‘Observer’ oddities

One or two things in yesterday's (23 March 08) Observer newspaper raised my eyebrows for me:

It's not that the fears expressed are unreal. Global terrorism is a threat, Israel and Palestine really do menace each other's existence, colonialism isn't an innocent legacy and so on.
— Dr Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, We live in a culture of blame – but there is another way

Does the archbishop really believe that Israel menaces Palestine's existence?  Israel certainly often handles its relations with the Palestinians brutally and the kind of Palestine it says it wants to co-exist with may well not be the kind of Palestine that the Palestinians would be willing to settle for.  But does it menace Palestine's existence, meaning that Israel rejects a two-state solution while pretending to want it?  It would be interesting to see the archbishop substantiate such an assertion.

As regrettably often with the archbishop's utterances, I have only the haziest of ideas what he means by writing that "colonialism isn't an innocent legacy".  This is presumably different from saying that the behaviour of the colonial powers was bad in some undefined respects, which would be a statement of the obvious, even if it's a statement that would need extensive qualification.  But how a legacy can be 'innocent' is far from clear.

Excessive gaming, viewing online pornography, emailing and text messaging have been identified as causes of a compulsive-impulsive disorder by Dr Jerald Block, author of an editorial for the respected American Journal of Psychiatry.
— David Smith, 'Addiction to internet "is an illness"'

Not sure what text messaging has to do with the internet, unless sending the occasional text message from one's computer instead of from a mobile telephone is an especially morbid species of behaviour?  However, as an incurable addict myself, I can't dispute Dr Block's description of the negative 'repercussions' of the addiction, including "arguments, lying, poor achievement, social isolation and fatigue", not forgetting death from blood clots caused by sitting for long periods at the keyboard.  Better close down Windows, close the windows, and go for a long walk in the snow.

The bill proposes to legalise the creation of hybrid embryos, make it easier for gay couples to access IVF and encourage the development of stem-cell therapies. Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, head of the Catholic church in England, last night told Sky TV there should be a free vote 'because Catholics and others will want to vote according to their consciences'….
— Gaby Hinsliff,  Brown faces deepening revolt over embryo bill (front page lead story)

If the [Roman] Catholic church, in the person of its leader in England, has undergone a sudden Damascene conversion to the doctrine of the sovereignty of the individual conscience, a quintessentially Protestant idea, then I suppose we should rejoice.  I fear, though, that what the cardinal really wants is that the prime minister should 'allow' Labour MPs who are Catholics to vote in accordance with the instructions and teachings of the Catholic church, as conveyed by himself, and not in obedience to the instructions of the party whips, still less to the dictates of their consciences.  It's debatable whether this would constitute a more "free" vote than one governed by a three-line whip.  However, the cardinal seems to have felt a little queasy about his apparent adoption of individual conscience as guide to action:  in a subsequent comment to Sky News he exhorted MPs to vote in accordance with something that he called their "informed consciences", presumably meaning informed by himself — an almost Orwellian bit of obfuscation, using the language of freedom to mask the reality of authoritarianism.  [Update, 27 March 08:  Having graduated from urging that MPs be allowed to vote in accordance with their consciences to specifying that these appendages should of course be 'informed' consciences, but still apparently uneasy about even that formulation, the good cardinal has now started saying that MPs should vote "in accordance with their faith".  Now we're getting there!]

Downing Street is said to be torn over whether to make further concessions to accommodate Catholic ministers, and sources said it could be weeks before a decision is made….  Despite the church's opposition, some leading Labour Christians say there is a religious argument for the bill on the grounds that it could save lives.
— Ibid.

Journalists who serve up vague speculation under cover of the passive tense ("is said to be"), or by attribution to completely unidentified 'sources', need to be sent off to a boot camp for re-training.  Said by whom?  What kind of sources?  Unless we are given at least some vague indication of where these stories came from, we're bound to suspect that the speculation is home-grown and the sources for it fictitious. 

The claim by  "some [again unidentified] leading Labour Christians" that justifying the bill by reference to its potential for saving lives is a specifically 'religious argument' is beyond parody.

Influenced by the belief that there is still a natural anti-Tory majority to be found among Labour and Lib Dem voters combined, the Alternative Vote is beginning to look attractive. 
A third, and especially ominous symptom of defeatism, is the noise of various Labour factions trying to conduct a postmortem of this government before they actually have a corpse to bury. The left predict that Gordon Brown is doomed unless he breaks with all things Blair. From the other side of the party, he is urged to be more aggressively reforming of public services and that is the advice he appears to be taking.
— Andrew Rawnsley, Mr Brown's getting a grip on Number 10, but not on voters

Is some disaffected Observer sub-editor avenging himself on poor Mr Rawnsley by injecting such sloppiness into his magisterial prose?  The first sentence quoted starts with an unforgivable hanging participle (an electoral system can't, obviously, be influenced by a belief); the second has a distractingly misplaced comma; and the last heaps more baggage onto the quasi-adjectival participle 'reforming' than the traffic will bear, especially when a minor rephrasing would so easily avoid it ("he is urged to reform public services more aggressively"). 

