Tuesday, 3 December 2013

"Forced Caesarian": the Mother's story, and the Judge's

This is about the superficially shocking story, brought to the world by Christopher Booker of the Sunday Telegraph, of the Italian woman subjected to a forced Caesarian section by order of a secret court, who then had the child put up for adoption despite making a good recovery. Working closely with campaigning family lawyer Brandan Fleming and maverick MP John Hemming, Booker told such a horrifying story that Shami Chakrabarti was moved to comment that it sounded like "dystopian science fiction unworthy of a democracy like ours."

The following, from a follow-up Mail article, is vintage Booker:

Throughout all my years reporting on scores of chilling examples of what social workers are allowed to do behind the closed doors of our secret family courts, the case reported yesterday... is not just the most disturbing of all. It also illustrates how far our ‘child protection’ system has now gone horrendously off the rails. The facts are so shocking they beggar belief.

But are they?

As a result of the storm of publicity, the courts have now released the text of the initial pre-adoption placement ruling by Judge Newton at Chelmsford County Court, which originally had gone unreported as it raised no major legal issues. As yet, the other significant ruling, by the Court of Protection on the "forced" Caesarian that gave the story its gothic appeal to headline writers, has not been released though there are plans to do so.

The adoption judgement clears up some points, especially concerning the seriousness of the woman's underlying medical condition, while dispelling the wilder suspicions occasioned by Booker's purple prose. It becomes clear, for example, that the court looked in some detail into the woman's family circumstances before concluding (though not with much supporting evidence) that no-one in the extended family was able to care for the child. It also sheds some light on what had been the mystery of the child's father. He turns out to be a Senegalese national who apparently offered to take care of the child. The judge decided that this was a "non-starter", however, partly it seems because of his unclear immigration status.

The ruling contains some rather puzzling elements. There is severe criticism of doctors who approved her transfer to Italy, on the grounds that the judge thought she didn't appear mentally competent, yet an acknowledgement that soon after her return to her home country the woman's condition improved markedly. The judge appears to accept that the mother has made a good recovery, that her condition is manageable so long as she continues to take her medication, and that she has strong family support. Nevertheless, he decides in favour of adoption, partly it seems because the year needed for assessing the mother's capability would be too long.

This aspect may well provide the focus for an appeal, which is now to be heard personally by the President of the Family Division, Sir James Munby - a judge who has a strong track record, both of encouraging greater openness in the family courts and of requiring higher evidential standards from social work teams requesting adoption and placement orders. In any case, it's difficult to read the judge's summary of the evidence before him as leading inevitably to the conclusion that the mother, with family support, was incapable of providing a reasonably stable environment for the child, at least in the forseeable future. On the face of it Judge Newton's assessment of the evidence would seem to fall short of that now required, following the important recent decision in Re B-S, when a court wishes to deprive a parent of his or her familial rights under Article 8 of the European Convention. But we shall see.

What has been lacking so far is the mother's own voice. It is of course against British law to name her, or to identify her in any way. Italian law is less strict, and her story has been told already in the Italian press, though without naming the child. The main account, based on an interview with the woman's lawyers, provides important context and some hitherto unavailable details, though with the caveat that it is is course told exclusively from her point of view. I therefore offer this redacted translation.

The whole truth about the London baby (and her "mad" mother)

This is the story (with original documents) of A, the woman forced to undergo a Caesarian section in London and whose baby was taken by the state

She has not seen her baby daughter, who we will call Rose, for five months. The English social services, she says, have forbidden her from seeing the baby since then. They told her that she had already been adopted. The truth, however, is that in England, in the county of Essex, the first meetings have only just begun between the baby, now sixteen months old, and her prospective adoptive parents.

Her name A and is 35 years old. The UK authorites considered her "mad" and was she subjected to a forced Caesarian section, while her baby was given to the custody of social services on the order of Chelmsford county court. Despite this, she has consistently expressed a desire to regain custody of her daughter and to return with her to Italy. A is not crazy; she suffers from bipolar disorder, an extremely variable depressive condition that manifests itself in an alternation of depressive and euphoric phases but which can be kept under control by medication.

The woman... today lives in Chiusi where, having failed to become a Ryanair hostess (at the relevant time she was in England for a training course) she earns a living as a carer for an elderly couple. She returned to Italy towards the end of 2012, having become convinced the British authorities were deaf to her concerns and that she would have a better chance of winning her legal battle from Italy. Also living with her in Chiusi are her two older daughers, aged 11 and 4, who have different American fathers. Italian social services have placed them in the custody of her mother because of A's bipolar disorder.

