British papers fawn over Russian doll

I must admit, I was taken in by the Cold War intrigue of the FBI arresting 11 Russian secret agents this week. It’s been a good few weeks since a decent story emerged and with England knocked out of the World Cup, the broadsheets were beginning to run out of things to talk about. So it was understandable that the Telegraph and The Times both went big with this story – double-page news features, columnists wading in etc. However, after one extended read it rapidly became clear that this story was not as significant as it first seemed. As with anything involving the FBI, the details are desperately thin on the ground – all that can really be discerned is that there are allegations of money laundering involved. Their main crime seems to be against spying cliches, with one of the 11 recorded as meeting another informant in the park and greeting them with the secret phrase “It is wonderful to be Santa Claus in May.”

Anna Chapman Russian Spy
I wonder why the British press are so keen on Anna Chapman?

Keen to make the most out of this story, the papers focused in on former London resident Anna Chapman. She has effectively made this story, helped in no small way by her former husband Alex Chapman who rather generously sold his most glamorous photos of her to the Daily Telegraph. The shameless punning headlines rolled in, with various allusions to Austin Powers and James Bond. In this way, the broadsheets have rather embarrassed themselves by scrapping over such a non-story which wouldn’t have got anywhere near as much coverage if it wasn’t the summer and if the main protagonist wasn’t so attractive.

The Standard splashed on Friday with a large picture of Chapman in a bikini, describing her as a femme fatale. Lest we lose all perspective, we should remind ourselves that money laundering is not fatal. In fact, in other circumstances it might be described as a victimless crime.

Is there any substance to this story? We won’t know for several months. In the meantime, the broadsheets will enjoy filling their pages with second-hand pictures of some posh foreign crumpet.

G20: The view from the frontline

Firsr damage at Threadneedle Street
First damage at Threadneedle Street

Violent, anarchist protesters grabbed headlines yesterday by smashing their way into a branch of RBS on Threadneedle street, effectively stealing Barack Obama and Gordon Brown’s thunder. Whilst this certainly got people’s attention, it is hardly the most effective way to convince the G20 to listen and act responsibly on the climate and economic crises.

At the frontline the atmosphere was electric – crowds pushing, chants erupting out of nowhere – not dissimilar to a heavy-metal gig or a music festival. It was hard not get swept up with the call and response: “Whose streets? Our streets!”

But it didn’t have to be like this. Had the Metropolitan Police not pursued such stubborn ‘kettling’ tactics on the protest at the Bank of England, the damage could have been mitigated. Admittedly, there were several thugs who were intent on violence, but their ire was spurred on by the thousands of peaceful protesters who had been trapped in this small part of the square mile.

Police surrounded the main area, blocking all the exits by standing shoulder to shoulder and refused to allow protesters to leave “until the protest was over” for fear of the various London protest groups combining to form a riot, but the frustration of being penned in one area for hours without food, water or toilets is enough to make borderline dissidents turn to violence. Such controversial ‘kettling’ practices were only deemed legal in January.

Helicopter hovers over the G20 protest
Helicopter hovers over the G20 protest

Police stood by in full riot gear, but remained calm to the rising tide of anger. Photos were taken from rooftops and helicopters hovered ominously. The basic tactic seemed to be: “Let them loot and smash all they want, we’ll arrest them later.” After half an hour of unbridled window smashing, egg throwing, smoke-grenade lobbing and curtain ripping, 24 police horses were brought in to force the crowd back. In our modern times it is humbling to see such graceful creatures and their composure amidst the chaos. Melanie Reid has written an excellent column about this over at Timesonline.

Eventually an exit was opened, but there was no mass rush to escape. Rather, the disinterested protesters were left to find this back-door on their own. The majority of the protest was peaceful and colourful; full of dancing and accompanied by music from Billy Bragg and Get Cape. Wear Cape Fly. However, without a powerful enough PA to address the entire crowd, the event lacked focus or guidance.

