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The day after LBC hosted its Leaders’ Debate with Clegg v. Farage, the red tops carried the following front pages:

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I fully accept that the complicated love life of two high-profile celebrities is going to be something of interest to the public. But is this front page speculation, at a time when mother, father and children will be coming to terms with the break-up of their family, justifiable in the public interest?

The Association of Accounting Technicians has a very interesting page on the ethics of public interest:

Last year, after runaway teenager Megan Stammers was found in France with her 30 year old teacher, Jeremy Forrest the BBC reported that Sussex police had stated the information which led to the discovery had come from a direct result of media coverage in France. After Miss Stammers and Mr Forrest were found, Mr Forrest’s parents released a statement expressing their thanks for the Sussex and French police as well as the British media for their assistance. On the other hand, however, due to the public intrigue and interest in this case both party’s names and intimate pictures were published and spread over the internet and Megan was forced to close down her twitter account following abuse on the site after her return to the UK. It can therefore be argued either way as to how the interest of the public affected the outcome in this case.

That excerpt alone reveals the complexity of questions of public interest. However, it demonstrates that a case can be made very clearly that there are circumstances for the reporting of people’s private lives, even if we should be alive to the consequences of such reporting.

At the same time, however, today’s front pages say something very depressing about us. They reveal that the tabloids would rather scream about the sad separation of a husband and wife – a story which fulfils none of the criteria of public interest – instead of reporting that, finally, two party leaders have engaged in a public debate on Britain’s future in Europe  – an issue which is of maximum public interest. How ironic is that considering how vocally misleading at least two of these three rags are on European issues on a regular basis? How hypocritical is it when we have seen them allege institutional opacity and use misinformation as a basis for advocating Britain’s ‘conscious uncoupling’ from the European Union?

You would think that the debate would be a perfect hook for shining a light on an issue that they will each argue (rightly) is critical to Britain’s future. But no. Apparently, it is more important that we are treated to pictures of Gwyneth Paltrow kissing another man. Who cares what effect such stories have on Paltrow, Martin or their children? Who cares if we pile on the humiliation in order to satisfy a smug and mawkish hunger for ‘sleb chat’? Who cares if we force Paltrow and Martin, because of their celebrity status, to put strange labels on an ordinary tragedy experienced by many every day?

Some might loftily proclaim that Clegg and Farage are not Miliband and Cameron. Why should they be interested in what they have to say? Perhaps precisely because they are not Miliband and Cameron and the voices of the leaders of Britain’s two largest parties have so far refused to debate Britain’s place in Europe. Whether you wish to cover the debate positively or negatively, on what was said by whom, or who wasn’t there that should have been, it is unarguable that the European debate is in the public interest.

According to one relatively recent report by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, engagement with political news in Britain is lower than in the US and in much of Europe. For a country that prides itself on its history of Empire, its fundamental role in bringing peace to Western Europe and its understanding of the complexities of international diplomacy, that is a sobering – and depressing – fact.

So why is it our red tops feed us crap? Because we – the public – buy them when they speculate on whether or not Gwyneth Paltrow is a ‘love cheat’ (which is about as much the business of you or me as whether your neighbour is seeing the Tesco delivery driver). Because we are less excited by attempting to get to the truth of the vital economic links that Britain has with the European Union.

I get that we all like to gawp. We all have a morbid fascination for the car crash as we drive by or the ambulance parked outside the house down the road. But we owe ourselves more than a medieval curiosity at those whose lives have fallen apart.

If we don’t engage with the important debates of the day, then surely the falling apart will happen closer to home. Some – many – of the 3.5 million jobs that depend on Europe could be lost. National law enforcement agencies trying to tackle terrorists and organised crime, such as sex traffickers, could find themselves hamstrung by national red-tape, unable to engage properly with each other. Border-less environmental disasters could be made much worse by lack of a common strategy and protocols.

We – the public – are the people who can decide if things that are of public interest become things that are of interest to the public. We – the public – are the people who can engage with the debates that affect all our lives and ascribe them the importance that they deserve. If we continually put money in the pockets of people who will feed us dross because it serves the purposes of an inflated circulation figure, then we only have ourselves to blame if we sleepwalk into decisions that have calamitous effects on us, whether personally or nationally.

