Thursday, 31 July 2008

Limpet clings on

Not the least cause for celebration at the election of Boris Johnson as Mayor of London was the prospect that the city, and the country, might finally see the back of Sir Ian Blair. Discredited after the Stockwell shooting, responsible for a string of PR disasters, unpopular with rank-and-file officers, hilariously accused of racism by the gruesome twosome of Ali Dizaei and Tarique Ghaffur, and now under investigation into how his skiing companion came to be awarded police contracts worth £3million, it should be relatively straightforward to scrape this disastrous commissioner off the Yard.

Boris had hinted that he would like nothing better than to see the back of the Met Commissioner - one might almost claim it was part of his manifesto - and despite an awkwardly-staged joint press conference shortly after the election it seems that he has been as good as his word. Yesterday it was revealed that BJ has been looking for ways to do the deed. Unfortunately, it might not prove quite so easy a task as was at first thought. An initial attempt to suspend Blair pending the results of the inquiry (as would have happened to any provincial chief constable, or any senior officer in the Met) has been rebuffed by his lawyers. And today we learn that the commissioner has decided to fight his corner, as usual, by clambering up onto a high horse.

According to the Guardian, Blair is worried that the developing spat between him and the mayor demonstrates that his position is becoming increasingly politicised. "I find that inappropriate," he adds.

That's a bit rich coming from him. Ian Blair has well nigh single-handedly turned the Metropolitan Police from an independent force to being the helmetted wing of New Labour. He owes his position to his consummate political gifts, and his mastery of fashionable ideological language, rather than any record fighting crime. Since being appointed, he has made himself available to ministers to speak out in favour of controversial policies from ID cards to 90 days detention without trial, intervening repeatedly in party politics. A constitutionally improper position for a public servant to occupy, but one which came naturally to him. He also forged a dangerously close alliance with Ken Livingstone which led, among other things, to Livingstone openly defending the right of police to shoot innocent people dead just in case.

A lot of touchy-feeling rhetoric about "inclusiveness" and high-profile diversity campaigns have gone hand in hand with a progressive spread of firearms and a culture of shoot-first impunity that reached its tragic apogee in the cold-blooded and (even if he had been a suspect) unnecessary shooting dead of Jean Charles de Menezes while held in a position of complete restraint. The aftermath of that terrible event saw Blair at his worst, blustering, arrogant, not troubling himself to check facts before smearing his force's victim, evasive in later enquiries, always looking for someone else to blame. His shamelessness revealed itself at its fullest after the Met was convicted of health and safety breaches over the Stockwell shooting. Small comfort to the De Menezes family, but calling for at least a show of contrition. Instead, in a churlish and distasteful statement, Blair claimed total vindication (at least of him personally) and announced that he would "continue to lead the Met in its increasingly successful efforts."

Livingstone stood loyally by him on that occasion, announcing the next day that police officers had been coming up to him proclaiming "we're with Ian". In fact he is by some distance the least popular Met commissioner in recorded history. Still, the crucial support of Ken Livingstone - which some might regard itself as inappropriate politicisation of Blair's office - showed how well the commissioner has played the game.

With Ken, in happier times

At least Tony Blair knew when the game was up and went with some dignity. Ian Blair, on the other hand, remains as convinced as he was on the day of the De Menezes verdict that he is the only man for the job. Indeed, if Boris Johnson, the elected Mayor, were able to remove him from office, Blair believes, this would be a "bad bargain". The Met commissioner has both national and international responsibilities, he contends. In short, he's far more important than Boris.

Blair will presumably be looking to the Home Secretary and his other political buddies to shore up his crumbling position. He's unlikely to be able to rely on his officers. On one police forum today, I found little sympathy. One detective opined,

I'm beyond caring about how Blair is despatched. He has overseen the demise of the Met and caused one cock up after another. If it takes a fallout with Boris to send him on his way, then so be it.

A sergeant added that Boris's scheme hardly resembled a "plot", "more like a public service". While another online officer was rejoicing that "this clown will soon be gone", but worried that his replacement might turn out to be another "politico idealistic high flyer with little experience of frontline policing, continuing the destruction of a once great and proud force".

It must be galling for Ian Blair, after building his whole career on pleasing New Labour ministers, to find the government he served so loyally starting to crumble, to find Tories winning elections. Still, the self-proclaimed "limpet" isn't intending to go any more quietly than Gordon Brown. "I will continue to stay in office, because that is my job," he said. Staying in office must indeed have become more-or-less a full time job for Commisioner Blair. London needs a police chief whose main priority is fighting crime, not fighting for his career. Read the rest of this article

Wednesday, 30 July 2008

Saudis 1, Rule of Law, 0

Today's unanimous ruling by the House of Lords, overturning an earlier judgement and vindicating the Serious Fraud Office's decision to stop investigating corruption in the al-Yamamah arms deal, must rank as one of the most depressing ever delivered by a major British court.

Earlier this year, the Divisional Court led by Lord Justice Moses had declared that threats by a foreign power must never be allowed to divert the course of justice. In ringing sentences that deserved to echo down the centuries, Moses restated that no-one should be above the law, and that the rule of law must be considered paramount. "It is difficult to identify any integrity in the role of the courts to uphold the rule of law," he said, "if the courts are to abdicate in response to a threat from a foreign power." The submission on behalf of the Serious Farce Office was, thought Moses, "dispiriting"; faced with Saudi pressure and possibly empty threats to withhold intelligence co-operation, the SFO, in the person of its director Robert Wardle, had caved in. Or, to be more precise, Wardle had accepted the strong advice of the Prime Minister (acting via the Attorney General) and the British ambassador in Saudi Arabia to cave in. "For the future," said the judge, "those who wish to deliver a threat designed to interfere with our internal, domestic system of law, need to be told that they cannot achieve their objective." Hence his strongly-worded judgement.

To read Moses LJ's opinion is to be shocked by the sheer cowardliness of the British authorities when faced with threats by Prince Bandar. Bandar, a long-standing friend of the Bush family, former Saudi ambassador to the United States, and a man of legendary profligacy, was accused of taking $Billion in bribes from BAe Systems for his part in lubricating the massive deal. The British response was to take the threats at face value and place the SFO under intolerable pressure to discontinue the investigation. They crumbled. As Moses put it:

No-one suggested to those uttering the threat that it was futile, that the United Kingdom's system of democracy forbad pressure being exerted on an independent prosecutor whether by the domestic executive or by anyone else; no-one even hinted that the courts would strive to protect the rule of law and protect the independence of the prosecutor by striking down any decision he might be tempted to make in submission to the threat.

It was argued that the Saudis were simply unable to understand the concept of the rule of law or of the independence of the criminal and judicial process; and that, therefore, it was no use trying to tell them otherwise. Repeated attempts were made to tell the Saudis this truth, the House of Lords said - but they wouldn't listen. This sort of hand-wringing is both patronising and surely mistaken. The fact that Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy does not entail that its rulers are so stupid as to imagine that all other countries are also absolute monarchies. On the contrary, all the evidence suggests that the Saudis in general, and Bandar in particular, had a very fair understanding of the British system. They were under the impression that its proudly vaunted independence was, in the final analysis, a sham, because if the Saudis demanded of British politicians that the investigation be stopped, it would be. They were right.

What Lord Justice Moses held - and this is why his ruling was potentially so important, and its loss today therefore so regrettable - was that the SFO director was legally obliged to resist that pressure - pressure which would, as he commented, have amounted in any other circumstances to a conspiracy to pervert the course of justice. If Wardle was not so obliged, if the option to yield to the pressure were available, then he would almost certainly be forced to yield. That, certainly, seems to have been the situation: it was accepted on all sides that Wardle had acted only with the greatest reluctance. But overruling his decision, then, Moses and his colleague Mr Justice Sullivan were providing both him, and the legal process, with a vital life-raft:

The courts protect the rule of law by upholding the principle that when making decisions in the exercise of his statutory power an independent prosecutor is not entitled to surrender to the threat of a third party, even when that third party is a foreign state. The courts are entitled to exercise their own judgment as to how best they may protect the rule of law, even in cases where it is threatened from abroad. In the exercise of that judgment we are of the view that a resolute refusal to buckle to such a threat is the only way the law can resist.

In comparison to those high-flown sentiments, today's decision by the House of Lords was shamefully defeatist. Even if Lord Bingham was right on the narrow legal point - that the SFO director was entitled to make the decision that he did - the implications are dire. Faced with an "ugly and obviously unwelcome threat", thought Bingham, Wardle was entitled to consider the implications for public safety and national security of disregarding it. His colleague Baroness Hale was equally lacking in the courage of her convictions. She states that she came to her decision with regret. She found it "extremely distasteful that an independent public official should feel himself obliged to give way to threats of any sort." Nevertheless, he did feel so obliged. "I wish that the world were a better place," she whined, "where honest and conscientious public servants were not put in impossible situations such as this." But what can one do about it?

