Archives for March 2007

When free speech begins to melt

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William Crawley | 22:17 UK time, Saturday, 31 March 2007

jesus256.jpgWhatever you think of the aesthetic merits of Cosimo Cavallaro's chocolate sculpture of the crucifixion, is it right that organisers should have to cancel the exhibition in Manhattan following protests from some Christian groups?

What's so offensive about this sculpture? Even if it is regarded as offensive to some people -- and not all Christian commentators are taking offence at it -- surely artists should have the freedom to exhibit works that discomfit some viewers?

I'm blogging this ...

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William Crawley | 00:38 UK time, Saturday, 31 March 2007

You can hear our documentary on the blogging revolution on BBC Radio Ulster today, Saturday, at 11.30 am.

If you want a sense of the variety of blogs currently available, I'd start by simply clicking on those listed in my "blogroll" (a list of some of my current favourites), which you can find by scrolling down the links on the right hand side of this page.

If you'd like to check out some of the best blogs in Ireland, have a look at the winners of this year's Irish Blog Awards.

If you're new to blogging and want to find out more, I recommend this overview of blogging and its impact on knowledge-sharing and community-building.

If you'd like to try your hand at blogging, here's a useful guide to getting going.

If you are questioning whether blogging is, properly speaking, a form of journalism, this article may interest you.

And if you are wondering whether blogging is a fad? Here's an interesting discussion.

Update: You can listen again to this documentary on the BBC Radio Player here.

Chocolate Jesus

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William Crawley | 22:30 UK time, Friday, 30 March 2007

christfrontpage.jpg


This 6-foot sculpture of Christ, currently being exhibited in a hotel in New York City, has angered Catholic campaigners in the city. The problem, it seems, is that the artist, the Canadian-born Cosimo Cavallaro created the sculpture from milk chocolate.

Cavallaro is well known for his imaginative work with food as art. His previous efforts include "repainting a Manhattan hotel room in melted mozzarella, spraying 5 tons of pepper jack cheese on a Wyoming home and festooning a four-poster bed with 312 pounds of processed ham." He hopes that visitors to the gallery space in the hotel will not only view the Christ but also take the opportunity to interact with the sculpture -- to lick it. Cavallaro maintains he's not being disrespectful; he wants to explore something deeply spiritual in permitting the visitor to touch and taste the sweetness of the figure he has represented. After all, he says, Christians receive the "body and blood" of Christ as food in the act of holy communion.

What do you think? Does this look like a sacrilegious exhibition or a beautiful sculture provoking profound questions?

Update, 31 March: The organisers have cancelled the exhibition following protests from Catholic groups.

Tom Hulce

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William Crawley | 15:30 UK time, Friday, 30 March 2007

. . . is the name of the actor who played Mozart in the film Amadeus. He popped into the conversation a couple of minutes ago while i was guesting on the Alan Simpson Show. But Tom hasn't disappeared -- his latest film, Jumper, is currently in post-production.

Keith Burnside's big news day

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William Crawley | 14:09 UK time, Friday, 30 March 2007

Last Monday was a truly historic day -- everyone seems now agreed on that. The atmosphere was electric in and around Stormont, and in the newsrooms reporting on the developments. The Radio Ulster newsreader Keith Burnside had an early start that day and I've persuaded him to allow me to publish this excerpt from his diary.

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Shibboleth on slavery

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William Crawley | 13:44 UK time, Friday, 30 March 2007

TheStig.jpgShibboleth is to Will and Testament what The Stig is to Top Gear. He's a masked crusader who occasionally pipes up to do battle against hermeneuticial abuse and theological misunderstanding. This week, our very own biblical Stig has been exercised about some commenters' views on slavery and the Bible.

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Whatever you say, say something

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William Crawley | 10:38 UK time, Friday, 30 March 2007

That's the title of the radio documentary about blogging I've been making with Owen McFadden, which will be broadcast on Saturday morning at 11.30 on BBC Radio Ulster.

One or two of my regular commenters on Will and Testament make an appearance in the programme, as does Mick Fealty, the founder of Slugger O'Toole, and the columnist Newton Emerson, formerly of Portadown News online fame. How is blogging changing the way we communicate with each other today? Is it a type of "journalism" or a just a platform for ranting? And is Northern Irish politics likely to embrace blogging, now that a deal has been struck, as a way of reaching voters and opinion-formers? Join us on Saturday at 11.30 am.

The programme's title, as you will have guessed, is a revearsal of a Northern Irish expression which became the title of a poem by Seamus Heaney.

Where are the comments?

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William Crawley | 18:13 UK time, Thursday, 29 March 2007

Alan has asked me to explain why the comments indicator after a post sometimes gives an inaccurate number and why on sme occasions all the comments after a post are disappearing for a time then reappearing. The technically accurate answer is that I don't know. I've asked Paul Ferguson at BBC Online to take a look at this recurring problem. The good news is that Paul has made a fair bit of progress in dealing with our recent spam problems which prevented commenters from responding to each other for a couple of weeks. Thanks to Paul for his persistence with that. And thanks also to commenters for their patience. The BBC blogs initiative is still in trail phase and BBC Blogs Central in London will be rolling out some new technology in the early summer that will hopefully counter some of the problems we've be seeing.

