A second opinion

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There are bigger, more globally grave stories in the news, but this one has gnawed away at me over all of them for the past four days: that of Ashya King, the five-year-old with an aggressive brain tumour whose parents, Brett and Naghmeh King, are currently under arrest in Spain after removing him from the Southampton hospital where he was being treated. I’ve attempted to engage in a dialogue about the heartbreaking story as it unfolded via social media, but keep encountering people who I’ll generously describe as fence-sitters.

My reaction to the facts as they keep emerging has generally been a visceral one: that of disbelief, empathy and anger. Anger that when the seemingly well-informed, well-prepared and determined parents of a sick boy remove him from hospital care in order to seek an alternative, less scattershot radiation treatment which is not freely available on the NHS except in very rare circumstances – a treatment they were willing to pay around £100,000 for – are criminalised for taking this step. The parents, and the most tech-savvy of Ashya’s six elder siblings, Naveed, seem entirely fluent in the power of social media, and have been posting regular YouTube videos explaining their position.

Although it’s ten minutes long – and what’s ten minutes compared to the life expectancy of a five-year-old with a tumour on his brain stem? – I have been urging people to view father Brett King’s key testimony, in which Ashya appears, apparently relaxed and well cared for in a hotel in Vélez-Málaga. (They’d taken him to Málaga – not “snatched” him, in the alarmist words of the first media reports – in order to sell a holiday apartment to raise the money to pay for “proton beam” treatment in the Czech Republic.)

Although, as the fence-sitters have been quick to point out, we cannot know the full, transcribed conversations that have taken place between the Kings and the oncologists at University Hospital Southampton, Brett makes a clear and non-hysterical case for why he and Ashya’s mother took the unusual step of removing him from hospital care. They used the Internet to research alternatives and the one they chose was not one based on crystals or cabbage soup but on conventional radiotherapy, which goes against what would have been the media’s preferred narrative: that the Kings were complementary medicine nutters.

That they are Jehovah’s Witnesses – a breakaway millenarian Christian branch that, by strict doctrine, refuses blood transfusion, or so I’ve read – was seized upon initially before the facts were known. It was during this cloudy period of speculation and kneejerk conclusion-jumping – a vacuum into which rolling 24-hours expands to fill – that the facts got away from us. But it seemed to me that reason was to some extent restored and hysteria averted by the first YouTube video.

Naveed subsequently posted this, to reassure those who would condemn his family’s decision that they did not make it lightly or without investing time, effort and money into ensuring Ashya’s normal feeding routine would not be interrupted.

In Madrid, which is 322 miles away from Málaga, where Ashya remains under armed police guard in a foreign hospital, Judge Ismeal Moreno ordered that his parents be held in custody for up to 72 hours while he studied medical reports and documents from the couple’s defence lawyer. Those who insist on blaming the parents will experience a weird sort of melancholic schadenfreude here – if they hadn’t “snatched” Ashya, they’d have been at his bedside in Southampton, instead of staring at the walls of separate cells in Madrid.

Again, although we can only know what we know, the family’s lawyer gave a statement denying that Ashya’s life had been at risk, and that he had been admitted to the hospital in Málaga “in a perfect state of health”. (Ashya’s brother Daniel, 23, was with him in hospital – thank heavens for small mercies in a case where very little has been shown, in my emotionally crazed and ill-informed opinion.)

There is still a chance that common sense will prevail and the family will be reunited after days of stress that none of them asked for. There was no “snatching”, there was “abandonment” (quite the opposite) and there has been no “neglect”, the flimsy basis of the arrest warrant and the threat of extradition. I asked aloud on Twitter when David Cameron would step in: he’s quick to get on the phone to Obama when the US needs our “military prowess” – why not a quick call to Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy? Nick Clegg has weighed in today, coincidentally after the Daily Mail made it a campaigning issue, although I fear one needs political and/or moral weight to make “weighing in” count. Cleggs boasts neither.

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I hold no torch for the Mail‘s dirty tricks and grubby Victorian hypocrisy, but when it gets involved, politicians tend to be roused from their slumber. I’m no expert on the law, but isn’t extradition – an outcome that is on the table – basically about co-operation of governments? Though the Kings have refused extradition, surely some co-operation could resolve the matter before – and let’s not be coy – things deteriorate?

Unless Brett King is lying through his teeth, he was “threatened” with a “protection order” by the boy’s oncologist if he continued to push for the proton beam option and thus defy the child’s doctor – which would have meant (ironically) that he and Ashya’s mother would have been denied access to their son’s ward. That prospect seems to have driven them to act. They’d contacted the Prague clinic, but when the clinic contacted Southampton for the requisite X-rays and paperwork, the request was ignored. (Unless, again, Mr King is lying, or dressing up the facts. The fence-sitters will cling to this grey area until the story has been the subject of an independent review, I guess.)

