...Views from mid-Atlantic
07 November 2003

Here are two stories about not much more than bad journalism. The first is a strange column by a man who doesn't like crossheads in stories. All I can think is that he must have been stuck for something to write about and, lacking any experience of or knowledge about editing, thought this would be amusing.

Crossheads, or subheads as he calls them, aren't stuck into stories quixotically, nor are they really designed to be read as important parts of the copy. They are used simply as graphic devices to break up slabs of grey copy that are unattractive and daunting to readers' eyes. Think of trying to read something like the Pentagon Papers without crossheads. They are placed in the story, not once a paragraph as this man seems to want to suggest, nor according to any particular formula that I know of, but according to the editor's judgement, every once in a while, so that your eyes don't get bored and surrender to the temptation to go look at something visually more tempting.

It's a cliche that all journalists are taught, when they're gathering material for a story, to make sure they get the answers to the questions Who, What, Where, Why and When? They all ought to be taught to ask one further question - So What? Here's a story that's about poetry, which I love, and about Louise Gluck, who I respect a little more with every new story I read about her. But this is a piece that fails the So What test.

Perhaps I'm being dense, but I don't for the life of me understand why or how politics has managed to cut common sense free from people's judgement on this story. Isn't the purpose of this mini-series to portray President Reagan's life accurately? Everybody seems to agree that the film isn't accurate, so why should it be treated any differently than an inaccurate story that gets spiked by an editor?

"Denis Coderre, the Minister of Immigration, is refusing to publicly release the names and photographs of dozens of war criminals who have gone missing across Canada, saying he supports their right to privacy."

Every once in a while, someone in authority says something so breathtakingly stupid that you have to concentrate a little to resist the temptation to pretend not to have heard. This is a wonderful example. I'd love to hear how M Coderre worked this little thought out.

A couple of months ago, the London Daily Telegraph asked staffer Damian Thompson to write a column on bias at the BBC. One suspects that the success of the blog Biased BBC might have had something to do with it. But what worked in a blog never quite seemed to work all that well as a column, and the Telegraph is now dropping it. Thompson's wrapup is fascinating, though.

Among other little gems is this: "I did not expect the many messages of support - heavily off-the-record, delivered by circuitous routes - from senior BBC journalists, some of them household names. Most of them said the same thing: we might not agree with all of Beebwatch's observations, but the BBC has a serious problem with objectivity that needs to be sorted out."

Well worth a read.

Speaking of compensation, I wonder whether what the basis for this man's is. Just a salary? Salary plus a commission, maybe? I suppose this is probably money that came from Europe in the first place, so there's at least a little something satisfying about seeing it returned.

No one likes a thief, but it's really tempting to make an exception in the case of a a suave, successful, daring, international jewel thief, isn't it?

The fate of Stainless Steel Mouse in China has an all-too familiar ring about it. She's a 23-year old student who seems to have made the mistake, on her website, of mocking the country's communist rulers. She's spent a year in jail for that privilege, and hasn't yet been charged.

I hope others will pick this story up. The blogosphere has been showing a lot of muscle lately...could it work in China?

06 November 2003

I don't think I've read anything by David P Barash before, but he writes such a good story that I hope it won't be long before he pops up again. This isn't the only bit that's worth quoting by any means, but it fits in with my radical new beer theory, further down, which is the best kind of excuse:

If all be true that I do think
There are five reasons we should drink:
Good wine -- a friend -- or being dry --
or lest we should be by and by --
Or any other reason why.

That's from the 17th-century English churchman and poet, Henry Aldrich, and it's called Reasons for Drinking.

The article is entitled Unreason's Seductive Charms and I found it through the ArtsJournal.

This is a serious and tragic story, I know, and I don't mean in any way to drain it of those qualities. But this has irked me for a long time. Why is it that everybody who rides on these things calls them choppers, but headline writers seem to insist on calling them copters?

Nice to read some positive environmental news for a change, and news that is perhaps a rebuke to the attitude that where the environment is concerned, the most pessimistic possible view is always the correct one.

I like to think these things might once have contained beer for a thirsty race of people who once walked the earth. A lost tribe whose last remaining trace on earth is Bazza MacKenzie?

Here we go again. The Zimbabwean trick of stealing land in order to right what is seen as a colonial legacy of wrongs seems to be spreading into neighbouring Namibia. I can't believe that there hasn't already been some legal test of the ethics of this kind of of behaviour, which would allow the victims redress. Anybody know more?

