The Obscurer

Month: September, 2004

Parallel Ports

Now that the Olympics and Paralympics in Athens have closed, I would like to congratulate the Greeks on an excellent games. I am particularly happy at the way things have turned out as I was getting pretty fed up in the run up to the Olympics with the constant criticisms. I don’t think I have ever heard such stick aimed at the organization of the games in previous years, and I didn’t think it was fair. I am sure every city which tries to organise such a logistical task will encounter some problems, but from the start it almost seemed as if people expected and wanted Athens to fail, based on the prejudiced stereotypical image of the Greeks’ lack of organization. You would have thought that the Greek football team’s success in Euro 2004, surely a triumph of organization over ability, would have had people thinking twice, but all the way up to the Olympics we heard story after story about Athens’ lack of preparedness. That these have almost all turned out to be unfounded must give the organisers great pleasure.

In relation to the Paralympics in particular I was somewhat mystified by the Daily Mail’s front page comment the other day, questioning whether or not the BBC should be covering these “athletes” sports. Their quotation marks. David Thomas in the Telegraph made the same point. I imagine they may have changed their tune somewhat as the medals have piled in for the British team, but why shouldn’t the BBC or anyone else cover these sports? Paralympians are surely every bit as dedicated as their able bodies colleagues. In some cases, for example Basketball, I find the disabled version is a much better spectacle. There may not be the same audience for the Paralympics, and that is reflected in the lower profile it receives, but we are still seeing the top athletes in the world competing in their chosen sports; and in many cases they are more clearly sports than the sort of thing that passes for sport in the Olympics (synchronized swimming always springs unfairly to mind here). Thomas states we do not engage with Paralympians in the way we get worked up over able-bodied competition; but I cannot say I was exactly on the edge of my seat when the British yacht crews brought home the Gold medal. Of course, being the fastest person in the T5 wheelchair sprint does not have the same cache as the winner of the 100 metre sprint being the fastest person ever, but we don’t dismiss Kelly Holmes fantastic achievement on the grounds that she is only a woman, and the male runners would have hammered her in a straight race. And as for watching sport just to see the finest athletes, if I went to the City of Manchester Stadium every other week expecting to watch the best football team in the world, I would be very disappointed. (Actually, I did last week, but only because we were playing Arsenal).

The Daily Mail view is one that NBC appears to have echoed in the United States. From having 300 journalists in Athens for the Olympics, they have had not one for the Paralympics. Richard Caborn, the Sports Minister, thinks this will count against New York’s bid for the 2012 Olympics. This may well be a bit harsh on the New York bid team; I doubt they have much say on the scheduling policy of NBC. Unfortunately, the last time the games were in the US, in Atlanta, the Paralympics were widely considered a disaster. According to Tanni Grey-Thompson in an interview with Des Lynam last week, the organisers had no interest in the Paralympic Games at all; in fact half the facilities from the Olympics had been packed up by the time the Paralympics were underway, and there were barely any spectators. New York’s bid should be judged on it’s own merits, not based on the actions of NBC or the Atlanta organisers, but all the bidding cities’ plans for the Paralympics should play a part in the decision making. You wouldn’t expect a city which was not interested in the Olympics to be awarded the games, and so, I feel, should it be with the Paralympics.

However, if Caborn is right and this does affect New York’s bid, then it is obviously great news for London. Now we just need someone from Paris, Madrid and Moscow to similarly balls up and the games will be ours for the taking.

Update 2/9/04: to understand the reference to the eagle joke on my comment on this post, click here, on the excellent The Filter^ site.

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Extra Time

As I write this there is still no further news on the hostage Ken Bigley. Like everyone I am sure, my heart goes out to him and his family. I really cannot imagine the horror they all must be going through. I hope that no news is good news. It is important at this time for people to also say that we cannot and shall not give in to Terrorism, and that is quite right, but there is one minor way in which the Terrorists have forced a change.

On Friday night, on ITV1, I was about to watch “A Touch Of Frost” when the announcer said there was a change of schedule due to recent events, and instead they would be showing an episode of “Inspector Morse”. I took this to mean that something in the episode of “Frost” echoed Ken Bigley’s situation, and so it had been pulled.

