Wednesday, February 08, 2017

Living in a world of fake news and alternative facts

It's hard to know what's real in this post-truth world where 'alternative facts' are the order of the day. But even before the age of the Internet the fuzzy lines between truth and facts have often been blurred.

Manipulating truth

How media manipulates facts or conveniently ignores important truths is nothing new. Governments keep information secret using the excuse of 'national security' and the cold reality of war may be glossed over for 'reasons of taste'. Thus whole nations may back a policy they might otherwise recoil from should they see the repercussions of a government's actions.

Uncensored footage which played out on US TV stations during the Vietnam War had a marked effect on the population and fuelled the anti-war movement.

Television long been seen by radicals as a way of controlling the masses. "Who needs controlling when they've got the cathode ray?" the Anarcho-Punk group Crass asked in its scathing attack of the medium of television in the song Nineteen Eighty Bore.

The audience were, Crass maintained, "Drained of any substance by the vicious telly blow, no longer know what's real or ain't, slowly going blind, they stare into the goggle box while the world goes by, behind." [LyricsYouTube]

In the age of the Internet we are saturated with information to such a point that many suffer from information overload. And it is easier for many to get sucked into the facile and empty sound bites uttered on both sides of an otherwise reasoned debate.

Sloganeering

"Make America great again!", "Build a wall" and "Take our country back" have been the slogans of the Trump and Brexit campaign. Many however will look no further than the sloganeering. Sound bites are not confined to the right-wing however. Who can forget Obama's "Yes we can" mantra in his first election campaign. Powerful but meaningless slogans have become the mantra of politicians.

Such sloganeering is nothing new either. On both sides one liners have been used to add force to their argument. And quotes from figures of history are used or misused to add substance to their arguments.

In recent months Churchill, Hitler and Goebbels have all been been quoted and misquoted for the cause. Both sides in Britain's EU referendum have used Churchill as a cause célèbre. The Remain side have cited the wartime leader as one who helped found what was to become the European Union whilst the Leave campaign have selectively quoted or misquoted Churchill for their own ends [SayYes2Europe].

But of course those on the right will simply shout FAKE NEWS in response to anything they don't like.

Fake News

Soon after taking office Trump refused to answer any questions put to him by CNN labelling the organisation as "fake news" [YouTube - CNBC / YouTube - Press Conference in full CNN].

The so-called liberal press have been ignored in the last year as Britain rolled towards a vote for Brexit and America campaigned for a new president. The Guardian, New York Times, CNN and the BBC may have been shouting but few people were listening and many more were retorting that they were propaganda mouthpieces spouting lies and fear. So it was no surprise to some, such as veteran journalist John Pilger, that Trump won [YouTube - RT]

But we are where we are, another much coined phrase. And the world is on a much more dangerous course despite all the rhetoric uttered by the likes of Trump, May and Farage.

Trump and his advisers have set forth a plan that can only put the US on a path to confrontation. Within days in office Trump had signed executive orders banning individuals from several Muslim-majority countries [Guardian]. Meanwhile there has been increased rhetoric that the US will blockade China in its access of the Spratly Islands and the man-made islands within the so-called 9 dashed line [Reuters]. China's stance on the issue is bullish, maintaining that it has history on its side and that the South China Sea is part of its territory [Telegraph / Guardian]. But the US just as bullish and is building its military presence in the region as it rings China with a growing number of military bases [RT / Sun].

Ignoring real facts

But there are few in the West that are aware of what is happening in the South China Sea. Indeed China has fallen off the agenda as western media has focused on Brexit, Trump and the growing far-right populism that appears to be sweeping across parts of Europe.

Pilger has attempted to cover the concerns in his documentary The Coming War on China.

Unlike Bernstein and Munro's book The Coming Conflict with China, which concerned itself with a conflict of economics and politics, Pilger's film is very much focused on a military response to China's growing influence around the world.

In this post truth world of alternative facts there is denial of what the doomsayers, environmentalists, experts and others have been saying. Trump has been on record dismissing climate change whilst saying he wants to restart the US coal industry. Meanwhile there is a growing denial of conventional wisdom that a limited nuclear exchange would throw up dust into the upper atmosphere and create a so-called nuclear winter which could last months or even years resulting in an agricultural disaster which in turn would lead to global famine.

Nonetheless Pilger remains optimistic that such a war will not happen.

Hitler comparisons

But not everyone is so optimistic. Trump's so-called Muslim ban came into force the day after Holocaust Memorial Day and the irony was not lost on many who protested against the barring of citizens holding passports from a number of Middle Eastern and north African countries. "And so it starts," one person wrote on a Facebook post under a news item highlighting Trump's presidential order. But "Where will it end?" the same poster asks.

Even before Trump won the US election people likened him to Hitler. But as he follows through on his much talked about policies of banning Muslims, reinforcing borders and building walls such comparisons have grown.

There are of course stark differences. Trump is not as blatant as Hitler was. But just because law enforcement don't wear jackboots and wear swastikas it doesn't necessarily mean America is not on a path towards fascism.

However, there are checks and balances in American politics and the constitution does protect people's rights being eroded. But in the post-truth world one is now confronted with, how long before peoples and governments are persuaded by the lies? Can the checks and balances be cancelled out? And can a president of the free world ride roughshod over the constitution? 

Alternative facts

No sooner than Trump had been inaugurated than facts were being disputed. Sean Spicer, Trump's White House press secretary, made an angry declaration that the media faked low attendance figures and claimed their assertions did not stack up against photos, videos and public transport figures.

Donald Trump drew "the largest audience ever to witness an inauguration, period, both in person and around the globe" Spicer declared despite clear photographic evidence showing smaller crowds than during Obama's 2009 inauguration [Guardian].

On 22nd January 2017 US Counsellor to the President, Kellyanne Conway, coined the phrase "Alternative facts" during a Meet the Press interview on NBC, as she defended White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer's false statement about the attendance at Donald Trump's inauguration as President of the United States [Washington Post].

The 'alternative facts' didn't end there. Only two weeks into the presidency Kellyanne Conway made yet another major blunder as she attempted to defend Trump's so-called 'Muslim ban'.

