News and curiositiesby prospect / April 26, 2009 / Leave a comment
Published in April 2009 issue of Prospect Magazine
How 24-hour news could destroy the world Tony Blair dubbed the media a “feral beast,” but politicians still grin and bear its intrusion. But what if Blair was right and the press monster is not just an obstacle to decent politics, but an active threat to global security too? It’s a complaint given weight by a recent book, No Time to Think, by Pulitzer prize-winning newsman Howard Rosenberg and veteran reporter Charles S Feldman. The two interview Ted Sorensen, adviser to JFK during the Cuban missile crisis. Sorensen, asked how things might have panned out in the age of Guido and Drudge, answers starkly: “Had the first sign of the missile crisis… been communicated to the public, the 24-hour news cycle would have produced enormous pressure on the president to make a decision immediately… In all likelihood that would have meant our selecting… an air strike against the missiles and related targets which, in all likelihood, would have required, according to the Pentagon, a follow-up invasion and occupation of Cuba. And in all likelihood—in as much as we discovered that Soviet troops in Cuba were equipped with both tactical nuclear missiles and the authority to use them against any US attack—the result would have been a nuclear war and the destruction of the world.” Feral beast or not, you can’t put it much more plainly than that. The worst department in Whitehall The competition for worst government department, normally a close-run thing, is over. Both the department for environment, food and rural affairs and Ed Miliband’s small and perfectly pointless department of energy and climate change can rest safe in the knowledge that the hapless department for culture, media and sports (DCMS) can’t be caught. Under the leadership of Andy Burnham, the department for luvvies has transcended even its previous “sock puppet” reputation—earned by its slavish repetition of demands from its industry groups—by abandoning the playing field instead. Picking a low point is tricky, but recent decisions on product placement have come close. Across Europe, countries have begun allowing Coke cans to crop up in television dramas, largely to staunch the losses of their dying advertising industries. Burnham announced he was against this, then launched a review—presumably to find out why—whose negative verdict was no great surprise, despite the pleas of the European commissioner. Things are only going to get more painful from here for the British television industry. As Michelle Buck—an ex-ITV type who just finished making the US/British remake of The Prisoner—recently noted, the American company involved in the production trousered a cool $1m for letting a Subaru drive through the opening credits. The Brits didn’t get a penny. Sensing the rot, others are fleeing Burnham’s grip. All the big media decisions—over Channel 4, universal broadband and the mobile spectrum—are now being carved up between Lord Carter, Ofcom and Lord Mandelson, while the department’s “Digital Britain” initiative is also being consigned to Carter’s tender mercies. Under such circumstances, it’s hard to resist a geopolitical analogy. Weak, divided, ceding territory, bullied by its neighbours and likely to be broken apart in a year or two: DCMS isn’t just Britain’s worst department. It’s the Pakistan of Whitehall too. Dissent in the golden court of Obama As Bartle Bull details in this edition (p58), cracks in ‘Bamalot mean Washington tongues are starting to wag about Hillary’s return; perhaps replacing hapless treasury boss Tim Geithner, perhaps even running herself in 2012. It’s only a matter of time, some say, before a disaffected Clintonite launches themselves like a truck bomb into Obama’s faltering White House. But Obama’s missteps, including the “DVD-gate” Brown gift fiasco, are no match for HRC herself. Europeans were not a little surprised this month when she deigned to tell them: “I have never understood multiparty democracy… and I say this very respectfully, because I feel the same way about our own democracy, which has been around a lot longer than European democracy.” But none could have been quite as taken aback as Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, whom she presented with what appeared to be a red nuclear button labelled with the word “reset” in Russian—a symbolic gesture intended to indicate a fresh beginning for US-Russian relations. The exquisite embarrassment that followed is worth quoting in full. Hillary: “We worked hard to get the right Russian word. Do you think we got it?” Lavrov: “You got it wrong. It should be perezagruzka. And this says peregruzka, which means ‘overcharge.'” The illiterate state department flunky responsible may soon be holidaying in a gulag. Nature’s greatest mystery: the Templeton prize It’s an annual tradition for the scientific establishment to sneer at the Templeton Foundation, writes Philip Ball, which each March awards a prize of £1m—the world’s largest annual award to an individual, bigger even than a Nobel—for research into “those aspects of human experience that… remain beyond the reach of scientific explanation.” Yet, though the prize is vast, it’s unfair to consider it simply a bribe to attract good scientists to God. I attended (not without scepticism) a Templeton symposium in 2005, and found only first-rate speakers and a sound scientific debate. All the same, there is something curious going on. Five of the seven most recent winners have been listed in the physics and cosmology group of the Centre for Theology and the Natural Sciences (CTNS), affiliated to an inter-faith centre in Berkeley, California. This includes the latest winner, announced on 16th March: French physicist Bernard d’Espagnat, who has allegedly “cast new light on the definition of reality and the potential limits of knowable science” by suggesting “the possibility that the things we observe may be tentatively interpreted as signs providing us with some perhaps not entirely misleading glimpses of a higher reality.” This preference for CTNS affiliates is mystifying. Are people interested in this stuff just a rather small group who end up at the same parties? It certainly seems that a fast way to make a million is to join the CTNS’s Physics and Cosmology group. Why, though, this dominance of physics, which appears to be pretty much the only natural science willing to engage. Could it be that the work of cutting-edge physicists is sometimes closer to a matter of faith than we might like to believe? “Dancing on Ice”: the future of democracy What can electoral systems learn from fine wine competitions and ITV’s Dancing on Ice? According to new research from the École Polytechnique in Paris, the answer is