Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Fair Pay or Fair Play?

He's better than her.

Tennis and Ovaries

Every year it's the same. When Wimbledon comes around, someone complains about the inequality in prize money between male and female players at the All England Championship. This year the argument has added venom, for two reasons. First, the Roland Garros championship in Paris switched to gender equality in May - making Wimbledon the last Grand Slam tournament to reward men and women differently. Second, no less a personage than Tessa Jowell, the Culture Secretary, has now waded in. Last week she wrote to the Wimbledon Authorities, and said the situation - where male champions get £655,000 and women £625,000 - was 'tarnishing the game's image'.

Ms Jowell's argument is based on a narrow premise: that women's tennis is as popular as men's, judging by the crowds at Wimbledon. But this argument is lightweight: Wimbledon fornight is hugely glamorous and popular, you could probably stage Stockhausen operas on Centre Court, and they would still sell out. Doesn't mean the operas are any good.

The arguments against Ms Jowell's proposals are, by contrast, pretty strong. Men play much more tennis than women to win their prize-money - five set matches instead of three. Men's tennis is also much more competitive than women's - male seeds are regularly knocked out in the early rounds at Wimbledon, whereas the top female players barely break a sweat before the quarter finals. Finally, men's tennis is faster than women's - more powerful and demanding. It is simply superior, in terms of sport.

This is the crux. Taken to its logical conclusion, what Ms Jowell is saying is that even though women's tennis is much weaker than men's, women should still be paid the same, otherwise it is discrimination. On these grounds, a paraplegic football player should be paid the same as Wayne Rooney - to reward the disabled player differently is to discriminate against him simply for the way he is made. Does Ms Jowell really think this?

Moreover, what if we applied the Culture Minister's logic to other competitive arenas of life? Perhaos we should institute a Nobel Prize for Chemistry that Isn't Very Good But It's By a Woman? How about a Field Prize for Feeble Mathematics Done By Someone With Ovaries? We could even have a kind of Booker Prize For Dodgy Novels Written By People In Skirts - whoops, we already have that, it's called the Orange Prize for fiction.

OK, Tessa, I'm teasing. But there is a serious point here. Men's tennis is better and harder than women's, therefore the men should get paid more. All else is political correctness. Wimbledon should stick to their guns.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

BBC Bias?

BBC Director-General Mark Thompson, yesterday.

The Bolshevik Broadcasting Corporation

It's a perennial argument. How biassed is the Beeb? Right now the debate is focussing on the corporation's news coverage: some say the news is unfair to the Israelis, some say its hostile to eurosceptics, some people have even claimed its nasty to Tamil freedom fighters.

But in the midst of this debate, something's gone missing. What everyone appears to overlook is the blatant bias of the Corporation's arts programmes. A bias to the liberal left.

Take Newsnight Review - a hugely influential review show. This programme goes out every Friday nights, it features several critics reviewing shows and movies of the moment; the programme is umbilically linked to the current affairs slot: Newsnight

The other night they had Guardian writer John Harris on the panel. No surprise, he's a regular. Even less surprising was Harris's disparaging remark about George Bush. Harris claimed that Bush was a warmongering moron - the usual stuff.

But as I watched this, something struck me. Harris is a very articulate writer, and he is entitled to his opinion, shared by many. But it is just an opinion. Yet, when Harris made his remark on air, no one batted an eyelid. The other panellists just nodded. There was no attempt to challenge Harris's viewpoint; no one reminded viewers that Bush is the democratically elected president of the USA. The snide quip about Dubya was just accepted as the sort of thing every sensible person should agree with.

Annoyed by the fact that I (as a TV licence payer), was being asked to fund this bien pensant backscratching, I rang up the BBC complaints people, and asked about possible bias. They claimed that Newsnight Review editors 'try to balance the panel in political terms'. I asked them to prove it, at which point they replied 'er, well, we have Tory MP Michael Gove on, and once we had Michael Portillo.'

