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Saturday
May112019

The downfall of Danny Baker

I’m a fan of Danny Baker - or I was.

As presenter of the Radio Five breakfast programme (pre-Five Live) almost 30 years ago, Baker was responsible for the most enjoyable daily radio show I have ever listened to - a joyful mix of obscure facts and humorous anecdotes plus music that was chosen not from a playlist but by Baker himself.

Even now I can picture myself driving across Battersea Bridge (I was living in London at the time), listening to the radio and genuinely laughing.

The only problem were the regular interruptions for news bulletins, weather forecasts and traffic updates.

(In view of recent events it’s worth noting that Baker seemed to care little for these staples of breakfast radio. I certainly can’t imagine he was listening to or took any interest in such mundane matters as the news but none of this excuses the tweet for which he has just been sacked, more of which later.)

Baker was also the first and best presenter of 6-0-6, the Five Live football phone-in, which is virtually unlistenable to these days.

He would never allow clueless callers to ramble on indefinitely. If they had nothing of interest to say or were talking baloney he would happily cut them off and move on to the next caller.

Meanwhile he would tease out of listeners all sorts of football related trivia, little of which had anything to do with what had happened on the pitch that afternoon.

Today the programme is a tedious whinge-athon populated by long-winded callers demanding that such and such a manager be sacked or whatever (yawn).

Curiously we are told it’s the nation’s favourite football phone-in but thanks to people being allowed to burble on and on it features very few callers.

Anyway a lot of water has passed under the bridge since Baker was at the helm including a switch to Radio 1 that was never going to work, two sackings (from Five Live and BBC Radio London), a hugely successful three-volume autobiography that was adapted for a TV sitcom starring Peter Kay and, most recently, a one-man show that toured the nation’s theatres in 2017 and is currently touring again.

His autobiography was beautifully written with many laugh out loud moments. The third volume combined laughs with a warts ‘n’ all description of his cancer treatment that was actually quite harrowing.

I saw his one-man show in Milton Keynes in April 2017 and recognised most if not all of the stories from the books. Baker was clearly enjoying himself - and so, to be fair, was the audience - but the show went on and on and didn’t finish until well past eleven.

It felt a bit self-indulgent, if I'm honest.

Baker’s visceral support for Labour during the 2017 general election was the moment I began to lose patience. (The party he supports is irrelevant. It’s the fact that he was so brazen about it that really irked.)

I don’t know his contractual situation but if he was employed as a freelance broadcaster by an external production company he may not have been bound by the same guidelines as regular BBC staff.

Nevertheless it takes a remarkable degree of arrogance for any high profile BBC presenter (freelance or otherwise) to openly support a major political party at any time let alone during a general election.

And that’s the problem. Danny Baker is a brilliant radio presenter but he should have been reminded then of his responsibilities when working for a publicly-funded broadcaster. (Perhaps he was and chose to ignore the advice.)

Which brings us to that tweet and that picture. In isolation it’s a funny picture. But it wasn’t posted in isolation. Baker directly associated a picture of a chimp with Harry, Meghan and their baby.

He protested, and I believe him, that he was poking fun at the royal family and the circus that surrounds new born members of the family.

He argued too that the tweet was targeting posh people. I accept that too, just as I believe him when he says that race was not on his mind when he posted it.

But the naivety is staggering. Where was that little voice in his head telling him how unwise it was to post a picture of a chimp in relation to a mixed race baby, posh or otherwise?

He compounded the problem by suggesting that only people with ‘diseased minds’ would think that way.

He then kept on digging, suggesting he had no idea which member of the royal family had had a baby. Seriously?

I like Danny Baker, I really do. I genuinely think this was an innocent mistake, one he quickly acknowledged. As soon as he was made aware of the offensive connotations of the tweet he apologised and deleted it.

As others have said, what more could he do (other than not post it in the first place)? Unfortunately it was too late and I fear his BBC career may finally be over.

On air and especially in print Baker had a filter - a producer and an editor. Alone on social media he had neither.

A couple of years ago, before the success of his one-man show, Baker talked of giving up broadcasting and moving to America where he spends many of his holidays.

