Author Archives: MichaelWStory


You know you’re a Third Culture Kid When…


1 You know which airport to go to in the event of a coup

 Cairo airport


2 You have spent a lot of time out of contact with your family


3 You know what it’s like to come to school exhausted from a redeye flight


4 You are left looking blank when people talk about the tv they watched growing up


5 You know what a panic button is


6 You are exposed to high levels of cosmic radiation at a young age from long-haul flights


7 ‘I’m not really from anywhere, it’s a bit complicated…’


8 Your heavily-stamped passport arouses suspicion at border checkpoints


9 You have friends that you don’t get to see for months at a time


10 You stay well clear of protests and rallies, those can bring back bad memories


11 Your experiences have moulded your moral reasoning in ways which leave you out of touch with monocultural peers


‘Equal marriage’ passed this week. People who previously had their rights enforceable under a civil partnership will now have exactly the same rights under marriage. Their wedding ceremonies will be slightly more streamlined in some cases but that’s about it. For everybody else, no change. But to hear some people tell it, this is a either a civil rights victory akin to the end of apartheid or the beginning of the end of Western Civilisation at the hands of the ‘anti-family’ agenda. I’m really starting to see what a amazingly deft bit of politicking it was to introduce all the legal provisions of gay marriage in 2005 and then just call it something else. 


This week I had a post up on the Guardian blog in response to Suzanne Moore’s bizarre attack on the field of economics- there was a variety of interesting responses on twitter, but one irritation that kept appearing was this piece claiming to identify 8 elementary errors of economics 

Only one of them seemed remotely valid- see for yourself:

• The measure of success is growth of the Gross Domestic Product.

Economists developed this measure, but it is a very rough tool and its limitations are acknowledged by the field. If politicians over rely on it, that does not say anything about econ as a field of study. Does the fact that life expectancy makes no measure of quality of life invalidate medicine?

• Clear evidence of poor performance is ignored. Growth, unemployment and inflation measures in the neoliberal era, since 1980, have never been as good as those in the 1950s and 1960s, when governments involved themselves substantially in the economy.

In the fifties and sixties the economy was better in the West only- by being so far ahead of other countries it was easy to out-compete. Most countries will not remember this period as a golden era. Now as development raises capabilities and living standards across the world Western workers are less in demand.

• Money and debt are excluded from economic models. I’m not making this up.

You are making this up. There are plenty of economic models which deal with debt and the money supply. What is true is that printing money is not counted as evidence of productivity or development- otherwise ZImbabwe would come top of development indices.

• Modern free-market theory, called the neoclassical theory, predicts the economy will always be close to equilibrium. If that were true it should tick along steadily and sudden changes should only occur in response to large external events like natural disasters or wars. Yet many times over the past two centuries financial markets have suddenly collapsed without any external cause. Some of the more recent examples occurred in 1987, 1997, 2001 and 2007. In 1987 stock prices dropped by 30-40% in a day, though thirty percent of the world’s factories had not been bombed overnight.

Stock prices are the cumulative predictions of all participants in the market. If there is widespread disinformation or ignorance which changes quickly then participants’ predictions will also change quickly. It could have nothing to do with the physical infrastructure, as this is only one aspect of the expectation of performance.

• The neoclassical theory is based on assumptions that are patently absurd or clearly shown by other disciplines to be untrue. Among the patently absurd, it is assumed our collective guesses about the future are accurate, yet people in 1890 could not have conceived how aeroplanes, two world wars, nuclear weapons, computers and digital communication would radically transform the world.

Evidence? Who assumes our collective guesses about the future are accurate?

• Economists assume there are no economies of scale beyond a point of diminishing returns, ignoring the lesson of Henry Ford’s assembly lines. Economies of scale allow the biggest firm to undercut other firms and grow faster, until it dominates a market. The existence of many such dominating firms, such as Microsoft, McDonald’s and Facebook, is also ignored.

