Monday, June 30, 2003

The Roast Beckham of Old England

For a while we'd been favourably disposed towards the relatively sober coverage of the seemingly endless Beckham affair in the New York Times compared to the more gullible PR rubbish being lapped up by the Washington Post and USA Today. But the NYT seems to have decided to join the mob (slow news week?) with a Sunday op-ed piece by Phil Space er... I mean Phil Ball*. We're not sure what the point is of yet another "he'll be big in Spain, probably" article, but amongst the preposterous implications of this one is that Becks is going to bring a sense of fashion and flair to the benighted sackcloth wearers of Castille. The impression we get is that the Castillians will gaze on the showbiz flair of Becks in much the same way that the pathetic Irish and French Catholics gaze upon that huge hunk of English beef in Calais in the famous Hogarth picture. The article also contains the claim that despite his fame and fortune, Becks still has the common touch -- this from a man who had himself and his bride carried in on thrones as a key element of their wedding in Ireland.

It's not even like Becks is the first English player with some fashion aspirations to play for Real Madrid. Let us tell all these arriviste* soccer writers a little story. There once was a man named Steve McManaman who played for Liverpool Football Club. Steve combined a beautiful midfield vision and stylish passes with a pretty eventful social life. We even recall a fashion spread by Steve in The Face magazine. Eventually the antics of Steve and a couple of his mates (as he would say) on the team earned the group the collective name Spice Boys. He fell out of favour with the club, which declined to renew his contract and let him walk to Real Madrid. Where he has since learned Spanish, taken with good will his extensive time on the bench, and has popped up with some spectacular goals when he has gotten a chance to play. And despite not playing for Manchester United, he's, like, won a lot of stuff. Perhaps Steve has helped his image by confining his extensive clubbing to his beloved Liverpool, keeping himself out of the Spanish gossip columns. Indeed, there are persistent rumours he could return to the city's "other" club, Everton, though this 'Pool fan wishes they would bring him back to his old home. But anyway, the point is: instead of outlandish predictions, we'd get a much more solid benchmark for Becks by wishing him at least as well as his predecessor Steve i.e. a few medals, some decent playing time, and a seemingly happy life. That doesn't make for an eye-catching op-ed piece in the NYT.

*UPDATE [30 Sep 04] Actually, Phil is quite a nice chap with several books on Spanish football to his name, including this one. So we exclude him from the ranks of uninformed Becks-writers referred to above.

Friday, June 27, 2003

A pint of Bare Knuckle and a packet of crisps, please

Those are the brogue-laden words that Anheuser-Busch wants to hear coming out of trendy Irish bars around the US as it rolls out a competitor to Guinness, a stout called Bare Knuckle which will initially be sold only as draught. It's ironic that the brewers of Bud are looking for cachet from having a beer only available on tap, when, as we noted a little while ago, Guinness is trying blasphemous experiments designed at creating a faux-tap delivery system for the precious nectar. The Wall Street Journal has all the details today -- why is it, by the way, that the WSJ does such a good job reporting brewski-related stories? (link requires subs).

Anyway, we have a couple of thoughts on this development. First, we doubt that Guinness is too worried. The American beer market is so vast and with so much scope for shifting between brands of beer that there's plenty of room for both kinds of stout to maintain a healthy market. In addition, Guinness and A-B have a relationship that goes beyond direct competition anyway. If you go into a reasonably traditional pub in Ireland, it's impossible not to notice a clear demographic in which slightly older drinkers work their way to the bar to order pints of Guinness -- past younger drinkers who consider themselves the height of sophistication in ordering Bud. Because it's slickly marketed as American and the ads (in Europe) create a cachet about drinking it from the long neck bottle. And yet, that Bud you drink in ireland is brewed in Guinness. So A-B markets an Irish style stout brewed in America to Americans, and an American-style lager brewed in Ireland to the Irish.

