Notes From a Small Planet

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Life during wartime

This week I'm reporting from a war zone: h2g2. Fighting is intensifying between government forces, in the shape of the BBC Moderators, and the Zaphodista rebels.

I should state immediately that I do not claim to be an impartial observer. I am proud of the fact that I was the first recruit to the rebel forces after Subcomandante Deidzoeb wrote the First Declaration of the Zaphodista Army of Cybernautic Liberation, denouncing the new restrictions imposed on h2g2.

For me, the first warning bells began to clang when I discovered that we were no longer permitted to use an ancient English term that dates back at least to the time of Geoffrey Chaucer. Obviously I cannot reproduce this fearful obscenity here, but it's an anagram of 'ears' and it refers to the body part you sit on. (Apart from any other considerations, I would argue that this ban discriminates against British Researchers. Our American friends can presumably talk of 'kicking ass' with impunity, but we Brits are forbidden to use the UK equivalent).

Things got worse when it transpired that some postings had been removed for the crime of containing song titles. Certain Moderators apparently feared that merely mentioning the name of a song might constitute a breach of copyright - a notion which, if true, would have meant that every music magazine in the world stood to be sued hundreds of times over every time they put out an issue.

At first, the Zaphodista page attracted curiosity and a little hostility. Some Researchers understandably felt that it was a needless attempt to provoke the hosts who had saved our site, and that the complaints were essentially trivial.

But over the course of a single week, the mood has changed dramatically. For many, the moment of conversion to the Zaphodista cause came when some innocent posting of theirs was suddenly censored. If I hadn't been on the side of the Zaphodistas already, I'd have signed up like a shot when I saw to my horror what had been done to my lovingly-compiled music links page, The Music Website Jukebox. It had dozens of its links removed, apparently because of another eccentric interpretation of the copyright laws. Similar mishaps must have occurred all over h2g2 - because before long, most of us had an angry tale to tell about the way our work had been treated.

By now, Deidzoeb may be feeling a little overwhelmed; new Zaphodistas are signing up by the dozen. Among the latest is none other than Peta, our beloved Community Editor. Given that all those Researchers whose names appear in italics were loyally defending the Moderators a week ago, this seemed at first like a startling shift of attitude. In truth, though, Peta probably has as much right as anyone to oppose the new, draconian form of moderation that the BBC has imposed on us. After all, it's she and Abi who have to clear up the mess it's caused. They have to deal with the countless complaints that have rained in to the Moderation Help Desk. At times, they must have felt like they were having to defend the indefensible and explain the inexplicable.

The really silly thing about it all is that this is essentially an argument among friends. Despite everything, I still think the BBC is a marvellous institution! I watch its TV shows and listen to its radio stations almost every day. If its ultra-cautious handling of h2g2 smacks of paranoia, then that's surely due in part to the fact that the BBC has good reason to be paranoid. It has powerful enemies in the commercial media and on the political right.

Margaret Thatcher famously hated the Beeb. Rupert Murdoch still does. But its existence means that in Britain, market forces do not entirely dictate what we're allowed to see and hear. Being funded by taxation, the BBC can cater for minorities. It doesn't have to worry about attracting advertisers. No wonder truly original creativity has flourished on its channels for so long.

Really, all that we Zaphodistas ask is to be allowed to carry on that glorious tradition of BBC creativity. We may seem a touch too anarchic for corporate comfort, but the institution that nurtured The Goons, Monty Python and - yes - The Hitch-Hiker's Guide To The Galaxy can surely cope with a little creative madness. With luck, in the weeks ahead there'll be give and take and the build-up of trust between the factions. By the summer, hopefully we'll be looking back on this phase of h2g2 history and laughing at the silliness of it all!

Always provided that laughter is permitted by the Moderators, of course.

Burning issues

Meanwhile, over in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA, things have been happening that put our own censorship problems in some kind of perspective. Members of the Harvest Assembly of God church have followed in the goose-steps of every kind of tyrant in history, by burning books.

Harry Potter books, that is.

