Monday, 18 October 2021

Talking about The Trick at Hay’s Winter Weekend 

I’m delighted to be chairing an event at the Hay Festival’s Winter Weekend on Saturday 27 November at 7pm – interviewing the writer Owen Sheers about his new BBC One drama ‘The Trick’, based on the ClimateGate Affair, when climate scientists had their emails hacked and selectively published back in 2009. We’ll also be joined by one of the scientists at the centre of the furore, Professor Trevor Davies from the University of East Anglia.

There’s so much to discuss, the challenge will be deciding what questions to prioritise for the hour we have. You can join us in person or online and tickets are on sale now.

Thursday, 15 July 2021

Counting Chickens 

As part of my research for Rivercide, I’ve spent a lot of time digging into exactly how many chickens there are in the Wye catchment.

The stars of our programme were Christine Hugh-Jones, an activist with the Brecon and Radnor branch of the Campaign for the Protection of Rural Wales, and Alison Caffyn, who wrote her PhD thesis at Cardiff University about the intensive poultry industry.

Christine and Alison have been keeping a tally of chicken numbers in the counties of Powys in Wales and Herefordshire in England by trawling through all the planning applications on the councils’ websites and records – and doing further research, including by Google satellite, to check on whether older units are still in operation or not.

They undertook this forensic and painstaking work because they couldn’t see that anybody else was doing it. They believe that the cumulative impact of all these birds in a concentrated area matters – for ammonia impacts, for risks of avian flu, for its effect on the environment and local residents and for the levels of chicken manure that contribute to the overload of phosphorous in the Wye and its tributaries.

Christine and Alison estimate that there are around 20 million chickens in the Wye catchment.

Christine counted over 10 million birds in Powys, with over 4 million of them residing in the Wye catchment area.

Alison totted up the total number of birds in Herefordshire and estimates that there are over 17 million, with just under 16 million in the Wye catchment’s area of the county.

They turned their data into a very helpful map showing the locations of the intensive poultry units with information about how many buildings and birds were registered at each spot.

I wanted to know whether the authorities had any comparable records or official data.

Natural Resources Wales told me that they don’t monitor the total number of chickens in the Wye catchment. Nor do they have a map of the poultry units. However, units with more than 40,000 birds require a permit to operate and NRW have records for those. They told me that their 30 units with permits in the Welsh Wye catchment have a total of 4.5 million places, though pointed out that not all these units will be fully stocked at all times. That said, they stressed, “it’s important to note that poultry units which house over 40,000 chickens make up a small proportion of the total number of poultry units in the catchment. The overall number of chickens housed in the catchment is therefore significantly higher than the 4.5m housed in permitted units. We don’t hold information on the number of chickens in the unpermitted units as we don’t have a direct role in monitoring those units under current regulations.”

Did you get that? NRW say that there are ‘significantly’ more than 4.5 million chickens on the Welsh side of the Wye catchment. So their estimate exceeds Christine’s!

Powys County Council simply said that they don’t hold the data I requested and suggested that I could search for poultry on their log of planning applications. This would entail doing the laborious work that Christine and her comrades have already done. Clearly nobody at Powys County Council is even attempting to keep count, which begs the question, how on earth can they assess the cumulative impact of poultry developments? The answer is that they can’t.

Meanwhile on the English side of the border, I recently received some rather illuminating responses.

The Environment Agency told me that, like Natural Resources Wales, they only have records for their permitted sites, which are those containing over 40,000 birds. They said they have 84 permitted sites in Herefordshire with an estimated total of 16,891,696 birds. Again, as this figure doesn’t include the smaller poultry units, the true total will be higher. They don’t have a breakdown for the Wye catchment but I note that their total for the county, just in the permitted units, is approaching 17 million making Alison’s estimate of over 17 million chickens for all sizes of units in the whole of Herefordshire look conservative.

