News, Fake News or Dross

Most of my readers will know where I stand on Donald Trump, but the words “Fake News” in the title of this blog shouldn’t mislead them to think this is another anti -Trump piece.  It isn’t.

Donald Trump points a giant searchlight of criticism at the media, but it obscures as much as it illuminates and I want to explore where, hidden in the glare, there is some truth in what he says.  In my opinion it’s not the truth he claims, but I think it is important nonetheless.  Let’s start with defining “News”.  What do we mean by “News”?  Here are a couple of definitions:

  • Newly received or noteworthy information, especially about recent events.
  • Information not previously known to (someone).

Self evidently these definitions of news say that “news” informs, that it is about recent events, that it is noteworthy, and that it is not previously known (i.e. it is “new”).  In my opinion much of what is presented as news by the media frequently fails one or more of the tests applied by these definitions.  Now we must add the test applied by Donald Trump, ironically in a way which also fails these tests: factual accuracy.  My own personal experience is, and has always been, that any news story of which I have personal, first-hand, knowledge (in many cases having been present at the event) have been misreported. Historically I could point to two reasons: laziness and “mischief”.  The latter of these is shorthand for an agenda driven by the owners of mainstream media.

Today we have the alternative media driven by the internet. It feeds an increasing appetite for instantaneous gratification.  It encourages promotion of, and response to, stories and, simultaneously, a diminution of reflective and analytical capacity in the audience.  I’d go so far as to say the rise of “social media” is the single biggest threat to democracy in that they feed the insatiable need to say “Look at me”, “This is what I think”,  “I’ve heard this happened”, and to share it with the entire internet connected world as if our knowledge reflects well on us.  I know, and you don’t, therefore I am superior.  Now I’m well aware that, in writing this blog, I’m doing the same to some extent.  Defenders of social media argue that their very immediacy, and relative lack of censorship, is a great strength in democracy.  Unfortunately, and referring back to my earlier definitions, a lot of what we see is a) not new, b) not accurate (or even completely false, i.e. fake) or c) not really noteworthy.

There is another dimension: commercial gain, the financial imperative.  Many posts on social media are, in fact, a kind of “Trojan Horse”.  They are titillation.  Little wriggling worms on hooks, that encourage ‘bite’ on a story whose purpose is really to expose us to embedded advertising or, worse, embedded political messages

Caught in a seemingly endless competitive media storm the mainstream outlets (including bear old “auntie” Beeb) trawl through, even encourage our engagement with, social media for “news” so they aren’t left behind.  “News”, by definition, has a short life.  You’ve either covered the story or it has gone.  The trouble, in my opinion, is that far too much “news” should just be left to wither away for failing the test of lacking accuracy, lacking news worthiness, lacking information.  Far, far, too much of our mainstream news comes from television where the lowest common denominator of populist interest is frequently presented by people who haven’t a journalistic brain cell between their ears, and skip from sport to nuclear energy to government policy to entertainment like bees gathering pollen.

We need more discernment than that.

The Will of The People

Define Transparent

“obvious, explicit, unambiguous, unequivocal, clear, lucid, straightforward, plain, (as) plain as the nose on your face, apparent, unmistakable, manifest, conspicuous, patent, indisputable, self-evident;”

Funny isn’t it, that “the will of the people” is to be robustly defended….as long as it happens to support government policy? Otherwise, in my experience, the people can take their “will” and stick it where the sun doesn’t shine.

Transparent.

Lyme, it seems, is still a “battleground”

The deck is still stacked against early diagnosis

In the UK, thanks to dogged persistence from the likes of UK charity Lyme Disease Action, some progress has been made.  Establishment medics and scientists in the UK are more inclined to admit (at least in private) that there are grey areas in the diagnosis and treatment of Lyme Disease.  Behind ‘closed doors’ they are more inclined to engage in discussion and joint research.  In public, regrettably, their attitudes and pronouncements remain, like their career prospects, guarded.  This linked article, from Huffington Post, describes how the battle lines remain starkly drawn in the USA. Be in no doubt that, despite the progress I mentioned above, these attitudes remain in the UK too.

As someone who fell into a Lyme diagnostic ‘gap’, and have suffered as a result, I recognise the issues only too well.  My previous posts on Lyme Disease set out in detail how I fell ill in 2011.  They describe how I was diagnosed and treated in the UK for Lyme Disease.  My reason for adding this post now is that, three years after completing one of the longest and most aggressive (oral) antibiotic treatment courses I’ve heard of, I am again unwell.  According to the established doctrine I cannot possibly still have active infection, so it’s a measure of how much attitudes have changed in the UK that I’m now awaiting the results of another blood test from the Rare and Imported Pathogens Laboratory (RIPL) at Porton Down.  A test carried out in November 2016 was assessed to be “borderline / equivocal”.  I was able to ‘leverage’ the tests because I have a history of tick bite and Lyme Disease, and I’m very knowledgeable about the disease.

