The what's NOT on guide
New blood, new sports
The cunning fox once again managed to wile its way into the headlines this summer, as debates over the ethics of foxhunting raged. But of all the things that people could get passionate about, why pick on the real-life Basil Brush?
The debate about the rights and wrongs of foxhunting is no longer concerned with the wellbeing, or otherwise, of the fox. Many in the anti-hunting lobby admit that they are not opposed to the killing of foxes per se: they are only opposed to the 'cruel' method of hunting with dogs. The pro-hunting lobby argues that foxes are a menace to farmers, and that dressing up to the nines to chase them through the countryside on horseback is an effective way of controlling their numbers. Both arguments are equally unconvincing: and neither explains how foxhunting has become a national issue.
Where you stand on foxhunting has come to symbolise where you stand in New Britain. As anti-hunting Tory Anne Widdecombe said, 'the hunt [is] a colourful feature of Olde England and in Olde England it firmly belongs'. The hunt, with its garb and its peculiar traditions, is seen as a powerful symbol of Britain's stuffy past - with no place in the new and improved 'People's Britain'. To be opposed to foxhunting is not just to be on the side of the animals - it is to be on the side of modernity and civility, against the elitist traditions of yesteryear.
No wonder New Labour is so attracted to the issue. All it takes to define 'New Britain' is, it seems, a bit of easy toff-bashing and some dewy-eyed concern for wild animals. Promising a ban off-the-cuff on live TV is all Blair has to do to show that the government 'really cares' - and that it can do without those emotionally unintelligent country folk who get a kick out of the hunt.
If old Britain was a Berkeley hunt, New Britain is a vegan cafe where Nutrasweet fun is the only kind on offer. What a choice.
Sally Millard is organising an LM debate on foxhunting.
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Fighting fire with petrol
The NSPCC specialises in terrifying parents with its 'child safety' campaigns: and in August it received a well-deserved rebuke. Even Michele Elliott, director of Kidscape, joined the chorus condemning the 'Open Spaces' campaign for causing parents excessive and unnecessary worry about their children's wellbeing.
Was this a change of heart for the woman who set up Britain's first 'stranger danger' campaign and who has become famous for telling children to 'run, tell and hide' whenever somebody unfamiliar approaches? Not really. Like some of the other critics of this campaign, Elliott laid into its crudest features, while endorsing the notion that parents should be more worried about other potential dangers facing their kids.
'Open Spaces' focused on parents' greatest fear - 'stranger danger' and the possibility that their children could be abducted and murdered by a stranger. Critics rightly pointed out that the NSPCC was making parents worry about something that was extremely unlikely to happen to their kids. Since the 1950s an average of seven children a year (out of 12 million) have been murdered by a stranger - meaning that your child is more likely to be struck by lightning.
Yet those criticising the focus on stranger danger tended only to refocus attention on the more 'everyday' risks facing kids - such as accidents in playgrounds, the danger on the roads, and child abuse in the home. For some, attacking the NSPCC's narrow campaign on strangers was a way of calling for closer monitoring of children's everyday lives and relationships.
In this way the Express warned of over-fearful parents overprotecting their children, running a full-page article on 'Why girls and boys can't come out to play' - alongside a feature on the perils of ordinary outdoor play, entitled 'Dangers that grow in the garden'. Others were keen to point out that it was not strangers who posed a threat to children, but the people they know - sometimes even their parents.
The criticisms of the NSPCC are to be welcomed. One of the biggest everyday problems facing kids today is the level of their parents' paranoia, which prevents them from making the most out of their childhood. But why can't campaigners and commentators focus on this very real issue, rather than flitting from one minor or mythical danger to another?
Tiffany Jenkins is co-founder of Families for Freedom.
Anybody reading a newspaper in August might be forgiven for thinking that watching an eclipse of the sun was a highly dangerous activity. In the run-up to the big day, Professor Liam Donaldson, the government's chief medical officer, suggested that we should view the eclipse from the safety of our homes, on TV.
Here at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich we were flooded with calls from potential eclipse-watchers concerned about their eyes. At one point I was taking around 50 calls a day myself. Some were parents, wanting to know the times of the eclipse so that they could keep their children inside. Others rang worried about the safety of viewers, the danger to their pets, and the heightened risk of crime due to reduced lighting.
