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The undecided voter who “took down” Ed Miliband – more dirty tricks?

May 1, 2015

Catherine Shuttleworth, the woman who according to The Telegraph “took down” a Miliband, admits to the Telegraph that she applied to go on the Question Time Leaders’ Debate as “an undecided voter”. She said this just after giving the thumbs up to George Osborne in the spin room. All this passes by the Telegraph correspondent.

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Here is Catherine Shuttleworth’s signature on the, now largely discredited, letter of 5,000 small businesses supporting the Tory party. Also on the Telegraph.

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Catherine set up her business with Andrew Jones, Conservative MP for Harrogate and Knaresborough, currently seeking reelection.

My concern is that such desperate dirty tricks by the Conservatives and inadequate vetting by the BBC skewed the audience demographic on such an important occasion. Catherine was granted her question in the leaders’ QT as an undecided voter. The notion is laughable.

David Cameron mentioned the letter in his portion of the debate. Even happened to have a copy of it in his pocket. Ed Miliband is then confronted on it immediately afterwards by someone who, for all intents and purposes, looks like a Tory plant. David Cameron doesn’t have the courage to debate Ed Miliband directly, so he does it through a proxy. And this man is presented as the stronger of the two?

Oh and here is another of Ed Miliband’s tough questioners. She describes her interests as Cats, Conservatives and Chelsea. Another undecided voter?

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To Ukip Supporters (because I’m bored of typing the same thing over and over)

April 30, 2015

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Every time I express the opinion that Ukip policies – and the party at its inner core – are xenophobic or homophobic or racist or bigoted in some way, I get some Ukip supporter shouting YOU CAN’T SAY THAT! TAKE IT BACK OR I’LL SUE YOU!

I won’t. I won’t take it back. Your entire party is predicated upon the idea that some nameless mass of foreigners – migrants, Europeans, EU elites, Romanians, Bulgarians, Poles, African refugees, HIV+ health ‘tourists’, recently Scots – they are all responsible for everyone else’s problems. You have provided an endless string of dangerous candidates blaming everything from the floods on gay sex to traffic jams on immigration.

You spent five years cozying up to parties like the fascist Lega Nord to get EU money and you now share a group with holocaust deniers and MEPs elected under the banner of the Front National. Every time any of this is mentioned, your excuse is either to say “one bad apple” or “other parties are just as bad”. But your unique selling point to the electorate is that you are not like other parties. The bad apples have added up to one rotten barrel.

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Every time I block one of you, you either indulge in rueful victimhood or you think it means you won the argument. Either way, the next thing that happens is another five kippers pop up on my timeline, threatening to punch me, deport me, rape me or execute me. And you look at their messages and thank them for their support, conclude that it is the Left who want to silence you, pat yourselves on the back for being “party of free speech” and move on to shout at the next person how non-racist you are.

These are the people with whom you share a banner, whether you like it or not. Take a hard look at them. They are your posse.

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Your pathological denial would be heartbreaking if it weren’t so dangerous. But, recently, the penny dropped. From your own glorious Kim Jung Nige getting booed at the debate to increasing resistance on both social media and the campaign trail, you are realising that you do not speak for any “silent majority”. That you are just a blinkered, entitled, very noisy minority that has created a climate of hatred and divisiveness for which many people in this country will never forgive you.

It is time to face up to that.

@sturdyalex

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Small Business letter to the Telegraph; an attempt to defraud the electorate?

April 27, 2015

How the letter from small business owners to the Telegraph in support of the Tories fell apart

UPDATE 21:00 The list is back up. Scanning it for changes. It was down for a good twenty minutes, then briefly up then disappeared again and now it is back up. No possibility of mistaken http, as it was open on my desktop when it suddenly refreshed to this. What is going on?

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UPDATE 20:30 on 28/4: The Telegraph has finally taken down the list of businesses which purported to have signed the letter. The link is now dead. The letter is still on their website, but the link to the signatories leads nowhere. No statement or apology has been issued as far as I am aware – from The Telegraph, CCHQ or Karen Brady.

