Category Archives: Society & culture

How Polling Works

Following on from my critique of polls and polling companies, I have produced this flow chart that explains how opinion polling works.  Polls don’t exist to measure public opinion, they exist to shape it.  The media and the polling companies enjoy a symbiotic relationship in which each sustains the other.  One supplies a narrative and the other responds by producing a poll to support that narrative.  The media company then produces a story that reinforces the initial narrative,  which uses the poll as ‘evidence’.  You may need to click on the image to view it properly.

how-polls-workEven when polls are patently nonsensical or illogical,  their ‘findings’ are lauded by commentators and their followers, who cite them as evidence to support one narrative or another.  One such poll is the recent ComRes poll , which claimed that “most people” think the Tories would do a better job at running the National Health Service this winter than Labour.  The same poll also claimed that “most people” thought the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, was doing a “poor job”.  Make of that what you will.  In any case, the media’s commentators seized on it and cherry-picked its ‘findings’.  The negative narratives that had already been produced to put the Labour Party in a bad light were thus reinforced by this shoddy poll.

Wash, rinse and repeat: that’s how the process works.

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Filed under Journalism, Media, Opinion polls, propaganda

The Casey Review: Not Worth The Paper It’s Printed On

Yesterday saw the release of the Casey Review into integration. Commissioned by the Cameron government, its stated intention was to review social integration in Britain.  However, it merely added to the already poisonous anti-Muslim narrative, which is tirelessly promoted by the likes of The S*n, The Daily Mail and The Daily Express. Was the report properly researched? No.

Let’s start with the most obvious question: who is Louise Casey?  As this Guardian article from 2002 notes, there is very little biographical information available. No details of the schools she attended or whether or not she’s attended and institution of higher or even further education.  Even her Wikipedia entry provides scant details save for her career highlights.  This has got The Cat scratching his head: how and why did she manage to get into a position where she was permitted to produce government reports?  In the words of Toyah Wilcox: it’s a mystery.

Casey apparently had a turbulent childhood and once considered sleeping rough. She then worked at a holiday camp. That was followed by a spell in the old Department of Social Security where she handled payments for homeless people. From there her trajectory took her to St Mungo’s and a number of other charities. It was from her last job at Shelter that she was plucked from her relative obscurity to lead Tony Blair’s Respect Task Force. Yet, at no point does Casey appear to have studied a social sciences subject either at school or at tertiary level, nor does she appear to have any experience of peer-reviewed research. Yet, the mass media accepted her review without asking pertinent questions about its validity.  Yesterday’s Guardian, for example, was one such newspaper that accepted its ‘findings’ prima facie. As I write this, there is a Commons debate on the Casey Review taking place. Even here, the review is uncritically accepted as ‘evidence’ of “segregated neighbourhoods”.  One glaring aspect of the Casey Review is its obsessive focus on Muslims.  Indeed, it merely repeats the same kinds of narratives that can be found in any Tory-leaning newspaper on any given day of the week.

At no point in the Casey Review is there any mention of how the research, if it exists, was conducted.  There is no mention of methodologies used nor is there any mention of references. This begs the question: how can this review be accepted as the basis for future policy making when it is clearly nothing less than a flagrant example of a confirmation bias? In academia, steps are taken to produce research that is valid. This means that the research must first, be peer-reviewed and second, the researcher must act self-reflexively. Pierre Bourdieu and Loic Wacquant (1992) were insistent on the need for researchers to analyse their social and professional positions when conducting research, since objectivity is research or journalism, for that matter, is a chimera.  Yet such things are of no importance to ideologues, MPs and tabloid newspapers, who will seize upon any passing ‘report’ as a confirmation of their deeply held biases. They will, however deny any accusations of bias with the weasel words to which we have become so accustomed to hearing.

Casey herself, far from being a researcher, is a civil servant; a role that she found herself in thanks to the grace of Tony Blair.  Legitimacy has thus been bestowed on her by the consecrating authorities of the government, Parliament and the mass media (Bourdieu, 2003).  Her title of ‘Dame’ also lends an added degree of legitimacy, thus in the eyes of journalists she’s some kind of authority in some field or other.