A is the victim of what Liberal Democrat MP John Hemming, after the case exploded in the British press, called an "abuse of human rights". "It's like something from the Hitler regime", says her Italian lawyer, Stephano Oliva, upping the rhetorical ante. Oliva, along with his colleauge Luana Izzo has represented A since the beginning of 2013. He's equally scathing of the response of the Italian authorities: the foreign ministry, the London embassy and the consulate, all of whom were alerted by the lawyers back in May. "Only the Ministry of Justice has responded. They told us that they had no jurisdiction and told us to pursue legal action in the UK."

A has a complex personal history. "We were initially brought into the case in early 2013 after the aunt of her second daughter, who lives in Los Angeles and had already offered to take over custody of the two elder girls, alerted us to the existence of a third child," says Oliva. "With the consent of the American aunt, of the mother and of the grandmother we asked the Court of First Instance in Florence to seek the custody of the three children, including the baby that was in the care of British social services." A, who with her two ex-husbands had lived both in Italy and the United States, where she managed her partner's restaurant, was enthusiastic about the scheme. Her idea in fact was to go and live in Los Angeles, close to her three children and her American in-laws. The Florence court however decided that it had no jurisdiction over the third child, remitting the question to the British court. The British court rejected the request for custody because the baby had no blood tie with her American aunt.

In this tragic case, which reads like a movie script, Rose is in fact the daughter of a third father, a Senegalese immigrant resident in Italy. She was born in August 2012: A found herself in England for a few months to take a training course for potential Ryanair cabin crew at Stanstead Airport. At her hostel in July, when she was eight months pregnant, she had a panic attack probably caused by failing to take her medication. She was upset because she couldn't find the passports of her two children, who were in Italy with their grandmother. She called the police. The police, alarmed by her agitated state, telephoned her mother who informed them of her bipolar condition. A was sedated and woke up in a psychiatric hospital, effectively in a state of detention.

She remembers saying, "But I'm fine, there's no need to take me to hospital," Oliva recalls. But the situation becase more tragic in August when A was taken to an operating theatre for a C-section ordered by the court. Notwithstanding this, she continued to protest, "Where are you taking me? I want to give birth in Italy." "Apart from anything else A speaks very good English, so it can't have been a problem of communication," observes the lawyer. Anyway. The child was born and in February 2013 was put up for adoption, despite the opposition of the mother (she appealed in June, without a final decision so far) and despite medical advice that mother and child should not be separated. There was also a bureaucratic mix-up: in court papers the child was given the surname of the mother's first husband, and not that of her actual father, a Senegalese national who has also offered to take care of Rose, a request rejected by the court. "It is an inconceivable decision," says Oliva, "beccause all the European directives guarantee the integrity of the nuclear family. The only exception is where there is abandonment, which is not the case here."

Following the birth A was moved to another hospital, still detained under the Mental Health Act, and was allowed to see her daughter once a week. In October 2012 she returned to Italy, partly to gain better legal support (the court-appointed lawyer who had represented her had failed even to give her notice of hearings). From then on until five months ago she was allowed to see her daughter on a daily basis.

Two sets of legal proceedings began in Italy this March. The first to give a negative outcome was the Florence tribunal, which declared it had no jurisdiction since baby Rose was not born in Italy. It made submissions to the high court in Rome. The Rome court offered a small chink of light. While declaring that it had no jurisdiction, because A should have appealed to it immediately after the birth, it declared on October 31st that "it could not recognise the decision of the English court because it was contrary to both Italian and international public law."

The foreign minister, contacted by the lawyers, has made no comment; likewise the Italian embassy and consulate in London, which according to Oliva "has never responded to our request in May." The consul, Massimiliano Mazzanti, has instead declared that he was told of the incident by social services in England.

To resolve this nightmare A now has two options: the pending appeal in England and the Florence tribunal which, her lawyers hope, will add the name of little Rose to the instrument of custody drawn up for her two sisters by her American aunt.

Observations

While the general thrust of the Italian account agrees with the facts put forward by Booker, there are a number of points of divergence. There is also the claim, not found in Booker, that the social services lied to the mother about the progress of the adoption: a serious allegation. Booker claimed that the mother was in the UK for only two weeks; the Italian version states that it was in fact for some months. Booker claimed that social services allowed no contact between mother and child, whereas this account makes clear that there was regular contact until five months ago. Indeed, it states that the decision to separate the two and to take "Rose" (given the initial P in the released judgement) into foster care was made against medical advice.