The ‘Huff Post’ article talks about the need for new and more accurate tests.  There is general agreement that a patient presenting with a clear Erythema Migrans (so-called ‘bullseye) rash should get treated without the need for confirming blood tests (though not all do).  Therefore the improved tests are for those who are suspected of having Lyme Disease, or for whom treatment appears to have failed.  Leaving aside the added challenges of recognising and testing for co-infection with other pathogens delivered with the same tick bite, the very difficult initial challenge is to heighten clinicians’ alertness.  How do we raise in GPs the thought that a patient, who in a 10 minute consultation presents with symptoms that are ‘odd’, transient, and may be caused by 100 different things, might have Lyme Disease?  Only after suspicion comes the testing.  We’ll also leave aside, for now, the problems with efficacy of the standard treatment options.

Other diagnostic problems are what happens to those victims whose disease follows an atypical course because a) they have no rash (like me), or b) the rash is simply not recognised by a doctor, or c) the patients themselves simply shrug off the early symptoms, which often briefly resolve, until they are overwhelmed ?  For these patients the very real risk exists that, by the time a Lyme Disease diagnosis has been made, the pathogen has disseminated throughout the tissues and central nervous system and will be difficult, if not impossible, to eradicate.  And if they “fail” or, as Huff Post puts it “flunk”, the test – what then?

 

Zombie Guinea Pigs and other Entertainment

I’m not well.  That’s my excuse, anyway. I’m watching a lot of Daytime TV, specifically extreme everything.  It seems to cut through the cattargh – and if that’s not how it’s spelled then it certainly feels like it, with double emphasis on the ‘argh’ part.

Where was I?  Oh yes.  Old American daytime TV.  The adverts for the coming programmes are so entertaining, especially as they are, bizarrely trailed as “Festive Fun”.  I started to freewheel on alternative content.  “Zombie Guinea Pigs”.  “When Koalas go Bad”.  “Bonanaz” (like Bonanza only more fruity).  “True Parking”.  “How it’s made, and then doesn’t work”.  “Extreme Lying Down”. “Sandwiches of the Pharoahs”.  “Hitler’s Sock Drawer”. “Celebrity Podiatry”. “Killer Ironing” and “Pro-Celebrity Incontinence”.

The way I feel, I could watch most of these – once anyway.

Runes, Bones and Chicken Feathers

For the third time in recent memory we have had to endure the cry of “Well, nobody saw THAT coming!”  First the UK election in 2015, then the vote for the UK to leave the EU (so called Brexit) and now the election of Donald Trump as President of the US.  The combined efforts of professional analysts, political journalists, pundits and ‘the media’ have miserably failed to call the results.

Now those same analysts journalists and pundits are bouncing from radio studio to TV studio, to press rooms, picking over the results, trying to work out (and tell us) how, or why, they got it wrong.  Frankly they may as well throw chicken bones and feathers into the air, or consult runes, or even go to a clairvoyant, because they are using the same failed and myopic filters on the information.

Having called all three elections correctly myself, my opinion is that their problem is they largely inhabit a social and intellectual ‘bubble’.  For example, in particular over Brexit and the US Presidential election, we hear a consensus developing that the electorates felt “left behind by the benefits of globalisation” and that these two seismic events represent a railing against a political establishment from which they feel alienated and do not trust.  Rubbish.  These ‘bullet point’ explanations come from the same failed perspective and, largely, the same political class.

In Britain we have suffered the consequences of failed policies, founded in the dogma of market economics.  Individuals, families, public organisations and companies have been struggling to cope with a relentless tightening of the so-called ‘austerity’ screw.  The people who cannot get access to decent housing, health care, education, jobs, do not know what globalisation is.  They were sold the simple, kitchen table, solution that if we take the pain now, and “fix the roof while the sun shines”, all will be well.  We were never told what the government’s intention was, once the deficit in public finance was resolved. It seems to have been assumed that ‘market forces’ would sort it all out.  Well, excuse me, but it was reliance on those same market forces that led us into the world-wide financial crash in 2008.