The Church's spokesman, the Rev. George Bender, has solemnly explained:
'We believe that Harry Potter promotes sorcery, witchcraft-type things, the paranormal, things that are against God.'

Lest we unsaved barbarians fail to comprehend, he adds:
'That is really bad.'

Personally, I'd have thought that Harry Potter books promote sorcery in the same sense that Superman comics promote alien crime-fighters with superhuman powers. If it doesn't really exist, you can't promote it.

But, whatever, the Church's wrath hasn't solely been aimed at author J.K. Rowling's fictional young wizard. Inexplicably, they've also been torching Disney videos - such decadent filth as 'Pinocchio' and 'Hercules'. A few CDs have been thrown on the flames as well, with Black Sabbath and Pearl Jam top of the hit list.

Now, the Sabs you can just about understand, even if the idea of their being dangerous these days is pretty laughable. Dear old Ozzy Osbourne is 52 and clean and sober now. I'd imagine he'll be quite touched that anyone still thinks he's a threat to public decency. But Pearl Jam? What can an amiable band of grunge-rocking liberals like Eddie Vedder and friends have done to deserve such disfavour?

Anyway, I think I'll make a point of using the h2g2 'magic' smiley as much a possible in future. It sounds as if the very idea of magic repels born-again book-burners - and I certainly don't want such people anywhere near me.

Correct is often right

John Townend, the Conservative Member of Parliament for Yorkshire East, plans to retire from politics after the forthcoming General Election - and Parliament can hardly fail to be better for that.

His party's leader, William Hague, will certainly be relieved. Mr Hague joined in a chorus of criticism from across the British political spectrum after Townend made an outrageous speech to the Conservative faithful in his constituency, claiming that 'Commonwealth immigration' was undermining Britain's 'homogenous Anglo-Saxon society'.

Which is, I suppose, pretty much what one would expect from the only MP out of the 659 in the House of Commons who refused to sign a cross-party pledge promising not to stir up racial hatred during the election campaign. Townend's remarks were not only racist but also staggeringly ignorant. Britain has never had a 'homogenous Anglo-Saxon society'. Way back in our island's past, Vikings, Normans and Romans came here in very large numbers without letting immigration formalities detain them. We Brits have long been a gloriously mixed race; a fact that the great majority of our elected representatives recognise as a very good thing.

But for me, one thing adds to the nasty taste left by Townend's comments. He has flatly refused to apologise, claiming that a 'politically correct conspiracy' threatens free speech in Britain.

Of course, political correctness can be excessive and absurd. We can all chuckle at phrases like 'folically challenged', used to describe men with roughly the same amount of hair as Mr Hague.

But sometimes I think I'll go mad if I hear the phrase 'political correctness gone mad' one more time. For all its occasional excesses, political correctness is essentially well-intentioned; aimed at encouraging fair play and avoiding unnecessary offence. It's a form of good manners. Why do some people seem so threatened by the very idea of it?

When people attack political correctness as vehemently as Townend has done, I suspect that it's because they perceive a threat to what they see as their God-given right to be an offensive bigot.

Becks to the future

Finally, I am intrigued to discover that Manchester United and England soccer star David Beckham is to star in a series of new video games. Becks is to have 'creative input' on the games, being developed by the Rage company.

Wow! The possibilities are endless! How about 'Beckham's Body Art', in which the player gets to design tattoos for their virtual Becks, then laugh as the computer gives a visual simulation of how silly they'll look as he gets older! Or 'Son Of Becks', in which you choose a particularly embarrassing name for his offspring and then attempt the near-impossible task of helping the kid survive in the school playground! Or the bang-up-to-date 'Rotation System', in which you guide your virtual Becks through the endless corporate sponsors' lounges, dressing rooms and tunnels of Old Trafford to his place on the substitutes' bench alongside a virtual Sir Alex Ferguson!

I just hope none of the games have anything to do with the FA Carling Premiership title race. Thanks to Becks and his Manchester United pals, that's deadly dull these days.


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