Meeting Ruth Lea

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William Crawley | 18:27 UK time, Wednesday, 28 March 2007

Ruth Lea is my guest tonight on William Crawley Meets ... at 11.15 on BBC One. Director of the Centre for Policy Studies, the right wing think tank founded by Margaret Thatcher, Ruth Lea makes a case for a severely limited role for government, the UK's withdrawal from the European Union, and believes the so-called "climate change crisis" is no crisis at all.

It's the disbandment, stupid!

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William Crawley | 17:59 UK time, Wednesday, 28 March 2007

In this video clip, Gerry Adams scolds my colleague Mark Devenport for asking a "stupid question". Nothing at all stupid about the question Mark asked: Will the IRA Army Council be disbanded ahead of the restoration of devolution?

Why did Darwin wait so long?

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William Crawley | 17:24 UK time, Wednesday, 28 March 2007

darwin.jpgAs every good historian knows, sometimes the truth is more mundane than we often imagine. John van Wyhe, from Charles Darwin's alma mater, Cambridge University, provides another example of this, as reported in today's Guardian.

The myth: Darwin delayed publication of the Origin of Species for two decades, until 1859, because he was nervous about the likely reaction of church authorities and professional colleagues to the theory of evolution by natural selection (a theory he first developed in 1839).

The truth: Darwin didn't complete work on the Origin of Species for two decades because he was snowed under with other writing projects.

The Stop Donal campaign gathers pace

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William Crawley | 14:44 UK time, Wednesday, 28 March 2007

BishopMckeown.jpgOur publication of the papal nuncio's questionnaire on the pending appointment of a new bishop of Down and Connor continues to raise lots of debate.

A number of commenters here have made reference to a "Stop Donal" campaign. Even though Dr Donal McKeown (pictured) is serving as a auxilliary bishop in the diocese of Down and Connor, it is far from the case that he is the inevitable successor to Bishop Patrick Walsh. Other contenders appear to include Dr John McAreavey, the Bishop of Dromore, and Monsignor Noel Treanor, the Clogher priest who heads the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Community. I also understand that at least one priest has written to the Papal Nuncio recommending the appointment of Vincent Twomey, Maynooth's professor of moral theology and a former student of the Pope's, and expressing concern about the candicacy of Donal McKeown. You get a sense of some of the concerns being raised by the Stop Donal campaigners (such as they are) from the bishop's wikipedia profile.

Primate of homophobia?

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William Crawley | 12:30 UK time, Wednesday, 28 March 2007

_40198602_akinola203bap.jpgThe Anglican primate of Nigeria, Archbishop Peter Akinola, has given an interview to Philip Groves, the facilitator of the Anglican Communion's listening process, in which he defends new anti-gay measures likely to become law in Nigeria within a few weeks.

Consensual sex between men or between women is already a criminal offence in Nigeria, punishable with 14 years' imprisonment. In about a dozen northern Nigerian states, where Sharia law is enforced, homosexuality is punishable by death by stoning. The new measures will make it an offence, punishable with up to five years imprisonment, even to make a speech defending gay rights.

As many as 250 American church leaders have recently signed a petition challenging the new legislation (and the already existing Nigerian anti-gay laws) as "repressive". In March 2006, sixteen international human rights groups signed a letter condemning the new measures, saying that proposed bill "contravenes the basic rights to freedom of expression, conscience, association, and assembly." The European Parliament has already adopted a resolution condemning these and other human rights abuses in Nigeria.

But Archbishop Akinola says "the Western idea of human rights is subservient to the service of the common good." Human rights campaigners will, of course, point out that the establishment of a human rights culture may actually advance the common good.

Johann Lippowitz all torn up

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William Crawley | 21:13 UK time, Tuesday, 27 March 2007

I discovered this link on Andrew Sullivan's blog. Absolutely wonderful. From Amnesty International's 2006 Secret Policeman's Ball, the mime artist and actor David Armand (AKA Johann Lippowitz) performs his now famous interpretation of Natalie Imbuglia's "Torn".

If you find yourself watching this more than once (it's addictive), try this or this.

History's missing handshake

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William Crawley | 12:22 UK time, Tuesday, 27 March 2007

laun.jpgThe historic implications of yesterday's meeting of minds between the DUP and Sinn Fein were today being explored on the front pages of newspapers across the world, from Sydney Morning Herald.

The word "historic" is often misused in Northern Ireland politics; but not on this occasion. Some reporters have noted the absence of a handshake at yesterday's meeting. The Independent even prints pictures of three other historic moments of reconciliation (Reagan and Gorbachev, de Klerk and Mandela, Rabin and Arafat) with the key protagonists reaching out to each other. But David McKittrick rightly points out that yesterday's image of two politicians at a table, workmanlike and ready to do business, is an even more telling image than a choreographed photoshoot on the White House lawn.

Both political leaders were careful in their language as they sought to build rhetorical bridges to each other's community. And, although Ian Paisley has built a political career on a foundation of religion and politics, on this occasion both leaders invoked divine assistance:

We must not allow our justified loathing of the horros and tragedies of the past to become a barrier to creating a better and more stable future In looking to that future, we must never forget those who have suffered during the dark period from which we are, please God, emerging. -- IAN PAISLEY
Ach tá tus nua ann anois le cuidiú De." [But there is a new start now, with the help of God.]-- GERRY ADAMS

On the basis of this unprecedented agreement to share power, Tony Blair is introducing emergency legislation to devolve power to the Northern Ireland Assembly on 8 May. That's a significant date, since some Downing Street sources claim that is the date pencilled in for Mr Blair's resignation announcement. I suspect the Prime Minister will now wait until at least the next day to make his retirement statement, the restoration of devolution in Northern Ireland providing him with a timely and triumphal exit from British politics. By that point, Mr Blair will be glad of a good news story -- if, as expected, the SNP defeat Labour in the Scottish Parliament election on 3 May.