The Charity Commission has become involved now, writing to charities it has identified from the list. A spokesperson for the Commission said:

“Signing a letter in support of a political party is not a legitimate activity for a charity… The commission will decide what further action, if any, is necessary once the charities have responded.”

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UPDATE 17:15 on 28/4: It turns out that small business owners have been polled on a selection of subjects related to the election and the results make for very interesting reading – a neat way to close this thread.

You can see the full results of the research here – it involves a reasonably sized and representative sample of real owners of real small businesses, rather than party members, candidates, cronies, retirees, volunteers, barristas, funeral parlour consultants, people who never signed it, people who have asked to be taken out, dissolved and liquidated businesses, people who responded four times, ghosts and the neighbour’s dog.

As of the time of writing this, tha names of the two charities who have issued public statements demanding to be taken off the list, still appear on the list. I guess the Telegraph is past caring.

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UPDATE 09:45 on 28/4: I have now received a reply from another charity I contacted, included in the letter, The Marsha Phoenix Memorial Trust. Here is the full statement from the Director of the trust, Rebecca Long:

The Marsha Phoenix Memorial Trust is listed as one of the 5,000 businesses who are “signatories” to a letter supporting the conservative government published in today’s Telegraph Newspaper. I can categorically state that;

– We have been included on the list without our knowledge or consent and have contacted the conservative party and the Telegraph to demand that our organisation is removed from this list.

– The Trust is a very small charity and not a small business. It should not and should never appear on any list of political endorsements such as the one published in the Telegraph of apparent owners of small businesses. We do not and have not made any such political endorsement today or at any other time.

– No one at the charity has been authorised to sign such a document on our behalf, nor would they ever be.

– The named signatory is an employee of the Trust who has confirmed she has not been approached to be signatory to such a letter as a small business owner. We believe our and her inclusion on this list is some sort of error.

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UPDATE 07:30 on 28/4: A reader has done additional work on duplication. You can see it here.

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UPDATE 20:55: Here is a list of dozens of businesses included as signatories which are dissolved or in liquidation, courtesy of @barnybug. A wonderful advertisement of the effectiveness of the policies which they, apparently, endorse.

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UPDATE 20:00: I am beginning to have very serious doubts as to how many of even the legitimate businesses on the list actually signed anything. Aurum Solutions have issued a statement. Their sales director received an email from Brady “and recalls clicking on the link to find out more”. That’s it. He does not recall signing anything and denies strongly providing any information about the company. Could it be that this was merely an aggressive piece of spamming, where database entries referring to people and their workplace were signed up to this shambles at the mere click of the link?

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UPDATE 17:15: Diverse Cymru have now demanded to be taken off the list.

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There is a lot, so I’ll be brief.

Huge thanks to the many people on Twitter who sent me discrepancies all day, as they discovered them.

The day started with the Conservatives and the Prime Minister claiming a major victory.

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Things soon began to unravel, when it emerged that this wasn’t the unsolicited, spontaneous combustion of love from small business to the Tories, which had been presented. In fact the Conservative Party had generated the letter and asked its members to sign it.

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Things got much more tangled up when it was discovered that the background document, containing the names and signatures of the “small business owners” on the Telegraph website, still bore the metadata tags of Conservative Campaign Headquarters.

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Say what you want, claimed a Tory councillor to me. The source is not important. What is important is the message.

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A significantly more charitable attitude than the one the Conservatives had adopted with regard to the letter from NHS professionals. 20150427-162357.jpg

Then, the list itself began to be scrutinised. Nobody has done a thorough review of the list yet. This is just a cursory scan which only reveals the tip of the iceberg. And a pretty substantial iceberg is seems to be.

First came the realisation that there were many duplications.

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In fact there were so many that someone began to compile a full list. Here is what it contained last I saw it.

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Shambles, you say? You can say that again. Oh, you did.

