Author Archives: MichaelWStory

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.

Martin Robbins has a great new post up at the Guardian where he asks if liberal bias is science writing’s elephant in the room.

At the conference of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology in Texas last week, Professor Jon Haidt caused a stir when he asked the thousand-strong audience of academics a simple question: how many identified as politically conservative?

In a nation where 40% of the population describe themselves as conservative, just three people out of a thousand raised their hands.

It’s a good jumping off point for discussion, but might be overstating the case, as self reported labelling of political views tends to overstate the majority view. Social scientists would not normally ask a question like that, especially in public, because people are very influenced by prevailing culture in how they describe their beliefs and practises. This is why sexual behaviour studies talk about men who have sex with men rather than self identified gay or bisexual men, as those populations are not the same.

With that out of the way, it’s easy to see why there might be an over-representation of left wing voices.
Blogging and science writing are an offshoot of public education, a progressive endeavour in the tradition of the left. Right wing scientists, more comfortable with a hierarchy, might not see the need to engage publicly

The bigger factor to me seems to be how far the public debate has shifted such that the standards used to judge ideas are generally those of the left, which extends far beyond science writing and stifles debate elsewhere. Schools policy is now generally judged by how successfully it meets the needs of the lowest performing children rather than increases excellence at the other end of the scale. Improvements in national health across the board are scrutinised for evidence of the inequalities of interest to the left (ie the difference in life expectancy between social classes) rather than inequalities in general, like that between the sexes, or indeed praise for the improvements in health that have benefited everyone, if unequally distributed.

Writers interested in applying an evidence based approach to these social policies or hot button topics like genetics come in for a lot of ad hominem, which is probably why they keep it to the journals.

This last week I’ve been on a sporty adventure with my good buddy and semi-professional tory Peter.

We drove 2,550 miles from London to lake Balaton, Hungary, and back in order to try a sport which has been on my radar for a decade. Ice sailing is roughly what it sounds like.  A wooden platform is placed on three ice skids and with a mounted mast and sail, very high speeds are possible. The most popular design by a long chalk is the Detroit News or DN design (below), named after the newspaper sponsored the manufacture of the first units.

I first tried to go ice sailing in 2000 when I went to Sweden in the school holidays with a friend. We spent three days on overnight trains packed with friendly though drunken Scandinavian students and arrived in Stockholm utterly exhausted, where we met my father who had flown in to meet us. Although the trip was enjoyable, the beautiful snow I had seen falling for my Wagon-lit window had covered the ice to such a depth that it was impossible for the ice boats to move, so although I had a good look at all the kit and saw an ice boat for the first time, I went home disappointed.

There was better luck this time around. After stopping for Wurst in the medieval city of Nurnberg, Peter and I drove down to Balaton and contacted professional skipper and Hungarian sailing champion Laszlo Munka, who was able to sweet talk a local boatowner into renting us his traditional DN ice yacht with a wooden mast and boom, dovetail jointed wooden hull and sail number Hungary 002.

It was an interesting sailing experience. The main difference, obviously, is the speed. I had always been doubtful of sailor’s tales of 100km/h ice sailing, but once you lie down in the aerodynamic helm position you can easily imagine how that’s possible. With good ice there is almost no resistance under the skids so the boat seems to never stop accelerating, giving a very odd apparent wind. This results in being almost constantly close hauled, even on a broad reach. It makes gybing easier due to the limited space for the boom to cause problems, but tacking and gybing require a lot more room on ice than on the water, as unlike a boat with a centreboard or keel there is no pivoting point. The ice boat has the wide turning circle of a very long reliant robin, which makes for careful steering near obstacles and other boats.

The most tricky thing to deal with was the cold. We were taking it in turns and sailing for 10 minutes at a time in order to warm our faces from the freezing wind, and the immobile, lying back position of the helm generates no body heat. Even wearing three times the amount of clothing required for even a cold day’s skiing we needed to jump out every so often to stamp our feet and try to get some feeling back in the face, but the feeling of gliding along at high speed across Europe’s largest freshwater lake made for an exhilarating time.

So just now I’m decompressing from Sheffield Docfest, where for the first time I took part in a live festival pitch, which I’m happy to say, we won! The Wellcome Trust broadcast development award is the biggest cash prize available at Sheffield so getting the award was a good sign of confidence in our complicated and (at the moment) confidential project.

The pitch itself took place in the Upper Chapel, taken over for the week by the festival, which made for an unusual venue. The panel sat in front of the altar (covered with a sheet) and the audience in pews. One of the other projects, “A History of the Female Orgasm” introduced some source material which might have surprised Sunday’s congregation.

It wasn’t the only competition taking place there. I went to the developing world pitch the day before where filmmakers were pitching stories about poverty to win money from UK taxpayer funds. When a panelist said that one of the projects didn’t feature enough poverty to qualify, an African lady in the audience, a mature student, was outraged at how blase the panel were being about the terrible stories under discussion.

I was sympathetic to the complainant’s concerns. The program has a lot of flaws, the main one being that simply documenting poverty doesn’t really benefit anyone. Even the pitcher who was proposing a film about a charity who needed publicity would have to acknowledge that were donations to increase as a result of the film, they would probably be drawn from fixed budgets resulting in no overall increase in spending.

Looking into why poverty exists in some parts of the world would be one of the few useful uses of media money, but the answers to this are often uncomfortable and complicated, and the chance of getting funding for films like that decreases yearly, viz. Adam Curtis.

One of the reasons why there was such a row at the Developing World pitch is that the panelists felt they were speaking in a private, industry environment, whereas the complaining woman felt that their unemotional remarks about the stories were a public indication of not caring. One of the interesting things about broadcasting is that, in a similar way to politics, the working environment is comprised mainly of people who have a public role at least some of the time with the duty to sensitivity that entails. A broadcaster can’t afford to be publicly flippant about any subject he is covering, but at the same time must have conversations with colleagues about sticky topics briefly and to the point.

Get the environment wrong, and you’re in trouble. The most popular solution is to swear near constantly when speaking off the record. This has two functions. Firstly it’s the equivalent of getting into civvies. You’re not wearing your vocal uniform and even if people wanted to quote you they would not always be able to print your actual words if the quote is full of swears.

Secondly, it has the effect of taking the listener very quickly into your confidence. You’re letting them know that you’re not giving the public viewpoint, and you’re crediting them with the maturity to speak on an ‘adult’ level.

It’s quite a successful system, although the chapel’s air was a lot bluer than I think a lot of people would have expected.