"President Obama had a six-month ban on the Iraqi refugee program after two Iraqis came here to this country, were radicalized, and they were the masterminds between the Bowling Green massacre. Most people don't know that because it didn't get covered," Conway said during an interview with MSNBC's Chris Matthews [CNN].

However, the Bowling Green massacre didn't get covered because it didn't happen. In fact there has never been a terrorist attack in Bowling Green, Kentucky, carried out by Iraqi refugees or anyone else.

It appeared Conway was referring to two Iraqi citizens living in Bowling Green who were arrested in 2011 and eventually sentenced to federal prison for attempting to send weapons and money to al-Qaeda in Iraq for the purpose of killing US soldiers, according to a statement from the Justice Department. Conway later sent out a tweet saying that this is what she was in fact referring to. However, there was no massacre [Washington Post].

Of course, anyone can make a mistake. But to go to an interview apparently so ill-prepared is quite inept. And while Conway did put out a correction of sorts not everyone would have seen it and might still be enveloped in a world of alternative facts.

Brexit lies

The EU referendum campaign in the UK is another example where the lines between truth and lies have blurred. One of those campaigning to Leave Europe was Boris Johnson who not only claimed the EU dictated the shape and curvature of bananas but also how many might be sold as a bunch.

"It is absurd that we are told you cannot sell bananas in bunches of more than two or three," Johnson told a pro-Brexit crowd in Stafford. While he was picked up by the press for making it up as he goes along, many ignored the facts and accepted the lies [Telegraph / BBC].

But Boris continued with his alternative facts. As he arrived in Cornwall he spoke of the EU's interference on the shape of bananas.

Brandishing a Cornish pasty - which ironically is one of more than 60 British food and drink products that have protected geographical status under EU law, meaning they cannot be ripped off by imitations made elsewhere - Johnson said it was "absolutely crazy that the EU is telling us how powerful our vacuum cleaners have got to be, what shape our bananas have got to be, and all that kind of thing".

However the truth of the matter is rather mundane. Rules on vacuum cleaners is partially true, but is an attempt to cut back on energy consumption. Furthermore the rules affect only a small proportion of vacuum cleaners.

As regards bananas the so-called Brussels ban on bendy bananas is one of the EU's most persistent myths.

Bananas have always been classified by quality and size for international trade. Because the standards, set by individual governments and the industry, were confusing, the European Commission was asked to draw up new rules.

Commission regulation 2257/94 decreed that bananas in general should be "free from malformation or abnormal curvature" [BBC]. Those sold as "extra class" must be perfect, "class 1" can have "slight defects of shape" and "class 2" can have full-scale "defects of shape". Nothing is banned under the regulation [Guardian / Spectator].

Believing the lies

But many people were drawn into the lies and apparently voted on the strength of these lies. "I was voting remain and at the very last minute I changed my decision and I went to leave," an audience member on BBC Question Time said recently, adding, "The reason because of that is because of… I go to a supermarket and a banana is straight. I'm just sick of the silly rules that come out of Europe." [Sun / Mirror / Daily Mail].

The Leave campaign has also been taken to task over other campaign lies such as the extra £350 million that could be spent on the NHS instead of being used as Britain's daily EU membership fee. The detail over facts and figures has been somewhat lost in time but even days after members of the pro-Brexit camp such as UKIP's Nigel Farage were calling the famous bus slogan "a mistake".

He told ITV's Good Morning Britain that the pledge came from others in the Leave campaign and that it was their "mistake" to loudly earmark £350 million for the health service during the campaign.

However, only days before Nigel Farage had said EU cash should be spent on the National Health Service after Brexit [Independent].

Prior to the vote former PM John Major made a withering assessment of leading members of Vote Leave, calling their campaign deceitful, untrue, depressing, awful and "verging on the squalid".

Major claimed Gove had wanted to privatise the NHS, Johnson wished to charge people for health services and Duncan Smith advocated moving to a social insurance system. "The NHS is about as safe with them as a pet hamster would be with a hungry python," Major said on BBC1's The Andrew Marr Show [Guardian].

This wasn't the first U-turn by the Leave camp. Soon after the PM Theresa May declared Britain would not seek to maintain access to the Single Market those in the Leave camp conveniently forgot about their mantra that Britain would not have to leave the Single Market [YouTube - Open Britain]

U-turns or abandoned promises are of course nothing new but the Brexit campaign was perhaps awash with them more than any other in living memory [YouTube].

Far Right battle cries

It is not just Britain and America experiencing a post-truth world. Across parts of Europe the electorate are being subject to lies and half-truths.

In France the election is being fought in a post-Brexit, post-Trump, post-truth atmosphere with the Far-Right in particular seeking to capitalise on the back of Brexit and Trump whilst slandering the opposition [Guardian].

Speaking on CNN Marine Le Pen the French Presidential Candidate for the National Front claimed that Crimea "has always been Russian" and that what happened was a "Coup d'Etat".

CNN's international correspondent appeared shocked at Le Pen's answers. "Does it not bother you that a big country broke international law and invaded and annexed a small country?" Amanpour asked. "There was a coup d'etat in Ukraine…" Le Pen retorted.

"That's what you think?" Amanpour asked.

"It's not just what I think, it's the reality. There was a coup d'etat. There was an agreement among different nations and the next day this agreement was broken and some people took power…"

Amanpour forced the issue in an attempt to clarify Le Pen's position. "After the invasion and the annexation…Yes!"

"There was no invasion of Crimea…" Le Pen once again asserted

"But they [Russia] annexed Crimea! It was part of Ukraine! And the French were part of the deal that guaranteed the independence of Ukraine in 1994," Amanpour told her.

"Crimea was Russian. It has always been Russian," Le Pen insisted [CNN / Full Transcript].

While the issues surrounding Ukraine and Crimea are indeed complicated Le Pen's opinions on the matter are somewhat disturbing [Telegraph].

Rising nationalism

Nonetheless, Le Pen is riding on a wave of nationalism and populism that could see her seizing power. It would be a win that could set France into a spin, politically economically and sociologically [Guardian].

France has had a long tradition of tolerance. Its motto is Liberté, égalité, fraternité and whilst a somewhat conservative society it has long lived under a flag of socialist values too.