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Strangely, the Telegraph took it upon itself to excise the list of duplications. No correction or apology. Just selective deletion. I find this incredibly sinister. Around 11am this duplication appeared.

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By midday it was gone. The number 3241, simply omitted.

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It was all fun and games, so far, but then it started to get serious. It turned out, some businesses had not signed the letter at all. Andrew Neil on the BBC’s  Daily Politics programme, confronted David Gauke with the fact that simply looking over the first forty or so names of the list, he identified at least four occasions on which the signatory did not own or hold any shares in the company.

This began to expose the more significant problems with who signed the letter and on behalf of whom. I am no captain of industry but people who own a small business tend to describe themselves as the owner or the proprietor. Perhaps managing director or general secretary at a push. They do not tend to describe themselves – the selection below is, again, from a cursory glance – as “consultant” (what does a consultant do at a funeral parlour, exactly?), “admin”, “payroll”, “office manager”, “office assistant”, “executive assistant”, “medical director”, “academy director”, “Chief Inspiration Officer” (a what, now?), “site manager” of a regional dept, “sub postmaster” of a branch.

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I am not suggesting that all those people don’t do valuable jobs, of course. But small business owners, they ain’t. And, however loose your criteria, you have to draw the line at people who are explicit about being retired, on one occasion, for 20 years.

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All this makes one terribly suspicious as to whether the companies being signed up and splashed across the Telegraph even knew they were. And it should have made The Telegraph suspicious, when one of those small business owners described himself as a waiter.

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Did Deane’s Restaurant Group know that they had been signed up as Conservative supporters on a national broadsheet by a barrista of one of their Belfast cafes? It seems not.

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Aurum Solutions certainly did not know anything about it, as the real owner made quite clear. And the person who was meant to have signed it, even, had not.

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David Gauke tried to make light of the discrepancies and suggested that the letter “was signed by people of no political background”. That is also, however, inaccurate. One of the entries of “small businesses” is actually the “Stanley Ward Conservative Club”.

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I have spoken to at least two Conservative councillors who signed the letter. And remember Ben Manton? The barrista from Belfast who “misread the form”? Well, he is the Conservative parliamentary candidate for his constituency.

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A cursory glance of the list reveals no less than seven Conservative parliamentary candidates: Selaine Saxby, Rebecca Pow, Chris Pearson, Iain McGill, Ben Manton, Nicola Wilson and Keith Dewhurst.

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Keith Dewhurst, astonishingly, signs the letter as the Chair of a Welsh charity which helps people with disabilities. Since when does the chair of a charity “own” it as a “small business”? And what position does that leave a charity in, which is meant to be apolitical, both ethically and under the Charities Commission’s rules?

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Again, a light search of the list yielded at least seven charities, which nobody owns and, certainly, for the political affiliations of which nobody can speak, including:

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I have sought comment from them and have so far not had a response.

Certainly, questions will continue to be asked, especially about CCHQ’s use of this data. This was the disclaimer at the bottom of their letter.

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The more one looks at this list, the more the conclusion that it is a deliberate attempt to deceive the electorate becomes inescapable. Certainly, it is an example of hugely shoddy journalism from The Telegraph – if I, as a novice and on my own, can find this stuff out in a few hours, they should have in ten minutes. Their headline still reads “huge boost for Cameron as 5000 small businesses…” BLAH BLAH, as they correct the list provided to them by CCHQ and published unchecked. Not a shred of integrity.

It is funny, but it is also tragic and sinister.

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The NHS Shortfall in Funding; Suddenly An All-Party Issue

April 16, 2015

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It has been interesting to observe how the former head of NHS England, David Nicholson’s, warning over an NHS “financial hole” has become big news in the context of the election. And how it has been framed.

