From David Maughan Brown in York: The right priorities?

The University of Cape Town

March 29th

As the implications of the abrupt cut in foreign aid I wrote about in my last entry become more starkly apparent, it is worth looking at some of those implications for development programmes in Africa, in particular, in a bit more detail. It is worth repeating that Boris Johnson, who is in the habit of pontificating about what the British public thinks and wants, claims that the public would think that in cutting overseas aid the government has its ‘priorities right’.  In his terms, the public would rather see their taxpayers’ money being spent on nuclear warheads than on people he is on record as having referred to as ‘piccanninnies’ with ‘watermelon smiles’.  ‘Foreign aid’ is an abstract concept that is unlikely to hold much attraction for a public continually exposed to a xenophobic narrative from right-wing media inclined to suggest that foreign aid going to Africa is always in danger of being siphoned off into the bank balances of corrupt officialdom. How richly ironic that is when one considers the extent to which our ‘straitened circumstances’ are at least partly due to the siphoning off of our taxpayers’ money into private bank balances via the corrupt handing out of billions of pounds worth of PPE and Test and Trace contracts to our own government’s chums. 

Yesterday’s The Observer, carried a brief report titled ‘”Brutal” cuts on overseas aid put African science projects in peril’ [1] from its Science Editor, Robin McKie, which provides a bit of granularity to the ‘Foreign Aid’ catch-all, and hints at some of the shock and devastation the arbitrary decision has occasioned.   A scientist at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, Anita Etale from Rwanda, who had spent two years putting together a team of researchers to help her develop a way of purifying contaminated water using maize and sugarcane stubble, had been promised the funding to develop a prototype but has now had the funding abruptly cancelled.  She told The Observer that her reaction ‘was one of bitter disappointment, grief and disbelief that Britain could do something this brutal.’   Johnson, and supposedly the British public, apparently think that nuclear warheads are a better investment than clean water for African children.

Similarly, a scientist at the University of Cape Town, Chris Trisos, the outcomes of whose work on how climate change will affect different species have been published in the highly prestigious journal Nature, has had his grant abruptly terminated for a new project to study how climate change will affect wild harvested food plants.  ‘In Africa’, Trisos is reported as saying, ‘millions of people rely on picking wild fruits and berries, but we know very little about how climate change might affect this essential nutrition source.’  When Trisos heard that his grant had been axed he said ‘I felt it like a physical blow when I was told.  My group’s future now looks very uncertain.’  So not only are nuclear warheads a better investment than clean water, they are also a better investment than food sources.  Someone needs to ask Boris Johnson, Priti Patel and the other xenophobes in our government what they think is going to happen to the pressures of population migration if the supply of fresh food and uncontaminated water is allowed to dry up in Africa. 

But research on water purification and research on the extent to which wild plants can survive climate change are still somewhat abstract concepts, even when one hears about the devastation that the principal investigators feel when they hear that their research funding has suddenly been terminated without warning.  The principal investigators won’t be the only people affected.   Research teams will have been built up; countless hours will have been devoted to producing and submitting research proposals; administrators will have been employed; Human Resources managers will have the painfully difficult job of making colleagues redundant.   Researchers all too often have to rely on being able to bring in successive short-term research contracts – a sophisticated kind of hand-to-mouth existence without the job security afforded by tenured university positions.   The highs of getting research grants that will keep their research teams going are very high; by the same token the lows of having livelihoods put in jeopardy by the last-minute withdrawal of promised funding are very low.   The research projects for which the grants were funded have to be to be important and extremely well motivated: competition is strong and only the best projects have any chance of being funded.  The damage done to individuals, and the damage done to research development in developing countries is incalculable.   But why would our supremely insular Tory government worry about any of that?

The Observer article reports Richard Catlow, the Royal Society’s foreign secretary, as saying: ‘The cuts we were forced to make have been brutal.  We have seriously damaged our reputation as trusted partners in future collaborations.  The relationships that we have built up have been badly and, I fear, permanently weakened.’  No surprise there: if our proudly sovereign Brexity nation has demonstrated anything at all over the past year it is that we don’t give a damn about how badly and how permanently we trash our reputation as trusted partners and turn our sovereign backs on long-standing relationships.


[1] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/mar/28/britains-brutal-cuts-to-overseas-aid-put-african-science-projects-in-peril

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