Brief flash of truthiness lights up the BBC

So slavishly does the BBC stick to the Establishment line that big, bald moments of truth rarely make it to its airwaves.

So let’s hear it for Misha Glenny for fitting not one but two hefty doses of reality into one sentence on this morning’s R4 Today programme.

“…both the War on Terror and the War on Drugs have been failures…” he stated during an interview about the vast amount of ex-Balkan Conflict weaponry now circulating  in criminal and terrorist hands across Europe.

“Criminal disasters” would be a more accurate description of the outcomes from a public perspective, because neither war can be said to have failed in terms of its instigators’ apparent agenda. Each has successfully generated decades of pointless fear, misery and – of course – profit.

It’s getting hard for even the most closed-in, Daily Mail-hardened mind to overlook the naked greed and callousness behind our ‘Wars Against Abstractions’, despite their relentless championing by the rest of the mainstream media.

indycover2

Which is why Aunty prefers never to mention WoD and WoT if at all possible. And, if it has to, never together. And certainly never, ever, ever to suggest that the lives and blood and freedoms and happiness sacrificed to them were casually tossed away for no good reason at all.

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Ah, that old special relationship

Doncha love the smell of empowered Euroscepticism in the morning?

Not that Quadranting has much, if any, time for David Davies but the man wasted no time jabbing a sharp elbow in David Cameron’s ribs over yesterday’s rather pathetic attempt by the government to ignite a fresh round of scaremongering over Snowden.

Doubtless neocon eyes are getting all flinty in Washington at the prospect of their agenda having to play second fiddle to Cameron’s need to pacify his own version of John Major’s “bastards”.

Deflation – where things don’t add up any more

Front pages from two of today’s papers illustrate where we’ve got to on our journey to a post industrial society.

Metro runs with the NHS story that’s been at the top of the agenda since Christmas:

Metro newspaper headline - A&E is now worse than a ware zone

The Independent posts a cheer-leading headline that looks awfully like the pharma-oncology complex trying to stage a fightback against a recent outbreak of common sense stories about treating incurable cancer:

Independent headline - Deaths from cancer to be 'eliminated'
I’m old enough to know, or have known, several people who did or didn’t survive encounters with cancer. Aside from one case of prostate cancer, the survivors all received treatment for breast cancer. The non-survivors died from liver, bowel, lung, brain and breast cancers.

The striking thing about the fatal cases was how many of the people were treated to round after round of chemo or radiotherapy after their cancer was clearly diagnosed as incurable. In some cases, a terminal diagnosis came within days or weeks of the cancer been confirmed. Yet the medical establishment did everything it could to persuade the patient and their families to endure what was – medically at least – a hopeless course of action.

Sometimes people need to buy time to put their affairs in order, of course. Some just want to live as long as possible by any means available. But others I knew felt that the last weeks or months of their life were subordinated to the establishment’s desire to gather data about survival time or try out new drugs, instead of their being helped to die with as much dignity and little pain as possible.

Meanwhile, the funding crises consequent on our long-term steady-state-to-shrinking economy are playing havoc with services like A&E. Something has to give and, reading the recent spate of suddenly-realistic stories about treating imminently-fatal cancer cases, it’s been looking as though common sense was getting the upper hand.

Hence the Indy’s front page banner proclaiming the imminent arrival of unicorns sliding down rainbows with cures for every kind of cancer in the next 30 years – if only we keep on taking money away from every other sector of health and giving it to the cancer arm of Big Pharma and the (doubtless well-intentioned) charities more or less tied to it.

One has to ask whether the pharma companies and the increasingly-privatised health service are really trying to recreate the US model over here: where vast sums are extracted from citizens by pointlessly prolonging their final weeks into final months with endless interventions and resuscitation. If so, they’ve probably left it too late although one should not underestimate the clout their vast advertising and lobbying budgets buy with politicians and the mainstream media (or ‘govermedia’ as they’ve become).

But cheerleading has its limits. A dozen pages in from its blue skies ‘n’ roses puff coverage of the cancer investment story, the Indy carries a damning report from an under-resourced, under-funded, overstretched A&E department. Staff are coping with the fallout from the closure of two nearby casualty departments while the funding that was promised to expand their facility never materialised.

That’s the way things are in an advanced industrial economy when the indispensable tide of energy it floats on starts to ebb. There are tough choices and tougher choices.

I’m no expert

A couple of months ago, the BBC accidentally got a real expert to discuss Boko Haram on the Today programme.

Unlike the comical Steve Emerson, the Boko Haram guy did seem to know what he was talking about. He outlined the widely-discussed idea that Boko Haram has been co-opted by elements in Nigeria’s government to serve their own political ends.

