July 18, 2007

Rupert Murdoch and the Wall Street Journal

Ruthie is right to worry about Rupert Murdoch's prospective takeover of the Wall Street Journal. Mr Murdoch's networks have shown a rather cavalier regard for the truth in the past. Perhaps most damaging as Ruthie notes is the Murdoch network's coverage of China which has been distorted definitely by the tycoon's media interests. The UK Times has run interviews with the Chinese President in which human rights were not mentioned. Murdoch's companies in the UK have sacked journalists like Jonathan Fenby who are critical of the current Chinese government, ceased publishing biographies by senior British Political figures like Chris Patten because of their critiques of the Chinese government and in America removed stories about Chinese diplomats enjoying the company of strippers. Mr Murdoch's further participation in the media is not to be welcomed- increasingly this propriator seems less concerned by reporting the facts than by reporting what his commercial interests would lead him to notice.


I have just posted a review of Sherrybaby up at Bits of News.

July 17, 2007

Changing attitudes to Public Health

Virginia Berridge, the Director of the Centre for History in Public Health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine in the University of London, has written a very interesting article about the history of medical and governmental attitudes to smoking in the UK. She has produced some very interesting useful facts about medicine and the state in the UK- but they are worth rethinking because in my view she hasn't placed them in the most appropriate analytical framework. The problem is that the history of public health is in reality the history of two things- coercion and information- those things are related and their histories are interesting.

In the 1950s and before coercion was widely used- people were coerced into vaccination to remove the great diseases of the era- but government's worried about extending that coercion into other parts of people's lives- particularly into smoking. In the 1940s pensioners were even given smoking coupons along with their pensions in order to purchase ciggarettes or cigars. All this of course has changed- government still coerces people rightly to take vaccines- but it also coerces people to stop smoking in public places.

One of the key distinctions that is implicit in Berridge's analysis but not drawn out by her- is that government since the 1960s and public health bodies like the Royal College of Physicians have become deeply involved within discussions about lifestyle. Doctors are now much more frequently heard on television and radio telling people how to live. In the 1950s the Head of the Royal College of Physicians informed a doctor who wanted to publicise anti-smoking information that so long as doctors in general knew then the College had met its objectives- by the late 1950s and into the 1960s and right up until today Doctors have changed their attitude- no longer a mystical caste disseminating magical vaccines, they now give advice on what to eat, what to smoke or to drink.

And of course they have been opposed- nobody has much interest in opposing vaccination- but many people have an interest in opposing doctors telling you it is unhealthy to take a cigar and smoke it. So doctors have become involved in a public debate- ceaselessly tackling corporate executives and representatives- in the way mocked by the film Thank you for Smoking- Doctors have become participants in a public debate about public health to a much greater extent than they were in the past and their craft has been demystified. Ultimately those two things must be good- fewer people now in the UK will die through smoking because fewer smoke.

The change in attitude has extended the role of government- now with a knowledge for example about the health consequences of passive smoking, a ban on smoking in public places has been adopted in the UK and other things will no doubt follow. In a way laws to make sure that the public health utility of private acts have always been carried out- but with more information lifestyles as well as vaccines have become subject to the force of law. Medicine has become a science instead of magic and the consequence is greater understanding and hence a greater role for the law within people's lifestyles- and drug prohibitions and smoking bans are a consequence of that move.

Benjamin Franklin's house

Recently Commonplace, a very good populist history journal from the US, profiled Benjamin Franklin's house where Franklin lived in Britain from 1757 to 1775 as agent of the Pennsylvania Assembly. The house, pictured above is the only abode of Franklin's still extant, it has survived largely by accident- because the building of Charing Cross station in the 19th Century and the German bombers in the 1940s barely missed the house- but what it does as well is attest to the long historical links between different parts of the world.

Franklin came from far away- eventually he was appointed ambassador to France for the Revolutionary authorities as well- but originally he was from Philadelphia. We might presume that such long journeys were unusual in the past- and they were- but we should not underestimate the degree to which the roots of much of what we know in the world is the result of immigration. The Dulwich Picture Gallery for instance lodged in the leafy suburbs of south London originally derived from collectors commissioned by the King of Poland to find pieces of art in 1790, when Poland was partitioned, the collection ended up in South London becoming the basis for the gallery.

Franklin's role in London for 19 years and his links to radical Whigs like Richard Price who campaigned for Parliamentary reform, as well as the links between the revolutionaries and British radicals like Tom Paine, reminds us that the American Revolution was an atlantic event as much as a continental one. The Revolutionaries' intellectual links abroad, to Locke, Harrington and Cato have often been chronicled- and are worth acknowledging but the experience of Franklin in London reminds us of something else that many Americans had emotional ties back to the UK when they revolted- Franklin had to flee Britain in the end but maintained contact with families in England who had aided and supported his scientific and political activities.