Casey is by no means unique in producing reports that have little basis in actual research.  As I reported in 2011, Localis, a think-tank with connections to Policy Exchange, produced a report titled ‘Principles for Social Housing Reform‘.  Rather than propose useful solutions to the housing crisis, it reflected the class disgust of it authors, Stephen Greenhalgh and John JC Moss.  Its epistemological assumption rests on the notion of “broken neighbourhoods” (sic) rather than the real issue like the acute shortage of social housing.  Instead, social housing is seen as an impediment to penny-pinching local authorities and the report wrongly places the blames on social housing for social problems. Unlike the Casey Review, however, it claims to be peer-reviewed with its peers drawn from like-minded Council leaders to the  Chief Executives of housing associations.

Evidence-free reports like the Casey Review rarely ask a research question and tend to be written according to the biases of their authors.  They do not offer genuine solutions to the pressing social and economic problems that face the country and do nothing more than provide further fuel for hatred and division.  Reports and poorly conducted research can either be useless or worse: downright dangerous. In any case, they exist to flatter the tiny minds  of government ministers and their ideological bedfellows. We deserve better than this.

References

Bourdieu, P. (2003). Distinction: A social critique of the judgement of taste. Harvard University Press.

Bourdieu, P., & Wacquant, L. J. (1992). An invitation to reflexive sociology. University of Chicago press.

 

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Filed under Government & politics, Society & culture

Fake News?

I was somewhat amused to read that Tom Watson, Labour’s Deputy Leader, was going to “investigate” fake news sites. I was even more amused when I discovered that he’d appointed Michael Dugher, a man who has already penned articles for The S*n to lead the, er, inquiry.

Like many other Twitter users, I asked Watson if his investigation was going to look at the production of fake news stories in The S*n, The Daily Mail and the Daily Express. I have yet to receive a reply.

So what is ‘fake news’? Doesn’t the British press publish fake news stories on a daily basis? Apparently the first focus of this ‘investigation’ is The Canary, a site whose business model is essentially based on clickbait-style headlines. Many of The Canary’s articles tend to be drawn from other stories that are arranged to produce a particular narrative (a lot of bloggers do it). It’s mostly comment.

It is also claimed that The Canary carries links to conspiracy theories but after a quick look around the site, I have failed to find any. However, it would be fair to say that The Canary is rather pro-Corbyn. Perhaps this is what Watson hates the most about the site. But being pro-Corbyn doesn’t mean The Canary is guilty of producing ‘fake news’ stories. Yet, this question of informational fakeness begs the question regarding the conspiracy sites run by Alex Jones. These include Prison Planet and Infowars. What about them? Aren’t they guilty of producing ‘fake news’? Watson and Dugher may find it harder to pursue Jones because he lives in the United States. The Canary is based in Britain.

So what about the fake news produced by official news outlets? The BBC has also produced fake news stories. Take the Battle of Orgreave, the BBC stitched together footage to give viewers the impression that the militarised police were being charged by a violent mob of miners. The reverse was true.

British newspapers routinely make up news stories and some are more guilty of this than others. This infamous front page appeared in The Sunday Sport in 1988.

 

The Daily Express is best known for its front page health scare stories and its slavish devotion to the Cult of Diana. It also supports UKIP and frequently prints hate stories about “loony lefties” and “luvvies”. This June, it published its Top 10 of ‘barmy’ EU decisions. They were either fake or sensible decisions.

One of the most persistent myths served up as a truth is the ‘straight banana’ story produced by Boris Johnson, a man who regards the £200, 000 for each article he writes as “chicken feed”.

Two years ago, The Daily Express published a fake news story that claimed that “half of all British Muslims supported ISIS”. The story was later pulled from its website. In 2011, its sister paper, The Sunday Express claimed that the EU wanted to “merge the UK and France”.  This prompted Roy Greenslade to write in his Guardian column that “nothing could be done” about these stories. Why not? Aren’t these papers equally as guilty of misinforming the public as the supposedly fake news sites?

Like the Daily Express, The Daily Mail is a tireless publisher of hate stories and has spent the best part of its history stirring up hatred of minorities. Last year, it printed a story that claimed Ralph Miliband “hated” Britain. There was no evidence to support this claim and even in the face of criticism from many quarters, it was unrepentant and even went so far as to repeat its spurious claims.