A campaigner talks into a kinetic energy-powered PA at Climate CampClimate
A campaigner talks into a kinetic energy-powered PA at Climate Camp

Over at Bishopsgate, the Climate Camp protest was a much more peaceful affair. The hippie atmosphere provided a welcome relief and the level of debate and discussion was far more intellectual.

One speaker used a PA system powered by kinetic energy from a bicycle and invited passers-by to play climate change Top Trumps. If meaningful global change is going to come from direct action and protest, this seems like a much more likely source than the aggressive anarchist tactics which were unleashed at Threadneedle Street.

I took all of the above photos – to see more and two video clips from this protest, visit my Flickr stream page. My partner-in-crime Abby Edge has a lovely slideshow of photos she took on the day and some great analysis over at her blog, Grassy Roots.

University Challenge: It’s All Just Academic

How seriously should we take University Challenge?
How seriously should we take University Challenge?

I struggle to see why the BBC has made such a ridiculous fuss over the 2009 final of University Challenge. The disqualification of Corpus Christi, the Oxford college lead by virtuoso savant Gail Trimble, seems to be based more on nitpicking technicalities than on any significant grievances.

Where were the hundreds of complains to the BBC? It’s bizarre that the Beeb have pounced on this, particularly when so few were calling for action. Even Manchester, the default winners are reluctant to acknowledge the title as theirs.

Sure, Sam Kay was no longer a student at Corpus when the final was filmed back in November. After failing to get funding for his Chemistry PhD, he jumped ship and landed a job at PWC. Given the sorry state of graduate employment at the moment, I can hardly blame him. But importantly he wasn’t expecting to leave when he applied to be on the show and indeed when he competed in the first few rounds.

Perhaps he should have been honest as admitted that he had left and taken a job before the filming of the final, but no doubt that would have caused a whole host of different problems. Should he be replaced? Should the team be disqualified even if they did nothing wrong? More importantly – who cares? After all it’s just a game. A large part of University Challenge’s appeal is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously and the torrent of satire this show has both attracted and welcomed over the years is clear evidence of this.

To top it all, The Times has done some journalistic digging and found out that three previous winners of the UC title also had ineligible players in their team.

It remains to be seen whether this whole fiasco will dent the popularity of Gail Trimble, the brainbox captain who has reportedly

Legend: Bamby
Legend: Bamby

been offered a handsome sum to pose “tastefully” for Nuts magazine. An optimistic offer if ever I heard one and I can hardly imagine her new fiancé will be massively enthusiastic about the idea.

The most damning remarks come from former host Bamber Gascoigne, the only man who seems passionate one way or another: “To fail to produce a series of University Challenge, based on university life, not within a single university year, is pathetic. The whole thing is madness” Speaking of legendary producers, the BBC didn’t take long to get a reaction from the ever nonchalant Jeremy Paxman who seems like he could hardly care less.

On a related note: the qualifying heats for the next series of University Challenge are being held at City University this Thursday at 6pm in the Great Hall. Don’t all rush at once…

A Feast Fit For A Fiend

Happy Birthday, Mr Mugabe! Here’s hoping it’s your last.

A sign of good taste?
A sign of good taste?

The Times published today plans for a birthday party which would be vulgar enough if it was for the chief exec of RBS, but these lavish celebration plans for Robert Mugabe‘s 85th birthday venture into the absurd:

2,000 bottles of champagne (Moët & Chandon or ’61 Bollinger preferred); 8,000 lobsters; 100kg of prawns; 4,000 portions of caviar; 8,000 boxes of Ferrero Rocher chocolates; 3,000 ducks…

It goes on. It only takes one bleak statistic to give this decadence some context. At 85, Robert Mugabe will be 2.6 times the national life expectancy for a Zimbabwean man.

His excessive pride is clearly not hindered by the fact that his party are asking for donations to fund the party in US Dollars, since the Zimbabwean Dollar faded into meaninglessness when it hit the 1 trillion mark last week.

The detail that really strikes home with me is the choice of “8,000 boxes of Ferrero Rocher chocolates”. For one, they’ll only get stuck in your teeth, but I always assumed they were chocolates for the aspirational, not those who actually have money to throw around. I can only hope newly appointed Prime Minister, Morgan Tsvangirai will respond in kind: “Mr Mugabe, with these Rocher you are really spoiling us!”

