Letters: A fundamental lack of tolerance

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At the heart of all religions lies a fundamental lack of tolerance

Sir: I agree with most of Joan Smith's article ("The religious hatred bill is fanning violence", 25 October) but I do not share her view of the "tolerant country" in which she grew up. In July 1977 the editor and publishers of the newspaper Gay News were tried at the Central Criminal Court on a charge of blasphemous libel. Both were found guilty. Their crime was the printing of a poem by James Kirkup about a gay centurion and the crucified Christ. The editor, Denis Lemon, was sentenced to nine months' suspended imprisonment and fined £500; the publishers, Gay News Ltd, were fined £1,000. Gay News closed.

All religions are basically intolerant. They demand acceptance of a certain set of beliefs based on "faith" rather than evidence. Faith is not susceptible to reasoned argument. The only way to defend it is through intolerance to any contradiction.

As a gay man, who would be liable to the death penalty under any genuinely Christian, Muslim or Jewish regime, I look forward to the time when the remaining vestiges of institutionalised religion in this country - faith schools, the monarchy, blasphemy laws - are swept away.



Sir: I read Joan Smith's article with interest, and, broadly, agreement. A few pages earlier I noticed a report which said that the Prime Minister of Denmark had declined to meet a delegation of ambassadors from Muslim countries who wished to complain about some drawings of the Prophet Mohamed in a Danish newspaper.

Presumably, once the religious hatred bill is passed, if this were to happen here, the artist and the newspaper might well face prosecution. Or, more likely, it would not happen here; fear of prosecution and up to seven years in prison would deter publication of any such thing. Publishers - and their legal advisers - are likely to err on the side of caution. We are facing a situation of huge self-censorship where no word of public criticism can be safely passed of any religious beliefs, leaders or practices. I believe this is most unhealthy.



Educational 'reform' is mere chimera

Sir: John Prescott's objections to the proposed "liberalisation" of secondary schools may or may not be valid (Editorial, 24 October), but the objections of those who have, for many years, urged fundamental curricular reform most certainly are - and those concerns are principled and multiple.

A central danger of this latest avalanche of educational change is that it will be little more than a "smoke and mirrors" exercise, not least with the claim to have set schools free by tilting at the straw man of Local Educational Authority power. The reality, of course, is that LEAs have had little effective power for many years, as it has been systematically annexed by a central government determined to micro-manage every dot and comma of educational practice.

We should also beware of the fashion for championing "parent power" (who could argue with such an apparently noble sentiment?). To give parents a major say in the detail of their children's schooling not only threatens further to deprofessionalise and undermine the crucial professional autonomy of our beleaguered teachers, but there is simply no evidence that parents want such overweening influence anyway.

The simplistic proposal to expand "popular" schools ignores the very real possibility that school size itself may be a crucial variable in determining its quality. Far more research is needed on the relationship between school size and effectiveness before the success of existing institutions is placed at risk in this way.

So the jury is still very much out on these policy proposals. As long as the stifling, creativity-numbing National Curriculum remains predominantly in place, as it seems that it will under these proposals, any claims that there will be an increase in diversity, pluralism or school autonomy ring hollow. As long as the edifice of centralising curricular control remains essentially in place little change is possible.

What we need above all are commentators with the discernment to tell the difference between chimerical change and the sort of substantive change that makes a real difference to the quality of children's education.



Sir: The government's White Paper proposals are important and far-reaching. However, as with the setting up of specialist schools, some of the proposed measures would have little effect in sparsely populated rural areas. More densely populated urban and suburban areas offer parents choice of secondary schools by virtue of the fact that there may be several such establishments within a radius of a few miles of their homes. There is no such realistic choice in places such as the fens of Cambridgeshire and Lincolnshire, or in parts of Devon and Cornwall. These are areas with significant pockets of deprivation and low average income.

How do poorer parents exercise choice in such areas, some of which have poor transport links? What if the only accessible school is failing? As with many Government "reforms", rural areas appear to be forgotten.



Why this infantile, sexist mudslinging?

Sir: A top advertising executive makes patronising and gratuitously offensive generalisations about women and is quite rightly condemned for it.

Am I alone in thinking it oddly depressing that the response of a national newspaper, presumably aimed at an intelligent readership, is to commission a group of women to make equally patronising, insulting and gratuitously offensive generalisations about men ("Why men are crap", 25 October)? I naively thought that the appropriate forum for this kind of public, infantile mudslinging was the school playground or the House of Commons. I would be interested to know if you would have followed a similar line if the original remarks had contained offensive racial, rather than gender, generalisations.



Sir: I felt pleased with myself for having read all the women's comments on men's failings today, and taken their justified criticisms on board. However, this has led to a female colleague finding yet another fault we men suffer from: premature self- congratulation.



Sir: Being called "crap" by the likes of Petronella Wyatt and Rebecca Loos is like being called "annoying" by a wasp.



True sales figures of the 'Daily Express'

Sir: I do not expect objectivity in The Independent's media pages, but Stephen Glover's comments about the Daily Express (Media Weekly, 24 October) are unfair, to say the least. In his analysis of our circulation figures, he conveniently omits the fact that the Daily Express has removed 66,706 bulk sales since last year's figures. He also does not say that the Daily Mail (where he is employed as a columnist) has increased its bulk sales by 9,370 to a total of 106,016 per day, or that the Daily Mail's September ABC figures show a loss of 69,119 copies a day on the previous year. When both bulks and foreign supplies are deducted, the Daily Mail's UK and Irish sales are down by 91,000 year on year.