Ultimately the house of Benjamin Franklin should remind us that revolution implies a human wrench as well as a political one- furthermore it should also remind us that political change obscures the often messy realities of human life, where political boundaries are not reflected in the way that human beings relate to each other.

July 16, 2007

Last Post (of the evening!)

Having stayed up far till late working on the PhD even I feel I should go to bed- but before I do I have two articles from Bits to bring to your attention- the first is about a rather curious story of a set of spinsters from revolutionary America and the second is about the far grimmer debate in the House of Lords on Afghanistan- hope you enjoy!

Permission to worry you again

We are at the moment involved alongside the United States in two major wars- two wars in which the cooperation of the local populations are indispensable to our victory if we are to have a victory and if its possible now to have one. Both in Iraq and in Afghanistan we are faced with a situation where failure would be a disaster- the British House of Lords recently debated Afghanistan for example and found that the situation was serious and if left would have extremely serious consequences (I wrote about the debate on Bits here). Given all of this- today's news from the Boston Globe makes heavy hearted reading to anyone who wishes the Western alliance well in what is happening both in Iraq and Afghanistan. The newspaper reports that last year more than 12% of the soldiers entering the United States army entered with criminal convictions- that's up from 4.6% in 2003 and 2004. Soldiers who have already offended are as John Hutson, a former judge advocate general of the navy, noted much more likely to offend again. In normal times of course the consequences of reoffending by soldiers in uniform are not good but they are largely confined to being a matter of military discipline. But when we are in occupation with the United States of two areas of the world, and when our safety and that of the world particularly in Afghanistan depends upon the popularity of American troops in those regions, then the idea of soldiers reoffending against say Afghan or Iraqi civilians should scare us. In both Iraq and Afghanistan we lose if we lose the hearts and minds of the people- and the best way to gain those hearts and minds is for the soldiers who are out there to behave well- unfortunately it must also be said that one Abu Ghraib may wipe out the memory of forty thousand positive encounters between servicemen and the population- sending criminals out there may be America's only option- but if so it strengthens the chances of failure.

Tony Lit's donation

Recently a rather nasty campaign has been fought over the internet about the Ealing Southall by-election. Labour and Conservative and Liberal blogs have thrown slurs at each other- about a variety of practices. The most recent incident though has been a revelation about the Conservative candidate Tony Lit, who the Observer reports, gave a donation of 4,800 pounds to the Labour party earlier this year. Labour party members are of course overjoyed by this- and Tories less so. But it is interesting that two conservative bloggers have come up with a plausible reason for Lit to have done what he did- a plausible reason that is deeply worrying not for the conduct of the individual parties but for a far deeper question that it raises about the conduct of our democracy.

Iain Dale noted on his blog that Lit gave the funds in order to get a seat for his corporation at an event that the Prime Minister attended, another blogger Dizzy argues that this is just normal business practice- that it goes on at every business up and down the land and involves all the major parties- essentially why should we begrudge Tony Lit the chance to attempt to buy the opportunity to sit at the same table as Blair and persuade him of the merits of some case to do with his business when every other business does it- just because he is a Tory. If what these bloggers say is true then it reflects something which is rather more interesting than the original allegations- ultimately it speaks rather badly of the way that political funding works in this country and that far more importantly policy formation works.

What they are essentially arguing is that in policy formation one of the stages is that those with money and an interest in the policy buy a seat at the table- and that it would be irresponsible for any businessman not to buy such a seat- what a businessman buys when he buys that seat is of course influence- and the biggest influence goes to those with the best argument and the biggest wallet. Essentially the Tory bloggers' case for Lit makes the case for a capping of donations whether corporate or individual to political parties because it demonstrates the corruption of the system- money it seems gets you the ability to talk to a politician in a way that a normal person never would have. Money obtains Tony Lit, an entrepreuneur a direct entry into politics, the way that teachers and doctors don't have because they don't have the money. That doesn't seem to me to be a neccessarily wise way to run a commonwealth.

I can't look into the soul of Tony Lit and tell you whether his blood runs blue or whether he is a carpet bagger who has just seen a good opportunity to run for the Tories- what I can say is that every time that I perceive people buying access to the Prime Minister, my reaction is to recoil instantly and think about reforming the financing of parties (not necessarily to give the state a bigger role- but definitely to give the membership a bigger role through say a donation's cap). What this incident doesn't establish is Mr Lit's sincerity or otherwise- what it does is the rotten state of party funding and corporate influence in our democracy.

(The Photo of Tony Blair and Tony Lit together above is courtesy of Unity and is from the fundraiser that both attended.)