In the meantime, the task of building a political coalition that can shape the future of Northern Ireland appears to have begun in earnest. Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness are to have regular meetings. Sinn Fein and the DUP are talking and planning for government. And, very significantly, they are joining forces in their bid to persuade Gordon Brown to get his wallet out again. Mr Paisley may lose some friends in the process, but he has clearly set his face in the direction of power-sharing. Now comes what commentators like to call "real politics" -- though, in truth, there was nothing un-real about the politics of conflict. Water charges, academic selection, building the local economy, developing tourism, and a host of other issues still in need of an executive stategy. It's going to be a busy six weeks.

Wanted: Bishop for Large Irish Diocese

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William Crawley | 10:16 UK time, Sunday, 25 March 2007

nuncio1.jpgSunday Sequence has learned details of the consultation that will lead to the appointment of a successor to Bishop Patrick Walsh in Ireland's second largest diocese, Down and Connor. It is understood the Pope's man in Ireland, the Apostolic Nuncio, Archbishop Giuseppe Lazzarotto sent letters and a questionnaire earlier this year to certain priests in the diocese asking for their advice.

And last week further letters were sent to certain members of the laity as well as to certain priests and its believed members of religious orders also. As before they included a detailed questionnaire amounting to a job specification for the post. Recipients were invited to suggest three names of prospective bishops in order of preference and to answer the questionnaire.

Sunday Sequence has obtained a copy of the questionaire, which may shed some light on the appointment procedure. It's published below. Should you feel moved to write to the Papal Nuncio with your own suggestions for bishop, that's entirely a matter for yourself.

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How to be a theological racist

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William Crawley | 19:51 UK time, Saturday, 24 March 2007

slave.jpgDylan is right to note that Christianity's relationship with slavery is also a mixed story. Taking slaves was permitted in the Old Testament period -- which is to say, the biblical writers made a case for slavery as divinely ordained.

The Apostle Paul is sometimes portrayed as a paleo-abolitionist, but the texts are a little more complicated. Paul encouraged slave-owners to care for their slaves and treat them well -- which, in itself, was progressive and counter-cultural -- but he also admonished slaves to obey their masters.

In the fifth century, St Augustine made a theological case for slavery as divinely ordained, and, later, the church owned slaves, and prohibited slaves from marrying free persons or entering the clergy.

Things begin to change in the eighteenth century with the development of abolitionist theologies in various parts of the world. By the 19th century the Catholic Church's official teaching was fully abolitionist while various Protestant churches continued to disagree over the interpretation of Scripture. Famously, Southern Baptists in the United States maintained a strongly pro-slavery view even after the civil war. Eventually, the paradigm shift in theological thinking was complete and no church gave support to the idea, and many have publicly apologised for the harm done by their predecessors in defending such a reprehensible theology. In the case of the Southern Baptists, that apology was not issued until the mid-1990s.

Though slavery is no longer acceptable to any mainline Christian church, racist theologies are still alive and well in various parts of Christendom. Bob Jones University in South Carolina banned black students untill the 1980s and prohibited inter-racial relationships amongst students until the year 2000. We may be commemorating Wilberforce's humanitarian work and abolitionist theology this weekend, but the hard work of ridding theology and politics of racism in one form or another continues.

Wilberforce: the father of abolitionism?

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William Crawley | 19:28 UK time, Saturday, 24 March 2007

wilberforce_01.jpgThanks to Alan for reminding me of this excellent BBC history site dealing with the legacy of William Wilberforce. It's easy to rewrite the WIlberforce with the hindsight of two hundred years. He was a complex personality, driven by a mix of religious and political values that some voters today would find difficult to support. He was a committed Evangelical; yet he supported the arrest and imprisonment of a bookseller who published Thomas Paine's "The Age of Reason". He was a progressive for his day in some matters and deeply conservative in others. He struggled, for example, with the increasing enfranchisement of the British population and believed social inequality was divinely ordained while giving generously to the poor. Some of his ideas are undoubtedly strange by our lights, but these should not obscure the comitment to abolitionism and the humanitarian vision that is also part of Wilberforce's story. And in telling that stroy, we shoud be careful to acknowledge the many others who worked tirelessly to end slavery within the Empire two centuries ago.

This Sunday ...

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William Crawley | 18:52 UK time, Friday, 23 March 2007

Looking ahead to this Sunday morning's programme: It will be Amazing Grace Sunday across Britain and Ireland. We'll examine the life and legacy of the social reformer who helped to end slavery across the empire 200 years ago -- William Wilberforce. One of my guests is Michael Apted, the director of the recently released film about Wilberforce's life, "Amazing Grace". We'll review the film and also ask why slavery is still a feature of the world 200 years after the abolitionist movement in Britain.

