Tuesday, 28 June 2011

M74 opens: the big steel and other roadside blues

It's finally here.  Today, as previously outlined.  In all its nightmarish reality.

The M74-M8 extension through the heart of Glasgow's southside will open to the roar and pollution of mass, booming traffic, oblivious to all the carefully-presented studies and warnings of environmental, social and aesthetic vandalism.

Fittingly, the ribbon will be cut by the Duke of Gloucester, an archaic statement of royal patronage to match the backward prerogatives of Scotland's and Glasgow's transport policy barons.

Costing an astonishing £692 million - £2,000 an inch - the six-lane, five-mile section has been hailed by ministers, councillors and business leaders alike as a 'regeneration saviour', their ill-founded claims still driving roughshod over more studious and mounting evidence of 'road-solution' folly:
"The opening of the new M74 northern extension will increase vehicle trips in a city that is already gridlocked at rush hour. Any benefit through the displacement of traffic from other routes, such as the M8, will be short-term and quickly undone through the new traffic generated by the extra road capacity.

The massive amounts of money spent on the completion of this new road could and should have been better invested in improving Glasgow’s creaking public transport services, such as local buses or cross-Glasgow rail services, particularly given that more than half of all households in Glasgow don’t even have access to a car. The new road does little or nothing for these households, which are largely in the poorer or less well-connected parts of the city.

The new road will increase air pollution levels in a city that is currently breaching European Union safe levels of nitrogen dioxide air pollution and which has been declared one of the UK's worst pollution hot-spots. Nitrogen Dioxide causes respiratory illnesses that result in 9000 hospital admissions every year, and Glasgow provides more than its fair share of these.
As also reported in the Scotsman:
The extension was approved by ministers despite being rejected by an independent public inquiry.

The Scottish Government has trumpeted the £445m construction contract - which excluded the cost of decontamination and land purchasing - as being completed early and under budget, but the overall cost of the project has rocketed and the road's completion is in fact years late.

It should have been finished three years ago, and when initially given the green light in 2001 was estimated to cost £245m.

Glasgow Green MSP Patrick Harvie, the past convener of Holyrood's transport committee, said: "The evidence is clear - building new motorway capacity, like the M74 extension, just creates more congestion, not more jobs.

"In the longer term, Glasgow can expect slower journeys, worsening air quality and more cost to the local economy."

Stephen Joseph, chief executive of the Campaign for Better Transport, said: "The promoters of the M74 have never been prepared to take seriously the idea that the road will suffer from the 'M25 effect', where it generates so much traffic that jams get worse rather than better.

"This effect is now well recognised worldwide, but the danger is that instead of learning from it, the Scottish roads authorities will simply come back for more and try to build even more roads across Glasgow."
Meanwhile, as bus fares continue to rise, the transport 'options' for Glasgow's citizens seem no less limiting.

On a website more inclined to the weighty issues of Palestine and Libya, Japan's nuclear catastrophe and other human-created suffering, this question may seem like a descent into parochial bathos.  Yet, how can First Buses, Glasgow, justify the highway robbery sum of £1.80 to travel more than five stops?

First recently replaced its £1.45 and £1.65 fares with a 90p 'short hop' (up to five stops) and the £1.80 ticket for anything beyond.  Though a discounted 'two-journey' can be obtained for £3, the £1.80 will, for many, still be the relevant tariff into the city-centre, while an 'all-day' ticket has been 'rounded-up' from £3.75 to £4.

The same return (after 9 am) train journey from Glasgow's southside into town is around £2.  Compared to travelling on often-littered, irregular, expensive buses and the hassle of congested roads,  the comfortable, usually-on-time and less-expensive train option is a no-brainer.

Not long ago, I had the pleasure of sitting on a smart single-decker as it hugged the gorgeous coastal road between Nice and Monte Carlo (curious to see its showy affluence - wasn't my kind of place), a substantial journey which cost just 1 euro.  Taking a First bus a few short miles into Glasgow city-centre costs double that.  How did we get to such a crazy policy destination?