Nothing, it seems. Lord Justice Moses offered the solution: remove the SFO director's discretion to take into account any extraneous factors, even "public safety", where public safety was being put at risk by blackmail by a representative of a foreign power. Force him to let justice be done, even if the sky falls. That way, Bandar's threats would have fallen on deaf ears. And if this deplorable man, and his deplorable government, had carried out their threats, had imperilled British lives in revenge for having their stinking corruption exposed to the gaze of the world, then that, too, should have been publicly exposed. That Mafia state, with its preening, money-grubbing, debauched princelings and a legal system that embarrasses the word "medieval", has been indulged for too long. The House of Lords, today, has opted to place their right to threaten our law-enforcement officials above the responsibility of those officials to apply British (and, indeed, international) law. What a sad day. Read the rest of this article

Tuesday, 29 July 2008

A cunning plan

The Times today reports a poll finding that people are now so terminally fed up with this government that even getting rid of Gordon Brown won't help them. That's the way I read it, too. That there are many in the government, and in the press, who apparently don't get this obvious truth demonstrates (apart from mere desperation, of course) the continuing emptiness of the New Labour project, with its relentless focus on personality.

New Labour has always been, at the most profound level, about personal enmity and the manipulation of power. When things were going well, the mutual antagonism of its leading figures mattered little; it might even have been a source of creative tension. The Blair-Brown balance operated to some extent like the gravitational attraction of twin stars, each preventing the other from flying off into space. Without Blair, it did not take long to collapse, as Gordon Brown's most unattractive features were given free rein. But it would have been the same had Blair followed through with his occasional whims to get rid of Gordon. Cut adrift from its shoring in reality, the essential fantasy land of Tony Blair would have been cruelly exposed.

It was always and only about those two, and possibly Alistair Campbell. If Brown goes, there will be nothing left. But I guess they'll just have to find that out for themselves. As it is, the anti-Brownites (i.e. the once loyal Blairites; but even they don't want Blair back any more) are determined to oust him, so mesmerised by his obvious failings of personality that they have confused them with failings of policy or with inability to do the job. They appear seriously to believe that a new leader would represent a new start, or would magically revive the fortunes of the party. As I've said before, it is essentially a magical belief. It is a measure of how much they hate Gordon Brown (no doubt for excellent reasons) rather than a reflection of political reality. What the economic crisis has hardened is the desire of the electorate, already apparent even in the latter days of Blair, for a new government. This one is now widely seen to have failed. It has also been around for too long. Could Jack Straw turn it around? Could David Miliband? Is that really the choice? Whatever his "psychological flaws", you would have to be a pretty diehard Brown-hater to believe that either of those two would be an improvement.

There's another factor to consider. If Brown is prevailed upon to step down, expect powerful rumblings from the backbenches. He would soon start to put his legendary plotting skills to good use undermining the traitor (as he saw it) who ousted him. Having Gordon Brown's undying enmity has never been an advantage, as Charles Clarke, Alan Milburn, Stephen Byers and many other once-prominent Labour politicians have learned to their cost. And given the state of the economy, the public finances and the rate of inflation the new prime minister would not benefit from any feel-good factor to counteract the Brown factor. MacBroon would surely have his revenge.

The choice for Brown doesn't look appetizing: cling on in the face of mounting discontent, or throw in the towel. But there's a third possibility that no-one (to my knowledge) has considered. Call it the suicide strategy, as in suicide bomber. If most of the Cabinet went to Brown, as their predecessors once went to Margaret Thatcher, and said "We can no longer support you", the prime minister would be within his rights to go to the Queen and ask for an immediate dissolution of Parliament. He would then be able to take his case (such as it is) to the country. And the Cabinet, however much they privately hated him, would be forced to rally round and fight the election campaign to the best of their ability. Otherwise there would be a complete meltdown, Crewe and Nantwich or even Glasgow East writ large.

If Brown won this snap election, all talk of leadership crises would be over. If, as is far more likely, he lost, he would at least have been properly defeated in battle. It would lance a boil. He would not be able to mope around, Ted Heath-like, blaming everyone else. Well, this being Brown, he probably would. But in those circumstances his sulking wouldn't damage the party nearly so much as if he were toppled by an internal coup.

Brown's personality may not chime with many in the parliamentary Labour party, but his instincts still do; certainly far more than any putative "Blairite" successor, who comes to the job without Blair's charm, Blair's novelty or Blair's lucky timing. But I still don't think it will come to that. If Brown doesn't want to be forced out, he doesn't have to be. And if he were to threaten an immediate general election, with its probable Labour meltdown, even the strongest of his political enemies would be unlikely to call his bluff. Read the rest of this article

Monday, 28 July 2008

Watching the Skies

The silly season started early this year. It was back in April that the Telegraph - quoting Ministry of Defence sources - reported that there had been a "huge rise" in UFO sightings in 2007. At the time, it was not much noticed, but ever since there has been a steady trickle of sightings, revelations and commentaries. For the past few weeks Channel 5 has been running an incredibly boring series about "Britain's closest encounters", based in part on a batch of files released by the MOD under the Freedom of Information Act. But there has also been a steady stream of sightings reported in the press, ranging from the genuinely puzzling to the Welshman who rang the police anxious to know what a giant white ball was doing hanging in the sky. It was the moon.

The excitement isn't confined to these shores. It was recently reported that 2007 had also been a record year for UFO sightings in Canada. Last week much press attention was given to remarks by former Apollo astronaut Dr Ed Mitchell, who claimed to be aware of a widespread government cover-up of alien visitations. Mitchell has been saying this sort of thing for years - going to the Moon does strange things to people - but this time he added that he had personally "been privileged enough to be in on the fact that ... the UFO phenomena is real." He added, "Reading the papers recently, it's been happening quite a bit." And, bang on cue, last Saturday saw the latest in a series of short-lived UFO flaps in Britain. One UFO organisation received 200 reports - more than ten times the usual number - in what the Sun described as "a record number for a single night".

Today, the Sun proudly announced the result of a "major" new survey (from YouGov) into the phenomenon. 43% of those questioned - this is in supposedly sceptical Britain, mind - were prepared to say that they believed UFOs exist. I assume that "exist" here means "come from another planet"; clearly they exist in the sense of being unidentified, flying and, as far as anyone can tell, objects. There are a further 36% convinced sceptics, leaving a surprisingly small percentage of Don't Knows. Yet only 9% claimed personally to have seen an interstellar craft. Blessed are they that have not seen and yet believe.

Among the more depressing findings, 13% thought it possible that there were extraterrestrials living among us, 16% believe that crop circles prove the existence of alien life, and 13% apparently still think that aliens built the Pyramids. About half were of the view that the government was covering up the presence of aliens or otherwise obscuring the truth about UFOs. It's an old-fashioned, comfortable sort of belief, that. The older I get the more convinced I become that the government is incapable of covering up anything.

It's quite likely that the press chatter about the MOD files has had something to do with at least some of this year's UFO sightings. If so, we can expect years of the stuff: the Ministry has announced that it has 150 of these dossiers to release, and will be dripping them out slowly. But that can't be the whole story. Even before this release, there had been a noticeable increase in press reports of sightings - and thus presumably of sightings themselves - after more than a decade of steady decline. Tellingly, a new X-Files film is due out soon. Pre-publicity no doubt played some part. But it's also true that the peak of that series' popularity in the mid nineties coincided with one of the Alien industry's strongest upswings.

UFO enthusiasms tend to recur every 15-20 years. The first began in 1947, a year which brough both pilot Kenneth Arnold's seminal sighting - seminal because he compared what he had seen to a "flying saucer" - and the much discussed Roswell incident. It continued through the early fifties, when "contactees" such as George Adamski claimed meetings with friendly folk from the planet Venus. The phenomenon never quite went away, but didn't reach a new peak of intensity until the early seventies, when sightings became commonplace and Steven Spielberg captured the public mood with Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Fast-forward to the Nineties, when the whole mood suddenly becomes darker. The notion of alien abduction, long a subset of UFO reports, entered the mainstream through the works of science fiction writer come self-proclaimed abductee Whitley Strieber. It was soon being reported that up to 25% of all Americans believed that they had personally been abducted by little grey men. Abductees booked their places on daytime talk-shows (Oprah Winfrey was a particular enthusiast) while, in the world of fiction, Mulder and Scully teamed up.

The same period saw intense interest in the distinctly unthreatening "mystery" of crop circles. For a while, everyone had a theory. Was it wind? Was in aliens? Was in the mystic energy of the Earth Spirit trying to communicate with mankind? Or was it just a couple of old geezers having a laugh? The latter, of course; but while the world in general lost interest in crop circles when they were definitively exposed as man-made they have never gone away. They merely mutated into impromtu field art. They remain a mystery - why people go to so much trouble to create wondrous patterns for which they almost never publicly receive credit.

And then, suddenly, it stopped. Sightings were increasingly rarely reported - either to UFO research organisations or in the press. Specialist UFO magazines folded, or embraced proper science to survive. Ufologists shrank in the popular imagination to the status of trainspotters with unusually poor social skills. Perhaps it all started to seem just a bit too silly, or perhaps with greater publicity being given to scientific explanations including misperception and false memories people no longer reached for extraterrestrial explanations whenever they saw something strange in the sky. For a while it seemed that it would all fade away. As recently as this May, Ben MacIntyre was predicting in the Times - in the wake of the MOD release -
that the Internet, increasing social complexity and light pollution would kill off the extraterrestrial parade. In the future, "our remaining sense of wonder will erode still further; the flying objects of the future will be not only unidentified but unnoticed."