To hit you with a classic piece of Business School terminology to describe what's going on here, A-B and Guinness are engaged in some competition, some cooperation....Let's Play Co-opetition! [trivia: the co-inventor of this word is also the co-creator of the Honest Tea line of iced teas]

Finally, there's the matter of the name of this stout: Bare Knuckle. We're not sure the linking of booze and fighting is such a great idea. It's getting pretty close to a parody of a name for a beer, and the first thing it reminded us of was that funny Billy Dee Williams style ad for Cold C*ck [we live in the age of filters] malt liquor on Saturday Night Live. This site is run by a collector of 40 oz bottles and at the end he lists a few other TV/movie shout-outs to strong beer, with names very much in the Bare Knuckle genre. Maybe it's time for A-B to pioneer the 40 oz draught beer.

Thursday, June 26, 2003

At last, a link between Iraq and terrorism

It emerged today in the course of a strange trial in Dublin. A man named Michael McKevitt is on trial for "directing terrorism", a relatively recent offence added to Irish criminal law. McKevitt is the presumed head of the "Real IRA", a group that dissents from the rest of IRA's engagement with the peace process. In cinematic terms therefore, this makes McKevitt comparable to the Seamus character in Ronin, as played by Jonathan Pryce. In which case, the role of "stupid shite" is being played by the chief prosecution witness, David Rupert. Rupert seems to have played along with McKevitt as an agent of both MI5 and the FBI, motivated at various times by a need for diversions from his collapsing marriages, large sums of money, and a potential book deal. So not exactly a star witness. But he has plenty to say. Much of it seems to involve conversations in or about pubs, along the lines of Wouldn't it be great if..., but it's not clearer that much of the planning ever went further than that. So today's revelation was along the lines of McKevitt saying "Wouldn't it be great if we could get money for terrorist activities from Iraq?" He also wishes that his lads were more up for suicide bombing. The painful subtext to this trial is the Real IRA's generally accepted responsibility for the disastrous Omagh bombing in 1998, but the lack of sufficiently incriminating evidence linking it to specific people. Flimsy evidence can start wars. But it doesn't get convictions.

Wednesday, June 25, 2003

Mullingar: Airline Mecca

When Leon Uris RIP was writing about swarthy rural Irish nationalists, we doubt that he had in mind that Ireland would one day be a country where the Wall Street Journal would urge airline corporate chieftains to look for the future of their industry. But so it is in Wednesday's paper, in which the virtues for airline profitability of the Ryanair model are extolled (may require subs). Ryanair chief executive Micheal O'Leary prides himself on his ability to get in the news for any reason, so as he sits in his mansion in Mullingar (about 40 miles west of Dublin), he will be enjoying his image as sage to the world's biggest domestic air market. There is something to the Ryanair model: one way to put it is that American Airlines CEO Robert Crandall became famous for his cost-saving measure of taking the olives out of the salad; Ryanair's idea was to put them back in, but charge per olive.

But there are elements of the Ryanair experience that we hope are not replicated by too many other airlines anytime soon. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the airline exudes contempt for its customers. Even for the favourable WSJ piece, a spokesman is quoted is saying "Our primary business is putting bums on aircraft" and that only begins to capture their attitude. If you read the Sunday travel sections of any Irish or British newspaper, go to the page dealing with bad customer service experiences, and Ryanair will account for a big chunk of the complaints. The complaints typically relate to Ryanair's strict reading of its check-in and boarding policies, as they relate both to people and their luggage. P O'Neill's uncle was denied boarding his connecting flight from Stansted to Dublin because his luggage had not been transferred from the previous flight from France, and Ryanair will not deliver delayed baggage under most circumstances. The airline blames the airport and tells the affected passengers that they will have to wait for the next open seat on a later flight, which at peak times could mean an overnight wait. And don't bother asking about vouchers.

The airline's rote response to the deluge of complaints is to point to their small proportion of total passengers carried, but we really wonder if it's a feasible business model to be counting on 20 percent growth per year while continually courting such a poor image with one's customers. And by the way, Americans planning on "doing" Europe this summer would do well to remember that Ryanair's fee-for-service model has infected the entire flying experience. To pick one that's probably illegal in the US, plan on paying $15-$20 each time you use a wheelchair to get to and from the plane. That adds up pretty fast, and all of a sudden one of Europe's stodgy state carriers suddenly seems like a better deal. In fact, one achievement with which Ryanair can be credited is to get us Irish over our tendency to be boosterish about everything homegrown, regardless of quality. We know that if O'Leary wasn't running an airline like this, someone else in some other country would. So good for him. But quite a few of us are not sure we'd ever want to fly with him.

