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Limit the Machine: Ethics and AI

Imagine one of the world’s major present-day wars, if it were being fought using artificial intelligence (AI).  I wrote that in a letter to civic and community leaders a few weeks ago. Shortly afterwards, my attention was drawn to a news report that reminded me how quickly a future possibility can become a present reality. The report centred on one of the world’s most respected and advanced intelligence services, which had used machine learning to identify tens of thousands of potential human targets based on their links to an enemy organisation. (Note the word “potential” here.) When we consider the huge present and future impact of artificial intelligence on warfare, but also on the arts, jobs, policing and much more, one thing is abundantly clear. We urgently need to move beyond talk-fests between politicians, or between politicians and BigTechies, to lock in some tight regulations for developing and test

14 May 2024 |

Tech Predictions 2024 - The Big Shakeup

The Oxford Dictionary Word of the Year in 2023 was rizz. Never heard of it? Don’t worry, you’re not alone. It’s a very GenZ noun describing sexual attraction. In 2024, rizz might be supplanted by something far less sexy - neurasthenia. Actually, this is not a new word at all. It was coined in the English language in the 1870s. But it might just make a come back in the year ahead. For the good folk of the late 1800s, neurasthenia described the nerve-racking impact of revolutionary new technologies - like railways and the telegraph. Today we can substitute these tools with Artificial Intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML) and artificial general intelligence (AGI). A couple of years prior to the Covid outbreak, while addressing civic leaders in Berlin, I was asked what I thought might become the greatest plague of our time. Even today, in the wake of the pandemic, my response would be much the same. The most

13 December 2023 |

Data Literacy: Fuel For A Human Future

Data, it is often said, is the currency of the future. Actually, trust is that currency. Trust in how data is collected and shared by machines and trust in our own capacity to analyse data through logical and critical thinking.  The future will increasingly be shaped by decisions we make using online data and by the artificial intelligence (AI) machines that feed on that data.  If the data can’t be trusted, or we have no confidence in our ability to analyse it, we’ll never hold AI to account or produce innovation that improves life on earth.  This is a matter of concern. While most of us rely on digital data to work, rest, relate and play, we are functionally illiterate when it comes to reading, understanding and interpreting it.  We urgently need to equip ourselves and emerging generations with enhanced skills to deal with all things digital, in a way that enhances our h

02 March 2023 |

Deep Dive Into 2023 Technologies

Take a deep breath! 2023 is going to be a roller coaster ride when it comes to new technologies -  a true blend of the exhilarating and the unsettling.  Technology should never define us. The future is not a product of the technologies we use but of how we, as moral agents decide to use them.    That said, technology is important. As the media education pioneer John Culkin famously observed, “We shape our tools and, thereafter, our tools shape us.”    For futurists like me, this is a season of being quizzed by media, leaders and friends alike about what we might expect in the year ahead.    Tech trends and, much more importantly, underlying shifts in human attitudes, reveal themselves only after months of consistent study. So, let’s take a deep dive to explore some of the most consequential technologies we’ll see in 2023. Hold on tight.<

15 December 2022 |

We Salute Elizabeth the Great

I am a true child of the Elizabethan era. You may well be, too. The late Queen’s reign was just four years old when I was born. I vividly remember outdoor primary school assemblies in the suburbs of Melbourne, Australia. Every week, even in winter, we stood to attention for the anthem - back in the days when we still sang “God save the Queen”. I clearly remember the photo of the Queen in the office of my high school and in public halls where my friends and I would attend children’s clubs. I’ve seen various versions of that photo regularly throughout my life. It’s only now that I realise how many of those photos there must have been, spread across the land and the nations of the Commonwealth. A similar photo hung on the wall of a civic centre in Oxfordshire as, in middle age, I took my citizenship test and was accepted as a British citizen. I’m proud to be a citizen of two o

09 September 2022 |

Facial Recognition, Migrants and Techism

“It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity.” So said Albert Einstein in the wake of the atom bomb’s deployment. We still live under the shadow of the nuclear cloud, even if the threat has, in the public mind, taken a back seat to global warming of late. At least, until Russia invaded Ukraine. Yet there are also other ways in which Einstein’s observation remains remarkably prescient. In what appears to be a world-first, the British Home Office and Justice Ministry might soon use wearable smartwatches to keep track of migrants convicted of crimes. Said migrants would be expected to upload photos of themselves up to five times per day. In time, of course, the same approach might be used on native Britons who’ve committed cri

09 August 2022 |

The Queen: (Online) Visibility With Restraint!

“The true measure of all our actions is how long the good in them lasts.”  So said Queen Elizabeth II who, if the Platinum Jubilee’s celebrations were anything to go by, will be remembered for the lasting good she has done. According to recent (but pre-Jubilee) YouGov figures, the Queen is "liked" by 75 percent of the British population. She is "disliked" by just nine percent and only 13 percent feel “indifferent” toward her. Aside from some short periods of disquiet, notably after the death of Princess Diana, the respect we have for her has remained undiminished through a very long reign.  In 2015, when Elizabeth II became our longest-serving monarch, a Sky News poll suggested that 70 percent of Brits believed their country should remain a monarchy "

06 June 2022 |

Metaverse: A Danger To Children and Probably You Too

Since Meta, aka Facebook, announced its plans for the metaverse, I've used the phrase "wild west" more than once to describe it. New investigations show, however, that it's going to be much worse than that, especially for our children.  A report this week for Channel 4’s Dispatches programme features an undercover journalist who is “disguised” in the metaverse as a 13-year-old. The report paints a despicable picture of malicious and extreme racial slurs, simulated sex acts and blatant discussion about sex acts, all purveyed in front of children.  Thirteen is supposedly the minimum age for creating a Facebook account and therefore accessing the me

25 April 2022 |

Ukraine: 8 Point Plan to Save a Nation

Our hearts break for the people of Ukraine. It's a country I've visited numerous times over twenty years, working alongside some of the most committed and far-sighted community leaders one could hope to meet.  Personal or collective empathy, of course, doesn't make reaching decisions on how to respond to Mr Putin's aggression any easier for our political leaders.  The question of NATO membership is not the only issue they must consider when it comes to when and how to defend - or at least stand firmly alongside - countries that border Russia. Russia is, of course, a nuclear power. Any battle with it involves significant risks to a much larger body of people globally. Economic and travel sanctions, particularly weak ones, won't stop Putin, who sees returning Ukraine to the status of a vassal state as a kind of vocation. It is something on which he feels he must act before he is too old to do so. 

27 February 2022 |

The Shape of Jobs 2022

"Intelligence is the ability to adapt to change," said Stephen Hawking. Some change, though, is tough to negotiate. Especially when so many of life's certainties are shifting like sand under our feet. The pandemic is a case in point. It has changed so much in our social and cultural landscape. In some areas, Covid-19 has sped up changes that would have occurred even without a pandemic - perhaps over a longer time frame. Employment is a prime example. In 2021, we’ve seen what some economists call the “Great Resignation”.  At the end of 2021, the UK unemployment level is just over four per cent. This is far better than many people expected once the government’s furlough scheme ended. That said, one study in the UK and Ireland this year found that 38 per cent of workers s

22 December 2021 |

David's Law Not Enough For Digital Clean Up

The murder of British parliamentarian Sir David Amess has sent shock waves through the nation and its houses of government. Alongside calls for greater security of political figures, some MPs have called upon the government to rein in social media. They demand a new “David’s law” to crack down on social media abuse of public figures and end the online anonymity that fosters it. Meanwhile, intelligence services express growing concern about “bedroom radicals”, people who engage with hateful digital propaganda then transform passive alignment into violent action. The dark underbelly of the internet is the Dark Web, so-called because it is largely hidden from everyday view. Getting to it, however, is very simple. You need only a particular browser and, possibly, a crypto-wallet, with digital cash to facilitate anonymous transactions. The Dark Web is used by state players, to access compromising mate

19 October 2021 |

TechnoKings In Space! Is the World Ready?

THE YEAR IS 2030. Jeff Bezos prepares to welcome a guest to his Blue Origin space station. It’s Elon Musk, on transfer from his Space X “Branson” moon base.  Having resolved some of their animosity issues, two of the world’s technokings will meet to discuss the continued use of Musk’s Starlink satellites to host Amazon’s orbiting internet servers.  The head of Facebook Universe, Mark Zuckerberg will then join via holographic haptic VR, along with the heads of Apple, Alphabet and three other tech behemoths. Discussions behind closed doors will focus on promoting BigTech’s combined projects, protecting BigTech copyrights and dealing with “short-sighted” governments, democratic and otherwise.  There will be no independent media presence. BACK IN 2021, all this might sound far-fetched. It isn’t. Even wifi

16 July 2021 |

BBC Bashir Saga Feeds Trust Deficit

If public trust is a currency, the BBC will be dipping into its savings for some time to come. In an age of increasing media diversification (aka splintering), the BBC is still one of the world’s leading news organisations. Its commitment to placing news gatherers in all the right places and attempting to provide a balance of views - internationally if not domestically - is highly regarded. The controversy surrounding former BBC journalist Martin Bashir, however, creates a new set of problems that will damage public trust - and not only trust in the BBC.  This comes at a time when widely trusted broadcasters are scarce on the ground. Some earlier contenders have dropped away, having fallen under the spell of ultra-left or -right ideologies and lost their sense of the middle ground. When Martin Bashir’s interview with Princess Diana was broadcast in November 1995, the BBC was lauded for producing a global exclusive. I

21 May 2021 |

TechnoKings Rule. But At What Cost?

“Crowns do queer things to the heads beneath them,” wrote George R.R. Martin.  This is as true of crowns claimed in the worlds of BigTech and new media as it is in traditional monarchies. Tesla recently added the title “TechnoKing” to its list of official titles for its flamboyant founder, Elon Musk. The electric car-maker didn’t share its reasons for doing so, nor did it say what it means by the term. Knowing the often mischievous Musk, the whole thing may be a stunt, designed only to get people chattering. If that’s true, it worked on me! Whatever the motive, this coronation allows us to look again at the impact BigTech has on our lives and societies. This will be an increasingly important question as we gradually emerge from our Covid cocoon, where we’ve come to rely on technology more than ever. In less threatening times, we’ve accepted new applications of technology wit

25 March 2021 |

2021: Tech Innovation Boom!

“An optimist,” wrote Bill Vaughan, “stays up until midnight to see the new year in. A pessimist stays up to make sure the old year leaves.” Whichever of those camps you identify with, you’ll probably agree that 2020 is leaving us with few things to cheer. Dig a little deeper, though, and you may find that this year of pestilence and turbulence has set us up for a burst of innovation going forward. Consider the arena of technology. In the 1960s, it took four years of concentrated research and development to create a vaccine against the mumps, a serious viral infection.  Yet we have seen two entirely new anti-Covid vaccines engineered, tested at scale, manufactured and approved in less than a year. As I write, the Pfizer and Oxford-Astrazeneca vaccines are being distributed across the UK. They will potentially change the lives of millions of people worldwide. Meanwhile, scores of therapies have been tested, which mi

31 December 2020 |

Covid-19 Shouldn't Kill Cash!

The Great Pandemic of 2020. It has left millions of people worldwide  living at least part of their lives in isolation. Of all the pandemic’s long-term economic outcomes, the worst might be the complete eradication of cash. Cash hasn’t been very useful during the Covid-19 season. Under the shadow of lockdowns, many stores and restaurants have become delivery-only services. Cashless payments have become not just convenient but indispensable. Even if we could use cash just now, most of us are nervous about handling paper notes and coins.   Of course, we were moving incrementally toward a digitally-driven economy well before Covid-19. In 2016, only 34% of payments in the UK were made in cash. In Finland, cash is already considered outdated. In 2018, Sweden’s central bank announc

19 November 2020 |

The Hot Response Culture (Why Reason & Compassion Should Prevail)

Your smartphone has seven million times the memory and 100,000 times the processing power of the guidance computer onboard Apollo 11. Have you wondered what we’re collectively doing with all that power? Are we spreading more heat than light, or finding constructive solutions? These are important questions, given the range of hugely significant challenges - and opportunities - we face. And especially so in the age of COVID-19, where we rely so heavily on digital communications to maintain friendships, stay informed and explore schools of opinion. On present evidence, it seems many of us believe that the best reaction is an over-heated one, whatever the debate at hand. Calm and carefully reasoned deliberation appears to have been devalued, in deference to what I’m going to call a “hot response culture” (HRC). This is most obvious in the world of social media, where hyper-emotional responses often appear to reign supreme, es

25 August 2020 |

COVID-19 Emergency: An Opportunity

“The life unexamined is not worth living,” said Socrates. The effects of COVID-19, or future variants thereof, are not be treated lightly. The virus is set to impact many lives and must be fought and overcome. However, paralysing panic will not generate the solutions we need. Sometimes, in the face of great challenges, we lose our individual and collective capacity for perspective. We start to see relatively trivial aspects of the problem as huge and very important things as insignificant. In the face of this particular virus, rushing to stock up on toilet roll achieves little - apart, perhaps, from making us feel like we’re doing something. A behavioural scientist suggested this week that we buy toilet rolls because they come in large packages, which are prominently displayed in supermarkets. Buying them, he said, makes us feel that we’re purchasing something at least mildly impo

13 March 2020 |

Safer Internet Day For Children!

"There can be no keener revelation of a society's soul than the way in which it treats its children." So said Nelson Mandela. Today is Safer Internet Day. It provides us with an important opportunity to reflect on the importance of adequate protections when it comes to the internet engagement of children. The internet has, on a society-wide level, proven a great boon in many ways. Yet, according to one of the leading children’s charities in Britain, a rising number of pre-teens are being exposed to the less seemly side of the internet.   The NSPCC this month estimated that 25,300 child abuse image and sexual grooming offences were recorded by police in the past nine months. Using police crime data, the charity estimates that one online abuse offence is recorded every 16 minutes in England and Wales. There can be

11 February 2020 |

The Tyranny of Digital Shopper Anxiety

Most of us know that the internet can be hugely distracting, but do we think about how much it plays on our emotions and anxieties - particularly at Christmas? If you believe the news reports and marketing hype, the pre-Christmas season is one of dark Fridays and web-manic Mondays. Until recently, Black Friday was to bricks-and-mortar stores what Cyber-Monday, is to their online counterparts. (Nowadays, more people do their shopping online across both days.) Projections last week suggested that shoppers across the UK would spend £5.6 billion on sales related to both.  The good news is that going into the Christmas sales season, fewer Brits said they intended to engage with these sales-fests than did so last year. In 2018, 62 per cent of adults said they planned to do so; this year the figure was down to 42 per cent. The change may be linked in part to the imminent general election. Still, the numbers of people invol

01 December 2019 |

Give Yourself the Gift of Social Media Down-Time!

Christmas, it is often said, is a time for giving. Perhaps the greatest gift we can offer those we love is the gift of our attention. Our best gift to ourselves may be simply time for mental reflection and emotional renewal. Both may require a deliberate decision to spend less time in the world of social media. A University of Pennsylvania study in 2018 revealed not just a correlation but a causative impact between social media use and lower levels of mental health. This applied especially in areas such as anxiety, depression, feelings of isolation and suicidal tendencies. The report was published in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology. The researchers found that people who limited their social media use - including Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat - to a total of just 30 minutes per day, reported feeling significantly better after three weeks, that people who did not. They felt noticeably les

19 November 2019 |

Understanding the Greta Effect

In August 2018, a teenager from Stockholm decided it was time for action on climate change.  She had very little to use as leverage in support of her cause, so she went on strike. She refused to attend school, setting up a one-person demonstration outside the Swedish Parliament.  Since that time, Greta Thunberg has found herself at the apex of an international movement. Her recent speech to the United Nations inspired some who watched it and saddened others.  Her calls for climate action have proven provocative but effective in terms of increasing public awareness. Whether they will, in the end, provide more heat than light only time will tell. Many people struggle to understand the Greta effect. Some, while admiring Ms Thunberg’s vision and tenacity, are concerned for her health, especially since her quest became a media phenomenon.  To some degree, I share that concern. Greta’s story is front-page mater

30 September 2019 |

Supreme Court: Serving or Subverting Democracy?

Has the British Supreme Court today served democracy or subverted it?  A good many Brits may be asking just that question, following today’s ruling that Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s recent recommendation to the Queen, that Parliament should be recessed, was illegal.  The recess process, known as proroguing, takes place in the lead up to a Queen’s speech, in which the head of state outlays her government's major policies for the new parliamentary season. In summing up the unanimous decision of the twelve justices, Lady Hale reiterated the Court’s commitment to stay out of party politics. She did, however, add that the circumstances of this prorogation are ‘unlikely’ ever to occur again. With due respect to her ladyship and her eminent fellow judges, I think this is misguided. This type of situation, where courts are involved in questions about proroguing, will a

24 September 2019 |

The Queen and "The King of the World"

"You may not be Moses, young man, but go tell Pharoah to let my people go." I wonder if that is the unreported caption for the photograph of Boris Johnson bowing to her Majesty the Queen, as she appointed him her fourteenth Prime Minister on Wednesday. As a boy, Boris Johnson told his sister that he would like, one day, to be "king of the world".   He hasn't quite achieved that lofty position, but being the Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is no small consolation prize. I voted Remain in 2016, but with huge reservations about what I thought the rather large elephant in the room: Brussel's cultural commitment to "ever closer [political] union."  Those reservations have, I think, been proven well-founded in the days since the vote, as leaders such as France's President Macron are pushing for a European army and more. 

24 July 2019 |

Face App: Recipe for ID Theft

In recent days, my Instagram and Twitter feeds have been inundated with photos of people I know, who suddenly look much older than I remember them. These friends have brought into the Face App craze. Face App applies the computing power of artificial intelligence to recreate human facial features in a way that adds (or subtracts) years of natural ageing. The results are either remarkable or, in some cases, creepy. Here’s the thing, though. To use the app you must upload a current image of yourself to the Face App servers. As with some other photo-sharing services, that brings risks to privacy and personal security of which most users are unaware. Face App, however, takes these risks to a higher level. The terms of use statement for the Face App service are quite clear on the following. (These are not quoted directly here, but the original terms have been 

18 July 2019 |

Facebook's Libra Requires Too Much Trust

“The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.” So said Ernest Hemingway.  The question is, how much trust should we invest, for how long, before we decide we’d do better to invest our trust elsewhere? Facebook has just announced plans to launch a new blockchain-based digital currency networked called Libra. Facebook will be asking many of its users to invest their trust in its ability to provide a stable alternative to traditional currencies - and one which guarantees privacy and security. Reactions to Facebook’s announcement have been mixed. Financial regulators in regions like the EU are watchful. As things currently stand, networks like Libra would diminish the power of governments over the regulation of currencies. Predictably, many banks are also unimpressed. Blockchain currencies promote user-driven online ledgers and P2P exchanges, cutting out some of the

19 June 2019 |

Privacy is the Future? Not on Trains

“The future is privacy,” is the new mantra of Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s CEO. Not long ago it was: “Privacy is dead”. Which is it? This is an important choice and not one reserved for BigTech titans alone. It is a choice we each must make, especially in the way we engage with public authorities and companies that seem intent on fudging the line between service, security and privacy. Transport for London (TfL), the UK capital’s transit authority, has announced that it is about to start collecting data from users’ wifi as they move around the underground rail system. The data collection, which will start on July 8, will purportedly be used to offer sturdier details on how people move around the Tube system and within stations. This, says the authority, will help with its long-term planning and will enable it to provide more effective updates for travellers. The data collected will, at this stage

23 May 2019 |

Julian Assange: Anarchist or Activist?

It was only a matter of time, wasn’t it? After a long publicity hiatus, brought on by his self-imposed exile inside the Ecuadorian embassy in London, Julian Assange has found his way back into the headlines. Whistleblowing has been growing in influence since the 1970s. Yet over the past decade or more, Mr Assange and the Wikileaks organisation he founded,  have turned whistleblowing into something akin to a career choice for some young adults. Wikileaks became famous - or infamous, depending on your worldview - for providing an unprecedented platform for people who wanted to leak sensitive secrets. Their work was glamorised by the publicity Wikileaks generated. Some commentators argue that Julian Assange and his colleagues are champions of free speech. Others see them as defenders of press freedom. Still others claim that the Wikileaks crew are making a stand in support of the true culture of the internet

11 April 2019 |

Christchurch and Social Media Censorship

Last week marked the thirtieth anniversary of the launch of the public internet, in the form of the world wide web. This is, of course, the mechanism through which most of us engage the internet. Marking the event, the web’s creator, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, spoke about the dangers of an internet that’s now driven more by corporate interests than by individual users. He called for a re-think of our values and ethics when it comes to the web and the internet in general. The timeliness of his statements was highlighted by the slow reaction of certain sites to the attack on worshippers in Christchurch, New Zealand. Fifty people died in the attack and the alleged perpetrator live-streamed his shooting spree on social media. Reportedly, both the video and the killer’s so-called “manifesto” - an attempt to justify his crimes - remained online for a while after the attacks. Facebook claims to have s

18 March 2019 |

Should An ISIS Bride Become Stateless?

ISIS bride and mother Shamima Begum, now aged 19, has been stripped of her British citizenship by the Home Office. Her parents, British citizens born in Bangladesh, are considering a legal appeal. To form a reasoned view on this troubling case, there are at least three issues we must be considered. Emotion will form part of any human opinion, but it should not rule over reason. This could prove to be an important test case for years to come - and not just for the UK. The first question to be answered is this: how many of this young woman’s decisions during her time in Syria were made with an adult awareness and perspective? Was she willing - and free - to flee ISIS territory at any time during her stay? Would she have done so, with her child, if she could? Ms Begum left the UK, of her own volition, at age 15, in defiance of her parents. She might well have known that she was headed into a war zone. She may have been aware

20 February 2019 |

Ten Years on Twitter - Here's What I've Learned

Is today is a day for celebration, reflection or recrimination - or all three? I’m not sure. It’s the tenth anniversary of my first tweet. My first humble contribution to the Twittersphere was sent at 1:43pm on February 13, 2009. I was already an early adopter of YouTube. The new medium, allowing me to wax lyrical in less than 140 characters, seemed like both a unique opportunity to share ideas and a healthy exercise in economical writing. I’d been producing 30- and 60-second radio spots for years, so how hard could that be? Here I am, 37,500 tweets later and I’ve learned a few things about Twitter and about social media generally. 1. Twitter doesn’t love me. As far as I’m aware, I don’t suffer from paranoid delusions. I’m not a conspiracy theorists, placing myself at the centre of the conspiracy. However, I’m well aware that the primary purpose of Twitter, at l

13 February 2019 |

Should Social Media Be Banned?

A recent story in British newspapers linked the suicide of a 14-year-old boy to social media use. In 2017, a 12-year-old girl in Miami streamed her suicide live on Facebook. These and similarly tragic tales have boosted an already fervent debate on the links between social media engagement and mental health. At 2030Plus, we’ve been reviewing for some years the links between cognitive function and internet involvement. Other, larger research organisations have done likewise. There is little doubt that a growing reliance on digital technology has changed the way our brains work. Governments are under pressure to act. Last year, the Australian government opened an investigation into Facebook, the largest and, for many, the most troubling of the new media giants. The company released, without authorisation, data from 300,000 Australian user accounts to the now defunct Cambridge Analytica. Worldwide, Facebook

29 January 2019 |

Bitcoin Turns 10. Is Cashless Next?

Happy Bit-day! You may not have noticed, but this week, Bitcoin celebrated its tenth birthday. On January 3, 2009, the initial block in the blockchain - that's crypto-speak for a distributed computer ledger - was "mined" by Satoshi Nakamoto and cryptocurrency was born in the form of Bitcoin. The enigmatic Satoshi is either an individual or a group. Whichever is the case, he/she/they melded cryptography and computer science to create the world's first totally digital currency. What an eventful first decade Bitcoin has endured - or enjoyed, depending on your perspective. Cryptocash platforms of almost every kind have seen wild surges and drops in value since they first came to public attention. Bitcoin is recognised by the US Senate but is not tied to any hard currency, such as the dollar or the gold standard. This arguably made investment in Bitcoin something of a faith-quest for many of its first-generation users.

03 January 2019 |

Brexit - We Have A Deal But What Does It Mean?

