Diana, framed by some crafty editing. Photo: BBC/Love Productions
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Diana was framed: why did the Great British Bake Off throw an innocent WI judge to the wolves?

Accusations of a stitch-up are flying after the baking show’s most controversial episode to date.

Something terrible happened in Britain last night. Some ice cream melted, and then was thrown in the bin. A man with a beard had a strop about it and stormed out of a tent. A woman was the victim of an entire nation’s assumptions that she had done something underhand. The country erupted.

I am, of course, talking about the Great British Bake Off. I’ve tried before to explain why apparently minor events on what is just a reality show about cake cause such upheaval. It’s the essential niceness of the programme – the checked table cloths, Mary Berry’s oh-so-blue eyes, Mel and Sue’s puns, the shots of a lovely garden in the sunshine – that makes even the smallest disruption seem like the worst thing that’s ever happened ever. And so it proved last night.

For dessert week, the fourth episode of the fifth series, the contestants were required to make a Baked Alaska as their final, “showstopper” challenge. If you’re not familiar with this particular confection, it’s a big dome made of sponge and ice cream, covered in meringue. It’s really difficult to make even in the most professional of circumstances, owing to the ice cream’s tendency to melt and ooze out through the cake in a rather disgusting fashion, and the problems caused by trying to cover the whole wet mass in something as unstable as beaten egg whites mixed with sugar. Let’s be clear: nobody likes Baked Alaska. It’s a strange Seventies concoction that’s oddly gooey and firm at the same time. Its repulsiveness is part of the challenge – if you can make it taste nice, you’re a bloody good baker.

It was even harder than usual for GBBO’s contestants, though, as they were trying to produce these monstrosities in a tent, on an extremely hot summer day. The Incident occurred when Diana, a 69-year-old Women’s Institute judge from Shropshire (and GBBO’s oldest-ever contestant) appeared to remove another contestant’s ice cream from the freezer and leave it on the side, where it promptly melted all over the counter.

Iain, a Northern Irish engineer with a ruddy beard like a Viking, lost it when he saw that his black poppy sesame seed ice cream had become a sloppy grey mess. He threw it in the bin and stormed out of the tent, refusing to complete the rest of the challenge. From what we saw on screen, it certainly looked as if Diana had deliberately sabotaged her fellow competitor, destroying his chances of a set ice cream in the time allowed. Twitter erupted in violent condemnation of her, and GBBO’s Wikipedia page was even briefly edited to reflect her new role as the nation’s most hated Ice Cream Melting Supervillain:

Except that she isn’t. In this new Britain where we all have to take sides over some soggy cake, I will proudly out myself as being on Team Diana. No doubt hoping for exactly the kind of drama they have caused, the programme’s editors made it appear as if Iain’s ice cream had been removed from the freezer deliberately, and for ages, hence its liquid state. In fact, presenter Sue Perkins has since confirmed that the ice cream was out of the freezer for 40 seconds, maximum, and that Iain’s subsequent strop was – as he himself said – the result of his own frustration at the difficulty of the challenge. After she saw the way the incident had been portrayed on screen, Diana was very upset, and has now said that she feels like it was “a stitch-up”.

Iain let his passion for cake get the better of him.
Photo: BBC/Love Productions

The fact that Iain was the contestant eliminated at the end of the episode has only fed the anti-Diana sentiment, of course, but it should be noted that nobody made him throw it all in the bin and storm off (as Paul Hollywood said on Twitter, they need something to judge). Another competitor, Chetna, also had problems with the heat and ended up presenting some sponge with ice cream on it, rather than the whole ridiculous edifice, and received nothing but kindness and understanding from the judges. Also, Iain hadn’t exactly covered himself with glory in the rest of the episode, coming 6th out of the 9 contestants in the tiramisu “technical” challenge. As he said himself, when he shamefacedly brought the bin up to present to the judges: “I had some issues with the ice cream and I let the frustration get the better of me.”

Diana herself made a slightly wobbly meringue swan, which was well-received by the judges. But Paul Hollywood had an additional bit of advice for her, telling her not to come up to be judged with her head down anymore.

“You should hold your head up,” he said. “Like a swan would.”

I, for one, hope that she glides, swan-like, through the rest of the competition.

Update 28 August 16:15

Diana will not be appearing in the Great British Bake Off again, following last night's controversial episode. The BBC say her departure was due to illness and not the events of episode 4. A spokesperson said:

“The night before episode five, Diana made a decision not to come back. This is not connected in any way to what happened in episode four.”