A France under Le Pen could set the country on a far more tumultuous route than Brexit has with Britain [NYT / Newsweek].

There are very real fears that not only Le Pen but other far-Right candidates could seize power across Europe. However organisations such as Rue89 believe that the French political system will save at least France from such an outcome.

Existential crises

Part of the problem faced by voters is the very real issue of so-called Fake News. Recently Christiane Amanpour wrote a piece suggesting that since Trump the very nature of journalism was in an "existential crisis".

"I believe in being truthful, not neutral. And I believe we must stop banalizing the truth," Amanpour wrote. "And we have to be prepared to fight especially hard for the truth in a world where the Oxford English Dictionary just announced its word of 2016: 'post-truth' " [CNN]

Such concerns are heightened by the fact the world now has a US president who essentially calls anything he doesn't like or agree with 'Fake News'.

When polls appeared to show most people did not agree with his travel ban President Trump declared the polls were fake. "Any negative polls are fake news, just like the CNN, ABC, NBC polls in the election. Sorry, people want border security and extreme vetting," Trump tweeted.

His war on the media has been consistent both throughout his campaign and during his first days in office. At some rallies, some Trump supporters even yelled a term used by the Nazis, "Lugenpresse" (translation: lying press), at media staff members [TimeCNN /CNN]

Trump's latest attacks on the media are extremely dangerous. At a CIA meeting Trump declared "I have a running war with the media. They are among the most dishonest human beings on Earth" [CNN]. He's called out individual reporters for alleged bias. He's insisted that the media as a whole is failing. But now he has accused the media for covering up or under-reporting terror attacks [Washington Post / Guardian].

"You've seen what happened in Paris, and Nice. All over Europe, it's happening. It's gotten to a point where it's not even being reported. And in many cases the very, very dishonest press doesn't want to report it," Trump told senior US military commanders and coalition representatives on 6th February at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida [Washington Post].

Quite how much coverage Trump would want to see is unclear. Some of the incidents on his list might have got front page headlines in one country but only a mention in foreign press. But every incident on Trump's list was covered, some extensively [Guardian].

Effects of fake news

There is an irony however in Trump's attacks on the media. Whilst there may well be a large number of Trump supports abandoning traditional media sources, some such sources have seen audience numbers and sales rise. For example The New York Times, one of Mr Trump's favourite voodoo dolls, which he has repeatedly admonished on Twitter and in rallies, is doing very well out of the new president. In the three weeks after his election, it sold 132,000 digital subscriptions - a tenfold increase [CNBC / BBC].

But the issues concerning fake news are not going away.

Facebook was singled out during the US election as providing a platform for Fake News. Such items have also been said by some to have influenced people in the way they voted.

While slow to react to the criticism Facebook has now set up a 'fake news' filter for the country in the lead up to national elections in France. It follows a similar decision it made with regards to the upcoming German elections [FT]. Google has also joined forces in seeking to weed out 'fake news' stories in France ahead of the country's presidential election [Reuters].

While the effects of fake news on Brexit and the US election are highly subjective and open to debate, the effects on some individuals has been very real.

One refugee who became a victim of fake news is now suing Facebook accusing the social network of aiding incitement by spreading posts with false claims he was an Islamist terrorist [NYT / CNN].

In the Soviet Union of the nineteen-seventies and eighties everyone knew that everything said on the radio or on television, everything - with the exception of weather reports or sports results - was a blatant lie.

But in today's world where we have rejected experts, readily absorbed 'fake news', dismissed real journalism as 'fake news' and even vote on the basis of believing government bodies dictate on the shape of fruit, the world of truth has become ever more blurred and fuzzy.

In the 1930s when an electorate voted for Hitler they might be forgiven for not being fully informed. Some 80 or so years on people are saturated with information to the point that many suffer from information overload. Furthermore the public have to make their own minds up what is fiction and what is fact. And it's more difficult than one might think [Salon].

There is a very real danger that not knowing what is real or fake could send us all into a very dark dystopian world indeed [New Yorker].

Irony and satire

In recent months some have sought light relief by satirizing the situation, from Brexit, votes based on nonexistent laws on bananas, nonexistent inauguration crowds and other bizarre quirks related to the new US president such as his demeanor, hand size and haircut. Humour can provide relief and some, such as the New Yorker, see it as a political weapon.

But US president Donald Trump's new administration seems impervious to parody, and shows no signs of changing tactics even if Trump himself gets a little peeved by his Saturday Night Live sketches calling them  "unwatchable" and "totally biased" [Time].

Sean Spicer has also been parodied on SNL with great affect and in fact the recent satirical sketches have in fact boosted ratings [Washington Post]. 

Saturday Night Live has recorded 22-year high ratings as a result of its scathing attacks on US president Donald Trump and his White House spokesman Sean Spicer, drawing an average audience of 10.6 million viewers [Daily Mail].

But as Hannah Arendt, a philosopher who dissected the rise of totalitarianism during the Second World War, showed in 1951, political lies aren't funny at all [Quartz].

Ultimately, humans are fallible judges of the truth. Scientific studies have shown that determining a statement is false takes more mental energy than simply accepting it as true. It would be exhausting to go through life questioning everything around us, and so humans are naturally inclined to judge what we see and hear as truth. Indeed even if papers attempt to clarify things many will dismiss this as - you've guessed it - fake news [Mirror]. Research indicates that frequently repeating a lie further creates "the illusion of truth." [Researchgate]

Herein lies another irony. Since the birth of fake news and alternative facts those on the side of truth have incorrectly cited the Nazi Joseph Goebbels as having said, "If you repeat a lie often enough, people will believe it, and you will even come to believe it yourself." In fact Goebbels never said this or a number of other quotes often attributed to him [Truth is the Greatest Enemy of the State].

Whilst attributed to Goebbels it is likely the quote is drawn instead from "War Propaganda", volume 1, chapter 6 of Mein Kampf (1925), by Adolf Hitler. Often referred to as the Big Lie, the expression was coined by Adolf Hitler, when he dictated his 1925 book Mein Kampf, about the use of a lie so "colossal" that no one would believe that someone "could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously." Hitler falsely claimed the technique was used by Jews to blame Germany's loss in World War I on German general Erich Ludendorff, who was a prominent nationalist and antisemitic political leader in the Weimar Republic.