It’s an impressively murky situation. Some accuse ‘separatist’ politicians in Boko Haram’s northern Nigerian stamping grounds of backing the terrorists as a way of pressuring the main government. Others accuse southern politicians, high up in the national government, of funding Boko Haram to discredit the notherners while strengthening their own ambitions though fear.

Meanwhile the Western politicians and media (increasingly two sides of the same coin) can’t get past Boko Haram’s Islamist roots, so they funnel moral and financial support to the very elements in Nigerian politics who are allegedly secretly using Boko Haram for their own ends.

None of this narrative sits comfortably with the BBC’s default framing for content involving Islamic extremist groups, which is that ‘we’ are their ultimate target. Muddying the waters with messy details is to be avoided – especially when the details tend to show that a situation isn’t about ‘us’ except to the extent that our Governments are unwittingly (or otherwise) channelling support to one set of bad guys who wear combat fatigues via another set of bad guys who wear expensive suits.

Which is why the BBC’s main news platforms rarely give airtime to informed sources who are close to the action. Whether the topic is HS2, the NHS or terror groups, the Beeb almost invariably aims for its default framing device of two high-level talking heads – either political, corporate, or one of each. They ritually state their more-or-less opposing viewpoints before getting down to the usual arguments about who’s best at delivering growth, healthcare or security.

Imagine the BBC getting a lower-middle grade officer from a health service trust into the studio to describe the mounting monthly payments to Private Finance Initiative companies – some of which receive millions of pounds from taxpayers but don’t even have an address or web site. Ask them how they might do it less expensively. But that would imply that the pundits and politicians don’t know best. That our job as voters is to do more than accept the narrow ‘choices’ they present us with (often so narrow as to be no choice at all) and pick a ‘winner’.

That’s the myth of progress in action. ‘Make the right choice and we’ll deliver more progress, more quickly. Make the wrong one and the Tories/Labour/Lib Dems/UKip/the Greens will hold you back’.

As the Nigeria guy patiently explained, sometimes no one wins. It’s unlikely that Boko Haram and the other militias will go quietly into the good night once the politicians who think they control these groups’ loyalty have achieved their own goals.

They’ll become fully-fledged quasi-criminal, quasi-jihadist, quasi-political armies, funded and protected by members of the corrupt elites whose UK counterparts so often turn up on our TV and radio for the ritual ding-dongs that cover up for lack of action to tackle the grievances that give rise to discontent in the first place.

Smother of Parliaments

Not listeningBack in the day – say in 1914 or 1939 – this country’s first response to a major threat was to thrash out the options in Parliament.

Yesterday, the Conservative MP Sir Edward Leigh suggested that a proper, full-day, debate on Ukraine would be a good thing. After all, our leaders and the mainstream media are united in trouser-button-bursting, eye-rolling rage at the threat posed by Russia’s temerity in backstopping its regional interests.

Fat chance. Speaker Bercow described the reaction of House leader Andrew Lansley, who gets to decide on such debates, as “impassive”. Synonyms for impassive include unresponsive, empty, vacant, glazed, fixed and lifeless.

Which rather sums up the current state of our democracy.

Thanks Andrew.

Framed by the Beeb

The BBC’s policy of framing the aftermath of natural disasters as managerial cock-ups can be seen in its coverage of the Philippines typhoon.

This morning’s Today Programme reporting that the Philippines government had ‘conceded’ that its response to the disaster had been impeded by the colossal scale of the devastation.

That is not very different from a sports report describing a team manager ‘admitting’ that a player with two broken legs and concussion would take longer to recover than if he’d just sprained his wrist.

This is the Beeb’s standard take on major catastrophes. Even when a a country with little wealth and poor communications to begin is ripped apart by fire, flood, wind or earthquake, a BBC reporter will helicopter themselves in within hours to say: “People are asking why the authorities are not acting faster. Why is more not being done?”

I can think of two reasons for framing events this way.

First, the BBC sees itself as a cheerleader for the modern myth of progress, the one that paints Technological Man as the master of Nature. It is just not done to report that some things – for instance a hurricane with the power of a dozen nuclear bombs – are big enough to cramp Man’s style. And it’s unthinkable to report that events of such magnitude destroy government resources as easily as those of citizens.

Second, the framing reinforces the idea that there will always always be a powerful, paternalistic authority on hand, ready to step in instantly if things go wrong. It’s as if the Beeb has a script where uniformed men drive up in lorries loaded with food, tents and medical supplies as soon as the wind abates. When they don’t – because there aren’t any and they couldn’t get through if there were – the Corporation’s journalists take it upon themselves to get cross, not on behalf of the disaster victims but on behalf of us viewers sitting comfortably here at home with our BBC-fostered view that the world should be what we want it to be, not as it is.