Of course our media is riotous, anarchic, gloriously irreverent. Just as it should be. It is also the preserve of magnates with very personal commercial interests in international political outcomes. We kid ourselves if we present a romantic picture of our noble free press without drawing attention to the corporate small print.

Shame on us if we are hoodwinked.

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“It is very strange, and very melancholy, that the paucity of human pleasures should persuade us ever to call hunting one of them.”
Samuel Johnson (1709-84), Anecdotes of Samuel Johnson

In October 2010, reports appeared in UK newspapers proclaiming that the Emperor of Exmoor, a giant stag given his name by photographer Richard Austin, had been shot. The red deer stag is the largest indigenous mammal in the British Isles and at almost nine feet tall, and weighing 300 pounds, the Emperor was a magnificent example of its kind. The Guardian reported that he was shot and killed close to the Tiverton to Barnstaple road at the height of the mating season and quoted Peter Donnelly, an Exmoor-based deer management expert, saying it was a disgrace the animal had been shot during the mating season: “The poor things should be left alone during the rut, not harried from pillar to post. If we care about deer we should maintain a standard and stop all persecution during this important time of the year.” 

I’ve never been an absolutist on hunting. I understand the need for there to be management of herds and for vermin to be controlled. I worry, too, that so many children today have no understanding of where their food comes from. (In one recent study by the British Nutrition Foundation, 18% of primary school children thought fish fingers came from chickens.) However, I have never been able to reconcile myself to the pointless destructiveness of trophy hunting.

It’s more than a vague feeling or an intellectual opinion. It is a very physical and emotional response to the idea that man (and it is usually men, not women) has to prove himself by killing other creatures, for no other reason than the sheer hell of it. I first encountered that response as a child, reading Willard Price’s Safari Adventure, and it has remained with me ever since. To my mind, such testosterone-addled, adrenalised thrill-killing demeans us as human beings.

article-0-1C49273D00000578-824_634x449Fast forward to 15 March 2014 and in today’s Daily Mirror are two stories which reveal that our appetite for momentary glory at the expense of the animal kingdom is as great as ever it was.

First of all, poachers hunting for antlers have killed a New Forest deer known as the Monarch. According to the report, the poachers used a calibre of rifle too low to kill cleanly and instead the deer, badly wounded, drowned as it tried to swim to safety.

Spend a moment imagining the sequence of events. Spend a moment imagining the fear that magnificent creature experienced as the bullet crashed into its flesh. The pain as it tried to get away from violent intruders into its safe space, its fight-or-flight response leading it to crash towards a familiar stretch of water that had been a place of rest and refreshment for sixteen years. Think about its desolate coughing bleat as it limped towards death. And then those last, terrified gasps as it drowned, its exhausted body weakened further by blood loss.

All because greedy, vainglorious men wanted to hang its antlers on a dining room wall.

500-pound-wild-hog-3236934And then, across the Atlantic, the story repeats itself. A different country, yes, a different animal, yes, but once again actions that lead from that same ignorant bravado of inadequate men. Unlike the two deer, the protagonist has been only too happy to be associated with his ‘triumph’. A cretinous redneck who’d not be out of place in a North Carolina remake of Deliverance, Jett Webb is shown posing proudly with his ArmaLite AR-10, resting on his kill – a giant 36-stone wild boar nicknamed ‘Hogzilla’ that had become the stuff of local legend. He shot it in the Indian Woods area of Bertie County, having hid out in the woods at night, but there was no Hemmingway-esque poetic reflection on this particular kill.

Jett’s insightful comment?

“The sweet-tasting corn and a night-hunting light was too much for this oversized heap of pork chops.”

What ignorance. What pointless cruelty.

In the deaths of the Emperor, the Monarch and Hogzilla we have gained nothing and lost much. Gone are the chances for stories that make a place, that lend wonder to those exploring for the first time, the “what if…?” and the “perhaps we might…!”. Gone are the chances for a glimpse of nature’s magnificence made manifest in three animals whose unassuming majesty had the potential to induce wonder in inquisitive young minds.