It is truth that is the enemy of the state. But knowing what the truth is has become harder to determine. And some might say, just like Magritte's painting The Treachery of Images, truth and fact is all a matter of perspective [YouTube].

tvnewswatch, London

Monday, January 23, 2017

Brexit may turn Brits into Swedes as we all go lagom

Sweden is perhaps best known for ABBA, The Cardigans, IKEA, meatballs, and Volvos. But the word lagom has entered the British lexicon and is likely to become the epitome of 2017.

Austerity and recession have yet to hit the British economy despite claims by the Remain camp that a vote to leave the EU would lead to economic ruin. But the British pound has crashed since the referendum resulting in a gradual increase in the cost of living. In December inflation rose to 1.6%, up from 1.2% in November and the highest rate since July 2014 [BBC]. And many manufacturers and suppliers are beginning to increase prices as the cost of imports increase.

For those with fluidity and disposable income a rise in the price of fuel, Marmite and a plethora of products made by Unilever and Premier Foods will mean little [BBC].

But there is a certain 'clique' of society who, whilst not scraping a living, will be looking at ways to make cutbacks. And this is where Sweden is making an influence.

Before Brexit the only Swedish words people might have known would be have been those associated with IKEA products.

But in recent weeks there have been countless articles indoctrinating the British public into a very Swedish phenomenon, that of lagom.

Going lagom

Lagom roughly translates as 'just enough' or 'not too little, not too much'. In Sweden it is said to be the philosophy of life. But it is creeping into the UK.

Recently IKEA pushed out a sales pitch on the benefits of lagom entitled "Live Lagom" whilst a Daily Mirror article published last November reported that lagom helped one former student clear her overdraft.

Danny Robbins play Cold Swedish Winter, which focuses on the Swedish way of life and lagom in particular, is being rerun on BBC Radio 4

Meanwhile the Daily Mail reported in its Femail section that lagom has the benefit of bringing happiness.

Hype and conspiracy 

Apparently the Brits all went a little bit Danish in 2016 — snuggling up in hand-knitted blankets, lighting pine-scented candles and sipping hot chocolate.

"We were embracing the cosiness Danes call hygge", the Daily Mail declared. Hygge was, essentially, a lifestyle all about cosiness [BBC]. However some argued the phenomenon was more a conspiracy to sell everything from fluffy socks to cashmere cardigans, wine, wallpaper and vegan shepherd's pie [Guardian].

But whether or not hygge was ever in vogue in 2016 or a conspiracy to increase sales of fluffy socks, the buzzword for 2017 is most definitely lagom.

The year of lagom

Pronounced lar-gom it's one of the most frequently used words in Sweden — you'll eat a lagom amount of food, live in a lagom house and drive a lagom car. In other words, just good enough to enjoy life but not over-the-top or ostentatious [Evening Standard].

Swedes have taken this approach to life with a passion and little if any cynicism. But in a post-Brexit Britain embracing lagom could prove beneficial. It of course might be hard to swallow both for Remainers and Brexiters. Both might argue why one should be 'forced' to change one's lifestyle because of the EU referendum.

But sadly facts are facts - unless one is living in Trump's post-truth world of 'alternative facts' [BBC / Guardian / Independent] and post-Brexit Britain is going to get more expensive.

Apparently the Swedes are happier than us and much is put down to lagom [Huffington Post]. But can Brits embrace lagom?

Whether Living Lagom can sweeten the taste of leaving the EU or merely soften the economic blow remains to be seen. Whilst you mull over these thoughts why not just relax and enjoy another Swedish concept, that of Fika - a coffee break where friends gather, drink coffee and eat cake. Fika is perhaps one instance where you can have your cake and eat it [Evening Standard].

tvnewswatch, London

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Theresa May sets out her plan for Britain

Theresa May has set out her plan for Britain as she embarks upon leaving the EU [BBC]. But while her speech clarified some details in her Brexit plan, most notably her decision that she would not seek to retain access to the Single Market, other details were less than clear. Indeed for some the plan was more one of hopes and dreams than definite intentions.

No Single Market

In her address the British PM said the UK "cannot possibly" remain within the European single market, as staying in it would mean "not leaving the EU at all".

But the prime minister promised to push for the "freest possible trade" with European countries and to sign new deals with others around the world.

Such a plan would place the UK in a similar position as Canada which has recently signed a free-trade deal with Europe. However such a deal could take up to a decade or more to negotiate.

Customs Union

Whilst she abandoned the idea of retaining access to the single market she said she did wish to negotiate a customs agreement with the EU. Such a plan has been likened to an agreement Turkey has with the EU.

May failed to mention anything concerning the European Free Trade Association [EFTA]. A free trade area is one where there are no tariffs or taxes or quotas on goods and/or services from one country entering another.

The negotiations to establish them can take years and there are normally exceptions. So agriculture and fisheries might be exempted, certain industries protected and some goods may not be covered.

Also imported goods would have to comply with the law of the country they are being sold in. So, for example, you could have a free trade agreement with the US but still a ban on the import of GM foods or different safety standards for electrical goods.

There is a free trade zone in Europe, which the UK helped to create. EFTA, the European Free Trade Association, counts Norway, Iceland, Switzerland and Liechtenstein as members.

The EU has free trade arrangements with many other countries in Europe and beyond, including Turkey and Ukraine and countries that are applying to join the EU.

So how is a customs union different from a free trade area? The key difference is that the countries that club together agree to apply the same tariffs to goods from outside the union.

Once goods have cleared customs in one country they can be shipped to others in the union without further tariffs being imposed [BBC].

Complicated negotiations

But negotiations on such matters could be extremely complicated. Indeed such matters could well be delayed as the EU negotiating team has already stated that matters on trade might not be discussed during the two year period set aside in Article 50.

Last November Michel Barnier, the European Commission's chief Brexit negotiator, said the UK would have only 18 months to negotiate a deal and this would only cover some aspects of the 'divorce' [Guardian].