The 2017 tour was due to be his swan song. Two years later he’s still entertaining audiences (on stage at least), but for how long? I guess the public will decide.

Update: Danny Baker: Standing ovation at first show since Twitter storm (BBC News)

Wednesday
May082019

Coincidence? 

Well, that’s strange.

Yesterday I drew your attention to a new website, Vice’s Change Incorporated, that recently launched a Quit Cigarettes initiative funded by Philip Morris International.

I highlighted the titles of several anti-smoking articles and videos including a video I called ‘Smoking can shrink your penis’, although the actual title is ‘The Urologist: The Pros Who Know’.

Bearing in mind that the Change Incorporated campaign has had virtually no publicity to date, and this particular video was uploaded on April 2, the timing of this Mirror Online ‘exclusive’, published this afternoon, is curious.

Smoking cigarettes can make your penis SHRINK, scientists warn:

Mr Marc Laniado, Harley Street urologist, explained: “I see erectile dysfunction a great deal.

“To have a firm erection, you need sufficient blood flow. Smokers have a higher incidence of artherosclerosis in all blood vessels, including those in the penis, which can reduce blood flow.

“The chemicals in smoke may also have an effect on firmness; nicotine causes blood vessels to become narrow. This can be temporary or - eventually - permanent.”

Scroll down and the report concludes:

Mr Laniado’s warning comes as part of Vice's Change Incorporated mission to get people in the UK to quit smoking cigarettes for good.

I’m not saying I’m responsible but if I did lead the Mirror Online to Marc Laniado and his penis shrinking theory I’m truly sorry!

Tuesday
May072019

Many smokers feel like pariahs, says Norway's new health minister, and that's stupid

Breaking news.

Norway's newly appointed health minister has caused controversy (sic) by saying people should be allowed to eat, smoke and drink "as much as they want".

"My starting point for this with public health is very simple. I do not plan to be the moral police, and will not tell people how to live their lives, but I intend to help people get information that forms the basis for making choices," she told Norwegian broadcaster NRK in an interview on Monday.

"People should be allowed to smoke, drink and eat as much red meat as much as they want. The authorities may like to inform, but people know pretty much what is healthy and what is not healthy, I think."

"I think many smokers feel like pariahs. So they almost feel they have to hide away, and I think that's stupid. Although smoking is not good, because it is harmful, adults have to decide for themselves what they do.

"The only thing we as governments are to do is to provide information so that people can make informed choices. That is why we should, among other things, [devise] a tobacco strategy now, which will help prevent young people from starting to smoke and often want to make more adults quit."

Full story: Let people smoke, drink and eat red meat - Norwegian health minister (BBC News).

Note the inevitable (and unnecessary) BBC dig:

A populist politician with anti-immigration views ...

What do her views on immigration have to do with her views on smoking, eating and drinking?

PS. If you're wondering how an increasing number of smokers are being made to feel like pariahs, check out my previous post.

Tuesday
May072019

Quit smoking cigarettes demands yet another Philip Morris funded initiative

We’re all familiar with Philip Morris’s plan to ‘eventually stop selling cigarettes altogether in order to achieve a “smoke-free” future’.

It followed the news, announced in September 2017, that PMI was to donate one billion dollars over twelve years to the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World.

Since then the company has launched a series of anti-smoking initiatives including, most recently, the risible ‘Unsmoke Your World’ campaign that features the instruction:

If you don’t smoke, don’t start.
If you smoke, quit.
If you don’t quit, change.

Now the company is funding yet another stop smoking initiative. Quit Cigarettes has been created by Change Incorporated which describes itself as a ‘new, purpose-driven media company owned by Vice [magazine]’.

According to Change Incorporated:

Smoking is still the largest cause of premature death in the world, killing 7 million people each year. A deserving target for change, we think.

So, as our first mission, we’re aiming to get people to quit cigarettes. It’s our ambition to reach the world, but we need to see what really works and that’s why we’re focusing on the UK as a start. Why the UK? It is one of the most progressive countries when it comes to public health regulation to support people to quit cigarettes ...