Meanwhile we, in the UK, have stumbled into the worst housing crisis in a generation; not only is there an almost total lack of new social housing, that is to say provided by the public sector for rent at affordable prices, but the private sector is building houses for sale at prices increasingly out of reach of ordinary people.  Housing is no longer a social necessity, it is an investment opportunity.  The justice system is in meltdown with more people incarcerated than ever before and a decrepit prison estate managed by a disillusioned and threadbare staff.  As an aside here, I point out that the Home Secretary presiding over this decline was until recently Theresa May, now Prime Minister.  Our social welfare and care systems are overwhelmed by predictable increasing demand and inadequate funding.  Reliance on food banks, an obscenity in any civilised society, is increasing.  Rough sleeping is increasing. Gambling is increasing.  At least 80,000 children are estimated to be living in  poverty and yet, as before the financial crash in 2008, some are making ‘progress’: the already rich, the speculators, the wide boys.  The general populace seems to have become mesmerized by the twin chants of austerity and fiscal prudence, by the sound-bite mantras of neo-liberalism, so the irony of our present situation, where our government says “more of the same will see us alright” or “we need more privatisation” does not register as the vacuous rubbish it is.  Far from being in a better place than we were in 2008, our national finances are actually worse. Our UK government has been in power now since 2010.  The people sitting round the cabinet table are individually and collectively responsible for where we are now; they can no longer blame previous administrations.

It’s time we all started to say “The Emperor has no clothes”, and stopped trying to explain away the rise of the likes of Trump, Putin, Le Pen et al as some sophisticated response to being disconnected from politics.  That is no more than a smokescreen that obscures the fact that the whole system doesn’t work.  Our society, indeed the planet as a whole, cannot be sustained on unbridled consumption and an aspiration for material advantage alone, and to try to analyse and explain away recent political upheavals in these terms is utterly futile.  It is no more than the flies arguing about ownership of the turd they feed on as it slides down the sewer to the treatment plant.

Trump Wins!

I mean no disrespect to the millions of decent, thoughtful, Democrat voters.  I fully acknowledge that I am British, observing from the outside of the process, and may be talking from my rear end, but remember this headline and the date of the post.  As I write there are still 4 days before all the votes have been cast in the 2016 US Presidential Election.  Nevertheless I feel confident in predicting a Trump win, as I did a Conservative UK election win in May and a UK ‘Brexit’ vote in June.  At the time of my Brexit prediction I also predicted Trump would win. Not only do I think he will win, I think he will win decisively – and this is why.

Hilary Clinton, her Democratic party machine and, frankly, the established Republican party, have failed to see that the political ground has shifted.  It’s like they turned up ready to play soccer when the crowd came to see baseball.  As of yesterday, Hilary Clinton is still reported to be addressing rallies with pop stars and celebrities in support: this is the old politics.  The Democrat machine ought to have seen it, given the power of Bernie Sanders’s showing in the primary rounds.  Critics of Trump all come from the position of rationale, of experience, of political and economic understanding based in education and knowledge.  Trump’s support doesn’t come from here.  It has done no good to point out the holes in his politics, his rhetoric and his character because his supporters don’t care.  A lot of them are the same. I suspect they regard the reasoned, educated warnings of disaster as just more evidence of a patronising elite.  It’s not, and never has been, intellectual: it is visceral.

That’s how we came to vote for Brexit and, if any more evidence of that were required, one has only to look at the fury, the vituperative nastiness, that has flowed since the UK High Court insisted that Parliament, not the government of the day, must vote on Brexit before it is triggered.  Despite the fact that it was a legal, and not political, decision, and one which reasserts the constitutional primacy of law over politics, the pro-Brexiteers poured scorn on the judges.  They have claimed this is an attempt to subvert the “will of the people” as expressed in a (non-binding) referendum.  In calling into play their financial backgrounds, their sexuality, and the nationality of their spouses, they blatantly played to their homophobic, nationalist and largely working class constituency.  I fear that, whatever happens on both sides of the Atlantic, we are all in for a very rough ride.  The frustration of disappointment over what Brexit, or a Trump presidency, actually delivers is fertile ground for social unrest.