“We cannot make good news out of bad practice.” So wrote famed American newsman Edward R. Murrow. Another way of saying this is, of course: we cannot make bad practice into good news. This is especially true when it comes to something as historically significant as Brexit.   As a social commentator and futurist who is regularly engaged with the media, I consider myself - I hope not arrogantly - to be a relatively astute follower of the news. Yet I, like many relatively informed British citizens, struggle to identify the key features of the 580-page Brexit deal document which will soon be put to the vote in the House of Commons. Our media and press feature a lot of headlines about the political to-and-fro between London and Brussels and about the internal struggles within Parliament. Most, however, give relatively little space to an accessible explanation of what the deal actually means in practical terms.

26 November 2018 |

Brexit and the Future of British Democracy

Hardly any issue divides Brits today as does Brexit. In the face of EU push-backs and domestic political infighting, the potential impacts of a suggested second vote, on Britain’s democracy, are often overlooked. Some advocates of a second vote want to replay the 2016 referendum. They want, they say, to help Britain avoid an historic mistake. Others claim that a second vote should be about the public ratifying the government's final deal with Brussels. But even in that camp there are many who hope for just one final outcome: the complete reversal of the 2016 vote. I voted Remain - with, I must say, some strong reservations about the EU's push for "ever closer union". I am proud of my dual British-Australian citizenship and, having lived in northern Europe for a decade before moving to the UK, I’ve seen many of the benefits of EU citizenship. However, I’ve also watched

21 September 2018 |

Depression Among Church Leaders - A Problem For Us All

In the US early this week, news media carried the story of a young church minister in California who committed suicide. His wife, though aware that he suffered from depression and anxiety, was in no way prepared for this outcome. "Never in a million years would I have imagined this would be the end of his story," said Kayla Stoecklein of her beloved husband, Andrew. He left behind three young children. His death has inspired many other pastors to write online about their struggles with mental health. Until now, little has been said or written about the issue of church leadership and depression. Yet there is no reason to believe or expect that religious leaders should not be impacted by an issue which, according to the World Health Organisation, now affects 300 million people worldwide. In the UK

28 August 2018 |

The Future of Smartphones

“While you are destroying your mind watching the worthless, brain-rotting drivel on TV, we on the Internet are exchanging, freely and openly, the most uninhibited, intimate and, yes, shocking details about our "CONFIG.SYS" settings." So said Dave Barry, the celebrated American satirist - who worked, it has to be said, on paper. Much has changed with the internet since those early, creaky days. Back then, the public internet was powered by a few hamsters on wheels somewhere in what later became Silicon Valley. Today, the internet, aka the Cloud, is an almost indispensable part of our lives - for better or worse. Ofcom, the UK’s government-appointed media oversight group, published a report today on the changing media habits of this nation. It paints a fascinating portrait of the internet’s burgeoning power to change habits and lifestyles. The study probably holds little comfort for telephone service provi

02 August 2018 |

Children Need Attention Not Addiction

Children need attention, not addiction. According to news reports, UK prescriptions for "smart drugs" such as the stimulant Ritalin have doubled in a decade. Some parents apparently use them to "medicate" children's behaviour. According to the head of Ofsted, the organisation charged with inspecting schools, the fact that such drugs are applied by a growing number of parents feels like “a very big warning signal”. Ritalin is methylphenidate and is often prescribed for children diagnosed with ADHD - attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. As its name suggests, this disorder often seems to leave children unable to control their behaviour. Its major symptoms include inattentiveness and impulsiveness. Children with ADHD - most are diagnosed between the ages of six and 12 years - find it difficult to concentrate for any length of time. Some also have problems with sleep. Met

26 June 2018 |

Why Has The World Become So Strange?

We live in very strange, we might even say chaotic, times. Politics has grown more than a little odd (that is, more so than usual). Liberals dismiss conservatism as empty “populism”, while conservatives talk about fighting “culture wars” with presumably zero-sum outcomes. Meanwhile, digital technology seems to breed curious behaviour, especially in the ways we speak to and about one other and engage each other’s ideas. Families, the bedrock of stable civilizations, seem to take on peculiar forms, to the point where one prominent English judge recently - wrongly, I believe - declared the nuclear family as good as dead. For some, assigning gender identities is no longer the province of nature; gender is considered a lifestyle option, a matter of personal choice. In all this tolerance is preached as perhaps the ultimate virtue, often by people who don’t seem to understand that tolerance, by definition,

18 June 2018 |

It's A Marriage Not Just A Carnival

“There’s a higher form of happiness in commitment; I’m counting on it.” So said British actress Claire Forlani. I’m not sure, but perhaps she was thinking of marriage at the time. Regardless, the statement is a great reflection of what a wedding is about. Preparations for the wedding between Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, now the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, were followed closely around much of the globe. Its every detail was scruitinised and interpreted. Estimates regarding the TV coverage of the wedding itself have varied. If Prince William’s wedding is any guide, as many as two billion people may have tuned in to watch his brother tie the knot. Here in Britain, royal weddings have long represented an opportunity for a collective coming together around shared values. In uncertain times, they provide important reminders of a long and proud history of hope and solidarity. In its last year before Brex

19 May 2018 |

Millennials Keep Their Virginity Longer

“No Sex Please, We’re Only 26”, said today’s online headline from one of Britain's leading newspapers. A new study has revealed that British Millennials are less sexually active, at least by their mid-20s, than were the generations immediately preceding them. The study has tracked 16,000 young people since 1989-90, when they were aged 14. The most recent results were collated from questionnaire data collected in 2016. The Next Steps project is overseen by the Institute of Education, part of University College London. It was first instituted by the Department for Education. In these results, one in eight 26 year-olds said they had never had sex. If those who refused to answer the survey had not had sex, the final figure could be one in six. This compares with one in 20 for the two previous generational cohorts. Looking for reasons behind the findings, the researchers have pointed first to a culture of hypersexual

06 May 2018 |

We Still Need Holy Days

Like Christmas, the Easter season seems to become ever more commercialised. For some time, important cultural symbols and historical events seem to have become steadily more commodified. Holidays have been stripped of their importance as holy days. This is no new phenomenon, as sales of seasonal music tracks like "White Christmas" will attest. Arguably, though, it reached new levels when our culture began to turn people into marketed commodities. From the middle of the twentieth century, celebrities regularly endorsed brands via the electronic media and press. Later, though, celebrities actually became brands. In the 1980s, Madonna was not primarily the name of a music artist; it was (and is) a brand. The power of personal branding allows record companies to sell - sometimes by the truckload - albums by artists such as Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson long after their demise. However, in the wak

02 April 2018 |

Social Media Lies Travel Faster Than Truth

In news just in, there is now something more we can add to the growing list of antisocial facts relating to social media. A new study published conducted at MIT and published in Science has found that the truth takes six times longer than fake news to be seen by 1,500 people on Twitter. A lie is apparently also 70 percent more likely to be shared via social media in the first place. The authors of the study, which looked at 126,000 messages spreading false stories on Twitter, suggest that fake stories on social media are “diffused significantly farther, faster, deeper and more broadly than the truth”. It is quite rare, they claim, for true stories to be seen by more than 1,000 people. Meanwhile, the one percent most popular false news are routinely reaching between 1,000 and 100,000 v

09 March 2018 |

Speeches Are An Important Part of Brexit

"Political language," wrote George Orwell, "is designed to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind." Though many of us will relate to Orwell's sentiment, we hope that on most big ticket issues politicians will eventually break with the rhetoric to get something done. Sometimes, however, when deadlines real or imagined approach, we can underestimate the role of political rhetoric, missing altogether its function in floating potentially contentious ideas. In the UK, caught up as we are in the twists and turns of the Brexit process, too many of us are looking for politicos who might give us the "happy ever after" speech. In recent weeks, speech after voluminous political speech has left many people aching for a much more definitive statement about our national end-game. This is understandable. After all, top-tier politicians are supposed to set a lead for the future, not merely

06 March 2018 |

Socialism Not The Answer Students Need

Marxist thought is apparently enjoying something of a resurgence in popularity on Britain's university campuses, as an emerging generation realises that it may face worse economic prospects then its parents. A poll released last month revealed that twice as many young people regard big business as a danger than are fearful of communism. Meanwhile, Marxist groups are using the bicentenary of the philosopher's birth and the fiftieth anniversary of the 1968 student protests to promote militancy. One leader of a university Marxist society said recently that, 'Despite the monstrosity of the Stalinist regime, we can see the power and strength of a planned economy.' The question is not whether there is planning behind an economy, but who does the planning? Arguably, history reveals that, in practice if not in theory, communism

05 February 2018 |

Should Social Media Carry Health Warnings?

The social media juggernaut Facebook has reportedly acknowledged, albeit perhaps reluctantly, that engagement with its platform may potentially affect cognition or emotional wellbeing. Faced with mounting international research revealing harmful side-effects, including addiction and depression, some social media groups have arguably acted as tobacco companies once did when they were confronted with claims about addiction and cancer. They have shrugged off the criticism with the notion that the evidence is inconclusive. Now, in Facebook's case, a former executive has robustly touted the dangers. The company has offered a novel response. It says that while there is potential for unhealthy effects, the answer is yet more engagement online.  To overcome any potential negative effects, it suggests, one must spend even more time engaging on its platform, particularly with good friends, exchanging positive messages. 

19 December 2017 |

Sexual Misconduct, Non-Apologies & Trial by Social Media

“Respect for ourselves guides our morals,” wrote the Irish novelist Laurence Sterne. “Respect for others guides our manners”  Newspapers in the UK carried the story this week of the apparent suicide of a Labour party staffer. He had been accused of sexual misconduct. It is just two weeks since the suicide of a cabinet secretary within the Welsh government. He had also been linked to claims of sexual misconduct. Meanwhile, the British Prime Minister's deputy has been accused of keeping pornography on his computer. He strenuously denies the accusation. Allegations of sexual assault or misconduct involving politicians, movie producers and celebrities have featured prominently in news stories at home and abroad for weeks. The discussion of sexual harassment, especially in the workplace, is one that is long overdue. It is not a debate that should be restricted to the mis

28 November 2017 |

Why We Really "Need" iPhone X

If you’re rushing out to buy an iPhone X (pronounced “ten”), you’ll be paying significantly more than you did for its two immediate predecessors, iPhone 7 or 8. The differential is $300 in the US. The total price in the UK is close to £1000. You won’t, however, be investing in much by way of revolutionary new technology. The underlying architecture of the phone is not that different. The major innovation seems to be a larger screen size, using a design approach already taken by Samsung. So, if the technology is not that new, why will people fork out for a new iPhone when perhaps they already have the latest-but-one incarnation thereof? Over the past two or three years, new phones generally have not offered great advances in technology. That’s not why we buy them. As one iPhone X reviewer put it, we don’t buy the new phone because we need it b

03 November 2017 |

Princess Diana's Death - The Social Impact

Twenty years ago today, Britain and the world lost one of the seminal figures - at least in terms of public affection - of the millennial era. What impact has this most unexpected death had on the British mindset and social fabric? Since the passing of Princess Diana we've become both less trusting of major public institutions, including the monarchy, and, on a perhaps more positive note, less inclined to mistake familiarity  with intimacy.   In some quarters, the reaction to the princess's death was akin to the way we might react to the sudden passing of a family member or a very close friend.  People spoke in very personal terms about the princess, though we really only knew her through the lens of her media image and, in some cases, the manipulation of that image.   Only a very small coterie knew her well.  Though she championed the causes of common people, few if any of them would have

31 August 2017 |

The Relentless March of the Microchips

Will robots take our jobs? It’s a question I’m often asked in my travels as a speaker and media commentator. Will humanity cease to be the master of its own destiny? Will we become, as some noted scientists and technologists have suggested, a species surpassed and then subjugated by its own machinery? It is axiomatic that all technology is amoral. We are not a product of the technologies we devise; we are a product of how we choose to utilise those tools. It is human choice that will determine whether or not technology produces more good than harm, to humankind and to its environment. One of today’s most exciting fields of tech-endeavour is nanorobotics. Nanobots are machines built from the microscopic level up. In nanotechnology, atoms are used as building blocks to devise machines that may one day soon, for example, be injected into our bloodstream to identify and destroy dangerous cancer cells. Yet the same types of micro-m

25 July 2017 |

Why We Should Know BBC Star Salaries

Today, salaries of A-list BBC personalities will be publicly revealed for the first time. The move has raised big questions about privacy and whether there is benefit in revealing the wages of other segments of the population. There are some important privacy issues at stake here.  We cannot have a situation where revealing the income of key BBC personnel becomes an exercise in salacious gossip mongering.  The BBC Board and the government will need to keep a close eye on how such public revelations are managed and the public's reaction to them. Notwithstanding this, two important points must be raised in favour of this type of disclosure, The first is that the current revelations will relate only to people who earn more than about £150,000 per annum. The highest paid BBC "star" is Chris Evans. He is apparently paid between more than £2.2 million per annum. The highest paid news personality is Jeremy V

19 July 2017 |

Why We'd Be Right To Fine Big Tech Companies

Theresa May’s plans to fine big technology companies if they fail to expunge extremist material online should be given careful consideration, not denigrated and dismissed out of hand. A leading Queens Counsel and member of the government’s own counter-terrorism watchdog clearly believes any attempt to fine social media companies is counter-productive and even dangerous. “We do not live in China,” says Max Hill QC, “where the internet simply goes dark for millions when government so decides.” He wonders whether government dealings with the technology giants should be more conciliatory, bringing them onside in the fight against extremism. This sounds reasonable on the face of it, but there are several major flaws in this thinking. Firstly, the argument regarding China is an attempt to cast Mrs. May’s proposal as an exercise in censorship. This is, of course, one of those hot-button words which invariably

03 July 2017 |

Here's What ACTUALLY Changes - UK General Election

“Never use words that are too big for your subject,” wrote C.S. Lewis. For example, he said, if we use the word “infinitely” when we mean “very”, what word will we then use to portray something truly infinite? Yesterday’s general election outcome in the UK may not be as game-changing as some pundits would have us believe. More often than not, words like “catastrophic” (applied today to the Conservatives) and “game-changing” (used of Labour) prove to be hyperbolic when seen through the longer lens of political and social history. For all that, though, there are some important shifts which will emerge as a direct consequence of the result. Voter Fatigue will Become an Election Issue Before this election, I predicted that voter fatigue would be a factor in the outcome. The voting public has been called upon to cast too many votes in recent times.  

09 June 2017 |

Election Overload - Politics v Statesmanship

“The difference between a politician and a statesperson,” remarked James Freeman Clarke, “Is that a politician thinks of the next election while a statesman thinks of the next generation.” Today, British Prime Minister Theresa May announced a snap general election to be held on June 8 of this year. From today, that effectively sentences the British public to seven more weeks of droning political debate, hyperbole and misdirection. Mrs. May is either being very brave or remarkably reckless. Her character to date suggests that she normally wants to be seen as a safe pair of hands and a measured voice in volatile times. However, she is leaving herself open to the charge that in this case she is listening too much to her inner politician and not enough to the potential statesperson. Media pundits are already rushing to judgement, despite the fact that they were as surprised by the announcement as anyone else. The fact is that it is

18 April 2017 |

Terror Fails in Face of Hope and Respect

Today’s attack on Westminster Bridge and the Palace of Westminster, home of the British Parliament, have shaken many Londoners and brought a temporary halt to business inside the House of Commons. Throughout today I was involved with meetings inside the landmark Institute of Directors in Pall Mall. This is less than two miles from the heart of Westminster. Just an hour after the attacks, many people in our building were, predictably, either consulting smartphones or crowding around TV screens. Outside, other people trod the pavements as normal, many perhaps oblivious to the tragedy occurring just a relatively short distance away. Sirens were blaring in the distance but, this being London, while the intensity of the noise may have been higher than usual, people paid it little heed. At the scene of the attacks, of course, things were vastly different. At the time of writing, four people are known to have died in the attack, with more th

22 March 2017 |

Fake News - We've Seen Nothing Yet!

For all of our current challenges with fake news, the truth is that we’ve probably seen nothing yet. The rise in phoney news – and satirical material mistaken for news – may have a very damaging impact upon our collective consciousness. That is, if we don’t get very serious about tackling the problem now. By “we”, I mean both professional news-gatherers and, perhaps more importantly, the news-imbibing public. The false narrative phenomenon is driven by unscrupulous companies that want to drive up their ad income on the web. It is supported by trolls who want to besmirch someone’s reputation and by unofficial political operatives who want to gain an advantage for their candidate. Most recently, of course, the fake news arena has become the playground of foreign governments that seek to influence or interfere with domestic politics. Four high-impact, near-future, developments will be impact

06 March 2017 |

Reactions to Trump Are Mostly Over-Blown And Unhelpful

The reaction to President Donald Trump’s first weeks in power says more about us than it might about him. Doubtless there is much to find objectionable in the person and previous behaviour of the President. Some of his past remarks about women were by his own admission crass, careless and highly inappropriate. His bombast on the campaign trail in addressing immigration issues was attractive to his core supporters but less so to parts of the international community, who still look to the US president for a voice of calm reassurance in difficult times. One suspects that the President’s self-initiated war on the “mainstream” media will end in tears - probably for all concerned. He will not be able to maintain the antipathy towards the press and media without having this distract him from more important goals. His popularity will slide among his core supporters to this point - many of them disaffected Democrats - if h

27 February 2017 |

Robots Are Great - But They Can't Empathise!

"I call him religious who understands the suffering of others," wrote Mahatma Gandhi. We might fairly substitute for "religion" the word "human". Academics from two British universities are part of an international team to develop social robots for work in UK aged care homes. The so-called “Pepper” robots are being manufactured by Softbank, the group which has provided similar machines to care facilities throughout Japan. As a social futurist who is constantly researching changes in technology and attitudes to it, I know the awesome power of modern machines. Much is now written about machine (or artificial) intelligence, yet one big question remains. Can robots develop emotional intelligence and particularly the ability to empathise? A few years ago, Sony couldn’t get a robot to walk. Now robots can run, climb stairs and even play a rudimentary form of football. The new generatio

30 January 2017 |

Give Yourself a Break - Limit Social Media

Christmas, it is often said, is a time for giving. Perhaps the greatest gift we can offer those we love is the gift of our attention. Our best gift to ourselves may be simply time for mental reflection and emotional renewal. Both may require a deliberate decision to spend less time in the world of social media. A University of Copenhagen study released this week suggests that excessive use of social media can damage our emotional wellbeing. Among other things, the study says that over-engagement with Facebook and other platforms can give rise to feelings of envy. On this point, the study is reinforcing what we already know. Several research projects over a few years, drawn from various parts of the world, have found that extensive use of social media use makes people feel more downcast and depressed than they otherwise would. Many of these research projects have focused mostly on Facebook, mainly because it is the biggest player in the market. For th

22 December 2016 |

Paris Attacks 13/11 - Defeating Intellectual Fascism

On Saturday November 14 last year, much of the world woke to the terrible news that Paris had suffered its worst terrorist attack.  One year ago today, nine young zealots, born in Europe but radicalised and trained in the cauldron of Syria’s civil war, brought death to 130 people and injury to 368 more. Most of their victims were part of their own generation and were simply looking for a Friday night’s entertainment.  The French president called the attacks, the deadliest in his country since World War 2, “an abomination”. Clearly shaken by their speed and ferocity, he immediately declared a state of emergency, closing France’s borders. The next morning, while ISIS terrorists in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq were no doubt shouting "death to the infidel", people across much of the globe were crying "Vive la France!" The horrific events of 13/11, as I’m sure it will come to b

12 November 2016 |

Children and Social Media Don't Mix

“Freedom,” said Ronald Reagan, “is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn't pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same.” This applies not simply to freedom of belief or expression; it is in many ways true of freedom from anxiety.  Yet, according to one of the leading children’s charities in Britain, a rising number of pre-teens are experiencing symptoms of anxiety. The NSPCC’s Childline service announced this week that it counselled 11,706 young people for anxiety in 2015-16. This represented a rise of 35 percent on the number of children counselled for anxiety in 2014-15. Children as young as eight years old are contacting the charity, citing a range of issues that cause them great concern. Those issues are no longer restricted to family concerns, or problems at school. They inc

01 November 2016 |

Do We Really Want To Go Cashless?

Is cash on its last legs? Are we on an irreversible and irresistible march toward a fully cashless society? According to a new study, 44 percent of British people say that they would stop using cash altogether if cards were accepted everywhere. Perhaps not surprisingly, given their digital engagement almost from birth, 62 percent of those aged 25-34 say that they would pay only by card if they could. The study was conducted by MasterCard and it comes on the back of an announcement from The UK Cards Association that contactless payments grew in this country by 10 percent in January. For the first time, they hit the £2 billion mark in July, up from £1.5 billion in March. According to the Association, contactless options are driving the growth in card-based payments. Although cashlessness is in some respects a very attractive option, offering faster transactions and less time-wasting at teller machin

07 October 2016 |

Tube Chat? Office Chat Would Work Better

Social media in the UK have given a chilly reaction to a new campaign designed to encourage strangers to talk to each other on London’s Tube system. The Transport for London authority, which is responsible for the Tube network, is also wary of the idea. Jonathan Dunne, an American NHS worker, came up with the notion of having people wear badges emblazoned with the words “Tube Chat?” to indicate that they are up for a conversation while travelling. Whilst Mr. Dunne’s intent and follow-through is commendable – he paid for the badges himself – the execution may reflect a poor understanding of the “culture” of Tube travel in London. It’s true that we live in a world of absent presence. Many of us spend too much time engaged with the Cloud through digital gadgets and not enough interacting with people immediately around us. There's growing evidence in urban studies worldwide that our preo

30 September 2016 |

Tax Rises Not Enough To Protect The NHS

The National Health Service is an institution of which Brits are rightly proud and which we all want to preserve and protect. Obviously, anything that can realistically be done to boost its chances of future success would be welcome. Today, the Liberal Democrats are recommending an “extra penny in the pound” tax increase to support the cash-strapped NHS. As a social futurist, I’m sometimes asked in sessions presented to civic leaders what shape the NHS might take in 10-20 years time. My honest response is that I can’t see the NHS existing in its present form two decades from now – for one simple reason: we can’t afford it. Like most institutions – and most things in life – the NHS will need to adapt to survive. In its present form, it likely won’t last. Ours is a rapidly ageing population, which will continue to rely on ever more sophisticated technologies to keep it healthy and ali

19 September 2016 |

More Public Spaces Should Block Phone Signals

The thing about phones today is that they’re not just phones, are they? They’re sophisticated computers that open up all kinds of opportunities for entertainment, collaboration and innovation. However, research is showing that they can also be doorways into a world of distraction. In Britain, a debate has opened up as to whether or not we would benefit if some public spaces actually blocked signals from smartphones and the internet. The owners of at least one British pub have done just that, recognising the impact of digital gadgets on human interaction. A new bar in East Sussex is stopping phone signals in an effort to prevent people being distracted by their mobiles. The Gin Tub in Hove has installed a copper Faraday cage in the ceiling, which deflects signals. While it’s illegal in the UK to jam phone and internet signals from transmitting from their source, it’s permissible to block them from entering one&rs

03 August 2016 |

The EU Must Reform or Die

With recent events in Nice, Munich and Reutlingen, and today's apparently terror-related brutality in Normandy, one thing becomes very clear.  If European governments don't very quickly address their mismanagement of migration, more national leaders will shortly face calls for Brexit-type referenda, if not on EU membership, then at least on freedom of movement.  The existing EU policy on movement doesn't work in the age of sudden mass migrations, any more than multiculturalism has worked as government policy.  German Chancellor Angela Merkel acknowledged the latter a while back. Where both Germany and the wider Europe is concerned, she must now also admit that an open-door migration policy toward people from war-torn regions, whilst well intentioned, is not sustainable. Neither is it popular: more than half of the German population disapproves of it. Mrs Merkel, normally a skilled political pragmatist, must also recognise

26 July 2016 |

The PM is Gone - Long Live the PM

The late author and futurist Alvin Toffler wrote in the 1970s of a "roaring current of change" which would leave many people feeling bewildered and anxious. He could have been writing prophetically about the past few weeks in British national life. Many will hope that today will mark the beginning of the end of the nagging uncertainty that has dogged Britain's national debate for the past months, since well before the EU referendum vote. Tonight Britain has a new Prime Minister and with it a potentially fresh approach to negotiating the nation's post-Brexit place in the world. At the formal request of HM the Queen, Theresa May was asked this evening to form a new government. This comes after the most turbulent period in British politics in recent memory. It follows the resignation of a premier who would have expected to be around for at least another two years. Dav