It would also appear that some people are unable to tell the difference between satire and fake news.  The Daily Mash, Newsthump, The Onion, Waterford Whispers and other sites produce satirical stories that resemble news stories. There is a point to this:  to satirize the so-called ‘free press’ one needs to adopt its motifs and ridicule them. Will Watson and Dugher pursue them too?

Media Studies is often derided by its critics as an “easy subject” that permits students to “ponce about with video cameras”. The real reason its detractors in the press and the political world hate the subject so much is because it provides students with the tools to analyse and critique the media. The last thing these two groups of powerful people wants is a media savvy public that calls out bullshit when they see it.

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Filed under Free Press Myth, Journalism, Media, propaganda, Society & culture

The Fraudulent Anti-Elitism Of The Right

Nigel Farage and UKIP have, for the past 10 years or more, cast themselves as anti-elite and anti-establishment. The mass media, for the most part, has accepted this without question and have even referred to UKIP and the politics they represent as “anti-politics”. This is a curious formulation that has been coined by the mass media to describe a form of political expression that supposedly opposes mainstream politics. Yet it overlooks the fact that politics is more than stuffed shirts speaking in soundbites and platitudes in the Daily Politics studio. It takes place in everyday life and can be encapsulated in the maxim “The personal is political”.

Guy Debord (1957) observed that the mass media refuses to allow any space to contradictory or marginalized ideas. This almost always means that left-wing ideas are effectively excluded or are otherwise ridiculed. The mass media has thus constructed a simulation of anti-establishment politics in place of genuine anti-establishment politics. The anti-EU ranting of Farage, Evans, Nuttall, et al is seen somehow as having greater legitimacy than the Nordic-style social democracy that is proposed by the Corbynite faction of the Labour Party, which is characterized by the media, The Tories, UKIP and the Labour Right as “dangerous”. The only danger posed by Corbyn’s Labour is to the establishment that has shoved neoliberalism down our throats for the last 35 years.

As I pointed out in this blog from 2014, UKIP’s anti-elite and anti-establishment credentials are entirely bogus. This is a party that is led by former Tories, billionaires, City traders and other bourgeois types.

UKIP and parties like it provide a receptacle for voters’ grievances against the establishment. They divert their energies to the dead-ends of xenophobia, bigotry and hatred of the Other, rather than towards the structural problems that have been created by the establishment that keep people in their place or otherwise divide them. At the risk of contravening Godwin’s Law, even Hitler and his Nazi Party cast themselves as anti-establishment and anti-elite by appearing to oppose moneyed interests. We know how that ended.

Reference

Debord, G. (1957). Report on the Construction of Situations. Available at: http://www.bopsecrets.org/SI/report.htm accessed 7 March 2010

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Filed under Government & politics, Ideologies, Media, Society & culture, UKIP

Opinions Are Not Sacrosanct

I’ve lost count of the times someone on Facebook or Twitter has told me that I should “respect” their opinion. I always tell them, “I don’t give a fuck about your opinion” and they, like some needy child, will always wail, moan and stamp their feet and accuse me of all kinds of things. As someone once said “Opinions are like arseholes, everyone has one”. Those who offer their opinions en lieu of a reasoned argument need to bear this in mind.

Opinions also tend to be confused for coherent and well-constructed arguments. There is nothing well-constructed about opinions, they are the product of an emotional reaction to someone or some thing, or they’ve been produced by the media and repeated without question . Yet, if you use the word ‘argument’ in your response, these people will confuse it with the word ‘quarrel’ or ‘disagreement’. An argument or a thesis is based on reading/study and is supported by the production of evidence. Opinions require no evidence. Hence, they are useless in a debate.

So what’s the difference between an opinion and an argument?

An example of an opinion is “I like McDonald’s burgers because they’re nice”. That statement is based on how a person feels about McDonald’s in relation to Burger King or any other fast food outlet. It is entirely subjective. There is no evidence to support the statement.

An example of an argument is “I hate McDonald’s because they refuse to recognise unions on their premises and have sacked unionised workers. Therefore, I boycott them”. Here, I have not only made a statement, but I have supported it with some evidence in the form of a link and given you my reasons for disliking McDonald’s. If I wished I could have added more evidence to support my thesis.