Let them eat cake

I was having lunch. A sort of pseudo-tapas, served on a windswept plastic grassed first-floor bar terrace. A post-industrial makeover of something that was once useful: all chrome, glass, plastic wicker bucket seats and infra-red heating. The sort of place they add 10% “discretionary service charge”, and make you pay before you’ve had the food in case you think it’s crap…which it nearly was. You get the picture. Down in the street, lined with blinged-up monster Beemers and Mercs with blacked out windows, was the local Big Issue seller. I wondered what he thought about Dave Cameron (remember him?) and his take on The Big Society. You know, where we all take care of each other, run the libraries, buy sandwiches for the homeless guy, and save the state a fortune in welfare. And then I got to thinking about Saint Theresa May and her being a sort of political bag lady, picking over the recycling bins for anything useful that we might swallow. I thought about how the safety net of our welfare state has more holes than an ageing sex-workers tights, and how so many more of us are falling through. I wondered if Dave Cameron’s Tories (including Saint Theresa) ever really believed any of the ‘Big Society’ doctrine and, if they did, what do they think now? Are they embarrassed? Apparently Saint Theresa now believes “only the Conservatives can build a fairer Britain”. Does she think we don’t know she has spent the last 6 years voting through, and supporting, the measures that have made Britain the most divided and unfair it has been in a century? Doe she think we’ll believe “that was Dave, but this is me”? Does she think we haven’t noticed being victims of the biggest, longest running, shell game in recent British History? I don’t know about you, but I don’t think there is a pea under any of those shells. “Let them eat cake”, but add 10% service.

Are you now, or have you ever been…..?

With apologies, I reproduce, with very small substitutions and some irrelevant ommisions, part of a piece written by the late, great, American author and playwright Arthur MIller.  He was writing about the hysteria of the 1950s and the anti-Communist witch-hunting of the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee led by Senator Joseph Macarthy. For the purposes only of clarity I highlight those words that I have changed.

“I refer to the anti-Islamic rage that threatened to reach hysterical proportions and sometimes did. I can’t remember anyone calling it an ideological war, but I think now that that is what it amounted to. I suppose we rapidly passed over anything like a discussion or debate, and into something quite different, a hunt not just for subversive people, but for ideas and even a suspect language. The object was to destroy the least credibility of any and all ideas associated with Islam, whose proponents were assumed to be either knowing or unwitting agents of radical Islam.

An ideological war is like guerrilla war, since the enemy is an idea whose proponents are not in uniform but are disguised as ordinary citizens, a situation that can scare a lot of people to death. To call the atmosphere paranoid is not to say that there was nothing real in the American-Islamist stand-off. But if there was one element that lent the conflict a tone of the inauthentic and the invented, it was the swiftness with which all values were forced in months to reverse themselves.

In two years or less, with a picture finished, I was asked by a terrified Columbia to sign an anti-Islamist declaration to ward off picket lines which the rightwing American Legion was threatening to throw across the entrances of theatres showing the film. In the phone calls that followed, the air of panic was heavy. It was the first intimation of what would soon follow. I declined to make any such statement, which I found demeaning; what right had any organisation to demand anyone’s pledge of loyalty? I was sure the whole thing would soon go away; it was just too outrageous.

In 1948-51, I had the sensation of being trapped inside a perverse work of art, one of those Escher constructs in which it is impossible to make out whether a stairway is going up or down. Practically everyone I knew stood within the conventions of the political left of centre; one or two were Muslims, some were fellow-travellers, and most had had a brush with Islamic ideas or organisations. I have never been able to believe in the reality of these people being actual or putative traitors any more than I could be, yet others like them were being fired from teaching or jobs in government or large corporations. The surreality of it all never left me. We were living in an art form, a metaphor that had suddenly, incredibly, gripped the country.”

Miller was, of course talking about the way in which a paranoic cold-war America, terrified of Communism, bore down on anything which could remotely be described as politically ‘left’.  When the people doing the describing were far to the right, it wasn’t hard to find candidates to haul into court.  Hangers on to this twisted ideology used it to ruin the lives of many who were in other “un-American” or aberrant groups, like Gays, Blacks, Jews and so on.  People went to prison. Some died.  Old scores were settled.

In Britain we could easily substitute, wholesale, the word “Immigrant” but I can’t help wondering whether, should Donald Trump be elected President of the United States, we shall see the return of a 21st century version of the House Un-American Activities Committee in the USA?  Will we once again hear a phrase like “Are you now, or have you ever been…?” read out in open court?  Then it was “a Communist”; in 2017 it might be “a Muslim”.  Far fetched? I don’t know.  Chilling?  Certainly.

Postscript.  Now that Donald Trump has actually been elected my final paragraph has even more chilling resonance.

The Labour Leadership and When will the next General Election be?

I have blogged quite a lot about how the new Conservative (Tory) Party leadership would take the earliest opportunity, presented by a disorganised and fractured Labour Party, to call an early election.  I have been much exercised by the thought that Jeremy Corbyn, and the Labour Party, would be bounced into an early election they were ill-equipped to fight.  Mea culpa – I had failed to check my information.