Judge Newton alludes to this, and indeed makes his opinion of the doctors' advice quite plain in paragraph 8:

The District Judge at the early stage gave permission for the Local Authority to withhold contact and I raise that because the doctors appeared to be saying at an early stage in the proceedings that the plan ought to be for P to be placed with the mother potentially in hospital. I was and remain deeply concerned about that. It might have been in the mother's interests but I think the mother, today, would understand that it would not have been in P's interests for that to have occurred. It has been of course of some concern to me because having made the order I did on 12th October concerning the instruction of Dr Winton, a consultant psychiatrist.

A further disagreement between Judge Newton and the doctors treating A is set out in Paragraph 9:

By that stage it was being asserted by the treating doctors that the mother had regained capacity under the relevant test. I have to say that when the mother appeared before me at that time she did not appear to be at all well, and I am surprised that it was being claimed that she had legal capacity . I am critical of the doctors because it appears to me that she was despatched (in deed escorted ) from the UK with undue haste simply because she wished to go back to Italy. I was led to believe that the mother was in a good state and a good frame of mind but frankly nothing could have been further from the truth, because if one looks at the reports of the admitting Doctors in italy , it is clear that the mother when she arrived in Italy was in a very poor state. She should in my view have been assisted here to participate in these proceedings. I know she wanted to go to Italy but by going to Italy any realistic prospect of P returning to her care was diminished substantially. It is for that reason it seems to me that it was a most ill-advised thing to have occurred. I was critical at the time and I remain critical to this day.

The judge here seems oddly confused. The "capacity" in question was not the capacity to care for her child, but the capacity to make decisions regarding her treatment. She was not being discharged willy-nilly into the community, but rather being "escorted" (presumably by medical staff) to Italy where she was admitted, presumably (though the judgement does not specify) to hospital. The treatment she received in Italy, moreover, between October 2012 and February of this year when the adoption hearing took place, had a salutary effect, as the judge acknowledged in paragraph 10:

The good news is that as a result of the mother eventually complying with her medication which she did for some considerable time whilst out there, it is very evident that she is actually extremely well and has given evidence before me. As I said to her during the course of her evidence it seemed to me that she was as clear and articulate, indeed more so than most people I hear from the witness box where English is their first language, and English is not the mother's first language.

This contrasts with the three to four months she spent as a detained patient at psychiatric hospitals in England, at the end of which, by the judge's impression of her and the assessment of the Italian doctors, she was in a "very poor state". Perhaps her return to Italy merely coincided with the improvement in her health rather than directly produced it; but in any event it doesn't appear to have done her any harm.

One thing that the released judgement doesn't address is the plan for the family to move to the United States, with the children placed under the guardianship of A's former sister-in-law, though this would appear to have been considered, only to be rejected, at a subsequent hearing. Booker's account of this was garbled: he implied that the plan was to send the child to live with the American aunt, whereas it now seems that the suggestion is that the whole family should move there. Whether this scheme has met with the approval of the US immigration authorities is uncertain. While the two elder children of American fathers both qualify for US citizenship and A probably has residency at least, Rose's position is likely to be more complicated. But whether that played any part in the court's rejection of the scheme isn't clear.

The question of the child's father is raised, but scarcely considered, both in the released judgement and in the Italian press. The Italian report offers the bizarre detail that his name was left off the court papers because of a bureaucratic error. Although this doesn't seem to have excluded him from proceedings, it's strangely fitting, given that so little thought seems to have been given either to his rights or to his responsibilities as a parent. His offer to assume responsibility for the baby was dismissed as "not, if I may say so, a starter" by a judge who also sniffily notes that "he has failed to take any part except for the fact that he saw both the social worker and the Guardian when they visited Italy, and has written to the court today indicating that he opposes the application of the Local Authority". Newton concludes, again baldly, that there is "no-one within the wider family who today can look after P even though the father attempts to put himself forward." Beyond his unclear immigration status, no evidence is offered in the judgement as to why the judge considers the proposal a non-starter, or what is lacking in his "attempts to put himself forward" as a carer for the child. He is an inconvenient detail to be swatted aside. 