Even allowing for the relentless hikes in fuel costs - always passed on, and more, to the paying public, never in cuts to executive salaries - what would induce a commuter or a city-centre shopper to sacrifice their four wheels for a Glasgow bus?  Where's the encouragement for families to relinquish the private comfort of their precious car?  More particularly, how are low-income families with kids meant to cope with such soaring costs for basic travel?

It's the usual free-market imperatives.  Prices go up.  Profits are protected.  No one is consulted.  Public concerns are simply dismissed.

Other cities around the world are trying to effect imaginative transport policies.  Here, proclamations of green, sustainable transport are simply that - lofty words and political pontifications.

The airline industry enjoys zero-VAT and other assistance on aviation fuel.  Why should car-reducing public buses not receive similar or greater subsidies?  Why, more boldly, not make public transport free?

And now, alongside some of the country's highest bus fares, Glasgow has the monstrous M74 extension, encouraging even more cars and greater pollution.

With it's giant blue steel bridges now striding defiantly atop the little homes on Devon Sreet, the M74 offers a whole new 'urban vista' from the top-deck of your all-expensive bus into town.

It's not just the profit-driven greed and eco-toxicity of market life, it's the aesthetic mediocrity it imposes on our daily outlook.


Thursday, 16 June 2011

Young American Jew beaten and arrested in Jerusalem

Nineteen-year-old Lucas Koerner, an American Jew, was violently arrested during 'Jerusalem Day' for speaking his mind about Israel's illegal occupation and the key complicit role of his own government in maintaining Palestinian suffering.  

Following his release from custody, Lucas gave an insightful interview relating some of the visceral abuse he received and the discriminatory conditions he witnessed in jail:
"Throughout the whole affair, the only thing audible coming from the policemen was a constant stream of curses words, ‘mother####er,’ ‘piece of shit,’ etc., which was to me a ringing confirmation of how infuriated and threatened they were by a 19-year-old wearing a kippah and a keffiyeh standing with the Palestinians.

"What struck me most about my time in prison is that it is a reflection of the rest of Israeli society in that it’s completely segregated. I was placed against my will in the Jewish cell. I asked to be put in the Arab cell. The Jewish cell conditions weren’t bad at all; it was still jail, but it was bearable. I did see the Arab cell or at least one of the Arab cells and the conditions there were absolutely abominable. … We had furniture, we had beds of some sort, we had a clean bathroom. They had nothing. Just a bench and an open toilet. The conditions were horrible. That’s what struck me most." 
It's a graphic picture of truth for all the world to see.  The state of Israel - that 'great democracy' - in all its intolerant and colours.

But it's also a statement of common humanity and hope, with Jews of good conscience speaking up for the occupied and oppressed, saying clearly: not in our name.

Great credit to this brave and moral young man.


Friday, 10 June 2011

Media Lens, Hari and the 'liberal wager'

An excellent, pushing-the-boundaries Alert has just been published by Media Lens, asking probing questions of those who continue to serve and defend the liberal media.

In particular, some objections to the piece have been raised in defence of Johann Hari of the Independent, who ML cite as one of those liberal journalists still unwilling to challenge the corporate media which employs them.

Why, some ask, single-out Hari, who has shown impressive humility in recanting his support for the Iraq war, opposes Western 'intervention' in Libya and now cites Chomsky in favourable reference?

All relevant points.  But where precisely do we see Hari, Monbiot, Fisk, Milne and other liberal 'dissidents' take-on and criticise the very organs of liberal propaganda that serve to rationalise corporate-military-planet-destroying greed?  

It's as if all the great evils in the world can be safely described and condemned from the pages of the Guardian/Indy while remaining blind to the same media that runs on similar corporate, profit-determined lines. 

Where, in short, is their critical realisation of that great big elephant in the room? 