It hasn't quite turned out like that. Of course, this summers Ufological visitations may turn out to be a mere blip, an unexplained trace on the radar screen of society. But I'm not so sure: we're due a truly 21st century twist on the old story. Perhaps the UFOs will turn out to have something to do with surveillance. There's a theory that the flying saucers tend to turn up at times when people are more than averagely worried about various existential threats. Once it was the threat of nuclear annihilation; now it's global warming. It may be rather more mundane than that. I've noticed that UFO flaps tend to coincide with times of recession, when things are tough and the earthly powers don't seem much help. In the present situation, flying saucers may an efficient, carbon-neutral future. And watching the skies puts much less pressure on a tight household budget than eating out or going to the cinema.
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Sunday, 27 July 2008

A moral crusader

From today's News of the World:

Ronaldo dived with his boots on: ONE of Cristiano Ronaldo's team of holiday conquests last night came off the bench to reveal how he bedded her —but kept his orthopaedic BOOT on all the time.

Striking Niki Ghazian confessed that the rampant Man United star even broke off from their passionate romp several times to put ICE PACKS on his injured ankle. "I'd be lying if I said the boot didn't get in the way," said the swimwear model. It was, nevertheless, "the most amazing night ever."

The same august journal of record also carries an article by the Most Rev and Right Hon the Lord Carey of Clifton, formerly His Grace the Archbishop of Canterbury Dr George Carey. But of course. News of the World readers are no doubt fascinated to hear his take on the ordination of women as bishops, or (more likely) the latest developments in the long-running row about gay clergy. Perhaps Carey has some tips on who to watch at the Lambeth conference, or some thoughts on Middle East peace. All subjects one might associate with a distinguished former prelate. But no. Carey is giving us his thoughts about Max Mosley.

Carey declares that the News of the World was absolutely right to expose Mosley's predilection for sadomasochistic sex games to public gaze, and - in a tone strikingly similar to that used by the newspaper's editor in his own defence - laments that Thursday's decision by Mr Justice Eady will give carte blanche to depraved perverts everywhere. As he puts it,

A dangerous precedent has been set this week in the victory of Max Mosley over the press. The first major victim is Free Speech itself. Without public debate or democratic scrutiny the courts have created a wholly new privacy law. In itself that's bad enough.

I say "as he puts it". But so similar stylistically (not to mention in terms of sentiment) is Carey's piece to the Screws' own take on the incident that it wouldn't altogether astonish me to learn that one of their journalists had ghost-written the article. This is - as Eady's judgement and Woman E's interview both revealed - a practice not entirely unknown in those parts. Still, give him the benefit of the doubt. Carey was always a much more tabloid archbishop than his successor You wouldn't have caught him giving a long-winded lecture about the implications of Sharia law; indeed, after Rowan Williams did so, Carey was happy to stick the knife into the archdruid's already well perforated back. In the News of the World, as it happens.

So why is Carey quite so insistent on the "public's right to know" scandalous details of people's private lives?

Well, as "a Christian leader", Carey of Clifton is "deeply sad that public morality is the second victim of this legal judgement". Henceforth, he declares, "unspeakable and indecent behaviour, whether in public or in private" is no longer considered "significant". Note to Carey: this ruling was about privacy. "Unspeakable behaviour" in public would scarcely be covered by it. Had Mosley been flogging one of the women on the race-track at Silverstone he might have found it a bit harder winning his case.

Carey then goes on to make the "direct link" between private morality and behaviour in public office. "If a politician, a judge, a bishop or any public figure cannot keep their promises to wife, husband, etc, how can they be trusted to honour pledges to their constituencies and people they serve?" Ah, that old chestnut. Not exactly an original thinker, our Dr Carey. The fact that this line has been trotted out every time a politician has been caught with his trousers down - and is the usual defence of newspapers like the Screws whenever they "expose" affairs or other private peccadilloes - doesn't make it true, however. Quite the reverse, I suspect. Bill Clinton screwed around in private and was popular all over the world. George W. Bush has never been unfaithful to Laura, I assume, but has that made his conduct of foreign policy one iota less disastrous? Lloyd George was a great prime minister despite his adulteries - the same might have been said of several of his 19th century predecessors. Gladstone had undoubted masochist tendencies, and his after hours work "rescuing" prostitutes, while no doubt noble, would have been gleefully exposed by today's tabloids and the scandal would have finished him. Tony Blair may not have cheated on his wife, but he was less than scrupulous when it came to telling the truth to the electorate. I could go on.

"Public morality" - which Carey absurdly thinks is damaged by this result - has nothing to do with what people in prominent positions get up to in their bedrooms (or indeed their dungeons). It is the way they behave in their official capacity: not taking bribes, for example, or treating the people they deal with in an even-handed and considerate manner. Max Mosley's private morality might be deeply questionable, or it might not - he clearly has no qualms about it, though his wife may think differently. But it was emphatically private morality. It had no bearing whatever on his ability to do his job, which by all accounts he performed very well. At least, it didn't until the News of the World decided to expose it for all the world to see. Which they did purely in order to sell papers. Anyone who seriously believes their motivation had anything whatever to do with the well-being of motorsport (or Mosley's marriage) is an inhabitant of the planet Saturn. Or possibly a retired archbishop.

There are, perhaps, some jobs where different rules apply. If a bishop, or even a local vicar, were caught having an extramarital affair he might well have to go. But then preaching about personal morality is part of a bishop's job. Carey is perfectly entitled to think that S&M orgies are immoral, and a sign of a depraved and decadent personality. What is less understandable is why he thinks public morality is improved when millions of people, some of whom might be blissfully unaware that such perversions even exist, get to read about it, or are even moved take up the News of the World's offer to download the video (now taken down but still available here). In demanding such open exposure of vice, Carey shows himself as part of a long tradition of prurient puritans, getting off on the very depravity they seek to ban.

But he isn't finished yet. He finds "deplorable" Mosley's claim that what consenting adults get up to behind closed door is "private and harmless":

This is a bleak, deeply-flawed "anything goes" philosophy. It is also dangerous and socially undermining, devoid of the basic, decent moral standards that form the very fabric of our society.

Yet he finds himself quite happy to write in the same paper that does more than any other to undermine "decent moral standards" and panders week after week to the worst instincts of its readers. And, strangest of all, he finds Max Mosley's attempt to prevent newspapers filling their pages with tales of deviant sex the most pressing issue for a distinguished former archbishop to be thinking and writing about. Perhaps he just needs the money.
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Saturday, 26 July 2008

Getting rid of Gordon

It was Boris Johnson who came up with the perfect phrase to describe the current state of the Labour party - though he later had to apologise profusely, as so often: "a Papua New Guinea-style orgy of cannibalism and chief-killing". If my memory serves correctly, he was talking about the Conservatives at the time, which just goes to show how far things have changed. It's a long time since Papuans went in for cannibalism, and I'm not sure chief killing was ever really their thing, but presumably Boris had in mind the kind of savage rites so memorably described by Sir James Frazer in The Golden Bough. In various parts of the world - but mainly in Africa, as it happens - chiefs and kings would be put to death when their strength failed, or when the gods showed their displeasure through a series of bad harvests. For example:

The Jukos are a heathen tribe of the Benue river, a great tributary of the Niger. In their country, the town of Gatri is ruled by a king who is elected by the big men of the town as follows. When in the opinion of the big men the king has reigned long enough, they give out that "the king is sick" - a formula understood by all to mean that they are going to kill him, though the intention is never put more plainly. How long he has to reign is settled by the influential men at a meeting... The king is then told, and a great feast prepared, at which the king gets drunk on guinea-corn beer.

After that he is speared, and the man who was chosen becomes king. Thus each Juko king knows that he cannot have very many more years to live, and that he is certain of his predecessor's fate. This, however, does not seem to frighten candidates.

All strangely familiar. Such customs are quintessentially tribal, and we shouldn't be too surprised that the modern institutions that instinctively turn to purgative acts of patricide when the going gets tough are those that most closely resemble primordial tribes: political parties and football teams. But while changing their leader might make the Labour party feel better, if only briefly, it won't reduce the cost of fuel or the price of bread, it won't solve the problems in the health service caused by years of overfunding, and it won't fill the vast hole in the public finances. Some of these things are Brown's fault, and he thoroughly deserves the blame; others would face any leader. A caretaker leader, who shepherded the party to defeat in a few months' time (a quick election would be both politically unavoidable and unwinnable) would leave a miserable legacy. An untested new leader would become Labour's William Hague - promise squandered through too early fulfilment. Better to let Brown suffer. Read the rest of this article

Friday, 25 July 2008

Switching sides

I promised no more spanking, but this really takes the breath away. Woman E - or bra-cam, as she might well be called - has given an interview to Kay Burley of Sky News. They're calling her "Michelle", though I've no idea if this is her name any more than Mistress Abi was. And you can clearly see her face. I must say, she looks very different without her leathers on, like a teacher or someone who works in a local government office. I assume this all means the embargo is lifted. Among other things, she:

  • apologises profusely to the other women, to Max Mosley, and to Mosley's wife
  • denies that there was anything "Nazi" about the events in Chelsea
  • claims that she was "put under massive pressure" by the News of the World into signing off on an "interview" which she knew was a pack of lies
  • states that getting involved with the News of the World was the worst mistake she's ever made in her life and,
  • advises anyone else considering selling their story to the Screws that "no money is worth this sort of trouble and anguish".