13 July 2016 |

Brexit Requires New Brand of Leadership

Rarely in its recent history has the UK needed leadership more than it does right now and will do for the foreseeable future. That is, leadership as distinct from political management. Both are valuable assets in times of huge change. However, only leadership will facilitate a proactive, inclusive, reassuring and empowering move toward the future. For the most part, management is focused on metrics, established benchmarks and tactics. Leadership is fundamentally aligned more with shaping mindsets, discovering entirely new ways of doing things and mapping out longer-term strategies. Management is about structural engineering; leadership is about cultural architecture. It is about building a different cultural milieu in which people feel that they have the confidence and the security to innovate and prosper. The UK has been a part of the European Union and the EEC before it for forty years. Its only other referendum on membership of the Common Ma

24 June 2016 |

Jo Cox MP - A Price Too High

“The more you stay in this kind of job,” said President Richard Nixon, “the more you realize that a public figure, a major public figure, is a lonely man.” These past couple of days, two stories in the British press have amply illustrated Mr. Nixon’s point. One story in particular has torn at the public’s emotions. The horrendous slaying of Jo Cox MP represents a tragedy for her family and a deeply troubling development for the nation. The other story, while understandably given fewer column inches, has nonetheless raised troubling questions about police conduct. The end of investigations into Sir Cliff Richard on sex abuse charges foreshadows – or should do – the likelihood of new questions being asked of an already struggling regional police force. Taken together, these stories reflect the high price paid by some people for life in the public eye. They are not, of course, comple

17 June 2016 |

EU Referendum TV Debates: All Heat, No Light

One of the major lessons to emerge from last night's Sky News EU referendum interview and Q and A had nothing to do with the issue at hand. While hoping to hear reasoned arguments on behalf of the Leave campaign, represented by Justice Secretary Michael Gove, it struck me that what we were presented with instead was an instructional video on how not to run a political debate.  Interviewer Faisal Islam,  while perhaps operating from commendably enthusiastic motives, mostly  treated us to a prolonged exercise in badgering as distinct from probing for the truth.  Seemingly unable to be quiet long enough to allow us -  much less the interviewee -  time to assimilate what was going on,  the host appeared to confuse nagging with Paxman-like persistence.  I suspect that more than a few TV viewers would have found themselves,  like me,  more annoyed b

04 June 2016 |

The Doctors' Strike and the Great Trust Deficit

With its threat to carry forward the junior doctors’ strike indefinitely, the British Medical Association is in danger of scoring an own goal. By pursuing ever more aggressive strike action, it may inadvertently add the medical establishment to a register it doesn’t want to join. Since 2007, a growing number of Britain’s foundational institutions have joined something I like to call the Trust Deficit Register. In the last few years, the public’s relationship with society’s foundational institutions has arguably taken a turn for the worse. It began with attitudes toward the world of business – and particularly banking – at the outset of the near global recession. The political classes were soon similarly affected, in the wake of the MPs expenses scandal. In both cases, level

22 April 2016 |

Brussels Attacks: Restrain and Rethink

Tunisia, Paris and, this morning, Brussels. There can be no doubt that Europe and Europeans are now the objects of consistent threats from terror cells. Even last year's suicide bombing in Istanbul was reportedly motivated in part by the city's cosmopolitan flavour and by Turkey's desire for membership of the EU. At the time of writing, at least thirteen people have been killed and thirty-five have been injured in this morning’s attacks in the Belgian capital. Two airports and the city’s Maalbeek metro station were the target of apparent suicide bombings. At the time of writing, estimates as to casualties are still fluid, but a clearly shaken Belgian Prime Minister has said, “What we feared has happened. We were hit by blind attacks.” Across Belgium, security levels have been raised to their highest level. Brussels is normally a calm, clean and orderly city. Sadly, being at the heart of many of the EU&rsq

22 March 2016 |

Should Britain Stick With The EU?

‘It is the heart always that sees before the head can see,’ wrote Thomas Carlyle. I don’t know how Thomas Carlyle, a gifted social commentator, would have voted in the forthcoming British referendum on EU membership. Perhaps, being a Scot, he might immediately have made up his mind to stay. If so, he would have been in the minority among UK voters, according to a new poll released by YouGov. It suggests that 45 per cent of people will vote to leave the EU, compared with 36 per cent who favour remaining. If the ‘don’t knows’ in the survey are excluded, a full 56 per cent favour waving goodbye to the EU. This despite Prime Minister Cameron’s assurances that he can wrest a better deal for Britain from the hands of the EU. Perhaps closer to the referendum – a date has not yet been fixed – people will opt to stay

05 February 2016 |

Why Don't People Stop to Help the Stricken?

British newspapers today related the tragic story of a wheelchair-bound man who choked to death on the floor of a McDonald’s restaurant. He did so while, as shown on CCTV footage, other people simply watched or stepped over him to order their food. This story, from the large spa town of Cheltenham in Gloucestershire, raises important questions about our society. Why don't people get involved in helping the injured or stricken? Was this always the case in our society? If not, when did it begin to change – and why? Of course, we should be wary of taking singular or isolated events and reading into them a trend, but cases like this one warrant a deeper look if only to support our claim that we live in a civilised society. Though the two stories are different in many respects, this incident cas

17 December 2015 |

Oppose ISIS But Don't Credit Anonymous

The underground hacking confederacy known as Anonymous announced this week that it will launch an ‘Official ISIS Trolling Day’ on December 11. Its goal, it says, is to ‘mock [ISIS] for the idiots they are.’ The old adage ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’ notwithstanding, we should be wary of supporting a group of digital vigilantes who answer to nobody but themselves, yet wield considerable power. Having already launched attacks on several hundred ISIS Twitter accounts, Anonymous are calling on social media users to join the mass-trolling of ISIS platforms. Doubtless, many people will add their voice to these protests using the hashtag #Daesh. A high proportion will do so because of a passion to see ISIS/Daesh defeated; they will not intend their involvement to send any signal of support for Anonymous per se. This is important. To give Anonymous recognition may only encourage in them a belief that

08 December 2015 |

The NUS and the Transgenderism Debate That Wasn't

In the past week, the National Union of Students in Britain cancelled a scheduled address by author and iconoclast Germaine Greer. The change of heart came about because of Ms Greer's views on transgenderism – and in particular how it relates to women. As far as I can tell, Germaine Greer was not scheduled to address the NUS event on this issue. I do not know Ms Greer’s views in detail, having only read scant reports about them in the press. I have not heard Ms Greer speak on them and have not read anything she has written about them. So, this piece is intended neither as an apologetic for nor a criticism of those views. The issue I want to address is whether the NUS should make a practice of effectively closing down a debate before it has begun. Clearly, the NUS has a responsibility to guard its public podium. A national body ostensibly representing students and their best interests has a duty, for example, to avoid promotin

30 October 2015 |

New Old Labour - When Idealists Give Way to Ideology

Disillusioned idealists often project their ideal visions onto ideologues. This is certainly true of politics, as is evidenced by the unexpected rise to prominence of Jeremy Corbyn, the recently elected leader of Britain's Labour Party. After a long career spent watching events unfold from Parliament's back benches, Mr Corbyn has found a new seat in the House of Commons, at the centre of the action as Opposition Leader. There is, however, good reason to doubt that Mr Corbyn can lead an effective, well-rounded Opposition in the House as distinct from a protest-in-residence. Prominent members of his own party are wondering whether he can look beyond his pet causes to see the bigger picture, replacing ideology with principled pragmatism. The ascendancy of Mr Corbyn, an unreconstructed old-school socialist, has not been greeted with universal acclaim within his own party. Indeed some reports today suggest that he was met with stony

15 September 2015 |

The Queen - A Living Lesson in Privacy Management!

As of 5:30pm (British Summer Time) on Wednesday September 9, Queen Elizabeth II has reigned longer than any other British monarch. Given the fact that England has entertained kings and queens for more than twelve centuries and a unified Britain since 1707, this is no mean feat. Six decades is a very long time for a person to be highly respected in any position or occupation. British public opinion still rates her and the system she represents very highly.  A new Sky News poll has found that 75 percent of the population feel that the monarchy is integral to British culture. Seventy percent believe that Britain should remain a monarchy "forever". This is doubtless a reflection of the personal affection we feel for the Queen herself.  That the Queen has succeeded so well is a testament to her resilience and resolve, as well as her sense of public duty. She sees her role as a vocation, a sacred trust which has been passed

09 September 2015 |

Unemployment Boot Camps - Bad Branding, Potentially Good Idea

Time, as always, will tell, but the UK government’s proposed new training programmes for unemployed young people may be a step in the right direction. If handled correctly, they may help to boost employability in some and self-respect in the majority of their participants. That is, as much as any government initiative can. The plans involve compulsory jobcentre classrooms across the country, where people aged 18 to 21 who are supported by the Jobseeker’s allowance will practise job applications and interview techniques. More importantly perhaps, each person will be assigned a coach, who will continue to work with them for the first six months of their unemployment, if it lasts that long. The Times today cites a senior Cabinet Office source as saying that any 18 to 21-year-old not in education, training or work would have to attend the boot camps (I&

17 August 2015 |

Cannabis Decision by Durham Police - Nonsensical

‘If I had a world of my own, everything would be nonsense.’ So said the Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland. Perhaps the leadership of the Durham police service have been reading a little too much Lewis Carroll of late. Durham police have announced a decision not to take future action against many private growers and users of cannabis. While most personal use of the Class B drug will remain technically illegal, the police will not employ their resources to prevent small amounts from being grown or used privately. This, they say, will free up time and money for the pursuit of those pushing harder drugs. Perhaps only someone unfortunate enough as to be a regular user of marijuana – or more potent forms of the drug such as skunk – will be irrational enough not to see flaws in the reasoning. First, there are obvious issues relating to who makes laws in the first place. Is it the police service, or th

22 July 2015 |

Future E-Toll Style Technologies Challenge Economy and Ethics

South Africa is arguably among the fastest nations in the developing world to adopt new or emerging digital technologies. The nation’s rapid acceptance of digital technologies speaks to its desire to develop quickly. Its early adoption of new tools has helped it leapfrog other developing nations, technologically. However, this early acceptance also potentially raises as many problems as it solves, on the ethics, economics, business and mental health fronts. The growth of South Africa’s mobile phone market illustrates its hunger for new technologies. Across the African continent as a whole, more people now have access to mobile phones than have access to fresh water. There are more than 650 million mobile phone subscriptions in Africa. In South Africa, a 2011 Nielsen study showed that more people use mobile phones than use computers, TVs, radios or landline telephones. Meanwhile, South Africans have, by and larg

14 July 2015 |

Extending Sunday Trading - Economics Over Ethics

‘History shows that where ethics and economics come in conflict,’ wrote B. R. Ambedkar, chief architect of the Indian Constitution, ‘victory is always with economics.’ The Budget statement, to be handed down by George Osborne today, will feature a call for Sunday shopping hours to be extended across England and Wales. In doing so, it may well add support to Ambedkar’s dictum. The major argument offered in support of the change is a purely utilitarian one. There are profits to be made by hard-working store owners, it insists. Surely, boosting the sales of hard-working retailers while funnelling money into government VAT coffers is desirable? This is a seductive case in a consumerist age, in which we are dealing with the pressures of austerity. Yet there are also important questions about human values and ethics to be considered. This argument suggests that the only real value of any day of t

08 July 2015 |

Greek Financial Crisis - It's About More Than Money

'We sail within a vast sphere,' wrote Blaise Pascal, 'ever drifting in uncertainty.' That just about sums up the Greek financial crisis. Greece appears completely adrift within the vast sphere of European and global economics. Neither Greece nor its European partners show any sign of emerging from a state of shared uncertainty any time soon. In the face of the Greek crisis, much has been made of anti-austerity demonstrations. Within Greece and beyond, would-be reformers have taken up megaphones and banners to denounce the very idea of penalties for defaulting on debts, or inducements for their repayment. For all the noise and bluster, I don't hear any of these people presenting a serious, viable alternative model to those already on the table. If you tone down their populist rhetoric, anti-austerity campaigners, none seem to be offering a realistic plan which might address the concerns o

30 June 2015 |

Chips Under The Skin - "Convenient" But Not Wise

Australians are, if a new report is to be believed, quite open to the possibility of taking the concept of wearable devices to a wholly new level. A study sponsored by the Visa company suggests that 25 percent of Australians are at least ‘slightly interested’ in having a commercial chip implanted in their skin. This is, of course, potentially great news for multi-national payment groups like Visa. Their specialty is, after all, devising new ways of getting people to part with money via their particular channels. The more convenient the channel, the greater the profits for Visa et al. On one level, implants are old news. Several groups overseas have experimented with implanted Radio Frequency Identification Devices (RFIDs). Most recently, the Epicentre high-tech office block in Swed

26 May 2015 |

Not Voting Mistakes Anarchism for Activism

Churchill famously observed that, “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” The man often adjudged the greatest of all British Prime Ministers clearly was not always encouraged by the intellectual capacities of the voting public. Ultimately, he suffered the humiliation of being ejected from government by a post-war electorate which appeared to have suffered a major lapse of short-term memory. In very quick time, the old man’s feats of wartime leadership and resolve had seemingly been forgotten. Yet, for all its flaws, Churchill understood that democracy is the least worst of all the alternatives. He knew from his experience battling Nazism, that if citizens refuse to stand and be counted, by engaging the system of governance and holding it to account, a dangerous power vacuum is created. Ruthless ideologies and individuals will always exploit such a vacuum. Voting is both an individual

30 April 2015 |

The ANZACs, Churchill and a Lesson for our Politicians

This week, millions of people in Australia and New Zealand, joined by more than a few in Britain and Turkey, will pause to mark the centenary of an awful tragedy of war. Though modern conflicts throw up all manner of horrors, few can compete in terms of the sheer scale of carnage involved with the Allied invasion of Gallipoli, starting on April 25, 1915. The battle for this Turkish peninsula cost the lives of tens of thousands of soldiers from both sides, particularly during the initial assault. It gave rise to the legend of the ANZACs, an acronym for members of the Australia and New Zealand army corps. ANZAC Day, to be celebrated again this Saturday, is a prominent marker in Antipodean calendars. Unravelling the political motivations that lead to a war and the machinations shaping its various campaigns, is hardly ever easy, even with the benefit of hindsight. In the case of World War 1, the sense of urgency and existential threat that

23 April 2015 |

UK Election Debate - Why Is British Politics So Fragmented?

Tonight's seven-way election debate probably didn’t do much to sway opinions about the British political elites. Predictably, the leaders of the smaller and regional parties spoke passionately and, for the most part well, about their particular concerns. They had the luxury, though, of having no national record to defend. Nick Clegg attempted to set up the LibDems as the balancing force between Tory cuts and Labour spending, with one eye on a possible future coalition. David Cameron did not clearly lose the debate - or his cool - as some felt he might. And Ed Miliband didn't storm the barricades, choosing to focus on specific policy issues rather than providing a captivating vision for the prefered future. Whomever the pundits now deign to be the best performers, the event did underline an important question that will likely dog British elections for years to come: Will any political party ever again command a mandate to gov

02 April 2015 |

Do Online Protests Work? Reflecting on Jeremy Clarkson Saga

This morning, The Telegraph reported that the BBC has decided to sack TV presenter Jeremy Clarkson, because of an altercation between him and a producer on the Top Gear programme. The decision has ramifications beyond the survival of the global Top Gear brand. For one thing, it raises questions about the efficacy of large online protests and petitions. A plethora of social media platforms have turned opinion-sharing into a compulsion for many people. Yet online public petitions – even well subscribed ones – may carry far less weight than we’d like to believe. In the past couple of weeks, more than one million people signed a petition calling for Clarkson’s return to what is arguably the most popular car programme ever devised for TV, anywhere. More than 350 million viewers tuned in worldwide to

25 March 2015 |

Is Racial Abuse on the Rise?

Is Britain becoming more racist? The question has arisen again on the back of a widely reported, racially inspired incident involving Chelsea football fans in Paris. A group of fans prevented a black man from boarding a Metro train, chanting: ‘We’re racist and that’s the way we like it.’ Chelsea football club has denounced this behaviour, as has the Chelsea Supporters Trust, which added that most of the club’s 2000 fans at the game were well behaved. Racist behaviour in football at home and abroad is, of course, nothing new. In recent years, some of the game’s biggest clubs and national authorities, as well as campaign groups like Kick it Out, have arguably made significant steps toward stamping it out. So

19 February 2015 |

Auschwitz and the Wisdom of Crowds

On this the seventieth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz in Poland, we should perhaps take time to reflect on humanity's potential for inhumanity.  History testifies time and again to the fact that whilst we, as a race, are capable of reaching the noblest heights, we also have the potential to plumb the lowest depths. We forget this at our peril. My own generation, the once ubiquitous baby boomers, have never known war on the scale of the two bloody conflagrations that engulfed much of the globe in the first half of the twentieth century. We grew up knowing a different kind of global conflict, a so-called Cold War. The very name reflects an underlying sense of tension, an awareness that this insidious ideological quarrel might actually heat up at any time, its latent energy bubbling to the surface, fuelled by uncontained nuclear fission. For my father’s and grandfather’s generations, however, WW2 represented a

27 January 2015 |

Is Society Becoming More Extreme?

In the face of anti-Islamification rallies in Germany and the gruesome terror attacks in Paris serious question are being raised about social cohesion within European societies. Even before the events of the past week, questions have emerged about whether, for example, Britain is becoming more anti-semitic. More specifically, questions are being asked about whether Western societies are becoming more extremist in general, as opposed to militant, terms. Are we beginning to see unusual numbers of people holding trenchant positions at the poles of public opinion, especially on keystone issues? What does this hold for our collective future? In sociological terms, of course, some extremes can be important. By their very existence they help to define the middle ground, the mainstream. They mark the boundaries of opinion, providing a gauge for the health of public debate. However, too much polarisation results in a shrinking middle ground a

20 January 2015 |

"Divorce Day" Needs A Rethink

Here in the UK, Monday January 5, 2015 was branded Black Monday. Various press and media outlets called it Divorce Day. This was the day when enquiries about divorce were expected to peak across the country.  In recent years, legal firms dealing with divorce have come to expect a record number of enquiries on the first Monday of a full working week in January. Apparently, at this time of year couples who were under strain before Christmas seriously begin to consider a permanent split. Arguably, assigning tags like ‘Black Monday’ may bring much needed attention to what is a major social problem. However it may also trivialise divorce, encouraging people to look favourably on the opportunity to break with their partners and families. This year, the Relate marriage guidance service expected a

06 January 2015 |

Keep Christmas A "Shop Free" Zone

The festive season always brings with it fresh questions, especially in a largely secular age, about whether a religious festival should be afforded protected status in terms of shopping laws. Currently, large stores in England and Wales (in law, those over 280 square metres in size) cannot open on Christmas Day. Smaller convenience stores often do a brisk trade, providing those last-minute batteries for Christmas toys, or various items for the festive lunch. Were regulations to be relaxed further as some would like, large stores would doubtless take advantage of another opportunity to appeal to the last-minute-gift-grab that goes on right up until Christmas Eve. In that event, Christmas would quickly become just another shopping day and, for those perhaps unfortunate enough to work in retail, just another working day. Surely, say advocates of 24/7-all-year selling, this one day should be seen, in commercial terms, as no different to any other

17 December 2014 |

Persecution - More Than A Religious Issue

Yesterday, the Prince of Wales spoke of his concerns regarding the rise of religious persecution around the world. He’s right to be concerned; our TV screens and social media streams bear witness to the growth of religious oppression in the Middle East, Africa and on the sub-continent. However, some reputable studies suggest that it may also be an emerging challenge closer to home. Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights upholds the freedom of religion, yet Prince Charles noted that 'an absence of freedom to determine one's own religion is woven into the laws and customs' of more than a few nations. He pointed out that whilst stories emerging from Iraq and Syria pushed the issue of persecution into the news, the problem extends much farther afield. A new report from the Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need says that in 41% of the 196 countries studied, religious fr

05 November 2014 |

Wonga Discovers Ethics Is The New Edge

Yesterday’s decision by the Wonga payday loan company to write off debts of more than 300,000 customers points not so much to the power of the Financial Conduct Authority as to the community’s demand for a new ethic in business. In its deal with Wonga, the FCA, which took over regulation of the payday loans sector in April, agreed that a further 45,000 borrowers will not need to pay interest on their loans. It is, of course, Wonga’s exorbitant annual interest rates – up to 5800 percent – that have led to charges of loan-shark style behaviour. The company offers people unsecured personal loans online, via its website and mobile apps accessed through PCs, tablets and smartphones. Its practices demonstrate the danger of using instant gratification technologies to suggest, even remotely, that present choices carry few future consequences. Whilst there is clearly a moral responsibility on the part of t

03 October 2014 |

Scottish Independence - The Scandinavian Model Shouldn't Be A Factor

The much vaunted Scottish Independence debate last night turned out to be something of a non-event if you happen to live anywhere south of the border. While the issue of whether Scotland should leave the UK is, by edict of David Cameron, for the Scots alone to decide, it is a decision in which the rest of the UK has an interest. Sadly, it seems, certain TV executives assumed we’d all rather be watching Love Your Garden or Kids Behind Bars, a documentary about American young offenders. ITV, the company with the rights to broadcast the debate, farmed it out to its Scottish subsidiary STV. The mother ship refused even to air it on its smaller ITV2, ITV3 and ITV4 platforms, which would have served a greater part of the nation. If the Scots weren’t already angry with their Sassenach cousins, this apparent lack of interest in their future should get them riled. Press reports today suggest it certainly had that effect

06 August 2014 |

Assisted Dying - A Question of Misplaced Trust

On Friday the House of Lords will debate legislation which would, if passed, make assisted dying legal in the UK. The argument over assisted dying and its bedfellow, euthanasia, is not a new one. For centuries, philosophers, ethicists and theologians have debated whether an individual has the fundamental ‘right’ to commit suicide.  The idea of legally empowering another party to assist in the process, to actually inject a chemical that ends one’s life, is an extension of that debate. In our time the issue has scaled the walls of cloistered academia, to become very much a real world problem – or opportunity, depending on your point of view. This is partly because advances in medicine and medical technologies have made longer life a reality for most people in the developed world. Not only are we able to live longer, however. We are also around long enough to face as yet unconquered illnesses of mind and body. Debilita

17 July 2014 |

CCTV Spy Cars, Privacy and the Right To Be Forgotten

‘The privacy and dignity of our citizens,’ wrote William O. Douglas, ‘are being whittled away by sometimes imperceptible steps.’ ‘Taken individually, each step may be of little consequence. But when views as a whole, there begins to emerge a society quite unlike any we have seen.’ This is at the heart of what will continue to be a defining area of debate for the next decade; a debate focused on privacy and freedom of speech – and their relationship with ever more ubiquitous digital technologies. A cornerstone of the debate will be what I, for want of a better term, call ‘technology creep’ – the gradual introduction of new uses for specific technologies, which have never been approved by the public. The British Government’s Community Secretary Eric Pickles announced last week that CCTV ‘spy cars’ will be banned under new government moves aimed at enticing motorists bac

23 June 2014 |

Why Social Media Are Reshaping the World of News

An international report from the Reuters Institute, released today, shows that social media are changing the way people access and process daily news The study looked at the news consumption habits of 18,000 people in 10 countries, including the UK, US, Germany and France. Among other things, it shows that few people are willing to pay for news these days and the number of consumers accessing news via smartphones or tablets is growing rapidly. The UK rates lowest in terms of the number of people willing to pay for their news. Just seven percent or Brits are willing to do so - although one wonders whether the 47 percent who cite the BBC as their top online service have factored in the cost of their licence fee. The study showed that more than half of those polled take their online news from an established brand. Only 16 percent use digital-only news sites, such as Buzzfeed and Huffington Post &ndas