And that was it. That was their idea of balance: one-and-a-half right wing people. Over several years. This makes an interesting comparison with the number of leftwing people they feature as panelists on the same programme. To wit:

John Harris, a well known leftie
Mark Lawson, a well known liberal-leftie
Tom Paulin, a well-known hard leftie
Stewart Lee, a comedian leftie
Germaine Greer, a feminist leftie
Rosie Boycott, a newspaper-editing leftie
Hari Kunzru, an Asian leftie
Andrew Collins, a DJ leftie
Janet Street Porter, another newspaper editing leftie
Johann Hari, a columnist leftie
Jeanette Winterson, a lesbian green leftie
Natasha Walter, a weirdly boss-eyed leftie
Will Self, a wacky novelist leftie
Tina Brown, a Clintonite leftie...

etc etc (trust me, I could go on).

To cap it all off, the programme is now helmed by Kirsty Wark, who is so unashamedly leftie she takes holidays with Scottish Labour Prime Ministers.

They have a funny idea of 'balance' at the BBC.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Burst of World Cup Patriotism

God Save The Queen!

Following my post on 'the hardest dog in the world', which seems to have attracted lots of mad comments from American pitbull owners (sorry guys, but I did give you second place for breeding the most rabidly lethal Nazi attack dog, which ain't bad), I thought I'd have another go at finding at which is the hardest thing in the world. The thing this time is... special forces.

The Hardest Special Forces in The World

The Contenders

Britain: 22 SAS
USA: Delta Force
Israel: Sayeret Mat'kal
France: GIGN

Start at the beginning?

Britain: the Special Air Service first saw the light of day in the autumn of 1940, when a 'seaborne commando unit' called No 11 Special Air Service Battalion was created to harass otherwise omnipotent continental Nazi forces.

USA: the US Army's 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment was brought into being by Vietnam Vet Colonel Charlie Buckwith in the early 70s, in direct imitation of the SAS. Buckwith even chose as HQ a part of the US, inland Virginia, whose terrain he felt matched the SAS's Brecon Beacons proving ground.

Israel: the highly secretive Israeli counter-terrorist unit was created in 1957, although its lineage can be traced back to the embryonic Jewish state's anti-British terrorist group, ETZEL, and the first Israeli intelligence service, Hagana.

France: the Groupe d'Intervention de la Gendarmerie Nationale, France's crack special operations outfit, was created in the mid 70s out of the French Army's oldest regiment, and was designed to prevent such perceived humiliations as the seizure of the Saudi Embassy in Paris in 1973. The GIGN was also designed to end rivalry between other specialised French army units.

Tough training?

Britain: the toughest. The four week initial selection procedure involves a twenty hour long forced march across 60km of Welsh mountains while carrying 25kg. This is followed by weeks of jungle training, parachute training, and 'psychological resistance' training.

USA: pretty nasty, and closely modelled on the SAS's. Delta Force also demands its applicants be able to handle poisonous snakes, insects, and other predators. There are reports of DR trainees being obliged to bite the heads off rattlesnakes.

Israel: in keeping with the group's supersecret ethos, nothing is known about the Sayeret's selection process, apart from the fact that only 1 in 300 qualify.

France: frankly weird. GIGN selection procedure involves, amongst other strangeness, sitting immobile at the bottom of the river Seine for several hours.

Famous exploits?

Britain: too many to recall - the SAS have been heroes in all arenas of war, from Malaya to Oman to the Falklands. Perhaps the most celebrated of their operations - because televised - was the famous 'bombs and balaclavas' rescue of 26 hostages from the Iranian Embassy in London in May 1980.

USA: rumour has it Delta Force was responsible for the startlingly efficient, startlingly speedy - four hours - snatch and grab of the first US airman downed in hostile Serbia in the Balkan Wars.

