This is NOT the official weblog of Mark Thomas; this is a place to post his articles and news to bring them to a wider audience. This blog is in no way endorsed by the activist/comedian Mark Thomas. Most of the posts appeared on - hopefully they won't object to them being republished here.

Thursday, November 18, 2004

What is the point of Band Aid?

You could be forgiven for believing that the human race is doomed. The list of omens seems endless: Bush is re-elected; John Peel is dead; Ariel Sharon asks whether any other leader had so much blood on his hands as Yasser Arafat. Yet for some reason we insist on believing that it is only the US which has no sense of irony. A gunfight breaks out at Arafat's wake - which I can't help but think is what he would have wanted - and, frankly, none of us would have been that surprised if Israel had bombed the Ramallah compound during the funeral, just for old times' sake.

Then Iyad Allawi claims that there have been no civilian casualties in Fallujah. And US marines are filmed killing unarmed wounded men, which might as well be broadcast with a voice-over asking: "Have you ever considered a career in al-Qaeda? Dial this 0800 number and ask for Osama."

On top of all this, Band Aid is re-releasing "Do They Know It's Christmas?".

To this, incidentally, the answer is: of course they know it's Christmas! Do you honestly believe the entire continent of Africa goes to work on 25 December thinking: "Hang on, I've got a funny feeling the rest of the world is having a day off."

Yes, they know it's Christmas. If they didn't, it would be the biggest conspiracy in the world. Everyone visiting any part of Africa would be told at customs: "Whatever you do, don't mention Santa." Tinsel would have to be banned, carols would never be sung and the millions who are African Christians would be sitting around with censored copies of the Bible asking: "Does anyone know when Jesus was born?"

If the future of Africa lies with Will Young and Rachel Stevens, then Africa is fucked. If bands such as The Darkness want to help, then I suggest we drop the entire band, in full performance mode, into the centre of Darfur. The sight of high-pitched Spandex wearers appearing in front of them might just confuse, worry and frighten the Janjaweed militias long enough to delay their genocidal onslaught by a few hours.

And yes, dear reader, you are right, I am a begrudging, cynical bastard.

You would be right to say that some of Band Aid's musicians are politically astute and involved in the issues. Not many of them, mind you, though Damon Albarn has put his money where his mouth is on numerous occasions during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, and Bob Geldof and Bono know more about debt and poverty in the developing world than most MPs (on reflection, this doesn't sound like the compliment I intended it to be . . . but you get the point). And, yes, the money raised from the single will help some people.

However, you would have to be very naive to believe that a single could change an entire continent's well-being. If it could, Nelson Mandela wouldn't have bothered with the armed struggle against apartheid - he would have spent his time practising "Stairway to Heaven" in his bedroom.

The trouble with Band Aid is that you can buy the single, believe you have done your bit, and walk away none the wiser as to the causes of and solutions to poverty in the developing world.

Indeed, one radio station has been inundated with listeners requesting that the station not play it; but the station still urges the public to go and buy it.

So, Band Aid II works entirely as a nostalgia charity product. It is the triumph of style and marketing over content - all in all, the perfect gift in the new Labour household.

Bribers can't influence government, can they?

It has been illegal for business folk to bribe people in the UK for centuries, but it only became illegal for UK businesses to bribe foreign government officials in 2002. Given that fact, Patricia Hewitt at the DTI should have been champing at the bit to introduce effective anti-bribery practices at the Export Credits Guarantee Department. After all, the ECGD uses public money to underwrite arms deals to developing nations, an area of business renowned for its corruption.

However, according to the Guardian, in a buried report, Patty has bowed to pressure from lobbyists to water down the proposals. Indeed, the chief lobbyist responsible for this dilution is said to be Airbus.

That wouldn't be the Airbus that gets the wings for its aircraft made by BAE Systems, would it? Nor the Airbus that is 20 per cent owned by BAE Systems? And that wouldn't be the BAE Systems that got caught depositing money into an offshore account in Jersey for a high-ranking Qatar government official during an arms deal? Nor the BAE Systems accused of paying Prince Turki bin Nasser, of Saudi Arabian defence procurement fame, £60m-worth in kickbacks? Nor the BAE Systems questioned over the high agents' fees in its arms deal with South Africa?