05 November 2003

"So Justice Popplecarrot, as Private Eye inevitably christened him, has come up, to be the oldest undergraduate the ancient university has ever matriculated, and when I go to his rooms I find myself thoroughly charmed. So charmed that I abandon my planned little joke about whether that was a lunchbox in his pocket or was he just pleased to see me, because Oliver, as I have been asked to call him, offers me sherry from a tumbler and proudly shows me the kitchenette and bathroom he shares with another undergraduate, and I somehow could nothing common do or mean, etc., in this former Justice's memorable presence."

This is a magic little story in the Spectator, concerning 76-year old the Hon Sir Oliver Bury Popplewell's attempts to keep himself busy in retirement. I think it's a shame he didn't take up blogging, instead.

This story's been around for a bit, but it is no less fascinating for that. Der Spiegel has put together a piece detailing some of the information coming from the US interrogations of two important Al Quaeda officers, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Ramzi Binalshibh.

It's long, and worth reading. For example: "The methods US interrogation specialists apply to convince their prisoners to talk have already come to light in Guantanamo Bay. The terrorists imprisoned there are told, in no uncertain terms, that there is only one hope for them: to talk. Whether the prisoner is allowed to get a full night's sleep, whether the light in his cell is kept on day and night, what he gets to eat - these are all things that depend on whether he talks. The pressure seems to work. According to US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, 'We have been able to get a tremendous amount of information out of them, information that will make things much more difficult for an unbelievably large number of people in this world.'"

Charles Murray's new book, entitled Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950, is attracting a lot of attention. The columnist Thomas Sowell who, thank the Lord, is no Church of England liberal, describes it as "...an analysis of where, why, and how historic advances have been made in some places and not in others.

"Just to pose this as a question," he goes on, "goes against the grain of today's multiculturalism, in which all cultures are seen as equally valuable, and the non-judgmentalism that is too squeamish to declare some achievements more important than others." Murray, who is the author of The Bell Curve, which analyses the relationship between intelligence, ethnicity, race and success, is obviously no stranger to asking such questions.

Terry Teachout, the Wall Street Journal's drama critic, author and blogger is perhaps not quite as enthusiastic as Mr Sowell. But his review in Commentary is so good that I ordered the book on the strength of it. Teachout seems to turn these beautifully-put-together pieces out effortlessly, and I, for one, am open-mouthed in admiration.

Of course it's a ripoff! What else would you expect from an industry that makes it impossible to open a CD in less than ten minutes and without losing your temper?

I don't know why the Brits make such a meal of integrating the architecturally old and the architecturally new. The City of Toronto has been doing it beautifully, apparently effortlessly, for years.

The British Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, is the author of an article published in the Telegraph this morning that nicely demonstrates why Britain is such a good friend of the United States. Europe's "rigidities, inflexibilities and lack of competitiveness", as he puts it, are right smack on the divide between the US and Europe.

The Saudi Interior Minister, Prince Nayef says the spate of attacks carried out recently by terrorists in Saudi Arabia cannot be blamed on democracy. I suppose he's right, in the sense that the connection isn't so direct that one might say 'this man committed this act because of a lack of access to democracy.' Terrorism's aim is to cause change. What one can say is that democracy in countries whose systems now resist change, like Saudi Arabia, would alter those societies in ways that would stop terrorists posing the extreme level of threat they do now.

There's a related story in Aljazeera this morning. Malaysian Prime Minister Abd Allah Ahmad Badawi, who took over from the retiring Mahathir Muhammad last week, has called for a comprehensive study into the causes of the formation of militant groups and why they commit terrorist acts. All he has to do now is figure out whose answers might be equally respected in both the Christian and the Muslim worlds.

The great mistake the Church of England makes is to assume that in a democratic society, it needs the approval of its flock before it can take a view on moral issues. The truth is that all religious humans, whether Church of Englanders, Christians, Muslims or whatever, look to the Church to tell them how to think about moral issues. Democracy is for politics, not for religion. The Guardian is reporting this morning that this "study guide" on sexual matters has been produced to help English church-goers explore "whether there is an unhealthy obsession with sexual sin that prevents people focusing on other forms of sin...such as commercial greed, poverty and inequalities of wealth." In other words, let's stop focusing on homosexuality and start focusing on the sin of wealth. What a miserable, flaccid, pandering, truth-dodging attempt to avoid having to deal head-on with one of the great moral issues of our times!

Janet Daley is, if I remember correctly, an American who lives and works in London. She has an excellent summary in the Telegraph today of who's doing the fighting in the Church of England, and what they're fighting over. I think she might have improved her article a little if she'd suggested a step or two that might be taken to sort this mess out. Burning a couple of liberals at the stake might be one way to go - it's a solution that has the advantage of being historically faithful, at least.

Once, not so long ago, I did a stint as an unpaid assistant dog walker in New York, where dogs (and cats, but that's another subject) enjoy a closer relationship with their owners than seems possible anywhere else. Cooper Gillespie seems to be proof that both owners and dogs become better pets as a result.