Herefordshire Council have been working hard to find out how many chickens could be in the county – revealing, in the process, that they haven’t expressed much curiosity before and clearly haven’t been keeping count. A dereliction of their planning duty to assess cumulative impact. Still, last week they shared data which they obtained from Defra’s Animal and Plant Health Agency which keeps records for the purpose of assessing for animal disease outbreaks and the like. From this data, they’ve estimated that there are approximately 16 million chickens in Herefordshire, including small producers as well as large commercial units. This breaks down as: 14,543,420 meat rearing chickens; 606,931 egg laying chickens; and 1,088,372 breeding for egg laying.

So those figures are a little lower than the Environment Agency’s figures, but still in the same ballpark and add weight to Alison’s estimates.   The most extraordinary part of all this is that the Nutrient Management Board – a body set up in 2014 to address the concentration of phosphorous in the river Wye – released a draft Nutrient Management Plan a few weeks ago which stated:

“There are 195 Intensive Poultry Units in the Wye catchment, with more than 9m birds generating 2040 tonnes of phosphate per year, most of which is spread on farmland as fertiliser”

I suppose “more than 9 million” could mean 20 million. But it seems rather disingenuous.

Where did that figure come from? Were the authors of the Nutrient Management Action Plan deliberately seeking to misrepresent the scale of the intensive poultry industry in the Wye catchment or are they that ignorant of the facts?

Either way, it’s a damning example of institutional failure.

PS – I’d really like to know the source for that 9 million. Where did it come from? Please contact me if you know!

UPDATE: I’ve since been informed that the 9 million figure in the NMB’s draft report was based on 2010 farm census data and has now been removed. It’s likely that their forthcoming report will confirm that there are an estimated 20 million birds in the Wye catchment.

Tuesday, 23 February 2021

Rivercide featured in Resurgence & Ecologist magazine 

I’m delighted to have two pieces in the March/April edition of Resurgence & Ecologist magazine, which has a river theme.

The first is a short piece promoting Rivercide, the live investigative documentary I’m making with George Monbiot and Franny Armstrong – and that’s free to read online at this link.

The second is a feature about the groundbreaking citizens science project run by the Ilkley Clean River campaign, telling the story of how they meticulously gathered evidence about the levels of e-coli in the river Wharfe and used this information to lobby for designated bathing water status – and won! I was very inspired by my conversations with Karen Shackleton and Professor Rick Battarbee and they offer a template for action for other groups across the country.

Monday, 26 October 2020

Introducing Rivercide 

I’m thrilled to be producing a documentary with the environmental journalist George Monbiot and legendary director Franny Armstrong called Rivercide – about the shocking state of Britain’s polluted rivers and what we can do to help clean them up!

We’re planning a live investigative documentary for streaming broadcast in July 2021. We’re making it independently and crowdfunding production costs.

I’m researching all things rivers – so please get in touch if you have a story about pollution or are part of a group proposing solutions.

Monday, 21 September 2020

Investigating pollution of the River Llynfi 

At the end of July 2020, a small river in Wales – the Llynfi, a tributary of the Wye which runs along the edge of the Brecon Beacons National Park near Talgarth – suffered a devastating pollution incident which killed over 10,000 fish and wiped out much invertebrate life in the river. I am determined to discover what caused this pollution. This is the third acute pollution incident on the same stretch of river since 2016.

Here’s my first article for Countryfile Magazine. My investigation continues.

Wednesday, 22 July 2020

My journal piece about decarbonising shipping 

Following my feature about sail cargo for the Guardian, I was invited to contribute a paper to a special edition of the American Journal of Economics and Sociology about the role of windpower in decarbonising the shipping industry.

The piece examines using sails as a primary means of propulsion – after all, not so long ago all global trade used to travel by sail. It also explores using windpower as a form of wind-assistance to reduce fuel.

Unfortunately, being for a Journal, this paper is behind a paywall – but there are plans to convert this edition of the journal into a book published by Wiley.