This is the most nonsensical point. If you think that economists have ignored Henry Ford, you are misinformed. What you are saying is that the big companies you name did not reach the point of diminishing returns. If you can understand that at some level of car production between zero cars per year and infinity cars per year, it would become more difficult to produce each additional car (for example, when every acre of land is already covered in car plants) then you too, assume that there are no economies of scale beyond a point of diminishing returns, just like those foolish economists.

• It is assumed that people are innately individualistic and competitive, but psychologists have clearly documented our tendency to favour cooperation by punishing cheaters, even at a personal cost. Almost every mammalian species lives in groups, and social groups have an innate, and healthy, tension between individualism and cooperation. Most people understand they are better off if they balance their own wishes with those of their family and community.

Now in balance this is probably more valid- levels of cooperation differ widely between societies and are strongly correlated with economic success and political stability (compare Norway with Greece). There are economists studying these effects but there is a lot of political pressure to not look into this area as it has major implications for immigration and development policies.

• It is assumed we are coldly “rational” calculators, yet we are obviously strongly motivated by love, envy, fashion and insecurity, and marketers ruthlessly exploit these foibles. Psychologists have also clearly documented our tendency to other “non-rational” behaviours such as being risk averse. Neither the fashion industry nor the marketing industry would exist if economists were right.

In what sense would anybody regard ignoring somebody that you love as ‘rational’? The motivations from your goals are different to the means by which you go about achieving them. Most people are pretty rational about how to spend their money to maximise the benefits, whatever their motivation is. I would also query that risk aversion isn’t rational- it is simply a preference which people express with their spending.


This link was being sent around by people who really ought to know better. There are criticisms to be made of any field, but surely we can do better than this?

Sentamu cutting up his dog collar

I rather like the idea of an established church- one of the problems with regarding religion as something only for the private sphere is that it robs non-adherents of the ability to comment or get involved. The Church of England’s special place in the UK’s government and parliament, which many atheists see as unfair, is to me a good thing, a sign that whether or not we go to church we can have a say in how it is run, which is why I want to stick my nose into the debate over whether John Sentamu should be the next Archbishop of Canterbury.

Sentamu has been in the news this week after clarifying his view on whether civil partnerships should be renamed ‘Marriage’. He thinks they shouldn’t. This has been met with a great deal of criticism from those who are attached to their particular view on what name we should give to a legal contract between two people and the Inland Revenue, but all of this talk is obscuring the thing that most concerns me when I think of Dr Sentamu getting the keys to Lambeth Palace: his dodgy links in Africa.
Many remember the incident in which, while being interviewed by Andrew Marr, Sentamu cut up his dog collar and said he would never wear it again while Robert Mugabe remains president of Zimbabwe. An admirable stand, and the first time many considered him a possible candidate to replace Rowan Williams.

Robert Kayanja after another successful ‘healing’

Closer to home though, are the activities of Senatmu’s brother, Robert Kayanja, a prosperity preacher who has amassed a fortune in the millions by selling ‘healing miracles’ to poor Africans and who enjoys a close political friendship with Yoweri Museveni, Uganda’s President. This relationship is very close indeed, for when Kayanja was accused of raping two young boys in his church, the police arrested the boys, who subsequently retracted their allegation. Kayanja has also established links with the very iffy ministry of Benny Hinn, a similarly profit oriented ‘religion’ and his financial success is based on the same principles of greed and exploitation.

Sentamu has never commented publicly on his brother’s behaviour, having his spokesperson tell the Daily Mail:

“As a matter of Christian discipline he does not comment on or criticise other Churches”

but he has preached as Kayanja’s Miracle Centre Cathedral and officiated at his wedding. Someone in the running to be Archbishop of Canterbury ought to make it very clear whether he thinks this is acceptable behaviour. There is a good point to be made here about homophobia too- the CofE may be unsure on gay marriage, but in a country like Uganda where there are regular calls for gay people to be killed, the Anglican church has a very substantial moderating influence. John Sentamu’s views are far more tolerant than the competing churches in Africa, which exploit local hostility to homosexuality to fill pews, but would he be willing to stand up to them when he has such a close relationship to the Ugandan establishment?