12 June 2014 |

Voters Are Not Lurching; They're Responding to Elitism

In the wake of Sunday's European elections, The Times announced on its front page yesterday that Europe had 'lurched to the right'. In the UK, where European and local council elections were held simultaneously, it noted that Ukip made significant gains over the more established political parties. Since then, the domestic news cycle has been dominated by stories of how the other major parties plan to respond. We've heard talk of the need to clarify party messages, better connect with voters and possibly even change leaders. Perhaps someone on the editorial staff of The Times can explain why headline writers opted to describe voters as 'lurching' to the right when the alternative result would usually be described as a 'shift' to the left. To lurch is to stagger or lunge suddenly, usually without forethought. When editors apply such an adjective to voting preferences, they infer that electors have cast their ballots carelessly. This writ

27 May 2014 |

How Social Media Are Changing Community and Identity

Who do we think we are? How do we define ourselves in the midst of a rapidly changing society? What part do social media now play in defining our identity and is their role a positive one? Yesterday the BBC released the findings of an IPSOS Mori poll it had commissioned looking at how people in the UK define their identity. The poll asked respondents to imagine that they were introducing themselves to someone they'd not met before. It then asked them to describe who they were, without referencing their family and friends or their work. The responses were categorised under such headings as "Social Class", " Interests and Leisure Activities", "Ethnicity", "Religion", "Values and Outlook" and "Personal Views and Opinions". Across the count

08 April 2014 |

Europe's Elephant in the Room - Superstate

“When there’s an elephant in the room, introduce him.” So said the late Professor Randy Pausch, an expert in human-computer interaction.   Last night's radio and TV debate between Nigel Farage, leader of UKIP, and the leader of the Liberal Democrats Nick Clegg, was refreshing and unsettling at the same time. It was refreshing because it saw two political leaders speaking as mature adults. For the most part, they argued important points of policy without recourse to personal insult or transparent simplification. It was unsettling because, whilst it threw up some significant claims relating to British jobs, benefits, laws and approaches to immigration, it danced nimbly around the biggest issue of all when it comes to the EU. In short, it did not introduce the elephant in the room. Our current political discourse skirts around the question of a potential political union within Europe, or the emergence of a United Sta

27 March 2014 |

Neknominating - Why it's Here and How to End It

A 20 year-old London man has become the latest victim of "neknomination", a dangerous trend which combines extreme drinking with social media exposure to threaten the lives of young adults and teenagers. Isaac Richardson, who only recently moved to London, downed a deadly cocktail of vodka, beer, whisky and wine. He told friends he wanted to ‘outdo’ everyone. Neknomination involves "necking" a quality of alcohol - that is, downing it in one go - often while filming oneself for online social media,  then nominating someone else to do the same. Therein lies its greatest threat to young adult culture - the establishment of viral chains built around extreme drinking. The activity is promoted among teenagers and young adults as a game, but it is dangerous on two levels. I was interviewed today on neknomination by the BBC and my host reported seeing young men only recently "necking" up to two bott

11 February 2014 |

The Sales Silly Season - Keeping Your Sanity Intact

'Money's a horrid thing to follow, but a charming thing to meet,' wrote Henry James. For most of us, spending is as much a part of Christmas as pudding, turkey and certain libations. Yet binge buying is often as common an excess during the holiday season as binge drinking. It can be just as injurious to our health and family life. As James suggested, spending power is a good servant but a terrible master. Sadly this is a lesson some people will learn the hard way over the next few months, as they measure the impact of the holiday sales on their savings, credit ratings and all-round financial wellbeing. To boost sales this year, many major stores began discounting prices earlier in the pre-Christmas season. In spite of this, while the past couple of weeks are normally their busiest time of the year, some shopping centres have remained half empty. This is partly because of the poor physical in

23 December 2013 |

Don't Shoot the Marriage Messenger

News that Sir Paul Coleridge, High Court Judge, has stood down, after being reprimanded for his comments in support of marriage, suggests that we may not value marriage as highly as we might. The implied suggestion that Sir Paul may have acted in a way unbecoming of a Court official, simply by sharing his frustration at the breakdown of marriages and the impact this has on children, is tantamount to an admission that so-called 'traditional' family may no longer be considered a norm worthy of protection. Whilst Sir Paul could have continued in his position with the High Court for another five years, he has said that his position is now untenable. He could not, he says, properly fulfil his duties if he felt he had to constantly look over his shoulder. It is outrageous that a judge should be reprimanded for speaking up for one of the major foundations of our social order. Surely if judges are allowed to speak about anything, it should be the defence of th

18 December 2013 |

Cyber Monday - Does the Internet Feed our Anxieties?

If you believe the newspaper reports, today is Cyber Monday. Shoppers across the UK are expected to log 113 million hits on retail websites in the mad scramble for Christmas gift bargains. We've just had Black Friday, which is to bricks-and-mortar stores what today is to their online counterparts. This year, it saw customers lining up for hours and fighting - in some cases literally - to grab the best of the much-hyped deals. The Sunday Times yesterday revealed (surprise, surprise) that online retailers jack up their prices come the end of November. Then, predictably, they drop them again immediately after Christmas. Sites like now use the power of internet algorithms to track price movements on selected items, so that consumers can buy when costs are at their best. So much is said in the press and media about Cyber-this and Black-that, though, that one wonders whether retailers have their PR companies working

02 December 2013 |

Here's Looking At You (Again)

'Friends don’t spy,' wrote Stephen King. 'True friendship is about privacy, too.' In future, it seems, British companies and local authorities will need to work much harder at making friends. The supermarket giant Tesco announced on the weekend that it will soon use CCTV cameras, with face detection software, to track demographics among its customers. In the beginning, the cameras will be placed at each of its petrol station checkouts. They will then, presumably, be rolled out across its 3,000 stores in the UK alone. The scheme involves software called OptimEyes, developed by Amscreen, another British company which says its tools will help bring the Tesco into 'a new age of customer insight, measurability, campaign management and optimisation.' The OptimEyes website is quick to stress that 'face detection' does not mean 'face recognition

06 November 2013 |

Going Cashless - The Buck Stops Here

In the wake of digitisation, expanding economies are hurtling at binary speed toward a fully cashless society. Australia provides a good example. It is now recognised as a world leader in the push for a zero-cash economy. A new MasterCard global survey reveals that Australia ranks in the top ten of nations dubbed 'nearly cashless'. It sits in sixth place, behind Belgium, France, Canada, UK and Sweden. Some 86% of all consumer payments nationwide are now made by card. In the US, the ratio is just 45%. Belgium's first place is based on a 93% rate of cashfree payments. For Australians, the convenience of payment systems like PayPass, which allow transactions via the wave of a card over a scanner, is clear. Wave-and-pay card systems are now featuring in an increasing variety of service and retail environments, from supermarkets to railway stations. The 2012 London Olympics was perhaps the first global event to run most of its on-si

03 October 2013 |

Bad For Our Health: A Culture Of Over-Prescribing Drugs

'Reality is just a crutch for people who can't handle drugs.' So said American author Robin P. Williams. Her remark was made with her tongue firmly filling out her cheek, but it may carry an important message for a culture that has become overly dependent on prescribed drugs. The message is this: reality and drugs are unnatural bedfellows. Improving one's reality is not best served by a reliance on drugs. A few years ago, I was speaking at an event in Sydney, Australia. Just a few miles away, a global conference of psychiatrists had just adjourned. In its press release, this convention declared this to be the 'Age of Paranoia'. It raised concerns about the rapid increase in the number of people suffering from anxiety, depression and various phobias. In light of this, some developed nations are seeing alarming growth in the number of prescriptions issued for quite powerful drugs. According to a report in the Sunday Times yesterda

09 September 2013 |

Twitter Trolls, the Law and Respect

Over the past week, news headlines in the UK have been dominated - and rightly so - by stories about women who've become the targets of personal threats on Twitter, the social networking site. The most famous of the women concerned, historian Mary Beard, attracted online abuse after an appearance on BBC TV. Ms Beard received a bomb threat apparently because she lent her support for a boycott of Twitter, until it took adequate measures to stop bullying and harassment of women. Meanwhile, at least two people have been arrested in relation to rape threats made against Stella Creasy, Labour MP and Caroline Criado-Perez, the feminist who led a campaign to have Jane Austen on the new £10 note. Late last week, the e-crime unit attached to the Metropolitan Police claimed it was investigating allegations by eight people of 'harassment, malicious communication or bomb threats' suffered on Twitter. When the stories broke, more than 125,000 people ba

06 August 2013 |

Will Prince George Become Defender of the Faith?

On Sunday morning, I did the media rounds in what I call the on-air version of Speed Dating, appearing in 15 radio interviews for the BBC in the space of two hours. The question du jour was this: What part will religion - and specifically Christianity - play in the role of the monarchy when the newly born Prince George finally ascends the throne? It does seem somewhat unkind to be talking about the lad's long term future when he's less that a week old, but there are important constitutional and cultural issues at stake. The title Defender of the Faith was first bestowed upon King Henry VIII, by no less that the pope of the time. He then, for personal and political reasons, decided to abandon the Roman church and start his own, taking the title with him. Since then, the British monarch has been the automatic head of the Church of England, albeit in more modern times in a largely ceremonial capacity. A ComRes study for the BBC reve

28 July 2013 |

Professional Politics - Rule by Lobby Group?

'The difference between a politician and a statesman,' said James Freeman Clarke, 'is that a politician thinks of the next election, while a statesman thinks of the next generation.' Yesterday, ministers within the British government announced that they'd decided not to legislate for plain packaging for tobacco products. The legislation had long been promised in an effort to discourage young people from taking up smoking. In Great Britain, 10 million adults smoke cigarettes, representing 21 percent of men and 19 percent of women. Two-thirds of smokers start before the age of 18. This is according to Action on Smoking and Health (ASH), a health charity established by the Royal College of Physicians. The same groups says that smoking causes around 80 percent of deaths from lung cancer and approximately 80 percent of deaths from bronchitis and emphysema. Meanwhile, 17 percent of deaths from heart disease are linked to smoking as are more

13 July 2013 |

Why "Old" Ethics Matter to the Future

Hardly a week goes by in which we don't learn of some new psychological condition. Consult almost any Sunday newspaper and you'll read about some previously unrecognised malady of the mind which needs attention or cure. The American Psychiatristric Association publishes a regularly updated manual which is used worldwide as a key guide for diagnosing disorders. More than a few of the most recent additions can be attributed to our reliance upon new technologies. Alongside recognised disorders we seem to be developing a growing list of unofficial pseudo-conditions. In the spirit of this often maddening yet ubiquitous trend, I venture to suggest the introduction into mainstream thought of a malady called historophobia. The term already has a somewhat limited meaning and recognition within tight academic circles, but I'd like to broaden its application to mean the fear of all things traditional. How often do we hear in public debates

11 June 2013 |

Ohio: When Next Door Is A World Away

The story is told of a man who stood, day after day, by the doors of a bank of elevators in a New York skyscraper. Asked why he loitered there for hours on end, he replied simply: 'I wait for people to brush past me - I just need to be touched.' The story may well be apocryphal but its central theme, urban isolation, will resonate with many Americans as they consider the dramatic tale of three young women released from virtual slavery yesterday. People across the USA listened with horror on Monday evening to the unfolding story of the three, now aged in their twenties, who had been held captive in an Ohio house for the best part of a decade. The three women were allegedly kidnapped by three brothers who are now aged in their fifties. The mother of one of the victims died in 2006, heartbroken by the belief that her daughter, though perhaps still alive, might never be found. Aside from the obvious questions about what motivates men to be

08 May 2013 |

New Government Bill Would Set Wolves Among The Sheep

'Democracy,' wrote James Bovard, 'must be something more than two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for dinner.' If proposed new legislation on the tracking of social media conversations is passed in Westminster, British democracy may well move a step closer to this scenario. The Government's powerful security forces may, at least in the public's perception, become online wolves, ganging up on the humble sheep of the electorate to redefine the cybersphere. British Home Secretary Theresa May is committed to including a new Communications Data Bill within the Queen's Speech next month. Cyber-security experts, including top-tier academics from both Cambridge and Oxford Universities, are warning that the measures will undermine the privacy of citizens. Backbenchers from both wings of the coalition government are also opposed to the Bill, the main thrust of which was first proposed by the previous Labour Government. It was abandoned

24 April 2013 |

Why Schools Should Abandon Biometrics

'Friends don’t spy,' wrote Stephen King, 'true friendship is about privacy, too.' According to news reports yesterday, pupils at a leading independent British prep school are being finger-printed as part of a new payment system for the school dining room. This has reportedly happened without the specific consent of parents. Haberdashers' Aske's Boys' school took its pupils out of lessons to have their thumbprints recorded. In future, students will press their thumbs against an electronic scanner each time they buy lunch or a snack. The price will be charged to their account. Parents, who reportedly pay annual fees of more than £15,000 per child, have complained that they knew nothing about the procedure. The school simply posted a notice on its website, which many parents did not see. Indeed, most students knew nothing about the school's plan until it was carried out. The school claims that many other schools have a

05 April 2013 |

Is the "Stiff Upper Lip" Killing Us?

Medical research shows that UK lags behind other major developed countries in beating certain forms of cancer. Today, experts suggest that at least part of this may be explained by the famed British 'stiff upper lip' culture. Some scholars question whether the British national psyche was ever, historically speaking, any more stoic than those of other Western cultures. Others argue that it became so only in the Victorian age. After all, they say, pre-Victorian England was rife with urban tales of degraded pleasure-seeking, self-centredness and a wilful ignorance of the plight of the poor and infirm. Yet by the time Britain emerged from WWII, the 'stiff upper lip' attitude was widely celebrated as a contributing factor in its survival and victory. Churchill's promise of 'blood, sweat and tears' at the height of the war epitomises a national fortitude that has been respected, if not lionised, ever since. In our time, a similar stoicism may be evident in t

30 January 2013 |

Are We Becoming Internet Addicted?

‘The effect of the mass media,’ wrote social critic and historian Christopher Lasch, ‘is not to elicit belief but to maintain the apparatus of addiction.’ Lasch died in 1994, before the explosion of internet-based media. Yet his words were prescient in ways that we are only now beginning to understand. According to Britain’s media regulator Ofcom, the UK now leads the world in its use of data, having overtaken Japan in 2012. Today, Brits are among the most active social networkers in the world, sharing everything from photos, to gossip and personal secrets online. This is set to increase, on the back of record smartphone sales prior to Christmas and the new 4G services that will launch across the UK by summer. New technologies expected this year include wearable phones – especially the expected launch of the iWatch. Mobile augmented reality will become widely available via Google Glass and Vuzix. It won&rsquo

08 January 2013 |

Keep Calm - Antidote to Mega-Monday Headaches

Today is Mega-Monday. Media reports suggest that online retailers expect consumers to spend £222,222 per minute during the biggest ever day of cyber-shopping. But what will it mean for the thousands who will overspend, racking up credit card bills they cannot repay? Visa Europe predicts that, on this day alone, people will spend £320 million using its cards for 6.8 million transactions. This represents an increase of 21% on last year. Amazon has prepared for what it expects to be its biggest ever trading day, by employing an extra 10,000 temporary workers across its handling centres. Meanwhile, the credit report website Experian expects consumers across the UK to make 115 million visits to retail websites. If that proves correct, it represents a jump of 36% on last year. In a moribund economy, retailers of all kinds will welcome the boost to their sagging bottom lines. The Chancellor and his team will also welcome the

03 December 2012 |

Charity Is Not A Government Monopoly

Last week, I sent a text message to a friend in St Louis. I was appalled by what I was seeing on TV, as a super-storm with the innocuous name of Sandy pounded American’s east coast. I simply asked whether my friend was involved in the relief effort. Immediately, I received a reply: ‘We’re already strategising about responses to the east coast.’ My friend, Jeff, is the founder and director of an NGO called Service International, which has brought practical relief to thousands of people in the wake of several disasters, including Hurricane Katrina. They’ve also invested many thousands of dollars, over a number of years, to help regenerate foreign cities such as Kosovo. As it happens, Jeff is also the pastor of a large and highly respected church. Whilst they don’t constitute a ‘mega-church’ in the manner of some American churches, members of his congregation are hugely supportive of the NGO’s work. J

04 November 2012 |

Middle-Age Suicides: Does "X" Mark The Spot?

The only time you really live fully,’ said Theodore Roosevelt, ‘is from thirty to sixty. The young are slaves to dreams; the old servants of regrets. Only the middle-aged have all their five senses in the keeping of their wits.’ Perhaps the twenty-sixth US president was right; perhaps middle-age ought to be the time when we’re most fully alive. According to a report released recently by the Samaritans, however, it may be the time when British men are at their lowest ebb. Men aged 34-54 are now more likely to commit suicide lives than any other group in the UK, according to the report. Males in this middle-age bracket are more likely to take their lives than teenage boys and four times more likely to do so than women of the same age. Men in this group account for just under half the 5,600 suicides per year in the UK. According to the Government’s suicide prevention strategy published last month, the eco

03 October 2012 |

Is Julian Assange Damaging The Internet?

There is doubtless an important and wide-ranging debate to be had about the relationship between governance and transparency in the age of almost ubiquitous digital media.  Liberal democracies, for example, while preaching transparency struggle more than ever in the digital age to balance public accountability with diplomatic discretion. Diplomacy, so long practiced behind closed doors, now depends upon digital communications technologies. Yet these are the very tools which make it susceptible to intense outside scrutiny, not all of which is desirable and some of which may even be potentially dangerous. While members of government have become as reliant as the rest of us on hi-tech gadgetry, the ubiquity of digital tools and their propensity for being hacked represents a threat to the ability of government institutions to keep secrets. In the world of realpolitik, keeping secrets is an important part of diplomacy and security - and not all secrets

23 August 2012 |

Eric Liddell, Paralympians & Great Olympic Values

There are probably few things that stir the human soul like the story of a winner against seemingly insurmountable odds. During the 2004 Paralympics in Athens, I watched a spectacle on TV that I think will stay with me for the rest of my days. All the able-bodied – or perhaps we should just say, less-physically-challenged – competitors had gone home. The hype and hoopla were dying down and a smaller but still enthusiastic crowd had remained to watch the competition between physically challenged athletes from around the world. I watched in amazement as one young Chinese man, probably no more than a teenager, surged quite early to the front of the field. He stretched his lead lap by lap until he was entire body-lengths ahead of his nearest rival. I was stunned as he touched the pad to register first place; stunned first by the scale of his victory and then by the fact that he had hit the pad with the top of his head. <

27 July 2012 |

The Global Olympic 'Machine' Devalues Sport

Walt Disney, world-class dreamer and founder of the fantasy empire that bears his name, once said: ‘I have been up against tough competition all my life. I wouldn't know how to get along without it.’ In the age of so-called mass collaboration, international sporting endeavour has the potential to remind us that not all competition is unhealthy; that testing one’s mettle against one’s peers can bring out the best in all concerned.   Nothing has the potential to celebrate the virtues and values of sporting endeavour like the Olympic Games. The athletes who will gather in London are worthy of honour, for their dedication, self-sacrifice and sheer hard work in pursuit of their goal. They represent the very finest of the emerging generation of young leaders. Yet the international Olympic movement is now more machine than movement and has arguably become little more than a promoter of market values. Sport is tr

04 July 2012 |

The Trust Deficit

‘If once you forfeit the confidence of your fellow-citizens,’ wrote Abraham Lincoln, ‘you can never regain their respect and esteem. In any economic tightening, the currency that potentially suffers most is the currency of public confidence. Economic confidence is a fragile thing and once shaken it can take years to re-establish. Yet trust in public leadership is even more fragile and if a general culture of mistrust sets in, the damage can be long-lasting – economically and socially. The emerging situation in Australia is a good case in point. On the financial front, despite some signs of a slowdown, Australia is still in relatively good shape, having escaped the worst effects of the near-global financial crisis. The latest OECD economic forecast reveals that it expects Australia's growth rate to rise this year with a 3.1% growth in GDP and again in 2013 (3.7%).

27 May 2012 |

Marriage Debate - What Debate?

To debate an issue, according to most dictionaries, is to engage in argument by discussing opposing ideas, or to deliberate and consider various views. The freedom to engage in rigorous debate is one of the primary indicators of a healthy society. By any standard definition, the current ‘debate’ about the future status and potential redefining of marriage – and therefore family – which is often mentioned by Prime Minister David Cameron, is no debate at all. As things stand, there is no public and even-handed airing of issues for and against. There is no careful deliberation about what changes made today will mean for society as a whole – psychologically, sociologically or economically. And no consideration is being given to what changes made today might mean for future generations. Instead, we hear in the main only one side of the argument. In the public forum, it is presented as a fait accompli, largely by

18 May 2012 |

Most Charities Don't Know A Philanthropist - Tax Avoider Or Not

‘Surplus wealth,’ said steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, ‘is a sacred trust which its possessor is bound to administer in his lifetime, for the good of the community.’ In the early part of the last century, Carnegie gave away enough of his vast fortune to underwrite 3,000 public libraries, a cluster of research institutes, colleges and concert halls and even an estimated 7,000 church organs. Carnegie was, of course, an American. Yet his brand of philanthropy wouldn’t go astray in today’s Britain, especially given the crushing social impact of having more than one million young adults unemployed and growing problems with healthcare for the elderly and hospitalised. Britain has a proud record when it comes to philanthropy and needs it today perhaps as much as she ever has. Yet rather than encouraging charity, we find ourselves heatedly debating the motives with which some of our most wealthy citizen

16 April 2012 |

Parents Must Share the Blame for the Riots of 2011

Who was to blame for the English riots of 2011? Was the government primarily responsible? Was it the child welfare system? Or should the blame be placed fairly and squarely on the mainly teenaged offenders, who threw themselves smash-and-loot parties and burned out cars and buildings?  A report released this week recognised that there is enough blame to share around. The report, by the Riots Communities and Victims Panel, presented David Cameron with a litany of deficiencies. Poor education for marginalised children and high youth unemployment in major cities both featured strongly in the report. Yet the area that should receive perhaps the most attention is the lack of adequate parenting cited by the panel. The riots definitely threw a revealing spotlight on some of the deficiencies in the system that deals with marginalised children and on the social structure within some of our larger cities. For their part, the s

31 March 2012 |

Digital Dementia

You're only as old as you feel, someone said. Actually, you're only as old as your ability to feel - or, given that emotion rests in the brain, your ability to think. For a long time, dementia was thought to become a real problem only for people over the age of sixty-five. However, the results of a ten-year research project released recently suggest that people as young as 45 are beginning to experience the onset of dementia. I wonder, though, whether another ten year study launched today would eventually find that what we called 'dementia' in 2012 became something like the normal state of mind by 2022? And would it conclude that the decline in important areas of mental function was in large part due to our reliance on digital gadgets? Indeed, isn’t it feasible that removing access to digital gadgets would leave some of us feeling as confused, troubled by language and withdrawn from other people as dementia sufferers often feel today? My

30 January 2012 |

12 Big Social Shifts for 2012

With the passing of 2011, we wave goodbye to a season marked by deep economic uncertainty, violent summer riots, persistent questions about public institutions and a general belief that, surely, things can only get better. But what challenges can we expect to face as a society in 2012? It’s been said that the only way to control the future is to shape it today. As a social futurist, my interest in the future is not merely in its technological, economic or political dimensions. I’m interested in what they might mean for groups of people – in families, companies and communities of all kinds. Based on my study of the past couple of decades, combined with ongoing research into current emerging shifts in technology and culture, here are my predictive picks for the 12 biggest social shifts we might expect to see in 2012. The list is not intended as an exhaustive one – there are a number of possibilities I’ve left out. But hopef

14 December 2011 |

Is Facebook Shrinking the Six Degrees of Separation?

‘We are all so much together,’ said Albert Schweitzer, ‘but we are all dying of loneliness.’ Was the great humanitarian speaking prophetically of the digital communications age? A new academic study purports to provide solid evidence that social networking platforms are shrinking the gaps between people and networks of people. The study by the University of Milan challenges the widely accepted idea that in our globalized age, everyone is linked to everyone else by, on average, six degrees of separation. In theory, a chain of ‘friend of a friend’ can be made, on average, to connect any two people on earth, in six steps or fewer. The idea, which is the basis for a popular party game as well as a key component of recent network theory, is that it takes just six nodes of connection before we can link one individual directly with another, even if they live on opposite sides of the planet. Th

23 November 2011 |

Please America, Recapture Your Optimism!