Tuesday, June 24, 2003

Danger: Illogic Ahead

There are some lines of argument so preposterous that perhaps the best approach is to try a little shock and awe with a complete non-sequiter lead sentence, to get one thinking...He's not really going to try and actually make that argument, is he? And then perhaps be impressed when he does. This is the only possible explanation for the opening sentence on OpinionJournal.Com today (they of the 9-11 = Epiphany school of analysis):

Yesterday's Supreme Court ruling in Grutter v. Bollinger, in which the court upheld the use of racial preferences in admissions at the University of Michigan Law School, helps illuminate why the claim that President Bush "lied" about Iraq is nonsense.

We tried to follow the chain of er, thought, here. There is none.
Oppression chic

A little while ago, we posted about the evolving attitude in Ireland towards Israel, moving from an identification with a perceived plucky upstart symbol of an oppressed people towards a more conventional (for Europeans) sympathy with the Palestinians and therefore a corresponding loss of identification with Israel. Exhibit A in the former synergy was provided by the novels of Leon Uris, of which we are reminded because of news today of his death. Consider the two best known novels: Exodus, a portrayal of the Jewish struggle in hostile Europe, and Trinity, a romantic portrayal of Irish nationalism. Doubtless these struggles were twinned in many readers' minds, let alone for Leon himself. For us, the mention of Trinity evokes sitting in a required sociology class in college while the lecturer railed against the novel and its depiction of a rural nationalist dare Uris write a novel showing no awareness of the brilliant theories of Althusser and Barthes, not to mention Karl Marx? So we always gave Leon some points simply for his ability to produce such irritation in the promoters of our least favourite subject.

Nevertheless, our ranting sociologist did reflect some genuine national discomfort with images of Ireland like the one Uris offered, and it was all made more sensitive because of the trouble Ireland was having in leaving such images behind -- in the late 1980s, the country was still a land of 20 percent unemployment and chronic emigration. But, to play amateur sociologist for a second, Ireland now seems much more comfortable with over-the-top depictions of our past (e.g. the Michael Collins film) so we predict a new round of popularity for Trinity and perhaps even Exodus. Not enough to change opinions about Israel, though.

Monday, June 23, 2003

The Irish Cultural Exception

As we predicted a couple of weeks ago, there was simply no way that the international media could stay away from the story of the Irish reality TV show where the contestants are on a boat...and the boat sinks. The New York Times covers it today. It's a fair story, with a good quote from Brian Trench, a media analyst and head of the school of communications at Dublin City University, who wants to know:
Is this legitimately part of what a public service broadcaster should be doing?

Indeed. Americans who find the UK system of TV licences already too communist for their tastes would be doubly horrified at the Irish system in which the national broadcaster collects a licence fee on every TV and has spent most of its existence with a monopoly on TV advertising as well. There is now some fledlging competition on the latter front but it remains to be seen whether it is viable. So that leaves RTE as the incumbent with two sources of revenue, one guaranteed. Looking down the schedules on any given day would leave you hardpressed to spot the distinctive Irish component -- even the Irish shows are mostly just local versions of generic formats. And as the NYT article points out, the sponsor for the doomed reality show is basically Rupert Murdoch.

Of course, it's not clear what the options are for a pretty small English-speaking country trying to have some distinctive local content on mass media. But (perhaps fueled by resentment at having nothing else to watch for years), we're pretty sure RTE is not the answer. Our personal preference would be to dump any public subsidy for the main broadcast channels, keep it for the lively Irish language channel (TG4), and fund good quality radio and independent TV production companies that meet some reasonable local content/culture requirement. As far as we can tell, the Brits are suckers for that autentic Irish stuff anyway so it might even be viable without much of a subsidy. And with no RTE, that would be one less bit of material for Saturday Night Live.

