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An open letter to the BBC by Maddy Fry

Dear BBC,

                    It can’t have escaped you attention that not everyone is getting into the Olympic Spirit. In particular, those of us with the misfortune to be in the capital over the next two weeks often see it as garish, disruptive and expensive, making our routes to work even more cumbersome. However, if your coverage of the Jubilee earlier in the year is anything to go by, the views of anyone who is against London 2012 won’t be given much air time.

    It’s already been commented on how the BBC’s coverage of the Jubilee was little more than sycophantic drivel. The irony was also that the Telegraph reported the policy adopted by the director of the BBC documentary ‘The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee’ of not interviewing anyone that might have a bad word to say about the monarchy. It also took a direct appeal to Lord Patten from the anti-royalist group Republic to let them have a mere seven-minute slot on the Today Programme, compared with the hours of inane, sentimental treacle we all had to endure about the band of unelected incompetents that serve as our heads of state.

  Less surprisingly, the Guardian was responsible for breaking the appalling story of how jobseekers were made to sleep rough before working gruelling unpaid shifts on the Jubilee pageant. In comparison, the BBC’s coverage was widely thought to be just fawning, repetitive nonsense, with even staunch monarchists denouncing it as tedious. In so doing, at a time when it is needed the most the BBC has unofficially delegated the more interesting, investigative strands of its journalism to other areas of the British media.

 And it looks like coverage of the Olympics won’t be that different. The BBC so far has had little to say on the campaign waged by the group Carpenters Against Regeneration Plans (CARP), who have been protesting against the planned demolition, and therefore forcible re-housing, of the group of houses known as the Carpenters Estate in Stratford, East London. The group are outraged that such a decision was taken by Newham Council without residents’ prior warning or consent. However, perhaps the BBC’s silence isn’t surprising given that the ire of the area’s occupants was also raised by permission being granted to the BBC and Al-Jazeera to use two residential towers as broadcasting venues (again, without the consent of those who happen to be, well, living there). 

  In the same vein, landlords overseeing properties near the Olympic games have been jacking up rental rates at short notice, forcing many tenants out, in the hope of benefiting from increased demand for housing in the East End during London 2012. The BBC has admittedly given some space to the issue. But once again, it was the Guardian that stepped in as a cheerleader for two junior doctors who waged a legal case against a landlord who chose to alert them out of the blue that their rental rate would double during the games.

  On a wide scale, the massive corporate sponsorship of the games and the heavy militarisation of the capital has made many Londoners feel alienated from their own city. Similarly, my teeth grind over the fact that I’m forced to hear Boris Johnson’s voice coming out of every speaker in every station, every day. It’s made worse that a man who always claimed to be a cheerleader for cyclists is overseeing an event that disallows them from riding in many of the city’s lanes, which have suddenly been designated as for Olympic athletes only – even if, as this article points out, they’re the safest places for cyclists to be.

  BBC coverage was also scant of the recent protest walk from Oxleas Woods to Blackheath Common in Southeast London by people objecting to the illegal closing off of public green spaces, as well as the building of missile sites supposedly for the sake of Olympic security.  Compared with the cheerleading and forced jollity of the vast majority of the BBC’s coverage so far, the reality of the Olympics is that it’s left many wondering who the games will actually benefit.

  But what’s even more worrying is the wider issue of the BBC refusing to act in the public’s interest. The fear of getting your wings clipped, by the government or other vested interests, has made you toothless as an organisation, turning much of the BBC’s output into bland, uncontroversial fluff, churned out for an audience you believe doesn’t wish to be challenged. It’s a sad situation when state media starts to neuter itself.

The subtleties of social control in China by Maddy Fry

One Western view of China is that it’s a country with heavy state control. This implies an overt police presence, a heavy reliance on the death penalty and a gratuitous glorification of the army. The latter two may be true; but the notion of China as a place where police constantly line the streets and religious minorities are routinely forced into hiding seems overly-simplistic.

 I should probably first point out that I’ve yet to visit China myself. But I was intrigued by the experiences of some friends who returned recently from a spell in Datong, a city in the Shanxi province in the north of the country situated several hundred kilometres west of Beijing.

  For starters they described the police presence there as very “unthreatening.” Few policemen were evident in the streets, and there was rarely a feeling of being watched or under constant surveillance. My friends had both been exposed to Spain under Franco, Communist Eastern Europe and pre-Arab Spring Syria, which they describe as a million miles from what China was like. Datong had little of the feeling of a closed or repressed society with the hand of the state present in every sphere of life.

 Even on a later trip to Tiananmen Square, bag-searching was at a minimum. “The soldiers were all really young and weren’t trying to be intimidating.”

  This means mechanisms for social control are far more subtle, with compliance woven into the fabric of society rather than enforced at gunpoint.