Sky is of course part of the News International empire. Just like the News of the World. It's nice to know Rupert Murdoch has all bases covered. But Miss E's interview, together with some remarks by Mr Justice Eady, could well be enough to charge at least one Screws reporter with blackmail. And possibly with perjury as well. Will Neville Thurlbeck still have a job in the morning? More importantly, if NI are prepared to (presumably) pay her to trash the reputation of their best-selling newspaper, you have to wonder what's in it for them. Is there something else she's agreed not to tell the whole world? I wonder, for example, if Miss E's husband made the initial approach to the NotW newsdesk entirely unprompted, as the paper claimed in court. Perhaps they had spoken to him previously on some other matter - like what someone like in his position was doing married to a professional dominatrix, for example. Pure speculation, of course. Read the rest of this article

Everything I've Learned about Spanking

In the Dungeon: Everything I've Learned about Spanking Read the rest of this article

Thursday, 24 July 2008

Max and liberty

People will no doubt be expecting some comment from me on the verdict in the Max Mosley privacy case. On the substantive issue, that of the right to privacy versus the freedom of the press, reams of analysis have already been produced and much more, surely, is to follow. I have no real expertise in this area, and few original thoughts to share. A few points that struck me on reading the judgement, and the reaction to it:

1) The decision by Mr Justice Eady changes little, though it undoubtedly adds to the sense that privacy is a steadily, if not exponentially, growing area of law. There was little to justify the somewhat hysterical claim by News of the World editor Colin Myler that "our media are being strangled by stealth" by "laws emanating from Europe." One of the points made by Eady J, indeed, was that while he based his judgement on human rights law, Max Mosley might well have had a case under the common law of breach of confidence: after all, he had a reasonable expectation that the women would not publicly reveal his identity, and the concept of confidentiality is an inextricable part of the S&M world in which all the participants moved.

While the result may well have an impact on trivial "kiss and tell" exposés, Eady was anxious to stress the difference between such cases and investigative reporting in the public interest, which must be protected against the encroachment of the privacy law. As such, he denied that it was a "landmark" judgement. He also made this interesting comment,

It is not simply a matter of personal privacy versus the public interest. The modern perception is that there is a public interest in respecting personal privacy. It is thus a question of taking account of conflicting public interest considerations and evaluating them according to increasingly well recognised criteria.

2) The sleazebags of the News of the World do not come out of it at all well. On the steps of the High Court, Myler tried to claim the moral high ground, claiming that his publication "believes passionately that its readers deserve to be informed of when the trust is placed in their elected leaders and public officials has been violated." But, as Eady pointed out, with the dry wit for which the English judiciary has long been rightly famous,

titillation for its own sake could never be justified. Yet it is reasonable to suppose that it was this which led so many thousands of people to accept the News of the World’s invitation on 30 March to “See the shocking video at”. It would be quite unrealistic to think that these visits were prompted by a desire to participate in a “debate of general interest” .

Indeed. Eady also exposes, at great length, the grubby, underhand tactics used by the journalists on the News of the World, in particular its chief "investigative reporter" Neville Thurlbeck. Even if legalese isn't your thing, it's well worth ploughing through the judgement for the crystal-clear descriptions of the deceit, manipulation, bullying and borderline blackmail Thurlbeck engaged in to get his story, sex it up and avoid paying the agreed price. Thurlbeck "seemed rather puzzled that his conduct was thought worthy of criticism in this respect", noted the judge; this following an exchange during which it was revealed that Thurlbeck had contacted two of the women and threatened them with public exposure unless they co-operated with the paper.

Roy Greenslade writes on his blog that he had to admit "feeling a little sorry" for the NotW journalists. "I know that reporter Neville Thurlbeck is not a bad man," he adds, though he admits that he and the paper's editor are "cogs in a scandalous machine that is based on gross hypocrisy". Greenslade's affection for Thurlbeck is not shared by many of his victims, however. This week's Private Eye describes how he stitched up one-time murder suspect Colin Stagg (who, of course, was later proved to be entirely innocent), offering him £20,000 for his story, doping him with a "truth drug" and then refusing to pay when Stagg failed to confess to a brutal slaying. There's also an eye-watering account of Thurlbeck's attempted exposure of naturist guest-house proprietors Bob and Sue Firth, in the course of him he paid the couple £75 to have sex in his presence just so that he could accuse them of running a brothel. The Eye doesn't mention it, but the Firths retaliated by putting photographs of Thurlbeck pleasuring himself on a website. Not a pretty sight.

3) The trial has led to a remarkable change in both the quantity and the tone of coverage given to sadomasochism/BDSM in the media generally. In addition to the giggles and prurience, there has been a genuine attempt to explain the technicalities, appeal and prevalence of these activities. This has been noticed by many involved in the Scene - not least because they have found themselves being approached by journalists (as has the Heresiarch, of course, though for different reasons) and invited to tell their stories. To some, this has been a welcome opportunity, after decades of negative publicity, to put their point of view, even to come out. The comparison has been made with homosexuality 40 years ago: there's the same fear of exposure, bringing the risk of potentially lost jobs and ruined lives, the same sense of being misunderstood and unfairly maligned - or even medicalised - for what is, after all, an entirely consensual and (to those involved) pleasurable activity.

Members of the BDSM community were feeling beseiged even before the Max Mosley situation was exposed, fearful in particular that their right to share and enjoy "extreme" pornography had been threatened by the recent Criminal Justice and Immigration Act, and that with increased background checks now being introduced a new witchhunt could easily develop. To some, Max Mosley is a hero: a person rich enough, Establishment enough, and devil-may-care enough to take on the gutter press and win. Others were scared that the "Nazi" connotations of the "orgy" in Chelsea might serve further to stigmatise their lifestyle. The judge, of course, dealt with that one. The News of the World saw Nazism because they needed to, and because given Max Mosley's parentage it was an obvious angle, the only flimsy pretext they had for a "public interest" defence.

Either way, things may never be quite the same again in the half-hidden world of bondage and spanking. As Niki Flynn put it, Mosley "never wanted to be a crusader for the rights of fellow 'perverts' or he'd have outed himself. But Ooze of the World decided to expose his private life and now the journalistic Eye of Sauron is turned on all of us."

UPDATE 25/7/08 I've written at greater length in the Dungeon about the effect that investigating this case has had on me personally, and also some of the wider conclusions I've drawn. And now I shall put my entirely figurative whips and canes back in the box and go back to wittering on about politics. Read the rest of this article

Wednesday, 23 July 2008

Satanic Influence

The Church of England may be an absurdity, a fractious mess rapidly disappearing up its own arsehole, "led" by a man whose resemblance to the recently discovered Radavan Karadjic most commentators were too polite to comment on, but when you look at the alternatives it's hard not to wish them at least a degree of success. If only because its disappearance would leave the field entirely clear to real believers. One such is Cardinal Ivan Dias, who wears the red hat as the Prefect of the Congregation for Evangelisation. His job, in other words, is to spread the word. In corporate terms he is the head of Marketing and Consumer Relations.

Yesterday he addressed the Lambeth Conference, the gathering of Anglican prelates which is confusingly taking place in Canterbury. Apt symbol, perhaps, for a church that has not merely lost its way but would appear to be under the direction of a particularly malicious SatNav. I learned of his remarkable oration via Ruth Gledhill, who chose to dwell on Dias's remarkably rude comparison of the Anglican church to a trembling and senile invalid:

Much is spoken today of diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. By analogy, their symptoms can, at times, be found even in our own Christian communities. For example, when we live myopically in the fleeting present, oblivious of our past heritage and apostolic traditions, we could well be suffering from spiritual Alzheimer’s. And when we behave in a disorderly manner, going whimsically our own way without any co-ordination with the head or the other members of our community, it could be ecclesial Parkinson’s.

The barb must have stung all the more for being so accurate.

But I'd like to concentrate on the genuinely insane outburst that constituted the core of Dias's address. Asking what was the purpose of evangelism - or, as Catholics prefer to call it, evangelisation - he answered that it was to fight against the power of the Devil, which was particularly well represented in the modern world:

The spiritual combat, described in the Books of Genesis and Revelation, has continued unabated all down the ages...This combat rages fiercely even today, aided and abetted by well-known secret sects, Satanic groups and New Age movements, to mention but a few, and reveals many ugly heads of the hideous anti-God monster:

You have to wonder what this guy is on. Clearly all the struggles with the Satanists, secret societies and New Agers have got to him. Anyway, what are the visible manifestations of this hydra-like "hideous anti-God monster"? Dias knows:

among them are notoriously secularism, which seeks to build a Godless society; spiritual indifference, which is insensitive to transcendental values; and relativism, which is contrary to the permanent tenets of the Gospel. All of these seek to efface any reference to God or to things supernatural, and to supplant it with mundane values and behaviour patterns which purposely ignore the transcendental and the divine.