Is it so wrong to air a gut reaction to a news story as it unfolds? I felt so sick about how quickly a child’s parents can be painted as neglectful, irresponsible criminals in a supposedly free society. Even if the hospital felt it was acting in the best interests of Ashya King, did it really have to call in Hampshire police so soon after discovering he had been removed? The first “breaking” media reports were of a “missing boy” who had been “snatched”. He was not missing. He had not been snatched. Assistant chief constable Chris Shead said in the police’s first statement on Friday: “It is vital that we find Ashya today. His health will deteriorate rapidly. Ashya is in a wheelchair and is fed through a tube. The feeding system is battery operated and that battery will run out today.” Clearly, at this stage, the police had no idea how well equipped the King family was, but no wonder the world acted with alarm.

I can totally understand Hampshire’s “damned if we did, damned if we didn’t” defence, but what I personally regard as a heavy-handed, panic-button reaction did not help matters, or contribute to the boy’s health. A European arrest warrant? Could they not have called the family to ascertain how much danger Ashya was in?

I’m not a parent. I will never be in the Kings’ position, thank God. But this didn’t stop me from feeling for them. Commentators have been saying, “It’s what any parent would do if they felt it was the best for their child.” I suspect the unconditional love for a son or daughter would trump all nuanced options, but I think the Kings should be applauded for taking such careful preparation before removing Ashya from care. (Naveed said that their mother was “by Ashya’s side for the whole month that he was in hospital.”)

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I don’t pretend to have all the answers. But since we all hope that Ashya’s health will improve, by whichever treatment his guardians decree and pay for, at least there is some common ground. Without the Internet (and some of us can remember a prehistoric time before it), patients were in thrall to doctors for advice, and took it, without question. The dissemination of information, while wildly unpoliced across a once-super highway full of potholes, means access for all, even we plebs who do not have the luxury of a medical degree.

But a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing, and that works in both directions.

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Areas of outstanding booty

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I was being both playful and deadly serious when, last night, after the watershed, I Tweeted:

I fucking hate fracking.

I added a PS in brackets – (I waited until after the watershed to Tweet that – it doesn’t work with dashes or asterisks) – a hint of levity beneath the hard crust of protest. Hey, it’s a stupid medium. Sometimes only a stupid joke will do. It doesn’t mean that serious intent is out of the question: attention-grabbing is half the battle. Anyway, a number of like-minded folk re-Tweeted my 15-certificate statement. Also – and I was sort of expecting this – one man objected to the basic underlying implication of my Tweet. He wrote:

if you’d been born in the late 1800’s would you have hated underground coal mining?

There’s no apostrophe in “1800s” but I wasn’t going to pick him up on that and be a prick. So instead I petulantly replied:

Yes.

I have no way of knowing what I would have hated in the late 1800s, as it was a very different time. Anyway, then I went to sleep. It was after 10.30. This morning, I found that the man had not let it lie. He’d responded, with a trace level of passive aggression, I felt (and no initial capital letter again):

presumably you have a masterful alternative to fracking up your sleeve, that the energy companies have failed to note

So I gathered my thoughts and, with about 15 years of being very interested in green issues behind me, I typed:

Use less energy.

Touché? Who knows. I only publicised my aversion to fracking in the first instance to reflect the fact that, far from being a destructive, money-motivated process only being perpetrated in faraway North Dakota and East Texas, it’s coming to the UK with an awful lot of political will behind it (and by that, I mean corporate will, obviously, as waived through by politicians with financial interests in energy companies). I care about this, and not because it’s literally going to happen in my urban backyard.

National parks, areas of outstanding natural beauty, world heritage sites, all will be fair game for exploration and drilling for shale gas across this land once the bids are in for “onshore oil and gas licences”. But don’t worry, ministers are asking energy firms to “submit an environmental statement” before they are allowed to start tearing the arse out of Britain in the name of cheap energy and profit. This statement has to be “particularly comprehensive and detailed” if they want to frack on or near a protected bit of the map. But since when did a bit of paperwork stop big business?

I’m glad this brutish form of gas extraction actually termed hydraulic fracturing comes colloquially giftwrapped as “fracking” from its heartland in America, which nobody seems to have noticed is a bigger country than the United Kingdom. You just know that the marketing departments of the energy giants looking for a piece of the action, or “fracktion”, will be tearing their hair out trying to come up with a way of rebranding it. Too late. The word fits.

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Here’s the truth: I don’t have a magic solution to the country’s energy problems or the world’s, but I do know that the people in charge (by whom I mean the people who run the private corporations that run our governments) have known that the world’s oil was going to run out for decades. In 1956, Shell geoscientist (ie. not a hippy) M. King Hubbert predicted that “peak oil” would be reached in 2000. They named a curve after him. It certainly looked pretty dicey by the Millennium, although other experts have adjusted the end of days to the more palatable 2020, by which time the world will have solved the problem, apparently. Forgive me if I have zero confidence in that happening. The Market has failed to sort everything out previously. Why trust it this time, when so much is at stake?