He made clear that any trade arrangement was of a "different legal nature" to a withdrawal agreement and would take longer to agree than divorce. "You cannot do everything in 15-18 months of negotiations; you have to take things in the right order," he said. The sequence of talks is significant because British ministers had hoped to complete a trade deal in short order with the EU, or at least have clarity on transition arrangements within the first year of Brexit negotiations at the latest, so that businesses have time to prepare [FT].

Thus it is still not clear what Theresa May can negotiate for in the 18 months following the triggering of Article 50, nor what she will be able to walk away with.

WTO option

Some have also raised concerns that the PM's approach could create friction with the WTO. Emma Reynolds, MP for Wolverhampton North East, tweeted, "PM's middle way on customs union could fall foul of WTO rules, customs union must cover the majority of trade between two countries."

This would not bode well for Britain especially if, as some believe, the country resorts to WTO rules, often referred to as a hard or diamond-hard Brexit.

May has already made clear that no deal, with the EU, is better than a bad deal. But should the UK fall back on WTO tariffs British industry could be hit very badly.

Speaking at the International Trade Committee Mike Hawes from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders said going to WTO rules "could threaten the viability of the UK automotive sector" with some £1,500 added to the cost of each car sold.

Moreover, leaving customs union would result in additional costs because of delays to parts deliveries sourced from elsewhere in Europe. European manufacturers might see the European market as more important than UK market and thus EU manufacturers would "align with political imperative of their home country".

In addition current UK-built cars do not have enough "local content" to abide by free trade agreements, because of current level of EU made parts.

Political fallout

While the pound gained on the back of May's speech there was fallout too on the likely prospect Britain head for a hard Brexit. The Italian daily La Repubblica commented, "Out of the EU, out of common market, out of everything. It appears that Theresa May's intention through negotiations with the EU at the end of March is 'a hard Brexit' - a very hard Brexit indeed." [BBC]  

German firms were reported to scale back investment in the UK as it heads for a 'hard brexit', according to Germany's Chamber of Commerce and Industry [DIHK].

"There now will be less investment from German companies in Britain," Volker Treier, head of the DIHK's trade division, told Reuters.

He also said that a hard Brexit would impair growth both in Britain and the rest of Europe, and that the UK would probably become less important for Germany as export destination.

Meanwhile the Czech Europe Minister, Tomas Prouza, tweeted "UK's plan seems a bit ambitious" and appeared to criticise the apparent 'cake and eat it approach' espoused by May. "Trade as free as possible, full control on immigration... where is the give for all the take?" he asked.

May's plans were also criticised by Guy Verhofstadt, named as the European Parliament's lead negotiator on Brexit [Twitter].

It was an "illusion" for Theresa May to suggest "that you can go out of the single market, that you can go out of the customs union and that you can cherry-pick, that you can have still a number of advantages - I think that will not happen".

Michael Fuchs, a close conservative ally of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, also accused Theresa May of "cherry-picking".

Creating a tax haven

As for Britain's politicians they were essentially split into two camps with those in the leave camp waving flags whilst those on the other side sought to pick holes in the PM's speech.

Lib Dem leader Tim Farron was quick to criticise May's announcement that Britain would quit the single market, saying it would be bad for jobs and industry [Twitter]. Writing in the Guardian he added it amounted to "a mixture of vague fantasies, and toothless threats to our nearest neighbours."   

Meanwhile Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said Theresa May was determined to use Brexit to strip away workers rights and turn the UK into a tax haven [Independent].

Theresa May might have a plan, but she is still stepping into a minefield with no clear path and no determinate length.

It appears clear to some however that May's vision might just be a tax haven on Europe's doorstep. In an interview with a German newspaper Welt am Sonntag, the Chancellor Philip Hammond said the UK is willing to do "whatever we have to" to bounce back after Brexit even if it meant ripping up its economic model and become the tax haven of Europe [Independent].

The Dutch daily Algemeen Dagblad called the prime minister's speech "not just a bit of Brexit but the full whack".

"Bye bye EU... the unspoken, big threat from London is creating a tax paradise in front of the gates of Europe," it said.

tvnewswatch, London

Tuesday, January 03, 2017

2017 - A not so happy start to the new year

Many people focus on the new year as a cause for celebration. But for a lot of people it can create more than a few problems. Some might look back on the year and, thinking of the bad or tumultuous events, will feel less than enthusiastic about celebrating.

One could also look back on a bad year and, after reflection, come to the conclusion that "things can only get better". 

The song with the same refrain was famously used when Tony Blair won Labour's 1997 General Election. But when it was recently played at a Labour party event the current leader Jeremy Corbyn was reportedly less than impressed, although some dispute these accounts [Mirror]. Whatever the truth of those events, Corbyn will be even less impressed by polls published soon after the new year celebrations which indicate Labour is on course to win fewer than 200 seats for the first time since 1935 in any future election [BBC].

2017 had barely started before violence marred the festivities. As the midnight clock chimed and the world welcomed in 2017 the celebrations were marred with violence as an Islamic State terrorist burst into a Turkish night club in Istanbul killing 39 and injuring many others [BBC / CNN].

Hundreds woke up in France to find their cars torched in what had become has become an annular display of protest in deprived cities across the region [The Local]. The figures were up on last year which had seen a drop in the number of such incidents [BBC]. According to the French interior ministry, the total of 945, which included cars that were either "totally destroyed" or "more lightly affected", amounted to a 17% compared to 2016 [Telegraph].

There were no such scenes of violence in London or across Britain, although there were some fights and drunken brawls [Daily Mail]. Meanwhile security services, concerned that terrorists might strike, prompted increased security patrols [The Sun].

While cars burned in France, it was the New Year performances by well-known stars that raised temperatures in Britain and the US.

In Britain the singer Robbie Williams welcomed in the new year with a live performance on the BBC. But even his fans felt somewhat disappointed especially by his singing which was rather flat and out of tune. "Wow, Robbie Williams nearly hit some of the right notes in that last song!" one viewer exclaimed on Twitter.

Jokes about his daughter's vagina and attempts at humour by swearing on the BBC were also considered somewhat poor taste and childish. "I'm sorry @robbiewilliams but that "vagina" gag was despicable" Mr J in the UK tweeted whilst Katherine posted, "I'm really confused as to why Robbie Williams decided New Years was the time to discuss not taking pics with fans & his daughter's vagina???"