Wednesday, 6 May 2020

My zero-waste feature for the Guardian 

I really enjoyed writing this for the Guardian and was very inspired by my conversations with Cate Cody, Ander Zabala and Claudi Williams. They’ve inspired me to implement some simple changes in my life to reduce my waste.

When I searched online for people aspiring to live ‘zero waste’ I found Instagram and YouTube ‘influencers’ monetising their content by promoting different products. I was uncomfortable with the commercialisation of low-impact living. It perpetuates a consumer mindset and suggests that you can buy your way into a more ethical life. It also looks very middle-class. Whereas, fundamentally, striving to live with less waste is really about buying less of everything and making do with what you have.

I wanted to know how on earth Cate hasn’t put her bin out in over 3 years and how Ander managed to create 99% less waste than the average household last year – and the resounding answer was that they just don’t buy stuff in non-recyclable packaging. Claudi told me that she hasn’t bought a box of cereal for over four years and makes her own muesli instead. They generally don’t buy biscuits or crisps or chocolate bars with wrappers that would end up in the trash. This discipline has become their way of life.

Avoiding packaging brings other benefits. I noticed that the ‘naughtiest’ aisles in the supermarkets are most full of packaging. If you avoid packaging, you’ll eat less processed food and probably eat more healthily. It also pushes you towards local and seasonal food, as that tends to be more available unpackaged.

I’m already lucky to shop largely package-free at my local farm shop. I get all my fresh fruit and veg loose, and can stock up on frozen treats with reusable bags too. I buy milk in returnable glass bottles. The outstanding waste repeat-offenders in my bin are biscuit and chocolate wrappers and cereal bags. It would do us good to reduce our biscuit consumption anyway and this week I made some delicious vegan cookies. The mixture only took a couple of minutes to put together and under 15 minutes in the oven, so perhaps if I really want biscuits, I should just make my own. Reducing waste means making more stuff from scratch but it’s also empowering to master new skills and I appreciate home-cooked food more.

I’ve now swapped my sponge for a loofah and it’s a joy to wash up with. I often felt guilty about all the old sponges I was chucking in the bin for landfill so am delighted to find a compostable option. I’ve started using the wild mint growing in the garden for herbal tea and it’s delicious, so no need to buy expensive herbal tea at this time of year.

I must confess that I haven’t yet mastered making my own oat milk. I had a go and enjoyed the sensation of squeezing it through the muslin cloth (oats make your hands feel so soft), but it tasted pretty disgusting on my cereal. It was slimy and miserably austere and needed sweetening for my taste. I might need to try making a blend with rice in too. I’ll persevere and have another go.

Monday, 24 June 2019

My search for the best reusable nappies 

I’ve been pretty quiet for the last few months whilst on maternity leave, apart from a writing a few articles reviewing baby products for the Telegraph.

After having my baby, I was dismayed by how many disposable nappies I was throwing away and haunted by the idea that this pile of waste would take hundreds of years to decompose, far outliving my child. I wanted to switch to reusables but didn’t know where to start. I couldn’t find any decent, reliable consumer journalism which had independently tried, tested and compared reusable nappies. Even Which hadn’t done that work. So I set about doing it myself. I spent months using a wide range of reusable nappies, in order to recommend the best nappies for different circumstances. I hope it’s of real use.

I learned so much along the way that I also added a long FAQ to help others get started with reusables. The truth is, they’re really easy to use and they're much cheaper than disposables in the long-run, but parents need the chance to try them out themselves to see this firsthand and have the confidence to make the upfront investment. Because reusable nappies aren’t generally sold in supermarkets they’re not very visible in society and therefore seem difficult and mysterious. My top tip to anyone interested in trying reusables (apart from reading my article) is to find your nearest nappy library (run by volunteers) and try some out. Alternatively (or additionally), fill out the Nappy Lady’s Questionnaire about your circumstances and receive tailored advice as to which nappies are likely to be best for your baby.

