10 top things about foot and mouth

Happier days at Pirbright: The Surrey County Vaccine Farms

The 10 top things about FMD 2007.

10. Never mind the disinfectant, send the whitewash. A dramatic improvement in government media/presentational skill, mirrored by no raising of the game by editors, compared to 2001. See 8, 7 below.

9. Scientists are often psychotic, in the clinical sense meaning they have lost touch with reality. Any reality. Ground reality. System reality. Media reality. The award goes to Sir Brian Follett for his sagacity in the Sunday Times: “The reason we slaughter animals is because, in island countries, it works. We can keep the virus out.” A healthy debate in the bioscience community about vaccination would be welcome but it is so odd that those who obstruct vaccinations use arguments that are simply ludicrous and false.

8. Journalism in Britain is quite dramatically terrible as anyone can tell you when they observe the coverage of something they know plenty about. The absence of scientifically trained journalists is very apparent as it was in 2001. Rolling news channels by far the worst – torrents of drivel, 24 by 7. This is the syndrome that we saw with the media in the run-up to the war in Iraq. A dependence on authority to timetable events and establish the agenda, ignoring all contrary evidence or burying it on page 94. The BBC is consistently mediocre.

7. The media tropes are identical. Terrible disease. Tragedy for farmers. A threatened cow named Mabel in a petting zoo. The editors cover every big story by habit. This is why they prefer stories that “come back” so they can order the clips and cover them like last time. A dirty media secret is that editors do not like anything too new – they don’t understand it and have no precedent to inform their decisions.

6. Mediocrity of civil service. By which I mean the the glamorous chief vet who frankly wasn’t that hot, though she will now get a K. Not as sinister as Scudamore but she did everything she could to keep the approach NFU friendly, and I predict the vaccination kits will not be used. She pretended vaccination is an option while never intending to use it unless someone put a bullet to her head. So far, she’s got away with it. I think it’s a cynical tactic. I exempt the local field Defra office in Surrey who have distiguished themselves by being actually human. It has been my own experience as the owner of a registered farm (currently on the very edge of the surveillance zone) that the worker bees at the local Defra office do try to be helpful, despite the insane orders they receive from headquarters.

5. NFU more digusting than ever and why they are taken seriously is a disease of public policy. Literally. The government is required to consult them under a 1947 Act passed by a Labour government that idiotically thought they were empowering a union. What we have, despite recent reforms, is a monster in which not all members even get to vote, and the last five bosses have been knighted. This is a corrupt relationship in the sense of mordant decay. It produces terrible public policy. They are so unbelievably slippery and unconvincing. They are probably reading this wondering whether to sue me but some one is reminding them of MacDonalds.

4. Internet has dramatically improved networking and communications for us “troublemakers” who object that government policy is unscientific, brutal and disgusting. But while the networks are activating quickly, frankly we lack real political clout. We do not have a clunking great fist. The challenge is to convert our command of the facts and superb intelligence into meaningful pressure. I admit this is a tough problem when our democracy is so intangible, and note that it is a problem not unique to this issue.

3. This time around there is some interesting potential for lawyers. I imagine there are going to be some rewarding issues of liability and indemnity to fight about. This will pay for some very beautiful houses in France and a lot of very good claret.

2. Pirbright should be closed and the entire operation moved to a rocky island off Scotland, preferably.

1. Gordon Brown has been bloody lucky. So far.

This is my best guess at the moment. If the outbreak gets much worse then this list becomes inoperative, of course, and I will have to do it over.

Matthew Weaver is back today in The Guardian. Not to be missed. Ditto Warmwell. Rapidly improving Sheepdrove blog has good piece on “vaccinate to live.”

Killing with impunity

Posted in Britain, de Menezes, Legal, London, Media, police, tantrums, Terror, Terrorism by Deputy city editor on August 3, 2007

Sanitised image of Menezes after being killed by the British police. British TV pictures are routinely heavily edited/censored.

How is it possible that an entirely blameless and innocent man should be killed by shots to the head in a public place, with scores of witnesses, and that nobody seems to be responsible? Multiple intelligence failures, command failures, communication failures, obstruction of investigators and the specific dishonesty and incompetence of senior officers have characterised the killing of Jean Charles de Menezes at Stockwell underground station in July 2005. But nobody is to blame or will be punished. A trivial and insulting charge has been laid that Menezes’s killing was a “health and safety” violation.

The failure of the British legal and political system to hold anyone to account for the killing of Mr de Menezes means the police in Britain are entitled to recklessly shoot dead whosever they want and nobody is responsible.

De Menezes was killed by the police force run by Tony Blair’s favourite cop, Sir Ian Blair, who remains in his job for reasons that nobody can explain.

He is either the thickest cop in England, the most incompetent, or the best ass-coverer in a long tradition.

How do you believe a police complaints commission report that finds that it took Blair 24 hours to find out what everyone else knew in the first two minutes – that Menezes was not a terrorist and that his armed police (aided by soliders) had killed the wrong man? Even if this is true, it is ridiculous.