As for our hero [Jonathan Powell], the only risk attached to promoting his peacemaking skills [publishing his memoir of his role in the Northern Ireland peace process] in a week when he might, more properly, have been reflecting on his part in the deaths of 175 British soldiers, was the obvious similarity of this diversionary tactic to Jo Moore's very good day to bury bad news. But where brazen acts of spin are concerned, the public has become more tolerant. Jo Moore's fate was universal contempt, followed by resignation, followed by atonement in a north London primary school. Jonathan Powell, on the other hand, has been indulged with a week of self-glorification, during which he depicted himself as a wry yet principled drudge, whose role in pushing this country into an illegal and catastrophic war has been hugely misunderstood.
— Catherine Bennett,  They led us into a disastrous war, yet still they prosper. Why?

Here Ms Bennett helps to breathe new life into the triple misconceptions that Jo Moore, Stephen Byers's special political adviser at the department of transport from 1999 to 2002, (a) said that 9/11 was "a good day to bury bad news" (she didn't), (b) committed a grave sin by pointing out that if bad news had to be released, it was prudent to release it at a time when the media were preoccupied with other things (a perfectly sensible observation with which anyone responsible for the presentation of information would have to agree)  and (c) lost her job for saying it (she didn't).  

Jo MooreWhat Jo Moore actually said in the celebrated e-mail was: It's now a very good day to get out anything we want to bury. Councillors' expenses?  The largely synthetic outrage that this generated was prompted not by the observation itself, reflecting an irreproachable judgement about timing, but her temerity in openly stating it.  We tolerate all sorts of more or less Macchiavellian tricks of numerous trades designed to put ourselves in the best possible light and to minimise the damage when we have to admit to deficiency or failure;  what we can't tolerate is owning up to them.  In any case, it wasn't this that eventually cost Ms Moore her job, as Ms Bennett seems to believe:  despite the uproar and hypocritical indignation, Jo Moore's indiscretion was officially judged to deserve nothing worse than a ticking off;  sacking her was formally ruled out, and rightly so.  What put paid to her appointment, several months later, was the increasingly obvious impossibility of continuing the poor relationship between Ms Moore as a political adviser and the civil servants of the department to whom she was inclined to issue orders going well beyond her authority (for example, she seems to have tried to instruct departmental officials to plant unfavourable stories about Bob Kiley, the then transport commissioner for London; the civil servants very properly refused).  There were also controversies over the announcement that Mr Byers was forcing Railtrack into administration, a question of selective minute-taking at a meeting, and so forth.  No doubt the 'bad day to bury bad news' uproar, even if based on a misquotation, helped to undermine her position, and no doubt that position became ultimately untenable for a number of other and more weighty reasons.  Jo Moore broke a number of fundamental rules and paid the correct price for doing so.  It's just a curious paradox (or, as the hacks would say these days, 'ironical') that what she's almost universally remembered for, including by Catherine Bennett, is at worst a minor misjudgement, and not for the much more serious errors that actually brought her down.  

But there are lots of good things in the Observer, too, as usual.


2 Responses

  1. Tim Weakley says:

    The Observer also publishes errors of fact, the result no doubt of sloppy proof-reading.  The little booklet 'The Earth' that recently came with the paper stated somewhere that the Earth's circumference was 250,000 miles; if it was, Columbus would still be sailing west.

    Brian writes:  Your eagle eye obviously gives you a bird's-eye view of the earth, Tim.  "The circumference of the earth at the equator is 24,901.55 miles (40,075.16 kilometers)." — http://geography.about.com/library/faq/blqzcircumference.htm.   So the Observer booklet was only out by a factor of ten!

  2. Peter Harvey says:

    I would have thought that excsssive gambling etc. were symptoms rather than causes of compulsive-impulsive disorder.

    The Observer's leading articles are written by the Downing St press unit.

    Brian writes:  I agree that the theories attributed to Dr Jerald (sic) Block (sic) in the article that I quoted supply very little evidence of intellectual rigour on the good Doctor's part; more of rigor mortis, or at best rigor mentis.  But perhaps he has been misquoted, or — always a handy get-out — 'quoted out of context'.  As for the Observer's leading articles, I'm not convinced that anyone in Downing Street would have been deliriously happy with the recent editorial (16 March 2008) which in effect repented of the Observer's weird original support for the aggression against Iraq, even though the article wound its tortuous way to a set of equally weird and perverse conclusions.  I begin to think that the Observer must be the Ugly Sister to the Guardian's Cinderella (they are of course sister papers).