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

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High explosive, damp squibs: the history of bombing raids

Governing from the Skies by Thomas Hippler examines the changing role of aerial bombing.

Bombing from the air is about a hundred years old. As a strategic option, it eroded the distinction between combatants and non-combatants: it was, Thomas Hippler argues in his thought-provoking history of the bombing century, the quintessential weapon of total war. Civilian populations supported war efforts in myriad ways, and so, total-war theorists argued, they were a legitimate object of attack. Bombing might bring about the collapse of the enemy’s war economy, or create a sociopolitical crisis so severe that the bombed government would give up. Despite efforts to protect non-combatants under international law, civilian immunity has been and continues to be little more than an ideal.

Hippler is less concerned with the military side of bombing, and has little to say about the development of air technology, which, some would insist, has defined the nature and limits of bombing. His concern is with the political dividends that bombing was supposed to yield by undermining social cohesion and/or the general willingness to continue a war.

The model for this political conception of bombing was the colonial air policing practised principally by the British between the world wars. Hippler observes that the willingness to use air power to compel rebel “tribesmen” in Afghanistan, Iraq and Africa to cease insurgency became the paradigm for later large-scale campaigns during the Second World War, and has been reinvented in the age of asymmetric warfare against non-state insurgencies: once again in Iraq and Afghanistan – and, indeed, anywhere that a drone can reach.

The problem, as Hippler knows, is that this type of bombing does not work. A century of trying to find the right aerial platform and armament, from the German Gotha bombers of 1917 to the unmanned missile carriers of today, has not delivered the political and strategic promise that air-power theorists hoped for. Air power is at its best when it is either acting as an ancillary to surface forces or engaged in air-to-air combat. The Israeli strike against Arab air forces at the start of the 1967 war was a classic example of the efficient military use of air power. In the Second World War, the millions of bombs dropped on Europe produced no social upheaval, but the US ­decision to engage in all-out aerial counterattack in 1944 destroyed the Luftwaffe and opened the way to the destruction of Germany’s large and powerful ground forces.

The prophet of bombing as the means to a quick, decisive solution in modern war was the Italian strategist Giulio Douhet, whose intellectual biography Hippler has written. Douhet’s treatise The Command of the Air (1921) is often cited as the founding text of modern air power. He believed that a more humane way to wage war was to use overwhelming strength in the air to eliminate the enemy’s air force, and then drop bombs and chemical weapons in a devastating attack on enemy cities. The result would be immediate capitulation, avoiding another meat-grinder such as the First World War. The modern nation, he argued, was at its most fragile in the teeming industrial cities; social cohesion would collapse following a bombing campaign and any government, if it survived, would have to sue for peace.

It has to be said that these views were hardly original to Douhet. British airmen had formed similar views of aerial power’s potential in 1917-18, and although the generation that commanded the British bomber offensive of 1940-45 knew very little of his thinking, they tried to put into practice what could be described as a Douhetian strategy. But Douhet and the British strategists were wrong. Achieving rapid command of the air was extremely difficult, as the Battle of Britain showed. Bombing did not create the conditions for social collapse and political capitulation (despite colossal human losses and widespread urban destruction) either in Britain, Germany and Japan, or later in Korea and Vietnam. If Douhet’s theory were to work at all, it would be under conditions of a sudden nuclear exchange.

Hippler is on surer ground with the continuity in colonial and post-colonial low-­intensity conflicts. Modern asymmetric warfare, usually against non-state opponents, bears little relation to the total-war school of thinking, but it is, as Hippler stresses, the new strategy of choice in conflicts. Here too, evidently, there are limits to the bombing thesis. For all the air effort put into the conflict against Isis in Syria and Iraq, it is the slow advance on the ground that has proved all-important.

The most extraordinary paradox at the heart of Hippler’s analysis is the way that most bombing has been carried out by Britain and the United States, two countries that have long claimed the moral high ground. It might be expected that these states would have respected civilian immunity more than others, yet in the Second World War alone they killed roughly 900,000 civilians from the air.

The moral relativism of democratic states over the century is compounded of claims to military necessity, an emphasis on technological innovation and demonisation of the enemy. For all the anxieties being aired about militant Islam, the new Russian nationalism and the potential power of China, it is the United States and Britain that need to be watched most closely.

Richard Overy’s books include “The Bombing War: Europe (1939-1945)” (Penguin)

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times