This mission is maybe one of the last things you’d expect to be funded by Philip Morris International. But we’re here to do whatever it takes. It’s time for hard truth – and real change. We believe that a company that has been at the heart of this problem needs to be part of the solution.

And even though they fund our first mission, they don’t have control over what we publish. We are independent, with editorial control. We are totally fearless [sic].

We believe in the power of media to drive behaviour change, and we think it is necessary to provoke change. Does this make us champions of a cause? Or simply a lost one? Let’s find out if we’re right.

Change Incorporated say the campaign will go global ‘soon’ but if you live outside the UK you are currently blocked from visiting the site.

Curiously, apart from a report in the Financial Times in March, the campaign has gone largely unreported.

(The FT claimed, inaccurately it was said, that PMI ‘has teamed up with youth-focused Vice Media to promote vaping’. So far, to the best of my knowledge, there has been no mention of e-cigarettes or other risk reduction products.)

What is surprising is that despite posting a series of articles and videos on its website, Change Incorporated has tweeted just once, on April 2. To put this in perspective, the Vice and PMI Twitter accounts post numerous tweets every day.

As far as I can tell, neither the PMI nor the Philip Morris UK accounts have mentioned the Change Incorporated Quit Cigarettes initiative at all. Not once.

Nevertheless the campaign must be building a head of steam because last week it held its first live event – in Norwich!

According to the local paper:

The Quit Smoking event will take place on Tuesday, April 30 and has been organised by Change Incorporated, a new website run by Vice magazine.

Award-winning comedian and author Russell Kane, best known for travel series Stupid Man Smart Phone and spin-off show I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here! NOW!, will be live from 11am at The Forum.

He will be igniting the debate about smoking in Norwich and will be joined by exercise initiative Fight Klub, which will be running free sessions in the ampitheatre during the day.

In the evening, Russell will be joined by poet Luke Wright, former Norwich City legend Iwan Roberts, author Gillian Bridge, who wrote self-help book Stop Smoking It's All In The Mind, and The Murderers landlord Phillip Cutter.

The speakers will be at The Last Pub Standing from 6.30pm and, through facts and stories, will delve into what Norwich really thinks about smoking and how we can make this the final generation that smokes.

Sadly I had a previous commitment in London otherwise I would have been tempted to go, not least because I rather like Russell Kane!

Anyway I'll keep an eye out for further events. Meanwhile, if you’re wondering what you’re missing by not visiting the Change Incorporated website, here are a few headlines:

Here’s how smoking is sabotaging your love life
How smoking harms your memory
The sweet smell of successfully giving up smoking

Update: It appears that Change Incorporated is far more active on Facebook where its videos ('She smokes, I worry', 'Sucks to be a smoker', 'Smoking can shrink your penis' etc etc) are attracting hundreds of thousands of views. I'd love to know where they are all coming from.

PS. My interest in this initiative is fuelled partly by the fact that I was interviewed in January by a freelance journalist who said he had been commissioned by Vice to write an article about the 'smoking lobby'.

In March I was told the article was due to be published in April. It still hasn't appeared. I'm beginning to think it never will. The question is, why?

Monday
May062019

Ten reasons to feel at home in Ireland

I was in Ireland last week.

I flew out on Wednesday and spent two nights in Malahide to the north of Dublin with an evening in Greystones to the south.

For the most part Brexit wasn’t a topic of conversation, for which I was grateful because on my two previous visits, toward the end of last year, it rather soured the mood.

Thankfully there’s more that unites our two countries and as a regular visitor to Ireland I always feel at home.

Here are ten things (in addition to our shared use of the English language) that Britain and Ireland have in common. In no particular order:

1. Breakfast
The difference between a full Irish and a full English (or Scottish) breakfast is minimal. Asked to choose I’d pick a full Scottish because you get the option of haggis but a freshly cooked full Irish is not a bad way to start the day. ‘Continental’? No thanks.

2. Driving on the left
Having replaced miles in favour of kilometres on road signs in the Seventies, and done the same with speed limits in 2005, it’s perhaps surprising that Ireland didn’t follow Sweden’s example and switch to driving on the right. Long may our two countries continue to drive on the side that God (not Napoleon) intended.