The criticism of Booker's one-sided and significantly distorted presentation of the facts is largely justified, but that doesn't mean that the case of Signora A doesn't raise significant issues. Judge Newton's ruling is a model neither of clarity nor of judicial reasoning; he contradicts himself at various points and his decision seems unsupported by any compelling weight of evidence. These will doubtless be issues for the appeal. Perhaps good reasons can be found as to why it was impossible to transfer her to Italy, despite her express desire, prior to the birth. But it seems on the face of it difficult to see any, given that she seems to have been kept heavily sedated. That would have solved most of the problems that subsequently arose.

One thing the case does clearly demonstrate is the dangers posed by secrecy in the family courts and in the Court of Protection, not just to the administration of justice but to the reputation of the legal system. Where little is known about what actually takes place behind closed courtroom doors horror stories are apt to spread and to be believed.

Nor are the problems imaginary. President Munby has repeatedly acknowledged the inadequacies of the family courts system and in particular the attitude of some social workers. In one case he noted "the slapdash, lackadaisical and on occasions almost contumelious attitude which still far too frequently characterises the response [by social workers] to orders made by family courts" and complained of "a deeply rooted culture in the family courts which, however long established, will no longer be tolerated". These are strong words indeed: so strong that, had they been voiced by Booker or Hemming a large section of respectable legal opinion would immediately have cried foul.  Indeed, an official of the British Association of Social Workers has accused Munby of, among other things, giving encouragement to the Daily Mail. "Lord Justice Munby’s pledge to ensure greater transparency in the family courts has been heralded as a triumph by those opposed to the current restrictions in reporting on care proceedings, but I was left horrified," she complains. One might almost think she had something to hide.
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Monday, 18 November 2013

What David Cameron can learn from schoolgirls and soccer moms

David Cameron comes in for a lot of criticism from libertarian and sex-positive types for his morally conservative attitude to internet porn, as shown in his determination to force IP companies to introduce opt-in smut filters. But perhaps he just doesn't have either the time or the inclination to do his own research, and is reliant on what campaigners tell him, or what he reads in the Daily Mail. If so, then he can scarcely be blamed for assuming that the entirety of "mainstream porn" is violent and misogynistic, encourages adolescent boys to hate women and abuse their girlfriends and irreperably corrupts the minds of young children who innocently go looking for pictures of kittens.

After all, it's common knowledge that in the age of the internet porn is pretty grim stuff. Even self-declared feminist pornographers proclaim as much, even while selling their own dream of a sex-positive, eco-friendly, non-exploitative alternative. Indeed, the essential violence and misogyny of the "mainstream" is as much an item of faith among "alternative" pornographers as it is for anti-porn campaigners such as Gail Dines, who has described online erotica as "a never-ending universe of ravaged anuses, distended vaginas and semen-smeared faces".

Not only does the alternative producers' business model depend upon the existence of an unspeakable mainstream (rather as the censors' does also) so does their self-identity - now buttressed by a global network of arty porn festivals and feminist award ceremonies. The existence of easy-access, free and often pirated porn is the common enemy of both professional porn producers and moralists, it must be said, so the confluence of interest in damning "mainstream porn" isn't surprising.

It's also common knowledge that only boys and men want to watch porn anyway. Even in households without children, Our Dave promises, "husbands will have to have a difficult conversation with their wives about accessing porn at home". Because all women everywhere are horrified by the very idea of sexually explicit material - and men, meanwhile, are so ashamed by it they will acquiesce in default filters that in the way of things will end up blocking a great many sites that aren't remotely pornographic anyway. So that's OK then.

Is there any actual research, as opposed to anecdote, about what "mainstream porn" really looks like? It's not difficult to do, after all - at least, not until the Cameron Cordon arrives some time next year. Here's some, conducted by three women at New Brunswick University in Canada, led by graduate student Sarah Vannier and her supervisor Professor Lucia O’Sullivan. Recently unveiled by Vannier at a science and sexuality conference in San Diego, it has a catchy title - Schoolgirls and Soccer Moms: A Content Analysis of Free "Teen" and "MILF" Online Pornography. Ironically, the content of this content analysis is not free, but if the abstract is accurate it does what it says on the tin.

Vannier's research interests include oral sex among teenagers and sexual compliance in committed relationships ("I’m pretty sure I picked one of the most interesting careers out there", she says.) She has also written a sex advice column for her student newspaper - in which she notes that "although watching porn for research sounds like a ton of fun, it does get boring after a while". Concentrating on free sites not only makes for low research costs (though was the research possible on the university's own computers, I wonder?) it's also the most useful place to start, given that they account for the vast majority of porn consumption.