The world may be short of fossil fuels and finance right now, but if these and other problems are to be solved, its more chronic need is for more optimism. Optimism is defined as a disposition toward a positive view of events, with an expectation of the most favourable outcome. Optimism shouldn’t be confused with naïveté. When the word ‘optimism’ was first coined in the eighteenth century, it was used to describe a belief that good ultimately predominates over evil in the world. An optimist, then, is a realist who chooses to colour his or her worldview with a healthy does of idealism. It’s not a case of the old glass half-full or half-empty, but more half-empty-but-will-be-full. In many ways, America has been for most of the last century the most optimistic nation on earth. Indeed, a willingness to find the silver lining in every cloud has been a core part

28 October 2011 |


Here at the 2020Plus international Think Tank, we are asking members of the public to contribute to a study on the impact of constant talk of ‘crises’ in the media.  We would value your help. We believe that the future isn’t primarily shaped by economic forces. The future is a largely a product of human reactions to those forces – reactions that are, to a large degree, influenced by human emotions. Mal Fletcher, social futurist and chairman of 2020Plus says: 'Every economist knows that the first currency to suffer in recession is the currency of public confidence.  Once confidence is damaged or devalued, it is slow to rebuild.' 'In the past year, as new recessionary forces have threatened to spread worldwide, sections of the news media have presented a near-constant stream of emotive and negative words which speak of new crises and imminent disasters.' The study, entitled

25 September 2011 |

"Shared Interests" Are Not All That Marriage Is About

‘Marriage is the agreement to let a family happen,’ wrote the Canadian playwright Betty Jane Wylie. If a new survey of top divorce lawyers in the UK is any indication, marriage is becoming less about family and more about romance and shared interests. For the first time ever, ‘growing apart/falling out of love’ has overtaken infidelity as the major reason for divorce. The study, undertaken by Grant Thornton, the business and financial advisors, showed that 25 percent of respondents cite extra-marital affairs as their reason for divorce, while 27 percent cite ‘falling out of love’. It is easy to imagine that many marriages today will suffer from diverging personal interests. Our is an age where the growing cost of living demands that both partners in a marriage work outside the home and where people’s busy social and professional lives are filled with all manner of demands and enticements. People will sometimes

01 September 2011 |

The Great British House Cleaning of 2011

Britain is going through a house-cleaning operation the like of which it hasn't seen for perhaps a generation.  We are experiencing a storm of public discomfort and self-questioning, amidst a growing distrust of major institutions that have traditionally provided the foundations for a stable social order. Former Prime Minister Tony Blair is, on one level, right to argue that England’s recent riots were not a sign of widespread moral breakdown, as David Cameron has suggested. That type of hyperbole is largely inaccurate – as evidenced by the moral outrage the majority of Brits seem to have felt in the aftermath of the riots. As Blair suggests, the riots point to a breakdown of the system for some people and this needs to be addressed in a very specific way. Yet David Cameron is also correct up to a point. Many of the rioters and looters were people who were, for all intents and purposes, normal young people. They had no particula

23 August 2011 |

Oslo Tragedy - Politics, Religion & Personal Evil

‘Something is rotten in the state of Denmark,’ says Marcellus in Hamlet, a play set in that nation's famed Kronborg castle. This morning, the citizens of Oslo may have awoken wondering where the rot, the source of a terrible tragedy, lies within their nation. I have visited Norway and its capital many times over the past 20 years, especially as I lived in nearby Copenhagen for a decade. Norway is a nation blessed with stunning scenery and a largely laid-back lifestyle. It is also one of the world's richest nations, enjoying revenues from huge oceanic oil reserves. Today, however, the nation mourns the deaths of 91 people killed after a downtown bomb attack, followed by a shooting massacre in an island youth camp. Watching the British news coverage of this event has been illuminating, not least for the fact that many pundits opted first to search for an international Islamist terror link in the tragedy. 

23 July 2011 |

News of the World: NewsLite Culture & Breakdown of Trust

Make no mistake about it; the News of the World saga carries implications for much more than the world of journalistic practice and culture. The entire sorry episode started with fresh allegations about phone hacking and payments to police officers. It ended late this week with the announcement that News of the World will publish its final edition tomorrow. The story flags a number of questions that have already received wide coverage in the media, domestically and abroad. Have politicians enjoyed too cosy a relationship with leading news organisations? Have police personnel routinely received payments for information given to journalists? Did British police effectively sweep earlier allegations about phone hacking under the carpet, rather than running a thorough investigation? There are, however, two important aspects to this story that have received little or no comment in the mainstream press and media. The first involv

09 July 2011 |

Assisted Dying - The Breakdown of Hope

Celebrated author Terry Pratchett has made no secret of his desire to request an assisted death, at a time and in a manner of his choosing. In a BBC documentary aired last night, Mr. Pratchett, who suffers from the onset of Alzheimer’s disease, said: ‘Is it possible for someone like me, or you, to arrange the death they want? When I can no longer write my books, I’m not sure I will want to go on living.’ The argument over assisted dying and its bedfellow euthanasia is not a new one. Indeed, the issue of whether one has the ‘right’ to end one’s life has long been a subject that has vexed philosophers, ethicists and theologians alike. The idea of empowering another party, in law, to ‘assist’ in the process, to actually inject the chemical that ends a life, is an extension of that debate. Yet in our time, the debate has taken on an almost trendy aura. Recently, a number of prominent British celebriti

14 June 2011 |

Planking, Social Media Collaboration & The Trust Revolution

In the past week, two stories have emerged which demonstrate both the benefits and challenges of life in the every-fluid cyber-age. The first dealt with the growth of collaborative consumerism. According to the website, the term refers to the ‘rapid explosion in swapping, sharing, bartering, trading and renting being reinvented through the latest technologies and peer-to-peer marketplaces.’ Interviewed on this trend by BBC radio last week, I said that it is perfectly natural for people to want to turn mass communication into mass collaboration. I refer to the trend as the emerging ‘culture of collaboration’. It has powerful implications for everything from politics and business to science and exploration. The drive to solve problems in a collaborative fashion is nothing new. What some now call the ‘Hive Mentality’ r

16 May 2011 |

It's a Marriage not just a Wedding - William and Kate are not Reality TV Fodder

‘That married couples can live together day after day,’ quipped Bill Cosby, ‘is a miracle that the Vatican has overlooked.’ Considering the pressures on the modern marriage – two partners working to pay the bills, competition for places in the better schools, the threat of rising prices and falling living standards – it is indeed a wonder that more marriages don’t fall apart. For most of us who are married, there is one pressure we will never experience. We don’t have to concern ourselves with how we appear in the public eye. Most married couples are conscious of how our friends and colleagues may see their relationship - we are social creatures at heart. But the wider world is neither interested nor impacted by the strength of our ties. Prince William and Catherine Middleton are not so fortunate in that regard. Many millions of people who’ve never met them - and never will &nda

25 April 2011 |

Parents Say Children Over-Exposed to Sex. Will Government Act?

‘A baby is nothing but a bundle of possibilities.’ So said the prominent nineteenth century abolitionist and liberal clergyman, Henry Ward Beecher. The inheritance of genetics aside, children have always been very much a product of the nurturing they receive and the environment in which they receive it. Genetic influence itself is often subject to the effects of environment. A new UK poll reveals that large numbers of parents are concerned that society may be creating the wrong environment for their children. The study shows that 88 percent of parents feel their children are under pressure to grow up too quickly, especially in the area of sexual behaviour. The study was commissioned by children's minister Sarah Teather and conducted by the chief executive of the Mothers’ Union charity.  It shows that 41 percent of parents have, in the last three months, seen TV programmes or commercials that they consider to be wrong for

10 April 2011 |

Midsommer Murders: Is All-White Alright?

Today, the co-creator and producer of the popular TV series Midsommer Murders was sacked after comments indicating a preference for keeping the show an all-white affair. Brian True-May told the Radio Times the long-running drama was a ‘last bastion of Englishness’ and should stay that way. He added that the drama ‘wouldn't work’ if there was racial diversity in the show. ITV immediately launched an internal investigation into the reported comments and has now relieved Mr. May of his position. Is this a case of extreme political correctness? Is ITV simply reacting to emotive responses from journalists and media commentators, or are real issues of wider public concern involved? In responding, let’s remain mindful of two factors. First, programmes like Midsommer Murders are not designed to present accurate social commentary. After all, if there really were a small village

15 March 2011 |

Cigarettes In Plain Wrappers - What Would Marlboro Man Think?

When I was a boy, Marlboro Man was the essence of all that is cool. Detached, sure of himself, with eyes that betrayed just a hint of menace, this was the cowboy that every man and boy aspired to become. Darren Winfield, the original Marlboro Man from the cigarette box and TV campaign, became a hugely valuable commercial property for the Philip Morris Company. So much so that when he retired, they spent $300 million looking for a suitable replacement. The packaging of cigarettes has always been big business. Now, the British government wants to stuff cigarettes into plain cardboard wrappers and, in shops, hide them from public view. Ministers have called for an end to glossy packaging on cigarette boxes and, from next year, will ask retailers to cover up displays of cigarettes to protect children. One wonders what Mr. Winfield would make of it, sitting high atop his steed looking nonchalantly down at the world. Many smokers alrea

09 March 2011 |

TV A Dominant Force Once More. But Can It Stay That Way?

Sixty years ago, Samuel Goldwyn, the movie mogul predicted that TV wouldn’t last more than six months. Despite dire predictions like this, a new survey suggests that TV is doing very well in Britain, even in the age of Web 3.0 and ubiquitous mobile digital gadgetry. The survey reveals that 70 percent of Brits admit to feeling seriously upset when their favourite TV series come to an end. One in four Britons say they’ve started to think of their favourite characters as people they know. The study also shows something of a British obsession with DVD box sets, with forty-nine percent of families apparently indulging in marathon, back-to-back viewing sessions. Yet TV viewership, at least on commercial platforms, may well drop off when new proposals announced by the media regulator Ofcom are enforced by UK networks. The proposed new rules, which come into force next week, will allow broadcasters to increase the maximum

24 February 2011 |

Egypt's Revolution & Will Machines Ever Understand Valentine's Day?

President Obama learned of the major events in this week’s unfolding revolution in Egypt not from his coterie of highly-paid advisors, but from cable news channels. Earlier in the week, the CIA’s head, Leon Panetta, said that intelligence reports backed his predictions about the outcome of the revolution. Close aides later admitted that he too was relying on media reports. All the while, media relied heavily on social networking services – especially at the start of the revolution, before their news crews descended on Tahrir Square. In an age where information is instantly transmitted via a global stream-of-consciousness, some people in high places are starting to ask: is there still a central role for field agents? And how can we experts at home be expected to produce quality analysis of unfolding situations when data is pouring in faster than it can be collated? On the macro level, all this provides, in the minds of

13 February 2011 |

Youth Drinking Problem Reflects Badly On Us All

Nothing is more dangerous for the future of a society than having its young people grow old before their time. Figures released today by the NHS show that alcohol-related liver disease is on the rise among teenagers and young adults. The number of drinkers under the age of 30 who are admitted to British hospitals with liver problems, once found only in older adults, has risen by 50 per cent in ten years. One medical expert in the field has claimed that while this statistic sounds grave enough, it is in fact a gross underestimate. Whatever the exact numbers, they may tell us a lot more about ourselves and our culture generally than they do about our young people. We should deal with this as a societal problem rather than a merely generational one. In this age of hyper-stress, financial crises, austerity drives – one in five Britons is reportedly affected by depression - alcohol is a social relaxant. It is the elixir many of

25 January 2011 |

Ageism in Media: Screens & Speed Conspire Against the Aged

Whether it is institutional ageism, or more an informal bias against the aged, a preoccupation with youthfulness is one of the less desirable corollaries of our increasingly visual culture. It also reflects our preoccupation with speed; the dissemination of data without the proper interpretation of same. Ours is an age obsessed with basic knowledge at the expense of wisdom. A former presenter for BBC TV’s Countryfile programme, Miriam O'Reilly, today won her employment tribunal hearing against the BBC on the grounds of ageism. She had been removed from her position when the programme shifted to a prime-time slot in 2009 and replaced by younger personnel. Before her expulsion, suggestions had been made by producers that it might be ‘time for Botox’ to stamp out her wrinkles, especially in the age of high definition TV. She believed she was the victim of age discrimination. The employment tribunal members obviously agree

11 January 2011 |

Wikileaks & Julian Assange: Cyber-Activism or Cyber-Anarchism?

‘While all deception requires secrecy, all secrecy is not meant to deceive,’ wrote the Swedish-born philosopher and ethicist Sissela Bok. In terms of global news stories, this year may be remembered as the year of the whistleblower. The event that most dominated world headlines this year was probably the BP oil spill off the Florida coast. As BP struggled to find a way to limit environmental damage, whistleblowers leaked internal documents suggesting that the company was not keeping accurate records of how its rigs were built. This would make diagnosing and solving specific rig problems much harder. Meanwhile, another whistleblower accused BP of cheating when it tested equipment designed to prevent disastrous blowouts on its rigs. Whistleblowing wasn’t at the centre of this story, but it certainly made its presence felt. Whistleblowing was at the centre of a more recent story, which focused on accusations of impropriet

19 December 2010 |

Cold Snap - Our Opportunity To Throw Off A Culture Of Timidity

In today’s Britain, innovation and initiative are often held hostage by rule-keeping and a fear of failure. The inventive pioneer spirit that drove the great British entrepreneurs and social reformers of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries has often been replaced in both business and public services by an insidious culture of timidity. Britain's current cold snap, which is now predicted to last well into next week, has brought this mentality to the fore, revealing a slowness to innovate except where there is a rule to cover every contingency. In the past two weeks, temperatures have plummeted to -18°C in parts of England – and -21°C in Scotland – and snow has covered much of the north and east. This week, even where some of the snow has melted, ice, fog and heavy frosts have taken its place as temperatures remain unusually low. Since winter began, 1400 flights have been cancelled and 150,000 tons of snow had b

06 December 2010 |

The Royal Engagement - It's About A Marriage Not Just A National Party

‘Never get married in the morning,’ said Paul Hornung, ‘because you never know who you'll meet that night.’ Prince William has courted his bride-to-be Katherine Middleton for a decade and he clearly sees no need to meet anyone else. The forthcoming royal wedding is great news for the happy couple and represent a welcome shot in the arm for a nation that’s growing weary of its post-recession, austerity-era blues.

16 November 2010 |

Eurocrats Or Fat Cats? EU Administrators Are Not Leaders

It is no accident that ‘Eurocrat’ rhymes so nicely with ‘fat cat’. This week, Europe’s famously pampered bureaucratic classes have once again demonstrated why they’re the butt of many a derisive joke and jibe from Malmo to Malaga. I’m no died-in-the-wool Euroskeptic. In fact, having lived in both Scandinavia and the UK for the past 16 years, I believe in the basic European ideal. The EU is in my view a project worthy of support: it is, in many ways, the most audacious and ambitious project of governance ever devised. Still unproven in some areas, it has made progress and adds value in others. Yet as Europe climbs out of its worst downturn in at least three decades, EU administrators are about to go to court to protect a promised pay rise of 3.7 percent. The Council of Europe, made up of Ministers of member nations, has decided to reduce this to 1.8 percent. It doesn’t sound like much of an increase, until you le

28 October 2010 |

The Drama At Atacama: What Kept Chilean Miners Going

‘The story of [the Holocaust] survivors,’ wrote sociologist William Helmreich, ‘is not a story of remarkable people. It is a story of just how remarkable people can be.’ The same might be said, albeit in a very different context, of the 33 hardy Chilean miners who emerged from Hades this week. It may not quite match the sheer hold-your-breath daring of, say, the Apollo 11 lunar landing, but the rescue of these Chileans – and one Bolivian – will live long in our collective memory as one of humanity’s most daring feats. Their rescue, of course, would not have been possible without their own extraordinary demonstrations of resilience and courage. Above all else this is a story about the resilience of the human spirit. In an age where we’re prone to react with a passive ‘ho-hum’ to things that would have seemed awe-inspiring a generation ago – our technology, for example – this story r

14 October 2010 |

Gen-X Marks The Spot: Mid-Life Crises & Generational Change

Some wit once wrote that middle age is when work is a lot less fun and fun is a lot more work. If a new study is to be believed, British people are experiencing the classic symptoms of mid-life crises earlier than ever before. The concept of a mid-life crisis remains, for some people, a myth, the false construct of a society that’s become much too enamoured with youthfulness and self-analysis. For others, though, mid-life crises are very real and worrying. They mark the end of the joyous and sometimes painful journey of discovery that is young adulthood and the beginnings of an awareness of one’s own mortality.  The new report, released last week by the relationships advice charity Relate, found that for many Brits the years between their mid-30s to mid-40s are the unhappiest decade of life. This it said is the time when more people than average feel lonely or depressed.   For Relate, the

04 October 2010 |

Unsung Heroes, Like The Stig, Hold The Answer

They say you can tell a lot about a person by the questions he or she asks. I think that also applies to a community. Two weeks ago, newspaper headlines screamed, ‘Who Is the Stig?’ Some saw him as a modern-day Scarlet Pimpernel; a knight in white armour whose identity would never be revealed. Yet suddenly Top Gear’s very own Lone Ranger was about to be unmasked. In a week when we learned that 33 miners were trapped underground in Chile, it will have seemed frivolous to some that we should make such a fuss about a man who drives fast cars around in circles on TV.  Yet the story tells us something important about our society and what we value. In an age of rampant celebrity culture, there's something attractive to us about a man who signs on to join a global television phenomenon and yet remain anonymous.  In a book to be released this week, the driver, aka Ben Colli

12 September 2010 |

Is Teen Music Soft Porn?

The Italian composer Gioacchino Rossini once said that, ‘Every kind of music is good, except the boring kind.’ I wonder if he would respond the same way if he were taking part in the current debate on the over-sexualisation of music aimed at young teens. Today’s teen music industry may not be boring, but is it healthy? This question was raised again this week by Mike Stock, former pop impresario and the man responsible for launching the career of Kylie Minogue. Mr Stock is no longer the force in music production and promotion that he was in the 1980s when he was part of the influential triumvirate Stock, Aitken and Waterman. Yet his views still carry weight, coming as they do from someone who, in his time, was not averse to using sexuality – albeit a gentler kind – to sell his wares. 'The music industry has gone too far,’ he says. ‘These days you can

17 August 2010 |

Airbrushing Away the Self-Esteem of Young Girls

Judy Garland, something of a celebrity magazine favourite in her time, said: ‘Always be a first-rate version of yourself, instead of a second-rate version of somebody else.’ Sadly, Ms Garland fought a life-long battle against low self-esteem and in the end lost the fight. Her advice, though, is as timely today as in her own era – especially, it seems, for young girls. This week the Girl Guide movement in the UK presented a petition calling on the Prime Minister to set in motion legislation forcing magazines to identify airbrushed images. Their goal is to protect young girls from having their self-esteem eroded, by pictures that depict the ideal young woman as either super-thin or blemish-free. More than 20,000 girls signed the petition. It followed research by the Girlguiding UK website, which showed that 42 percent of girls aged 11 to 16 admitted dieting or cutting down on certain foods to improve their figu

06 August 2010 |

The Big Society - Needs National Citizen Service For The Aged

Any political party that has been out of power for more than 13 years will naturally want to bring with it a big idea when it next fills the government benches. For David Cameron and his Lib-Con marriage of inconvenience, that big idea is called the Big Society. In part, I suspect, the title represents an attempt to contrast the new regime with the Big Government ways of its predecessor. It is also, of course, a response to the urgent need for cuts in spending on social services – in the hope that, at the same time, at least some services might be maintained if not improved by volunteers. Whether or not the Big Project becomes more than just a grand idea will depend largely on three things. The first is whether the government can stay the course. In any enterprise or industry, it is always easier to launch something then to maintain it. This is especially true in government, where multiple

25 July 2010 |

The Age of Over-Reaction

The massive oil spill off America's Gulf Coast, the swine flu outbreak that never happened and the ongoing saga of football's World Cup are stories that may seem to have little in common. Yet, in some respects, though in varying degrees, each serves may serve as a lesson about our culture’s growing propensity for emotional over-reaction - at least, within some of the media coverage. Having spent the last month on a speaking tour of Australia and the US, I’ve watched World Cup matches with people of different cultures. There’s no doubt the game inspires powerful emotions the world over, even in nations not normally known for their love of soccer. World sporting events offer a form of catharsis, a diversion from the troubles of things like global financial crises. Letting off steam for a few weeks during a sporting tournament is a positive way of expressing latent patriotism. Events like the World Cup p

29 June 2010 |

Teen Pregnancy: Band-Aid Solutions vs. Real Hope

Following the release of Britain’s first TV commercial for abortion, new NHS guidelines recommend that pharmacies should offer the morning-after pill in advance of sexual interaction for people under the age of 25. More should be done, says the NHS report, to make teenagers in particular aware of the need for condoms and other forms of contraception in the prevention of sexually transmitted infections. Relying on easy access to condoms and morning-after pills to bring down the unacceptably high levels of teen pregnancy is like relying on a band-aid to reduce the spread of cancer. The government may think it is acting for prevention, but as long as it focuses on the mechanics of preventing pregnancy without talking openly about underlying relationship issues, any action will be largely cosmetic. Yes, using condoms will help keep pregnancy and STDs down, but it won’t dissuade very young people from having sex in the first place, which is surely the m

26 May 2010 |

Coalition Government: A Potential Model For Cohesion

In many ways, the value of Britain’s new governing coalition may be found not so much in the policies it adopts as in the symbolism it provides. There is much talk these days about the importance of social cohesion and inclusion, yet until now few in government have seemed to exemplify the types of attitudes and practices that are needed to produce it. We are living in the age of mass collaboration, which has been triggered by relatively recent developments in mass communication technologies. Ours is the generation of ‘we-think’, where cooperation is beginning to be valued as highly as competition, even in sections of the business community. During the recession, more than one study into consumer habits revealed that people no longer want to see themselves primarily as consumers, but as activists. They want to form relationships of mutuality, with companies and organizations which they trust to recycle some of what they spend into c

13 May 2010 |

Election By TV: Where's The Conviction?

The last of the political debates is done and dusted. The candidates have made their final pitches. The public will shortly register their votes – assuming, that is, they haven’t already seen too much politics and simply tune out on election-day. Some polls suggest Mr Cameron and Mr Clegg came out neck-and-neck, with both ahead of Mr Brown by a long way. Watching as I was in a travel-induced haze, having just stepped off a plane, I found Cameron the least tiresome and perhaps the clearest, though he has a habit of letting his impatience with others show a little too much. In him, some will see sincerity, others slickness. Clegg once again showed his smooth presentation skills, but his ‘old parties’ and ‘old politics’ jibes are past their use-by dates. He is, after all, as much a political animal as the others and his party has its roots in a long Parliamentary history. His complaints about ‘political point-sco

30 April 2010 |

Elections: Holding The Interest Of The Young

Political debates often constitute the second most boring form of television known to man. Pole position goes to the inevitable talk-fests, the post-mortems that follow the debates, where pundits get to play Simon Cowell (badly). This week, though, as Britain struggled to get airborne under a cloud of volcanic ash, an eruption of a different kind shifted an entire election landscape. And it all started with a political debate. It took just 90 minutes on the box for Nick Clegg to lift himself in the public mind from also-ran to serious contender for the highest office in the land. At least, that what the polls are telling us. There’s good reason to be wary of these particular polls. For one thing, the unusual popularity ratings following Mr. Clegg’s performance may owe something to the sheer novelty of holding the first TV leaders’ debate in British election history. Yet it seems th

21 April 2010 |

TV Debates: Good for Politics or Just for TV?