3. Imperial pint
One measurement EU-loving Ireland still shares with Britain is the imperial pint. Which leads me to ...

4. The pub
Our shared pub culture may be taken for granted but it defines how Britain and Ireland differ from the rest of Europe if not the world. Enjoy it while it lasts.

5. Landscape
Parts of Ireland are unquestionably beautiful but they’re not so different from parts of Britain. The west of Ireland, for example, will remind anyone who has been there of the west of Scotland. The lush green fields of Wicklow remind me of Pembrokeshire, and elsewhere there are many similarities with the more rural areas of Scotland and Wales in particular.

6. Architecture
This may be a sensitive area given how many buildings in Ireland pre-date independence, but Dublin’s famous Georgian terraces, for example, should be a matter of shared pride not division. Either way, most towns and cities in Ireland feel familiar in a way that can’t be said of any town or city on the continent.

7. Football
On Saturday morning, on the return flight to Stansted, I sat next to two young Irishmen wearing West Ham shirts who were on their way to London to see West Ham play Southampton. Meanwhile a Dublin-based Irishman of my acquaintance was in Newcastle to watch the match with Liverpool. Each week thousands of people from Ireland make similar journeys to football matches all over England (and Scotland). Sport can divide nations but it can unite us as well. Which brings me to ...

8. Cricket
I’ve yet to meet an Irishman who likes cricket but they do exist. On Friday Malahide hosted a one day international between Ireland and England and as I walked to the station to catch a train I passed scores of Irishmen on their way to the match. A wet outfield delayed the start of play and supporters huddled together to keep warm. Sound familiar? Talking of which ...

9. The weather
No-one visits Ireland for the weather but if you’re British that’s another reason you’ll feel at home.

10. The Royals
Following a hugely successful visit to Dublin and Cork a few years ago, the Queen would appear to be as popular in Ireland as she is in Britain. Last week, while having dinner in Malahide, my companions (both local) were greeted by another group of diners. A conversation ensued and one of them caught my accent. “Oh,” she said, “I do love the Royals!” In my experience she’s not alone.

Below: view from a restaurant overlooking the estuary at Malahide, Dublin

Thursday
May022019

Required reading 

Currently in Dublin.

Too busy to write anything at the moment so I’ll post this picture instead.

Sunday
Apr282019

Notes on a scandal

The New Statesman/Roger Scruton ‘scandal’ rumbles on.

The Mail on Sunday devoted a double-page spread to the subject, including an article by Scruton himself.

If you haven’t been following the story, a quick recap.

A few weeks ago conservative philosopher Sir Roger Scruton gave an interview to George Eaton, deputy editor of the New Statesman.

As the magazine’s former wine critic Scruton didn’t expect to be shafted but that’s what happened.

The published article took some of his comments out of context and allegedly made him appear racist and antisemitic.

Within hours he had been sacked from his unpaid role as housing adviser to the government with one opposition MP suggesting he had used ‘the language of white supremacists’.

Eaton’s response was to post a photo of himself on Instagram drinking a bottle of champagne. Alongside it he wrote:

The feeling when you get right wing racist and homophobe Roger Scruton sacked as a Tory government minister.

Douglas Murray, an author and political commentator who writes for the Spectator, asked the New Statesman to release a tape of the interview. The magazine refused.

No matter. On Wednesday Murray announced he had a copy of the tape. Intriguingly he didn’t say how he had obtained it.

In this week’s Spectator, published on Thursday, Murray revealed how Scruton’s views had been misrepresented.

The Scruton tapes: an anatomy of a modern hit job is a must read. Far from being a ‘racist rant’, Murray noted that Scruton’s words were ‘measured and careful’.

The full recorded interview was also posted online. Belatedly the New Statesman then issued a transcript of the recording.

But wait. An eagle-eyed Murray noticed an error and late on Friday night the editor of the New Statesman was forced to add an embarrassing note to the transcript:

An error in the transcription was corrected on 26 April at 23:09pm. Roger Scruton said of gang membership, “I don’t say that it is something special to black people”, rather than “I know it’s something that is special”.