The police complaints commission report which you can read about here doesn’t even try to point the figure at those responsible for organising this killing, but only looks narrowly at one aspect of the aftermath. The whitewash commission had earlier failed to hold anyone responsible for the killing itself. Indeed Cressida Dick, the aptly surnamed police”gold” commander in charge of the control room that presided over the killing of deMenezes, has subsequently been promoted.

The police complaints commission, an organisation as intentionally useless as any in existence, has produced a conclusion so ridiculous that it would be laughable, were not the subject matter so deadly important. Evidence that the police had hidden evidence and changed logs in the case was swept under the carpet earlier.

Harriet Wistrich, my former neighbour, who represents the family of the killed man, is right to be incredulous.

The police complaints commission criticises the head of the anti-terrorist branch, Andy Hayman, not for the killing of de Menezes but for failing to tell his boss, even though everyone else in London (including crime reporters) knew this a day earlier. Hayman had even briefed the Scotland Yard crime reporters’ association (a press club for whom membership is contingent on never straying too far from the Scotland Yard press office) that they’d killed the wrong guy. The idea that Blair was too busy to ask is simply and literally incredible.

Apparently, implied criticism of other officers was removed from the report because they threatened legal action, which is a favourite tactic of police officers when they are cornered and further evidence that the PCC is a toothless watchdog.

Everyone comes out of this stinking. Ministers for creating a dysfunctional monster in the Metropolitan police, and putting in charge the worst policeman in London, a knighted rozzer who should never have been trusted with anything more sensitive than points duty. The police, who are not merely incompetent but dangerous. The police complaints commission, which is a joke from which any members who still have a sense of honour should have resigned long ago.

When they are not busy arresting people for reading out the names of Iraq war dead at the Cenotaph, the Metropolitan Police is primarily concerned with itself. Senior officers are in thrall to a “system reality” constructed by consultants and information systems, driven by targets and the self-aggrandisement that comes to those who preside over them. The police force, not just in London, is divorced from the reality on the ground: that Islamic terrorism is simply not the existential threat it has been presented as. Individual officers are powerless to make much or any difference.

This has not been the first time that British police have killed completely innocent people, as this excellent page notes, and there has been no responsibility assigned or accountability demonstrated. A state in which the police can murder innocent men with impunity is a police state. With the publication of this latest whitewashed report, this fact now stares us in the face, and it is only British hypocrisy that prevents us from seeing it.

The lioness in winter

With this triumphant image of the Queen, Annie Leibovitz has produced one of the great photographic portraits of all time.

The Queen has been astonishing us for years with her sang froid, Miss Leibovitz with her pictures.

Leibovitz’s genius is proven again and again as even a quick review of her work here will show. So here is an epic confrontation between two mythological women, whose backgrounds could not be more different. Leibovitz, self-made artist; Her Majesty, Queen by virtue of genetic and circumstantial accident. The result has exceeded the wildest expectations. It is a seductive and extraordinary portrait made under the most fascinating of circumstances.

The questions I ask are whether Miss Leibovitz’s portrait of Her Majesty may be not just her greatest picture but in the pantheon of the greatest portrait photographs ever taken? Whether this picture may be more revealing, than even could be Her Majesty nude, by Lucien Freud? And finally, is she wearing matching underwear under all that schmutter?

The circumstances of the photograph are notorious and the subject of much current media coverage (which if you are not already thoroughly bored with it, can be tasted here in a piece by Torrin Douglas). As is now known, the Queen had not long before had a little hissy fit in the corridor where – partly one suspects, showing off to the BBC crew that was filming her – she made the comment that she was getting fed up with dressing up this way.

I suspect this was a perfectly accurate summation of her actual feelings. Witty, because it is true. The Queen has been a valiant trooper for many years, sitting for portraits by artists great and usually small. So for once, she allowed herself the privilege of pique. Perhaps to be later regretted. She is, after all, 81.

Nevertheless, as it always does, duty called and she proceeded to the apartment where Miss Leibovitz waited with her crew.

One of the things that will be really fascinating about the BBC documentary in which we are to see this event, when it is aired, and if the sequences are seen in the right order, is to see what really happened when Annie met Elizabeth. (They had met previously at a reception, following which the Queen agreed to sit for the American artist.) This time Miss Leibovitz had her cameras and crew; the monarch her ceremonial robes and her crown intact. “Give me my robe, put on my crown; I have immortal longings in me.”

Miss Leibovitz has remained silent on the affair but I suspect the Queen will have been one of the most challenging of all her subjects if not the most cantankerous. With the minefield of protocol to be negotiated, even allowing for Miss Leibovitz to take advantage of the fact that she is American, the advantage was always going to be with the monarch.

Until she tells her story, and we see what the BBC has got, reconstruction of what happened depends on limited information. Nevertheless, the circumstances of the taking of the actual picture are almost as interesting as the picture itself. The result of these circumstances is rich.