Going into last night's inaugural TV election debate, the big question seemed to be who of the three leaders would bottle it first.  Who would be the first to choke under pressure, to fluff their lines or appear either too aggressive or disengaged under the glare of the TV studio lights? However, after the hype of this first debate dies down, a much more important question will remain. On balance, will these debates be healthy for the election process in years to come? Doubtless, they are here to stay, in one form or another, but will British politicians and media outlets discover and develop a distinctly British approach? Or will we see politics turning more and more toward America for its models on how to connect with voters? Americans are very adept at incorporating razz matazz and star-power into their political process. This capacity for showmanship is more natural for them, more true to their heritage of public

16 April 2010 |

Persecution Of British Christians? Hardly

"Opposition," said George Eliot, "may become sweeter to a man when he has christened it persecution." According to the Daily Telegraph this week, some Christians in Britain may be doing just that, rebranding a sense of lost influence in the community as persecution. Paraphrasing comments made in a BBC Easter documentary, the Telegraph reported that, "Christians in Britain are feeling persecuted because of 'paradoxical' human rights laws and the ignorance of local councils." The programme's host, Nicky Campbell, was quoted as saying that while British Christians are not being tortured or killed as some in parts of the world, "a minority believes they are being sidelined and victimised [and] by the standards of a liberal society that can feel like persecution." It’s no exaggeration to say that on some issues within Britain's cultural life, traditiona

01 April 2010 |

TV: Will We Still Be Watching In 2020?

‘TV will save the world’ – so said the headline in this month's TIME magazine.  As a title for an editorial, this is of course pure hyperbole. Yet for all the criticism levelled at it, TV has proven a remarkably resilient medium since its commercial inception in the late 1930s. When TV was in its infancy, Daryl F. Zanuch, head of the Twentieth Century film studios, gave the new medium a big thumbs-down. ‘Television will not be able to hold any market it captures after the first six months,’ he said. ‘People will still soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night.’ Clearly, he had a vested interest in killing off any challenge to the power of his beloved cinema. Just as clearly, he got it wrong. Although TV is now facing its own threats from the Internet and portable digital media devices, it shows no signs of fading to black. In fact, as the TIME the article notes, in some parts of the world TV i

19 March 2010 |

Invictus - What Real Heroes Look Like

If you believe the news media hype, celebrating Oscar week has become an almost religious observance. It’s the week when actors, directors and technicians are feted like modern-day saints.   In interview after interview on the infamous red carpet even their most inane comments are played and replayed as if dripping with holy wisdom. In the midst of all the hype this year, one movie serves as a timely reminder of what real-life heroism looks like.   Invictus traces the lead up to the rugby World Cup in 1995, treating us along the way to a behind-the-scenes look at the early days of Nelson Mandela’s remarkable presidency.   Having visited the Robben Island prison where Nelson Mandela spent years breaking rocks in a limestone quarry, I found myself watching the movie with tears in my eyes just thinking about the remarkable character of the man.   <

06 March 2010 |

Sexualising Children - Too Old Too Fast

In a speech this week the Conservative Party leader David Cameron condemned the "inappropriate sexualisation" of children and said that youngsters must be protected from irresponsible advertising.   He promised that if elected to govern his party will give British children back their childhood.   "What we are saying is that you can't cut children off from the commercial world," he said, "but we should be able to help parents to make sure that our children get a childhood and that they are not subject to unnecessary and inappropriate commercialisation and sexualisation too young."   He outlined a series of proposals aimed at disciplining companies are step over the lines of propriety in targeting youngsters, particularly through their marketing. For example, he proposed that companies found to be acting in inappropriate ways toward children might have their ri

23 February 2010 |

Alcohol Abuse & Flimsy Re-Education Drives

The UK government's latest attempts to deal with the problem of alcohol abuse reflect a typically muddle-headed, ultra-liberal approach to dealing with social ills.   Having previously abolished long-established curfews on drinking in public places throughout England and Wales, the government is now spending £7 million on TV commercials which show the physical dangers of alcohol abuse.   In part, the ads are a response to rising alcohol-related admissions to hospital casualty departments. Leading medicos warned the government last year that up to 70 per cent of visits to casualty departments are now due to alcohol abuse.   The problem is especially acute among young people. Britain still has one of the highest rates of teen alcoholism in Europe.   Young people see the falling price of alcohol and its ready availability in supermarkets and clubs and assum

16 February 2010 |

Dissent At The Top Is Not Disloyalty

Several stories in the British media this week reflect the importance of healthy dissent in the process of public leadership.   This week, the Chilcot Inquiry into the circumstances surrounding Britain's entry into the Iraq war featured testimony from several key ministers in the Blair cabinet.    Among them, certainly the most outspoken, was former international development secretary Clare Short.   As I watched part of her testimony, it seemed to me that Ms Short is a person who would find team-work difficult at the best of times, a truly independent spirit who is determined to strike out on her own in most situations. She cannot have been easy to work with in a cabinet arrangement.   That said, her testimony revealed that in the lead up to the war any degree of dissent was unwelcome at the highest level of government.   

05 February 2010 |

Politics: Too Much Speed, Too Much Comment

If like me you have an interest in the background to major political stories, one book that’s been heavily publicised over the past week has much to commend it.   Like Primary Colours before it, Race of a Lifetime: How Obama Won the White House by Mark Halperin and John Heilermann purports to tell the behind-the-scenes tale of a fiercely fought US presidential campaign.   Unlike the earlier tome, this new one shuns any fictional veneer. It is, according to its authors, pure reportage based on eye-witness testimony from sources close to the candidates.   Judging from the reviews and excerpts I’ve read, the machinations of the campaign plotters – not to mention the sometimes histrionic behaviour of some candidates – provide the kind of back-story that Robert Harris might have used in his series on ancient Rome.   It’s

18 January 2010 |

Are We A Nation Of Wimps?

Has Britain become a nation of wimps? The question was put to me in a radio interview this week. It is one that I think may resonate with many people beyond these shores, in other affluent and industrialised nations. Are we less robust than our parents were? Are we more prone to buckle or complain under pressure, or to look for someone to blame when we’re faced with out-of-the-blue challenges? Much of Europe is enduring an unusually cold and threatening winter. Britain is in the midst of its worst cold spell for thirty years, with overnight temperatures in some places hitting a Siberian -15C. Snow and clear blue skies provide a brilliant change from grey and drizzle, but the unexpected freeze has closed thousands of schools and left drivers struggling to keep control on icy roads. This weekend, local authorities are facing renewed questions about the lack of grit on main roads and residential streets, with

09 January 2010 |

Binge Buying

Binge buying can be just as injurious to your health and family life as binge drinking. This is a lesson that, it seems, many Britons will learn the hard way over the next few months. Recession or not, research has revealed that UK shoppers spent more on debit and credit cards from December 19 to December 31 than they did in the same period last year. People spent an estimated one billion pounds online during the three days immediately after Christmas Eve. Apparently, people were still spending big on Christmas Day. Over the New Year holidays, many major stores in London and regional centres recorded increases of up to five times their sales compared to the same period last year. A couple of days back, my wife and I took a trip to one of Britain's leading shopping malls. It's an outdoor, year-round clearance venue for major brands. We went with a very specific goal: to replace a small bag which an airlin

03 January 2010 |

Copenhagen Climate Summit: Spin Over Substance

I love the city of Copenhagen. I know it well; our family lived there for almost 10 years. I was hoping during the Copenhagen "Cop 15" climate change summit to see some TV pictures of the city's picturesque townscape and wintry sparkle. Instead, all we got were shots of protestors being herded into corals by riot police and stand-up interviews with terribly earnest politicians declaring that they would save the world. In the end, of course, the Copenhagen summit has ended in confusion. The conference went beyond its intended finishing time as politicos went head-to-head in last-minute wrangling sessions. They were trying to salvage some dignity for the event and to present at least a semblance of some tangible agreement on capping CO2 emissions. To paraphrase Churchill, this event was a very good intention clothed in political spin, hyped by media, wrapped in uncertain scientific conclusions. A deb

19 December 2009 |

Climate Change - Herd Mentality?

Group polarization is a term well known to psychologists but little known outside their field of study. Yet it may prove to have particular significance during the climate change conference in Copenhagen. Group polarization describes what happens when people of strong views on any subject come together and discuss them. Almost invariably, the views of each individual member become more potent or even extreme; convictions become more entrenched and conclusions less open to question. It is, if you like, a form of 'herd instinct', a powerful expression of social conditioning, and events of the past few days suggest that eminent scientists are as susceptible to group polarization as the rest of us. A small storm erupted late last week with the release on the internet of the pirated e-mail correspondence of one of science's most respected advocates of climate warming. Professor Phil Jones is director of the climat

11 December 2009 |

Fall of Berlin Wall - Has Europe Learned Nothing

As Europeans remember and celebrate at this time the fall of the Berlin wall, it is worth reflecting not just on the failings of the old Europe with its long-standing divisions, but on the shape of the new one that has arisen in its place. With the fall of the wall, the world saw the end of a particularly evil form of tyranny. For generations, self-appointed national leaders denied their countrymen and women the basic rights to travel and migrate as they wished and to lead prosperous and self-determined lives whilst at home. They had grown so hardened to public opinion and disdainful of the basic intelligence of their citizenry that they lived as a law unto themselves. When so-called Reality TV programmes like Big Brother were at their height of popularity, I often wondered why people thought their basic premise was such a novel idea. Locking people behind high walls, training cameras on them and encouraging them to manipulate each oth

10 November 2009 |

The BNP - Why Would One Fifth Of Britain Look Again

The furore surrounding BNP leader Nick Griffin's appearance on Question Time last week was followed by the stunning news that, in a poll taken after the BBC programme, a full 22 percent of Britons would now 'seriously consider' voting for the BNP in a future election. A percentage of these people, I think, would have been reacting to the way the TV programme was structured. Some viewers would have found the programme unsettling not so much because it revealed Griffin's fascist views - these had been well publicised and castigated by the press for months - but because panelists and moderator alike seemed intent on doing nothing more than publicly humiliating the BNP leader. Although there were revealing moments, the 'debate' was more about heat than light. Trying to use broadcasting as some kind of substitute for public lynching is dangerous. For one thing, it carries with it the possibility that the audience

25 October 2009 |

Consumer Revolution - The New Rules for Involving People

A sea change is taking place in consumer attitudes during the recession. Consumers no longer want to be simply consumers; they want to be given the opportunity to become activists. They also want to feel a greater sense of personal connectedness with the companies they deal with in everyday life. Recently, I was invited to offer radio, TV and press comment on a survey undertaken by one of Britain's leading healthcare providers. The UK-wide study highlighted the dissatisfaction many customers feel with the level of attention they're receiving – especially from banks, utilities and health and other service providers. The study, conducted by the Benenden Healthcare Society, showed that almost 14 million people have either changed or considered changing their bank, healthcare or utility provider in the past year because they didn't feel they were ‘getting anything back’ from the relationship. Among other things, it

27 September 2009 |

Super Snoop Nation

Will the UK become a nation of super-snoopers? If the designers of a new internet enterprise have their way, Britain may become what some privacy advocates are calling a 'snooper's paradise'. Under the Internet Eyes scheme, computer owners within Britain - and later, the designers hope, around the world - will be able to view life feeds from security cameras and report suspected criminal activity. Marrying the security angle with the attractions of online gaming, the designers will allow watchers to compete for points and win cash prizes when they accrue a high enough score, based on successful crime identifications. The scheme, which will roll out next month in Stratford-upon-Avon, will target shops and other businesses, but the designers hope to see it used more widely - with CCTV cameras owned by the police and local authorities. On the face of it, such a scheme seems to offer a solution to what has become a real dilemma for t

10 August 2009 |

Harry Patch - Time To Honour Old Age

The laying to rest today of Harry Patch, Britain's oldest man and the last surviving member of its World War I armed services, ought to remind us again about the importance of honouring the elderly - and, perhaps, respecting the ageing process itself. Robert Browning said that the last of life is the best of life. Many people would disagree. When most of us look at the loneliness and the physical if not psychological diminishment that comes with old age, we'd give almost anything to avoid it. Many of us think like John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist church, who prayed: ‘Lord, don't let me live to be useless.’ Life expectancies have grown dramatically in much of the developed world over the past fifty or so years, yet we still seem largely unable or unwilling to confront the challenge of growing old. In fact, while some cultures honour the aged, postmodern Western culture seems to have taken on a pre-disposition against them. Th

06 August 2009 |

Human Trafficking The New Slavery

Human trafficking is one of the greatest human rights challenges of our time. Millions of people worldwide suffer in silence, in slave-like conditions of forced labour and sexual exploitation. In the West, the trade in slaves was outlawed in the early 1800s. Yet the modern scourge of human trafficking is no less a form of slavery than the one endured by Africans and others, at the hands of wealthy merchants and landowners, two hundred years ago. Human trafficking not only represents a putrid stain on humanity’s moral record; it is also one of the fastest growing areas of international crime. Sadly, it is also one of the most lucrative. Worldwide, people traffickers will make between seven and nine billion dollars every year in profit, with very little outlay at all. In fact, some crime syndicates are now switching their cargo from drugs to human beings, because the latter offers much higher potential profits. It’s difficul

08 July 2009 |

Michael Jackson Passes - Echoes of Elvis

The news that singer Michael Jackson died early Thursday afternoon at his Los Angeles home, has predictably sent shock waves through the world of pop celebrity. It has also provoked a tidal wave of responses in the Twittersphere and blogosphere. Michael, of course, transcended the borders of his musical genre because he was an innovator, a pusher of boundaries in musical terms. Sadly, his celebrity in latter years became more a matter of various troubles, such as the charges of child molestation brought against him and, latterly, problems relating to money as his album sales dropped.  On the basis of his uncertain health alone, even his biggest fans were unsure whether Michael would be successfully mount the ambitious series of concerts planned for London this year. In some ways, Michael's celebrity trajectory is unique; in others it follows an all too familiar pattern. On some levels, it seems to parallel the life arc of another king of p

26 June 2009 |

Ending Poverty One Person At A Time

A few years ago, at a Make Poverty History rally, Nelson Mandela said: 'Sometimes, it falls upon a generation to be great. You can be that great generation.' I recently interviewed Dr Tony Campolo for a new TV series. Campolo is a respected sociologist and author and professor of sociology at Eastern University in Pennsylvania. A former advisor to President Bill Clinton, he is widely recognized as a leading advocate and campaigner on social justice issues. I put it to him that making poverty history sounds good, but that for many people it remains little more than a noble dream, given the size of the problem. His response was characteristically succinct: with the enormous reserves of wealth still held within the developed world and the forces of globalisation and digitisation in media, we are the first generation in history which could realistically put an end to poverty. There are, of course,

19 June 2009 |

Susan Boyle & The Celebrity Machine - When Will We Learn?

Celebrity strikes again! Today's sad news that Susan Boyle, popular runner-up in the latest series of Britain's Got Talent, has been admitted to The Priory suggests yet again that celebrity culture is not all the hype suggests it to be. Ms Boyle is apparently suffering from the extreme pressure of performing and dealing with the public's interest in her life. When will we learn that the hyped-up publicity and bubble-like lifestyle that accompany modern celebrity are not particularly healthy, emotionally or psychologically for any human being caught in its glare? Yes, there are many who deal with the impact of celebrity better than Ms Boyle seems to be able to do at present, and we can only hope that she will have all the support she needs to see her way through this period. But let's face it, the entire celebrity machine is set up not for the benefit of the performer, but in order to sell 'units' for

01 June 2009 |

Family Requires Responsibility

This week has been, unofficially at least, designated the week of the family in Britain. The promoters of National Family Week, the London-based Henley Media Group, say they aim to "encourage families to play, learn, eat, read, compete and - most importantly - spend quality time together." Recent stories in the media suggest that this kind of emphasis is well overdue. We are reminded on a regular basis that the UK has the highest rate of teen pregnancy in Europe and one of the highest rates of abortion. We constantly hear or read stories about youth stabbings and other problems associated with social breakdown in our major cities. Many of these can be traced back to what one British judge called, "a period of family meltdown whose effects will be as catastrophic as the melt down of the ice caps." One story released last week ought to make us think seriously about the status of famil

25 May 2009 |

Where Have All The Leaders Gone?

What has happened to leadership in public life? Years ago, in the classic TV series Yes Minister, the often smug but always entertaining civil servant Sir Humphrey Appleby remarked that, "in administration there are no ends, only means." This is why, he said, people speak of "government circles". In times like these, where society faces multiplied challenges and real or perceived threats - everything from swine flu to unemployment and mortgage failures - people need leadership. Yet leadership seems to be in precious short supply. What are people offered in its place? Management and administration - most of it poorly executed at that. In the UK over this past week we've seen wave after wave of media revelations about widespread abuses of the expenses system available to parliamentarians. What we've learned is that the system, set up by and for politicians,

17 May 2009 |

Swine Flu - Fear Is A Bigger Contagion

The outbreak of swine flu in a number of nations worldwide is rightly a cause for concern. But it is not yet a cause for wide-spread anxiety. The threat is real. Yet this situation is already showing signs of morphing into yet another example of the science and politics of fear. Whatever we do to take action against swine flu, we must also guard against the panic or malaise that sustained fear brings. Cases of infection have surfaced in countries as far apart as New Zealand, China and Israel. Around the world, governments and health authorities are trying to curtail the spread of the disease, by discouraging travel to affected areas and providing fast-track support to laboratories that are looking for an antidote. Of course, this is the right response to a threat that may (I stress may) reach pandemic proportions. The 1914 Spanish flu, a variant of the H1N1 virus we now face, killed between 20 and 100 million people, de

29 April 2009 |

ID Theft Costs Just 50p - 6 Ways To Stay Safe.

News today that criminals are buying personal identities for as little as 50 pence, should come as no great surprise. In an age where almost everything from cash to family contact is being digitised, it’s not hard to see, within the digital revolution, opportunities for scams large and small. According to a new study on Internet security, fraudsters can now buy your credit card details, your name, address and date of birth for less than the cost of a can of coke. Data collected from over 200 countries showed 349.6 billion spam messages were sent in 2008, a 192 percent increase on the previous year. In the midst of all this, more and more people are handing over details of their identities to criminals, via phishing websites. These are designed to mirror trustworthy web pages, and users are fooled into giving away their username, password and even bank details. There are no guarantees of absolute security, but are there ways

14 April 2009 |

Earthquakes, G20, Jade Goody - Why We Still Need Easter

Three news stories from the past week remind us why Easter should remain a sacred and special season, even in today's highly secularised page. The devastating earthquake in Italy this week reminded us that our collective fate is profoundly impacted by natural events beyond our control. The recent bushfires in Victoria, Australia -- the state of my birth - inevitably point us to the same conclusion. Futurists sometimes speak of events like these as wildcards -- low probability, high impact events that are potential game-changers in terms of their impact on human society. Historically, our standard of living has reached unprecedented levels, yet we remain somewhat vulnerable beings living in exposed outposts, reliant on nature's goodwill for survival. This past week, much has also been said and written about the G20 Summit in London. Major world leaders took to the stage to smile for the cameras

09 April 2009 |

G20 Summit - A Potential Mandela Moment

When Nelson Mandela arrived on Robbin Island to begin his long prison sentence, he was taken to the limestone quarries where his fellow inmates spent their days in meaningless physical labour. Realising that many of his co-prisoners had the education level of a primary school child, Mandela made one of his greatest pronouncements as a leader. "We must turn this limestone pit into our university," he said. Mandela knew that one of the core responsibilities of leadership, and one of its most powerful effects, is to inspire confidence in people -- especially in difficult times, when confidence seems hard to find. There are parallels with the current recession. The cornerstones of a modern economy are not found in metrics, corporate spreadsheets or government targets; they are found in human emotion, and particularly feelings of confidence. You can digitize money, but you c

01 April 2009 |

Jade Goody - The Ups and Downs of Celebrity Culture

Newspapers and media outlets across the UK this week have been filled with news and comment surrounding the death of Jade Goody. In almost every story, she is referred to as 'reality TV star Jade Goody'. In one sense, this is natural, as it was through the Big Brother series that the public first became aware of this largely uneducated, yet obviously ambitious and clever young woman. It is right for us to mourn the passing of such a young person, someone who so obviously connected with the aspirations and challenges faced by other people. And if the coverage following her death raises awareness about the risks of cancer, this is something we should welcome. However, we should also pause to take stock of the possible downsides of celebrity culture. As a society, we should think long and hard about where the culture of celebrity is leading us - and our children. There is no doubt that celebrity can be

25 March 2009 |

Julie Myerson Story - Are 'Liberal' Values Failing Us?

Last week, a British mother spoke publicly and passionately about the pain caused by her son's cannabis addiction. Julie Myerson was indirectly promoting her new book, The Lost Child, which deals with her family's struggle. Yet she was also giving voice to feelings and situations faced by many other parents today. Her story has sparked all manner of debates in the media, many of them about the dangers of cannabis use – particularly skunk, a greatly strengthened form of the drug. Other discussions have revolved around the use of ‘tough love’ in trying to help distressed teens. Any parent who has raised a troubled child knows something of the pain these Ms Myerson and her partner have been through. Parents whose children have grown up without this particular kind of trauma can nonetheless empathise about how difficult it can be to balance parental discipline with trust. Parenting is arguably one of life'

09 March 2009 |

Children As Parents - Baby Maisie, Celebrity Culture and Fewer Marriages.

Two children, aged 13 and 15, have become parents in a story that is now receiving maximum exposure across the British media. Baby Maisie was born to Alfie and Chantelle, who claim that they are in love and happy to take responsibility to raise their child. Perhaps there are unexpected links between this sad story, set in a relatively poor housing estate, and two other reports that emerged last week. In one, Jade Goody, the former reality-TV contestant, announced that she has agreed to sell photographs of her last months of life to the media. Having been diagnosed with terminal cancer, she says that she needs the money for the future support of her children. At the moment, photos of Ms Goody look relatively normal, but that won't be the case for long. The last stages of terminal cancer are not "a pretty picture". She may feel that her motives are pure; she may feel she has no the options when it comes to leaving somethi

16 February 2009 |

From Zero to Hero: Young People Appreciate Their Parents at 22

A British poll published recently suggests that young people only really begin to appreciate their parents when they reach the ripe old age of 22. Some parents of teenagers will find this disheartening, to say the least. I can almost hear mums and dads across the land screaming, ‘Surely we can expect some respect before then?!’ I was invited to address this issue on the BBC TV’s Breakfast programme and I discovered that many people were surprised by the study’s findings. As the father of three young adult children, aged between 19 and 24, I think I might know what this poll is actually suggesting. It’s not necessarily saying that teenagers don’t appreciate their parents. It is reflecting a fairly normal change that occurs in all of us somewhere between the end of the teen years and the beginning of adulthood. For most of one’s teenage life, the focus of the mind is firmly on oneself. A certain degree of self-cent

11 February 2009 |

Hybrid Stem Cell Research: A Step Too Far

A group of researchers in the UK have been denied further funding for their stem cell research which involves the creation of human-animal "hybrid" clones. Funding bodies are refusing to underwrite the research, though they have not explicitly outlined the reasons for doing so. The stem cell researchers believe that certain factions within the decision-making bodies, which include fellow scientists, are refusing support on moral grounds. It is not the response of researchers that I find baffling here, but that of a mainstream newspaper. At least one British newspaper, The Independent, expresses incredulity, pointing out that refusing funding may cause Britain to lose her place as a world leader in stem cell research. I say, fine, let's lose our place if staying number one means crossing the line between expediency and wisdom. The attitude expressed by this particular newspap

16 January 2009 |

Needed: Leadership for Uncertain Times

The December 29 edition of TIME Magazine notes that, "Just like its banks and its carmakers, America's shattered confidence is in serious need of a bailout." After interviewing President-elect Barack Obama, the magazine notes that, "'Yes, we can' is both an affirmation of optimism and the essential claim of the competent." Competence and optimism are two of the most important aspects of leadership - especially in times like these, where executives, managers and the general work-force face great uncertainty and tough economic choices. Competence and confidence are not the only aspects of leadership, but they are the most needed in difficult seasons. In many ways, confidence comes out of competence, both personally and corporately. People will never overcome great challenges unless they are surrounded by a culture of confidence; unless they work in an environment where success is celebrated

28 December 2008 |

God Rest Ye Merry Salesmen

God rest ye Merry Salesmen, Cash registers are still. Consumer spending's down this year, It seems a bitter pill. Receivership, reduncancies, just who will foot the bill? No tidings of comfort and joy, Comfort and joy, No tidings of comfort and joy... From Wall St and the City came The source of your dismay: The gamblers and mishandlers Have frittered funds away. The credit crunch is biting hard, just who can save the day? No tidings of comfort and joy, Comfort and joy, No tidings of comfort and joy. Long time ago and far away, In times much worse than these, A prophet's voice was heard to cry 'You cannot build your dreams… On piles of sand for they will never hold you in a squeeze.' No tidings of comfort and joy, Comfort and joy, No tidings of comfort and joy. God rest ye Merry Gent

24 December 2008 |

Assisted Dying: Is It Really So Merciful?

