Waco, popular culture and newstatesman.com

Where we are at newstatesman.com and the extraordinary story of David Koresh

This week we asked a lefty blogger called Kate Belgrave to write us an article about John McDonnell’s leadership campaign – it’s a good read and it’s interesting to hear what young socialists in the Labour Party are saying about the lack of a contest to succeed Tony Blair. It also ties in rather nicely with our latest in a series of interviews with deputy leadership wannabes. This week John Cruddas.

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Just two months have passed since we relaunched newstatesman.com and we’re still introducing lots of improvements behind the scenes. We’ve plenty of plans for the coming weeks including forums and podcasting. As always we’re interested to hear feedback on what you like and dislike.

So let’s start with this question: what is a blog? Is it a second rate article posted online? A personal diary of somebody’s very dull life? The rantings of an unelectable right-wing nutcase? An exchange of techy news for and by nerds? Or finely honed column for that most discerning/fickle of audiences, the web-user?

The answer, of course, is all of the above and much, much more. I just pose the question because New Statesman columnist Becky Hogge made the observation that blogs should be a bit like a conversation. I thought I'd try it out. So what do the rest of you think?

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I recently made one of my rare sojourns in the world of popular culture, watching a fascinating documentary on the awful events 14 years ago at Waco. Remember the siege of David Koresh’s Branch Davidians that ended with the deaths of 84 adults and children?

It was one of the most extraordinary episodes of the 1990s – not least because it subsequently became a rallying point for right-wing nutcases like Timothy McVeigh. He chose to conduct the Oklahoma bombing on 19 April 1995 – two years after the FBI decided to put an end to the Waco situation in such a disastrously bloody manner.

What I think was interesting was the way this piece of TV operated. On many levels it was excellent - thoroughly researched, it had managed to bring together a lot of eyewitness accounts from those who had played key parts in the tragedy.

But what was distasteful, to me at least, was the mixture of reconstruction and original footage – it became unclear eventually what exactly you were looking at.

The real drama was in the accounts of people who have been left permanently affected by what they experienced, what they could have done, who they lost.

Plus there was more than 50 days of TV news footage from when the whole debacle began with a bungled bid by the ATF – the bureau of alcohol, tobacco and firearms – to take Koresh into custody because of his arsenal of weapons.

Why the documentary makers had to fake up the rest is quite beyond me – this was a story that required no actors.

But all that aside they managed to take the audience through events more or less as they happened.

There were moments where you were allowed to believe that Koresh wasn’t all bad – if you forgot the armoury of weapons he inexplicably kept in his compound or the fact he was siring children with underage girls and the wives of his followers.

One of his sexual partners was Kathy Schroeder who survived the gun battle and the fire. She still believes in Koresh as a manifestation of God, said she would have considered it an honour to have had his child and was plainly still entirely under the spell of the dead cult leader. That's despite the fact her 29-year-old husband was one of the first casualties, shot as he tried to return to the compound.

People can be incredibly susceptible to manipulation and that's one of my chief objections to this tendency to mix up the real with the 'reconstructed' on TV. It leaves us all in a state of confusion about what was real and what was a product of a programme-maker's imagination.

Ben Davies trained as a journalist after taking most of the 1990s off. Prior to joining the New Statesman he spent five years working as a politics reporter for the BBC News website. He lives in North London.
Paul McMillan
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"We're an easy target": how a Tory manifesto pledge will tear families apart

Under current rules, bringing your foreign spouse to the UK is a luxury reserved for those earning £18,600 a year or more. The Tories want to make it even more exclusive. 

Carolyn Matthew met her partner, George, in South Africa sixteen years ago. She settled down with him, had kids, and lived like a normal family until last year, when they made the fateful decision to move to her hometown in Scotland. Matthew, 55, had elderly parents, and after 30 years away from home she wanted to be close to them. 

But Carolyn nor George - despite consulting a South African immigration lawyer – did not anticipate one huge stumbling block. That is the rule, introduced in 2012, that a British citizen must earn £18,600 a year before a foreign spouse may join them in the UK. 

“It is very dispiriting,” Carolyn said to me on the telephone from Bo’ness, a small town on the Firth of Forth, near Falkirk. “In two weeks, George has got to go back to South Africa.” Carolyn, who worked in corporate complaints, has struggled to find the same kind of work in her hometown. Jobs at the biggest local employer tend to be minimum wage. George, on the other hand, is an engineer – yet cannot work because of his holiday visa. 

To its critics, the minimum income threshold seems nonsensical. It splits up families – including children from parents – and discriminates against those likely to earn lower wages, such as women, ethnic minorities and anyone living outside London and the South East. The Migration Observatory has calculated that roughly half Britain’s working population would not meet the requirement. 

Yet the Conservative party not only wishes to maintain the policy, but hike the threshold. The manifesto stated:  “We will increase the earnings thresholds for people wishing to sponsor migrants for family visas.” 

Initially, the threshold was justified as a means of preventing foreign spouses from relying on the state. But tellingly, the Tory manifesto pledge comes under the heading of “Controlling Immigration”. 

Carolyn points out that because George cannot work while he is visiting her, she must support the two of them for months at a time without turning to state aid. “I don’t claim benefits,” she told me. “That is the last thing I want to do.” If both of them could work “life would be easy”. She believes that if the minimum income threshold is raised any further "it is going to make it a nightmare for everyone".

Stuart McDonald, the SNP MP for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East, co-sponsored a Westminster Hall debate on the subject earlier this year. While the Tory manifesto pledge is vague, McDonald warns that one option is the highest income threshold suggested in 2012 - £25,700, or more than the median yearly wage in the East Midlands. 

He described the current scheme as “just about the most draconian family visa rules in the world”, and believes a hike could affect more than half of British citizens. 

"Theresa May is forcing people to choose between their families and their homes in the UK - a choice which most people will think utterly unfair and unacceptable,” he said.  

For those a pay rise away from the current threshold, a hike will be demoralising. For Paul McMillan, 25, it is a sign that it’s time to emigrate.

McMillan, a graduate, met his American girlfriend Megan while travelling in 2012 (the couple are pictured above). He could find a job that will allow him to meet the minimum income threshold – if he were not now studying for a medical degree.  Like Matthew, McMillan’s partner has no intention of claiming benefits – in fact, he expects her visa would specifically ban her from doing so. 

Fed up with the hostile attitude to immigrants, and confident of his options elsewhere, McMillan is already planning a career abroad. “I am going to take off in four years,” he told me. 

As for why the Tories want to raise the minimum income threshold, he thinks it’s obvious – to force down immigration numbers. “None of this is about the amount of money we need to earn,” he said. “We’re an easy target for the government.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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