Contemporary Sociology: The poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal by the Russian State

The recent ‘russian spy poisoning’ is relevant to many areas of the A-level sociology specification, such as state-crime, globalisation and even consensus and conflict theory.

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The recent poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal, allegedly by the Russian State, is relevant to many areas of the A-level sociology specification.

Details of the poisoning 

On 4th March 2018 Sergei Skripal, 66, and his daughter Yulia, 33 were poisoned by a nerve agent called Novichok. The pair were found collapsed on a bench in Salisbury in the late afternoon, following what seems to have been a pretty ordinary ‘afternoon of leisure’ involving a trip to a pub and lunch in Zizzi’s. Four weeks later, they remain in a critical condition. 

Sergie Skripal.png
Sergie and Yulia Skripal

Much of the news has focused on just how deadly the nerve agent ‘Novichok’ is – basically a tiny, practically invisible amount was sufficient to render two people seriously ill, and even the police officer who first attended Sergei and Yulia Skripal was taken seriously ill just from secondary contact with what must have been trace elements of the nerve agent.

Pretty much everywhere the pair had visited that afternoon was shut down, and any vehicles that they had been in contact with were quarantined while they were cleared of any trace of the nerve agent and total of 250 counter-terrorism officers are at work investigating the case.

Theresa May has accused the Russian State as being complicit in this attempted murder, which seems plausible as Colonel Sergie Skripal is a retired Russian military intelligence officer who was convicted of passing the identities of Russian intelligence agents working undercover in Europe to the UK’s Secret Intelligence Service, MI6. He was jailed for 13 years by Russia in 2006. In July 2010, he was one of four prisoners released by Moscow in exchange for 10 Russian spies arrested by the FBI. He was later flown to the UK. It seems that the poisoning is the Russian State passing its ‘final sentence’ on this poor guy.

HOWEVER, Russia strongly denies these allegations, so this might just be a hypothetical state-crime!

The international reaction to the poisoning has also been dramatic: to date 26 countries have expelled Russian diplomats, and Russia, which of course denies any involvement in the poisoning, has done the same as a counter-response.

Links to the A-level sociology specification

sociological perspectives russia.png

Probably the most obvious link to the A-level sociology specification is that this is a primary example of a state crime – it seems extremely likely that the poisoning was carried out by an agent of the Russian state – The UK condemned Russia at the United Nations Human Rights Council as being in breach of international law and the UK’s national sovereignty.

Secondly, this case study reminds of us that nation states are still among the most powerful actors in the world – nation states are the only institutions which can ‘legitimately’ manufacture chemical weapons such as Novichock.

Thirdly, you could use this as an example of how ‘consensus’ and ‘conflict’ exist side by side. he existence of global values allows various nations to show ‘solidarity’ against Russia and express ‘value consensus’ but it also reminds us that there are conflicting interests in the world.

Fourthly, media coverage aside, it’s hardly a post-modern event is it! Having said that, we don’t know for certain who did the poisoning, so all of this could be a good example of ‘hypperreality’.

There’s lots of other links you could make across various modules – for example, the way the media has dealt with the event (it’s very news worthy!) and the ‘panic’ surrounding it, it fits with our ‘risk conscious society’ very nicely!

Sources 

Spy poisoning: Highest amount of nerve agent was on door (BBC News)

UK slam Russia over spy poisoning (Washington Post)

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Is Capitalism on the Wane?

John Mcdonnell, Labour’s Shadow Chancellor today announced Labour’s plans to renationalise the railways and many other public utilities at no cost to the public.

Does this mean that Jeremy Corbyn’s rejection of contemporary capitalism is now the new mainstream, and/ or does this represent the end of Capitalism as we know it?

It does seem that Capitalism has become something of a dirty word ever since the financial crash of 2008, and in a recent poll, most British people regard capitalism as ‘greedy, selfish, and corrupt’; and many are more sympathetic towards socialism, and favor the renationalisation of the railways and utilities.

 

However, the ideological scare-mongers are out, claiming that re-nationalisation will be far from free, and it will be interesting to see how much genuine public appetite there is for bringing back services into public ownership!

Why is the NHS in Crisis? Yes, it’s neoliberalism – AGAIN!

