Tuesday, 8 November 2011

There will never be another Michael Jackson

The death of Michael Jackson was one of those moments in history when everyone remembers where they were when they heard the news. I suspect that the conviction of his former doctor Conrad Murray, will not be remembered in quite the same way.

The trial of Dr. Murray lasted just over six weeks and during that time the world learnt of Michael Jackson's drug problems, his insomnia but also his determination to produce the best live show ever at London's O2 arena.

During the trial it was desperately sad to hear the slurred audio recording of the singer, speaking about his grand plans for his London shows and his dream to open a children's hospital under his name. Of course, both of these dreams never came to fruition because Michael Jackson died at his rented Los Angeles home after taking a deadly cocktail of drugs.

Ever since Michael Jackson's death, his family have seemed determined to look for someone to blame, and that man turned out to be Dr. Conrad Murray. There is no doubt that Dr. Murray should have done more to ensure his client was properly monitored and he should not have been administering propofol to him at home, but it is perhaps naive to lay the blame of the singer's death squarely at his door.

One of Michael's previous doctors Dr. Arnold Klein, was mentioned many times during Conrad Murray's trial, as someone who administered painkillers to the star. If this is true, Michael's drug habit may have already been well established, long before the appointment of Conrad Murray as Michael's personal doctor.

One could ask then - why didn't Doctor Murray do something about this and try to wean Michael off the drugs? He may well have tried to and in interviews with police he does indeed testify to this, but weaning his client off drugs was not what Dr. Murray was employed to do.

It seems highly likely that Michael Jackson employed Conrad Murray as an enabler, as someone who would do as he was told in return for a substantial fee. If this was the case, then killing Michael Jackson would simply have been bad business and nonsensical. It is therefore much more likely that Conrad Murray was simply out of his depth and not up to the challenge of dealing with an addicted, demanding, celebrity client. For this negligence Dr. Murray deserves to go to jail, but he cannot be blamed entirely for the disintegration of Michael Jackson's life.

From start to finish Michael Jackson's life was a performance. Everything he did was sensational, and sensationalised further by the ravenous media, desperate for the next mad episode in the Michael Jackson reality TV show.

This way of life was all the star knew, having been a performer from a young age alongside his brothers in the Jackson Five. He never knew what a normal life was and someone with as much talent as Michael Jackson was never destined to be normal.

Michael was extraordinary in every way. The most obvious example was his appearance, radically altered by plastic surgery and affected by the skin disease vitiligo, but he was different in other ways too. He did not think like other people and this was what made him a genius.

Great artists usually lead exceptionally eccentric lives and Michael Jackson was no different. Not many people would build a personal theme park and live there permanently, but this was par for the course for a man who lived in a world of his own making. Michael Jackson's fame meant he could never enjoy a normal life, so he created a life where he could be who he wanted to be.

One of the downsides to this bizarre existence was that it provoked gossip and rumour, particularly regarding his relationships with children. The star was dogged by child abuse accusations for years and whilst we will never know the truth, it is worth remembering that he was never convicted of any wrongdoing. With his death it is surely time for these rumours to be put to bed and for Michael to be remembered for his music.

Michael Jackson's relationship with Conrad Murray was a tiny chapter in his extraordinary life, and although this chapter ended in his death, it will never eclipse what he achieved during his life. Love him or hate him, there will never be anyone quite like Michael Jackson again, and we were lucky to have experienced his talent for the short time he was with us.

Monday, 15 August 2011

UK riots: we need to encourage community responsibility

The recent riots that swept across the UK, were a shock to many people but what were the reasons behind them?

The first question to ask is, why did groups begin looting? The obvious answer must simply be that they stole because they knew they could get away with it. The police were over-stretched and the looters knew it. Once one group of people had looted successfully, then it was inevitable that more would attempt to copy them.

The problem with this analogy though, is that if this was the case, all shops and property would need armed guards at all times, as without protection there would be nothing stopping people from attempting to steal. The thing that stops people doing this on a daily basis, is of course morality.

You may answer that criminals will always try to commit crime and many of them may well lack basic morals, but large groups indulging in criminal activity is much more unusual and this is almost entirely down to our society's moral framework.

Most people are brought up with a vague idea of right and wrong. This is usually enough to prevent them turning to crime (apart from a minority of society), but during the riots these values did not prevent wrong-doing. The looters knew what they were doing was wrong, but they continued nonetheless.

