Friday, 31 October 2008

Going Public

The exposé of the double life of Georgina Baillie has now gone mainstream with the Mirror reporting that she works as a £110 an hour dominatrix.
Her sordid secret was revealed after a client told how she spanked and whipped him during wild sessions at her London flat.

He described how she dressed in bondage gear to humiliate him for his perverted pleasure. During one meeting she offered to smear peanut butter on her body so he could lick it off. She also bent him over her knee and thrashed him – branding him “pathetic” and mocking the size of his manhood. Details of other services she provided are too depraved to publish in a family newspaper.

Illustrating the story with a selection of photos (not this one) taken from the Satanic Sluts site, the Mirror quotes extensively from the man in his 30s who wishes to remain anonymous "for obvious reasons". He thinks it "unbelievable" that she should complain about the antics of Ross and Brand while she "earns money by dressing as Mistress Voluptua and humiliating me as her sex slave". A non sequitur if ever there was one: though the Mirror is surely heaping more humiliation on poor old Andrew Sachs by reporting these salacious details - and hinting at worse.

I say "salacious" because the Mirror's reportage is couched in the tone of titillating disapproval with which the tabloids continue to report S&M activities (and haven't they had a great year). Thus we have "Miss Whiplash", "sordid", "wild sessions", "his perverted pleasure", "depraved", "humiliation". Those in the BDSM and fetish communities who hoped that in the wake of the Max Mosley affair there would be more public understanding and acceptance of their way of life should perhaps take note.

Oddly, the report includes a quote from Max Clifford, who says, "It sounds as though she’s been a very naughty girl." Not the sort of thing he would be saying if he didn't want the story to come out.

The Mail, meanwhile, has details of another Myspace page, in the name of "Mistress Voluptua", which gives further details of her services. "Greetings unworthy creature, welcome to my dominion," it begins: the worst sort of clichéd dominatrix-speak, if you ask me. "Worship me in a fully equipped dungeon". Always fully-equipped, these dungeons. How much equipment do you need to be fully equipped? Can anyone enlighten me?

The Heresiarch wondered if the page might be a hoax - Myspace isn't the way most professional dominatrices tout for business. But no, the last login was recorded back in August, well before the Ross/Brand broadcast. Is she still in the dungeon business? And was it any more than a brief, possibly abortive, foray? Intriguingly, the Mail also describes the bondage pictures shown in its report, taken from a photo-shoot in 2006, as "
newly released". They have been accessible on the web ever since the story broke, so in what way were they released? Did the Mail hacks stumble upon them, or was their attention drawn to them by Mr Clifford?

Baillie and Clifford are certainly playing a double game here. The Mail draws its readers attention to Popbitch, which yesterday offered readers a peek at some stills of a lesbian porn video in which Voluptua took part (see my earlier report for details). But it does so obliquely, merely
suggesting that "Baillie may have some other secrets, yet to come to light." They have come to light. UPDATE

When she took the Sun's money for her kiss-and-tell, Georgina Baillie must have known that these skeletons (or perhaps we should say zombies) would come rattling out of her cupboard, dragging chains of which Jacob Marley might have been envious. And although changes have been made to her "official" MySpace page - and still more to the Bebo site that appears under her own name - these attempts have been distinctly half-hearted. What's she up to? Did her genuine desire to speak up for her grandfather overcome her common sense? Or does she fancy herself as a British answer to Sasha Grey?

Whatever is actually going on here, there's certainly a huge contrast between Miss Baillie's erratic behaviour and the dignity and discretion shown by the four women who testified on behalf of Max Mosley a few months ago.

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Thursday, 30 October 2008

Elite Hooligans

The Russell Brand/ Jonathan Ross saga can best perhaps be told in numbers. Thirty thousand (complaints). Eighteen million (the value of Ross's three year contract with the BBC). Eight (the number of days between the broadcast and when the story went huge. Forty-eight (Jonathan Ross's age). Three (the number of times that Miss Georgina "Voluptua" Baillie will admit to having had carnal relations with Brand). But the number that most troubles me is two - the number of complaints that were made by actual listeners to the programme immediately after it went out.

Amid the acres of written and spoken commentary many have mentioned this fact, so out of keeping with the enormous consequences that the affair has had for the BBC, for its employees (Lesley Douglas, the entirely innocent controller of Radio 2 is the latest casualty as the Beeb decides to let Ross off with a suspension) and for what still count as the boundaries of taste and decency. But usually it is adduced as evidence that the fuss has been, if not about nothing, certainly about nothing serious, nothing remotely justifying the massive coverage. And the negligible number of complaints from listeners is mentioned, too, in speculation about a "generation gap": that the behaviour of Ross and Brand, obnoxious as it appears to most people over the age of - what? 25? 30? 35? 50? - is just edgy humour so far as the Yoof is concerned.