Friday, June 20, 2003

Black 47: not entirely gone away

It sometimes can seem almost like a joke to be talking about the folk memory of the Irish potato famine in the well-fed and prosperous Celtic Tiger. But whatever about the folk memory, in terms of the population numbers, the famine is still there. New census figures have just been released by Ireland's Central Statistics Office; their news release is here. Most attention has focused on the arrival of godless communism on our shores, in the form of a trebling of the divorce rate. Things tend to treble when they are legalised. But the most eye-catching table remains the basic chart and numbers for the population of the Republic (and its previous 26 county incarnations) over the last 160 years. Here are the population numbers:

1841 6.5m
1851 5.1m
1961 2.8m
1991 3.5m
2002 3.9m

So basically, the Republic's population has only been growing since the 1960s, and only had its first real acceleration in the 1990s. It's difficult, if not impossible, to think of another country with that kind of pattern. It's interesting, but of course completely academic, to think about alternative trajectories from the 1841 number -- even more emigrants to the US? a landscape looking more like the Netherlands? Now, where did I put my time machine?

Thursday, June 19, 2003

A controversy-free Olympics

Or at least we hope so. With coverage of the Olympic games making regular detours into doping scandals, corrupt organisers and judges, and huge sums of money being paid by NBC for the right to deprive Americans of live coverage, we think Ireland is going to have an excellent time avoiding such issues while in the spotlight over the next few weeks as host of the Special Olympics. It already received a blessing from the only voice in international diplomacy that matters: Tom Friedman, Op-Ed Columnist for the New York Times. Friedman led off his most recent column approvingly reporting that:

An Irish businessman sent his private jet to Baghdad where it picked up eight Iraqi mentally handicapped athletes who wanted to take part in the Special Olympics, which open this week in Ireland.

The businessman in question is Irish mobile phone magnate, Denis O'Brien. Indeed, there's been a recurring theme that the general enthusiaism of the Irish people towards the games (even those without private jets) has outweighed the churlish attitude of the government. This was clearest when the government imposed a hysterical ban on athletes from SARS countries, which was in no way synchronised with its general policy towards travellers from those countries (let alone with what the World Health Organisation recommended they should do). But in the resulting barrage of domestic critcism, the policy has now been watered down to the point where few if any athletes will be affected. Among the many reasons that people seem so positive about the games is the Kennedy connection. Co-founder and JFK sister Eunice Shriver is in the Kennedy ancestral hometown of New Ross in Wexford, to be joined by her husband Sargent and son Tom later this weekend. Sadly, Al Hunt reports in his (subscription required) Wall Street Journal column that Sargent has been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, although it must be said that he did pretty well to get to 87 before problems emerged.

Our favourite competitive sport in the games: Bocce!
Vend it like Beckham

Since everyone else is doing Beckham articles, we feel freed from our self-imposed constraint not to do anymore. But we promise, no detailed football talk. Instead, we focus on a funny item from the London Times, in which one of their reporters crashed a Becks news conference in Japan from which the western media had been excluded. The reporter is quite blunt in his assessment of why the Becks management team keeps out the western hacks from such events:

It is very common for foreign superstars, actors or sportsmen to appear in commercials when they come to Japan. These commercials are aimed at the Japanese market and the style is completely different from what we see in Europe. In short, these ads are tacky and make many superstars look silly.

As an example, check out some of the pictures from Beckham's ad for Meiji chocolate bars. Two pictures. On the left, just what exactly is Becks promoting? Oh yes, that weirdly positioned chocolate covered almond in the lower corner. And as for the picture on the right, it mostly speaks for itself -- but couldn't they have had the love-heart line from Becks to the chocolate bending like one of his free kicks?