Politicians talk about our society as 'broken' but this is a mistake. This label only serves to label sections of society and condemn them to their likely fate. For example, if you are a teenager growing up in a poor London borough with absent parents your future is already pretty desperate. If you are then put into a box marked 'broken' you could feel that you may as well live up to this label and act as you are expected to, in an irresponsible and selfish manner.

By talking up divisions in society we only serve to deepen them further. Going back to the riots, this has been a problem with the subsequent analysis of its root causes. Everybody is looking for someone to blame, be it the government, black culture (as David Starkey clumsily did so on Newsnight) the collapse of our moral framework or even our consumer culture.

One could argue for example that what bound the looters together was a love of consumerism and a desperate need for branded goods that they could not afford. There may be some truth in this when put against the shops that were targeted. For example, Currys, Foot Locker and JD Sports were all hit hard by looters and all sell expensive, desirable consumer goods.

However, consumerism is not all to blame. To look at it in a positive way, it encourages people to achieve and as a by product earn more money and enjoy a better quality of life. It does of course have negatives, with many poorer people unable to participate in the hoarding of expensive goods. This can provoke jealousy and ultimately criminal activity.

Another suggested reason behind the riots could be family breakdown. In the UK the divorce rate is almost 1/2 and whereas in the past children may have learnt moral standards from their parents, this may not be the case today. However, once again this argument has flaws. More marriages may have lasted in the past, but this is not to say that those families were good influences on their children. These days divorce is more socially acceptable, but as much as politicians deny it, sometimes it happens for the right reasons. It is much better for example for a child to grow up with one parent, than with two parents who hate each other.

The truth is that police inactivity, lack of morals, consumerism and family breakdowns are all reasons behind the riots. Where they all converge, is in a lack of collective responsibility. In truth, this country has not had a true collective responsibility since the second world war. Back then different communities joined together under one banner and for one aim: to win the war. Today we have a rich cultural and socio-economic heritage and often this is to our benefit, but far too often communities fail to integrate with others.

London is a good example of this. In many areas outrageously expensive town-houses sit alongside dilapidated council estates, neither community engaging with each other. This situation is not sustainable in the long-term and something needs to be done about it soon. In a city where there is enormous wealth, the poor should be getting richer over time, but the reality is the opposite, they are getting poorer.

The riots happened not because the poor wanted what the rich had or children from broken homes did not know right from wrong. They happened because people stopped caring about their own communities. The government's plan to toughen up police tactics may work in the short-term but in the long-term politicians need to engage with communities and try to understand why they have lost their identities. The blame game has to stop here.

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Morality should not be compromised by national interests

Colonel Gaddafi's long rule over Libya now looks doomed. Diplomats, military personnel and government officials have begun deserting his regime like rats off a sinking ship, but Gaddafi's demise has far more wide reaching implications than just the fall of an ageing dictator.

Across the Middle East and North Africa, a host of countries are ruled over by small elite groups or dictators, but the events of recent months are beginning to radically alter the political landscape and the aspirations of the people living in these countries.

The first country to be affected was Tunisia. President Ben Ali had been in power since 1987, at the helm of a regime that mercilessly surpressed its opposition and paid little attention to human rights. His power looked secure but following protests in January over unemployment, Ben Ali was forced to step down and fled the country.

What the Tunisian people had achieved clearly inspired others, and soon Egypt had removed its leader, Hosni Mubarak. Since then, there have been protests in Yemen, Jordan, Morocco, Bahrain and most recently Libya.

This domino effect is extremely serious. In countries where political opposition has been surpressed for decades, there is no easy way to fill the power vacuum left by the removal of a dictatorship. In Egypt this has resulted in the Army taking control of the country until elections can be held in September.

When people were laying down their lives in Tahrir Square, military rule may not have been their goal, but at least now there is the prospect of democratic change in Egypt.

The situation in Libya is far more uncertain. Gaddafi is unlikely to step down as leader, having already pledged to 'fight to the last bullet.' The end may come swiftly for the Colonel, but do not expect him to go down quietly.