Far from satisfying the deep yearnings of the human heart, they foster a culture of death, be it physical or moral, spiritual or psychological. Examples of this culture are abortions (or the slaughter of innocent unborn children), divorces (which kill sacred marriage bonds blessed by God), materialism and moral aberrations (which suffocate the joy of living and lead often to profound psychic depression), economic, social and political injustices (which crush human rights), violence, suicides, murders, and the like, all of which abound today and militate against the mind of Christ.

He doesn't go into detail about the "moral aberrations"; perhaps he has in mind the long, tragic history of sexually abusive priests in his church, but somehow I doubt it. He goes on to complain that "many answers being proposed in our post-modern world have become disconnected from authoritative sources of moral reasoning". By "authoritative sources", he might mean the Bible, a more-or-less random assortment of ancient texts thrown together a couple of thousand years ago and bizarrely declared to be divinely inspired. Or perhaps he means his own infallible pontiff, currently the red-shoed wonder. Whatever.

Europe, he says, is "increasingly becoming distanced from its Christian traditions and roots", leading to "a context of moral confusion". This is a common whine of church leaders, often supported by Eeyorish commentators of the Peter Hitchens variety. It's arguable that the loss of widespread acceptance of religious dogma has left some people confused and spiritually adrift. But the idea that secularism entails immorality or nihilism is, frankly, rubbish. Secularism is about creating a neutral public space. Whether society is godless (like Britain) or religious (like the USA) should not be a matter of state diktat.

The cardinal is of course entitled to lament the end of the power and wealth his church enjoyed in the days when its rules were enforced by the officers of the state. But it is questionable whether those centuries were any happier, richer, or more moral. There were, in the days of mass religious observance, still wars, still greed and exploitation, still murders, still prostitution - and, yes, still abortion, except that women in desperate circumstances were forced into the arms of back-street abortionists and well-meaning Vera Drakes who occasionally ended up butchering them with knitting needles. The last two countries in Europe where Catholicism held sway were Franco's Spain and the Ireland of the Magdalen laundries. And possibly Poland, where the Church for a time offered a point of resistance to Communism. Somebody had to. It's noticeable, however, that as Poland loses sight of that dark past and embraces prosperity and freedom the Church is losing congregations faster than you can say Kyrie Eleison.

The decline in European religiosity hasn't produced the end of civilisation as we know it. But it has led to a crisis of confidence in church leaders. They respond to it in various ways. The Anglican answer is to tie themselves up in philosophical knots or fall apart in mutual recrimination as they desperately try to be "relevant" to a modern world that is not so much antagonistic as uninterested. The Roman Catholic Church, on the other hand, is truer to its traditions and is thus both more respected and more reviled. The price its leaders have paid, if Cardinal Dias's strange outburst is any guide, is to go stark, raving bonkers.

Though Ratzo v. the Hideous Anti-God Monster would probably make a good all-action cartoon film.
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Tuesday, 22 July 2008

Shanghai Surprise

I've been trying to make some sort of sense of this weekend's oddest political story, the loss by a prime-ministerial aide of his BlackBerry at the hands of a Chinese sexy superspy/ prostitute/ random unattached young woman/ whatever during a trip to Shanghai.

According to the Sunday Times, the aide was "picked up by a Chinese woman who had approached him in a Shanghai hotel disco. The aide agreed to return to his hotel with the woman. He reported the BlackBerry missing the next morning." This presumed theft, said an unnamed "senior official", had "all the hallmarks of a suspected honeytrap by Chinese intelligence."

It would seem that about a dozen Downing Street staffers had gone to the disco where "a lively party with several hundred young people was in full swing." A "security official", who might or might not be the "senior official", described the function as "apparently a lot of fun, there was quite a bit of dancing with lots of people on a big crowded dance floor." The spook described the aide's behaviour as "in these circumstances" unwise, adding: "Nobody knows exactly what happened after they left. But the next morning he came forward and said: 'My BlackBerry is missing.'"

It's not just 9/11 truthers with too much time on their hands who go in for conspiracy theories, obviously. Or maybe the "senior source" is rather too keen on spy thrillers. A Downing Street spokesman was anxious to play down the incident, saying that "an investigation had established that there was no compromise to security" and disputing the circumstances in the ST article. And a spokesman for the Chinese foreign office denied everything - no surprises there - claiming that "the relevant report was created out of thin air".

But even castles in the sky have ramparts and crenellations. The ST went on to consider the case in the light of the possibility of hacking into the Downing Street computer system via the BlackBerry, the government's history of embarrassing data losses (usually, though, they involve the personal details of members of the public), and remarks last year by MI5 director Jonathan Evans, that "China was carrying out state-sponsored espionage against vital parts of Britain’s economy, including the computer systems of big banks and financial services firms."

The printed version in the Mail on Sunday, which differs slightly from that on their website, adds a few more details which only add to the confusion. The party was, apparently, organised by Sir Richard Branson, who was one of about 25 business leaders accompanying Gordon, and took place at the Attica Club. According to this version, the aide the next morning "realised he had left his jacket, and BlackBerry, at the club. British diplomats rushed to the club and found the jacket, but the device was missing". Which makes it sound even more like boring old phone-theft.

But we also learn from the Mail that "Britain's security forces had warned Mr Brown and his team of the danger posed by Chinese agents. As a result, No 10 officials were ordered not to use their usual mobile phones in case the Chinese listened in or hacked into confidential information..." So their minds were primed to expect espionage, which may be why they over-interpreted what happened. Two more morsels from the MoS: "The man has said that they did not have sex, nor did the woman go to his room" and that "several people had raging hangovers in the morning"; and (no surprises here) Gordon Brown himself was not at the party.

Guido, today, helpfully named the aide as Michael Jacobs, a former general secretary of the Fabian society who is currently one of Gordon Brown's economic advisers with special responsibility for climate change. He's married, at least for the time being. Jacobs is a loyal Brownite, which might explain why he received the mildest of rebukes over the potentially serious security breach.

We also learn from that impeccable source that several leading journalists were at the party, including Benedict Brogan, Andrew Porter and George Pascoe Watson. I had a sneaky at Brogan's blog for that month, looking for clues. Not much to report, though he refers at one point to a colleague's attempts to evade "the Chinese securocracy, members of which minded us so closely during our stay in Beijing and Shanghai." Porter says nothing.

Several things about the story as told in the Sunday Times don't quite add up. Like how, if Jacobs left the BlackBerry in his jacket at the club, the theft is being blamed on the girl - honeytrap or otherwise - who presumably was with him, rather than the jacket, at the time the device went missing. Or why the dastardly Chinese, if it was an intelligence op rather than a random theft, didn't just borrow the BlackBerry for a couple of hours, rip all the data, and return it safely to Jacobs' jacket pocket before anyone noticed it was missing.

The usual rule in such cases is cui bono?, but it's difficult to see how anyone benefits from this little tale. Certainly not the aide, who gets to look like a complete prat, a security risk, and a really bad husband. Not the government, that reveals itself as stuffed with people (senior people at that) who not only have a cavalier attitude towards sensitive data, but who also use official prime-ministerial tours as an opportunity to go out and get slaughtered in nightclubs, quite possibly screwing around as well. Not the Chinese (unless they're pitching to be the main location for the next Bond movie). And not the press, who have presumably been sitting on this rather large story for months, assuming Guido is right about the guest list.

The Sunday Times, which seems to have broken the story, stated that the aide's identity "is known to" them. This is usually code for "he's the guy who told us", of course. But that only adds to the confusion. A possible clue crops up towards the end of the article, however:

Last week it emerged that US intelligence and security officials were debating whether to warn business people and other travellers heading to the Beijing Olympics about the dangers posed by Chinese computer hackers. Joel Brenner, the US government’s top counter-intelligence official, warned: “So many people are going to the Olympics and are going to get electronically undressed.”

This appears to be a reference to a report in the Wall Street Journal on 17th July. This states:

U.S. intelligence and security officials are concerned by the frequency with which spies in China and other countries are targeting traveling U.S. corporate and government officials. The Department of Homeland Security issued a warning last month to certain government and private-sector officials stating that business and government travelers' electronic devices are often targeted by foreign governments. The warning wasn't available to the public.

Among the techniques worrying the Americans was "wirelessly inserting spyware on BlackBerry devices", as well as "a new technique dubbed "slurping" that uses Bluetooth technology to steal data from electronic devices." Brenner highlighted the case of a computer security expert who arrived in China with a new hand-held computer and discovered, when he reached his hotel, that several programmes had been surreptitiously inserted during his trip. The report goes on to detail the precautions that American companies have begun taking on Chinese trips, and carries the obligatory denial from a Chinese official spokesman, describing the charges as "entirely fabricated and seriously misleading."

A confidential report was drawn up last month by the US Deptartment of Homeland Security. It was, says the WSJ, "shortly after reports that a U.S. government laptop may have been hacked during a December trip to China by the U.S. Commerce secretary."

The Associated Press had reported on 29th May that an investigation was ongoing into this incident, which involved a computer being "left unattended" during talks in Beijing. Few details are given, but we are told that several govenment departments, including the Pentagon and the State Department, have suffered from electronic intrusions "blamed on China" during the past two years. Parts of the Commerce Department have even been isolated from the Internet as a precaution.