BBC News have declared it an “all party issue” and they are neither alone nor original in that respect. It seems to be “the line”. All the parties will have to sit down and explain how they will deal with it. Remarkably little focus has been spared for how we got there. Five years of an entirely unnecessary and costly reorganisation, the underfunding, the sacking of “useless managers”, the farming off of lucrative services to private companies of friendly donors, the decline of performance and results – all forgotten. It’s everyone’s problem now.

And in a way it is, because it is a situation the consequences of which we all must suffer. But in another way it is not. To those of us who have been screaming “Save Our NHS” for the last five years it came as no surprise.

As early as 2012 the UK Statistical Authority had to rebuke the government for “misleading boasts” that they had increased health spending, when they had not.

In June 2014, senior Tories, including Stephen Dorrell, a former Conservative health secretary, Sarah Wollaston, a Tory MP, and Paul Burstow, a former coalition health minister, warned David Cameron that he needed to increase spending by as much as £15b over five years “if you don’t want the system to collapse during the course of the next parliament”.

In October 2014 Rob Webster, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, warned David Cameron of an impending NHS funding crisis.

As recently as last month top health chiefs like Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers which represents 96% of trusts, sounded the alarm, saying that “there’s a real danger that the strategic deterioration [in NHS finances] could speed up and get out of control”. Note that word: “strategic”.

Even David Cameron’s brother-in-law, a cardiologist in the NHS, joined the chorus of disapproval in February, writing: “I think it is important that people understand that this is unprecedented. There is no doubt that we, and other hospitals around the country, are facing extraordinary challenges.”

So, let us not pretend this is a surprise and let us not pretend that it is not a party political issue. It is absolutely a party political issue which should weigh heavily on people’s minds as they assess pre-election promises regarding health and decide how they might cast their vote.

Yes, the problem is everyone’s now, but no, it was not created by everyone. It was most definitely created by a very identifiable group of people, who ought to be accountable.

UPDATE 17:10 – Just watched BBC News24’s 5pm bulletin. The BBC are now spinning this story actively against Labour (and Ukip). Because, while the Conservatives and LibDems (the parties who created the situation and ignored the warnings for five years) have promised the £8b the NHS needs (uncosted and prompted by Nicholson’s outburst), Labour have only promised £2.5b extra (and Ukip £3b). I genuinely don’t know whether this is cackhandedness or there is a larger agenda at work, but the consistent lack of critical thinking when it comes to the Coalition’s record from sections of the BBC is nothing short of astounding.

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A sweaty bigot on a podium

April 4, 2015

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I am puzzled by people suggesting that if Farage tells lies, he is democratically accountable for them in Thanet South. I don’t understand this. The truth regarding his “migrants with HIV”, threat-to-purity Nazi fantasy will never receive as much prominence as a damaging statement made very emphatically during a TV debate watched by 8 million. Truth is simply never sexy enough, compared to a sensational lie. This means lasting damage has been done.

It has always struck me as a very strange legal concept that one can be sued for damaging personal reputations by falsehoods, but that anybody can slander entire groups, by spouting outrageous and hurtful lies, with complete impunity.

What good is Thanet’s possible rejection of Farage to the people stigmatised by his lie? And what might be the effect of Thanet possibly electing him? Would that turn a lie into truth in some strange democratic “the majority don’t give a rat’s arse about the truth” sort of way? Doesn’t it always start with some fantasy of nationalistic purity and a vague threat of contamination? Doesn’t it always start with people saying their aim is not to victimise the “other”, but to safeguard the rights of “our people”? Doesn’t this shit always, always, always start like that? Have we learned nowt?

If the broadcaster had made a programme in which these lies featured, they would be forced into an apology and correction by the regulator. But put a sweaty bigot on a podium and, seemingly, anything goes.

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Nigel Farage’s ludicrous back-of-an-envelope guesstimates have been throughly demolished by health experts here:

Do Foreigners Come to The UK to Get HIV Treatment?

Farage And The HIV Lie

HIV campaigner from Newport slams Ukip leader’s comments as “disgusting”

Why does Jeremy Clarkson get me so angry?

