Tom Sutcliffe: When morality is a moveable feast

Social Studies: Japan have stretched the loophole so far that you can get a humpback through it
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The Independent Online

I think it might be best not to ask Morrissey for his views on the Japanese right now, given the weekend's reports that a significant number of Japan's elementary and junior high schools have served up whale meat in the last year – evidence of steadily increasing consumption of the by-products of the country's continuing "scientific research".

I don't know precisely where Mozzer stands on the whale, since as far as I'm aware he hasn't committed himself to song on the issue. But if he hymns a cow as "a beautiful creature", it doesn't seem a wildly risky bet to suggest that he probably counts himself in the "saving" rather than the "sashimi" camp – and that he might be less than diplomatic about Japanese tastes in this matter.

To call it a "taste" might be thought provocative, of course, because never having acquired a taste for whale meat, we're inclined to give animal rights a greater weight in this case than we do when considering our own forms of consumption, when human hankering sits on the other side of the scale. And it's true that even if the hunting of whales isn't at the top of your list of global wrongs to be righted, there's still something unseemly about the blatancy with which Japan exploits the loophole in the international moratorium on the hunting of whales.

Their Institute of Cetacean Research has stretched the loophole so far that you can get a humpback through it. The resulting meat is then sold on to schools at a heavily subsidised price, which presumably means that it can undercut the Japanese equivalent of Turkey Twizzlers.

I did find myself wondering about the unreflective moral superiority such stories often unleash in us, though. After all, whatever you think of the slaughtering methods in the case of whales (and they sound notably distressing to me), the animal itself can only be described as "free-range" – enjoying, until its unfortunate encounter with Japan's harpoon-equipped "scientists", a freedom of movement and behaviour immeasurably superior to most of the animals we kill for food in this country.

You could argue – given that there's a moral case to be made both for free-range husbandry and for hunted game over abattoir-slaughtered meat – that eating whales is actually morally superior to wolfing down a chicken every week. How do you weigh the suffering of a chicken against a whale? Instinct suggests it can't be one for one, but then instinct isn't always a reliable guide when it comes to ethics.

It's true that endangerment and rarity would have to be factored in to such an equation (even if such human concerns might not matter to the individual whale). But it's also true that it's very easy to condemn an appetite you don't actually share. It would be interesting to know how British meat consumers would respond if their Sunday roast was threatened by a systematic Hindu campaign, say, to stamp out beef production. The moral outrage in that case, it seems to me, would be comparable to ours when it comes to whales (if not greater, given the numbers involved). And yet I doubt it would have much purchase on our behaviour. Morrissey is at least consistent in this matter – fiercely opposed to all kinds of carnivory. Before we condemn the Japanese, we might at least reflect on the fact that our own tastes aren't entirely unimpeachable.

We can't ask the Pope to pay for himself – he's our guest

If the Pope's planned visit to the UK was a rock tour, I think the entrepreneur might be getting a little nervous right now. Ticket sales have been a bit sluggish, there are threats of disruption, and the overall bill is escalating. Fortunately for the Catholic Church, they can call on the Government to underwrite the upfront costs – something that has caused a bit of indignation in some quarters.

I confess I felt a twinge of indignation myself at the idea that my tax pounds – or some small portion of one tax pound – would be going to pay for this fiesta of piety. The simple question is surely this, though: who invited the Pope to come in the first place? If it was the Catholic Church in this country, then there would be a very good case that they should get the faithful to cover all the expenses arising from his visit. And if he invited himself, one of those fabled Vatican bankers should get out a chequebook.

But neither of those was the case. Gordon Brown extended the invitation, in his official capacity as Prime Minister. Some of us might well wish that he hadn't, but given that he did, insisting that the Pope stump up for the costs would be a bit like inviting someone to stay for the weekend and then presenting them with an itemised bill for laundry, food costs and their share of the utilities. It would be crass.

ETA's videotape on a plate: the story behind the scoop

I enjoyed the fact that the BBC kept talking about how it had "obtained" that video from ETA, the verb implying, but never stating, that it had ferreted it out as a result of dogged journalistic work. In fact, as Clive Myrie, the journalist who got the scoop explained on the BBC website, the story was handed to him on a plate, by a contact who first alerted him to the fact that a ceasefire might be in the offing at a meeting in London.

After a bit of low-level spycraft involving text messages and a rendezvous outside the Gare du Nord in Paris, Myrie took delivery of the "tape" (have ETA still not upgraded to DVD?) and, as Myrie puts it, "the rest was history", or at least a footnote to Spanish history. It was an excellent scoop for a quiet weekend, and I wouldn't want to downplay the journalistic skill of keeping contacts in contact. But wouldn't "accepted" have been a better phrasing – or even "the BBC was given"? Perhaps it was felt that would make it sound a bit too much like a convenient megaphone for a violent group of paramilitaries.

The BBC shouldn't be ashamed, though, even if that was a bit closer to the truth. In its own way it was a skewed tribute to the continued international standing of BBC News – still the go-to guys for that really critical press release.