Also on Sunday: Malachi O'Doherty on peace prayers: what exactly are churches praying for on this, the eve of the devolution deadline? We'll be reviewing Damien Hirst's new exhibition. And we'll debate the Vatican's decision to denounce one of the world's leading liberation theology theologians, Jon Sobrino, as a thinker whose ideas are a threat to the faithful.

An evening with Eamonn Holmes

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William Crawley | 01:00 UK time, Friday, 23 March 2007

eamonn_holmes.jpgI'm just back from a fundraising event at Methodist College. Eamonn Holmes hosted the evening and I was one of his guests on the sofa.

The playwright Marie Jones read a monologue and talked about her work; the Ulster rugby star David Humphries bantered about sport with Eamonn; Mike Edgar, our head of entertainment and sport at BBC Northern Ireland told terrific stories (including the one about the time he spent weeks living in Sting's house until Sting came home and evicted him); and John Linehan appeared as his alter ego, May McFettridge (he can get into full dress and makeup in six minutes).

Eamonn proved why he's Northern Ireland's most successful broadcaster: he's a natural with an audience, tells a great story, and has a very sharp wit. Afterwards, we'd dinner with the organisers in a nearby restaurant. Marie Jones and John Linehan are -- needless to say -- terrific company over dinner. When the waitress took my order, I asked if they could do me a simple penne with green pesto and some parmesan shavings on top. John pulled a look of utter digust, as if I'd just ordered a monkey brain omelette, and one of the Methody parents said, "It's like When Harry Met Sally".

Blueprinting the Causeway

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William Crawley | 22:53 UK time, Wednesday, 21 March 2007

giants_causeway1.jpgWould that the weather at the Giant's Causeway was as well-behaved today as it was when that picture was taken. I spent the entire day exploring the famous basalt columns with the Blueprint team -- mostly in the rain. Peter Woodman explained how the columns gained their characteristic hexagonal shape, while I narrated Ireland's age of volcanoes. After lunch at the Causeway Hotel, Natalie and Seamas set up a ramp-zoom shot at the edge of the coast. Again, in the rain.

Natalie seems to enjoy having me film pieces to camera in the rain. If it isn't actually raining, as was the case on the boat in Red Bay, she finds other ways to have me showered -- such as asking the coxwain of an RNLI lifeboat to steer directly into a force 10 gale so that it would break across the bow while I was standing there. Tomorrow, it's Clogherhead in county Louth. She'll probably want to film me down a well.

Meeting Peter Singer

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William Crawley | 20:53 UK time, Tuesday, 20 March 2007

16a.jpgMy guest on tonight's edition of William Crawley Meets ... is one of the most controversial thinkers in the world today: the philosopher Peter Singer. Our team travelled to Princeton University to meet a writer whose ideas are so offensive to some people that he once had police protection during lectures. We talk about his defence of infanticide and euthanasia, his argument in favour of vegetarianism and his views on global poverty and inequality.

Singer is one of the clearest thinkers I've ever met: he pursues an idea to its logical conclusion, however unpalatable that may seem to others. And in this interview, we also explore his response to some extremely unpalatable ideas -- which is probably why the BBC has prefaced the programme with a warning: "contains disturbing scenes". Make up your own mind tonight at 11.05 on BBC One Northern Ireland.

Cushendun: caves and bridges

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William Crawley | 19:55 UK time, Tuesday, 20 March 2007

antrim1tl.jpgBlueprint, week 2, day 2. Today was spent in the extremely picturesque village of Cushendun, which is the gateway to one of the nine glens of Antrim. Peter Woodman, our tame archaeologist, joined us on set for the first time to film a sequence in the Cushendun Caves, then I recorded a piece to camera on the Glendun Viaduct (pictured). It was Peter's first day of filming with us, and he did coped admirably. He's back with us tomorrow for the Giants' Causeway sequence. Apparently he blushed at my earlier description of him, on this blog, as "the distinguished achaeologist Peter Woodman"; so, in future, I'll refer to him as "the legendary archaeologist Peter Woodman".

Martin and Dave built a jib (a long crane with a camera fixed at the end) at the entrance to the caves to film me walking through them, then packed up and relocated on the road across the viaduct, with Warren on hand to stop the cars occasionally when we were recording. Warren's job the rest of the day was to gather footage for our secondary film on the making of Blueprint. Incidentally, it takes about an hour for two cameramen just to set up the jib and about 45 mins to break it down. Martin works from within the control van, guiding the camera on the end of the crane by computer, while Dave uses both hands to move the crane into various positions. They communicate by headphones and mics, and one essentially becomes the hands and feet of the other to produce some wonderful shots.

Seamas and Bryan got some underwater shots a part of Peter's sequence, while Natalie extended her skills at omnipresence to oversee the full operation.

Blueprinting Red Bay

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William Crawley | 19:28 UK time, Monday, 19 March 2007

lifeboat1-2-03no1.jpgWeek Two of filming with the Blueprint team. We spent the day on the east Antrim coast with RNLI crews from the Red Bay and Larne stations.

Today's main film sequence related to the desertification of Ireland's landmass more than 400 million years ago, evidence of which colours the coastline around Red Bay in its characteristic hue. Seamus fixed a camera on top of the boat we worked on -- the Larne station's Trent Class All Weather Lifeboat "Dr. John McSparran" (pictured).