It is a game as old as diplomacy itself to try to convince a great power that you have enemies in common.

Last week I was at the Frontline Club for an evening dedicated to the phenomenon of Kony 2012. Most interesting, given the stated goal of Invisible Children to find and kill/capture Joseph Kony, was the presence in the room of no less than three people who had separately met and shaken hands with Kony over the last few years, who vocally and by their presence made the point that he is not nearly as hard to track down as The Ugandan government and their allies would have you believe.

There was also representation from Uganda’s northern Acholi tribe keen to point out the failings of President Yoweri Museveni, who has enjoyed what was described on the night as quiet support of the Invisible Children, but which now appears to be a much closer relationship than even hardened cynics suspected.  Museveni came to power in Uganda after the violent overthrow of Milton Obote (who took the presidency by force from Idi Amin, who had himself violently ousted that same President Obote eight years previously), and has continued to behave in the established tradition of African big man dictators- ruthless repression at home coupled with appeals to great powers for funding. Instead of seducing the State Department with exaggerated tales of a looming Soviet threat to justify the construction of a police state, it is the first lady’s appeals to the US religious right that have proved most lucrative in 21st Century Uganda. Janet Museveni, wife of the president, evangelical Christian and a cabinet mister in her own right, is also the main driver behind the Ugandan nomenklatura’s links to evangelical organisations with interests in Africa such as Invisible Children.

What seems to have happened with the Kony project can be traced to the impact of the search for Bin Laden. As a dictator whose rule has been looking shaky after 26 years in government and some public disorder following 2011’s presidential election , Museveni must have looked enviously at the huge amount of aid being given to fund Pakistan’s earnest and sincere hunt for Bin Laden, aid which was gainfully diverted by the Pak government to the brutal repression of separatists in Balochistan and a whole host of other matters of purely national interest. Thinking that the solution to their financial problems was a bogeyman who could be used to extract military resources from an ever generous West, the Ugandans must have seen that if a charity was able to raise a campaign to support military intervention to catch Kony then the spigot of Western military aid could be turned on full force- no wonder they granted Invisible Children access to film-making opportunities like helicopter shots that legitimate documentary makers like, well, me would never have access to (and indeed didn’t have access to when filming there last year).

The problems came when the video became so successful that investors were scared away from the supposedly war-torn country and the backlash to the gratingly chirpy (and now sadly troubled) Jason Russell resulted in more negative publicity for Uganda and the government. As Great Game players, the Museveni cadre are novices, but shouldn’t be underestimated; next time, they might just come up with the goods.

Katharine Round, who is an awesome filmmaker and a founder of the brilliant Docheads network posted a link to a recent article in Screen Daily on indie film funding which included this quote from Jess Search, the Chief Exec of Britdoc:

“independent film-makers are the rebels, the thought-leaders, the intellectuals, the troublemakers, taking the place of what used to happen with print journalism and television.”

Adam Curtis touched on this point at DocFest when he said that he was expecting the emergence of a movement similar to New Journalism, but that TV wouldn’t be the medium. TV can be so hidebound by convention and a desire not to upset anybody that challenging ideas struggle to get through, but it’s not dead yet, and I’m not sure that independent film is really offering the alternative that is being talked up here. Some of the most stimulating stuff of recent times has been made by people like Adam himself and Jonathan Meades through the traditional route. Are there independent films offering much of the calibre of Meades’ latest creative docs based on the story of the Algerian Pieds Noirs or indeed of Curtis’ recent work?
A big problem with the piecemeal funding model discussed in the article, broadly speaking bringing in outside corporate and NGO funders, is one similar to the problem with academic journals- there’s a publication bias. Everyone wants to get on board with positive films, so stories about bad things happening can get pushed to the side in the scramble for funding; a case in point is The Interrupters.