nothing less than the holy grail of democracy: a voting system that always picks the right candidates. It has long been axiomatic that there’s no such thing as an entirely fair voting system in a world where tactical voting means that the most popular candidates can still fail to win. According to professors Michel Balinski and Rida Laraki, however, the technique known as “majority voting”—as perfected by oenophile deliberations and sports with judging panels—offers a method for fairly picking the overall favourite every time. The whole point of majority voting is that participants don’t vote in the old-fashioned sense: they simply evaluate candidates by grading them. For wine—a substance with remarkable analogies to politics—the seven gradations are Excellent, Very Good, Good, Passable, Inadequate, Mediocre and Bad. Every wine in a competition is rated by every voter, and its overall rank is then calculated. Had this system been applied to the 2000 US presidential elections, those voters who thought Ralph Nader was Very Good would still have been able to rate Gore as, say, Passable while dismissing Bush as Bad—and Gore would almost certainly have won. Who but the French could have worked out that wine and dancing are the keys to global justice? A golden age of the novel for golden oldies As the Orange prize comes round again, prepare for more arguments about the necessity of a women-only award. Perhaps, though, we should be seeking another selective cause to endorse, writes John Lloyd—and one booming field is that of debut novelists over 55. Take Simonetta Agnello Hornby, a Sicilian-born London lawyer whose first novel, The Almond Picker (Penguin), appeared when she was in her late fifties, after the entire plot came to her while waiting for a flight. She has just produced her fourth book. Meanwhile, Duncan Campbell, a (very) senior reporter on the Guardian, brought out his debut, The Paradise Trail (Headline) last year, and has already published another. And Jane Haynes, a senior London-based psychotherapist, has just published a much-praised memoir as a prelude to her first novel. Everyone, it seems, has a book in them: it can just take a while for some to get out. Arabic lit in translation: just me and the dictator The only woman shortlisted for this year’s International Prize for Arabic Fiction was the Iraqi-born novelist Inaam Kachachi. Kachachi, who lives in Paris, was selected for her novel The American Grand-Daughter (Al-Jadid) about an Iraqi girl who works as a translator for US forces. It’s fiction, but the issue of uncomfortable translation is one she knows more about than most: Kachachi was among a number of writers to leave French publisher Le Rocher in protest at the inclusion on its list of such undesirables as Jean-Marie Le Pen and Brigitte Bardot. “In my publisher’s catalogue there was a section called ‘Iraq,'” she told Prospect. “The only two authors in it were me and Saddam Hussein.” Time for a Thor in immigration policy It’s one for the Daily Mail’s metaphor department to ponder: new research from Cambridge says the Vikings should no longer be seen as Britain’s archetypical immigrant invaders. Instead, a conference in March argued, “the Vikings shared technology, swapped ideas and often lived side-by-side in relative harmony with their Anglo-Saxon and Celtic contemporaries.” Theirs was a model for modern assimilation, explained Fiona Edmonds, an expert in Norse studies. There really is no end to what we Brits can learn from Scandinavia. Tony Wright’s little list How much can British politics change without passing new laws or inventing new institutions? More than you might think, according to Tony Wright MP, Labour’s veteran constitutional reformer and chair of the Commons public administration committee. Wright, giving the Political Quarterly lecture in March, said he once believed that structure and law were all that mattered but now sees “culture” as more decisive than either. We can do politics differently if we choose to, he said. And what might this mean? Here’s his list: “Politicians could play it straight. Journalists could play it fair. Parties could resist the rise of a political class. Ministers could make sure that cabinet government works. MPs could decide that parliament matters (and clean up their expenses!). Interest groups could say who should have less if they are to have more. Civil servants could tell truth to power. Governments could promise less and perform more. Intellectuals could abandon their ‘mechanical snigger’ as Orwell called it. Social scientists could write plain English. The blogosphere could exchange rant for reason. Electors could become critical citizens.” We need more dreamers like you, Tony. Taking on the Darwinian dictatorship Move over Prospect favourite and leading Islamic thinker Fethullah Gülen: Turkey has a new intellectual force. At least, that’s what Adnan Oktar would have us believe. For Oktar hopes to mark the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth by rolling out globally the fifth part of his 14-part masterwork The Atlas of Creation. It’s a work-in-progress of epic proportions: the volumes available thus far boast almost 800 glossy pages each, all in an 11 by 17 inches format. Oktar’s thesis, however, is devastatingly simple: there is no such thing as evolution, and this can be proved by the fact that modern creatures are exactly the same as those found in fossils. Brushing aside Richard Dawkins’s observation that he “is a complete and utter ignoramus”—a view perhaps informed by the first book mistaking an obviously manmade fishing fly for a real fly—Oktar has bold plans to overthrow what he describes as the international “Darwinist dictatorship.” The author, whose resumé one newspaper recently summarised as “he briefly studied interior design,” spent ten months in a mental hospital after publishing his first book, Judaism and Freemasonry (1986). He first tasted true renown, however, when in 2007 he mailed thousands of copies of his mammoth Atlas to academic institutions worldwide. Since then, his conviction in Turkey for founding an unnamed illegal organization seems to have done little to scare off affluent middle-eastern support. Yet there remain sceptics elsewhere. As one eminent biologist at Berkeley observed, many recipients of the Atlas were “just astounded at its size and production values and equally astonished at what a load of crap it is.” What’s coming up 2nd April G20 London summit begins. 4th April 60th anniversary of Nato. 4th April International pillow fight day. 6th April US golf masters begins. 16th April Indian parliamentary elections begin. 19th April NBA playoffs begin. 22nd April South African parliamentary and presidential elections. 22nd April Budget day in Britain. 26th April London marathon.