Natalie got me kitted out in an RNLI wetsuit and I stood at the bow of the lifeboat, facing towards the camera, and from there delivered a PTC (piece to camera) linking to some terrific CGI (computer generated imagery) to be added in post-production. Bryan fitted me out with a radio mic and fought valiantly against a pretty keen gale to gather usable audio. Then Natalie asked the coxwain to steer the boat into the gale to achieve some interesting effects. It was the best rollercoaster ride I've been on since my last visit to Barry's in Portrush.

I was extremely impressed by the dedication and enthusiasm of the RNLI crews and staff. Niamh Stephenson, the RNLI's media relations manager for Ireland, drove all the way from Dublin this morning to assist us. And both the Red Bay and Larne crews -- all volunteers -- threw themselves into the day with complete commitment.

We've nine RNLI stations working along the coast of Northern Ireland and 34 serving in the Republic. Each station is operated by volunteers, men and women, giving up their free time to train and work to save lives. The crew members we worked with today are a tribute to the RNLI and to their communities. I couldn't have been more impressed. And since they depend on the public's support to maintain and develop their service, you may wish to make a donation here. If you live near one of the stations, you might even consider becoming a crew member.

When Hugo met Scott

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William Crawley | 17:35 UK time, Saturday, 17 March 2007

Hugo Duncan on Radio 1? That's what you call "postmodern radio".

When Tony met Lauren

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William Crawley | 10:29 UK time, Saturday, 17 March 2007

In case you missed it, this is what happened when Tony Blair met Lauren Cooper (AKA Catherine Tate) on last night's Comic Relief. Priceless.

From truce to peace

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William Crawley | 19:06 UK time, Friday, 16 March 2007

I'm just back from Armagh, having commentated for Radio Ulster on the enthronement of Alan Harper as the 104th Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland. The Duke of Edinburgh and President Mary McAleese were the principal guests. In a break with custom, they entered the cathedral side-by-side, neither taking precedence over the other.

The new archbishop focused on the need for reconciliation and forgiveness in his sermon and emphasised the need for our society (and its newly elected political representatives) " to turn from truce to peace". You can read the full text of Alan Harper's sermon below.

The reception afterwards was held at the Royal School. In what may be seen as a bad omen -- if you believe in such things -- the tea and coffee ran out due to a power cut.

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Blueprint: The First Week

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William Crawley | 15:01 UK time, Wednesday, 14 March 2007

Apologies for not posting for a few days. Monday was the first day of filming on "Blueprint", a new television natural history series I'm presenting, which is to be broadcast in the Spring of 2008. In three one-hour programmes, we'll be telling the story of how we (Northern Ireland) got here. How was our landmass formed over millions of years? How did we become an island? How did animals, plants and trees colonise our land? And how did human beings discover, settle and florish here? Big questions and a massive timescale told in just three programmes -- it's an enormous undertaking by BBC Northern Ireland. We've been working on the research, scripts and specialist graphics for a few months now; this week the task of translating the concept into television was begun.

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Ann Coulter's dirty mouth

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William Crawley | 23:22 UK time, Saturday, 10 March 2007

Recent comments by Ann Coulter, the right-wing political columnist, continue to excite debate across American political blogs. The best guide to the debate is Andrew Sullivan. Coulter was once described as "Rush Limbaugh in a mini-skirt"; she's been living up to her reputation of late. In a speech to a conservative political gathering earlier this week, she described Senator John Edwards as a "faggot". It's not the first time this frighteningly influential figure has sullied her nation's public discourse -- last year she dismissed Al Gore as a "total fag". Some commentators note a sea-change in public opinion since then, given that her attack on Gore was barely reported.)

The leading Republican presidential candidates -- John McCain, Rudy Giuliani, and Mitt Romney -- have since condemned her language as utterly unacceptable. Coulter refuses to apologise for her bigotted remarks even though some of American's leading companies have now removed their their advertisements from Coulter's website due to complaints received. A number of newpapers have also dropped her column.

An online petition calling on Universal Press Syndicate to cease the distribution of Coulter's column has been signed by more than 40,000 people in less than a week.

Obama's smoking bomb

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William Crawley | 12:09 UK time, Saturday, 10 March 2007

bigstory-20070117-obama.jpgDo Americans really care if a presidental candidate smokes? It seems that some do. A few weeks ago, Fox News ran a story about Senator Barack Obama's fondness for Marlboros. It's not a smear campaign, since it's true, but the senator has been careful not to be seen with a cigarette in his hand publicly. (That last sentence sounds ridiculously McCarthyite, doesn't it?) Americans expect the first family to be a model American family, at least in public. Needless to say, the senator has already pledged to give up smoking before the end of the campaign. Smoking is not merely a health issue for some voters. The image of a black man running for the presidency who has already admitted to dabbling with both cannabis and cocaine in his troubled teenage years reinforces quite a few racist stereotypes in the minds of some voters who should know better.

From smoking bombs to ticking bombs. And this one has more of the appearance of a smear campaign. Was Senator Obama educated for two years at a madrassa -- a fundamentalist Muslim school -- during his childhood in Indonesia? The Clinton team have been whispering in media ears about this for a few weeks. A reasonable voter might regard this as a non-story even if it's true. Senator Obama also attended a Catholic school for two years in his childhood. Couldn't it even work to his advantage that he has such a wide exposure to contrasting religious experiences in his youth?

But, alas, an electorate that cares about its president's smoking habit may not see it that way. And the repeated use by some in the media of the single name "Obama", rather than the titled phrase "Senator Obama", may also hint at the most feared name in American culture -- Osama.