It has an uplifting storyline and comforting message and there’s no doubt it is a well made film, but it is socially responsible to put out a documentary which will leave audiences with a misleadingly clean impression of the murky relationship between public funding and gangs in Chicago?
I think a lot of this comes down to a lack of diversity in the broadcast/indie film world. Lots of people with similar background, education, politics and attitude. Every time you hear somebody talk about wanting to hear ‘unheard voices’ in a film, you know exactly what they want, whose voice you’ll hear, and what they’ll be saying.

My own experiences with the tremendous anti science bias of media insiders has been sobering, but oddly, it extends to hating religion too, in favour of a sort of mishmash of New Age anti authoritarianism which doesn’t bear much scrutiny. What is so frustrating is that, returning to Adam Curtis’ remarks, these attitudes were exposed and rejected by the first wave of New Journalism back in the 1970s. Compare The Interrupters’ rather soppy music heavy approach with the surgically efficient and ruthlessly satirical writing of Tom Wolfe on the same topic, or the essay that I can’t imagine many UK media types have read judging by their unblushing faces, The Me Decade.

My own feeling is that the next wave of innovation in ways to inform us about the world will be found in blogs, where radical and challenging ways of telling us about the world are flourishing. Doc film seems in danger of, if anything, being left behind.

UPDATE: Katharine responds on Facebook, plus my response:


  • Katharine Round

    Interesting post, Michael. Although I agree that the piecemeal approach of the independent route is far from ideal, I have to disagree that all of the interesting films of recent times have come through broadcast TV. For me, good films break through onto television in spite of the system rather than because of it. Excellent films like the End of the LIne, Hell and Back Again, You’ve Been Trumped and many many more would have been unlikely broadcast prospects yet provide the kind of debate and creative, risk-taking filmmaking it desperately needs. I’m not saying good films aren’t made for TV – they are – but they tend to be from the either the same voices or formatted/made tabloid so they can be stomached by an audience that is assumed to desire such tosh.
    about an hour ago · Unlike ·  1
  • Michael Story

    Those are good examples of what the best of indie docs can do and we certainly agree that TV can stifle creative filmmaking, but I worry that the piecemeal indie funding model risks only putting forward films whose editorial perspectives already enjoy widespread support. Does anybody not think that Donald Trump is unpleasant, that the current Afghan War will be another slow and bloody failure, or that overfishing is a problem? Those are all great films to stimulate and entertain an audience, but what of films who premise is not certain to meet with approval?
    What I would like to see is a third option- one where films can be made untabloided and dumbed down (safe from the dread hands of the TV establishment) and without the need to reinforce the preconceptions of audiences (well meaning indie funders). Maybe we need to start something along the lines of the MacArthur genius grants. Award money to people rather than specific projects, then let them pursue their ideas.
    The kind of films I really love are ones where we get to see how the world looks to people outside of the norm, and I don’t mean the film student’s classic tactic of finding the nearest down and out at the bus stop and running cello music under their musings. Recently I saw an article about Africans living in London, among whom was a group of refugees from the Biafran War, still clinging to a four decades old dream of a nation which only existed for three years. The writer brushed over their story a bit but it made me think what an amazing doc that could be, to see what life would be like for people in that farcical and tragic situation- exactly the kind of project which would be considered too esoteric by TV yet lacking a simplistic political message to tempt the indie crowd.
    You’ve got me rambling again, and on a Saturday night too!
    4 minutes ago · Like

The Christian Science Monitor’s Scott Baldauf has written an article to which I came late, called “Five Myths About Africa”

It supposedly undermines the lazy stereotypes of the Western media to get to the real heart of the continent, but is actually a perfect example of a new kind of journalism about Africa, one which tries to undermine facts with anecdotes and emotional manipulation. The piece starts with the photo on the left, of two obviously poor girls in rags collecting brushwood. Hardly breaking down people’s preconceptions, is it?

Here are the five myths that the article seeks to repudiate:

1: Africa is Poor.

In this section the article describes a family ground down by “greed by family members” who expected to be given a portion of the welfare check received by a woman called Olga Thimbela who has taken in AIDS orphans. It is very important to recognise that a common theme in Southern African culture is that you must help your relatives no matter what (very important in a country with such terrible poverty).