In the face of the very real suffering endured by people in pain, some commentators have called assisted dying an act of mercy. But is it really the most humane response to suffering and where will it lead in future generations? Tonight, the respected BBC Panorama programme looks into the vexed question of whether or not an individual should have a legally sanctioned right to choose the moment of their death.   The programme will to look in particular at the experience and views of Margo MacDonald, a Scottish politician who has a personal interest in assisted dying.   Ms MacDonald is described by the BBC as 'one of Scotland's most popular public figures - a firebrand, independent politician and forthright media commentator.'   Sadly, this gifted woman has Parkinson's disease, a degenerative condition of the brain, and she would like to be given the r

08 December 2008 |

AIDS: What Can We Do?

It's been said that the number of people dying of AIDS represents the equivalent of 20 fully loaded 747s crashing every single day for a year. At least 33 million people are alive with HIV and perhaps another 43 million have already perished from AIDS. AIDS is the biggest health problem the world has ever faced. Having just marked World AIDS Day once again, it's worth us each stopping to consider the scale of this tragic disease - and to consider what we as individuals might be able to do to alleviate the problem. But when the headlines reflect such a massive worldwide problem, it's easy to feel overwhelmed; it's easy to raise our hands in despair and say, "What can I possibly do to alleviate a problem that's become so huge?" The World Health Organisation's 2004 report said that: "HIV/AIDS may not be curable, but it is certainly preventable and treatable." At one point Uga

02 December 2008 |

What The New President Must Do

Finally, after the longest pre-election race in US history, the world knows the identity of the next incumbent to the American presidency. Barack Obama will become the forty-fourth US president and the first African-American to hold that high office. He is also, at the age of forty-seven, the first member of the so-called Generation X to fill that role - but more on that shortly. President elect Obama will take office at a time of great uncertainty in his nation. It faces a debt of something like one trillion dollars, is fighting a war on two fronts and is almost certainly approaching a recession. On top of all this, its currency of moral influence in the world has taken a battering over the past few years, as news of abuses of POWs and questions about the legality of the Iraq war have dominated news cycles. In a radio interview this morning, I was asked what I thought of the fear and apprehension some people a

06 November 2008 |

Financial Crisis: A Time For Caution, Not Fear

This is undoubtedly a time for caution and reassessment; but it is not a time for crippling fear. The cover of this week's European edition of TIME screams 'London's Sinking', with a warning that the global economic crisis threatens to 'overwhelm' Europe's financial capital. Meanwhile, trillions (yes, trillions) of dollars have been wiped off the value of stocks and shares worldwide in the past week or so. One TV financial advisor says that we've seen two big emotions in all of this market turmoil, greed and fear. 'We've seen the greed over the past five years,' he adds, 'now we're seeing the fear - and the fear is much worse.' Caution is always healthy - it encourages wariness even in the good times and reappraisal during the tough times. Being cautious allows us to keep a watchful eye not only on the external environment of our lives, but on the inner world of our own priorities and attitudes. These attitudes in turn shape so much of

11 October 2008 |

Credit Crunches, Greed & Discontentment - What Can We Learn?

Credit crunches and bank collapses – is there anything of practical use that you and I can learn from the rapid downturn in Western economies? International governments have been doing their best to salvage their fragile economies, which have been teetering on the brink of disaster. The British Government came up with two rescue packages to nationalise the Northern Rock bank and, more recently, The Bradford and Bingley bank. Meanwhile, the US Government has been looking for billion dollar solutions to prop up its ailing economy after the collapse of several major Wall Street firms. Other banks in Europe have also been showing signs of sickness. Most of us don't breathe the rarefied air of the corporate big wigs of Wall Street or the Square Mile in London. We’re left scratching our heads and wondering what all the economic turmoil means for our futures. Why should the tax payer, we ask, foot the bill for the misdeeds of reckless mone

29 September 2008 |

Porn Is A Poison

The Swiss police have this week broken up an online child pornography ring operating in at least four countries. It seems now that hardly a week goes by when we're not confronted with stories about pornography, and its links with paedophilia and other forms of sex abuse. Some social commentators say that the growth of the porn industry reflects the breakdown in western culture - and a threat to human health. Yet many people who expose themselves to porn see it as nothing more than a pleasurable pastime. Who's right? Once upon a time, pornography was something pedalled under the counter by people you didn't want to know. Today, porn is big business. Porn movies, for example, cost a fraction of the budget of a major Hollywood release and the US industry releases around 10,000 new titles each year. The Internet revolution of the 90s opened up huge new opportunities for the distribution of porn. E

04 September 2008 |

Immigration - Benefit Or Burden?

One of the architects of the modern EU, Francois Mitterand, once said: "I'm afraid that when Europe's body is reunited it may lose its soul." Some people feel that is happening right now -- and that immigration is largely to blame. Immigration has been called the most potent political issue in Europe today. It can certainly be a very emotive one. On one side, there are people who argue for a very open handed approach to immigration. On the other are people who call for tighter immigration laws because, they claim, immigration may bring higher levels of crime or jeopardise traditional values. Yesterday, the Daily Mail newspaper reported that according to Government experts, 'The soaring birth rate among immigrant mothers will soon become the main driver of Britain's rapid population growth.' 'Immigration,' said the newspaper, 'has been the biggest factor in increasing the population in recent years, and w

23 August 2008 |

Political Correctness - Can You Legislate Tolerance?

Hardly a week goes by anywhere in the developed world without us reading in the press something or other about the forces of political correctness. In many places, just saying the words 'political correctness' can get you into some frightful debates, inspiring some really passionate reactions even from normally placid people! Nobody is too sure where the term "political correctness" came from, though there are versions of it in the early Communist rhetoric of both Russia and China. It referred to something that was politically "on message". Later it found its way into left-leaning publications in the West, particularly in the 1970s and 80s. In some places today political correctness has become an umbrella term that's used to justify everything from banning Punch and Judy shows, for fear that they might encourage domestic violence, to outlawing Christmas decorations in city streets, so as not to offend people o

18 July 2008 |

London's Gangs - More Support For Families Needed

Last week, yet another teenager died as a result of gang-related violence in London - the eighteenth this year. An Independent on Sunday investigation suggested that almost 14,000 people a year are injured in knife attacks. Some authorities believe the number may be much higher, because many people do not report their injuries for fear of reprisals. In gangs, like mobs, people will often do things they may never do on their own. In the UK, gangs are made up most often of boys or young men, aged 12-15 or 12-18, drawn mostly from the same or similar ethnic groups. And gangs are by nature extremely territorial. Members will do almost anything - even commit murder - to protect an area, street or neighbourhood that they call their own. For some young people, gangs represent excitement, risk, adventure. For others, they provide protection and belonging: there's prestige in wearing the gang's colours. For some,

07 July 2008 |

Youth Violence & Gangs - A Public Health Issue

Some authorities have called youth violence a public health issue, because it's like a virus that spreads from child to child. Yesterday, I stood outside the Damilola Taylor Centre in Peckham, London and pondered again how we could have come to a situation where, in some European cities, violence by and against teenagers has reached chronic proportions. We were filming a TV documentary on youth violence and the gang problem. It seemed fitting to stand near where, just a few years ago, young Damilola had bled to death after being attacked in a block of high-rise flats. Sadly, Damilola hasn't been the last victim of youth violence in the area, which some people are now calling 'England's Bronx.' In the UK, one in six children say they've been hit, punched or kicked on the streets - and 7% say they've been attacked with a weapon of some kind. 60% say they've witnessed violence or bullying between young people. Meanwhile, one st

28 June 2008 |

Irish No Vote - EU Leaders Must Act Like Leaders

On Thursday of last week, the voters of Ireland sent waves of discomfort and confusion through the ranks of the EU establishment in Brussels. They voted a resounding 'no' to the ratification of the treaty which replaced the earlier constitutional treaty, which was rejected by French and Dutch voters. Well, some will say, it was Friday the 13th after all - so what can you expect but bad news? But it's arguably likely that the same result would have occurred whatever the date of the vote. The EU bangs on all the time about championing the cause of democracy, the popular vote and the involvement of the electorate in decision-making. It's time for the EU to put its political will where its mouth has been. It's time for it to not only listen to the people, but to be seen to be listening to the people. Some important lessons need to be drawn from this experience. If the European experiment is to succeed in the long

17 June 2008 |

Your Privacy - Guard It Or Lose It

Is there any such thing as a "private citizen" any more? In an age of ID theft and vastly increased public surveillance, is privacy dead? These were among the questions put to me in a radio interview this morning. There's no doubt that, if we are to live in a safe and lawful society, we will need to compromise some aspects of our privacy - especially as the potential for technology-based crime increases. Most of us are willing to pay such a price to enjoy the benefits of a globalised, interconnected consumer society. However, we are concerned when we read how anti-terrorism laws and the like are used to "spy" on innocent citizens, as happened recently with a UK Borough Council. We're also worried about how new digital technologies are allowing governments to move from limited surveillance to mass surveillance of entire populations. High-powered CCTV cameras, biometric systems and computer inter

14 May 2008 |

Austrian Captives - Symptom Of Disconnected Society?

People across Europe read with alarm yesterday's news that a woman in Austria, had been held captive in a basement by her father for twenty-four years. In that time she was raped repeatedly so that she bore him seven children, one of whom died. The woman was in her early twenties when she was locked in the four-roomed basement. Now in her forties, she apparently opened up to police only when she was assured she would never see her father again. The man, now in his seventies, is now being held by police. Perhaps the most tragic part of this story is that nobody in the area knew what was going on. Even within the house itself, three of the children lived on the upper floors, and had been told that their mother had run off years ago, leaving their grandfather to care for them. These three went to school each day totally oblivious to the tragedy unfolding just below their feet. One man, identified by A

28 April 2008 |

Privacy And Surveillance - Council Spies On Family

Last week, a minor furore erupted in the UK's media, when a borough council in Dorset admitted to spying for two and a half weeks on a family within their region. The council's representatives were trying, they said, to ascertain whether the family were telling the truth about the school catchment area in which they claimed to live. In the UK, as in other parts of the world, school places - especially in more desirable schools - are allocated according to a predetermined zone of habitation. In this case, when the family first applied for their child to enter the school of their choice, they were living within the proper zone. Then, before their child started attending school, they moved two miles outside of the zone. They were doing nothing illegal ('playing the system' may not be totally honest, but it isn't a crime). Yet their movements were tracked using technologies and systems set up to track and trap terrorists

15 April 2008 |

Bridgend Suicides - Reading The Warning Signs & Helping A Friend

The suicide deaths of 17 teenagers in and around Bridgend, Wales, since January 2007 has put the ugly subject of suicide back in the headlines across the UK and Europe as a whole. It’s an ugly and heartbreaking subject because of the tragedy of wasted young lives, and the mess of shame, anger and recrimination suicide leaves with families and friends. Psychologists and others in the region are looking for reasons as to why this spate of suicides is happening. Theories abound; including the idea – as yet unproven – that they are somehow directly linked via the Internet. There may be sociological and even economic factors involved in suicide cases, but the bottom line is that nobody commits suicide who feels they have sufficient reason to live. In the end, as one writer put it, suicide is the ‘ultimate disconnection’; the ultimate expression of pointlessness. For some, it

25 February 2008 |

Sir David Attenborough – “Why I Don’t Mention God”

The natural historian Sir David Attenborough this week explained why he does not mention God in his award-winning TV programmes. The revered presenter of such groundbreaking series as "The Living Planet" and producer of the classic "Life on Earth", told The Times: "I tend to think of an innocent little child sitting on the bank of a river in Africa, who's got a worm boring through his eye that can render him blind. "Now, presumably you think this Lord created this worm, just as he created the hummingbird. I find that rather tricky." Attenborough has, of course, touched on one of the great dilemmas facing people who believe in God -- and perhaps particularly Christians, who believe that God is love. How can a wise, just and above all compassionate God allow a situation in which such injustice can occur?

23 January 2008 |

Britney Spears & Co – Keeping Your Kids Away from the Celebrity Trap

How can you keep your kids from falling in love with the celebrity ideal? If you're a parent, and especially if you have teenagers, you will have asked this question along the way. A few years ago, a European survey of young adults asked, ‘What would make you most happy in life?’ The number one response was: ‘I’d be truly happy if I could be famous.’ When asked the follow-up question, ‘famous for what?’, the answer was usually, ‘It doesn’t matter … just famous for anything.’ The New Year has hardly dawned and already we’re reminded about the ‘dark side’ of celebrity. Britney Spears, once the highest selling female artist on the planet, has lost the legal right to see her own children because of her desperate and perhaps despairing behaviour. Sadly, this very talented but troubled young woman has been on a downward sp

08 January 2008 |

Here's a New Year's Resolution Worth Making

This week, I interviewed for TV my friend and fellow pioneer spirit, Steve Chalke, MBE. In the minds of many people, myself included, Steve is one of the leading community activists of our time. He’s no slouch when it comes to getting things done, which is why people like me want to interview him in the first place. One of his comments resonated with me in a special way. "Vision,” he said, “is the same thing as frustration.” He went on to explain himself, but I haven’t yet seen even the raw footage from the interview so I can't share his response verbatim. T hankfully, he covered this point in a recent book entitled Change Agents: 25 Hard Learned Lessons in the Art of Getting Things Done. He explains it this way: “Vision is longing for what it is not yet; frustration is the inevitable result of longing for what is not yet. You can’t have one w

22 December 2007 |

Missing UK Child Benefits Data - An Abuse Of Trust

Trust: how would we survive without it? Trust is central to every level of human relationships -- from the most intimate personal relationships, to the more tenuous links between governments and their citizens. As the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh celebrated their sixtieth wedding anniversary, the story of their long marriage provided a powerful testimony to the benefits of trust. They must have worked hard to build the trusting commitment they now enjoy, and their example feels inspirational in a world of so much divorce. Sadly, on the very day of their anniversary, people across Britain began to hear news of a terrible example of the abuse of trust and what it can do to the fabric not just of relationships but of society. The British government announced yesterday that personal records of 25 million people have been exposed to the risk of ID fraud, through the mishandling of sensitive data CDs.

21 November 2007 |

Finnish School Shooting: Helping The Young Find A 'First Life' Before They Lose Themselves In SecondLife.

The chilling murder this week of five students, a nurse and a volunteer teacher in a small-town Finnish school, should give us pause to think, about the challenges facing European young people generally. I have visited Finland more than a few times over the past decade, meeting with community leaders and speaking to audiences which have included many teenagers. Violence is a very real possibility in any community, but having written about school shootings in the USA, I never thought I’d be addressing such a thing in rural Finland. Finland is famous for Nokia and Formula One racing drivers. It is better known for saunas than shootings. Generally speaking, Finnish people are carefree, outgoing and friendly in the long days of summer; then quietly stoic during the dark days of winter, when sunlight is hard to find. Their standard of living is one of the highest in the world and their education system enjoys some of the highest

11 November 2007 |

Abortion - This Generation's 'Slavery'?

Having recently celebrated the life and work of William Wilberforce, some religious leaders have called abortion-on-demand the 'new slavery'; the human rights issue that will define our generation's place in history. It is forty years since abortion became legal in Britain. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams, has warned that abortion is increasingly being seen as the easy option for women, perhaps just another form of contraception. In the process, he says, British people risk losing sight of the sanctity of life. This last statement is supported by the fact that some notable supporters of a lower legal age limit for abortion are also vocal campaigners for voluntary euthanasia. In 1967, when the act legalising abortion was passed, says Dr. Williams, 'what people might now call their "default position" was still that abortion was a profoundly undesirable thing and that a universal presumption

30 October 2007 |

The Madeleine McCann Story – Confusing Reality for Reality TV

The McCanns: guilty or not guilty? If ever we needed proof that our culture has blurred the lines between reality and reality TV, this is it. A little girl has been missing for 150 days, apparently snatched from her bed while she slept. Meanwhile, some media pundits and members of an overtaxed police force feed off – or fend off -- each other, trying to protect their respective reputations. We don't yet know what happened to little Madeleine on that summer's night in a quiet corner of Portugal. Indeed, we don't honestly know whether her parents are guilty of any crime or not. But we do know that sections of the Portuguese police and the international media have added to the emotional turmoil of Madeleine’s parents, all for the sake of reputation. The most unsettling aspect of this whole affair is that it involves, on the one hand, a police task force that is desperate to find a c

26 September 2007 |

Elvis - A Lesson In Celebrity

The thirtieth anniversary this week of the death of Elvis Presley gives the world again an opportunity to reflect on the challenges and dangers of celebrity. The son of poor parents in America's segregated South, Elvis began to experiment with new forms of musical expression - new, at least, for a white boy - at a time when a global phenomenon was being born. For the first time in history, teenagers, particularly those in America, had disposable income to spend as they wished. Weary of war and upheaval, their parents wanted for them a quality of life they themselves had not enjoyed as young people. Wherever there is money, there are creative marketers to help people spend it. In the fifties, young people were invited to spend their money on 'teenage' movies, passtimes and all manner of new toys, such as the roller skate, the surfboard and so on. Above all else, the teenage boom was impacted by new forms of music

17 August 2007 |

Live Earth – Beware Global Warming Overload

This weekend sees the launch of the global ‘Live Earth’ concerts, run on seven continents and featuring 150 artists. Fronted by former US Vice President and now ‘eco-warrior’ Al Gore, the concerts will feature past and present hit-makers, streamed live to the world. Scientists in many fields agree that we’ve got to change the way we use the earth’s finite resources. We have to find new ways to fuel the lifestyles and industries of tomorrow. In a recent TV film, I looked at this issue of fuelling the future and discussed the viability of some of the current alternatives to traditional fuels. The big question is, not whether we should be concerned about the environment, but how will we fuel the future without destroying the environment? And how can we do this without turning the important issue of global environmental change into just another political footbal

07 July 2007 |

Blair Departs - A Reflection on Leadership

Today I rode in a cab past the Palace of Westminster just as Tony Blair was closing his final Prime Minister’s Question Time, and bidding farewell to ten years as premier of Britain. A few minutes earlier we had passed Buckingham Palace, where news crews were already setting up to cover the arrival of Mr. Blair for his final audience with the Queen; just before Gordon Brown would arrive to be asked to head the government. The British media have been talking about this day for a long while. Of course, as you’d expect in a vibrant democracy, many people have been hoping for an end to the Blair era for years. Despite the misgivings of many, though, he had still managed to win three terms in government, a feat never before achieved by a Labour leader. Later in the day, I arrived in Paris, where the French have recently seen a change of personnel at the top, with President Sarokozy commencing his term in office. As these leadership changes t

27 June 2007 |

The Big Donor Show -- Unnecessary Hoax

OK, so The Big Donor Show was an elaborate hoax. Dutch viewers of the controversial reality TV show, from the makers of Big Brother, were treated to what at first appeared to be a prime-time contest between three prospective recipients of a kidney transplant. The donor, in fact, turned out to be an actress. All of the contestants – genuine would-be organ recipients—were in on the hoax and took part to raise awareness of the issue of organ donation. Big Donor was used as a Trojan horse to make what is essentially a valid point: that people awaiting organ transplants have a very tough time of it. The point is certainly worth making. There are large numbers of people who are unable to get the surgery they need to carry on largely because of public unawareness of the need. I think, though, that there are far better and more respectful ways of making that point -- respectful of both the participants and the

04 June 2007 |

Big Donor -- Public Service Or Just Bad Taste?

You've got to be in it to win it. Today's prize: a human kidney. It sounds like the opening line from a tasteless comedy sketch. In fact, it could be the introduction to a new reality TV programme called The Big Donor Show which goes to air in the Netherlands this week, despite protests from political parties and other prominent groups. Produced by Endemol, the company behind Big Brother, the concept of the show takes the so-called reality genre to new depths of tastelessness. Three contestants will compete in front of a prime-time audience for a life-saving kidney operation. A terminally ill cancer patient, aged 37, has agreed to donate a healthy kidney. She has said that her decision to take part in the programme was based on a desire to avoid the anonymity normally associate with organ donation. She wants to meet the recipient of her kidney. The producers defend the new programme saying that t

31 May 2007 |

New Era for Northern Ireland -- The Power Of Hope

Never give up on a worthy and just cause -- the future might surprise you. That is surely the message we should carry from yesterday's launch of the new political administration in Northern Ireland. Power is being shared by two formerly implacable enemies; representatives of constituencies vehemently opposed to one another during the region's long and infamous Troubles. Rev Ian Paisley, chairman of the pro-British Democratic Unionist Party, is First Minister in the new administration. His assistant is Martin McGuinness. The former is something of a neo—Calvinist reformer who made his name as the fieriest denouncer of the Irish republican cause. McGuinness, on the other hand, was once an active officer with the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and hardly the man anyone expected to see joking with Paisley. There are doubtless many people in Northern Ireland today who, growing up through the 70s, 80

10 May 2007 |

Virgina Tech Shootings: Preserving Life Vs Gun Rights

Europe awoke yesterday to the horrifying news of yet another mass shooting in an American education institution. The shootings at Virginia Tech University, which claimed the lives of 33 people, registered as America's deadliest peacetime shooting incident. Police say the gunman was Cho Seung-Hui, a young English major student from South Korea, whom a university official has described as ‘a loner’. Not much is known about the mental state of this man, but what is already clear is that these events have sparked a new level of debate on the vexed issue of gun rights in America. Outside the USA, people are left to wonder how the world's most prosperous country and one which is billed as the world's model democracy can allow events like this to take place. If this were the first such event, things might be different; but we all remember the mass killings at Columbine high school just a few yea

18 April 2007 |

Europe's Teen Alcohol Problem

A German boy, aged 15, lapsed into a coma recently after excessive alcohol consumption at a ‘Flat Rate Party’.His case serves to highlight again the problem of rising alcohol abuse rates among Europe's teenagers. The young German was allowed entry to an event where patrons are allowed to consume as much alcohol as they want for a flat fee. Apparently, nobody bothered to check his age -- the legal drinking age in Germany, as in much of Europe, is 18 years. Many across Europe are questioning why, in an age of unprecedented prosperity and opportunity, young people are turning to alcohol in a way that puts their health, even their lives, at risk. Indeed, for some young people, alcohol consumption seems to have become a form of personal expression. It's almost as if they feel they cannot be truly alive, or creative, without a few stiff drinks. Part of the problem, I think, is that we have lost much of the creativity in o

30 March 2007 |

Europe's 50th Birthday

Though it pains me to admit it, I will turn 50 later this year. There is one consolation for me, however, and that is that I am in good company. The European Community will also celebrate its 50th birthday this year. The founding of the European Economic Community, forerunner to the modern EU, took place in 1957, marking a significant break with Europe's often war-torn past. 'Today,' notes Time magazine, 'Europe is the largest expanse of peace and widely shared prosperity in the world.' Back in '57, six nations decided to pool sovereignty in multinational institutions, believing that common markets provide a stable environment in which economies can grow. Gradually, others wanted to join the party, so that by the time the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, even former Soviet bloc countries were eager to join. In 2007, the EU has 27 member state, three of which are former Soviet republics. It certainly has its critics, b

21 March 2007 |

It Doesn't End With Anna Nicole: Now Celebrity Shapes Politics

The race for the US presidency – which has started way too early this season – is taking on all the hype of a celebrity-driven project, rather than a political contest. Last week, we were reminded of the power of celebrity in our popular consciousness, with the ongoing arguments over Anna Nicole Smith’s body and baby, and the sad behaviour of Britney Spears. This week, we have a spat between the supporters of presidential hopefuls Senator Clinton and Senator Obama. They’re both from the same party and are the front-runners for the Democratic nomination. What was their tiff about; some important domestic issue, or some idea vital to America’s foreign policy? No, nothing so grand. It all started with a quote from a Hollywood money-man, David Geffen, about Bill and Hillary Clinton. In an interview, he said, 'Everybody in politics lies; but they do it with such ease it's frighten