Does this matter? Probably not. Personally, I have often thought there have been many over reactions in the past when this sort of thing has happened; one thinks of “Massive Attack” being renamed “Massive” during the 1991 Gulf War, and Top of the Pops skipping over any reference to Robert Miles’ tune “Children” in the week following the Dunblane tragedy. However, the world will not stop turning just because ITV have not shown a repeat of “Frost”, and I prefer “Morse” anyway.

But the episode of “Morse” had one character, played by Anna Massey, who gave birth to a still born baby; later on she was fooled into thinking that another character, played by Charlotte Coleman, was the baby who had died all those years ago, which ultimately led to the tragic climax where the girl stabbed to death the person she thought of as her Mother.

This struck me very personally; I had just returned from a wake, as a friend of mine had earlier buried his own Mother. Meanwhile, I have another friend in Hospital with complications during her pregnancy. For them, the TV programme rescheduled in order to avoid distress was far more likely to upset them. There must be hundreds of people in the country who feel the same.

What am I trying to say? I am not really sure, but I suppose I think that art and drama should be about moving us and engaging with us, and this may run the risk of offending us. But if we always try to avoid anything that may upset people then TV will ultimately be ever more timid and bland, and all we will be watching is programmes on pink kittens and sugar drops, with warnings beforehand for diabetic dog-lovers.

ITV will say they were just showing sensitivity under the current circumstances. Fair enough I suppose, and they are probably right. But I also reckon the Bigley family couldn’t care less which episode of which TV Detective was shown on Friday. No fictional drama could be worse, or could worsen, the real-life pain they must be going through.

After The Fox

I can’t pretend I am much bothered about the welfare of the fox, but similarly I am not too bothered about the welfare of fox hunters. I suppose I sympathize with anyone who could lose their job, as people connected with hunts may do if fox hunting is made illegal, but then again I don’t argue against world peace on the grounds it would put defence contractors out of a job.

However I do support the proposed ban on fox hunting, and the reason has nothing to do with animal cruelty. It also has nothing to do with class warfare. George Monbiot makes a good case (as he usually does) that banning fox hunting is, and should be, about class, but I don’t agree. In fact I honestly don’t think of hunt supporters as being a load of toffs. I guess all sorts of people get involved for all sorts of reasons.

No, the reason I want to ban fox hunting is because I am sick of hunt supporters spouting arrogant rubbish on our TV’s, spreading their bogus arguments and narrow minded bigotry. Perhaps if we ban fox hunting they can go and do some knitting or something similar and just leave us alone.

I am fed up with hearing that this is an attack upon the countryside by city folk. Well, I’m sorry, but last time I looked we were one nation, who all pay taxes to a national government, who make decisions in a parliamentary democracy on behalf of us all. This Government was elected in 1997 on a Manifesto which stated they would have a free vote in the Commons on hunting, and that is what it has done. If the majority of people in this country want to ban fox hunting, and their elected representatives pass a bill to do so in Parliament, then that is good enough for me. If I am not allowed to have an opinion on what goes on in the country, then presumably country folk are not allowed to comment on what happens in the city. In fact, perhaps they should not have been allowed into a city like London last week to protest, at great expense to the Metropolitan Police and Greater London council-taxpayers.

I am tired of hearing that this is about class war, and is just an attack by Labour backbenchers on the Upper Classes. This may be the motivation for some Labour MPs, but as Nigel Farndale reminds us in a brilliantly honest article in the Sunday Telegraph, the bill is about banning hunting with dogs, not just fox hunting. Hare coursing will also be banned, but this working class sport will be outlawed within 3 months of the bill becoming law; no mention there of the 18 month stay of execution that fox hunting has. Is it just possible that this is about animal welfare?

I am wearying of talk that this is an assault on human rights. But human rights don’t currently allow us to go badger-baiting, or cat-stabbing, or various other cruel acts. I think you can still be hanged if you kill a swan can’t you? Or is that just an urban myth. Perhaps you just have to apologize in person to the Queen, and promise that you will never, ever, do such a thing again, while looking really sorry. And then they set a swan on you. Perhaps.

I am sick of being told that Labour is fixated with fox hunting, and that it spends to much precious parliamentary time discussing the issue. Well if the Lord’s just obeyed the will of the Commons it wouldn’t have to spend so long discussing it, and we could get onto other issues. If they were that obsessed with the issue they would have banned hunting within weeks of the election in 1997, Parliament Act and all. That 7 years on we are still here suggests foot dragging to me, not obsession.