France: in Xmas 1994 the GIGN stormed a hijacked Air France plane in Marseilles Airport, successfully rescuing all hostages while terminating with 'le prejudice extreme' all the Algerian terrorists.

Israel: perhaps the greatest special forces operation of all time was Operation Thunderball, the Sayeret's bold and wholly triumphant attempt to save 103 Jewish hostages being held at Entebbe airport, Uganda, by Arab terrorists.

All very impressive. Any cock-ups?

Britain: arguably the worst moment for the Hereford-based supersoldiers was their 'murder' of three 'unarmed' IRA terrorists in Gibraltar in March 1998. Mind you, the Provos had been planning a massacre.

USA: undoubtedly the most shaming moment of the DF's history was the 1980 debacle that was Operation Rice Bowl, when the Force tried to rescue the US Embassy hostages in Iran. The result was eight US soldiers dead, fifty wounded, and two aircraft burnt out in the Persian deserts. The hostages weren't released for another six months.

France: a traditionally French lack of co-operation between the GIGN and France's MI6 - the DST - led to two DST operatives being needlessly rubbed out in the 1975 Paris airport attempt to arrest global master-terrorist Carlos 'the Jackal'.

Israel: May '74 saw the Jewish soldier-heroes' lowest point, when an operation to rescue 100 child hostages in a school in Ma'alot in northern Israel went disastrously awry: 23 children died, 70 were wounded.

Any other interesting stuff?

Britain: some regiment veterans, like the late 'SAS vicar' Frank Clark, have claimed the SAS's selection and training is so brutal it permanently damages the fitness of all involved, even those who succeed.

USA: Delta Force is the most Hollywoodised of all the world's special forces. Amongst many other B-list actors, Kurt Russel, Steven Segal, Chuck Norris and Lee Marvin have in their time played DF tough guys.

Israel: the Sayeret is not universally popular in its homeland - indeed some allege Sayeretr complicity in the 1997 assassination of peace-mongering Jewish premier Yitzhak Rabin.

France: in 1985 the French Government admitted GIGN involvement in the blowing-up and sinking of Greenpeace eco-ship Rainbow Warrior, a plainly illegal action that resulted in the death of a Greenpeace photographer and the scandalising of the world. The agents responsible got two years' 'imprisonment' on a Tahitian islet.

So who are the hardest of hardnuts?

Britain: a daring, winning 10/10.
USA: a so-far unproven 7/10.
Israel: a don't-mess-with-these-guys 9/10.
France: a bottom-of-the-Seine 6/10.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Mexican Connection

I used to be this thin. Sigh.

The Mexican Way

Next week President Fox of Mexico will sign legislation giving his country some of the most liberal drug laws in the world. Virtually all recreational narcotics will be legalised.

Unsurprisingly, this news has been greeted with a mixture of outrage or faux-understanding, mainly from people who don't know what the hell they are talking about - i.e. non drug users.

I, however, was a serious drug addict. And this is my divided opinion on the subject.

In the round, I think it's a good idea - perhaps the only idea that will work long term. In the 40s and 50s, Britain used to have a heroin maintenance regime of its own, where addicts were legally supplied drugs. We had maybe 1000 addicts back then. In the late 60s we reversed the policy, under pressure from America and the UN; now we have at least 200,000 addicts. So, yes, maintenance and liberality "works" in comparison to other methods; it certainly lowers crime, as addicts don't have to steal to fund their habits.

But on a personal level I am less convinced. I finally quit drugs five years ago - and one of the things that helped me give up was that heroin was very hard to obtain. That is to say, if I weakened momentarily - which I did in the early stages of recovery - it was normally quite difficult to score. This time-lag gave me the opportunity to rethink my foolishness, and abstain. But if I could have simply walked in a clinic and got high, I'm not sure that I would ever had quit properly.

The upshot? In adopting a Mexican regime we could be condemning lots of people to long term addiction. Yet we will be ridding society of a serious scourge, and lots of crime. I don't envy politicians who have to think through the dilemma.