This narrative has a strong appeal for central media outlets. By appointing themselves as arbiters of whether disasters are being properly handled, they subtly imply that if we don’t hear the media complaining, then ‘the authorities’ (Daddy) must be on top of the situation. That way, reporters don’t have to trek back to the scene years later to focus on the real rebuilding story, which is usually of the courage and resilience of ordinary people and the unglamourous charities and NGOs helping them.

Better still, it absolves the media themselves from making concessions in situations like Fukushima, where neither technology nor the myth of progress have made any headway since the tsunami. 

Maths and realities

Overlying the human aspect of the Grangemouth closure is this indefinable feeling that the news story is being very closely choreographed.

All along, the national news angle has been that the threat to the petrochemical operation and refinery is rooted in union intransigence.

It’s that hoary old news media trajectory, which says that stick-in-the-mud unions prefer to shoot themselves in the foot by refusing to make reasonable concessions. If only they would roll over, goes the story, new investment will pour in and magically turn around the fortunes of the plant.

Yesterday, the BBC’s main online news story on Grangemouth ran to 1,600 words and mentioned unions 16 times. Only right at the end of the story did it mention the fact that the site as a whole is losing £120 million a year.

According to the BBC report, the petrochemical side of the business is losing £50 million a year, or £62,500 per full-time employee. That leaves the refinery losing £70 million a year, or £122,000 per full time employee.

Spread over the entire workforce, which includes around 2,000 contractors, the site’s owner is losing around £750 per week per worker.

Political

You have to ask what kind of concessions would be required from 800 petrochemical workers in order to turn around losses on that scale. And in any case the basis of the union dispute, according to the BBC story, seems to be more political (it’s linked to the Falkirk vote-rigging row) than industrial.

What’s not been mentioned in any of the coverage I’ve seen is the fact that the UK simply has more oil refining capacity than it can use.

Last year’s stories about the US becoming an exporter of refined petroleum products largely failed to mention how the situation arose.

The States used to import large volumes of petrol from the UK. That was until high oil prices drove domestic US consumption down to the point where local refineries could happily meet demand there.

Slump in fuel demand

So the US market has gone. British petrol and diesel demand has slumped too. Developing countries have a fast-growing appetite for road fuels – but as part of their development they’ve built their own refineries and petrochemical plants.

Now Grangemouth’s owner says it needs to invest £300 million (£90,000 per worker) in the petrochemical plant to reconfigure it to profitably handle a dwindling supply of low-ethane crude from the North Sea.

In the oil business of 20 years ago, £300 million would have been a sprat to catch a mackerel (more like a basking shark). In today’s world, where OECD fuel demand and economic buying power is fast fading in the face of $100 crude, such an investment easily starts to look like good money being thrown after bad.

From a purely business perspective, closing the plant now rather than later has to make mathematical sense under the circumstances.

I realise that that argument ignores the devastating economic and social impact that closure would have on a wide area around the plants. However, that prospect doesn’t explain why the unions, rather than the global economics of unaffordable oil, are being put in the frame for the threat to Grangemouth.

Myth

Scrapping a facility that puts fuel in our cars and plastics for our gadgets goes entirely against the grain of our core modern myth of progress. Oil is the magic nourishment that, when used to feed human ingenuity, delivers a bright new today and an almost impossibly brighter and shinier tomorrow.

Don’t tell us it’s not true! Shutting an oil refinery is tantamount to admitting that God doesn’t love us any more.

We must have sinned. Or rather, since we ourselves still believe deeply in Progress and Man’s Predestined Journey to the Stars, someone else must have sinned.

Hence the immediate, almost unconscious, finger-pointing at the unions. They are every media outlet’s shorthand for Luddite, dog-in-the-manger, anti-progressivism. Why, they are so backward-looking that they don’t want to give up their final salary pensions! (Note that many of the Daily Telegraph readers shaking with fury over this red threat to bonnie Scotland are themselves retired on final salary, index linked pensions).

Taxpayer subsidy

Unless there really is some way of reconfiguring Grangemouth to operate at a profit, any deal to keep it going will probably involve some kind of hidden taxpayer subsidy to the owners. From a social perspective, the benefit to region and country from a subsidy might be greater than the costs of letting the plant close. It would also be a sweet deal for the company and the politicians.

If the plant is ‘saved’ for a few more years of operation, the owners will get public cash to mitigate their losses while the politicians take the credit for keeping it going. If it closes, it will be all the unions’ fault – even though it currently looks as though they will accept the terms of the ‘rescue package’.

Funny isn’t it? The myth of progress is increasingly used to browbeat and scapegoat people into believing that it is their own fault when they have to accept the smelly end of the stick.

And yet the idea persists (especially in media like the BBC) that the future will be wonderful because humans can and will overcome anything reality throws at us, including a self-destructing financial system, insufficient natural resources and a rapidly-destabilising climate.

Well I guess if things don’t work out as promised, we can always find a union to blame it on.