Unless this is all a remarkable coincidence, I think the best explanation why the Jacobs story emerged this week lies in the US connection. Alert to US precautions, some British journalist decides to go after what looks like an equivalent UK incident, and what sounds like a random theft from a man who has left his jacket behind in a nightclub, his brain addled by drink and lust, gets spun into a glamorous tale of sex, espionage and the coming electronic Cold War with China. But the American incidents are high-tech, geeky, reliant on Bluetooth technology and sophisticated malware attacks. The British story is quite different: it has more to do with James Bond than any plausible account of a Chinese intelligence operation. Perhaps it flattered Jacobs' ego to imagine that he was singled out to be the target of a honeytrap operation. I suspect he was just a prat who got drunk, got his leg over, and had his phone nicked.
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Monday, 21 July 2008

Channel 4 slammed - or not

The way the BBC (amongst others) is telling it, Channel 4 got a severe rap over the knuckles from Ofcom over last year's heretical documentary, The Great Global Warming Swindle. Their report begins,

The Great Global Warming Swindle, a controversial Channel 4 film, broke Ofcom rules, the media regulator says.

In a long-awaited judgement, Ofcom says Channel 4 did not fulfil obligations to be impartial and to reflect a range of views on controversial issues.

The film also treated interviewees unfairly, but

...and here we sense all might not be as it at first appears...

did not mislead audiences "so as to cause harm or offence".

Plaintiffs say the Ofcom judgement is "inconsistent" and "lets Channel 4 off the hook on a technicality."

In fact, they're hopping mad about the judgement. Professor Robert Watson, a former chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, has called it "highly disappointing". In an article in the Guardian, he complained that,

I believe it inaccurately portrayed the scientific evidence, was not impartial – which, in my view, a documentary should be – and was unbalanced and totally misrepresented the scientific consensus on the role of human activities in causing global warming. Therefore the program should have emphasized far more than it did that it was portraying a minority opinion.

All of which may very well be true. But while Watson obviously knows a great deal about climate science, he knows next to nothing about documentary making. There is no duty to be "impartial" when putting forward a polemical case; and it was obvious to anyone watching that the film was setting out to be controversial, even provocative. The most important - and by far the longest - section of Ofcom's ruling reaffirmed that obvious fact. They stressed - as they did in their last high-profile ruling concerning a Channel 4 documentary, Undercover Mosque - that it was of "paramount importance" that broadcasters, "continue to explore controversial subject matter." The ruling went on,

While such programmes can polarise opinion, they are essential to our understanding of the world around us and are amongst the most important content that broadcasters produce. It is inevitable such programmes will have a high profile and may lead to a large number of complaints.

Ofcom did, it is true, find against Channel 4 on a number of minor matters. Most significantly, they drew a distinction between the first four-fifths of the film, in which the producers - helped out by various dissenting scientists - sought to undermine the consensus, and the last section, which sought to portray this mainstream opinion as being in hock to various left-wing, anti-capitalist and (paradoxically) anti-Third World interests. In this, Ofcom believed, the programme makers did have a duty of balance. This was because there was "clearly a debate" about, for example, "whether, and the extent to which, developing countries should be required to limit their emissions of carbon dioxide as a result of concerns about global warming." On the question of climate change itself, by contrast, there was no real debate. Hence Channel 4 were perfectly entitled to do their best to try to start one. As the report put it,

Ofcom considers there is a difference between presenting an opinion which attacks an established, mainstream and well understood view, such as in this programme, and criticising a view which is much more widely disputed and contentious. In the former case, programme makers are not always required to ensure the detailed reflection of the mainstream view since it will already be known and generally accepted by the majority of viewers. In the context of this particular programme, given the number of scientific theories and politico-economic arguments dealt with in The Great Global Warming Swindle, it was not materially misleading overall to have omitted certain opposing views or represented them only in commentary.

Now all this is perfectly true. It is patently obvious that "believers in" climate change have got the debate pretty much sewn up, in scientific circles, in governmental and inter-governmental circles, and in popular opinion. The "deniers" (somehow "sceptic" is too polite a word, or so at least Watson and his colleagues would appear to believe) are in a small minority - though they do exist. The imminent doom facing the planet from global warming is now the stuff of popular entertainment: vide this week's forthcoming TV thriller Burn Out, featuring Neve Campbell, no less. They should be celebrating Ofcom's finding that their views are so preponderent Channel 4 don't even have to present them in any detail.

Instead, they seem strangely worried. Watson again:

Sceptics who disseminate misinformation and argue that there is no need to address this urgent issue are placing the planet at risk, threatening the livelihoods of not only the present generation, but even more future generations – our children and grandchildren.

While his colleague Sir John Houghton, on the BBC website, argued that "Ofcom's remit needs to be revised in order to protect the public when it comes to programmes' accuracy on matters of science."

One of the quotes from the narration that Ofcom singled out claimed that it was "a story of how a theory about climate turned into a political ideology". Another asserted that "global warming has gone beyond politics, it is a new kind of morality". Generally, I'd be inclined to agree with Ofcom that these claims are over the top. But given the violent - almost fearful - reaction of scientists faced with a single dissenting documentary, you have to wonder. Read the rest of this article

Sunday, 20 July 2008

Dawkins on Big Brother

In the Sunday Times today, Kate Muir interviewed Richard Dawkins ahead of his new series about Charles Darwin, to be shown on Channel 4. In perhaps the most revealing moment, she asked him about one of that Channel's other programmes, suggesting that Big Brother represented "the ultimate cultural meme of the moment."

“I find that very shocking. I utterly despise Big Brother and I’m really sorry to be associated with it on Channel 4. It really is demeaning.” You might assume that he would find the programme fascinating, the studio equivalent of a wildlife show, with nature red in tooth and claw. But he has nothing but contempt for the survival of the fittest in the Big Brother house. “I have heard indications that the bullying style of some of the Big Brother characters is copied by schoolchildren. Schoolchildren doing copycat bullying because they learn about it from these vile people, the trailer trash who go on Big Brother.”

It's a vignette that sums up where Dawkins is coming from as much as any verbal punch-up between him and a Southern Baptist preacher. Dawkins is a natural populariser. The post he occupies at Oxford, Professor of the Public Understanding of Science, is a job created specially for his particular talents. His books, even before The God Delusion, were bestsellers, not least because he writes with a limpid clarity that most authors would envy and that many professional academics (sociologists, for example, or literary theorists) would find both impossible and vaguely treacherous. But Dawkins' popularising, whether of evolutionary biology or of atheism, is of an old-fashioned kind, that of an enthusiastic grammar school teacher or a David Attenborough. Its basis is the view of the audience as intelligent, rational beings that want to be entertained, rather than monkeys who need their daily ration of bananas. Nothing could be further from the vulgar inanities of the Big Brother House.

This antiquated approach - what the BBC, before it became a national disgrace, used to call Reithian - also informs Dawkins' form of atheism. He might be described as a High Atheist, someone to whom atheism implies a high moral endeavour rather than merely the non-existence of a supreme being. His lack of belief is rigorous, philosophically-determined, and oddly spiritual - with the wonders of nature replacing experience of God. He has written rapturously himself of the Wordsworthian awe he feels contemplating the products of the Blind Watchmaker, one of his metaphors for natural selection. And tied to this romantic outlook comes a love of literature - including the Bible, at least in its proper, King James, translation - and a belief in old-fashioned standards of writing. Along with this heritage, which puts him squarely in the tradition of Hume, Gibbon and Voltaire as well as Darwin, there also comes a morality that is fairly puritan and abstemious. Atheism of the Dawkins variety doesn't represent the end of western civilisation, but rather the reverse, a Canute-like desire to preserve it, Canute-like in its inherent implausibility.

Another striking characteristics of Dawkins' outlook is a commitment to absolute truth, which strikes some as intellectual arrogance. If he hears someone spouting nonsense - whether it's astrology or creationism - he'll show his disdain. His detractors accuse him of wanting to be some sort of atheist pope, or use words like "evangelical" and "fundamentalist" to describe the sense of complete certainty that he exudes. He is certainly intolerant of rubbish; and to the extent that most people's minds are filled with rubbish, he is probably intolerant of most people. But it's a high-minded, morally-directed intolerance, a bit like Ratzo's. And as with the pope, it's all part of his unreconstructed mid-twentieth-century personality.

Atheism of the Dawkins sort is sometimes accused of piggybacking on two thousand years of Christian moral thinking and civilisation, using up the intellectual capital of a tradition while seeking to undermine the very thing - Christianity - that made it possible. But that is to mistake cause with effect. Christianity was part of the mix that made up the high civilisation of Europe in its heyday - roughly the late fifteenth to the early twentieth centuries - but so too were the legacies of Greece and Rome, artistic and architectural techniques, and the technology of printing. The intellectual revolutions that produced modern science and the Enlightenment were not themselves Christian in origin or expression. It's just that the Christian majority, as well as the growing (but largely over-educated) band of sceptics, benefited from the advances.