March 25, 2015

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A friend has, quite reasonably, observed “people seem to hate Clarkson out of all proportion to him being a presenter of a show about cars”. It’s a fair point. While I don’t “hate” Clarkson, he does make me very angry. Why is it that this man, whom I can quite simply ignore by switching channels, squats on my emotional world in such a colourful way?

For me, Clarkson is the intersection of several political ley-lines. This makes him more prominent as a symbol than it should.

He enables and emboldens xenophobia to a significant degree and, each time the BBC stood behind him, it felt like they were cool with that. He seemed to be the entertainment equivalent of Nigel Farage. I know many of you don’t see the fuss about calling Mexicans “lazy, feckless and flatulent”, or going to Argentina and making fun of a conflict in which over 900 young soldiers lost their lives, or calling his black dog Drogba, or using the word ‘n****r’, or calling a Thai man a ‘slope’, or travelling through India on a train the side of which reads “Eat English Muff”, or calling Romania ‘gypsy country’. But cumulatively this stuff has an effect. As does making fun of murdered prostitutes, attacking a politician because of his disability, making Nazi salutes at a German car and joking about killing Albanians.

I don’t think, unless you have been at the receiving end of someone screaming “paki go home” from a car window in the street, of some sort of mindless discrimination or bullying like that, there is any way to actually describe the fight-or-flight feeling people like Clarkson create in someone who feels “other” in any way. Clarkson, in this way, becomes emblematic of every bully. At work, at school, in the street. That there are people defending him, even after the details of what he has done have emerged, is a source of profound concern. Somehow “the right to offend” has assumed larger significance in some people’s minds than “the right to go to work and not get punched”. I can only put it down to a worrying lack of empathy – a million people able to only identify with the aggressor, rather than the victim.

But it is more than that. It feels like he is at the vanguard of a reaction by those who are privileged in every way – race, gender, ethnicity, age, sexuality, background, wealth, platform, position – against losing what is, objectively, a tiny bit of their privilege. He felt like the epitome of the Farages, Littlejohns and Moores of this world using their soapbox (usually in the form of a weekly column in a national paper) to somehow claim they are the real victims, the voiceless majority, the disadvantaged; to say: “now ENOUGH you darkies/women/perverts; we gave you a little equality, but don’t push it”.

And still, none of those things caused him to lose his job. His final misstep at the BBC seems representative of the bullying, imperialist, old-world attitude he represented. Sending a junior colleague to hospital, after racially abusing them, over a steak dinner. An old drama teacher of mine used to say: “Ego is absolutely necessary for survival in the entertainment industry. But it must never outgrow talent. When the ego starts to be bigger than the talent, you’re in trouble.”

In the end, it wasn’t “righteous Guardianistas” and “humourless Feminazis” that got Clarkson sacked. He was entirely the architect of his own downfall. This, it seems, is the thing his fans are most bitter about. They thought, I’m sure, that he would be the victim of the “do-gooder, lefty brigade”; that he would become their cause’s martyr. And he fucked it up. There is only one reason he was sacked: his own consuming anger. His inability to control his temper. His sense of entitlement. And that is a lesson over which the many people who despised what he stood for, will reasonably crow.

I am largely, however, trying to intellectualise a primarily emotional reaction. I hope it is helpful in explaining my reaction, at least. What gets me even more agitated is that those who defend him, do so on the basis of “freedom to cause offence” – that’s an interesting phrase for people who deny that words have power, isn’t it? They think they’re somehow being “edgy” and rebellious by supporting the dullest, most humdrum, tiresome, archetypal establishment figure. You know what is “edgy”? Kindness. Because it is extremely rare and often has a personal cost. Any arsehole can offend. And does.

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I leave you with this thought: the Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik was a big fan of Top Gear. He described it as “one of the very few programs at the Burka Broadcasting Corporation still worth seeing.” He then goes on to quote extensively from a Sunday Times piece by Clarkson entitled “We’ve been robbed of our Englishness” in his manifesto.