The Daily Mail  and their Tory beneficiaries would have you think that the current crisis within the NHS are caused mainly by a combination of the following variables:

  • Winter Viruses
  • Inefficiency
  • Immigrants
  • Lazy Staff
  • Drunks

HOWEVER, this is not the case according to some more in-depth analysis by Ravi Jayaram, an NHS consultant (in The Guardian), who instead blames several years of chronic underfunding by the Tory government which have had the following effects:

  • Firstly, Primary Care services have been decimated by funding cuts, and as a result there are fewer GPs per patients, and so people feel they have to go to A and E rather than seeking help from their local GP.
  • Secondly, the recent conflict over Junior Doctors’ pay and the removal of the nurses bursary has left a sour note in the NHS, with those who are able to do so retiring early or leaving the country, meaning that the staff left behind struggle to provide safe and effective care.
  • Thirdly, whole wards of some hospitals have been closed by hospital trusts in order to stay in the black, meaning there is a decrease in supply.

NB – all of this has been going on while, as is well known, there is an increasing demand for NHS services by an ageing population!

And the deeper cause of all of this….well it’s a blinkered commitment to a neoliberal ideology which champions lower taxation and tight control on public spending….

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Trump’s Tweets…

Donald Trump’s recent retweets of inflammatory anti-Muslim videos posted by the far right group ‘Britain First’ sparked outrage last week, a row which intensified when Theresa May said it was wrong for him to do so, which in turn prompted a twitter rebuke from Donald Trump in which he said suggested she should be focusing on the destructive Radical Islam in the UK rather than criticizing him.

Trump Tweets

The videos purported to show Muslims pushing a boy off a roof, destroying a statue of the Virgin Mary, and beating a boy on crutches.

Trump’s tweets prompted The Guardian to suggest that his proposed state visit should be cancelled, because it would be inappropriate to extend such a formal welcome to such a racist bigot

However, the Daily Mail points out that state visits have been extended to all sorts of immoral characters in the past – such as Nicolae Ceausescu of Romania and Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe.

NB IMO the above statement from the Daily Mail is a great example of something which isn’t (technically) an argument) – that we shouldn’t cancel a proposed state visit because we have a tradition of setting a low-ethical bar for people invited to past state visits isn’t a rational reason for not changing current policy – it’s an irrational appeal to tradition/ emotion, thus not logical, thus not an argument. 

According to Max Hastings in the Daily Mail, Trump’s tweets also reveal something about the ‘special relationship’ between Britain and the USA – namely that the UK likes to flatter itself that there is one, but the reality is that this special relationship never actually amounts to much in terms of the USA doing anything for the UK… This might be a warning about not relying on the USA as one of our post-Brexit saviors.

As to why Trump posted those tweets, besides being an impetuous Racist, there may have been a self-interested political motive – these tweets may have been aimed at his own far-right American audience…. and he needs their support for his ‘Mexican Wall’ project.

So, all in all, as shocking as Trump’s Tweets were in terms of their revealing his horrible racism, the deeper-reality behind the tweets is even worse…

 

 

 

 

 

Westminster – A Culture of Harassment and Abuse?

The issue of sexual harrassment in Westminster has been in the news this week – here’s a round up of some of the worst cases…

The trade minister, Mark Garnier admitted to having sent a secretary into a sex shop to buy two vibrators (one for his wife and one for a female worker in his constituency office) while he waited outside. It was, he insisted, just ‘good-humored high jinks’. He also admitted to having once called the same woman “sugar-tits” in a bar, but said it was part of an “amusing conversation” about Gavin and Stacey.

Former Cabinet minisiter Stephen Crabb admitted to having “sexted” a 19 year-old he had interviewed (and rejected) for a job.

A labour activist went public with allegations that Labour officials urged her not to report a rape. Bex Bailey sasy she was attacked at a Labour event in 2011, but was discouraged from going to the police.

At lease six Cabinet ministers were rumored to feature a spreadsheet of Tory MPs accused on sexual harassment and misconduct known as the ‘dirty dossier’. The allegations, which have not been verified, range from extramarital affairs to being “handsy in taxis”, and harassing researchers to paying for prostitutes. A Labour-affiliated organisation, Labour Too, has begun compiling similar complaints against MPs on the opposition benches.

Women at Westminister have created a WhatsApp group to warn each other about serial sex pests, while other shave started making off-the-recored allegations to the press. They said that one former Tory minister was famously not afe to share a lift with, and that he was once overheard asking his secretary come “come and feel the length of my dick”.

Stephen Rush, writing in the New Statesman, reminds us that many of these allegations are unproven, moreover, a lot of the behaviour described in the so-called ‘dirty dossier vary from serious harassment to strange yet consensual activities which do not constitute harassment, which muddies the waters about the whole affair.