It isn't lack of belief in God that produces the emptiness and stupidity that Dawkins so despises in Big Brother, but rather a hollowing-out of the human brain that has much broader effects: a pervasive air of shallowness, the shortening of attention spans, the loss of confidence in high culture, rampant consumerism, the replacement of profundity by surface noise. Religion is as much prone to this deterioration as any other sphere of human activity. There is nothing in common between the redneck creationists Dawkins likes to take on in debate or mock in his books and, say, St Thomas Aquinas. But Aquinas would probably see in Dawkins a kindred spirit.
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Saturday, 19 July 2008

In the news again

The other day, a journalist working for Associated Newspapers approached the Heresiarch enquiring if I had any privileged information I'd like to share about the Chelsea Five. He'd been nosing around my by-now notorious dungeon, just as a colleague of his had done some weeks previously. Sadly, but perhaps appropriately, his email got trapped in my spam filter and I didn't discover it until this morning, by which time the moment had passed. In the event, he and his colleague did manage to piece together most of the available information, resulting in a fairly trashy article in this morning's Mail. True to form, the paper concentrated on the most salacious details - often exaggerated - claiming to have discovered a "dark and disturbing subculture" which is "far more prevalent than we might have imagined". Among other travesties, the Mail compared the charming and talented Miss D to prostitute/blogger "Belle de Jour".

I realised something might be up when I noticed, poring obsessively over my stats as is my wont, that several people had found their way to the dungeon by Googling the phrase "her client book is dynamite" - a reference to Mistress A's alleged contacts in high society. The Mail attributed it merely to "one internet blog" - unlike the last time the Heresiarch's efforts got a mention in the national press, when the journo nicking my work had the good grace to give Heresy Corner a plug. Still, I can't take the credit: the phrase is (as I made plain) my translation of an article that appeared in a French magazine. I also described it as "rather gossipy": Son fichier clients, c'est de la dynamite. Il fait trembler les cabinets ministériels et les bureaux les mieux retranchés de Whitehall. I didn't say I believed it, or disbelieved it. I have no idea. Perhaps the journalist who wrote it, François Caviglioli, has better sources than his British counterparts, who seem to rely for their information on snooping around blogs.

The Mail was not the only mainstream media organisation to find its way to the Heresiarch's dungeon last week. I also heard from a nice lady at the BBC, and was pleased to give her such few pointers as were in my (very limited) gift. Having learned rather more about the situation, she described the milieu of Max and his friends as "a world which, unknowingly, I might initially have judged using the same stereotypes." My thoughts exactly.

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Friday, 18 July 2008

Sporting Chance

The Dwain Chambers story over the past few months has been twofold: on the track, a string of performances demonstrating his world-class status; off the track, a succession of attempts by the athletic authorities to ban him from competition, or, when they couldn't succeed, to treat him like a pariah. Just last Saturday, he again proved himself worthy of an Olympic place with a seasonal best performance in the 100 metres at Birmingham. Today, he learns at the High Court that all that effort, all that training, and all those victories have been in vain. He won't be going to Beijing.

The British Olympic Association is obviously delighted with the decision by Mr Justice Mackay. Not only have they upheld their rule; they have also, by their lights, succeeded in their wider aim of "keeping sport clean", something they failed to do earlier this year when they lost their fight to ban him from all competitions, ever. That in so doing they have also succeeded in keeping one of Britain's top medal prospects out of the competition is, no doubt, a point of pride to the authorities. It proves that they are determined to crack down hard on "drug cheats" even at the cost of the nation's athletic prospects. It proves they care about Principle. After all, only two countries in the world enforce such a draconian rule.

The decision isn't surprising, and is probably watertight in law. For one thing, the BOA has had this rule for the past 16 years, long before Chambers was caught using a banned steroid. In that sense his exclusion differs from their earlier attempt to exile him from all competition, which was little more than a vindictive desire to punish him a second time after he had served out his ban. Chambers was, in effect, asking the court to declare the rules themselves illegal. This is something that judges are traditionally loath to do. Professional associations are, within reason, permitted to set their own internal rules and expected to enforce them through their own internal procedures.

The narrative we are being offered is one of rule-breaking punished, zero tolerance and a grim determination on the part of the BOA to show no mercy. It is an appropriately tough message for our increasingly unforgiving times, similar in some ways to the forced resignation of London deputy mayor Ray Lewis, for past improprieties that had no direct bearing on his plans for deprived urban youth; or the case of would-be medical student Majid Ahmed, who lost his place at Imperial as a result of a juvenile conviction that was legally spent. Yet quite a different story could have been told, had the authorities showed more charity and imagination: a story of an athlete who needlessly cheated, who as a consequence lost some of his best years and medal chances, yet who served his time, came back and won fair and square. Not only would this have been a fine tale of repentence and hard work rewarded, it would also have demonstrated to youngsters thinking of taking "performance-enhancing" drugs that they are not worth the risk. A short-cut doping may be; but drugs can't turn a poor athlete into a winner, and ultimately you'll be caught.

With a succession of outstanding performances in recent months, Chambers has conclusively shown that he never needed to "cheat" to excel as an athlete. The rules are designed to deter cheats and reward drugs-free achievement. But Chambers' recent achievements have been undeniably drug-free. It is now nearly five years since he tested positive for a banned steroid. Yet still the vilification continues. So widespread and self-righteous is the chorus of condemnation that greets Chambers whenever he steps out onto the track that it is difficult publicly to dissent. Even to question the absolute evil of drugs in sport invites banishment from the forums of polite debate. Even those with sympathy for Dwain Chambers feel inhibited from expressing it, such is the strength of group-think: he has become a sporting Myra Hindley, unable ever to be released.

What's really going on here? Partly, it's a reaction to the situation that developed in athletics about 30 years ago, when drug-taking became de rigeur among serious athletes with often monstrous results. The East German woman forced to undergo a sex-change after her body was ruined by testosterone was only the most notorious victim of the industrial-scale doping that once went on. Over-use of anabolic steroids had long-term consequences for athletes' health. Something had to be done.

Yet the recent move towards lifetime bans, together with the strict liability enforced at the Olympics - where even genuine, and legal, flu remedies result in exclusion, and no discretion is permitted - goes far beyond what is necessary to prevent cheating and protect athletes' health. It reflects a moralising tendency that has always existed in sport, above all in the Olympic Games, but which has only recently attached itself to drugs. Until a decade or so ago, the moral puritanism focussed, rather, on money. The Games prided themselves on being "amateur", a survival of Victorian days when the distinction between gentleman amateurs and vulgar, lower-class, "players" turned many sports into an expression of the class system. What happened, of course, was that success depended to a large extent on greater or lesser forms of rule-bending. The countries of the Eastern bloc had professional sport in everything but name, while in the West something like a class system operated, with a tiny group of elite athletes getting rich from sponsorship deals and everyone else scrabbling around for paltry government grants.

The Olympics are one of the last redoubts of the "Corinthian spirit". To this day they are surrounded by a lot of mumbo-jumbo about idealism and sport as a means towards nebulous ends such as world peace. They're a sort of pseudo-religion, in which people are supposed to find spiritual significance. But now they can no longer claim to be amateur, they have to find other ways to demonstrate their moral purity. Drugs are a good way to do so, for they come with a ready-made moral terminology of their own: "clean", "drug-free", "honest" contrasting with "contaminated", "tainted" and "cheat". The taking of urine samples almost functions as a sort of inverse-communion: this is my piss, which is given unto you to prove that I am clean.

But that's not really what it's all about, is it? If we're being honest, the Olympics is mainly about national chauvinism and winning medals. Like any national chauvinist, I want Britain to win as many medals as possible. That's why I'm disappointed Dwain Chambers won't be in Beijing, winning for Britain. Read the rest of this article

Thursday, 17 July 2008

Natural Conservative

Via Pickled Politics, I learn of the not terribly well-publicised appointment of City banker Tariq Ahmad as a vice-chairman of the Conservative party, "for Cities". As Sunny suggests, the post might well be renamed "for ethnic minorities": previous holders include Baroness Sayeeda Warsi. And indeed, the press release announcing Ahmad's job virtually says as much:

"As part of its engagement with all sections of British society, the Conservative Party, under David Cameron, set up the role of Vice Chairman for Cities to ensure that the Party reaches all communities and understands their concerns. Tariq Ahmad’s experience puts him in an excellent position to continue this important work."

The press release quoted by Sunny, which is different from the one on Ahmad's website (and which I couldn't find on the official Conservative site either) adds that the Parliamentary candidate is "a local Cabinet Member for Community Safety Engagement with specific responsibility for the Diversity agenda" at Merton council. Thus does the leaden prose of local authority newspeak continue to infiltrate the modern Tory party. Let's hope the brain-numbing thought patterns associated with such language don't come along for the ride.

Ahmad is obviously a capable man, and the increasing prominence of people like him, successful, professional young Asians, in the Conservative party can only be a good thing. Labour has relied for decades on an ethnic block vote which has been deeply damaging both to democratic politics (postal votes, anyone?) and to members of the communities themselves, as the Labour party evolved ways of treating them somewhat analogous to the millet system of the Ottomans. The irony has always been that many people from immigrant backgrounds are natural conservatives: hard-working, self-recreating, entrepreneurial, committed to traditional values in education and family life. In stressing their group identity and need for government patronage, Labour has held them back just as surely as for decades it held back the working class. The best route towards a tolerant and cohesive society lies not in the promotion of "diversity" for its own sake but rather in treating all citizens equally and as individuals with their own unique contribution to make. Labelling people, whether by race, sex, religion or sexuality, ultimately diminishes them as human beings.