My sides are aching from being told, countlessly, that shooting and gassing are more cruel, and less efficient, ways of controlling the fox population. What? More cruel than being ripped to shreds by a pack of dogs? Less efficient than 40 men on horseback and 80 hounds chasing one fox. Which we then get told they very rarely catch, presumably to make us feel better about it all. And I know many hunt supporters cite the Burns report which states hunting is no more cruel than the other options, but it seems not unreasonable to take a different view. Suffice it to say that should the tragic day come when my trusty Collie has to be put down, chasing him across a field before tearing him to pieces will be an option I will reject.

And how many more inappropriate hunt supporters must we have to listen too. At the time of the last, huge countryside march in London, I remember reading the Daily Mail boasting of how many people from other countries had gone on the march, with pictures of Elle McPherson and the like. Excuse me, but what the hell do they have to do with it. Oh right; as a British Citizen, albeit one who lives in an urban area, I am not entitled to an opinion on bloodsports in this country, but a foreign national, in this case an Australian model, is? Right, I get it. Personally I don’t feel I have the right to tell the Spanish whether or not they ban Bull Fighting, but perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps anyone who agrees with your viewpoint has a valid opinion and anyone who disagrees doesn’t. Fine, I understand now. And how many “country folk” have you seen interviewed who only became country folk 3 years ago when they moved to the New Forest from Solihull and bought a red tunic.

I know there are a number of other minor issues to consider. The bill should not be used as a sop to Labour backbenchers to apologize for the war in Iraq, because there shouldn’t have been a war in Iraq, but there you go. Historically the Parliament Act has only been used for matters of national importance, which fox hunting isn’t, but the preeminence of the elected commons over the unelected lords is, so there. And yes, the Lords should be an elected chamber and that it isn’t is largely down to Blair, but what can you do? None of these things effect the main issue. That fox hunting should be banned in order that we are spared fox hunters.

There is one issue, however, where I feel they have a point, and it is in the way the Police reacted to the demonstration last week. Seeing otherwise law-abiding people bludgeoned with truncheons was shocking and disturbing.

It just wasn’t appropriate. Surely the Police should have called up all their available mounted officers and dog handlers, and then released their hounds on the hunt supporters to the sound of a tooting horn. To see how they like it.

Before The Law

So Kofi Annan has finally been goaded by a BBC journalist into stating that the invasion of Iraq was illegal. This should come as no surprise. He had previously stated that it “lacked legitimacy”, which diplomatically speaking is the same thing. The reaction from the prosecutors of the war is understandable but still quite amusing. Embarrassment must be the main reason; it can’t be nice for for the war to be spelt out as being unlawful in such black and white terms. But really, did they honestly think they could get away with this nonsense for so long?

Most people I have spoken to who claim the war was lawful quote the British Attorney General’s legal advice which was presented to Parliament. There are two problems with this. Firstly, Lord Goldsmith is the Government’s legal advisor and he does not make the law, no more than in domestic legal affairs your solicitor makes the law. All he can do is give his opinion, just as your Solicitor can give you an opinion on a legal matter; but it is only when you get to court and the judge makes his decision that you find out whether or not he is right. Secondly, the problem with Lord Goldsmith’s advice is that it is bollocks.

Now don’t get me wrong; the Attorney General has forgotten more about the law than I will ever know, but let us look at his decision with a bit of common sense.
Firstly, taking Resolution 1441, Goldsmith states that Iraq was in material breach, which is hard to argue with. He states that as 1441 refers to all previous UN resolutions, we effectively are referred back to the situation at the time of Resolution 687. Note how he clearly admits that 1441 on its own does not authorize force. Jack Straw’s regular assertion that everyone in the UN knew that the reference to “serious consequences” in 1441 referred to war is therefore blown out of the water. Of course, we know that this is also bollocks anyway; if the members of the security council did think “serious consequences” meant war, then Resolution 1441 would never have been passed, at least not unanimously.

Secondly then, taking Resolution 687, which refers to the cease fire following the first Gulf War, he states that any material breach refers us back further to the time of Resolution 678. Again, I am not going to argue that Iraq was in breach of UN resolutions, so Goldsmith is correct to state that when 687 is invoked then Resolution 678 is subsequently re-invoked.