Sources:

The Week.

Harvey Weinstein Scandal – A sign of ‘raised consciousness’ or just a decline in his personal power?

Harvey Weinstein’s history of sexual harassment has been headline news for over a week now, but what should we make of it?

Weinstein sex pest.jpg

Some very famous actresses, including Gwyneth Paltrow and Angelina Joli have come forward and accused Weinstein of sexual harassment (which he hasn’t denied, he’s only denied accusations of rape), and it seems that he’s been a prolific offender over the last three decades: The New York Times reported last week that the media mogul was a serial sex pest who had, before recent allegations came to light, reached at least eight legal settlements with women over the past three decades.

Rebecca Traister noted in the New York magazine that she witnessed Weinstein’s abusive behaviour first-hand in 2000, when she got into a row with him, and he proceeded to punch her boyfriend when he intervened, and yet, despite dozens of camera shots, the event never made the news, showing his enormous influence to shut down bad news at that time.

Writing in The Times, Hugo Rifkind, suggested that the eruption of the Harvey Weinstein scanadal is a symptom of a changing world and evolving attitudes.

However, maybe a more realistic interpretation of events comes from Lee Smith, writing in the Weekly Standard – he argues that this has nothing to do with ‘raised consciousness’. The reason this story has come out now is because Weinstein’s power is on the wane. Both his political support (he was a major democratic fundraiser) and the media model that protected him previously is collapsing: there was a time when his company, Miramax, used to buy the movie rights to every big story published in New York’s magazines. But the collapse of print advertising means few magazines can now pay for the kind of journalism that translates into screenplays, so they have no reason to keep him onside.

Evidence of Increasing Globalisation

Just a quick round up of some of the evidence/ news items I’ve stumbled across which suggest that globalisation is happening. It’s up to you to decide how valid, reliable and representative this evidence is. 

NB – this is also my first experiment with a long-term time-release system for posting ‘shorter’ news-items – I’m going to schedule this just ahead of the time I teach globalisation in the college year) 

According to The Week (July 2017) 7/10 British children have their first experience of foreign travel before the age of five, and by the age of eight, 1/10 of them own their own smart phone (which will connect them to global media flows).

By contrast, just 12% of over-50s had been abroad by the time they were five: on average, they were 14 when they first went abroad.

Stephen Hawking Against Neoliberalism!

Stephen Hawking this week accused the Conservative government of damaging the NHS by slashing funding, weakening the health service though privatization, demoralizing staff by curbing pay and cutting social care support.

Neoliberal policy harming health.jpg

Hawking blamed a raft of policies pursued since 2010 by the coalition and then the Conservatives for enfeebling the NHS and leaving it unable to cope with the demands being placed on it.

“The crisis in the NHS has been caused by political decisions,” he said. “The political decisions include underfunding and cuts, privatising services, the public sector pay cap, the new contract imposed on the junior doctors and removal of the student nurses’ bursary.

Hawking also accused the Tories of ‘cherry picking evidence’ to back up their views that funding cuts were not damaging the NHS…

“When public figures abuse scientific argument, citing some studies but suppressing others, to justify policies that they want to implement for other reasons, it debases scientific culture…One consequence of this sort of behaviour is that it leads ordinary people not to trust science, at a time when scientific research and progress are more important than ever, given the challenges we face as a human race.”

Comments/ Application to Sociology

I thought the news item above was worth summarizing as it’s such a great example a critique of neoliberal social policy – Hawking basically picks up on all the three main aspects of neoliberal policy – deregulation, funding cuts and privatization.

The matter of ‘trust’ is also a very central concept in any sociology of the risk society – Hawking is saying that you can trust scientific research as long as you’re objective about it and take into account all of the data and (appropriately reviewed) studies on the topic in-hand – not enough people are saying this clearly enough, and I think it’s important as it’s a useful antidote to post-truth politics.

As to the credibility of science being undermined when politicians cherry-pick data, this is less likely to happen if more scientists like Hawking get involved in social policy discourse. I mean: who do you trust more: The health minister Jeremy Hunt telling you the NHS is doing great based on studies B, F, AND M, or someone like Hawking telling you that, yes studies B,F, and M tell suggest the NHS is doing OK, but if we also take into account studies A through Z, on balance the neoliberalism is screwing our public health services?