The Western powers now openly condemn Gaddafi's actions and his conduct towards his people, but it was not long ago that Gaddafi was portrayed as an important ally who had begun to change his ways. In 2004 BP signed a $550 million gas exploration deal with Gaddafi's regime and Tony Blair visited the Colonel in Libya for talks, aimed at joining forces to fight terror.

Of course it is very easy to look at all of this with hindsight and sarcastically riducule Blair's actions, but it also illustrates an important point. When brutal dictators like Gaddafi and Egypt's Mubarak are useful to us they are our friends, but as soon as things turn sour we immediately take the moral high ground, calling for democratic reforms.

It should never be the case that our morality is compromised by our national interest. If we are tolerating brutality and exploitation in countries that we make business deals with, we should not be making these business deals in the first place.

Hopefully the events of recent months will dissuade world leaders from compromising their morals to boost their balance books. Perhaps David Cameron and the delegation of arms dealers he took to Egypt, are not quite ready to subscribe to this idea of morality.

Friday, 15 October 2010

Delhi's Commonwealth Games rose to the challenge

This year's Commonwealth Games began under a cloud. Collapsing bridges and unfinished athletes' accommodation generated a feeling of pessimism around Delhi, and many people expected the competition to be called off.

Two weeks later all of these predictions of failure have proved unfounded. Last night the curtain came down on one of the most successful Commonwealth Games for years.

It is true that some top level athletes decided to stay away from the games, but despite this the competition has been fierce and the spectacle relatively unaffected.

One of the positives that came from the star names staying away was that others were allowed to come to the fore. For example, England's Louise Hazel won an excellent gold medal in the heptathlon, in an event that would likely have been dominated by her more illustrious compatriot Jessica Ennis.

If the Commonwealths now serve to develop fresh talent then this is a big reason to champion them as a competition.

This lack of top draw performers was not the case in the pool. Here the home nations dominated, with the likes of Liam Tancock, Rebecca Adlington and Fran Halsall coming home with an array of medals.

Despite this optimism there were some low points. The three failed drug tests by Nigerian athletes are extremely regrettable, and once again reinforces the stereotype of drug-cheats within athletics.

This though, is a problem for athletics across the board and the games in Delhi have not thankfully, been overshadowed by these cheats.

On a less damning note many athletes suffered with stomach trouble, but it would have been a miracle had no-one experienced the famous 'Delhi Belly'. This may be have been unfortunate for the athletes that fell ill but thankfully it did not appear to affect performances too much.

As a side note, I am not sure if anyone caught the netball final between New Zealand and Australia. This summed up multi-event competition at its finest; two teams giving it everything right until the end. New Zealand triumphed 66-64 after extra time, and it was great to watch.

If relatively minor sports such as netball can excite crowds then just imagine what the atmosphere could be like in London in two years time, if Great Britain's Jessica Ennis triumphs as Heptathlete champion.

For a competition that was apparently doomed to fail, Delhi has produced an excellent spectacle. The Commonwealth Games now needs to be given more support to help it remain relevant. I for one am looking forward to Glasgow's turn in 2014.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Armistice Day has greater resonance than ever

Yesterday's Armistice Day was one of the most important in recent years.

At a time when British soldiers appear to be making little progress in Afghanistan and yet continue to lose their lives on a regular basis, yesterday served as a day of reflection for many.

The First World War was of course on a completely different scale to the wars we see today, and the loss of life was horrendous in comparison; but at the time this was justified by saying that it was 'the war to end all wars'.

War breeds war

The reality was of course that 'the Great War' did not end all wars, and it was only twenty one years later that the second world war began. If anything the First World War only served to create more favourable conditions for more wars.

War is never an ideal solution and rarely does it achieve an ideal result. The reality of war is that many people will die, both civilian and military in the pursuit of victory and there is little that can be done to prevent this.

The crucial point though, is whether or not the sacrifices made during wars are justified. If your relative has died for a good cause it will of course be devastating, but at the same time one may feel a sense of pride in what they stood for.

If however your relative dies in a futile war, then their death could be seen as a waste. This is the dilemma that politicians and soldiers' relatives have to mull over on a daily basis.


Is the war in Afghanistan worth losing British soldiers for? The Prime Minister maintains that we are fighting in Afghanistan to maintain Britain's security from terrorist attacks, and that if we were not there we would be under serious threat.

This may well be true and not many people are able to look at the intelligence reports to be able to agree or disagree with this statement. Public opinion though appears to be turning away from supporting the war and this is dangerous for Gordon Brown.