The trouble with what Scott Baldauf calls ‘cultural wealth’ goes much further: when someone reaches political or administrative high office they will be again expected to use their position to provide for their relatives. This cultural trait, often remarked on favourably by Western journalists among the poor, is responsible for a great amount of the corruption and misallocation of funds that keep that poverty going.

2: Africa is Violent

Baldauf quotes unnamed friends from Mexico and Brasil who say that their home countries are more dangerous than South Africa. In 2008 in South Africa there were 34 murders per hundred thousand population; in Brasil 22, in Mexico there were 12.

3: Africa needs our help

Baldauf talks here about the Mbeki AIDS policy which has cost hundreds of thousands of lives, Mugabe’s brutal rule in Zim, Kenyan pols avoiding prosecution for post election violence, Malawi rejecting aid in order to keep corruption for its leaders and poverty for the rest. That sounds like a region in need of some help, but this is a myth because of… Nkosinathi Biko (son of Steve Biko, advocate for African pride) and a lady who hosted a tea party for him and another journalist? Surely it is possible that a proud and hospitable people can still be in need of assistance?

4 Africa is backward

The CSM points to the practise of using cellphone credit as a makeshift mobile currency as evidence of innovation. Certainly this is true, but Baldauf leads onto this:

In fact, it was this common practice of using airtime to send money that attracted the attention of the cellphone company Safaricom and the British Department for International Development to launch a new service called M-PESA. Today, M-PESA serves effectively as one of Kenya’s largest banks, with some 75 percent of the 9.5 million M-PESA account holders using it to store money, according to a study by theMassachusetts Institute of Technology. The project worked so well, it has now spread to South Africa – a country with a world-class banking sector – and plans are afoot to take it elsewhere in Africa.

How does the fact that Safaricom (part owned by Vodaphone UK and run for the last ten years by a white South African who has just stepped aside to be replaced as CEO by a British retail manager) has done a deal with the UK Department for International Development to create a new service say anything about whether Africa is innovative or not?

The other examples given, of farmers making cellphone calls and refugees using solar cookers are not good examples to go alongside William Kamkwamba (the Malawian windmill boy), who while very ingenious indeed, is but one person.

5 Africa is a country Well this one is obviously not true. Africa isn’t a country the way Europe isn’t a country. Hard to fault this one, but it comes at the end of a problematic list.

Go Well, readers.

Islamophobia is a real phenomenon, and muslims have a right to complain about it. I’m not talking about the justified concerns of citizens and media over the number of dangerously ignorant thugs in Britain’s Islamic communities, but the fact that the existence of those people is somehow seen as more serious than other kinds of dangerous ignorant thugs. This is exacerbated by the way that sympathisers with Islamic cause keep trying to point out that not all muslims are terrorists. This is an atrocious media strategy. What they should be doing is reminding everyone that not all terrorists are muslims.

The fact remains that although there is a major threat from Islamic terrorism in the UK, massive resources are being expended to defend against the regrowing threat in Northern Ireland and it is this that campaigners against islamophobia should highlight; I can’t help but feel that had Islamic extremists detonated a car bomb under a police officer in Bradford instead of Óglaigh na hÉireann killing a catholic PSNI officer it would have been covered in total blind panic instead of the slightly bored phoned in shock from the papers.

With this in mind I have new twitter project, called HandofHistory. I am tweeting every bomb that is discovered or detonated by any of the NI terrorist groups. In the two weeks it has been running I have retweeted 15 security alerts including 2 devices with lethal capacity. What would the media coverage be like if this was going on in a muslim area?

Last year when there were all those student protests going on, there was a sit in at UCL, my old alma mater. I had a meeting nearby and so went along to see what the fuss was about. When I got to Gower street, there was little sign of anything unusual, but I followed carefully printed signposts from the quad up to a conference room near the library marked by giant banners (right), the headquarters (and now billet) of the demonstrators.  The sit in had being going on for a couple of days and already there was plenty of evidence of mission creep; complaints about tuition fee increases had been joined by ones variously advocating the liberation of Palestine, Tibet and Mumia.