Now, I’m not for a moment suggesting a writer bears responsibility for ways in which any wicked person might misunderstand his words. But I think it is also foolish to deny that people are propelled into action by a thousand spectral hands. If I discovered I had become the busty centrefold inside the door of the hate-locker of a murderer, it would give me pause for thought. I would search my soul very deeply.

Words matter. Words hurt. And the higher your profile, the bigger the responsibility not to pour venom into people’s ears. I think Clarkson consistently did that: He poured venom. Dangerously, he poured venom disguised as humour. Worryingly, he did so within a format popular with young people. How exactly do you laugh with someone making fun of people with disabilities, then explain to your child that they mustn’t do that at school?

I am very glad my license fee is not paying for him any more. I know he will go on to other, very lucrative pastures new. But it won’t be on my buck. I wish him luck and success. I hope he learns from this. I hope he gets help. I hope he grows less angry. We are all capable of change and worthy of kindness.

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The Oslo Synagogue Ring of Peace and Its Detractors

February 23, 2015

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I want to make a couple of observations on Breitbart choosing to report that events outside the Oslo Synagogue are a “media hoax”. I want to comment on it, because it is being shared by a lot of people I respect – which surprises me, as hitherto I had considered Breitbart to be something like The Onion, but without the wit. But, I guess, there’s no bias like confirmation bias.

So, Breitbart reports that Reuters, AP, AFP and all other traditional outlets got it wrong when they reported that 1,000 Muslims formed a ring around the synagogue. Breitbart says it was more like 20, “according to an eyewitness” a number to which they keep returning to. “Photos pulled off of social media”, says Breitbart, “appear to corroborate the narrative that only twenty or so people formed the “peace ring.”” So, I tried to find what was Breitbart’s source for the original eyewitness account. It wasn’t easy, but after several clicks I found the original source. It is one anonymous commenter on a reddit message board.

What is more, the eyewitness account doesn’t even say what Breitbart report it as saying. He says: “It actually was 1300 people in total, of which most looked like ethnic Norwegians. They [the police] had set up barriers in front and allowed 10-20 muslims inside the barriers to hold hands.” He continues: “I don’t know how many muslims were present, but I’d estimate about 100 Arabs/Africans.”

Therefore, when AP reports that “More than 1,000 people have formed a “ring of peace” outside Oslo’s main synagogue at the initiative of a group of young Muslims”, they are, in fact absolutely correct and totally consistent with the eyewitness account. I guess you could quibble about the geometrical shape, if the crowd did not go all the way around the Synagogue. Maybe it should have been reported as a “barrier of peace” or a “semi-circle of peace”.

Ultimately, Breitbart’s aim seems to me to be not to discredit the reports, but to somehow fling mud on a very noble initiative. Because, ultimately, as a symbolic gesture of solidarity, why would it matter if this was 20 or 100 or 1,000 Muslims? It wouldn’t. Unless one is promoting a narrative of all Muslims as bloodthirsty jihadists, in which case you would want to suggest this is an exception to the rule and make the exception as small as possible.

As this story appeared more and more on twitter and Facebook timelines around me, I began to wonder whether that was a narrative people are increasingly comfortable to sign up to. “More power to them [Breitbart]”, read one comment; “it does show how poor mainstream journalism has become, no independent verification, no fact checking, the news is now basically Chinese whispers!” When I explained that the primary materials for the Breitbart piece were, at best, sketchy and, at worst, misrepresented, the response came: “We all know how the press distort the truth, anyone remember the Hillsborough disaster?”

I guess, post-Hillsborough we can all choose whatever stories to believe without the application of any critical function. I thought the Hillsborough lesson had been entirely the opposite – check sources, put brain into gear.

Apparently, demonstrators chanted: “No to anti-Semitism, no to Islamophobia”. The only way Breitbart can make sense of this is by mocking them for “conflating criticism of Islam and hatred of Jews”. Because nobody could actually be critical of more than one type of prejudice.

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