In an article he wrote for the Telegraph last year, Ahmad sums this up well:

My father arrived here with £5 in his pocket in 1953. He was originally from India but lived in Pakistan after partition. He came with three guiding principles: get to know the country, get to know the language, and get to know the people. He did all three....

As we grew up we were taught the basic values of education, respect, family and country. I am a Muslim but I went to a Church of England school, I played Jesus in a Nativity play. I know the words of the Lord's Prayer. But it didn't make me a Christian. What it did was to give me an understanding of the country I lived in and respect for all faiths.

He also had this to say:

One of my big worries is the influence of the religious extremists. We have to hit this on the head and say that everyone who comes to this country and tries to impose radical ideas and their ideology here is not welcome. We should have banned clerics like Abu Hamza and Abu Qatada long ago.

Why should they be critical of the country that has provided them with freedom of thought and speech? We let them carry on because that is the kind of country that we are; but what we should have said is that it is because we are the kind of country we are that we don't want people like you here.

I couldn't help noticing however a slight coyness about Ahmad's background. The press release describes him as "Vice President of a national youth organisation among many other roles". His own website goes into slightly more detail, describing his voluntary work for "a national Muslim youth association of over 5000 members, delivering and co-ordinating a variety of educational, charitable and sporting programmes". No name, though. I wondered why.

There's a clue in the Telegraph article, where he describes himself as a member of the Ahmadi community. And it turns out to be the Ahmadiyya Muslim Youth Association, or Majlis Khuddamul Ahmadiyya, which he has helped to organise. The Ahmadis form one of the major Muslim groups in Britain, and their mosque at Morden (of which Tariq Ahmad is a member) claims to be the largest in western Europe. They are not, however, uniformly popular with other Muslims. They occupy a position vis-a-vis traditional Islam similar to that of the Mormons with respect to orthodox Christianity, in that they follow a new prophet who arose during the 19th century. They have a number of other distinctive beliefs, too, including the idea that Jesus survived the crucifixion and travelled to Kashmir where he taught and eventually died of old age. They have their own caliph, currently Hadhrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad, who gave an interesting interview last month in the Times.

Both Sunni and Shi'ite authorities regard the Ahmadis as heretics, indeed not as Muslims at all, and they have been subjected to considerable and increasing oppression, especially in their native Pakistan. It is a criminal offence for an Ahmadi to claim to be Muslim, or to worship publicly, or even to fast during Ramadan. Indeed, using the traditional salutation "Salaam" might be enough to get an Ahmadi arrested for blasphemy. Their motto is "love for all, hatred for none"; this has not however prevented them from being at the receiving end of mob violence, often with the tacit support of the authorities. As they have spread to other countries, intolerance has followed in their wake. The Saudis have been particularly unpleasant. No surprises there.

It's not surprising that someone from such a background should come to appreciate the benefits of a secular society, nor that he should find a welcome in the modern Conservative party. I wish him luck.
Read the rest of this article

Wednesday, 16 July 2008

Waltz: What happened?

From Waltz yesterday:

Just dropped by to say farewell - CiF has finally banned me. I put the cat's nine lives to shame there long ago but one day it had to end ... Keep up the good work, Mr. or Ms. Heresiarch.

15 July 2008 19:44

(It's Mr, by the way).

Has Waltz been banned from CIF? Was it all a mistake, or have the CIF moderators descended to new Stalinist tactics to stifle dissent? They seem to have been busier than usual in the past few days. Threads such as this one from Seumas Milne have been distorted out of all recognition by deletions. Is that just keeping a watch on hate-speech, or is it an attempt to define what is, or is not, a sayable opinion or a thinkable thought?

I'm re-posting all Waltz-related comments to this thread. Feel free to say what you like, about her, about what you think might have happened, and about CIF and net censorship in general. I'm not a moderator.

UPDATE: Waltz wasn't banned after all, say the Mods. It's just a software glitch at her end. Allegedly. (See comment). Still, the Mods should be asking themselves why we believed it.

UPDATE2 (19/7/08) Waltz says:

I don't think it's anything to do with my browser, which has always worked perfectly with CiF until one week ago. Plus I tried posting from my office at work yesterday and couldn't do so from there either. So I think I have in fact been banned, regardless of CiF's claim that I haven't been.

What on earth is going on?

UPDATE3 (21/7/08) Waltz is back!

I'm able to post to CiF again - my brother did a system restore on my laptop and it seems to have solved whatever the problem was.

No conspiracy after all. Still, it was an entertaining thread. Read the rest of this article

Tuesday, 15 July 2008

Drawing a message

Here's a famous cartoon, and about as hard-hitting as it got in the notoriously genteel world of Victorian caricature. By John Tenniel, it depicts Benjamin Disraeli as an oriental peddlar, of the type who sold Aladdin his magic lamp, presenting Victoria with the crown of India. She was now, you see, officially an empress, a promotion that more serious-minded thinkers and politicians (such as Gladstone) thought a piece of empty theatricality. It plays on Disraeli's image as a showman, as a slightly overdressed and mildly camp poseur, but most particularly as someone who is not entirely English. If it were published today, Punch would probably have faced accusations of anti-semitism.

The image nails Disraeli, though, just as Steve Bell's famous drawing of John Major wearing Y-fronts outside his trousers nailed him, and did for his government almost as fatally as Black Wednesday or all those allegations of sleaze. Similarly, Spitting Image's portrayal of David Steel as a homunculus peeking out of David Owen's pocket ruined the electoral prospects of the Liberal/ SDP alliance in the 1980s. Yet the same show's vision of a pin-stripe suited Margaret Thatcher dismissing her cabinet as "vegetables" did her no harm at all. All these pictures and sketches told a truth. It's hard to think of an equivalent summation of Tony Blair. No cartoonist really got him. He was too paradoxical: a perpetually grinning, effortlessly charming war criminal, he didn't quite compute. Private Eye's evocation of the Vicar of St Albion's came closest, at least in the early years; the flaw was that, in the end, it was too affectionate. Really effective caricatures have some element of real venom.

So what about Cartoongate, or NewYorkergate, or whatever they decide to call it? While the cartoonist Barry Blitt's intentions were obvious - drawing attention to the absurdity of many of the "smears" against Barack Obama and his wife - the loudly-expressed outrage by both the Obama campaign and many of his supporters in the press and elsewhere suggests that the picture raises real fears. Real fears in the Obama camp, and real fears in the minds of some voters.

The cartoon was was immediately denounced by an Obama spokesman as "tasteless and offensive", which is also a slightly ambiguous formulation. What they are really worried about, of course, is that there are voters out there who are moronic enough to take it seriously, who believe the stuff about Obama being secretly a Muslim (he is, in fact, like many presidents, secretly an agnostic) or being somehow "anti-American". No doubt they think that there are a lot of morons out there; it's an easy to form impression given some of the stuff out there in the cyberverse (or, indeed, on Fox TV). One of the most astute comments on the affair, and one of the earliest, was from Andrew Malcolm in the LA Times: "politicians don't like satire because it's subject to differing interpretations." To the well-heeled, impeccably liberal readership of the New Yorker, Blitt's intention may not be in doubt. But to minds front-loaded with any of the Rumours, it kind of makes sense. It chimes.

This is, after all, a man who has been photographed wearing traditional (and in some sense "Islamic") African dress, who was brought up abroad, and who began his campaign with talk, soon dropped, of undertaking "unconditional" discussions with the Iranians. His wife's dress sense may owe more to Jacquie Kennedy than Foxxy Cleopatra from Goldmember, but she certainly has "attitude", something which has made her at times seem uncomfortably testy. More importantly, the whole thrust on the McCain campaign appears to be one of national security. He hasn't, so far, offered any solutions to America's financial or social problems, but he presents himself as a grizzled all-American war hero who will be Strong and take on the country's enemies (who are also, of course, the Enemies of Freedom). So creating the impression in the public mind (or in parts of it at least) that there's something not quite patriotic about Barack Obama is pretty much the only chance he has.

Drawing attention to the cartoon is a high-risk strategy for the Obama campaign, precisely because it turns it into such a big story, and ensures that everyone, but everyone, will have seen it. Even if the story becomes one of a sophisticated joke gone slightly awry, the image won't go away. It has the power to summon up other, real images: Obama in a turban, Michelle doing the "terrorist fist jab". Directly, it refers to the smears, which the vast majority of Americans know to be rubbish. Indirectly, it reinforces the mainstream Republican narrative which draws more subtly upon those smears. For Barack Obama is an exotic. It is part of his appeal - especially to non-Americans, of course, who can't vote. It enables him to transcend traditional barriers of race, class, or denomination. But it also creates in some Americans a sense of unease. It's not a question of race (or indeed religion); rather, it is one of "otherness".

Forget Michelle's afro, or the portrait of Osama (what a difference a letter makes...) or the flag burning merrily in the fireplace. They don't work. But Barack in the turban and robe, like the Victorian image of a turbanned Disraeli, hits the mark. Barry Blitt may not have wanted to hurt Obama, but it's possible that he has nevertheless found the caricature that will define him. Read the rest of this article