The right-wing radio host Rush Limbaugh has, on more than one occasion, used the phrase "Obama Osama", and Senator Ted Kennedy has spliced the two names together in one speech. CNN made the same gaffe, apparently by accident, in a television caption and issued an immediate apology.

Senator Obama, for his part, maintains that he was not educated at a madrassa; he attended a predominantly Muslim school in Indonesia for a period of two years in his childhood. A distinction that may be lost on some voters -- that's if Hillary Clinton has anything to do with it.

A surprise guest tomorrow

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William Crawley | 10:32 UK time, Saturday, 10 March 2007

At 8.30 am. BBC Radio Ulster.

A newreader's blog of Election 07

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William Crawley | 09:53 UK time, Saturday, 10 March 2007

Keith Burnside, one of our most experienced newreaders on Radio Ulster, has been journalling his experience of covering the election from the vantage point of the BBC newsroom. I've persuaded him to let me publish, below, a page or two from his journal.

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The Final Results

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William Crawley | 17:55 UK time, Friday, 9 March 2007

All 108 seats have now been allocated. The final tally:

DUP 36
SF 28
SDLP 16
UUP 18
Alliance 7
Greens 1
PUP 1
Ind 1

It's been a dreaful election for the Ulster Unionists, who are down 9 seats on the previous Assembly. The DUP are up by 6 seats -- this will be seen as a very clear endorsement by the Unionist electorate of Ian Paisley's new openness to shared government. Whether those votes actually translate into an Executive on March 26th is anybody's guess. We've begun to hear from Ulster Unionist party members deeply disappointed with their party leadership's vote management; to date, no major player has called for Sir Reg Empey to stand down, but that sense of disappointment looks likely to grow from here.

Sinn Fein's new strategy has earned the party an additional 4 seats in the Assembly, with the SDLP losing 2 seats. I spoke with both SDLP and UUP politicians yesterday and today and they shared a sense of disappointment at being "penalised" (as one put it to me) by the electorate for taking a lead in the political peace process, while the "slow-learners" have been rewarded at the ballot box.

Also worth noting is the election of Dawn Purvis of the PUP -- the successor to the late David Ervine who publicised her own campaign as a "new dawn" for East Belfast. Some commentators found that quite a cringe-worthy slogan, but it plainly hasn't lost Dawn Purvis any votes. The Green Party secured their first ever seat in the Assembly with the election of Brian Wilson. And Anna Lo of Alliance makes history -- the first member of the Chinese community to be elected to any assembly or parliament in the UK. Beyond Anna Lo's success it was a good election for Alliance more generally, with an increase in their share of the votes and an additional seat in the Assembly.

And let us not forget Bob McCartney who has already written his own political obituary today.

The story so far ...

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William Crawley | 11:35 UK time, Friday, 9 March 2007

With 75 seats filled out of 108 in the Northern Ireland Assembly the party shares are:

DUP 27
SF 24
SDLP 11
UUP 9
Alliance 3
PUP 1

Anna Lo elected

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William Crawley | 23:29 UK time, Thursday, 8 March 2007

Political history was made tonight. Anna Lo has been elected in to the Assembly for the Alliance Party in South Belfast. To the best of my knowledge -- correct me if you know otherwise -- she is the first member of the Chinese community to be elected to any UK Assembly or Parliament.

The Results . . . so far

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William Crawley | 22:37 UK time, Thursday, 8 March 2007

The latest from the counts across Northern Ireland:

Sinn Fein: 20 seats
DUP: 18 seats
SDLP: 4 seats
UUP: 4 seats
Alliance: 2 seats

It's been a remarkable election so far for both Sinn Fein and the DUP. The Ulster Unionists and SDLP will be fighting for their place in the Assembly after a poor showing at this stage. It's still early days, of course, with more than half the 108 seats still to be decided. Alliance looks like it could actually gain a seat at this point -- contrary to some pundits who predicted the demise of the party at this election.

Performance Art?

William Crawley | 19:11 UK time, Thursday, 8 March 2007

The jury clearly didn't agree.

Election Updates

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William Crawley | 12:55 UK time, Wednesday, 7 March 2007

Great news for obsessive politicos and political insomniacs across Northern Ireland. In a UK election first, BBC Northern Ireland is providing a free text service to your mobile phone with regular updates on how the count at the Assembly election is going. Who's winning those coveted seats? Who'll be the power-brokers at Stormont?

Text the word "election" to 81222. Updates will arrive in your inbox from 2 pm tomorrow.

Cheneygate

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William Crawley | 22:25 UK time, Tuesday, 6 March 2007

Is Scooter just the fall guy?

Spotlight Election Special

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William Crawley | 18:20 UK time, Tuesday, 6 March 2007

There's no edition of William Crawley Meets ... tonight. We're making space for an extended election special edition of Spotlight (it begins at 10.30pm), which features a live studio debate. I'll be interviewing the writer and broadcaster Melvyn Bragg when our series returns next Tuesday night. He's one of my broadcasting heroes; I'll write a little more about meeting Melvyn next week.

Will you be voting tomorrow? I'm one of an apparently growing number of people who believes that voting should be a legal obligation for members of a democracy. We already have a legal obligation to register for elections; there's something to be said for extending that principle to establish a legal duty in respect of actually voting. People can vote in person, by proxy or by post, and they are entirely within their rights should they wish to spoil their ballot paper, but why not make it a responsibility of citizenship to cast a vote in one way or another?