I also reviewed travel cots, high chairs, and baby monitors.

Thursday, 9 August 2018

C4 News report on Syria’s Disappeared 

Following last year’s documentary Syria’s Disappeared: The Case Against Assad, the director Sara Afshar and I made an update report for C4 News returning to the same themes. In it we exclusively revealed new evidence which has been uncovered by the Commission for International Justice and Accountability. The documents – internal communications from Military Intelligence (one of the Syrian regime’s security and intelligence agencies) – show that it was known that detainees were being tortured and that the numbers dying were rising. The Head of Syria’s Military Intelligence even asked to be informed of every detainee death and consulted on what to do with some of the corpses. Furthermore, CIJA’s investigators matched death reports from the head of detention facility 227 referring to individual prisoners with prisoner numbers to the corpse numbers and detention facility numbers pictured in the Caesar photographs. This appears to provide further corroboration of the Caesar photographs by the regime’s own documentation.

Monday, 25 September 2017

Caesar wins Nuremberg Human Rights Award 

Ken Roth, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch, explains the significance of the Caesar photographs:

One irony of the Syrian war is that while the Assad government flouts the most basic rules of international humanitarian law, it never openly admits doing so. It denies that it barrel bombs or gasses civilians. It pretends that it lets necessities reach people in besieged areas. And it bars independent access to the worst of its detention facilities where the bulk of the torture and execution takes place.

It is in that context of denial that the Caesar photos are so important. No one seeing the photographs of more than six thousand brutalized corpses can deny that something utterly inhumane has been taking place inside that closed prison system. Survivors can describe that hell on earth, but the photographs speak with an unimpeachable directness that compels us to understand the utter cruelty of the Syrian detention system.

Roth’s full remarks merit reading. I was honoured last week that my documentary, ‘Syria’s Disappeared: The Case Against Assad’ (which I co-produced with director Sara Afshar), was screened in Courtroom 600 in Nuremberg, where the Nuremberg Trials took place. The film played in the same spot where images from the Holocaust were presented to the courtroom over 70 years ago. This launched the programme leading up to the presentation of the award to Caesar for his courage in delivering essential evidence to the outside world. His courageous act deserves more than awards. It demands action to prevent the continuing deaths in detention and to bring the perpetrators to justice.

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

The media lost this election 

As the UK election results were announced, I marvelled at the waning power of the press. Voters defied the press’ predictions and exposed their failures. As Monbiot writes:

The rightwing press threw everything it had at Jeremy Corbyn, and failed to knock him over. In doing so, it broke its own power. Its wild claims succeeded in destroying not Corbyn’s credibility but its own.

This is particularly significant because, as Monbiot notes, the rightwing press tends to set the news agenda for the broadcasters. I have written about this before, drawing on my own experience at the BBC.

I was interested to see George Osborne acknowledging the power of press, as he recently told Nick Robinson:

I do think newspapers in Britain in particular set the tone, if I may say so, partly because we have the BBC as a big, very impartial in its charter, state broadcaster and as a result I think quite often the BBC follows a newspaper agenda a bit because it doesn’t necessarily want to go out on a limb itself… So I do think newspapers create a climate in which the election takes place.

The BBC must consider how it can better represent the public and shake off the shackles of a skewed media field.

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Negotiating Brexit 

Thanks to John Oliver’s show, my attention was drawn to Boris Johnson’s description of the UK government’s approach to Brexit:

Our policy is having our cake and eating it.

And to Donald Tusk’s riposte:

I propose a simple experiment. Buy a cake, eat it, and see if it is still there on the plate.

There will be no cakes on the table, for anyone. There will be only salt and vinegar.

Saturday, 15 April 2017

Steve Hilton exposed 

Decca Aitkenhead perfectly skewers David Cameron’s former advisor Steve Hilton in this interview by exposing the limits of his thoughtfulness. And for a man who fashions himself as a blue-sky thinker, this is doubly embarrassing and revealing.