Wednesday, June 18, 2003

Slow news day..., but it wasn't around this time in 1815. It's the anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, in which the terror regime of Napoleon Bonaparte and its weapons of mass preservation (i.e. the tin can) was defeated by the coalition of the willing and their superior footwear (i.e. the Wellington boot). With a little help from the command decisions of the Duke of Wellington himself. At least some of us in Ireland like to think of the Duke as a high-achieving Irishman, and an impressive column with his likeness on top has survived for years in Trim, County Meath, his constituency when he was a MP -- this in the context of other symbols of the Empire becoming an easy target for some IRA explosives. A side benefit of the anniversary for tourists in London is that his stately home in Hyde Park Corner is offering free admission this week, and thus a chance to see his impressive art collection (some seized during the Napoleonic wars, and then retroactively gifted to him). A few of the images from the collection can be seen on this page; what struck us is that the Duke had some nose-related self-esteem issues. All the approved portraits, such as on the museum home page, show a perfectly proportioned nose. Not so the cartoons, the most famous of which can be seen by scrolling down to the end of the collections page -- it's the image you all probably know from the Monty Python opening sequence. Our current leaders would never be so vain.

Tuesday, June 17, 2003

Cheese-steak eating surrender monkeys

Fans of the Philadelphia Phillies baseball team have a whole new line of material to pursue in their legendary pillorings of ineffective on-field performances. It was announced today that the new ballpark for the team, to open next year, will be called Citizens Bank Park, with the sale of the naming rights to that regional banking group. Within the realm of corporate named arenas, there's nothing especially bad about that choice. It should be noted however that the bank is in fact a subsidiary of the Royal Bank of Scotland. We suppose it makes sense not to have the name of the overseas corporate parent grace the local ballpark, but it's not like RBS is a French company or something. And we can easily see the disgruntled fans adapting their narratives to be consistent with the Scottish sponsor. There are lots of Groundskeeper Willies out there, just dying for a chance to try out some material, like in our suggested title above. In fact, there's such a mother lode of material from the Scottish connection, we wonder if the Phillies should reconsider and put RBS's name on the park. The ESPN Sportscenter guys would have to do a special Phillies show each night just to get through all the possible references.
Martha Martha Martha

Is there anything easier than making fun of Martha Stewart?

Ever since the federal case against her became public, the jokes have been flying ("Will she use her glue gun to break out of jail?") along with the "martha stewart living (behind bars)" e-mail parodies, and the endless references to It's a good thing. (Note to headline writers: Get a new idea. It's been done.)

There have been some defenses of her mounted in the press. Most have come from the free-enterprise set, like the Wall Street Journal editorializing (as passionately as a suitor) along the lines of "how could such a great capitalist be a criminal?" Other signs of support have come from the feminist side, the allegation being that Stewart is being pilloried because she is a strong woman who doesn't apologize for her ambitions--and that male CEOs who have done the same thing have been spared her treatment.

But having spent the past week refurbishing a footstool (from the January 1996 issue), painting a dresser (June-July '94) and cultivating salvia plants (Sept '97) some of us are pro-Martha for a very different reason. And we're not alone. If you go to her elegantly designed online (in appropriately tasteful chartreuse and araucana-egg blue, of course), you can click on "notes to Martha," and there you'll find the voice of her common reader.

Like Dottie Ladner, who writes: Just wanted you to know that I admire you and the elevating of the American Home that you have done. So, Martha, keep your head high and know that this 80 year old grandmother thinks you're the best.

That's because for all her waspy-wannabe uptight persona, Martha Stewart (and her staff) have created a body of household knowledge not seen since Mrs. Beeton. Yes, the TV show is kind of lame, and she's, well, painful to watch as a host. But the magazine is rather extraordinary in its depth of research and out-and-out creative force. Even if you don't (or can't) follow the recipe to the letter, it's good to know what the classic way to, say, roast a chicken properly is. And to know that there is value in doing what is still devalued, women's work, well. That is, in itself, a radical viewpoint.

After all, would the legendary Art Cooper have had the guts to plug a feature entitled "Macaroni and Cheese 101" (February 1999) on the cover of his magazine?

Monday, June 16, 2003

A nine week tour?

Reality TV: there's so much of it that it can only be a matter of time before it blows up in someone's face. Or before someone submerges in it. Ireland is busy working on the latter scenario, via a show called Cabin Fever, in which the usual format of a selected group of individuals forced into some cooperative/competitive scenario was to be achieved by putting them in a boat and having them sail around Ireland for nine weeks. One slight problem: last Friday, the boat sank! It was rumoured that no-one was at the helm when the boat ran aground off the Donegal coast.