Recently, anti-Corbynites, Tories and Kippers have shouted in near unison that “Jeremy Corbyn is unelectable”. There is no evidence offered and the opinion is based almost entirely on narratives produced by opinion-formers in the mass media. If you attempt to press them to offer an explanation for this narrative, they will almost always mention a recent poll. But are polls evidence? No. Why do I say that? Because polls are not peer-reviewed and those who interpret the data aren’t self-reflexive. Moreover, the way in which respondents are led to a conclusion is rarely, if ever, discussed. Polling companies will preface a question with a statement like “It has been said that Jeremy Corbyn is unelectable”. Already, the notion that Corbyn is “unelectable” has been fixed in the respondent’s mind and they will offer a Pavlovian response on cue.  Remember, these are called opinion polls for a good reason.

Polls don’t exist to measure public opinion. On the contrary, they exist to shape it.

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Filed under Opinion polls, Research, Society & culture

Culture, Class And Loathing: The Establishment’s Distorted Views Of The Working Class

In recent years I have noticed a tendency on the part of mainstream politicians and the media to make blanket generalisations of the working class. For them, the working class is uniformly illiterate, ignorant, racist, xenophobic, eat Big Macs and slob around in tracksuit bottoms that have been purchased from Sports Direct. In reality, these supposed characteristics are nothing less than middle class prejudices that have been projected onto an entire social formation. These views have been helped along by the appearance of ‘fly-on-the-wall’ documentary series like Channel 4’s Benefits Street, which depict the working classes as feckless and indolent.

Middle class anxieties about the subaltern classes are nothing new.  In the 19th century, Music Hall, which was popular with the urban working classes, was seen as a site of class conflict because it was created from below by the people  (qv. Kift, 1996). Some Music Halls, like Hoxton Hall, were shut down on police advice, while other halls began to appeal to middle class audiences. By the 1920s, Music Hall was dead and had been replaced by the more respectable genre of variety theatre. The working class performers who played the halls were eventually forced out to make way for respectable middle class performers.

We expect the Tories to approach the working class through fictional characters and their view to be informed by a handful of tropes.  This is in spite of their continued claim that there is no class war or that class “doesn’t matter” or “doesn’t exist”.  When John Prescott infamously remarked “we’re all middle class now” he was unconsciously acknowledging his party’s abandonment of the working class. His party leader, Tony Blair, left working class communities to the predations of UKIP and the far-right. Indeed, the party under Blair helped to foster an atmosphere of intolerance and hatred that has now been given a voice in post-EU referendum Britain.  Instead of facing down Michael Howard’s racist dog whistle election campaign in 2005, it started mimicking them by producing its own version in Gordon Brown’s “British jobs for British workers” speech in 2007.

A few years ago, a blog written by Daniel Hannan for the Telegraph used an image of Wayne and Waynetta Slob to provide a visual representation of the working class, who it also suggested were ‘intergenerationally workshy’. This theme, it would appear, has been enthusiastically adopted by the right-wing Labour politicians and their allies in the Murdoch and Rothermere press. They heap trope upon trope by making unsubstantiated claims about working class culture. One such claim is that McDonald’s, the American fast food chain, is universally appreciated by working class people. When Labour banned the chain from its conference last year, the right-wing of the party saw an opportunity to indulge in some slack thinking.

Defending McDonald’s, right-wing Labour MP, Wes Streeting, claimed.

“McDonald’s may not be the trendy falafel bar that some people in politics like to hang out at, but it’s enjoyed by families across the country,”

Streeting would possibly deny that he was referring to the working class in this statement to The S*n (also seen as a working class institution by out of touch parliamentarians) but the signifiers are there for all to see. “Falafel”, for example, is seen as a middle class food by lazy-thinkers, but on what evidence is this view based? None that I can see. Don’t working class people eat falafels? Of course they do. How about middle class people? Don’t they eat McDonald’s burgers too? Yes, they do and they shop at Sports Direct. But who are these “families” of which he speaks? They are no more than line drawings of a group of people who have been observed at a distance through the lens of bourgeois privilege. The mention of “families” is also deployed to add ballast to a weak argument.

