and possessor of other serious moral failings.  Stone died last year.  His obituary written by the authoritative figure of Sir Richard Evans, recently retired Regius Professor of History at Cambridge, ended with the following paragraph:

‘Journalists often described him as “one of Britain’s leading historians”, but in truth he was nothing of the kind, as any serious member of the profession will tell you. The former prime minister, Heath, was wrong about many things, but he was surely right when he said of Stone during his time in Oxford: “Many parents of Oxford students must be both horrified and disgusted that the higher education of our children should rest in the hands of such a man.”’

Whether Cummings’ parents came to regret their choice is not recorded.  Its impact on their son seems to have been considerable.

Specialised knowledge still matters, never more so.  The point for non-scientists is not to know what scientists know, but to know how they think.  Yesterday Brian Cox, the astronomer, was interviewed on the Andrew Marr show in his capacity as a contributor to the BBC ‘Bite-Size’ programmes which are providing curriculum for home-schooled children.  He referred to the great populariser, Richard Feynman, and his argument that the chief characteristic of scientific activity was the embrace of doubt.  There was no such thing as a monolithic, unchallengeable body of facts, particularly in the case of a virus that has only existed for a few months. 

‘The point is’, concluded Cox, ‘that we are facing the unknown … if you hear a politician saying that we’re following the science, what that means is that they don’t really understand what science is.’

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: the newspaper habit …

April 23.  The media is full of advice on how to survive the lockdown, which for my household is now projected to last the whole of this calendar year.  The advice is generally of two kinds: those things that you might normally do but should do more, like take exercise or keep in touch with your family; and those things that you might normally do but should do less, particularly consume alcohol.

By and large we are following these injunctions.  My one besetting sin, which is doing serious damage to my peace of mind to say nothing of the time available for more useful projects, is reading newspapers.  Before the crisis, we bought hard copy print whenever we were out shopping.  We live too far from a newsagent to get a daily delivery.  These papers were the prime cause of untidiness in the house.  In every room, on every coffee table, were copies not yet finished and not sufficiently out of date to be dispatched to the waste.  Even when the news was stale, there were crosswords and sudokus to complete.  We have a log burner which needs lighting most evenings and for this purpose the large pink sheets of the Financial Times were invaluable.  The shrunken tabloid pages of the Guardian and Times not so much. 

These days every surface is clear of print, except dog-eared pages of the London Review of Books which arrives by post.  Instead I am reading online.  I always checked the free Guardian site when we had not bought a copy.  Now I subscribe to the Times to get an alternative point of view.  Also the New York Times to look at the world from outside the UK.  And thanks to the OU virtual library, I can read the Financial Times each morning [an illuminating story yesterday about the plight of second-home owners in the crisis].  There is the potential to consume hours a day wandering about these electronic journals.  And whereas hard copy papers have a back page as well as a front, the links in the stories mean that I can endlessly travel to yet further corners of the internet universe.

I can try to persuade myself that by this means I am collecting material for what one day might be a history of this crisis.  But in truth it would probably be simpler, and much more restful, if I just turned off the media and tuned in again when it is all over, to find out what happened.

The one defence of this virtual habit is that the press is having a golden period, despite the loss of advertising revenue.  Almost all the detailed analysis of the epidemic, and most of the stories exposing the shortcomings of the government, are starting life in the papers, which in turn are being fed material by informed academics, exasperated health workers, insubordinate public officials, and outraged members of the public.   This is true not just of long-term dissenting journals such as the Guardian but of papers which traditionally support the Conservative Party.  In recent weeks nothing has done more damage to the reputation of Johnson’s Government that the lethal 5,000 word ‘Thirty-Eight Days’ article written by the Sunday Times insight team last week.   Even the Daily Telegraph, which slavishly followed Johnson’s line throughout the Brexit crisis, is running front-page stories critical of various shortages. The BBC is doing its best, but is constrained by the need to take a balanced view of the Administration.  Little critical information, so far, has emanated from opposition politicians, although this may change now that Labour has a new leader and Parliament has reconvened.  Yesterday’s Prime Minister’s Questions with Keir Starmer was a promising start. 

What is so seductive, and so dangerous, about keeping abreast of events in this way is that every time I open my laptop and call up a paper, the news has changed.  There is no fixed point, no moment when I can be assured that I am abreast of the day’s developments.  Is there a newspaper equivalent of alcoholics anonymous?  If not, it may need inventing.

from Anne in Adelaide: now more than ever …

12 April Image from The Economist

12 April. I have been spending too much time scanning the news streaming in over the internet, TV and radio. The information is staggering. You don’t know what to think, who to believe, which version of the future to hang on to. One moment there are signs of hope and the next you read the account from an emergency worker in New York who is facing the horror of people dying from Covid-19 in their homes and his team feels helpless. Meanwhile, I remain in self-isolation in Australia waiting … for what?

Then we have the Whatsapp groups that have been set up to keep us in the loop: neighbourhood groups, family groups, and friendship groups. Memes and jokes abound, making light of being holed up at home – drinking too much, eating too much and being frustrated. It’s all a joke. Then there are the more serious messages trying to understand the beast that is Covid-19. There are many wonderful musical items spread around too – some home efforts and some professional. You could watch all day: every time your phone goes ‘ting’ to alert you to another comment, another theory, another cute kid singing for your comfort.

Now more than ever, I believe we need to concentrate on getting news from reputable sources. I cannot count the number of times I have had to alert friends to scams and fake news and threats that go around the world and that people forward without checking on snopes.com. (No! your phone will NOT be trashed by the ‘Dance of the Pope’ video that you might receive via Whatsapp. That hoax has been going for 5 years in various forms.)

No harm done with that one, but what does harm are the quasi-news-investigative reports that come around – from such sources as Epoch Times. An hour-long report was sent to us purportedly exploring the source of the Covid-19 virus and after a lot of interviews clothing the theory in valid reports it comes to the conclusion that Covid-19 escaped from a Chinese military facility and is an ENGINEERED virus – biological warfare. Frightening. Persuasive. Dammed the Chinese …

I didn’t know much about the Epoch Times so I looked them up.  They are not a reputable balanced media source. They are financed by Chinese Americans with ties to the Falun Gong. Very Anti-China Govt. and Pro-Trump (Wikipedia: ‘Facebook banned The Epoch Times from advertising on its platform, after finding that the newspaper broke Facebook’s political transparency rules by publishing 1.5 million USD pro-Trump subscription ads through sockpuppet pages (a page using deception).)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Epoch_Times

The Epoch Times have supported conspiracy theories like the qAnon (conspiracy theory of a deep state plot against the DT) and the dangers of vaccinations for kids …

So, I come back to: Now more than ever – let us read reputable sources. When I was a child living in East Africa my father listened to the BBC news on a short-wave radio and he continued to listen to the BBC throughout his life. For the years we lived in South Africa we also listened to the BBC – you could not trust the SABC, the South Africa Broadcasting Corp, they were the mouthpiece of the National Party, the party of Apartheid – a perfector of lies.

And … there comes a time when you don’t want to waste this time by being glued to the news broadcasts screaming for your attention. The media has it made – what a subject! Our newspapers have Covid-19 pages filled with stories.

Of course, it comes down to the question: what is a reputable source of news: the BBC, the Economist? The Washington Post? Scientific American? The Financial Times in the UK? Do these choices show my bias – of course they do. But if The Economist tells me that Covid-19 came from a military lab near Wuhan, I am more inclined to believe them than the Epoch Times.

And I am trying not to leap up when my phone goes ‘ting’.