No it can't be, as then it would look as if Patty's department was influenced by one of Britain's biggest bribers.

Monday, November 08, 2004

Voltaire has been rewritten

I have an urgent announcement to make to the many people who, over the years, have said to me: "I don't agree with a word of what you have said, but I will fight to the death for your right to say it." I have decided to take you up on the offer. I want to go to George W Bush's inauguration ceremony with an 18-wheel flat-bed rig and 20kW PA system and continuously broadcast: "Compulsory abortions for all non-Satanists! Hail Osama!" Either that, or turn up at a Countryside Alliance demonstration, blasting out: "I'm Alun Michael and I've come to claim your wives!"

I can't quite make up my mind which to do, but remembering your kind offer to lay down your life, I thought that this might be the right opportunity for such a gesture. Anyone up for it?

Freedom of speech might not give us the right to shout "Fire!" in a crowded theatre, but it does give us the right to shout "Heard it!" during Hamlet's "to be or not to be" soliloquy. As the political activist Abbie Hoffman observed, freedom of speech is the right to shout "Theatre!" in a crowded fire. And had he been alive and present when Bush spoke through a bullhorn in the rubble of the twin towers, he'd have had the perfect moment in which to shout it.

Many may quote Voltaire, but what they really mean is: "I vaguely agree with your values and will be prepared to sign a petition and possibly wear a badge for your right to say it."

Generally it is assumed that issues regarding freedom of speech occur abroad. We might even be aware of the odd case, like the comedians U Pa Pa Lay and U Lu Zaw in Burma, jailed for five years in March 1996 for performing satirical sketches. However, although the nearest we get to the repression of comedians in this country is the biannual removal of Jim Davidson's driving licence, we are still an illiberal nation when it comes to free speech.

The 1997 Gandalf trial in the UK received little attention in the press and, subsequently, little support outside the activist community. Three men were charged with conspiracy to incite criminal damage under the Criminal Justice Act. They were found guilty and each was sentenced to three years. They served four and a half months before being freed on appeal. So what evidence did the Crown Prosecution Service come up with? In an occasional magazine called Green Anarchist, writers had reported on various acts of civil disobedience.

The prosecution argued that this kind of reporting encouraged others to commit criminal damage. Such logic, which insists that reporters of conflict or disruption are to blame for further violence, can only lead us to conclude that Rageh Omaar is to blame for the invasion of Iraq.

In Britain, we rarely support free speech for ideologies we do not agree with. The New Statesman (18 October) did offer some decent press coverage of the latest assault on freedom of speech and press. This involved the Indymedia website - the most significant step taken in journalism since Rupert Murdoch moved his printing plants to Wapping. The site is run by volunteers and, for its content, it relies entirely on contributions by ordinary people, the citizens of whatever country where it is running. "Don't hate the media, be it!" is its slogan. It challenges people to tell their own stories and report on events. One of the best examples of Indymedia in action in the UK came during last year's arms fair in Docklands, when up-to-the-minute reports, photos and footage provided a running commentary on the protests taking place at the fair.

On 7 October, the FBI seized Indymedia's servers in London. The seizure orders came as a result of a request from the Italian and Swiss governments. With the servers' removal, 20 Indymedia sites in countries all over the world went down. This was an act of censorship and intimidation. It was the equivalent of the FBI storming the Guardian's offices and demanding that the paper hand over all its computers, including those that hold details of its writers and photographers.

The odd thing is that the FBI seized the servers at the request of foreign authorities - and yet the Home Office claims to know nothing about it. Apparently, there is no protection of privacy for Indymedia contributors. There is no accountability for the actions taken by the FBI. The Home Office just shrugs its shoulders.

There is no greater censor than the fear of Big Brother watching over your shoulder. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a jackboot on a human face for ever - and a rather cute black guide dog sitting next to it.

On 10 November, Mark Thomas will receive an International Service Human Rights Award for his work as a "global human rights defender" at a ceremony in London. Judges praised him for "using his skills and talent so intelligently to raise public awareness of human rights abuses at home and abroad".