Sources 

The Guardian: Stephen Hawking blames Tory politicians for damaging NHS

 

Agenda Setting in The Mainstream News

Agenda-setting is where the media only ask a limited range of questions about a topic, thus limiting the number of perspectives or angles from which an issue is explored. It is a concept mainly associated with Marxism, and it is one of the main ways in which the media maintain ideological control according to Marxist analysis.

Examples of agenda setting:

Focussing on the violent aspects of a political protest, rather than the arguments behind why the protest is taking place

Charlie Brooker does a great job of analysing how this occurred during the G20 protests in London 2009 – the television crews DID NOT cover the political speeches that took place during the day, they just waited around until some violence did (finally, it was rare!) kick off later in the day, and then it was the violence that became headline news:

Focussing on the ‘drama of the London riots’ and the harms done to victims rather than on the reasons why people took part in the London riots.

I’ll admit, the London Riots were great entertainment, and if that’s all you wanted, the media did a great job of covering the burning and the looting, framing the event in terms of ‘lack of parental responsibility’, ‘moral decline’ and ‘feral youths’

However, the mainstream media didn’t do such a great job of covering the findings of the research which was published months later, which suggested  that the actual reasons the riots took place were, according to the rioters themselves: unfair treatment by the police, unemployment, government policies the shooting of Mark Duggan.

Focussing on why the economy is or isn’t growing, rather than asking whether or not economic growth is a good thing.

There is a daily media-focus on the economy and economic growth: most radio and T.V. news slots have a regular ‘business feature’ and economic growth is always framed as universally good.

However, what is never discussed is the fact that not everyone benefits equally from economic growth – the capitalist class with shares and investments benefit hugely, but the poor benefit almost not at all! America is an excellent example of this – the richest country on earth, but with huge inequalities, you have to ask whether economic growth is actually ‘good’.

The authors of the Spirit Level argue that if we want social progress in Britain  then inequality is now the biggest barrier to improving quality of life for most people, but this is rarely discussed in the media.

Marxists argue that news values and agenda setting work together to reinforce dominant, elite world views of society as normal and natural, and to marginalise alternative perspectives on society which may upset existing power structures.

Related Posts

 

News Values

News Values are general criteria such as ‘extraordinariness’, ‘negativity’ and ‘elite persons’ which journalists use to determine whether an event is newsworthy (‘worthy of inclusion in the news’).

The existence of news values is one of the reasons why many sociologists view the news as a social construction – in other words the news is not simply an unbiased reflection of the objectively most important events ‘out there’ in society; rather the news is the end result of selective processes through which gatekeepers such as owners, editors and journalists make choices about what events are important enough to be covered, and how they should be covered.

Spencer-Thomas (2008) defines News values as general guidelines or criteria that determine the worth of a news story and how much prominence it is given by newspapers or broadcast media. Brighton and Foy (2007) suggest that news values are ‘often intangible, informal, almost unconscious elements’. News values define what journalists, editors and broadcasters consider as newsworthy.

The best known list of news values was supplied by Galtung and Rouge (1970). They analysed international news across a group of newspapers in Norway in 1965 and identified a number of News Values shared by Norwegian journalists (1)

News Values

Galtung and Rouge did uncover more news values, the list below is just a selection of the most ‘dramatic’:

Extraordinariness – rare, unpredictable and surprising events have more newsworthiness than routine events.

Threshold – the ‘bigger’ the size of the event, the more likely it is to be reported.

News values London Riots
The London Riots were the largest act of mass criminality in a generation

 

Unambiguity – the simpler the event, the more likely it is to be reported.

Reference to elite persons – events surrounding the famous and the powerful are often seen as more newsworthy.

Reference to elite nations – events in nations perceived to be ‘culturally similar’ to the United Kingdom are more likely to reported on – for example, disasters in America are more likely to be reported on than disasters in African countries.

News Values September 11th
S11 – Would a similar disaster in Africa have dominated the U.K. headlines for so long?

Personalisation – if events can be personalised easily they are more likely to get into the news.

Negativity – bad news is regarded as more newsworthy than good news.

grenfell tower fire news values
Negative events are more likely to make the news

 

According to Galtung and Rouge, journalists use News-Values to select-out certain events as less newsworthy than others, and they thus act as gate-keepers – they quite literally shut out certain events, and let other events into the news-agenda, thus narrowing our window on the world.

There are some contemporary critiques of the concept of News Values, but I’ll come back to those later!

Sources

(1) Chapman 2106, Sociology for AQA A-Level, Collins.