And, as usual, greed will be excused as endeavour by those that celebrate and justify this pointless pursuit.

Samuel Johnson couldn’t have been more right.

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AS we know, the Polar Vortex brought widespread disruption to North America. We quickly became meteorological experts, even if those of a more pedantic frame of mind attempted in vain to explain that it was a Circumpolar Vortex and that the terminology in the mainstream media was a malign attempt to deceive and spread misinformation (rather than convenient shorthand for a news industry that was already out of its scientific depth).

This post on Scientific American gives a quick run-down of what a Polar Vortex is.

Stunning pictures have emerged from across the US of the consequences of the latest big freeze. The Daily Mail had pictures from Reuters of Niagra freezing over, whilst the Guardian showcased amazing snow scenes from across the US:

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At the same time that America was freezing, parts of Scandinavia were enjoying unseasonably warm temperatures. Which makes what happened in Norway all the more interesting. NRK, the Norwegian Broadcasting Company, carried reports this week of a sudden fall in temperature, combined with freezing winds, that led to the instant freezing of a vast school of herring that were fleeing cormorants.

The pictures are amazing:

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I’m not exactly the most bug-friendly individual, but I am not so bug-averse that they give me the creeps. Usually.

This critter is a bit different.

The Titan beetle is thought of as the second largest beetle in the world, but, to be honest, it is pretty much the largest as its nearest rival, the Hercules beetle, snaffles the record with the help of an extended horn on its thorax which makes up over half the length.

Thankfully, it is ultra rare. No-one has ever found its larvae, though the suspected boreholes for the grubs suggest a pupa over two inches wide and perhaps as much as a foot long.

Gulp.

As you might expect, this is a South American rain forest-dweller, found in Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, the Guianas, and north-central Brazil.

Apparently, although usually placid, the advice is to handle with care as they can cause more than a bit of damage if provoked. All I can say is that these folk are a hell of a lot braver than I am.

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A couple of weekends ago I decided to get up early on a Saturday morning and, with Farming Today on my headphones, take a walk around the Langdon Hills Ridge.

Occasional readers of Fragments and Reflections will have seen similar pictures before. However, no matter how many times I make this particular walk, and no matter how many times I photograph the hills, fields and footpaths, it looks different every time.

Some of these reveal just how beautiful the landscape is in our neck of the woods – and how vital initiatives such as Langdon Hills Living Landscapes and the campaign to protect Dry Street are.

I finished my walk at “Hillcroft”. My parents’ garden is as fine an example of an English country garden as you can find. And I am not sure you can get much more English – and welcome – a breakfast than toast and Marmite. There is a real sense of satisfaction in walking such a distance before 9am. I heartily recommend it.

I hope you enjoy these photographs as much as I enjoyed taking them.

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Every now and then in this digital age we are sent links to videos or articles that make us stop and think about the way we live.

My friend Andy has always been a passionate environmentalist. He posted this on his Facebook.

Please watch it and share.

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I’ve always loved Point Break, Kathryn Bigelow’s surf and shooting action movie in which Patrick Swayze leads the ex-Presidents, a gang of surfer criminals who are infiltrated by rookie cop Keanu Reeves. There’s lots of mystical man-bonding and heroics, but somehow it does manage to capture the amazing power of the ocean and the thrill of hunting for that perfect wave.

On Tuesday 29th January, Keali’i Mamala towed out Garrett McNamara to surf on the monster swells off Praia do Norte, Nazaré, Portugal.

McNamara held the record for the largest wave ever surfed, a 90-foot beast also caught at Nazaré. What he may or may not have known, was that he was just about to break his own record, surfing a Leviathan wave that, as a body boarder more used to Cornish summer swells, I can barely contemplate: 100 feet high.

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To give you an idea how tall that is, it’s roughly seven Routemaster buses stacked on top of each other.

This trailer gives you an idea of how the sea looked that day:

And this is the wave in question, with McNamara surfing it:

Extraordinary.

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