The recent public row with the mother of dead service-man Jamie Janes did not help Mr. Brown's cause and while the criticism of the Prime Minister in this instance was mostly unjustified; it shows how impatient people are becoming with the war.

The Prime Minister should have taken more time to draft his letter to Mrs. Janes but portaying him as insensitive for making spelling mistakes was a bit of a cheap shot from The Sun.

Brown said on Monday "I have at all times acted in good faith seeking to do the right thing. I do not think anyone will believe that I write letters with any intent to cause offence."

Need for debate

This argument though clouds the real issue of whether or not is time to start bringing home the troops and unless things start to improve quickly expect to see the issue debated more frequently in parliament.

There is a danger however; that if this does happen it could be seen as showing a loss of support for our soldiers but this is no reason not to have the debate.

The mission objective in Afghanistan has become muddled and by not having a proper debate on what we are trying to achieve there, could mean that lives will be lost when they need not have been.

Yesterday's Armistice Day service at Westminster Abbey included the words of Wilfred Owen the First World War poet, and much of his poetry still resonates today.

For instance 'Dulce et decorum est pro patria more'. These words have been repeated over and over, but today they have lost none of their meaning and perhaps for some, none of their cynicism.

The situation in Afghanistan does not appear to be improving and on a day when the US ambassador in Kabul has allegedly advised the US President not to commit thousands more troops to the war-zone, the future of the conflict looks uncertain.

It may be difficult to redefine the mission but for the brave troops, their families and the public mood, it is essential that this happens soon.

Sunday, 1 November 2009

Sacking the Government's Chief Drug Adviser Stinks

On Friday Professor David Nutt was sacked from his post as top drug adviser to the British government.

Earlier that week Nutt had criticised the government's decison to upgrade Cannabis from class C to B. He also said ministers had devalued and distorted evidence and said drugs classification was being politicised.

The response of the the Home Secretary Alan Johnson, was to sack Professor Nutt, saying he had "lost confidence" in his advice.

Science devalued

Nutt responded by describing his sacking as a "serious challenge to the value of science in relation to the government".

This is really the serious issue here. If a scientist is asked to look at an issue as important as drug use then wouldn't we want him to be open and honest about his views?

This was clearly not the view taken by ministers and in their view Nutt's views clashed too much with their policies on the subject.

Professor Nutt said of the government: "We can help them. We can give them very good advice, and it would be much more simpler if they took that advice rather than getting tangled up in other sorts of messages which frankly really do confuse the public."

He was referring to the upgrading of Cannabis to class B, a move that to many people seems fairly pointless. Indeed, according to the scientific evidence presented by Nutt, smoking cannabis creates only a "relatively small risk" of psychotic illness.

Alcohol and Cigarettes

He also said that separating alcohol and cigarettes from other drugs such as LSD, Ecstasy and Cannabis was "artificial". A fair point considering the amount of damage that alcohol and cigarettes are well-known to cause.

Of course one could also argue that to work as an effective adviser, coming out in public with views clearly opposed to the government's own, is a counter-productive exercise.

By openly criticising policy, Nutt was always walking a tight-rope in terms of keeping his job. However, should this really have been the case?

If ministers are only surrounded by 'yes men' then creating real, sensible change in policy and attitudes will never come about.

Impartial voice

Presumably Nutt was appointed to give an impartial view about drug use, so why then when he decides to offer it is he removed from his post?

It is true that ministers do not have to act on advice, but in a democratic society respected figures such as Professor Nutt should be able to speak freely without being censored.

Perhaps speaking publicly was the last resort for Nutt, and he felt he had no other option other than to make his views public. At least now by doing this we are able to have a sensible debate about drug use.

Drugs destroy people's lives. If Alan Johnson and his predecessor Jacqui Smith are experts on the subject then fine but if not, then effective and outspoken advisers are desperately needed.

The decision to sack Professor Nutt from his post is yet another disappointing move from this ailing government. Let's hope his dismissal does not signal the end of the debate.

Monday, 12 October 2009

What have we learnt from the Party Conferences?

At the end of the party conference season we have now heard all three parties' visions for the future, but have we actually learnt anything new?

Clegg the idealist

The Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg did a good impression of someone who wants to be Prime Minister and to be fair his party did present some good ideas.