So then, onto Resolution 678. Unlike Resolution 1441, 678 did authorize force, in response to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. This paved the way for the first Gulf War. It is on this basis that Goldsmith states that the second Gulf War is also considered legitimate. But Resolution 678 authorizes force only insofar as it results in the liberation of Kuwait. In other words, we can consider ourselves at war with Iraq, but with no mandate to go any further than the Kuwaiti border. In 1991, despite many people’s wish that we should “finish the job” and remove Saddam Hussein, it was clearly spelt out that there was no UN mandate for doing so.

As it was in 1991, so it was in 2003. There may be many arguments in favour of taking action in Iraq, but whatever you may think, I cannot see any way that it can be considered legal.

A further word on the UN. The article I referred to earlier, regarding the Coalition’s response to Kofi Annan, made for interesting reading I thought. Interesting that John Howard talks of the UN being a “paralyzed” body, and that Rumsfeld’s former advisor states that Annan “ultimately works for the member states”. They are both right. But if the UN is paralyzed, then the fault must often lie at the door of the individual member states themselves. Linda Polman’s book We Did Nothing shows how often the inaction and ineffectiveness of the UN is a direct consequence of the actions of the US, UK and Australia. Even the very limited involvement often proposed by the UN is undermined by the lack of willingness on the part of the richest countries to get involved in the world’s troublespots. Suddenly, however, when the US and its allies want the support of the UN, it seems it is supposed to roll over and give them whatever they want.

The UN is a deeply flawed organization, but it is the best one we currently have. Kofi Annan I think recognizes it’s weaknesses, which is why he has made tentative moves to widen the debate on pre-emption. For UN soldiers to stand by while Genocide occurs in Rwanda for example is unacceptable, but in the Sudan it does look like we are moving towards a situation where the Blue Helmets, along with African Union soldiers, can be more than just “peace-keepers”.

However, for speakers from the US administration to criticise the UN is hilarious. Here is an administration choc-full of neo-cons, who’s philosophy as outlined in the Project for the New American Century is to sideline the UN in order to promote unilateral “American global leadership”, but claims, when invading Iraq, to partly be doing so in order to uphold UN resolutions; yet it does so without a UN mandate, by ignoring the will of the Security Council, and in defiance of what there is of International Law. Was hypocrisy was ever more clear cut?

Box Clever

On a lighter note this week, it appears I may have stumbled upon a secret Great British success story.
The other day I was tucking into a Mexican Pizza from my local take away when I noticed on the side of the box it said”this pizza has been freshly prepared and baked with high quality ingredients under strict hygiene regulations”. I was reassured and impressed with my Pizza shop, and I felt they had every right to be so proud of their Pizzas that they should put this statement on their boxes.

But then I noticed that enigmatically the box stated the Pizza came from “your favourite pizzeria”. This seemed a little vague; why not shout the name of your shop on your box? Why not proudly associate the name of “Pizza Primo” along with the advice on ingredients and hygiene?

Then it occurred to me; this was a standard box used by lots of different Pizza take-away shops. The words on the box were the words of the box-making company, not the take away.

I felt momentarily cheated. What did the box company know about making Pizzas? What did they know about the ingredients used in their manufacture?

Then I suddenly realized. In this age of mass civil litigation, there is no way the box company would make such a rash statement knowing they would leave themselves open to being sued if the hygiene in a shop was not up to scratch. There was only one explanation; a humble manufacturer of pizza boxes and presumably other packaging had been forced to diversify into being food inspectors. They could have said nothing about the contents of the pizzas, but, with no fanfare, they had taken it upon themselves to ensure the quality of the food prepared by the purchasers of their packaging, to such an extent that their statement on “high quality ingredients” and “strict hygiene regulations” could be so unequivocal.

It appears the deregulation of civil litigation and the accompanying increased likelihood of facing a legal challenge had presented the box maker with a decision on how they wanted to run their business, with the result that we are all surely better off. My only concern is that the food inspectors role does not grow to such an extent that the box manufacturer sidelines what is currently their core business. Because they really do make excellent Pizza boxes.

P.S. While we are in a light-hearted frame of mind, check out this link on the brilliant “Walking Like Giant Cranes” blog. I admit to being flattered by the writers opinion of “The Obscurer”, but that doesn’t alter the fact that this is a very amusing post on a great blog.