And as the abstract says in somewhat self-contradictory terms, "viewing free online pornographic videos has increasingly become a common behavior among young people, although little is known about the content of these videos." Presumably the content of the videos is not little known to the many who view them. But you get the point - little is known officially and publicly (or in academic journals) about the content of the videos.

And perhaps (though perhaps not) little is known to the politicians making decisions about internet filtering about the content of these videos. It's an area where admitting ignorance is a positive asset to a politician or a pundit, where claiming to know what you're talking about might be held against you. "I've never seen the stuff myself, but I've heard it's revolting" is the safest line to take publicly. I suspect that several politicians who may find themselves having "difficult conversations" at home next year know more than they will ever say. But since coming out in opposition to the porn filter is as much as admission of guilt, that will have to remain in the realm of conjecture.

So short of informing yourself by actually visiting these sites, which no-one in their right mind would ever do, you'll have to rely on Sarah Vannier's research. And so, without further ado:

The current study analyzed the content of two popular female-age-based types of free, online pornography (teen and MILF) and examined nuances in the portrayal of gender and access to power in relation to the age of the female actor. A total of 100 videos were selected from 10 popular Web sites, and their content was coded using independent raters.

The focus of the research, then, was not only on the content of the videos but on the underlying socio-political message. Were these "popular" genres characterised principally by violence and perversion? Were the women involved portrayed as the degraded playthings of insatiable male lust? Not entirely:

Vaginal intercourse and fellatio were the most frequently depicted sexual acts. The use of sex toys, paraphilias, cuddling, and condom use were rare, as were depictions of coercion.

Control of the pace and direction of sexual activity was typically shared by the male and female actors. Moreover, there were no gender differences in initiation of sexual activity, use of persuasion, portrayals of sexual experience, or in professional status. However, female actors in MILF videos were portrayed as more agentic and were more likely to initiate sexual activity, control the pace of sexual activity, and have a higher professional status.

(My italics)

So there you have it. Older female performers were "more likely to initiate sexual activity" but even in "teen" videos the women aren't entirely or even predominantly passive. There were "no gender differences". This is of course strikingly at variance with the almost universal assumptions about the content of mainstream porn, even those articulated by alternative and feminist pornographers. So contrary are these findings to the accepted wisdom I'd be amazed if they were taken seriously or used to inform the public debate. Nevertheless, I suspect the research will come as little surprise to the majority of people who actually watch the stuff.

Truly, online porn exists in a parallel universe
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In the modern schoolyard, being an Evangelical Christian is just so gay

This is a guest post by Rev Julian Mann

British secondary schools are now much tougher places for Christian teenagers than they were when I was at school in the 1970s.

Political correctness was an incipient ideology in that decade but it was not being enforced. Now it is and teenage disciples of Jesus Christ who articulate certain Bible-based ethical views, for example against abortion and same-sex marriage, face flak not only from their peers but also from their school authorities when, as is inevitable, such opinions generate complaints. 

Ironically, the ideological atmosphere in British state schools is such that you are almost more likely to be abused as 'gay' for being an orthodox Christian than for being a homosexual. 

Anyone conversant with teenage parlance knows that 'gay' is the new 'naff'.  No amount of Stonewall enforcement is going to stop teenagers from using the term about anything from an uncharismatic police horse to a peer's new quiff. It is in widespread usage in schools and teachers cannot monitor every conversation. But any student concerned about their school record will be deterred by an accusation of homophobic bullying, so will think twice about using the term perjoratively against a peer who comes out as a homosexual.

However, they well know that no such sanction will result if they use the term against a Christian peer. There is no equivalent of a Stonewall award for a school for tackling 'Christianophobic' bullying - not that Christians should want to generate witchhunts for 'Christianophobes'. That kind of atmosphere is not good for the gospel, which relies for its progress not on coercion or a climate of fear but on genuine persuasion.

In the current ideological climate, teachers are under little pressure to clamp down on verbal abuse against Bible-believing Christians. Furthermore, reflecting social attitudes among university-educated people most teachers would think anyway that in normal cases abortion and sex outside heterosexual marriage are morally right. They would regard any deviation from such ethical norms as extremely bigoted.

Therefore the following taunt within earshot of a teacher in a British secondary school is well possible:

"Hey you Bible-basher, I hear you're against gay marriage because you're a Jesus freak. You're so gay!" 