The Daily Express is following a policy of honesty with its sales. Once bulks are excluded, its sales performance is in line with the rest of the national newspaper industry. Unlike other newspaper groups, we have decided to stop the practice of massaging the figures with bulk sales and free copies piled up in hotels and airport lounges.

Mr Glover also makes slighting references to the Daily Express's budget and columnists. We employ more than 300 journalists on the Daily Express alone and our proprietor, Richard Desmond, has never denied me funds for worthwhile properties. I have an excellent array of columnists, including Frederick Forsyth, Ann Widdecombe, Richard Madeley and Judy Finnigan, Alan Titchmarsh, Antony Worrall Thompson, David Robson, Leo McKinstry, Paul Callan and Virginia Blackburn, plus many other distinguished contributors.

As for Mr Glover's gratuitous attack on Richard Desmond, the truth is that Mr Desmond is totally committed to Express Newspapers, which for the first time in decades is now in an extremely strong financial position. The Daily Express and its sister newspapers will be around a great deal longer than some of their competitors, thanks to the sound policies put in place by Richard Desmond.




How to find an eco-friendly home

Sir: I was surprised to read in the House Hunter column in last week's Property section (19 October) the statement "there is no agreed definition on what package of features... will make a home more or less eco-friendly".

On the contrary, there is a clear and well-accepted ratings scheme to assess the sustainability of both new and renovated properties: EcoHomes, developed by the Building Research Establishment (BRE). It assesses properties in several key areas including energy, water, pollution, materials, transport, ecology and land use, and health and well-being.

While it doesn't apply to existing properties that have not undergone significant renovation, it can help purchasers of existing properties by highlighting the issues they should be thinking about when considering buying green, as well as providing a clear and credible rating scheme for people who are buying new properties. More details can be found at www.ecohomes.org.



Longevity is due to better public health

Sir: Johann Hari rather overplays the role of medical intervention in the vast improvements in our health and longevity over the past 150 years (Opinion, 25 October).

Public-health interventions were initially far more important. Mains drainage which moved sewage away from habitations, the provision, on tap, of treated water to households and the banning of smoke-producing fuels, were all significant contributors, as was improvement in the national diet after about 1940. The recent emphasis on regular hand-washing as a preventative to the spread of influenza is part of that tradition.

Nor is it fair to ascribe the MMR row to the arrogance of "a sensationalist right-wing press". In the recent past The Independent carried similar articles highly critical of those who advocated the use and safety of the triple vaccine.



Sir: Johann Hari's absolute confidence in the wonders of science has led him into spoiling an otherwise sensible article with a glaring error. Before the 1750s everybody relied on instinct, intuition, superstition - and tradition. Many of the traditional cures and nostrums used in earlier times are now being tested scientifically and found to have some validity. Our ancestors were not as gullible as he would have us believe.



Quadruple tax for 4x4s

Sir: I totally concur with Andrew Eagles as to the inappropriateness of the use of 4x4 vehicles in urban areas (letter, 25 October). May I suggest that when such vehicles are registered for road-tax and insurance purposes with an urban postcode they attract 4x the road tax and 4x the insurance premium?



Sir: If you'd asked me a few years ago I'd have agreed with the furore over 4x4s in urban areas. I'm not so sure now. I live in the inner city and am surrounded by speed bumps, cushions and pot-holes. A friend in the motor trade tells me that shock absorbers and wishbones are the most commonly replaced items on London vehicles now. Perhaps we do need 4x4s to cope with urban roads and maybe we should call them "on-road" vehicles.



Al Franken's irony

Sir: Richard Sarson thinks Al Franken is guilty of a "howler" in describing 10 Downing Street as "the secret headquarters of the British government" (letters, 24 October).

It is Mr Sarson who commits the real howler by failing to appreciate Franken's gift for hyperbolic irony. The point Franken is trying to make is that, while Britain is ostensibly run by a parliament going through the motions of democracy, all the top decisions (like going to war) are secretly taken by the autocrat at 10 Downing Street.



Sir: I'm surprised that Richard Sarson can't recognise irony; of course the real heart of the British government is in the White House.



Standby for flights

Sir: I hope that you will advise the lucky 140 couples who win tickets to New York not to leave their appliances on standby. As you say in your editorial (24 October): "there can be no excuses. We must all do our bit to preserve the environment."



Jailed Afghan editor

Sir: You report from Kabul (24 October) the imprisonment of magazine editor Ali Mohaqiq Nasab for questioning the virtue of stoning as a punishment for apostates. This is surely not compatible with our continued military presence in Afghanistan. If our blood and treasure don't even buy a little moderating influence, what are we doing there?



A bad example

Sir: Political correctness started from the desire to treat everyone with respect. Jemima Lewis (Opinion, 21 October) rightly attacks patronising and sexist language. But physician... Her words "the good burghers of Hull" suggest provincial, stolid, boorish men, surely a Londoner's townie prejudice about Hull. And her use of the German verboten reinforces that exhausted bit of propaganda that all Germans are Nazis.