There's also something to be said for reducing the voting age to 16 -- an age now widely recognised as the threshhold of adulthood.

Mark my words

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William Crawley | 16:52 UK time, Tuesday, 6 March 2007

When Mark Devenport was launching his NI Election Blog, he assured me that he would not become an addictive blogger. He wouldn't be checking his comments and adding posts at bedtime, like the rest of us. I warned him at the time that this thing juts gets hold of you and there's no knowing how it will angle its way into your out of office hours. in fact, there are no out of office hours with blogs. Sure enough, his blog reveals that he's been adding posts after 10pm. I saw him in the lift the other day and asked if has been checking his site for comments late at night. He smiled knowingly.

So here's my next prediction: Mark will want to join the blogosphere permanently after this election. In which case, he will need a new blog name. Suggestions?

Multi-blogging

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William Crawley | 12:53 UK time, Tuesday, 6 March 2007

It's been another one of those multi-tasking days. I'd a meeting with Owen McFadden about our blogging documentary this morning. He's just back from recording a music documentary for Radio 2 in Portland, Oregon, so he knows a thing or two about multi-tasking. Actually, some of you will know about this already, since Owen has been recording interviews with various Northern Irish bloggers (including some regular contributors to Will & Testament), while I've been recording a long interview with Mick Fealty, the founder of sluggerotoole.com.

Mick was a great contributor. He's forgotten more about blogging than most of us know. The most difficult question we discussed was, predictably, about the future development of blogging. I've a sense that the online-offline distinction will evaporate completely in the next five years -- we will just be "on", all the time. We can also probably expect new technologies to unify and integrate our online experiences (bringing together radio, television, the internet, MP3 players, etc.). But beyond those more obvious transformations, how will the landscape of blogging change in the next five years? I'm interested in hearing from you on that -- and also about how blogging has affected your life.

The Dawkins Debate Continues ...

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William Crawley | 20:18 UK time, Monday, 5 March 2007

My TV interview with Richard Dawkins continues to provoke quite some debate on both the official Dawkins website and on youtube. So far, the youtube discussion has 209 comments and the interview has been watched 14,290 times.

Is God pro-nuke?

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William Crawley | 09:05 UK time, Monday, 5 March 2007

The Bishop of Rochester seems to think so. Michael Nazir-Ali, once talked-about as a future Archbishop of Canterbury, has been making the case for replacing Trident, and says he'd be prepared to use nuclear weapons in the context of a just war. In a related argument, he also sets out a rationale for a possible pre-emptive strike.

One can clearly make a moral case for nuclear war. But can one make a theologically responsible case for nuclear conflict on the basis of the traditional just war criteria? Some theorists within that tradition argue that nuclear war could never be justified because the outcome would never be more agreeable than the situation prior to the war. Others contend that just war theory emerged in a very different world -- the medieval world -- and the nature of war has changed dramatically since then.

I wonder if Bishop Nazir-Ali would be prepared to press the button himself.

Plantinga on Dawkins

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William Crawley | 07:48 UK time, Monday, 5 March 2007

The American philosopher Alvin Plantinga has reviewed Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion in the current issue of Books & Culture. He's not impressed.

The ecumenical Antichrist

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William Crawley | 17:31 UK time, Sunday, 4 March 2007

antichrist.jpgWe're quite experienced in the rhetoric of the Antichrist in Northern Ireland. Some fundamentalist Protestant groups, not least the Free Presbyterian Church, have identified the papacy with that shadowy biblical character. It's quite a turn-up for the books when a prince of the Catholic Church preaches a sermon claiming that the Antichrist, when he appears, will be a “a pacifist, ecologist and ecumenist.” Cardinal Biffi was never one to pull his punches -- not even when delivering this year's Lenten meditations in the presence of Pope Benedict.

Some news reports of this controversial speech have made much of the cardinal's reference to pacifism, ecology and ecumenism -- as though he wished to attack those commitments, by association, in the presence of the pope. In fact, if commentators take the time to read the Cardinal himself, they'll find that he is merely arguing that the Antichrist "disguises" his identity by appearing to care about social goods such as peace, the environment, religious understanding, even vegetarianism! I still wouldn't recommend the cardinal's outmoded approach to biblical hermeneutics, but we should at least try to fairly report the statements he's actually made.


Winter cleaning at Ekklesia

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William Crawley | 17:21 UK time, Sunday, 4 March 2007

Check out the newly-designed ekklesia news sight.

John Edwards's "roaring faith"

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William Crawley | 14:42 UK time, Sunday, 4 March 2007

Another US presidential candidate shares a conversionist testimony in an effort to woo the religious voter. This time it's Senator John Edwards of North Carolina:

"I do believe in the separation of church and state. But I don't think separation of church and state means you have to be free from your faith. My faith informs everything I think and do. It's part of my value system. And to suggest that I can somehow separate and divorce that from the rest of me is not possible. I would not, under any circumstances, try to impose my personal faith and belief on the rest of the country. I don't think that's right. I don't think that's appropriate. But freedom of religion doesn't mean freedom from religion."