Julian Mann is vicar of the Parish Church of the Ascension, Oughtibridge, South Yorkshire.
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Monday, 14 October 2013

Selling Downton to the Chinese


Are 160 million people really watching Downton Abbey in China, as George Osborne claimed on the Today programme this morning? Probably not. As Tom Chivers points out, the figure was a projection based on current trends. The show only started airing in China this year. But Chinese thirst for British costume drama seems real enough. A recent survey found that 9% of the discussion of foreign TV on Chinese social media sites concerned British dramas like Downton, while the proportion was significantly higher among graduates and white collar workers. British costume drama has the same snob appeal in China as it does in the United States, it would seem. In what is described as a "disdain chain", "British drama fans look down on fans of American shows, who look down on Korean soap fans, who in turn look down on fans of domestic dramas."

Two or three centuries ago, a rising British middle class went crazy for Chinese tea and porcelain. Now wealthy Chinese are returning the compliment: one in four Bentleys sold, for example, is now sold in China, while English public schools are setting up Chinese subsidiaries. Britain seems insular in comparison. It's hard to imagine sizeable chunk of the British public enjoying a weekly drama in Mandarin exploring the private lives of Chinese aristocrats during the dying days of the Ching dynasty. And if Osborne's 160 million figure remains aspirational, it does at least give a hint as to the sheer vastness of the potential gains to be made in the world's largest market.

There's no doubt that Downton Abbey is a phenomenon. Julian Fellowes' period soap continues to hook viewers worldwide despite its wooden scripts, its psychological superficiality and the contrived plots (including the recent attempt to liven things up a bit by having one of the best-loved characters gratuitously raped). It may not actually be a quality period drama: the show is, for all its leaden forays into attempted social realism, simply honest escapism. But it looks like one, and it capitalises on a well-established British niche. Last year, for example, it was among the most-watched TV shows in Denmark, the Netherlands, Singapore and Brazil, where it runs in a "slot dedicated to contemporary fiction", according to an executive at the network that broadcasts it. The global audience was estimated at 120 million even before transmission began in China.

British TV may have struggled in recent years to come up with anything capable of comparison (even unfavourable comparison) with The Sopranos or Mad Men, or with the slew of lugubrious Scandinavian cop shows, but slightly cheesy costume drama is the field in which this country remains the gold standard, even if Downton is no Brideshead Revisited.

So should we celebrate a great British success story, a stellar example of cultural soft power and an export triumph to boot? To some it may be a matter of regret that the world has yet to acquire a ravenous appetite for our more contemporary products - The Office was probably the last modern-set British TV show to strike a global chord, and that largely through national re-imaginings with local casts, languages and situations. But since the UK has cornered the market in nostalgia porn it would be foolish not to exploit it. The world clearly wants our frocks and boaters, our class system and our stiff upper-lips. "Theme park Britain" it may be, but at least it gives the country a strong and attractive international brand. If nothing else, it's good for tourism, even if the Home Office seems determined to drive potential tourists away with a a visa system that is expensive, bureaucratic and off-putting. And today's tourists might even become tomorrow's investors.

There are obvious dangers if the nation's image abroad (and perhaps its self-image too) is based on the past rather than the present or the future. The danger of looking irrelevant. The danger of not being taken seriously. Downton Britain is charming and traditional, but fatally unrealistic. In the series itself, Lord Grantham's essential appeal as an aristocratic paragon is bound up with his failing struggle to adapt to a changing world. He is romantically doomed, as is his miniature kingdom, to obsolescence. Is this the image of the UK that millions of international viewers are imbibing? Or is it the other way around, and Downton is successful precisely because it embodies and reflects an image that Britain has so far failed to shake off? Boris Johnson's Woosterish public persona also goes down very well abroad.

By contrast, attempts by the last government to rebrand the UK as "cool Britannia" largely flopped. National clichés die so hard that many visitors still expect to find London's streets clouded with fog and its countryside peopled with fox-hunting aristos. And for all the lip service paid to British pop culture as an antidote to the Brideshead/Downton effect our most popular and influential musical export is still the Beatles. Other British cultural exports with global appeal are of a similar vintage: think James Bond or Doctor Who.

So perhaps this country, despite all our vaunted hi-tech start-ups and cutting-edge research, is destined to be the world's leading purveyor of cosy nostalgia. There are worse fates. The 21st century belongs to China, and if Western countries are to have an economic future it will be through selling what China, and other rising nations, want to buy. And if that something turns out to be Downton Abbey it may be unfortunate for them but is great news for us.
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Thursday, 3 October 2013

So what is Paul Dacre playing at?