Others were also perturbed over his use of hand sanitiser on New Year's Eve after shaking hands with fans. One viewer tweeted "Robbie Williams sanitising his hand after touching the public is the most hysterical start to a new year ever. The year of memes commences."

The singer has responded to the incident by posting a tongue in cheek video in which he hugs a woman before reaching for a large bottle of sanitiser and shudders as he rubs it into his hands [Evening Standard].

Hours later Mariah Carey created an even bigger reaction on social media after technical issues made her look less than professional as she struggled to lip sync to some of her well known hits [BBC / Telegraph]. Video footage of the disastrous performance has been pulled from many news websites over legal rights issues although clips are still on YouTube.

Of course such things pale into insignificance when looked at the backdrop of New Year terror attacks that struck Turkey and Iraq [Wikipedia / Reuters].

But wherever one was as 2017 began, it did seem to start on a rather sour note.

Let's hope that things do get better as the aforementioned song refrains.

tvnewswatch, London

Friday, December 16, 2016

2016 a dystopian year

Slate magazine asked back in July whether 2016 was "the worst year in history". Given the events of history, this was rather an exaggeration. But while 2016 has not been exactly one of the best years on records, it it certainly isn't the worst either.


However, 2016 has been a year that may prove pivotal in the course of history. The UK voted to leave the EU, a complex divorce that may take years to negotiate. Donald Trump was elected president of the United States in an unexpected victory. Europe's migrant crisis grew, Pokemon Go became a sensation and Deutsche Bank faced a fine of up to $14bn. All the while, oil prices plunged and surged while the British pound tanked.

Bad years on record

For the inhabitants of London 1665 and 1666 would probably top the list of particularly bad years, what with the Black Death and the Great Fire of London. For New Yorkers, 2001 is marked as probably one of their worst days in living memory, and 2015 is probably considered to be rather dire as far as Parisians are concerned after the dreadful terror attacks that brought carnage to the streets of the French capital. The Nice terror attack in 2016 however topped that.

It is all a matter of perspective, and where you are sitting at any particular moment. Sitting thousands of kilometres away from a marked event in history might make one feel somewhat insulated. But events halfway round the world can influence and change so many things.

The Great Fire of London changed the face of Britain's capital. Residential housing reduced significantly with the rebuilding of the city. But construction techniques improved and most buildings were brick built.

While calamitous, the Great Fire of London also helped to kill off some of the black rats and fleas that carried the plague bacillus, the Bubonic Plague, also known as the Black Death, and which had been known in England for centuries.

Plague had been around in England for centuries but in 1665 the so-called Great Plague hit the country – though it was Stuart London that took the worst of the plague. The plague was only finally brought under control in 1666 when the Great Fire of London burned down the areas most affected by plague – the city slums inhabited by the poor.

The plague which had spread from central Asia had itself created a series of religious, social, and economic upheavals, which in turn had profound effects on the course of European history.

The 9/11 attacks while only affecting a few cities in the US changed world politics and the social order. It precipitated war in Afghanistan and Iraq, the consequences which continue until today.

And the terror attacks across Europe throughout the following years, and culminating in the attacks in Paris and Nice has resulted in a reevaluation of how Europe controls its borders and immigration.

Political turmoil of 2016

While 2016 might not seem, on the face of it, to be the worst year in history, politically it has arguably been a game changer.

Britain's EU referendum divided a country after a little over half the voting electorate expressed a desire to leave the European Union.

Meanwhile Donald Trump's victory in the United States has been seen as a backslide towards far right politics which has also divided the country.

Meanwhile there is a growing fear that the far right across Europe will capitalise upon these events. The French far right candidate, Marine Le Pen, has seen Brexit and the Trump win as "a sign of hope" for France [CNN].

One of the country's leading philosophers says France may follow America's lead by electing National Front leader Marine Le Pen as its next president because people have lost interest in whether politicians tell the truth.

"If Trump is possible, then everything is possible," Bernard-Henri Levy, who was once hailed in France as its greatest living public intellectual, told the Telegraph. "Nothing, from now on, is unimaginable."

While the Remain camp Britain's EU referendum campaign could be accused of exaggerating the risks of leaving the EU, the Leave campaign could be rightfully accused of outright lies from promises of an extra £350 million for the NHS to untruths concerning some EU rules [bendy or bunches of bananas for example - BBC] and questions over whether Britain could still remain a member of the Single Market [BBC].

Trump, too, put forward impossible promises. Much of Trump's campaign rhetoric  might have been what people wanted to hear but it was also undeliverable. The Mexicans could never be coerced to pay for the wall Donald Trump said he would build between the two countries. His plan to bar Muslims from the US "until we know who they are" was unworkable from the outset. And already his plan to jail Hillary Clinton for her 'crimes' appear to have been shelved despite the slogan being such a crowd pleaser.

"The people listen less and less to policy and they even seem less concerned about whether the candidates are telling the truth or not," Levy reiterates. "They are more interested in the performance, in the theatrical quality of what is said than whether it is true. And as we know, a fascist can put on a very successful performance."

And it is a new rise of fascism that many people now fear.

Rise of fascism

The last wave of fascism led to probably the worst conflict the world has seen. And with the likes of Le Pen gaining ground the fear is Europe could once again tear itself apart.

In the lead up to the EU referendum former PM David Cameron said, "Can we be so sure peace and stability on our continent are assured beyond any shadow of doubt? Is that a risk worth taking [by a vote for Brexit]?" [Mirror]

It was a line of argument that afforded Cameron much criticism and ridicule. The assertion did bring some serious debate [Guardian]. But in general, Britain's decision to leave the EU as being a trigger that could set the ball rolling down a path to war was generally met with ridicule.

But with a Brexit win, a Trump presidency and questions over the future of Europe hanging in the balance, things don't seem quite to certain. There are contradictions over globalism as Britain claims it will lead the world in trade whilst Trump appears to be painting a picture of increased protectionism. A split of Europe would also bring about similar protectionist values.

These are things seen in the 1930s which also saw currencies fall and later led to conflict. Putting these risks aside however, 2016 has not been a good year on many other fronts.