Ireland is a surprisingly litigious place and it seems likely that the contestants will decide that the legal jackpot far outweighs the original prize that was up for grabs. In America, this setback would simply be viewed as an opportunity to do a new reality show with cameras in the courtroom, but Ireland's courtroom rules make this difficult. State broadcaster RTE may be worried not so much about the legal damages, which they can probably dump on to the production company, but the image factor...heard the one about the Irish reality TV show? Can a Saturday Night Live skit be far behind?
Dear God, not another Beckham piece

We're afraid so. P O'Neill was incommunicado in the African highlands for the last while and it appears that our belief that we had beaten back the tide of unsophisticated Beckham/Man Utd articles was mistaken. The rudderless New York Times is now editorialising about the man, his 3rd appearance in a week. What is there to say about all this other than a general analysis: Beckham's stardom is a product of Anglophone media penetration, except in the US. And in the US, the easiest way to do "foreign coverage" is to read English newspapers*, which from Man Utd's perspective creates a nice synergy with their tour of the US this summer. Result: an avalanche of mostly unanalytical articles about Becks and Man Utd, in many publications which should know better. For one thing, little analysis of this very strange conditional deal that Man Utd did to send Becks to Barcelona. We won't bore you with the details, but it looks to us like the world's biggest football club is having rings run around it by the supposed provincials in Madrid, who, by the way, seem headed for their 29th domestic league title. One consolation for Becks with all this hype swirling around him: like Spinal Tap, he's big in Japan.

*UPDATE: So an American journalist could do a "foreign" story by just reading newspapers on the web. But at the Washington Post, they send reporters to London to do exactly the same thing.

Friday, June 06, 2003

How to liven up politician-media interaction

We've pretty much given up any hope of learning anything from the direct interaction of an American politician with the media. The politician tries to look unruffled and sticks to the spin points and the compliant interviewer bails after a couple of questions. Once again the British situation is different. Another of Blair's senior axemen (in addition to John Reid, who we posted about a couple of days ago), John Prescott, prefers the confrontational approach. And it keeps everyone entertained. Even American news got around to covering a classic incident from the last UK election campaign where Prescott decked a heckler who had thrown an egg at him. Yesterday, while headed into the PM's office for a big meeting, he gave the assembled media outside the V sign -- as in the "up yours" meaning, not the victory sign. Nothing in particular seems to have prompted it, just his general distaste for dealing with the hacks. The London Times has the clearest picture of the offending gesture, while the BBC has some amusing follow-up comments from Prescott today. He was revealing his good taste by staying in Newcastle's trendy Malmaison hotel, but was a bit bewildered at being directed a particular "etage" of the hotel, given his poor French. But his sign language is just fine.

Thursday, June 05, 2003

Howell Raines, an elegy

Lines inspired by Private Eye's teenage elegist E.J. Thribb upon the resignation of Howell Raines as executive editor of the New York Times

So farewell then
Howell Raines
New York Times executive editor
"Flood the zone"
That was your catchphrase
Looks like
you got submerged
Read Headlines With Care

(novelist Iris, not the library containing A Charge to Keep, The Bell Curve, Slander, Bias etc)

(The UK chain, not the US one)

Wednesday, June 04, 2003

A clinic for Tim Russert

Back in the pre Iraq war days, even pro-war people like Thomas Friedman wished that we had Tony Blair instead of Dubya to sell the war. One reason British politicians operate at a much higher level of verbal skills is because they have to deal with a much more aggressive media. There is no clearer example of the take-no-prisoners approach of British poltical interviewing than this transcript of an interview with John Reid, one of Tony's chief axemen, with the tenacious John Humphrys of BBC Radio Four's Today Program. It's a long transcript so lets pull out some highlights. The background is the much higher level of controversy (than the US) in the British mainstream media about the faulty intelligence on Saddam's WMDs. Reid had claimed in an interview with the London Times that some in the intelligence services were leaking to the media to make it look like it was all the fault of the politicians; he was particularly incensed about the implication that Downing Street had cooked up a claim that Saddam could have an atomic bomb ready to go in 45 minutes. The basic standoff in this interview is Reid demanding to know the BBC's source for the latter claim, and Humphrys demanding to know Reid's basis for claiming the spooks sabotaged the polticians. As usual, read the whole thing to get a sense of a good interviewer sticking to his point, and knowing his own sources -- a chump like Tim Russert would bail on any issue (except Monica Lewinsky) after two questions.