On a more serious note, Martin Fletcher from The Times, quotes an unnamed aid worker who says:

“It’s just appalling. It’s like they are either completely oblivious to what’s happening in their country, or completely impervious and just don’t care.”

I can hardly believe that Mugabe can still be oblivious to the suffering of his people, more likely it’s the latter: he simply doesn’t care. So Zimbabwe is worth a thought on February 21st – a  starving country seething as its decadent dictator dines in style.

Stop Googling To Save The Planet – Has It Come To This?!

Happy New Year! I’ll drink to that. Milk, please. Two sugars.

Don't overfill the kettle, don't fly if you can help it, and oh, stop using Google...
Don't overfill the kettle, don't fly if you can help it, and oh, stop using Google

2009 – It’s the year to save the world, right?

Not if you’re reading this. Chances are you got here via Google, or you’ve at least used it once today, correct? The monopoly Google holds over the search engine niche is comparable only to Tesco and supermarkets, but until now no-one has raised major concerns about the Californian giant’s near total dominance.

Stop press!

In an infuriating article in this week’s Sunday Times, we are told that performing two Google searches produces as much CO2 as boiling a cup of tea and, more frighteningly, that the technological industry gives off more CO2 annually than the aviation industry. The reason for this, according to new research from Harvard, is that Google operates several huge data centres across the world which are all consulted each time you search, resulting in more comprehensive results, but more CO2 emitted on net.

The choice of comparison here is particularly cutting. Not boiling a full kettle of water and cutting down on flying are two simple steps to reducing your Carbon Footprint, and by placing Google emissions above them makes personal small steps seem all the more pointless. It makes me feel like it’s too late to reverse all the bad we have done, and that my petty efforts are insignificant.

I wrote last month of how hard it is to cut back on air travel because of personal inconvenience, but we cannot hope for people to cut back on their internet usage. I shudder to think of the millions of times I have Googled something out of sheer curiosity or laziness. Google is a key research tool for journalists everywhere, and is usually the first port of call. Furthermore, many people, my parents included, set Google as their homepage and search for “hotmail” instead of bothering to type the URL into the address bar.

In both cases it’s just like Pandora’s Box – once we have developed this technology and have seen the amazing things we can do with it, we cannot simply close the box and go backwards. In this case, the onus lies with Google to clean up their act and make their search engine more energy efficient. But is there anything we can do to help? Is it realistic to ask people to use the internet less for environmental reasons? Or is this just needless scaremongering?

Where Have All The Lefties Gone?

You can’t move in the journalistic world at the moment without being faced with worrying questions about the credit crunch, but no-one seems to have any definite answers. It’s particularly daunting for someone such as me, who has no formal economic education, so I readily bow to those who know their FTSEs from their Dow Jones’s.

Take to the streets!
Take to the streets!

The Times’ daily columnists have been doing a great job of making the credit crunch more comprehensible, and today the BBC chimed in with this helpful article.

But I am quite surprised that no-one has risked taking a Marxist view of the situation, even ironically. I consider myself to be a closet Lefty, fairly convinced by Marx’s ideas, but not educated or confident enough to walk down Farringdon Road waving a Red Flag, burning £10 notes.

No matter what your political stance, it must seem unusual that as the capitalist system falters majorly, there is a great dearth of left-wing criticism. Nonetheless, I found this article from the Guardian particularly interesting.

Unquantified though it may be, I think it’s wonderfully ironic that the Germans (who are stereotypically aligned with fascism) should look to their estranged son Karl for guidance during this time of severe economic turmoil. Perhaps I should look to the Guardian more often to indulge my quasi-Marxist tendencies…

Now Playing: Frank Turner – Love, Ire & Song

UPDATE 13/11/08: Don’t despair, some would argue you can even benefit from the credit crunch. David Christopher blogs that a reduction in house prices can only be good for those hoping to get on the property ladder for the first time.