But Streeting’s words also dovetail into the notion that working class people don’t support Jeremy Corbyn, who is generally depicted by his detractors as a middle class out-of-touch metropolitan intellectual that fails to “connect” with the working class.  Yet, there is no evidence to support this view and it is likely that the Streetings of this world are projecting their own prejudices onto the working class. They are supported in this by the media, whose lazy-thinking hacks are more than happy to adopt this view uncritically and spread it about like so much muck on a field.

In an article in The New Statesman, Streeting wrote:

First up, a declaration of interest. I used to work in McDonald’s. Serving customers helped me pay my way through my A-levels. I enjoyed it, for the most part.

Unlike those legions of working class people who are forced to accept jobs at McDonald’s by the Jobcentre, Streeting’s time at the food chain was a relatively short one. His path to a political future smoothed by being a middle class young man from a middle class family. Once he completed his ‘A’ Levels, he was off to Cambridge University and eventually the House of Commons via his presidency of the National Union of Students. For those working class people unable to find jobs that pay well or go to university, they were abandoned to the likes of ruthless sweatshop employers like Sports Direct or forced into ‘self-employment’ and other forms of insecure employment. Their condition is blamed on immigrants – regardless of where they come from.

We have been told by the media and politicians that the working class voted overwhelmingly in favour of leaving the European Union and this was seen, on the one hand, as evidence of their insularity, ignorance and xenophobia and on the other as “two fingers up to the establishment”. This sentiment was uttered,  without a trace of irony, by same establishment that has exploited them for generations. It is true, however, that working class fears were manipulated and exploited by superficial postmodern politicians, but if we look at parts of Southern England, it would be reasonable to suggest that the middle class also voted overwhelmingly for Brexit. So what’s going on?

Postmodern politicians are seeking a mandate to ram through short-sighted policies that propose further cuts to public spending. To do this, they claim that we “must listen to the working class’s fears” and limit immigration numbers. Yet when it comes to demands for more council housing, proper wages, equal access to education and healthcare, a decent standard of living, the working classes are completely ignored. Instead, the politicians play to xenophobic class fractions that buy into the narrative that foreigners are taking jobs and being advanced up council house waiting lists over long-term residents. Only a month ago, Labour right-winger, Rachel Reeves attempted to exploit these fears by channelling Powellite rhetoric. No doubt this middle class woman would claim a ‘mandate’ from the working class too.

Labour politicians like Reeves, Streeting and Woodcock and their friends in the media subscribe to the bourgeois view that the working class en masse are illiterate and ignorant. Yet, there is a long history of an educated working class, who placed great emphasis on reading and study. My own family, for instance, is part of this working class fraction. My grandfather, who worked as a boy miner and joined the army as a young man, was a self-educated historian. My mother was an amateur Egyptologist, while my father was a mostly self-taught linguist. I was the first in my family to go to university. Yet, the very institutions of working class education that my family and those like us took for granted: the public libraries, trades unions and mechanics institutes have been systematically eroded or destroyed. Libraries were actually closed under the Tory-Lib Dem coalition. One Tory even claimed (and I paraphrase) that “if you can’t afford to buy books, then why should we provide them for free in public libraries”? The unstated aim of this philistinism is to keep working class people in the perpetual darkness of ignorance and superstition. If people are denied access to knowledge and learning, it makes them easier to manipulate. Hack politicians know this only too well.

For all the talk of a universally ignorant working class, there is no mention of middle class ignorants. The middle class and the aristocracy contains just as many xenophobic, reactionary and anti-intellectual elements as the working class, but no one dares to ascribe these characteristics to those classes as a whole.  It’s past time that the generalisations made of the working class were challenged.

Reference

Kift, D. (1996). The Victorian Music Hall: Culture, Class, and Conflict. Cambridge University Press.

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Filed under social class, Society & culture

No Compassion For Refugees Please, We’re British

“Charity begins at home” at least this is what Britain’s “no refugees here” types have been saying on comments threads on The Guardian and Independent websites. Ironically (or perhaps not), these are the very same people who would not only claim that “people are receiving to much in social security payments”, they would also tell you that the existence of foodbanks proves there is a “food shortage” in this country. Logic? It was never there in the first place.