The problem of course is that Clegg will never be able to get the wider British public to listen to him. The irony is that if they did listen a lot of people would probably agree with his sentiments.

For example, in his conference speech he said:"I want to live in a country where prejudice, insularity and fear are conquered by the great British traditions of tolerance, pluralism and justice.

Where political life is not a Westminster village freak show, but open, accessible and helpful in people's everyday lives."

Fair enough. The problem is achieving all of this and it is very easy to make grand pledges when you know there is no pressure on actually having to deliver on them.

The future's Brown?

So if the Lib Dems can not be taken seriously, can Labour? The answer appears to be just about, but with Gordon Brown in charge they still look a doomed party, destined to return to opposition.

It is true that Brown gave a good speech at Labour's conference (by his standards) but many Labour activists still came away with lingering doubts about their chances of winning the next election.

The Prime Minister's biggest flaw remains his inability to effectively communicate with the public, and even his articulate wife's introduction could not change this.

Sarah Brown introduced Gordon as "my hero" and as the tired looking Scotsman sauntered up to the lectern, it is fair to say that he did not look particularly heroic.

Brown quite simply looks exhausted at the moment, no surprise given his busy workload but sadly today impressions are all-important and Brown looks a beaten man.

In terms of his speech, the stand out mentions include the referendum promise on electoral reform, something that will have cheered many Labour MPs, putting teenage mothers in a "network of supervised homes" and his pledges on social care.

The teenage mothers supervision idea is supposed to give young mothers help in bringing up their children but it did sound strange when it was announced.

If you were a Conservative you could use it as an example of too much government interference in our daily lives, but although a little crude it may have some merit in theory.

The best speech of the conference however, was made by Peter Mandelson, the come-back king. Mandelson declared the election "up for grabs" but admitted that Labour would be underdogs going into it. A fair assessment perhaps, but it will be an uphill struggle for Labour.

Cameron gets personal

The final round of conferences was hosted by the Conservatives and it is clear why they are favourites for the next election. Whether or not you like David Cameron he is definitely the most charismatic of the three leaders.

Cameron's speech itself was light on policy, but what it did contain was a glimpse into the man himself. One of the main criticisms of Cameron is that he is too slick and people do not trust him because of this.

The biggest challenge then for Cameron is to present to voters a man who is capable of being Prime Minister and during the conference he went some way towards doing this.

One of his key messages was that government needs to decrease in size, and for a country trying to make savings this should be an appealing idea. At the heart of his speech though were his attempts to try and portray what kind of man he is.

Significantly he spoke of the death of his son Ivan earlier this year which he said had made him think about whether or not he wanted to carry on as leader. One would have to be very callous to doubt the truth of these words.

Cameron left the tough policy announcements to George Osborne and the cuts he announced were a big risk.

For example, 25% off the defence budget and a one-off pay freeze in 2011 for all public sector workers, (excluding frontline forces and those earning less than £18,000) are definitely not policies you would describe as vote winners.

However by announcing cuts now, the Tories are trying to show that they are up-front about what they will do in government. Osborne used the phrase "we're all in this together" and they have certainly taken a gamble by announcing cuts as savage as this.

One of the biggest problems facing Cameron is his past. He and his shadow-chancellor George Osborne both went to Eton and this is a fact that unsettles many voters.

If two Etonians are at the top of Government in 2010, then what does this say about this country's progress in terms of social mobility?

To digress for a moment, my highlight of the Tory conference has to be when William Hague introduced the Conservative MPs onto the stage.

It looked like a school prize day when all of the clever people are grouped together in a bizarre freakish line-up. This was unsettling enough, but when Bono appeared on screen things got even stranger. Is there nothing this man won't do? A rare comedy moment in a month of tedium.

Anyway, the Tories may well win the next election but unlike New Labour in 1997 there is not as yet a healthy enthusiasm for them as a fresh party with new ideas. If they want to make sure of a big majority in the election this has to change.

A hung parliament would be a bad result for everyone. A country in crisis needs a strong government, and Cameron has a tough challenge ahead of him to try and convince the British public that his party offers real change.

Brown will not go down without a fight, but in all honesty the next election looks like it will go to the Conservatives. By what margin though remains to be seen and complacency could be Cameron's biggest weakness.