It was here that I met, among the earnest people who have just discovered the world’s injustice and are determined to fix it within the next few weeks and sooner if possible, a couple of former members of the UCL Islamic society. When I was a student here this society and the various satellites around it had a reputation for being a nasty bunch of fuckers, which I think the members quite enjoyed playing up to. Much as with the conservatives who wanted to hang Mandela in the eighties, a lot of the more unpleasant things that they said were simply to épater la bourgeoisie rather than seriously held opinions, but they publicly flirted with some pretty serious antisemitic and violent stuff and were quite cynical about recruiting bewildered and culturally isolated muslim students, which seems to have been the route that brought the fellows I met into this organsiation. At the time, any criticism of the behaviour of the members was met with the standard defence that the accuser was Islamophobic, which was enough to give the university administration, wracked internally with postmodern, ‘non judgemental’ thinking, enough pause to let the problem fester a little longer.

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, President of UCL Islamic Society and Convicted Terrorist

In 2006, my final year at UCL, the society had as its president engineering student Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab (left), who would become better known to the public in three years later on December the 25th 2009, when he attempted to detonate a suicide bomb attached to his underpants on a crowded flight in midair. He could have killed 289 people; he thankfully succeeded only in burning his penis, testicles and upper thighs.

Following the Christmas Day Underwear Bombing, as it came to be known, the security services woke up and began investigating university islamic societies and trying to disrupt their recruitment and radicalisation.

It was this increased attention from the security services that had brought the former student muslims to the demonstration. They felt that they should not be targeted for monitoring (of which they had no evidence but I sincerely hope was taking place) on the basis that they were no longer members of the society and were not involved in anything that might present a security threat.

Given all that had gone on, I was pretty surprised that they would take that view. Surely if I had previously been the member of a far right organisation whose president had tried to murder 289 muslims they would be pleased if MI5 kept an eye on me? They seemed uncertain. They brought up islamophobia, which is got me thinking. The results of that thought session?

Read about my new islamophobia related project here!

So, I orignially wrote this piece for publication but for one reason or another it never got printed; I thought it might be worth conserving here. MWS

Edit: see a video I made with a young woman who contacted me after reading this article, whose family was made homeless by dependency on faith healers and prosperity theology 

October 2009:

It’s Saturday afternoon in London’s biggest exhibition centre. I’m sitting with eight thousand other people, all of us in uncomfortable metal chairs bolted together in a structure reminiscent of a cattle pen. A sweating man in a thickly woven suit is pacing a raised platform at one end of a vast room, shouting into a microphone. In an accent that could be from anywhere in the Southern US, he’s exhorting us all to realise that if only we can understand and obey God’s simple message, salvation can be ours. It’s not just the standard heavenly salvation that we’ve all heard before, either. We won’t have to wait for the afterlife for what’s on offer today, in fact as soon as next week we can expect such benefits as improved career prospects, happier family relations, and better financial and physical health. “It only takes a sacrifice in your life” he tells us, “to make a giant change to your happiness.” He’s a little reticent on details, but I hear the words pain, sacrifice and obedience several times during his speech.

The man whose reputation has brought this huge crowd together is a preacher called Benny Hinn. Born to Greek immigrants in Jaffa, Israel, he’s an old fashioned faith healer and big tent revivalist, differing from that tradition only in that his services are televised and he’s given up on canvas shelters in favour of international exhibition halls. He travels the world, leading just one or two services in each place before he leaves for the next destination where sinners are in need of salvation. His TV show This is Your Day is watched by millions and the solicitations for gifts come thick and fast, alongside footage from his spectacular ‘Miracle Crusades.’

The only problem is that Pastor Benny isn’t here, and no-one seems to know why.

The perspiring man on the stage, whose name is probably Tom but might be John, it’s hard to tell with the distortion coming from the strained PA system, will say only that Pastor Benny can’t be here with us in person due to circumstances beyond his control. Voices around us mutter, some blaming the devil for Hinn’s absence.