Terrorism, war & natural disasters

Europe experienced terror on a scale it hadn't seen since the 1970s. In March 30 people were killed in attacks on Brussels Airport [2016 Brussels bombings-Wikipedia]. Then came the horrific murder of 86 people after a terrorist drove a truck through a crowd in Nice commemorating Bastille Day [2016 Nice Attack-Wikipedia]. The Orlando nightclub shooting in June was just one of many massacres in the United States [2016 Orlando nightclub shooting-Wikipedia].

For those living in South America the biggest threat came from the Zika virus, locust swarms which plagued Argentina, and record droughts in Brazil. Meanwhile in the Middle East the carnage continued with the death toll in the Syrian Civil War mounting day by day. There appears to be no end in sight to the conflict which has precipitated the biggest refugee crisis for more than half a century and seen more than 300,000 people killed.

Meanwhile the Islamic State inspired Boko Haram insurgency continues.

Celebrity deaths

For those of us not buried in politics and news, 2016 had many sad moments as we saw the death of people many of us had grown up with.

The year started almost as badly as it ended as it was announced that David Bowie had passed away. The pop world was shaken again after Prince died in April and in November Leonard Cohen passed away.

The world also lost sporting champion boxer Muhammad Ali died in June and the veteran actor Gene Wilder who passed away in August.

Magician Paul Daniels and comedians Ronnie Corbett, Victoria Wood and Frank Kelly also left us just when we perhaps needed a little light relief from all the troubles in the world. And Comic Relief was left without its long-time host Terry Wogan who died in January.

Not the apocalypse, quite yet

So was 2016 a bad year or not? Celebrities of course die every year, after all none of us are getting any younger. But perhaps the passing of certain icons may feel more tragic than the passing of others.

The Syrian conflict is horrific. But even since the end of World War II hardly a year has passed without there being a war or conflict. The US alone have been involved in countless military operations including the Korean War, the Bay of Pigs in Cuba, the Vietnam War, attacks in the Dominican Republic, Lebanon and Grenada, as well as the major operations in the Balkans, Afghanistan and Iraq [Infoplease].  

For most Europeans and those in the free West, war has not been that close to home, although there has been a growing and ongoing terror threat from both domestic and foreign terrorist groups. As such many feel insulated from such conflicts to the extent that even politicians often appear clueless. Who could forget the response from Gary Johnson, the former New Mexico governor and Libertarian Party presidential nominee, when asked about the Syrian civil war. Johnson revealed a surprising lack of foreign policy knowledge when his asked "What is Aleppo?" during an MSNBC interview [NYT / MSNBC-video].

What is different about 2016 is not the number of conflicts, disasters - natural or man-made, or celebrity deaths. 2016 is marked by the swing from moderate or liberal politics to one of intolerance, xenophobia, racism, insularity and protectionism. In this regard 2016 has indeed been a bad year. What remains to be seen is whether this trend will continue into 2017 or if rational behaviour develops to turn the ship around or at least weigh anchor and take stock of the direction we have decided to sail.

tvnewswatch, London




Friday, November 25, 2016

Black Friday frustration for online shoppers

Black Friday proved to be particularly frustrating for some as millions of people sought to purchase bargains ahead of anticipated price hikes in the coming months [BBC].

A weak pound that followed the Brexit vote in June has made imports more expensive. However many retailers have yet to pass on the costs to consumers, preferring to take a cut in profits rather than risking a loss of custom.

But price hikes are inevitable in the coming months as old stock dwindles and retailers seek to rekindle profits.

But before the price hikes comes Black Friday, an American import which the cynically minded would say is just a way of retailers getting rid of old stock. Nonetheless there are many who don't mind last year's model.

However, those seeking a bargain have encountered hours of frustration attempting to purchase items on crashing websites or battling through crowds of other bargain hunters.

Online hell

Thousands of people attempting to buy a Dell laptop reduced by nearly 50% were thwarted by constant timeouts and other errors. Those seeking to redress the problem through Dell's helpline found themselves in a very long queue.

Many potential customers took to social media to vent their frustration. "If @DellUK can't cope with people buying stuff from their store, how could they cope with a DDoS attack?" one annoyed Twitter user posted.

Some felt the whole promotion was merely baiting people who unable to buy what they wanted felt compelled to still make a purchase though for a much smaller reduction. "Don't fall for the Dell doorbuster bait and switch" wrote @Jellyf0x. "It's a bait and switch scam, they don't want your £200 they really want to sell you something else later" 

Others felt the online problems did not bode well for a tech giant like Dell. Indeed the Black Friday offer may have backfired. One hopeful buyer glumly suggested he might opt for a Lenevo laptop instead. Others aired similar grievances. "Your Black Friday treatment has been nothing short of disgraceful...I'm taking my money elsewhere & advise others to do likewise!!!" Simon Church posted on Twitter.

Many people were sceptical as to how many laptops were even on sale. Dell on stated there were a 'Limited' number. However given the issues so many people experiencing and the fact that Dell said the offer was closed within an hour of going live, some questioned whether there was even one laptop available at the stated £199 price tag.

Stabbing and overspending

In the physical world things weren't doing too well either. Many shoppers found themselves stuck in heavy traffic as they headed to out of town shopping centres. For some the bargains were not cheap enough though and one off duty police officer was stabbed after attempting to apprehend a shoplifter in Leeds [Sun].

Shoppers grabbing bargains have been cautioned against overspending, especially given the uncertainty of the British economy.

"The key is to make sure you only buy items you were looking for anyway, and not because you fall for the marketing hype," said Gary Caffell, from Moneysavingexpert. "There are some great deals out there but make sure you do your own price comparisons, as prices can fluctuate wildly from store to store - don't just take a retailer's word for it that something is a bargain."

While there will be many who have walked away with a bargain, there will be a far greater number who will have increased their debts by loading expenditure to credit cards. Others will have been left bitter by the whole frustrating experience.


tvnewswatch, London

Sunday, November 20, 2016

40 years since punk rock hit the UK

It is 2016 and some 40 years since punk rock emerged on the London music scene. Anarchy in the UK was released on 26th November 1976 and so began one of the most momentous changes to music and culture. In celebration the London Mayoral office and the National Lottery of all bodies are funded and backed a series of events to mark the occasion [Punk London]. An irony given the furore the Pistols and their contemporaries created with the then Greater London Council and how the punk movement as a whole rejected the nature of capitalist ventures as would include such things as the National Lottery.