24 February 2007 |

The Sadness of Soap Opera Lives

The sad lives of two young women in the news this week should serve as a cautionary tale for all who aspire to celebrity -- and for those who feed off its soap opera narratives. The mysterious death of Anna Nicole Smith and the appearance of a new look Britney Spears, minus her golden locks, offer a reminder (if we needed one) of the vacuous and destructive nature of modern celebrity. Ms Smith was best known for her appearances in Playboy magazine, followed by her marriage to an oil magnate 63 years her senior. When her husband died, arguments within his family about his estate captured headlines around the world. Ms. Smith remained in the public eye through a reality TV series based around her frenetic lifestyle. The attention grew with the death of her 20-year-old son from apparent drug-related causes. Even then, Anna Nicole was paying a high price for a celebrity. The birth of a daughter in

12 February 2007 |

'Wave & Pay' at Cashless London Olympics

The Visa credit card company has just signed a deal with Barclaycard in the UK to offer a new generation of ‘wave and pay’ plastic cards that require no PIN number to operate. The cards will be used for small change purchases such as newspapers, bus tickets or loaves of bread. They will operate in the same way as London’s Oyster card, used for travel throughout the city. The user will simply wave the card across a scanner and have his or her account automatically debited. According to Britain’s Daily Mail, the spokesperson for Visa Europe has said that, ‘over 75% of cash payments [are] less than £10… The decision to go live [with this system] in less that a year supports our vision for a cashless Olympic Games in London in 2012.’ Under this system, purchases over £10 in value will still require a PIN – at least, for now. However, this needs to be seen in a

14 December 2006 |

Microchip Implants Vs Cash – The Race Is On

Shoppers could soon pay for goods using a microchip implanted under the skin, according to a report in The Times newspaper recently. The idea, says the report, is already catching on with today’s iPod generation, with one study showing that one in 10 teenagers and one in 20 adults already willing to have a microchip implanted to pay shop bills and help to prevent identity fraud. The VIP Baja Beach Club in Barcelona already uses implanted human body chips to identify its exclusive clientele – ostensibly because wearing bikinis and shorts leaves nowhere to carry wallets and purses. Members use the chip to gain access and to pay for services. Made by the VeriChip Corporation, the chip is a glass capsule which sits under the skin. It carries a ten-digit personal number that can be linked to a person’s bank account. For decades, certain prophets of our time – both Christian and secular – have warned that we’re rapidly moving into a dan

01 December 2006 |

Youth Culture: It's Not All Teen Pregnancies And Binge Drinking

The British media over the past couple of weeks has painted a very negative picture of teenage life and youth culture. Brits have been reminded yet again about problems associated with ASBOs*, youth gangs, teen alcoholism and rising teen pregnancy rates. What’s more, a recent survey seems to suggest that many Britons actually fear young people. The head of MI5 recently said, with support of the Prime Minister, that the threat of suicide bombers – who are most often young people – will be with us for a generation. Put all that together and the picture looks bleak. Yet the mainstream of British Millennial young people, the silent majority, are positive about the future and looking forward to big challenges. It’s right that we should speak and write about the needs of the troubled youth in our cities. Yet we need to balance our concern for minorities with a proactive engagement with the majo

21 November 2006 |

Ted Haggard -- Lessons For Religious Leaders

In Europe today, many people of Christian faith awoke to the unsettling news that one of America's leading evangelical leaders has confessed to improper behaviour. Several U.S. cable media outlets covered charges made against Pastor Ted Haggard, leader of the New Life Church in Colorado. The charges are twofold: that Haggard engaged in homosexual sex acts with a male prostitute and that he received methamphetamine drugs from the same person. At first, Pastor Haggard denied the allegations. However, when his voice was identified in voice mails to the prostitute, he admitted purchasing drugs, though he still denies any sexual impropriety. He also claims never to have used the drugs, though he was ‘tempted’ to do so. As former head of the 30 million strong National Association of Evangelicals -- a position he resigned as a result of the allegations -- Haggard is well-known in America. Whilst many religious people in Europe w

04 November 2006 |

Muslim Complaints And The Victim Mentality

According to the world’s largest international Muslim body, Muslims are seeing a shrinking tolerance in the west. The Organisation of the Islamic Conference said recently: ‘Muslims have noted with concern that the values of tolerance are eroding and there is now shrinking space for others' religious, social and cultural values in the west.’ The statement followed the airing on two Danish TV stations of amateur video footage showing members of the Danish Peoples' party (DPP) taking part in a contest to draw images ridiculing the prophet Muhammad. I lived in the Danish capital for almost ten years and visited again just recently. The DPP is a small party which does not represent the views of the majority of Danes, most of whom would consider themselves very tolerant of outsiders who wish to settle in their land. I was asked by a London radio station whether or not I agreed with the sentiments expressed

24 October 2006 |

Head of British Army Questions ‘Multi-Faith’

The new head of Britain’s army, Sir Richard Dannatt, this week questioned how long his forces should remain in Iraq. What most people don’t know is that he also suggested that British society needs a renewal of Christian values. He questioned the place of a multi-faith approach to deciding our core cultural values. Sir Richard did not question the decision to enter Iraq; he simply suggested that the government needs to declare a clear timetable for the endgame and that withdrawal should happen sooner rather than later. He also suggested that the Army’s presence in Iraq is now doing more harm than good, by attracting the violence of hardline insurgents. These comments were widely reported and perhaps sensationalised by sections of the British media. Many suggested that his statements represent an unusually public wedge between government policy and the head of the Army. Reading some of the reported

14 October 2006 |

More Security, Less Privacy

Unless you've been living on the planet Zafod of late you will have read about the alleged threat to blow up planes en route from London to the US.As I write this, I'm sitting in an airport (something I spend a lot of time doing) -- this time it's Gatwick in the UK. The queues for security checks were far longer than I've ever seen them anywhere, perhaps outside of Israel (though it would be a close run thing). A question leaps to mind. How much more can people tolerate? Not just in terms of time wasted at airports and the inconvenience of long lines (and, in some respects, seemingly trivial rules), but in terms of the further intrusion of their privacy. Democracies need surveillance if they are to function as free societies. The increased security we see at airports is not an isolated event, however: it is part of an increasingly intrusive approach by government and other agencies. Recently, there's been a shift in many countries from

01 September 2006 |

Genetics: A Step Too Far?

It’s a fact: we’re standing on the threshold of a whole new era in science. The discoveries that lay just around the next corner will probably dwarf all the great developments of the last century. The big technologies of this age could change forever the very makeup of the human being. This week, President George W. Bush declared that he will use his right of presidential veto to knock down any legislation allowing human stem cell research. Is he overreacting? In the last 10 years, scientists have been doing a lot of work with germline genetic engineering. Working with animal embryos, researchers add or subtract sections of their DNA to produce particular outcomes. The goal, of course, is to do the same with people, to shape human characteristics that are affected by our genes, such as intelligence, sporting ability and even emotional stability. For all the hype surrounding these developments, philosop

20 July 2006 |

The Da Vinci Code (& Thirty Pieces of Silver)

All through history, people have made their thirty pieces of silver by trying to discredit the historical facts about Jesus Christ, and especially the Easter message. Dan Brown, author of The Da Vinci Code is just one in a long line of people who have either directly or indirectly tried to misrepresent, obscure or emasculate the power of the Christian narrative. Within days of the crucifixion of Christ, Roman and Jewish guards were paid to peddle a false tale surrounding the resurrection. (The Bible’s Acts of the Apostles says they were paid ‘a lot of money’.) Their employers, avowed enemies of Jesus, needed to explain how the body of Christ came to leave its tomb while their guards had been watching over it. Only a few months later, false witnesses were paid to discredit the early Christian leader known simply as Stephen. His powerful witness for Christ led to his death as the first Christian martyr. Money was inv

14 April 2006 |

Tony Blair on Parkinson: A Prime Minister, Conscience & Faith

Should politicians entertain faith in God -- and if they do, should they ever be even mildly open about it? That question has hit the major papers in Britain today after Prime Minister Tony Blair spoke in a Michael Parkinson interview about his belief that God would ultimately judge his sending troops to Iraq. Some commentators -- and some parents of young men killed in Iraq -- have jumped on Mr. Blair's comments, saying that his somewhat subdued profession of faith is at best innappropriate in modern political life and at worst using God to support his decision to go to war. The comments I've read suggest nothing like the latter, at least not directly. In fact, I think they were very mild. From the previews we've seen (the interview is aired tomorrow), the Prime Minister did not say that God told him to go to war, though some may draw that inference. He said that, 'The only way you can take a decisi

04 March 2006 |

Danish Mohammed Cartoons: Abuse of Two Rights

An obscure newspaper in a small country commissions and prints a series of cartoons. The cartoons depict the leader of one of the world's major religious faiths. Leaving aside the controversial subject matter, they're not particularly good. Even some of the artists, who are paid the equivalent of just £80 each for their contributions, agree on that. Publication of the cartoons provokes some local opposition, followed by disquiet in a few other countries. Four months after their publication, however, two more prominent international newspapers reproduce the cartoons and this time the effect is explosive. Embassies in foreign countries are attacked and torched; sometimes violent demonstrations fill news reports around the world. Prime Ministers are pulled into the ensuing discussion about freedom of speech versus religious tolerance. It all sounds like the plot for a second-rate novel, but of course it is not.

07 February 2006 |

London's Whale

Over the past few days, the world has watched with interest the attempted rescue of a whale accidentally caught up in the Thames River close to central London. In China, an estimated one billion people watched state-controlled TV, which apparently gave extensive coverage to the whale and its sad predicament. Throughout Europe, the story was covered by many of the major media outlets, as it was throughout the USA. According to a spokeswoman for the RSPCA in Britain, this animal, which would normally be found swimming in the North Atlantic, was probably close to death long before rescuers attempted to hoist it onto a barge for delivery to deeper water. It was, she said, probably so stressed and disoriented by the whole episode that there was little anyone could do to save it

23 January 2006 |

Aussie Riots

In a radio interview in London today, it was put to me that people don’t normally associate race riots with the sun-blessed, happy-go-lucky lifestyle of my homeland, Australia. Australia has a reputation worldwide for providing its citizenry with a relatively carefree way of life. Here in Europe the thinking is that somewhere as remote as Australia can’t possibly be tainted by the same ills as other Western societies. Three points need to be made about the recent, apparently racially-motivated upheavals in Sydney. First, media reports these days feature a whole lexicon of words designed to shock. Words like ‘crisis’ are thrown around with such abandon that they’ve almost ceased to have any concrete meaning at all. ‘Riot’ is one of those over-used words. There is no benchmark to establish when a disturbance can rightly be called a riot and when should not

14 December 2005 |

An Archbishop With Passion!

During a two hour service this week, Ugandan born Dr John Sentamu was installed as the new Archbishop of York. Just a week ago, Dr Sentamu won widespread popular support with his statement that English people should take greater pride in their culture. It was a culture he had learned in Uganda, he said, a culture he welcomed and which has produced much good in the world. Part of the reason for this, he noted, was that English culture is rooted in Christianity. The Church of England still has a major role to play in shaping the future of the culture. The Church should be ‘like a midwife, bringing forth possibilities of what is authentically very good in the English mind.’ I’m not an Anglican and it needs to be said that there are many sections of the wider church in Britain which are filled with passionate Christians. They are ready to engage challenge the status quo and point the way to something better. <

01 December 2005 |

French Riots: What Can We Learn?

'Social systems are only as strong as their weakest link – and that will always be the human element. At a time when politics has invaded just about every area of our lives, we are reminded that we can’t put too much faith in political institutions. It isn’t any innate French arrogance which has led to this situation. The French are no more arrogant than the rest of us...' For two weeks, starting in late October, riots rocked several major French cities, causing many people to question both their government’s capacity to rule and the strength of their social system. I was actually in Paris when the first riots were breaking out -- though not, thankfully, in the affected suburbs. None of us should gloat over France’s difficulties. France does have a unique culture, but it does not have a corner on the market for ethnic unrest. In the multi-cultural nations of the West, we are all faced with similar

10 November 2005 |

Bird Flu Pandemic: Just For The Birds?

'Experts assure us that, in the face of a bird flu pandemic, it’s only a matter of time before we in Western Europe see first birds and then people dropping in large numbers. We are right to take the warnings of health experts seriously. However, we are also in need of some real perspective. We simply cannot allow ourselves to be ruled by fear.'Bird flu: our TV newscasts are full of it right now. Not too long ago, the word ‘pandemic’ was little seen outside biology texts. Today, it has become an everyday part of newspaper parlance. You might say that there have been more words said and written about bird flu than there have been cases of the disease itself, even among birds. We first started hearing about bird flu a few months ago when it first appeared among poultry and wild birds in South East Asia. Birds die every day of one thing or another, but this story gained legs when a few p

24 October 2005 |

Signing Up To The European Ideal -- But What Is It?

I have spent much of the past week in what we used to call Eastern Europe. Riga, Latvia is fast adapting to its new life within the umbrella of the EU; while Kiev in the Ukraine is emerging from seventy years of communist domination to align itself increasingly with Western European values. Riga is moving to establish itself as the new Zurich of the east – a financial hub; dynamic, cosmopolitan and business-friendly. Kiev has a little further to go and is still working to get its political house in order. It’s not surprising that this should take a while, as communism left behind it a moribund culture, both politically and socially. People seem hopeful, though, and change continues. It’s fascinating to watch as nations like these work with a passion to become a part of the European community. For them, being a part of the EU brings with it many benefits. The most obvious, of cours

01 October 2005 |

What Can We Learn From Katrina?

I write this while on a plane en route from Washington to London. For much of the past week I waited with the residents of Virginia Beach, on America’s east coast, for the arrival of Hurricane Ophelia, perhaps the little sister to Katrina.

22 September 2005 |

Incitement to Hatred Bill is an Invitation to Control

This week, the British government survived a revolt from its own backbenchers over its plans to introduce a law banning what it calls the incitement to religious hatred. The Racial and Religious Hatred Bill, which was passed with a majority of just 57 votes, is strongly opposed by church groups, as well as representatives of other religious communities. These groups fear that it will severely limit freedom of speech within religious communities and society at large. Other critics of the bill have included comic actor Rowan Atkinson. Comedians feel that the law will limit freedom of expression and stop them from telling religious jokes. British Home Secretary Charles Clarke responded with this: ‘[This bill] won't stop people from proselytizing and it will not curb artistic freedom - neither the purpose nor the effect of this bill is to limit freedom of expression.’ According to the Opposition’s spokesma

22 June 2005 |

Celebrity on Trial

Finally we have an end to it. The jury has spoken. Mr Michael Jackson of Neverland Ranch, California has been found innocent of the charges levelled against him. In some quarters – even among the jury – Jackson’s behaviour with children continues to arouse suspicion, but he has been found innocent of the charges of child abuse brought in this much publicized case. The trial which ended this week has cost the tax payers of the local county more than $2 million. According to some reports, Mr Jackson will need to shell out an estimated $5 million to pay for his considerable defence team. Some commentators suggest that this may severely undermine his already depleted financial situation. Some overzealous members of the media have ludicrously referred to this event as ‘the court case of the century’. How we can measure that so early into the century is a complete mystery to me! The whole af

15 June 2005 |

European Constitution: Non Means Non

The French people have cast their vote. They have elected by a surprisingly large margin, not to accept the European Constitution. From the beginning of the European project, France has been at the heart of pushing for greater integration. A 55 percent vote against the adoption of the Constitution has come as a blow to France’s political establishment and will present a major challenge to Europe’s politicos generally, as they seek to discern where to take Europe next. The Constitution was intended to bring a greater clarity and agreement regarding the values on which European societies are based and to outline a vision for Europe’s future role in the world. In the end, it has so far at least produced disharmony and confusion. And this is not because people have disagreed with its core statements. Most people have not even read it – and that should tell us something.

31 May 2005 |

Europe's Identity: More Than Political

On May 29, voters in France go to the polls for their referendum on the future of the European Constitution. France has always seen itself as being at the heart of the European project, and various French leaders played a key role in developing the Constitution. Yet recent opinion polls have shown that French people on the whole have mixed feelings about the document and what it represents. They are not alone. Political leaders in a number of European centres are watching the French outcome with great interest. They realise that if France, with its past Euro-friendly stance, were to vote down the Constitution, it would present the rest of Europe with a dilemma. Technically, of course, if one member state votes “no” to the Constitution, it is finished and it’s "back to the drawing board" for the architects of integration. However, a "no" vote would also represent a blow to the for

23 May 2005 |

Accountability -- Rare but Liberating

This week, millions of people in Australia, New Zealand, Britain and Turkey paused to remember a tragedy of war. It relates not to recent conflicts, such as the one in Iraq, but to a long-past battle fought in a place called Gallipoli. During one of the bloodiest, and perhaps most futile, battles of World War 1, Allied forces struggled to wrest a small piece of land from the Turkish army. Tens of thousands of soldiers from both sides lost their lives. The battle gave rise to the legend of the Anzacs, an acronym for members of the Australia and New Zealand army corps. The immediate aftermath of the battle brought with it fierce recriminations and accusations of strategic incompetence on the part of the mostly British high command. So great was the horror felt by soldiers and public alike, that blame passed right through the ranks to the very top. The British minister who took it on himself to claim most r

26 April 2005 |

Trust: The Biggest Issue Of All

The biggest issue in any election is not the economy, or education, or even employment – it is trust. The British election is now underway. After a brief lull in proceedings, for the funeral of the Pope and the Royal wedding, politicians are now in full swing. Party leaders are launching almost daily manifestos on this and that, while pollsters give there daily prognostications on who is gaining ground and why. Across Europe and the world, the political landscape is constantly changing. Once something which existed at the periphery of most people’s experience, politics has now come to touch almost everything in our lives. In many countries, the day-to-day business of politics is carried out by people who are truly dedicated to the cause of public service. Yet politicians often attract more scorn than admiration. The public’s criticism of civic and government leaders is most often motivat

12 April 2005 |

Pope John Paul II: Voice for Life and Hope

This weekend saw the passing of a man who showed great conviction in an age of convenience and compromise. Pope John Paul II believed not only in giving strong leadership to his flock, the largest part of the world’s Christian community. He also felt that the church, in an age of ethical confusion, has a duty to provide a strong yet hopeful moral compass to the wider world. His stance on issues like contraception, abortion and euthanasia were not popular with liberal sections of either the mass media or society in general. Yet they demonstrated a consistent commitment to the notions that all life is sacred and the strong are responsible to care for the weak. Many in the Christian community, Catholic and otherwise, have also held some of his statements up to question. Yet few Christians would argue that John Paul was not a powerful voice for the protection of human life at every level. Born Ka

04 April 2005 |

Easter Inspires Optimism

The question at Auschwitz, wrote William Styron, should not be: ‘Where was God?’ but ‘Where was man?’ Recently, the world remembered again the horror of the Nazi death camps during the sixtieth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. During this sobering commemoration, I watched with interest as one feisty survivor shared his story for the BBC. Tears welled up in his eyes as he told of the brutality of the camps and the memory of his parents, both of whom were gassed to death. In the midst of his sorry tale he made a remarkable observation. ‘It was my optimism which kept me alive,’ he said. ‘I just knew that everything had to work out for me.’ ‘I had arguments with God in the camp. I told him that he had to get me through this so that I could tell the world what the Nazis had done to the Jews.’ Optimism is a powerful psychological and emotion

28 March 2005 |

What is the Source of Human Rights?

This week, two issues have thrown basic human rights onto the front pages of major international newspapers. In the US, President Bush returned from his Easter holiday to sign legislation which requires the re-insertion of a feeding tube which has been keeping Terri Schiavo alive. Mrs Schiavo has been in vegetative state ever since the early 1990s, when a heart problem blocked the supply of oxygen to her brain. She relies on a feeding tube to survive. The tube was removed last Friday at her husband's request and against the wishes of her parents. Mrs Schiavo has left no will, so the courts are left to decide whether or not she would wish to be left to die. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, the leaders of the Britain's Anglican and Catholic communities declared that the UK needs to re-evaluate its legal limit on abortions. At present, abortions can take place up to week 24 of pregnancy. Many want to see that

21 March 2005 |

Control in the Name of Freedom

Last weekend, members of the British parliament sat through a marathon debate involving both houses.They were debating new anti-terrorism laws which give significant powers to the Home Secretary, the Minister responsible for internal security.The new laws should provide pause for thought for freedom-loving people in Britain and across Europe.The legislation is the government's response to a decision taken by Britain's law lords on December 16. By an overwhelming majority of 8-1, the law lords ruled that a section of the Anti-Terrorism Act 2001 breaches the European Convention on Human Rights because it applies only to people who are not British citizens and is therefore discriminatory.Faced with the imminent release of several terror suspects whom it sees as a threat to public safety, the government moved to give the Home Secretary sweeping new powers. Under the bill first put before Parliament, the Minister would be able to act largely without th

14 March 2005 |

Voter Apathy On EU Constitution?

Over the weekend, the Spanish people voted in a referendum on the proposed EU Constitution. The response was positive, with a 'yes' vote of around 76 percent.Yet only 41 percent of those eligible to vote did so. The size of the voter turn-out somewhat weakens the moral strength of the outcome.Nobody will ever be able to say, in 50 years time, that Spain voted overwhelmingly for the EU Constitution.That fact may not seem important now, when Spain is doing well under the EU covering, but what if at some time in the future things are going less well? What if, because of some problem, membership of the EU is seen as more of a liability than strength? It would be better to be able to say that, historically, Spain has always firmly believed in the constitution.Why the small turn-out in Spain and could this indicate apathy on the part of European voters when it comes to the new constitution?Spanish voters have done well from their associat

22 February 2005 |

The Gospel According To Big Brother Government

The British Government seems almost certain to pass a new law which will severely limit freedom of speech within religious communities and society at large. The proposed bill, which is set to pass through the House of Commons, is strongly opposed by church groups, as well as representatives of other religious communities. The legislation sets out to ban what it calls 'incitement to religious hatred.' However, far from promoting harmony between religious groups this law would promote nothing but mistrust and fear. The bill will in fact work against the religious minorities it purportedly wants to protect. On the release of the original bill, the Islamic Human Rights Commission issued a press statement. It says: 'IHRC would like to express its deep concern at Home Secretary David Blunkett's latest proposals to outlaw incitement to religious hatred.' 'Rather than enjoying additional protection from the law

07 February 2005 |

'Not My Fault!'

The culture of blame is on the rise in today's world, especially among young people, according to a recent psychological study. As a result, young adults and children are becoming more cynical in their outlook on life and more self-centred in their behaviour. Feelings of alienation and depression are increasing. Researchers at the San Diego State University found that, from 1960 to 2002, 'college students increasingly believed that their lives were controlled by outside forces rather than their own efforts.' They found the same substantial increase in a 'don't-blame-me' attitude among children aged 9 to 14. The study tested more than 18,000 American college students and more than 6,500 children, assessing how much people take responsibility for their misfortunes and how likely they are to blame others. 'In the 1950s, it was fashionable to believe than anyone could make it if they tried hard enough,'

31 January 2005 |

Why We Remember Auschwitz

This coming Thursday, the world will remember once again the horrors perpetrated at Auschwitz. It is the sixtieth anniversary of the liberation of the infamous concentration camp. Whether we like it or not, we need to recall the events of Auschwitz and the other camps. We each need to remind ourselves how vulnerable we are to the same fear, intolerance and blame which drove human beings to become part of a massive exercise in wickedness. Sadly, recent studies have shown that as many as 45 percent of Britons do not know what Auschwitz represents, or why it is significant in Europe's history. One can only guess at the numbers of people across Europe as a whole, or even the world, that may not be aware of this Polish region's bloody past. It is important that we hold these event

24 January 2005 |

Tsunami - Staying The Distance

As of this week, more than 170,000 people have lost their lives in the Indian Ocean tsunami disaster. Also as of this week, Sky News, Europe's largest satellite news broadcaster, has reduced its reporting and backup staff in the affected areas from 80 people to 27. ITV News has gone from 32 people on the ground to 19 across the region. CNN still has 12 teams in the area, totalling around 50 people. This is a reduction from 80 people at the height of the disaster. The level of media involvement is of course an indicator of public interest. It is only natural that the level of reporting around such an event will drop off, as public attention is diverted to other world and domestic issues. Mass media outlets tend to report what they know their audience will want to know about. So, we should expect the workforce on the ground to shrink over time.

17 January 2005 |

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