Reid: John, that is a lovely sleight of hand.

Humphrys: Well that's what you have been doing for the last eight minutes, if I may say so.

Reid: Well, you can say anything you like. It doesn't make it correct. It is a sleight of hand because this is the question at issue...We were accused of dishonesty, John...We were accused of forcing the security services to produce information in a public document in an attempt to dupe the people of this country by putting in false information.
Humphrys: Well, I'd love you to answer a couple of questions that I have got lined up for you this morning, if that is possible. Can I do that?

Reid: Of course you can.

JH: Let me ask you the first one then again and that is who do you think are these rogue elements within the intelligence services who are using this row over weapons of mass destruction to undermine the Government? Who are they?

Reid: Well, first of all they are anonymous, their position is not known, they have uncorroborated evidence. Up until this morning they were small in number.
Humphrys: Let's stay, let's stay, let's stay, may I stay ... because you want to move on again now and I am trying to hold you to this if I may, just to be a bit clear about this, because it seems to a lot of people that if there are these rogue elements within the intelligence services who clearly are doing quite a lot of damage to the Government if they are to look at the coverage of the newspapers and on the BBC and other news services over the past few weeks, clearly doing a lot of damage.

This is a very serious matter. What are you going to do about it?

Reid: Obviously, the first thing we have to do about it is try and convince people like yourself and the public that we are not guilty of the allegations. That they are unfounded, that they are uncorroborated and that they should be very wary of anything that comes not only from individual, isolated sources but which stands in complete contrast to what is being said by the whole of the rest of the intelligence services up to and including the leadership.
Humphrys: That would be fine, perhaps, if it was the odd disaffected intelligence officer, some junior figure somewhere or other who was dripping a bit of poison into somebody's ears...

Reid: They are anonymous. It could be a man in the pub.

Humphrys I rather think that people like {investigative reporter] Andrew Gilligan can distinguish between an intelligence officer and a man in the pub but there we are...

Reid: He did not actually say he was an intelligence officer. He said he was an official connected with the process of compiling the dossier. I mean, he could have been a printer.

Humphrys: Look, look, this is the point isn't it? ... There are very senior people in the intelligence services who have talked to journalists off the record certainly and for entirely obvious reasons.

Reid: I have not seen a shred of evidence...

Humphrys: Can I just finish the point I was trying to make?

Reid: Yes, but on that premise I do not accept it because there is not a shred of evidence...

Humphrys: You have not heard what I have to say...

Reid: You have already said there are very senior people in the intelligence services speaking to journalists in this fashion. I am contesting that. Let me see the evidence.

Humphrys: Well, let me tell you I myself have spoken to, ah, one or two senior people in the intelligence services who have said things that suggest that the Government has exaggerated, did exaggerate, the threat from Saddam Hussein and his weapons of mass destruction.

This is not something that has been got up by a few disaffected spooks for you seem yourself unable to explain.

Reid: Well, this is a new revelation to me, John. I don't know who you have spoken to.

All I can tell you is I have regularly spoken not only to the most senior - in plural - but the most senior at regular intervals in our intelligence services up to and including yesterday. And I can tell you they absolutely refute what is being said because not only is it an attack on the Prime Minister and politicians, it is an attack on the integrity of they themselves.

