It’s not torture, but just don’t tell Colin anyway…

Missed this before from last week’s CIA report on enhanced interrogation techniques…

At the direction of the White House, the secretaries of state and defense – both principals on the National Security Council – were not briefed on program specifics until September 2003. An internal CIA email from July 2003 noted that “… theWH [White House] is extremely concerned [Secretary] Powell would blow his stack if he were to be briefed on what’s been going on.”

Rather shows that all concerned rather did know that this was torture. And knew they knew it. And that another known known was that Colin Powell was the only figure with any sort of moral compass…

In defence of Bob Geldof

It’s not often I agree with Bob Geldof, but I find myself nodding in agreement with his pithy response to critics who are troubled by his 30-year-old charity song Do They Know It’s Christmas?

“Please. It’s a pop song. Relax.

“It’s a pop song, it’s not a doctoral thesis. They can f*** off.”

Indeed. What seems remarkable to me is the way that a typically reactionary strategy – the po-faced literal interpretation of pop lyrics – has been used by supposedly progressive forces to condemn a laudable aim. Most notably, that somehow it is archaic and patronising to suggest that Africans are unaware of Christmas.

But is that what the song does at all?

Consider its opening verse, which for me at least conjures something of the magical spirit of the season. It is a time of warmth, comfort, safety, when we celebrate our own good fortune and our thoughts turn to others – wherever they might be and however they might be in need.

It’s Christmastime; there’s no need to be afraid
At Christmastime, we let in light and we banish shade
And in our world of plenty we can spread a smile of joy
Throw your arms around the world at Christmastime

Now the meaning of the rest of the song makes perfect sense when considering how many millions of other people are not nearly so lucky. Deprived of our bellies stuffed with turkey, can people in impoverished parts of the world – fighting their own daily battles of survival – embrace the Christmas spirit in the way that we might. Is the day any different to any others? Is it free from fear? Is it a day spent surrounded by loved ones?

The greatest gift they’ll get this year is life
Oh, where nothing ever grows, no rain or rivers flow
Do they know it’s Christmastime at all?

Is the song asking whether the rest of the world knows its Christmas. Or is it asking if they are as safe and secure as we are, on the one day when we all (who celebrate Christmas) hope to put our worries aside.

And if you are unimpressed by my reasoning, consider this: Sierra Leone has “cancelled” Christmas, banning public celebrations to help curb the spread of Ebola. Of course people know it’s literally Christmastime but is it still actually Christmas if you can’t gather in public to sing your carols?

Sure, the charity single does perpetuate notions of the white man as saviour. But if you don’t like that then there are far more important targets than Geldof and his charity single.

This all smacks to me of a new age of ultra-literalism, based in no small part on our 140-character culture. Irony, sarcasm, metaphor and allusion are all losing their way.  A complicated sentiment is stripped down to its surface.

Celebrating Christmas is not just about knowing it is December 25.

The cost of peace in Afghanistan

Be wary of any piece of analysis on Afghanistan that cites conditions at L’Atmo as an example of things getting worse/better/staying the same. But there’s a decent piece in The Economist about where exactly the country stands at this crucial time in its history.

It speaks for itself.

One detail struck me, however, as particularly interesting and chimes with some other work I am looking at:

Despite the intervention’s huge cost—estimated at a trillion dollars, or $30,000 for every Afghan—the country’s poverty rate has been stuck, at 36%, for almost a decade. It is even rising in places, such as north-eastern Afghanistan, which are relatively untouched by the Taliban insurgency that is ravaging most of the country.

Is this the cost of peace for people who didn’t fight? With stabilisation programmes pumping donor cash to Pashtun regions in the south and east, heartland of the Taliban, are people elsewhere losing out?

Wikipedia and public health

Fascinating piece on Wikipedia emerging as trusted source on Ebola – and the health professionals who are working to keep it accurate and up-to-date in today’s New York Times.

My eye was caught particularly with this line down near the bottom – that one medical course even includes training in how to edit Wikipedia…

That well-schooled contributor pool is only going to get bigger starting on Monday, when the University of California, San Francisco, begins an elective class for fourth-year medical students that focuses on Wikipedia editing.

The teacher, Dr. Amin Azzam, a health sciences associate clinical professor at the medical school, said 17 students had enrolled, a large increase from the five who took the introductory version of the class in December.

He said he was not certain whether any of his students would work on the Ebola article, but that it was possible they would urge other students concentrating on infectious diseases to contribute to it.

“I now believe it should be our professional duty to contribute to Wikipedia — one of the fastest ways we can improve the health of our entire planet!” he wrote by email.

All you need to know about Ebola and global healthcare disparities

In his weekly address to the US, Barack Obama today chose to focus on Ebola, reassuring Americans that the disease is hard to catch and that there is a treatment:

At the same time, it’s important to remember that of the seven Americans treated so far for Ebola—the five who contracted it in West Africa, plus the two nurses from Dallas—all seven have survived.  Let me say that again—seven Americans treated; all seven survived.  I’ve had two of them in the Oval Office.  And now we’re focused on making sure the patient in New York receives the best care as well.

Meanwhile we have the latest update from the World Health Organisation (PDF), showing what happens if you are ill with Ebola in West Africa…

A total of 10 141 confirmed, probable, and suspected cases of Ebola virus disease (EVD) have been reported in six affected countries (Guinea, Liberia, Mali, Sierra Leone, Spain, and the United States of America) and two previously affected countries (Nigeria, Senegal) up to the end of 23 October. There have been 4922 reported deaths.



There are many different ways of telling a story. And while I may not just write for newspapers any more, my own way of doing it has changed little during my career. The platforms may evolve but I still use the same words. One of the exciting things about being in New York is to see all the different ways in which it can be done. So I’ll try to get to Brooklyn Academy of Music next month for this production of BASETRACK Live.

How to deal with Isis murder videos

Dealing with propaganda produced by  Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (Isis) is a major headache for any newsroom. If a hostage is beheaded then that’s a news story. It cannot be ignored. But Isis is not merely murdering Westerners: It has built an entire strategy around its made-for-TV killings.

The MO is clear. With each one it tries to make the process resemble some sort of judicial exercise. The charges are laid out against Obama and Cameron in the first video, when the next victim is revealed. A week, 10 days, a fortnight later and the judgement is delivered and punishment imposed.

As this thoughtful piece, by Lina Khatib, points out, the recent slew of family appeals for compassion has made no impact…

The beheading of Alan Henning on the eve of the Eid al-Adha holiday, despite a widespread campaign emphasising his respect for Islam, should be a wake-up call to those who assume that IS might be swayed by calls for compassion.

A more fruitful approach may be to call for defiance, undermining the claims for legitimacy by Isis.

But what then for the media? How best to handle what appears not to be a murder campaign so much as a propaganda campaign? The piece goes on to call on the media essentially to black out coverage.

Only when IS begins to see that hostage-taking is no longer an effective political and propaganda tool will the current wave of beheadings begin to wane.

Maybe. But no serious news organisation can ignore a murder. And I suspect the wave of beheadings will end only when they run out of victims.