In other words, what Scruton had said about gang membership was the complete opposite of what was in the transcript.

The deputy editor isn’t the only one to come out of this badly. His editor may wish to consider his position too.

Worst of all perhaps - because of his spineless, knee-jerk reaction - was the behaviour of Communities Secretary James Brokenshire who sacked Scruton without checking to see if Eaton’s claim that Scruton had ‘made a series of outrageous remarks’ was actually true.

That’s the real scandal.

You may be wondering why this story interests me. Well, many years ago I visited Scruton at his London home.

It’s so long ago I can’t remember why I was there or who I was with but I know that a few of us were invited round for afternoon tea and a chat.

It was probably when I was editing a national student magazine and the Salisbury Review, which Scruton edited, was an advertiser.

I was struck by his quiet modesty and the thoughtfulness with which he spoke. He wasn’t bombastic or a showman like some self-styled intellectuals.

And it wasn’t all about him. He had time for other people’s views too.

Another reason the story interests me is because in 2002, three years after I joined Forest, Scruton found himself at the centre of another ‘scandal’ when the Guardian revealed he had been doing some work for a tobacco company.

The paper got hold of an email Scruton had sent to the company asking for an increase in his monthly fee and, naturally, put their own spin on it - Scruton in media plot to push the sale of cigarettes:

Professor Roger Scruton, darling of the moral right, asked one of the world's biggest tobacco companies for £5,500 a month to help place pro-smoking articles in some of Britain's most influential newspapers and magazines.

The controversial conservative academic offered to use his Fleet Street contacts to get pieces published in his own name and those of others on "major topics of current concern" to the tobacco industry.

Within days it was reported that Scruton had been ‘sacked’ by two newspapers, the Financial Times and Wall Street Journal, for whom he previously wrote.

He quickly acknowledged his error - Pro-tobacco writer admits he should have declared an interest - but if he was guilty of anything it was probably naivety.

Others however weren’t so charitable:

Clive Bates, the director of the anti-tobacco group ASH, said: "Japan Tobacco should follow the FT and Wall Street Journal and dump Roger Scruton. Anything he says on tobacco now will immediately be discredited."

If that argument sounds familiar it’s because it’s used repeatedly to try and discredit anyone who accepts money from industry. (Taking money from government is of course OK.)

Personally I believe in transparency but ‘who funds you?’ is designed, quite simply, to silence debate.

Ideas and beliefs sincerely held are trashed simply because money changes hands - money that pays for wages and other legitimate expenses.

Would most tobacco control campaigners work for nothing? Of course not.

Anyway, ten years after that controversy I bumped into Scruton when I spoke at a conference in Windsor called 'A Renewal of Conservatism – How to secure a Conservative majority in 2015'.

I was one of three speakers invited to respond to the question, ‘Is the Conservative party still the party of freedom?'. (See ‘The Conservatives and the f-word’.)

In the evening, before dinner, there was a drinks reception at the Guildhall. As I wrote at the time:

My son and I enjoyed a long chat with Professor Roger Scruton who later gave a charming, entertaining yet thoughtful after dinner speech.

Scruton had a quiet charisma that was deeply impressive. He held his audience’s attention not by raising his voice but by articulating a clear, considered message.

That brings me to the final reason I’m interested in the New Statesman story.

Having read several of Scruton’s books, my son later interviewed him for a student newspaper. The article was published in January 2016 and you can read it here.

It’s worth reading, I think, not because it’s by my son but because it’s clear how carefully Scruton chooses his words. His commitment to free speech despite the impact it’s had on his career is pretty impressive too.

Here are two passages that illustrate what I mean:

When writer and philosopher Roger Scruton first published Thinkers of the New Left in 1985 it was, in his words, “greeted with derision and outrage” and “marked the beginning of the end of my university career”. His critique of such leftist icons as Marx, Foucault, Derrida and Gramsci led to “reviewers falling over themselves to spit on the corpse” while “raising doubts about my intellectual competence as well as my moral character.”