04 November 2003

Well, that's it. A corner has been turned. Can a complete Iraq victory be far down the road?

You have to admire this man's style. Vladimir Putin has him arrested, so he challenges him to a winner-take-all political duel. I can't wait to see what happens next.

This is what happens when organisations like the United Nations use soldiers to improve their public relations, instead of for the purpose of achieving some military purpose. This Canadian National Post article shines some light into a shameful corner of recent history.

Two machine guns and an automatic weapon? Good grief! Bring back conscription.

Israel is changing tactics at the United Nations. Whether this is going to do any good or not remains to be seen. But almost anything would be an improvement on just sitting there and taking the punishment that the Palestinians and their apologists have been handing out for years, now.

This sounds a really interesting exercise - an eminent Hellenist and an eminent Sinologist collaborate in a comparison of ancient Greek and ancient Chinese thought. Their aim is to gain an understanding of each culture that wouldn't be attainable if they were studied alone. But in his review for the Guardian, Jonathan Barnes, who teaches philosophy at the Sorbonne, seemed so intent on making clever points that he didn't do a very good job of explaining...to me, at any rate...whether he thought the book was any good or not.

At the end of quite a long review, where you might expect to find some attempt at summary, he writes: "I do not imagine that everyone will find The Way and the Word "climactic", whatever that means; and no one should find it "monumental", for that is what it claims not to be.

"On the other hand, I am sure that many readers will find it not only generously informative, which it indubitably is, but also brilliantly illuminating; and there are few enough academic books of which that can be said."

Kind of like smoking a cigarette through a handkerchief, isn't it?

There's apparently trouble ahead for French socialists. Gosh.

I'm glad Stray Rescue exists, I hope their poster dog Quentin has a long and happy life, and I hope they have great success in what they're doing. However, this 'lucky escape' story is away beyond the pale. Couldn't happen. Didn't happen. Sorry.

03 November 2003

David Kay writes a good letter, doesn't he? Because of it, Andrew Sullivan says, the Washington Post changed its original story.

Sylvio Berlusconi, a gaggle of scientists and the Green Party? If, into that cauldron you were to throw a little newt's eye, a frog's toe, some bat's wool and a dog's tongue or two, you'd have a serious brew going. Poor Venice!

Some are billing this as evidence of French and Russian double-dealing before the invasion of Iraq. Others say say the Washington Post story is significant because it contains further evidence that Saddam's weapons programme was in breach of international sanctions. I have a different take on it. I think people should be wondering why this information is coming to light at this particular time. I'm not trying to suggest I have the answer, just saying I think it's a key question.

Mr Askerzai, I'd say, deserves an arm-sized chunk of the action... if the Telegraph's got the story right, of course. It does have just a touch of that too-good-to-be-true feeling, doesn't it?

Sir Ranulph Fiennes has done some admirable things in his life, but this one, I don't get at all. It lacks enough purpose to lift it out of the category of publicity stunt. And five months arfter suffering a heart attack? Is he recovering, or just between attacks?

Years ago, when I worked in England, I interviewed a man who claimed to be an anarchist, but who was at the same time a staunch and ardent supporter of the Royal Family. Their job in life, he said, was to act out the fantasies of the common people, so that said common people wouldn't be too dissatisfied with their lot in life. He had the same effect on me that the flat earth society has - anybody that crazy has to be worth knowing. I'm not sure what he'd make of this. When it gets to the stage at which the Palace servants are holding the Palace to ransom, something is seriously out of whack. No matter what the theory about the Royal Family's role in Britain's life is, it can't work in these circumstances.

02 November 2003

No nation on earth that I am aware of makes such a fuss about leaving the present and entering the future as Britain does. I remember, in the '70s, having to provide a pregnant reporter with a lead apron because she had been convinced by the debate then raging in Britain that the new computer terminals we had begun to use would deform her unborn child.

In today's papers, it's fears about flouride in the drinking water that are causing no little hysteria. Yesterday, scientists were complaining that the debate about GM foods had been...well, cooked a bit.

The excellent Cronaca makes an interesting assetion. I wonder how he knows.

The definitive list of the Best Books of the Twentieth Century, if it is ever compiled, is going to contain at least one, and probably two books by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. This reminiscence, by the writer Francisco Goldman, published in today's NYTimes, was inspired by the publication in English, this week, of Living to tell the Tale, a Marquez memoir. Earlier this month, three extracts from the book were published in the Guardian. I've linked to the third, because links to the other two are provided at the bottom of the page. Well worth a read.

With any luck, an epidemic of this will spread around the world.


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