The key point, as ML suggest, is to start having more penetrating discussions about how token 'dissident' journalists see their place within corporate-driven organisations and how their presence is used to reinforce the corporate-sustaining myth of a 'free and democratic vanguard media'. 

Nor does the standard 'would you rather there were no Milne, Monbiot, Hari or Fisk left inside such media?' take us much further in that discussion. 

So many liberal leftists seem stuck on this 'dilemma', treating it like a kind of 'Pascal's Wager' - perhaps agnostic over Guardian-type output or inclined to accept that it may be fig-leaf journalism, yet still uncertain and fearing the 'consequences' of its non-existence.  

Thus, so many err on the side of 'rational-cautionary belief': it's better to have such journalists and accept the liberal media's 'positive' existence rather than not have it and live with a 'radical void'.  

The ML Alert is, essentially, asking such journalists and their advocates to consider a much more radical set of questions beyond the 'liberal wager': how and why are you being told and sold this message, and what are you prepared to say and do about it within and beyond the media that you serve? 

The day such writers step outside that self-protecting wager to become part of a true independent media - a cooperative unconstrained by corporate imperatives, ready to dissect the power-sustaining role and pretensions of the Guardian/Independent - will be the day they start to become real dissident journalists.


Monday, 6 June 2011

BBC and the murder of Golan protesters

More brutal Israeli executions of unarmed civilians.  No condemnation or serious action from complicit governments. Another shameless inversion of the truth from the BBC.

The latest ruthless murder of defenceless Palestinian-Syrian demonstrators, this time on Naksa Day (5 June), indicates Israel's deepening concern over Arab Spring ferment and the power of peaceful Palestinian protest.

If this was peaceful, popular dissent in, say, Iran or any other official enemy of the West, we can be sure that BBC correspondents like John Simpson and Kevin Connolly would be on the ground castigating the regime and talking-up the protesters' democratic aims.  Not so when it comes to Israel and the Palestinians.

What we get, instead, is not only token, second-hand reportage of the killings, but a loaded narrative implying that Israel was merely 'responding to provocation', with the demonstrators bringing about their own killing.

A letter to the BBC's Middle East online editor Tarik Kafala.


Dear Tarik Kafala

The BBC's coverage of unarmed Palestinian-Syrian protesters being shot dead by Israeli soldiers was as oblivious to balanced, impartial reportage as the disregard those soldiers seemingly showed their victims.

The wording and omissions in this article coupled with brazenly-biased references to Israeli sources tells us all we need to know about 'BBC neutrality'.

The opening line - always important in getting the essence of the story across - states that:

"Israeli troops have fired on pro-Palestinian protesters".

Why not, at the very least:

'Israeli troops have killed unarmed pro-Palestinian protesters'?

The words 'killed' and 'unarmed' should not only be part of this line, they should be the headline and basis of the story.

Indeed, why isn't such killing referred to as a "massacre" - as in South Africa's Sharpeville massacre?  Or does the BBC think it anything less than open state murder for troops to wilfully gun down unarmed civilians?

Moreover, why is there no questions in the report about Israel's failure to wait and try to arrest the protesters?  Or, like Israel, do the BBC consider the life of Arab 'others' so cheap as to negate that line of enquiry?

The report goes on to say that the "protesters defied razor-wire fences", while "Israel had vowed to prevent a repeat of a similar march last month, in which hundreds of people breached the fence."

All very 'factual', you will, no doubt, claim.  But the impression conveyed is that this 'defiance' was met with legitimate, fore-warned force.  Where in this line, or anywhere else in the piece, does the BBC consider the disproportionality of Israel's 'response'?

It goes on:  

"The US state department said it was "troubled" by the "loss of life". "We call for all sides to exercise restraint," it said. "Provocative actions like this should be avoided." "

Isn't this statement worthy of even a little deconstruction?  Isn't its classic understatement on calculated murder and the 'provocative invitation' to being shot not worthy of critical or alternative comment?

It seems not, with the piece moving seamlessly into the first direct Israeli-sided statement:

"Israel's military said its soldiers shouted warnings in Arabic and fired warning shots in the air, before aiming at the legs of those who had reached the fence."