It’s the Shale Of The Century! Just as Ed Miliband’s compromise solution for the railways is to allow the public sector to bid against private companies, it’s always a “competition”, as that’s how free market economics works, even when an apparent “Labour” party is tinkering with it. (It’s capitalism that led us to this precarious point where the massive oil-consuming nations have encouraged everyone else to consume more oil in order to compete in the global market and thus, we are running out of the stuff.) The “competition” for UK fracking licences is, we’re told, “likely to attract significant interest from energy companies keen to explore Britain’s new-found shale reserves.” Of course it is. There’s money to be made. It’s a gold rush where individuals with a pick and shovel may not apply. (This is a shame for all those fashionable men who have massive beards, as they already look like gold prospectors.)

Bad luck if you’re in the Bowland basin of the north-west, a central belt of Scotland and the Weald in the south-east. We must hope that the protests that sprang up in Blackpool and Balcombe about the potential for environmental damage will be replicated in these new areas of outstanding profit. The licensing round was announced while the MPs were on holiday, so they can pretend they didn’t know about it.

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The Tory Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon told the other Lords and Ladies, “We recognise there are areas of outstanding landscape and scenic beauty where the environmental and heritage qualities need to be carefully balanced against the benefits of oil and gas from unconventional hydrocarbons.” Planning consent is going to be a pushover. Eric Pickles is going to bypass the usual channels and sign it off himself.

And yet … there may be hope. From Conservative voters. Who live in many of the areas that are to be fracked. If they don’t actually live in rural constituencies, there are the exact types to aspire to do so (fantasy Countryside Alliance members who actually live in the suburbs), and they don’t like it up ’em. Quite why Cameron is prepared to put the interests of the corporations that fund his party above the actual individuals who might vote him back in without the pesky Lib Dems is beyond me. He is, if nothing else, shallow, self-serving and bloodless. Dozy, platitudinous twat that he is, surely even he can see that this is a potential electoral timebomb. (Unless, of course, he never really was in it to help anyone, and is only an ideological zealot up to a point. I’m not sure which is the more skin-crawling: a rightwing bastard, or someone pretending to be one.)

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Greenpeace are not happy (“The government has fired the starting gun on a reckless race for shale that could see fracking rigs go up across the British countryside”), nor are the Green party (“Many campaigners have campaigned for decades to get national park status, and they are given for a reason. The idea that they could be offered up to the fracking firms is a scandal”), but, according to the Guardian, Shaun Spiers of the Campaign to Protect Rural England, seemed fine with it, assured by the government’s “highest possible safeguards.” (Good luck, rural England, with this bloke backing your protection.)

In the interests of balance, I would say that the British Geological Survey has estimated that shale gas deposits under your house and garden could supply the country with energy for up to 40 years. And luckily, in order to extract it, all the energy companies have to do is sit near it with a tanker and it will magically evaporate out of the rock under the soil and fill the tank, which can be then safely and noiselessly driven away.

The Institute of Directors said three cheers for “a dynamic, productive and well regulated shale industry in the UK.” Pardon me if I sit on my hands and save my applause for later. The man on Twitter who thought he was being very clever probably thinks I am a lily-livered, bleeding-heart, anti-business Guardian-reading lefty with no answers to his difficult questions. He’s kind of right. But that doesn’t mean I can’t be furious about the fact that nobody has done anything about our untrammeled consumption of energy thus far except invent energy-saving lightbulbs. Why didn’t we – and why don’t we – just turn the lights off when we leave the room?

 

 

In the event of war, I’m a hostage

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Don’t expect a review of the third and final episode of Sherlock in this week’s Telly Addict as I hadn’t watched it when I wrote and recorded it. I had wrongly assumed that it would be as disappointing as the wedding episode, which rather sapped me of enthusiasm for the series. I’ve seen it now, and it was a knockout. Ah well, plenty more to get through (and I did give Sherl a good crack of the whip last week): Homeland, sorry, Hostages on C4; Benefits Streets, also on C4 (it’s like two separate channels sometimes); The Taste, also on C4 (it’s like three etc.); the brilliant Hinterland, aka Y Gwyll, now shunted from S4C in Welsh to BBC One Cymru in English and a bit of Welsh; and The Bridge on BBC4, or the Danish National Broadcaster, as it’s been renamed.

In with the new

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New Year. Clean Slate. Breath of fresh air. New shirt (thanks). The first Telly Addict of 2014 celebrates … the old. ITV’s revival of Birds Of A Feather after a 15 year gap; the 13th series of Celebrity Big Brothel on Channel 5; the 17th series of Silent Witness on BBC1 (and the tenth for longest-serving principal Emilia Fox); the second series of “Spanish Downton” Gran Hotel on Sky Arts 1; and the third series of Sherlock on BBC1. Something new next week, maybe?

That shirt …

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