This is the story of two powerful women – each in their own way dependent on image – encountering one another in frankly bizarre circumstances. Here is the one struggling to reconcile duty, grandeur and a desire to collapse into a dressing gown and a pair of slips, and the other, an artist determined to put her own stamp on the situation, to control her subject, and to produce a picture as good as the singular opportunity presented by its subject. We see two women, under pressure, with the Queen perhaps losing her cool, but Miss Leibovitz emerging the winner.

Practiced in control, almost jaded with the process of portraiture, the Queen nevertheless enters this session slightly handicapped – or flustered, perhaps. The state robes are heavy and uncomfortable. For all their weight and importance, they are ever so slightly – absurd. She is a woman who would rather be with her horses and dogs than a smart-aleck New Yorker photographer.

The Queen finally gets to the photo shoot, accompanied by a rabble of BBC cameraman, a soundman, probably a producer, maybe others knowing the BBC, plus her own footman and a lady-in-waiting. She finally gets to sit down, to see this mad-looking American woman with big hair, with her own crew of technicians and tens of thousands of pounds of apparatus, in a gilted corner of Buckingham Palace.

The Queen knows something of Miss Leibovitz from Vanity Fair, one might presume, even if she may have had to ask one of her ladies-in-waiting whether this Susan Sontag had ever been presented. Miss Leibovitz, one might presume, has some stage fright of her own. But she is strong. She likes to be in control. It is an accident that by merely politely attempting to put herself in control of her shoot, she pours salt in exactly the relevant wound.

Suggesting the Queen remove her crown (diadem, actually), seemed to reopen in the mind of the Queen the question of why she was dressed in this absurd get-up and having put it all on, she wasn’t about to start taking it off. I think most of us might say: Quite so, Ma’am. So Miss Leibovitz was (unintentionally) waving a red flag at a bull. So, this is the mis en scene for the meeting of these two.

Miss Leibovitz, who had immediately noticed the beauty of Her Majesty’s hair, may have lost the battle of the wardrobe, or the headgear, anyway, but not the war to capture the Queen offguard. Indeed, the Queen was now just a little rattled.

According to the latest and preumably accurate time sequence reported by the BBC, this is when Miss Leibovitz takes the photograph above. (Obviously, this image is much more impressive is print than in feeble low-bandwidth representation on the Internet.)

Although it might seem the Queen has taken control, by means of refusing Miss Leibovitz’s request, the exchange, and the events in the corridor of which presumably Miss Leibovitz had no knowledge, has opened a space for an entirely exceptional and revealing as well as beautiful and technically dazzling image.

Leibovitz gives us a Queen unsettled in multidimensions of time and space. She is between darkness and light, great age and crafty youth, captured in a time itself literally and metaphorically frozen. It is a photograph in layers, in three dimensions, with the third dimension being time, because this Queen also radiates from within her armour propre the time when she was not a queen but just a little girl, with no expectation of monarchy.

In this photograph, one can detect if not quite see, in the zone between and in front of the eyes, a glimpse of Lillabet the naughty girl, the child who is already conscious and slightly ashamed of her power.

The Queen has voiced what normally she keeps to herself, and knows now she would have behaved better biting her tongue. Instead she has been petulant. A show-off. And rude. She has perturbed Miss Leibovitz, she fears. Here is the Queen in conflict – the naughty girl, the considerate monarch, the woman of duty.

On the other side, there is a photographer, at the height of her powers, who is feeling the jangle of a subject who is already tricky and not cooperating, and of a photo session where she is at risk of losing control. Control, absolute control, is what lies at the soul of the power of Miss Leibovitz’s greatest work. Where she has it, and controls every pixel of the image, her work is transcendental. Where it is lacking in such exactitude, she still often manages results of great brilliance, but not in the same dimension. Here, Leibovitz has lost control (the Queen’s refusal to remove her crown) but Leibovitz has nonetheless managed to exploit her subject’s mood, to produce something we have never seen before.

The photographer is experienced – she has photographed many of the greatest personalities of her time. But The Queen of England would not have been routine for her. Slightly unsettling, I suspect, even for as tough a cookie as Miss Leibovitz.

And the result is a picture of the Queen – but also of naughty Lillabet. It is the part petulant, part defiant childishness in Her Majesty’s expression that to me is truly the startling element in Miss Leibovitz’s photograph. It is the conflict of a childish, natural, wholesome villainy and the crush of duty and responsibility, and of a monarch who is made of both.

This story of this photograph has been one in which newspapers and columnists have striven to produce the greatest howls of outrage at the perfidy of the BBC. So it goes.

In the visceral BBC bashing that followed, the media as usual missed the greatest story – which is that the result of all of this hugger mugger in the palace is the greatest picture of the Queen, one of the greatest pictures (against stiff competition) ever taken by one of our most fabulous photographers, and a candidate by any criteria for one of the great photographs of all time.

* Wackiness has been a characteristic of English royals for a long time having been introduced with the fecund Catherine of Valois, daughter of King Charles VI of France who was mad as a cat. As was the Queen’s second cousin, Lillian Bowes Lyon.