This week's Private Eye has an interesting (should you care about such things) item about the future of legendary Mail editor-in-chief Paul Dacre.  It reports that Dacre's incentive package was amended in 2010 from a five-yearly bonus to one in which he was to be paid "an additional £500,000 for each full year that he continutes working until he is 65".  We also learn that "his contract was also amended last year from a rolling one to 'the residual term until his 65th birthday on 14th November 2013'."

A big hint there that Dacre is being eased out.  The 65th birthday looks like an excuse, or a face-saving formula.  There's no reason why he shouldn't continue as editor after then, should he wish to and should his employers want him to stay on.  On the other hand, were he really ready to quit, why would he want to cling on until a symbolic retirement age? 

Assuming this account is accurate (and the evidence for the Eye's story seems quite clear), it provides some context, at least, to Dacre's kamikaze-like behaviour in recent days.  It's not clear whether or not he personally decided to run the now-notorious article about Ralph Miliband, which might otherwise have passed without much fuss, under the headline "The Man Who Hated Britain". But there's little doubt that it was he who responded to the criticism from Ed Miliband with a trenchant refusal to apologise, indeed a determination to repeat and underscore the allegations about the Labour leader's Marxist father.  And the Mail's attempt to link the story with its campaign against press regulation certainly has Dacre's fingerprints all over it.  So what is he playing at?

It could well be a case of the devil coming in great fury because he knows his time is short.  Nothing to lose, now, after all.  Better to go down all guns blazing in a fight to the death with Ed Miliband than to just slink off to his retirement home.  His departure, even if postponed until November, will (at least in his own eyes) take on the lineaments of a martyrdom.  Perhaps he believes that he can bring Miliband, or the whole regulatory process, down with him.  Or perhaps it's simply his last hurrah for the Blackshirts.  Either way, he will be enjoying his final battle.

There's a risk here, of course, which is that Dacre's behaviour will hasten the dawn of Leveson-style regulation, by increasing Miliband's determination to accept nothing less (feelings of outraged filial piety now joining his longstanding desire to muzzle newspapers like the Mail).  Already, pro-regulation campaigners scent blood: the fury with which the Mail is now being pursued is somewhat opportunistic, however genuine the anger behind it.  They will not be appeased by securing Dacre's scalp (as it will inevitably appear); the removal of their most rabid opponent will be no more than a first step.

As Roy Greenslade has it:

In truth, the whole affair has blown up in Dacre's face because of his intransigence. The Mail editor has become the centre of a story that has legs.

In the process, he has achieved the reverse of his intentions. A dignified Ed Miliband has emerged with an enhanced image. As for press regulation, he has made it infinitely more difficult for the matter to be resolved in favour of the system he favours.

But perhaps Dacre doesn't really care, and this last campaign is part of a scorched-earth policy.  There's said to be little love lost between Dacre and the man often touted as his successor, Mail on Sunday editor Geordie Greig.  Greig himself today issued an abject apology for one of his reporters gatecrashing a memorial service for Ed Miliband's uncle.  He was insistent that he had nothing to do with it (but then who did dispatch the reporter without his permission?  One of Dacre's minions?).   The subtext to Greig's grovelling is presumably to signal that the Mail under his control will be softer, gentler affair, a labrador puppy to Dacre's pitbull; and no doubt there's also a hint of panic that the scandal might cost him his long dreamed-of prize. 

Ed Miliband, meanwhile, has gone over Dacre's head to the present Lord Rothermere, demanding a thorough enquiry into the ethics of the Mail.  Such an enquiry could only satisfy by presenting the Labour leader with Dacre's head on a platter.  But if Dacre is leaving anyway, the sacrifice can only be a symbolic one.  Unless, of course, it gives Rothermere a most convenient opportunity to remake the Mail's image by loading all of its sins onto a scapegoat, who will then be cast out into the wilderness with only a vast pension to sustain him.  Or unless Dacre has raised the stakes so high that his departure now would look too much like a victory for the supposed enemies of a free press.  In which case the plans for his retirement might have to be revisited, and Rothermere (and the whole country) might be stuck with him for logner than originally expected.  Who knows?

UPDATE: The Press Gazette is reporting that Dacre is staying on for another twelve months at least, having agreed a new contract. It's not clear when he negotiated this. In any case, it puts paid to any "scorched earth" theory, but I doubt the timing is entirely coincidental. Perhaps his new lease of professional life has gone to his head.
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Thursday, 26 September 2013

Why a decline in smoking led to the smoking ban

Here's an interesting graph published today by the Guardian, based on evidence provided by the Office of National statistics.