Many people like to think of The Guardian and The Independent as liberal newspapers with socially liberal readerships. In the case of The Indy, this notion was blown out of the water by the paper’s support for the Tories at the last election and in the case of The Graun, there has been a steady rightward drift in its editorial orientation for years. Sadly, however, the change in direction for these papers has also attracted legions of right-wing racists and keyboard warriors, all of whom have been drawn to the stories of what is now being called the “Refugee Crisis” (formerly the “Migrant Crisis”), a crisis that was entirely created by the actions of the so-called West.

Yet the idea that there is a cause behind the Refugee Crisis is barely mentioned by the tabloid hacks and their pals in Parliament. Instead, in the mind of the knuckledragger, these people are coming here variously for “economic reasons” or the “presence of McDonalds and KFC”, or some such nonsense, and not because they are fleeing the conflicts and tyrannies that the West has created and sustained for decades. Causality, as far as these people are concerned, is a hospital drama on BBC1.

Readers, I have been disgusted by the lack of compassion shown by these keyboard warriors and slackwits but I have been even more disgusted by The Indy’s and The Graun’s tolerance of the vile hatred that’s being openly expressed on its comments threads. If I want to read that kind of shite, I can always go to St*rmfr*nt. Dig?

I always remember reading about this country’s hostile reaction towards the thousands of Jewish refugees who were fleeing the Nazis in the 1930s. This article by Anne Karpf from 2002 – in The Guardian – recalls that those years.

The parallels between past and present are striking. Just as the majority of Jewish refugees were admitted less for compassionate reasons than to meet the shortage of domestic servants, so today’s refugees tend to do the low-paid catering and cleaning jobs spurned by the native British. And just as in spring 1940, when German Jews were interned on the Isle of Man, British newspapers blurred the distinctions between refugee, alien and enemy, so today, according to Alasdair Mackenzie, coordinator of Asylum Aid, “There’s general confusion in many newspapers between an asylum seeker and someone from abroad – everyone gets tarred with the same brush.”

Hostility towards the refugees was stirred up by the virulently anti-immigration rag The Daily (Hate) Mail. Many people internalised its xenophobic and anti-Semitic messages and demanded the government refuse to land any refugees. Déjà Vu? Malheureusement, oui.

The comment below appeared on this Guardian article by the Green Party’s Caroline Lucas. Her name, alone, is enough the get hordes of slavering knuckledraggers thumping their chests and declaring themselves the defenders of “common sense”.

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Britons would probably be far more receptive to the idea of allowing many more refugees into Britain had the country not experience almost two decades of mass immigration in which over five million people had entered Britain.

Here, we have a comment in which the views expressed are little different to those expressed by UKIP’ Nigel Farage (or that Nuttall wanker) on a weekly basis. Although it avoids offensive language and isn’t obvious in its racism, its premise is based on the notion that there has been an “invasion”. Yet, this commenter offers no proof for the numbers they’re using; they are seemingly axiomatic.

On the other hand, this commenter doesn’t disguise his hatred. This is what passes for wit.

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So it turns out now that the guy who recklessly ended up drowning his wife and children had turned down asylum.

Oh.

Sickening.

The government’s response to the crisis has been characteristically Tory: blame “people smugglers” and keep repeating the word “criminals”. It’s as if the refugees themselves have become secondary to the need to punish “those responsible for the trafficking”. In April, in response to refugees drowning in the Mediterranean Sea, Michael ‘Polly’ Portillo, the son of a Spanish republican refugee who fled Franco’s dictatorship, said they should be “sent back where they came from” – and should be “dumped on a Libyan beach”. And you thought he’d been rehabilitated? No way, he’s the same as he ever was.

This nation has been governed by bullies for centuries and people have internalised the bullying to such an extent that they, themselves, have become bullies. This is evident from the lack of compassion shown to refugees. The idea that “charity begins at home” is noble one but one which is now being used dishonestly to bolster the fash’s absurd claim that this country is “full up”.

A few days ago, Cameron appeared on television to give an account of his sluggish response to the crisis. He told the reporter with a straight face that the solution is to “bring peace in Middle East”. But that’s after he’s bombed it back to the Stone Age first.

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Filed under Africa, Eritrea, immigration, Journalism, Libya, Media, Middle East, News/Current Affairs, propaganda, racism, Society & culture, Sudan, Syria, World