I urge you to read the interview in full, but here is where the exquisite cognitive dissonance begins:

And then I ask one simple question, and the whole story he tells about himself unravels. Do he and his family deserve their wealth? He stares at me in surprise.

“Er … I think we definitely both work really hard.” Sure, but do they deserve their level of wealth? “Well … such a good question. I’m just trying to think.” He falls silent for 11 seconds, searching his mind for an answer that doesn’t undermine everything he’s been saying.

This continues for a painfully long time, with Hilton grasping for an answer. Aitkenhead says he becomes ‘unquotably inarticulate’.

But do they deserve their wealth? “I don’t even think that’s the right way to think about it.”

A perfect illustration of Upton Sinclair’s quote:

It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.

Thursday, 23 March 2017

The hellish search for Syria’s Disappeared 

I wrote this for the Guardian about the documentary that I’ve made with the filmmaker and director Sara Afshar.

Please read it and watch the film Syria’s Disappeared: The Case Against Assad on Channel 4.

Tens of thousands of Syrians are currently missing in President Assad’s detention centres. It is a humanitarian crisis, hidden from view.

Survivors tell of horrific torture in detention and are haunted by those they left behind. Mansour al Omari says:

I still remember their last words to me: ‘Please don’t forget us’. This rings in my ears every day like church bells, like a daily call for prayer.

Monday, 5 September 2016

Prescient Political Plays 

Earlier this year Out of Joint presented a collection of short political plays at the Arts Theatre in London. The texts are now freely available online and make stimulating reading.

David Hare’s offering, Ayn Rand Takes a Stand, imagines a conversation between the philosopher novelist and George Osborne, whom Rand calls Gideon (that being his original name). It’s a playful meditation on the serious contradiction at the heart of the Tory party right now – the idea that you can have a free market without the free movement of labour.

Alistair Beaton’s The Accidental Leader is a brilliant romp through the internal arguments animating the Labour Party today. It presciently imagines a group of Blairites plotting a coup against their current leader – and it was written before the mass resignation of Corbyn’s shadow cabinet following the Brexit vote.

In it, Nina, a representative of ‘Impetus’ (it’s a thinly veiled satire) says:

Oh, I do love your centre ground. Sounds so reasonable, doesn’t it? The centre ground. But does the centre ground stay in the same place? I don’t think so. Blink and you miss it as it shifts to the right. Whoosh whoosh whoosh, there it goes.

There are too many good lines to quote. It’s better than all the op-eds I’ve read about the split within the Labour Party.

Friday, 3 June 2016

Corbyn: The Outsider 

Take thirty minutes to watch this Vice documentary which follows Jeremy Corbyn and his team behind-the-scenes for eight weeks.

Reporter Ben Ferguson says from the outset that he’s a Labour Party member who voted for Corbyn in the leadership election. This makes the film a more sobering watch.

Will Self’s impression after viewing the documentary was that Corbyn lacks sophistication and acumen and is ineffectual. He also said:

the astonishing thing about Corbyn is that he’s managing to cock things up entirely on his own terms.

Corbyn has many virtues, including his firm principles, decent values, and a genuine ease when meeting the public which he says keeps him ‘humble’. However it is excruciating to watch him miss the opportunity to attack Cameron when Duncan Smith resigns.

Wednesday, 1 June 2016

Naomi Klein: Let Them Drown 

This essay/talk by Klein applies Edward Said’s thinking to a warming world. It’s a worthwhile read. Here’s just one nugget:

We often hear climate change blamed on ‘human nature’, on the inherent greed and short-sightedness of our species. Or we are told we have altered the earth so much and on such a planetary scale that we are now living in the Anthropocene – the age of humans. These ways of explaining our current circumstances have a very specific, if unspoken meaning: that humans are a single type, that human nature can be essentialised to the traits that created this crisis. In this way, the systems that certain humans created, and other humans powerfully resisted, are completely let off the hook. Capitalism, colonialism, patriarchy – those sorts of system. Diagnoses like this erase the very existence of human systems that organised life differently: systems that insist that humans must think seven generations in the future; must be not only good citizens but also good ancestors; must take no more than they need and give back to the land in order to protect and augment the cycles of regeneration. These systems existed and still exist, but they are erased every time we say that the climate crisis is a crisis of ‘human nature’ and that we are living in the ‘age of man’.