It shows the steady decline in smoking over the past forty years.  Though there have been occasional blips (the most noticeable, in 1998, is apparently due to a change in the way the statistics were calculated) the direction of travel should be no surprise: from 45% of the population in the early seventies to around 20% today.

Smokers are smoking much less, too. I was also interested to discover that the threshold definition for a "heavy smoker" is twenty a day, and that only 5% of men and 3% of women come into that category.  The figures for 1974 aren't offered, so I'm not sure if the official definition of "heavy smoker" has changed, but 20 a day was most people's idea of average back in the 70s.  It wasn't unusual to come across chain smokers getting through as many as a hundred a day.

This is, of course, excellent news, unless you're in the life insurance business or are at all worried about the implications for pensions and social care of so many more people not dying of lung cancer and other smoking-related diseases.

You'll notice that the big decline took place in the seventies and eighties, long before the ban on tobacco advertising which was introduced in 2002, let alone the ban on smoking in public places (2006) or the introduction of graphic "warning" images on all packs in 2008.  It would be hard indeed to spot any effect from any of these measures from the graph alone.  It also suggests that the pearl-clutching reaction from the health lobby when the government recently shelved plans to introduce "plain packaging" for cigarettes (ie to replace branded designs with horror-movie stills showing the effect of smoking) was overdone.  The likelihood is that smoking rates will continue to tail off - although, as the end of the graph shows (the part that coincides with all the recent anti-smoking measures) the decline won't be nearly as steep as it was in the 70s or 80s, or even the early years of this century.  That's because the practice is now largely confined to a hard core of addicts and contrarians.

The graph neatly illustrates my longstanding principle that in public health policy the sledgehammer is only brought out once the nut has already been largely cracked.  It's only when the number of smokers was reduced to a small, and increasingly unpopular, minority that it became politically advantageous to clobber them.  Prior to that, the law was based on gentle persuasion (such as small-scale warnings on packets that merely informed purchasers that "smoking can seriously damage your health") along with the general background noise of official disapproval, public education and well-publicised "quit smoking" campaigns.

All this worked - or at least it coincided with a long and sustained fall in smoking.  The above graph, on the other hand, shows a very slight tick upwards at the end (representing the last couple of years) among male smokers at least.  Could it be that the increased intolerance of the law and the ever shriller and more apocalyptic language employed by anti-smoking campaigners is actually counterproductive?  It's at least plausible that the type of person still determinedly smoking after all these years of health scares (as opposed to those who have simply failed to give up) reacts badly to the authoritarianism of bans.

The pattern revealed by the graph does, however, show something significant about anti-smoking laws.  They aren't really aimed at discouraging smoking, or protecting the health of non-smokers, or even at punishing smokers (as some pro-smoking dissidents like to think).  Rather, they are a form of bandwagon-jumping.  Measures such as "plain packaging" are seized upon by politicians seeking to prove themselves "relevant" and up-to-date, in much the same way that they pounce upon passing moral panics or promote ideas that seem popular with focus groups.  The long-term decline in smoking is a social trend for which politicians would like to claim credit.  Introducing "tough" measures that can scarcely fail - because their aim has already been achieved - and which can claim to be both morally virtuous and medically justified is almost too tempting.
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Friday, 20 September 2013

Springtime for Godfrey

In honour of Nigel Farage's reputed youthful enthusiasm for Nazi marching songs (which he of course denies) I've composed this little ditty about his outspoken colleague Godfrey Bloom, who got into trouble today for hitting the terrier-like journalist Michael Crick and naïvely using the word "slut" in its old-fashioned sense of "slovenly".  It should be sung to the tune of the Horst Wessel Lied.  I believe it's traditional to raise the right arm during the final verse.


I'm Godfrey Bloom, I fly the flag for UKIP,
I'm never short of a well-chosen phrase,
The po-faced critics scorn me but I love a good quip
To wind up women, foreigners and gays

As MEP for Yorkshire and the Humber
Against the bureaucrats I'll bravely take a stand
In Brussels you might find me drunk inside the Chamber
But never sending aid to Bongo Bongo Land

A woman's place is cleaning out the kitchen
Or failing that, a brothel in Hong Kong;
I'll have no truck with greens and their absurd religion
I'm Godfrey Bloom, so join in with my song

My forthright style and views on every issue
Embody all that's great about UKIP
I always speak my mind, and sometimes speak my fist too,
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