The official warnings seem only to have increased confusion. The sun was no more dangerous than usual - it was perfectly safe to look at the eclipse through approved filters, and it would have been far more responsible for the government to offer people a safe way to view the eclipse than to warn against viewing it entirely.
What was lost in all the hype and worry over the eclipse was any idea about why you should bother looking at it at all. For most people, the sheer beauty of an eclipse is reason enough. And from a scientific point of view, astronomers have been watching and studying the sun using eclipses for years.
It is primarily due to studies of the sun during eclipses in the nineteenth century that we know as much about the sun as we do. In the 1870s Norman Lockyer used a technique known as spectroscopy to determine the chemical composition of the sun's photosphere, corona and prominences - something which could only be done during an eclipse. Possibly the most famous eclipse experiment of all took place in 1919, when Arthur Eddington used apparent changes in the position of the stars (due to the bending of light by gravitation) to prove Einstein's theory of general relativity.
In less anxious times, a total eclipse was seen as an opportunity to view a beautiful natural phenomenon and to learn about the sun. Today it is seen just as another good reason to stay indoors.
Emily Winterburn is assistant astronomy officer at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich.
A fuller version of this commentary is published at: http://www.informinc.co.uk/LM/discuss/ commentary/08-09-99-ECLIPSE.html
Patrons of the number 36 (and 17 other bus routes) will soon be reassured by the winning entry in Lewisham council's millennium bug poster competition for under-18s.
Whoever wins, happy commuters will be told to 'Be prepared, not scared' (unfortunately entrants do not get to make up their own slogan). This competition is the latest attempt to stop us panicking about the bug - just as opinion polls show that most of us realise the bug is an endangered species. Let's hope the kids don't have nightmares painting pictures of giant cockroaches. Perhaps New Labour could rename it the millennium 'gremlin' and make it look like a fairy - that might help settle our nerves.
Public relations firms are the latest to join in the fray against Y2K fear. Special Y2K teams have been set up to help companies reassure their clients. The CEO of Burson-Marsteller said, 'We believe that Y2K has the potential to be a major disruption for companies dealing with the public, even if not a single computer malfunctions on new year's day. That's because the millennium bug is no longer just a problem of technology but one of perception, too'.
The idea that we have the millennium bug in our heads says more about the insecurities of the business world than about the public. My vote for coolest PR response came from Volkswagen, who advertised the new Beetle as the 'Y2K bug'.
For those of you getting fed up with what one correspondent described as the 'media virus' spawned by the millennium bug, you might want to chill out to the Y2K song. Novelty songster Loudon Wainwright III recorded the ditty 'to alert people to the Y2K problem and to cash in on the paranoia'. My favourite lines: 'Well I saw you on the plane playing solitaire/On that little laptop, with nary a care/Life's easy now, but it could get hard/Pretty soon you're gonna have to use a deck of real cards.'
Mark Beachill is a computer programmer.
The what's NOT on guide
AUTO-ABUSE: Members of the Professional Teachers' Association called for a ban on parking within a quarter-of-a-mile radius of schools during peak hours. One delegate described parents driving their kids to school as 'autoholism'. Meanwhile, while encouraging listeners to participate in an NSPCC campaign allowing children to be noisy, Radio 1 dj Zoë Ball asked people to phone in unusual ideas for making noise, and joked that 'maybe you could throw the kids down the stairs'. A BBC spokesman felt obliged to apologise. HIT AND MISSED: Among the ritual complaints against rap and hip hop following the 'drive-by' shooting of dj Tim Westwood came the call for this violent music to be banned, because it besmirched 'the heritage of rock'n'roll'. J Edgar Hoover and his successors might well ask about a 'heritage' which includes 'There's a riot going on', 'Hey Joe (where you going with that gun in your hand?)' and 'I shot the sheriff'. BEACHED: Locals were banned from five miles of Tuscan beaches near the holiday villa occupied by Tony Blair and family. Small wonder if Italians believe that Brits are even worse than Germans. OUT OF THE MOUTHS: When an American mom complained about her son's Austin Powers 'action figure' which asked 'do I make you horny, baby, do I?', a spokesman for McFarlane Toys explained that the adult version had been sold him by mistake: the children's doll asks 'would you care for a shag?' instead.
Compiled by Andrew Calcutt
Reproduced from LM issue 123, September 1999