Friday, 8 April 2016

Cameron admits benefitting from father’s offshore trust 

After days spent dodging the question (avoidance runs in the family), David Cameron finally admitted that he had benefitted from his father’s offshore trust and sold his shares for just over £30,000 before he became Prime Minister in 2010. He also acknowledged that some of the £300,000 he inherited from his father may have come from offshore sources.

Robert Peston has stressed that the sins of the father should not be borne by the son, and perhaps his sympathetic stance is why Cameron granted him an exclusive interview on the subject. Peston makes a fair point but only if Cameron takes the opportunity to distance himself from his father’s choices.

Richard Murphy deftly summarised the answer he hoped Cameron might give:

He could have said that much as he respects his father, much as he loves him and much as he is grateful for what he did for him he has to disagree with him on the use of offshore. This is what mature, responsible, children sometimes have to do: they have to say that they disagree with their parents. But Cameron has not done this. And now we know he won’t.

Cameron made a point of stressing the legality of his father’s offshore trust in his interview with Peston. But that avoids the issue. These offshore trusts are legal but they’re not moral. They help institutions avoid paying their fair share of tax. We need the law to change in order to clamp down on them and that requires the commitment of governments. This should be the role of our Prime Minister but for all his warm words on the subject, his actions speak louder.

In 2013 Cameron personally lobbied against EU efforts to reveal the beneficiaries of trusts. Other European politicians feared this left a loophole for tax avoidance. Why didn’t Peston ask Cameron about that?

Tuesday, 8 March 2016

Richard Herring’s tireless work on International Women’s Day 

One of my favourite things about International Women’s Day is the comedian Richard Herring’s Twitter feed. He replies to every tweet he sees which asks why there is no International Men’s Day and explains that there is one and it’s on November 19th.

He says:

Whilst one person in the world assumes that there can’t be an international men’s day due to inverse sexism my work will not be done.

I salute his tireless and hilarious efforts. I’m sure Caitlin Moran would approve. She published a brilliant piece at the weekend offering advice for winning arguments online. She pointed out that one of the key hindrances to getting things done on the internet is the idea that if you talk about something then you must talk about everything. This is patently impractical; the most effective campaigners and change-makers tend to specialise.

Moran advised:

When you get accosted by someone going, “You cannot talk about BLAH unless you also talk about BLAH”, the best response is, “I know – you do BLAH and I’ll do BLAH, and then the world will be twice as improved! Thanks for volunteering! You’re a total mensch. On behalf of the rest of the world – thank you!”

Syrian demonstrations say ‘The Revolution Continues’ 

Kudos to The Telegraph for reporting the incredible demonstrations that flourished across Syria on Friday when people took advantage of a rare ceasefire to resume peaceful protests with the tagline ‘The Revolution Continues’.

Before talks resume in Geneva, this is a timely reminder to the world that Syria’s five year war started with a popular uprising calling for political reforms, inspired by the Arab Spring.

Despite nearly five years of conflict involving unimaginable brutality, these peaceful demonstrations show that civil opposition to the regime continues. The indefatigable bravery, courage and determination of the protestors should be major international news.

Time quoted a human rights advocate called Fadi al-Qadi:

War kills political space, but now there are no guns, why should it continue to kill political space? And I think the masses on the streets in these cities and towns and villages are proving this theory correct. No gun can take the place of the will of the people.

Reem Salahi, a human rights attorney, also wrote a personal piece for the Huffington Post which puts these protests in context and expresses their significance – well worth reading.

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