But aside of the commercialisation of the event, it is perhaps important to reflect on the importance of the punk phenomenon and its influence on culture and music, be it good or bad.

They couldn't play - or could they?

"Find four kids. Make sure they can't play," Malcolm McLaren espoused in the Great Rock'n'Roll Swindle, reinforcing the myth that most punk musicians couldn't play and that most could only bash out three or four chord riffs.

However, a listen to some of the best punk albums released nearly 40 years ago soon dispels such notions. Indeed some of the musicians were extremely accomplished.

Never Mind the Bollocks here's the Sex Pistols was far from bollocks. And Siouxsie and the Banshees 1978 album Scream is both haunting and complex with its melodies and rhythms.

The Clash's first LP of the same name, while raw also has some incredible moments. Take White Man in Hammersmith Palais for example or Police and Thieves with their strong reggae influences and heavy bass lines.

And while occasionally despised by many in the punk scene, how can one ignore the Stranglers with their wandering bass lines courtesy of Jean-Jacques Burnel and the haunting keyboards of Dave Greenfield.

Gone but not forgotten

Sadly many of those old punks are no longer with us. And not all of them met an unhappy end like Sid Vicious who found his way to taking a heroin overdose after allegedly dispatching his girlfriend Nancy Spungen with a knife in a New York hotel.

Lead singer of X-Ray Spex Poly Styrene passed away in 2011, at the age of 53, after a battle with breast cancer that spread to her spine and lungs. The guitarist Jak Airport also succumbed to cancer and died in 2004 aged 49.

The Clash of course lost their frontman and rhythm guitarist Joe Strummer in 2002 when he became the victim of an undiagnosed congenital heart defect. He was 50.

Lead singer Ari Up of the Slits meanwhile died of cancer in Los Angeles, aged 48.

And who could forget the Ramones who by 2014 had lost all four of the band's original members. Lead singer Joey Ramone died of lymphoma in 2001, guitarist Johnny Ramone died in his Los Angeles home in 2004 at the age of 55 after five years battling prostate cancer, bassist Dee Dee Ramone succumbed to a heroin overdose in 2002 and drummer Tommy Ramone passed away in 2014 aged 65 following unsuccessful treatment for bile duct cancer.

Moving on

Whilst some old punks have died others have simply moved on. John Lydon, aka Johnny Rotten is still knocking out records at 60 but many of his contemporaries left the music scene some time ago.

Former drummer with the Clash, Terry Chimes is now a chiropractor while Steve Ignorant, lead singer of the anarcho-punk group Crass is now a lifeboatman. Meanwhile punk fashion icon Jordan has since become a veterinary nurse [Guardian].

Such changes in career might not seem very punk, but what's wrong with helping saving the lives of animals, fishermen lost at sea or relieving someone's back pain? After all punk was as much about community and helping others as it was about DIY rock music and sloganeering.

In the end we all have to move on with our lives as a Guardian photo gallery of old punks shows [Guardian].

Nostalgia

For most people punk is little more than nostalgia [Guardian]. There are some groups that continue to tour, such as the Damned, albeit with different line-ups. But there are many who scorn the flogging of a dead horse and the commercialisation of punk.

Indeed, Joe Corré, son of Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood, has said he he will burn £5 million worth of punk memorabilia in public in reaction to the commercialised Punk London celebrations. "Rather than a movement for change, punk has become like a f***ing museum piece or a tribute act," Corré is quoted as saying [BBC / Telegraph / Guardian].

But at the same time one cannot ignore the influence punk has has had on music, fashion and culture. From the new wave groups of the late 1970s and Gothic bands ranging from Bauhaus to Marilyn Manson, punk has changed the face of music.

Distressed jeans have almost become socially acceptable some four decades after torn clothing was a fashion statement, though bondage trousers have faded away to little more than a distant memory. Nonetheless to have coloured hair hardly raises an eyebrow as it did in the mid-seventies. In fact punk has become a commodity and a symbol of London as much as its red phone boxes, black cabs and the Queen with postcards of snotty youths with green mohicans sitting alongside those depicting Beefeaters and the Queen Mother [FT].

Shifting politics

The politics has also shifted somewhat. Punk was initially defined as being a subculture largely characterized by anti-establishment views and the promotion of individual freedom. However, now, more than ever, most youngsters are driven by materialistic desires than by politics. And the only freedom sought by many is in the pursuit of entertainment and leisure activities.

To coin a phrase from one of punk's first anthems Anarchy in the UK, "Your future dream is a shopping scheme." Bear that in mind if you start shopping on Amazon to rebuild your old punk collection on CD.

Punk London is conclusive proof, if needed, of the French situationist Guy Debord's assertion that consumer capitalism drains authentic lived experience of meaning. "All that once was directly lived," wrote Debord in 1967, "has become mere representation."

But not all the old punks have forgotten their roots, even if some claim they've sold out such as John Lydon - aka Johnny Rotten - with his butter adverts.

Concerning Corré's intention to burn £5 million of memorabilia, Lydon is highly critical.

"He [Corré] is into lingerie isn't he? Well I think he'd be better off burning his bra," Lydon quips. "It's pathetic and he's going to ruin the environment with all those toxic fumes."

"If you've got £5 million of anything, donate it to charity," he adds on a more serious note, describing the act as "pompous, ludicrous and unfortunately what Britain seems to be full of."

He has also slammed Brexit as ludicrous. "To leave it [the European Union] would be insane and suicidal," he resolves. "We're never going to go back to that romantic delusion of Victorian isolation, it isn't going to happen."

"There'll be no industry, there'll be no trade, there'll be nothing – a slow dismal, collapse. It's ludicrous."

"It's an act of cowardice really, it's running away from issues instead of solving them." [Metro]

Indeed for this old punk rocker it rather reflects the anthem from a song he penned 40 years ago when he suggested there would be "no future".

tvnewswatch, London, UK