I’m sitting quite a way back from the stage with two friends, Peter and Navid, whom I’ve brought along out of concern that the rest of the congregation might sense my atheism and try to convert me or worse. They both work in politics and they’re analysing the current speaker’s tone and inflection with professional, cynical eyes. I‘m glad to have come in a group, but I’m worried that their open hostility to what’s taking place on the stage might get us into trouble.

Our party isn’t representative of the rest of the room. We’re too tall, well fed and Western to fit in easily here. We might be in Docklands but the crowd wouldn’t look out of place in Abuja. Hinn is one of a number of faith healers whose brand of showmanship is very popular among the Pentecostal groups which have sprung up across West Africa, regularly drawing six figure crowds to stadiums in places where secondary education is unusual.

Navid leans forward and asks a group of three men in their thirties why they’ve come.

“For salvation”, one of them says, and the other two nod. “We’ve seen the TV show.”

We’ve seen it too. There are hundreds of clips on youtube we’ve watched and giggled at before curiosity brought us here. The format is always the same: exhortations for donations mixed with footage of his preaching at the miracle crusades, followed by the gimmick he’s best known for: Slaying in the Spirit.

Hinn, dressed in a white suit, white shirt and white tie, backed by reverential choral music, alternates between soft whispers and sharp commands to the audience. Cameras with soft focus lenses sweep over a reverential audience as the sick and needy make their way to the front of the auditorium, and, having been vetted by Hinn’s aides, climb onto the stage.

An afflicted person will be presented to the crowd and told to reveal their troubles which have a suspicious tendency to be unverifiable in their progress. Hinn repeats their worst experiences of arthritis, diabetes or other such ailments in sympathetic tones. After a while his voice will gradually fade and Pastor Benny will lean forward, standing very still, and, once the tension has built sufficiently, yell “Fire!” straight at them, whirling his jacket around his head, at which they collapse on the floor along with anyone standing near them. Sometimes the first two rows of pilgrims in the audience crumple too, leaving one or two hardier souls who remain standing like the thicker trunked trees left in the wake of a hurricane. Those who have been floored rise claiming healing from their ailments, praising the Lord. On television it’s very impressive, in person it must be overwhelming, and it’s not hard to see why so many have come to this hot echoing hall. Even without the man himself in attendance, there is still an atmosphere of anticipation.

From conversations we’ve had with our neighbours it seems that many here have come as part of groups from churches, which comes as a surprise. I wouldn’t have thought that any minister with a roof to repair would want someone as solicitous as Hinn anywhere near their flock in case he cleans them out of six month’s worth of donations, but it might be in their interest to compare themselves to Pastor Benny. London’s Pentecostal clergy are famed or their extravagant lifestyles at the expense of the faithful but a little dose of Hinn might make them seem like better value for money.

Navid is getting impatient with the lack of information about Hinn’s whereabouts. Being of Asian background he is less obviously an outsider here, and he goes off to dig for clues, leaving Peter and I sitting very conspicuously in our seats attracting quizzical but so far non-hostile glances from those sitting around us.

Hinn’s understudy has been speaking for about twenty minutes when the first direct instructions are issued to the audience, who seem to be getting more animated. There are odd muttered ‘amen’s’ and the odd cheer when a particular strength of faith is invoked from the loudspeakers. The tone changes from reverence to imperative.

“Stand up!” shouts Pastor Tom. “Stand up if you are having money problems, if you’re behind on your mortgage, if you credit cards bill is high!”

Around a third of the room rise to their feet. Even here they stand out as looking particularly worn out.

“We’re going to pray now. We’re going to pray over your credit card, your cheque book; I can see visions of credit card bills coming in lowered, mortgages being paid off, salvation for those who make a sacrifice and believe!”

My companions and I exchange glances. We’ve read about this, phase two of the standard routine. After a sermon on obedience and sacrifice, the faithful are given an opportunity to handle their financial tools, get them out of awkward pockets and the bottoms of handbags. This way they’ll be readily available when the call comes for donations.