  One thing noticeable among the locals was their reliance on passive constructions. Very rarely was anyone in particular referenced as laying down rules or prohibitions; there was merely an unspecified sense of how “we are not encouraged,” or “we are warned about….”My friends from Britain were unsure as to whether it referred to the local party, central government, parents and neighbours, bosses at work or just slogans on the walls. “We assumed government, but that could well be wrong,” one said.

  Perhaps unsurprisingly, the idea of the family was paramount. Although mixing with strangers was not prohibited, it was apparently deeply discouraged. Most people wouldn’t mix with new people or seek to make new friends. Due to the lack of any European-style social security or welfare from the state, such networks were therefore crucial to people’s quality of life.

 As people are only registered in the town of their birth, they aren’t entitled to any assistance in finding work if they choose to relocate. In particular, those who do move from the country to the city risk falling into poverty, with no friends or relatives around to support them if they get ill, unemployed, or eventually too old to work.

 The social implications of all this are grim enough in light of the infamous ‘one child’ policy. Children with few or no siblings are under immense pressure to earn enough money not only to feed themselves and their future families but also to take care of any elderly forebears.

 Yet the irony of this lack of a government safety net is that the need for a police presence is less than one might expect; the government already knows where everyone is.

 Big Brother somehow seems far more insidious when he’s invisible.

A tale of two prison cells

by Rosa

Two nights ago one of those situations that would have been absolutely inconceivable, incomprehensible and indescribable just a decade ago took hold. The number 1 hashtag trending globally on Twitter was #hungerstrikingfor65days. Thousands of voices from multiple countries carved out a space on the internet which resembled nothing more that an enormous protest march, with chants of “Khader exists!”, comments, arguments breaking out, and a few confused people wandering in wondering what on earth was going on. Protests outside of the virtual world were planned, and strikes threatened. At the heart of it was Khader Adnan, a Palestinian man held without charge in an Israeli jail, who was close to death after 65 days on hunger strike.

While Twitter resounded, in a country where social media is heavily restricted, a man was being transferred through the streets of Tehran from a hospital bed to the notorious Evin prison. Dr Mehdi Khazali, a blogger imprisoned for critising the regime, had suffered a heart attack after 45 days on hunger strike. After the bare minimum of medical care, he was returned to prison. He had written to his wife days before that their “tears would bring down a tyrant”.

And so we have the strange parallel stories of two men striking out against their governments by destroying their own bodies as these respective governments prepare for war with each other.

It’s a timely reminder that despte the focus being on nuclear weapons, diplomatic options and oil sanctions, the human rights crises in Iran and Israel haven’t stopped. The slow dispossesion of the Palestinians continues as cheerfully as the stifling of personal freedoms and dissent in Iran. Israeli “administrative detention” remains a mark of shame against the hollow claims that Israel is the Middle East’s only democracy; on my last trip to the Middle East I encountered a 17 year old Palestinian girl who had just spent seven months in jail without charge under the rules, which potentially allow indefinite detention for suspects. And Evin prison is just the most notorious of Iran’s jails from which come a constant stream of stories of political prisoners, of torture, of arbitrary executions and miscarriages of justice.

The difference is that both regimes have been losing the argument for a long time. Even Israel’s loyal allies are questioning them quietly and trying to curb their excesses, and the world hasn’t forgotten the spectacle of civilians showered with white phosphorus during the Gaza conflict; the Iranian administration’s legitimacy has been shattered by mass protests against electoral fraud and even polls which find support for Ahmedinejad also show mass desire for governmental reform.

Now, for the Israeli and Iranian establishments, what could possibly deflect international criticism, unite their populations and shift the news agenda?

Just as Khader Adnan and Mehdi Khazali’s plights mirror each other, Iran and Israel reflect each other in that both need conflict to thrive. Iran’s velayat-e faqih (rule of the jurist) system cemented itself through a ten-year war with Iraq, and ever since has lurched from crisis to crisis - every time the chaos around it calms, demand for change from within rises. Israel is a country founded on the struggle to survive, whose disparate and complex population is held together by a solidarity born out of fear and grim determination to prevail no matter what. 

Whether or not Iran and Israel’s current sabre-rattling comes to war or simply burns out as every other between them crisis has, whichever country we want to argue is “the real threat” or “in the right”, the truth is that the threat of war benefits their governments as immensely as it costs their people. The national and international conversation becomes about military expenditure and geostrategy, not about human rights - after all, such things are luxuries at times like this…

But it doesn’t always work. It was the grassroots outcry of thousands of people around the world that forced Khader Adnan’s story into the media, put Israel’s defensive PR machine into action, and eventually forced the deal under which he will be released in April. While the mainstream media talks of weapons inspections and military exercises, citizen journalists and social media may prove their worth by listening to the human stories that this potential war is distracting us from.

It will be interesting to see whether the internet hive mind chooses to listen to the war drums, or to the voices of people like Adnan and Khazali.

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