Apparently it is still possible, but unlikely.  Here is why.  Before the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, a General Election could happen any time.  A Prime Minister could call a general election at any time within the five year period and not all Parliaments lasted the full five years.  Before 2011 a general election could be called earlier for a number of reasons. For example, the Prime Minister could decide to call an election at a time when he or she was most confident of winning the election or if a government was defeated on a confidence motion, a general election could follow.  The 2011 Act changed all that.

The Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 provides for general elections to be held on the first Thursday in May every five years.  The date of the last general election was 7 May 2015 so the next one would normally be on the first Thursday of May 2020.

However, there are two provisions that could trigger an election sooner:

  • if a motion of no confidence is passed in Her Majesty’s Government by a simple majority and 14 days elapses without the House passing a confidence motion in any new Government formed
  • a motion for a general election is agreed by two thirds of the total number of seats in the Commons including vacant seats (currently 434 out of 650)

In the context of an, as yet, unresolved BREXIT it is possible that Parliament will have to debate, and decide on, the negotiation to disentangle the UK from the EU.  That might easily trigger an election under either of these two provisions.  The Conservatives have quite a slender majority in Parliament.  It is possible that this majority could erode to the point where there is a minority government that consistently fails to get measures endorsed, and this might lead to an election under the second of the two provisions – although HM The Queen would first have to offer an opportunity to another grouping to form a government without an election first.

So, I admit to having to reconsider.  There actually may be time for the Labour Party to get itself together, even behind Jeremy Corbyn, in time to win the next election.  My concern remains that whoever wins the Leadership election in August 2016, a sizeable part of the party (those supporting the loser) will be disappointed and remain fractious, rebellious, .  Internal divisions may continue.  That must not happen.  It is absolutely vital that the party membership, and its Parliamentary representation, comes together to support whoever is leader – or it faces a generational period in the political wilderness.

 

 

Alternative Economics…a Random Thought!

I have a totally mad idea for repairing our economy, and threadbare national life, and I’m struggling to find much of a downside.

The government should give £5 million to every person of working age in Britain. Working age would be defined as between 23 (say leaving university age) and a new, lower, retiring age of 60.

The government can afford it now, after all it’s less than a couple of week’s UK “contribution” to the EU.  Those who hate their jobs will be able to give up, and do something more satisfying, or more creative, or nothing at all.  Jobs will be filled by people who want to do them.  Migrants will find plenty of space, because large numbers of people will simply go and live somewhere nice and warm, and the people still here will be able to employ them with a decent wage.

The massive increase in personal spending power will also stimulate the economy.  For example people will build or buy better houses, opening up the bottom of the property market as ‘upcyclers’ dump houses.  The banks and investment ‘industries’ would thrive.  There’d be less crime, because most criminals would already have more money than they’d know what to do with, and the police could concentrate on organised crime.  No need for any benefits at all ‘cos we’d all be rolling in it.  Tax take would need to be maintained, of course, to buy nuclear submarines etc., but if we are all multi-millionnaires VAT could be increased to 35% and nobody would really notice.  Those who have always enjoyed a life based on privilege and unearned income would be unhappy, but they can just sod off or start consultancies to advise what to do with our money; the nouveau riche would have more people to play with.

Now then.  I’ve had another lateral thought which, at a stroke (no pun intended), would free up bed blocking in hospitals, solve our underprovision in care home places, revive the steel and shipbuilding industries and cut off the exponential increase in funeral costs.  Well, not literally at a stroke – but relatively.  Instead of care homes, and cottage hospitals (those that still exist) full of recuperating geriatrics, we send them all off on a permanent cruise.  Move the whole lot “offshore” into a low, or no, tax, regime.  As I understand it, places on cruises can work out substantially cheaper than places in care homes.  Cruises have unlimited good food, on-board doctors and entertainment – all more than can be provided in “Halcyon Days” up the road.  Some canny geriatrics (especially in America) have already cottoned on to this and live the proverbial life of Riley swanning all over the world year round.  Permanent  ‘guests’ would be able to have their loved ones visit them “on holiday” and, if worst comes to the worst, a burial at sea is definitely more economical (and ecological) than a cremation or a burial on land.  We’d have to build a few more ships, and staff them, but that’s a bonus for the economy too and the billions saved out of the welfare budget would probably cover the cost anyway.  We could even have fully equipped hospital ships!  I’m putting my name down.