The preacher begins giving examples of people who’ve donated money recently and the good things that have happened to them.

“One woman gave five thousand pounds!” shouts Pastor Tom. “The next week she was delivered from debt!” Peter snorts but manages to hold it in before anybody around notices. I’m finding this part of it less amusing.

Shortly after this, a phrase which we’ll hear many times this afternoon makes its first appearance.

“I’m talking about supernatural debt cancellation. God will see your sacrifice, see your obedience, he’ll see your pain. He’ll know that when you gave it was from your wanting, and you’ll see a change in your life and circumstances.”

Pastor Tom is explicitly encouraging people to donate beyond their means, not that their means stretch very far.

“Who here believes that Jesus can deliver an alcoholic?” The crowd respond with Amen’s and raised hands.

“Who here believes Jesus can deliver someone from sickness?” The positive response comes again, this time a little louder.

“And who believes Jesus can deliver someone from debt?” Cheque books are raised in the air, and a small army of ushers appears.

“Give from your wanting, and you’ll experience supernatural debt cancellation,” cries Pastor Tom. “Those of you who make a real sacrifice, who give despite their needs, Jesus will hear.”

At this point Navid returns with some news. One of the ushers told him that Hinn had been detained at the airport as part of restrictions on religious visitors. Legislation designed to inconvenience Muslim extremists requires all those coming to the UK to preach to pass a background check. Hinn had arrived on a tourist visa, was discovered to be planning today’s service and so was turned away. What isn’t clear is whether he arrived on a commercial flight or on the $36m gulfstream jet he requested specific donations for in 2006.

Rumours swirl that he may have been avoiding the background check deliberately due to some controversial statements he has made in the past regarding the destruction of America’s gays, but a statement released later attributes his absence to a simple administrative oversight.

On his trip to the front of the room, Navid grabbed as many bits of Hinn literature as he could. There are brochures asking for regular monthly donations, advertising Hinn branded tours of the Middle East and promotions for more “Fire Crusades” like the one we are part of today.

Around us, the ushers are moving up and down the aisles collecting donation slips that have been filled in by the faithful, all hoping for miracles. It seems astonishing to us that in 2009 an audience can be told that their way out of debt and arrears is to bribe a sort of agent who can persuade Jesus to magic their records clean, but Hinn’s audience are used to claims that go far beyond the traditional inner peace and afterlife offering of the established churches.

Hinn’s televised statements on Christian doctrine seem adlibbed and are notorious among his critics. He once advised the bereaved to use the network on which he broadcasts as a means to raise the dead:

“You’re gonna hear it from Kenya, to Mexico, to Europe, to South America where people will be raised from the- so much so that the word will spread that if some dead person be put in front of this TV screen, they will be raised from the dead, and they will be, by the thousands, you wait!

“People are going to be canceling funeral services, and bringing their dead in their caskets, placing them – my God I feel the anointing here!”

Outbursts like this have made Hinn a bête noire among critics of charismatic Christianity, atheist and secular. They don’t like his reliance on ‘word faith’ doctrines, an idea which involves God rewarding people who donate money to, well, the originators of ‘word faith’ doctrines, his claims that God speaks to him more regularly than he spoke to Moses, that the Holy Trinity is composed of nine parts rather than the traditional three.

We decide to leave when Pastor Tom is replaced by another speaker who seems to be about to begin the whole agonizing exploitative again. On the way out, Navid asks one final question of a middle aged lady getting in to her car.

“What were you hoping for when you came here today?”

“My son is in prison, I gave £500 to deliver him from his problems with the police. When he gets out I want him to go back to a normal life, get a job, be free of these court problems.”

It all seems so outlandish and ridiculous that it’s hard to believe people take any of it seriously, but there are eight thousand people around me who are waiting for miracles to happen. Even if Pastor Benny himself can’t be here today, the crowd still expects magic and they are willing to pay whoever takes his place on stage for all the salvation he can muster.


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