Tuesday, June 03, 2003

Cromwell was a bastard

Our subject line is a summary of one of the key points from our 12 years of history classes in the Irish education system. Since then, we developed an unwillingness to take this statement at face value and read many books about Cromwell. And came to the conclusion that our Irish history classes were essentially correct. Even with that background, we were surprised to see the following item on Andrew Sullivan's blog today. Sullivan had been blogging about a strain of extremism (represented by captured fugitive Eric Rudolph) which he was labelling Christo-Fascism -- all the more useful to insulate oneself against charges of sectarian bias having spent nearly two years ranting about Islamo-Fascism. His posts drew an approving response from a reader, who included lines from a Samuel Butler poetic tirade against Puritanism, and added:

It was of course the dictatorship of Cromwell that Butler satirized. It is no coincidence that the radical and violent people who today profess to be acting in Christian causes are almost all "dispensationalist" Christians deriving their spiritual tradition from the Calvinist or Anabaptist strains of Protestantism.[reader e-mail]

You can say that again. [Sullivan's response]

There's a phrase that one still hears in Ireland (and Britain) when someone is trying to illustrate their level of religious inclusiveness; if they want to say they are referring to all religions, they'll say "Catholic, Protestant, or Dissenter." Historically, Dissenter refers to the strains of English Protestantism that were dubious about any hierarchical church and preferred less intermediated approaches to the bible, which makes it rather specific for the "other" category which is often its intended modern meaning. But note Sullivan's clear (and very Tory) endorsement of the traditional Catholic or Anglican model over the others -- it's rare to see it stated so explicitly. Or as one of those dissenters might say, That's a pretty big matzoh ball hanging out there. We'll be interested to see the responses.

Monday, June 02, 2003

Booze's war on Ireland

We posted last week about Ireland's perception that it is undergoing an alcohol crisis arising from violence and injuries linked to excessive consumption. But the fine letter-writers to the Irish Times have a different crisis on their minds: that due to Guinness forcing the serving of the beloved stout at an excessively cold temperature. The correspondence kicked off last week with this:

Madam, - I am a martyr for the pint. I believe there is nothing like the next one. Ten years ago I could walk off the street and go into a pub and order a pint. Not any more. Now I must first go home and get my equipment and bring it down to my local. My equipment is a blow-lamp. This is to defrost the pint and bring it to an acceptable temperature. I fail to see why publicans do not supply blow-lamps for pint-drinking customers. Now for the good news for Dublin pint drinkers. There is a licensed premises in Parliament Street which sells a pint of plain at an acceptable temperature. Don't all rush. - Yours, etc.,

This drew a followup "right on, dude" response today:
It seems that all breweries have decreed that their product must be served at a temperature so cold that it freezes the mouth and deactivates the taste buds. Guinness actually went one stage farther last year when it introduced an even colder tap which it accurately called "ice-cold". Fortunately, this doesn't seem to have caught on and is now used only in hospital ENT departments where it has been discovered to be a cheap and effective anaesthetic for patients undergoing tonsillectomy. I believe the problem lies in the marketing departments of the breweries. These are populated by small armies of post-acne bright sparks who drink either Budweiser or Heineken which, for obvious reasons, must be consumed ice cold, and who believe that everyone should have tastes similar to their own.

Globalisation: the backlash continues.
We entrap, judge decides

Poor Posh Spice. Famous now mainly for being married to David Beckham, trying to get a US publicity machine going, and now it turns out she can't even get kidnapped! Trashy UK tabloid the News of the World, sister media organisation to the Fox News Channel within the glorious Murdoch Empire, had trumpeted a big scoop last November in which they claimed to have infiltrated and broken up a plot to kidnap Posh. The suspects identified by the World were on trial for conspiracy to kidnap, but the case has now collapsed. It was revealed that the World's source had a dodgy criminal record himself, and more alarmingly, had been paid for his story. The prosecution saw just too many holes in his story and decided to abort the case. The paper could now be prosecuted itself.

We think it's only a matter of time before a similar journalism-induced legal fiasco hits the US. It's impossible not to notice the UK tabloid influence on the US operations of Rupert Murdoch, and in fact it's sometimes forgotten that pompous Scottish twit Andrew Neil was an important influence in the early days of the Fox News Channel, even though Roger Ailes (not the blogger) seems to taking all the credit for it now. Then again, the type of media that can get so worked about some funny stuff at the New York Times would never engage in any funny stuff of its own, right?