Again, why is there no counter-statement here on the disproportionality of Israeli actions?  Are we even to believe that they fired at the protesters' legs?  Isn't this also unlawful use of force?

Instead of noting such points, the piece offers this loaded take on what Israeli troops seemed 'forced' to do:

"After live gunfire failed to disperse the crowds, Israeli troops fired volleys of tear gas over the border. Many people fled while others lay on the ground."

This is the BBC tacitly accepting that Israel acted 'reluctantly' in only firing after they had 'failed' to disperse the crowd.  The dispersal of the crowd is, in itself, implied to be the imperative issue and objective rather than the lives or safety of civilians.   The tenor of this wording implies, as stated by Israel, that the crowd were 'threatening', and, thus, 'responsible' for their own killing.   

The report's token attempt at 'balance' is no less effective in casting doubt over the level of deaths and injuries.  It begins, lazily, with this set of other media-sourced claims: 

"Syrian TV said more than 300 protesters had been wounded. An Israeli military spokeswoman told The Jerusalem Post newspaper they were only aware of 12 injuries."

But then, immediately, in the report's second direct Israeli statement, Mark Regev is allowed to dismiss the Syrian view:   

"Israeli spokesman Mark Regev told the BBC that the Syrian figures could not be trusted."

Rather than include any counter-view here to Regev, the piece goes on to cite, in substantive detail, Netanyahu's own 'pre-warning':  

"Ahead of Sunday's march, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he would not allow "extremists" to breach Israel's borders." "I have instructed our security forces to act with determination and restraint in order to protect our sovereignty our borders," he said at the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem."

One might expect, even by now, some sort of Palestinian voice.  Instead, here's what we get:

"Another Israeli military spokeswoman, Avital Leibovich, told reporters: "This is an attempt by the Syrian regime to divert the world's attention from the Syrian bloodshed that has been taking place in recent weeks."  She added that Israeli forces were better able to stop border protests now than they were last month as they had since prepared "for a variety of operation scenarios"."

In what the BBC will cite as definitive 'balance', Regev - again - and Fatah official Hossam Zomlot get to air their views in small pieces to camera.  But the Palestinian account seems massively outweighed here by the text, exclusions and comments afforded to Israel.   

The report ends with no other oppositional statements, permitting only some basic background words on Israel's 'seizure' of the Golan in 1967.  The "Naksa" is 'explained' as a "known in Arabic" term, allowing it only some kind of marginal significance.

The meaning of "Nakba" is, likewise, defined here in the course of noting the outcome of its recent anniversary: 

"At least 12 people died during the 15 May demonstrations, which at one point saw hundreds manage to cross into the Golan Heights."

Again, people - innocent, unarmed civilians - somehow "died" in the demonstration.  They weren't shot, or killed, or murdered or massacred.  They just "died".

All this, the BBC will say, is consistent with applying its codes of 'impartiality' and 'straight reporting'.

Yet, the use of anodyne language like "died", where people have been calculatingly executed, is the most effective way of disguising and mitigating the truth of such atrocities.

Exclude words like "unarmed" or "defenceless", while introducing words like "defied", and we have the impression of a threatening mob bringing-on their own misfortune.

Add to that loaded mix a blanket range of Israeli statements and Washington apologetics and we're left with a report utterly devoid of balance and truthful information.

As with regime reactions to Arab Spring protest, Israeli violence is becoming more brutal, desperate and apparent to the world.  Yet, the BBC's own output is still serving to mask that criminality.

As with the BBC's reporting of Libya, viewers might expect to see a more regime-critical journalism and accurate use of words to describe Israeli actions.  In making such charges against the BBC, we're more likely to get Regev-type defence and denial from their spokespersons.

BBC state media will, of course, deny any such bias or service to power. Increasingly, viewers are coming to see through both Regev's and the BBC's parallel distortions.

Kind regards

John Hilley