Since then he has written books on a variety of subjects including The Aesthetics of Architecture, How to be a Conservative, On Hunting, a memoir (Gentle Regrets), and two novels. Now, 30 years on from his mauling at the pens of the academic establishment, Scruton has renewed his assault with an updated and revised version of that original book, Fools Frauds and Firebrands: Thinkers of the New Left.

Does he expect the reception to be better this time around? “Of course, since I no longer have an academic career to lose. Also, when I published the book in 1985, people in the academic world actually believed things, usually silly things of a vaguely socialist complexion. Now they merely repeat things – whole paragraphs of Deleuze applied to the obsession of the day, but impossible to believe since meaningless.” 

And this:

In recent months the very ability to freely and openly discuss and debate ideas has been the subject of intense controversy. Calls for universities to be ‘safe spaces’ and the no platforming of various groups have created an atmosphere that many fear will have damaging consequences for freedom of expression. Scruton has written extensively in defence of free speech so I asked him about the difficulties of reconciling freedom of speech with the supposed need to avoid offending ideas that others hold sacred.

“You should not knowingly and disrespectfully trample on what others hold to be sacred,” he tells me. “But you should also remember that you have the right to do so, and that ‘holding something sacred’ is not a blanket excuse for whatever a person should choose to think or do. Think of what was held sacred by the Nazis, the fascists and the Bolsheviks, and what is held sacred by the Islamists today.” Above all, “the university should be the kind of ‘safe space’ to which you refer, but a space where offence can be safely given, in the cause of rational argument.”

What I particularly like is the sense of gravitas (not to be confused with a lack of humour) that is rare these days.

Writing in the Mail on Sunday Peter Hitchens calls Scruton ‘guileless’ (ie devoid of guile; innocent and without deception). I think that’s a good description of a man who doesn’t seek trouble but, like an innocent abroad, tends to attract it.

The idea that an honest thinker like Scruton could be driven from public life because of the actions and reactions of journalists and politicians who aren’t fit to lick his boots is genuinely depressing.

Credit then to Douglas Murray and the Spectator for attempting to put the record straight. The question is, will James Brokenshire have the guts to admit he acted in haste and give Scruton his job back?

I wouldn’t bet on it.

Update: Top Tories call for sacked aide Roger Scruton to get his job back after he was ‘stitched up by the left’ (The Sun).

Saturday
Apr272019

Life of Brian takes an unexpected twist

This seems to have gone under the radar but the number one candidate for the Brexit party in the North East is my old friend Brian Monteith (above).

I’ve known Brian since we were students in Scotland 40 years ago. I was at Aberdeen, he was at Heriot-Watt in Edinburgh, but we had a mutual friend, Peter Young, who introduced us.

Peter and Brian went on to become chairmen of the Federation of Conservative Students.

In London Brian and I both worked for Michael Forsyth (now Lord Forsyth of Drumlean) and after moving back to Scotland in 1992 I later shared an office with Brian in Leith.

Brian was Forest’s spokesman in Scotland and I remember him organising the PR launch of the Forest Guide to Smoking in Scotland. If memory serves it involved an open top bus, which is a brave move at the best of times but even more so in Scotland.

Brian also ran the spirited ‘No’ campaign that fought - against all odds - Labour’s plan for devolution. In 1999, having lost that battle, he became a Conservative MSP representing Mid-Scotland and Fife.

An eventful period in the Scottish Parliament came to an end when he stepped down in 2006 but if there was one thing Brian was known for it was his willingness to take the fight to his opponents, unlike his supine colleagues.

Since then he’s reinvented himself as a columnist for the Scotsman, Edinburgh Evening News and, more recently, City AM.

He was also actively involved in the EU referendum campaign.

Apart from his euroscepticism, one constant in all the years I’ve known him is his opposition to the nanny state. In 2009 Forest published his book The Bully State and last year we published The McNanny State which he also wrote.

I would much prefer it if the UK had already left the EU but if Brian is elected next month I look forward to our first post-election drink in Brussels which will neatly bookend our recent dinner at his favourite French (!) restaurant in Edinburgh.

Go, Brian!

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