Happy Purim

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William Crawley | 14:33 UK time, Sunday, 4 March 2007

I was hoping to have more time to talk with Leon Litvak this morning. Leon is our regular guide to Jewish life and customs and came into the studio to talk about the festival of Purim, which begins today. And he never disappoints. He even brought a traditional noisemaker with him -- so I was able to make a racket every time Haman's name was mentioned. We were pushed for time and didn't have a chance to explore the history of the festival at much length. Off air, he told me how some Jewish believers in Dachau began to image Adolf Hitler as a kind of Haman in an effort to make sense of their experience.

Marriage wars?

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William Crawley | 13:59 UK time, Sunday, 4 March 2007

The Conservative leader David Cameron wants to shame bad fathers. The Education Secretary Alan Johnson (who was raised by his sister) wants the government to recognise that a traditional marriage is not a pre-requisite of good parenting. And Unicef says Britain is failing its children. On today's Sunday Sequence, we debated some of the issues with little agreement about how the government should respond. Should tax credits and other benefits "follow" traditional marriage? Matthew Parris was unhappy with that proposal, since it means in practice that we penalise non-traditional families for simply "being". Vi Dawson thinks secularisation underwrites the crisis in marriage. Others would point to more prosaic factors: we're simply living much longer these days and many of us will form more than one relationship in a longer lifetime; and there is no longer any stigma attached to relationship break-ups any more.

Should we be concerned about the fact that more and more people are living together before marriage -- or avoiding the institution of marriage altogether? Or is Alan Johnson right to focus on the quality of parenting in our society rather than the number marriage certificates?

Kieran Creagh "out of the woods"

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William Crawley | 10:20 UK time, Sunday, 4 March 2007

I spoke to Liam Creagh this morning and and he shared some very good news with us, live on air. His brother, Fr Kieran Creagh has been taken off the ventilator and has regained consciousness. He's "out of the woods", Liam said. That's wonderful news. Welcome back, Kieran. Here's to a speedy recovery.

Kieran Creagh

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William Crawley | 22:23 UK time, Friday, 2 March 2007

Spare a thought tonight for Fr Kieran Creagh, the Passionist priest form Belfast who is recovering from surgery in a hospital in Johannesburg after being shot by robbers who entered the hospice he founded in Atteridgeville, near Pretoria. I interviewed Kieran about 18 months ago as part of a special edition of Sunday Sequence from Cape Town. He is a very special person. You may recall that he was named Irish International Personality of the Year in 2004 after he volunteered to be injected with a trial HIV vaccine (the first person in Africa to do so).

The hospice he founded in July 2004 is called Leratong, a Sesotho word which means "the place of love".

And we're off ...

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William Crawley | 18:18 UK time, Friday, 2 March 2007

Or, more accurately, back on. Paul Ferguson from BBC Online thinks he's cracked our blog problems -- if he's right, you should now be able to add comments with some ease. Go on, you know you want to ...

Dawkins on TV

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William Crawley | 10:50 UK time, Friday, 2 March 2007

The official website of Richard Dawkins is hosting quite a feisty debate about our recent edition of William Crawley Meets ...

Was Conrad a racist?

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William Crawley | 10:17 UK time, Thursday, 1 March 2007

Happy World Book Day. BBC Online readers have voted for Heart of Darkness and are currently discussing Conrad's novella in the online book club. There's also a free electronic edition available there. I re-watched Apocalyse Now the other evening -- with, as everybody knows, a script by John Milius based on Heart of Darkness. But what would Orson Welles's version have been like had he ever completed it?

It's particularly appropriate that we should be talking about Heart of Darkness in the lead-up to the commemoration of Wilberforce's role in ending the transatlantic slave trade. Conrad's portrayal of Africans has been challenged by some recent scholars as "racist", much to the chagrin of others. The arguments either side of that question are subtle in places and worth examining. I see that some contributors to the online book club are exploring the debate even as I write.

On a related note, the New York City Council voted yesterday to ban the "n-word" from public speech. The story of how that motion was devised is here. The new measure has pleased some anti-racist campaign groups and angered some black commentators.

I've no idea how the council plans to apply this new speech "law" but I expect that Barack Obama is not looking forward to answering questions about it. Whether he supports or opposes the measure, he'll alienate some black and white voters; if he resists giving an answer to the question, he could look unpresidentially shifty.

A Liberal defence of the Catholic exemptions

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William Crawley | 09:51 UK time, Thursday, 1 March 2007

At last, a thought-through argument in defence of the English Catholic Church's call for their adoption agencies to be granted exemptions to the new equality regulations. The distinguished legal philosopher Ronald Dworkin makes such an argument in an article in the current edition of Prospect magazine.

What makes his argument particularly interesting (and important) is that Dworkin, a professor at New York University, is one of the world's leading defenders of political liberalism, an opponent of discrimination within society, and a strong supporter of legal rights and equal protection for lesbian and gay couples.

He argues that an exemption on the basis of a long-held religious belief is not tantamount to endorsing discrimination. Religious beliefs, he holds, are a special category of belief which deserve protection within a free society. He does not support exemptions in the case of religious hoteliers who wish to refuse accommodation to gay couples; but religious adoption agencies (even with charitable status) are another matter altogether. His argument, which I haven't fully summarised here, is intriguing for many reasons.

We are currently trying to arrange an extended interview with Professor Dworkin in the very near future to explore his argument and to talk about his new book Is Democracy Possible? (Princeton University Press).

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