Age plays a part, clearly. Ross's age, for a start - the man's nearly fifty, for heaven's sake - but, most particularly, Andrew Sachs'. If Ross and Brand had rung up, say, David Baddiel or Frank Skinner and deposited lewd insinuations on the answer machine it's hard to see that there would have been any controversy at all. That their victim was someone fondly remembered for a role he played more than thirty years ago - movingly described by his granddaughter as a "lovely, kind old man who's never hurt anyone" - provided the trigger. Which suggests that, at least in the minds of those complaining (who presumably are not in the main regular listeners to the show) some respect is still due to age. Whether or not this is, in itself, justified, is a moot point. Mary Beard has some interesting things to say on that subject:

Is Andrew Sachs a 'lovely old man'? I have no idea. But I do know that when I’m 78 the last thing I will want is my 20 something grand-daughter, with Gothic tendencies and some kind of acquaintance with an over-paid radio star, telling the world that I am “a lovely old man (woman, in my case) who has never harmed anyone in his life”.

If you ask me, that kind of infantilisation of the elderly, as if they were all somehow nice, gentle and wouldn’t hurt a fly, is even worse than the silly, misplaced jokes of Messrs Ross and Brand. Lets hope that Sachs, like the rest of us, has had some opportunity to harm someone in his life and is well prepared to win against these boys – with a life-time’s experience of personal conflict.

It's a complaint often made by Tony Benn, who maintains that when anyone reaches a relatively advanced age they are assumed to be "harmless" and thus are rendered irrelevant through metaphorical cuddles. Few oldies, however distinguished, seem to be immune to the process, though I would except Mary Warnock - who still annoys the hell out of Daily Mail readers well into her eighties - and Margaret Thatcher, who though now in a world of her own,will never be forgiven for having once been the Iron Lady.

Be that as it may, Sachs' years didn't incline more than two listeners to complain about what was a seriously nasty stunt; I suppose many more will have shared the view of Ross and Brand that it was funny. Actually it was funny, in a way. Brand's mock-apology, sung to an improvised accompaniment by Ross, was in its way both creative and amusing - at least until you remember the real pain it caused to a real person. As Brand said to Ross - and listening to the exchanges it's quite obvious that the two were well aware that what they had done was, by normal standards, quite unacceptable - "You don't realise that what you're doing here has a reality outside". Clever man, Russell Brand. But also an idiot.

Brand gives every impression of being a good-natured sociopath - not bad so much as morally incontinent. Getting her well-deserved revenge in the Sun today Georgina claimed that Brand, on learning that she was "Manuel"'s granddaughter, went around bragging about his conquest. We can discount, I think, the claims that "the bouffant-haired comic pranced around the bedroom yelling “I know nothing,” “Qué?” and “I learn it from a booook.”" That sounds more like Max Clifford than Russell Brand to me. But the picture she paints of a man unable to keep his mouth shut even when he wants to is plausible enough.

The Sun says:

Georgina said she was “horrified” by Brand’s crass insensitivity. She added: “The thing that really upset me was that Russell kept on repeating his ‘joke’ even when I had asked him to stop. “He first repeated it with David Baddiel on his show and then with Chris Moyles, all within a matter of days. It seemed he was enjoying the whole thing which makes it more despicable. I sent a text saying, ‘Please, please stop’ but he sent one back saying, ‘I’ve apologised for it publicly now and if anything else concerns you give me a call’.”

This type of behaviour is both childish and narcissistic. But it is also characteristic of a certain sort of diva. Some who appears solipsistically to disregard the existence of other people because, in a certain sense, they don't. Or at least they don't matter.

Ross exhibits a rather different sort of pathology. In his combination of narcissism and condesension (notoriously, he boasted that he earned as much as a thousand ordinary journalists) he exhibits what might be described as elite hooliganism. By behaving obnoxiously, in a manner that would have a lesser mortal out on his ear, he demonstrates his social superiority, his wealth and power. Put bluntly, he doesn't give a shit, because he doesn't need to. It's a form of status affirmation (i.e. boasting) that produces in the less privileged sentiments of disapproval, but also jealousy, admiration and wish fulfilment. Hence the lack of initial complaints.

Elite hooliganism is most associated, in our age, with celebrities, rock stars, footballers and members of the Bullingdon Club. A well known diva - it might have been Ethyl Merman - once said that "you can be as difficult as you can deliver". But it's a behaviour pattern of immemorial antiquity, found in almost every culture. Nero used to go about the streets of Rome at night, beating up respectable citizens - because there was no-one to stop him. One night in 415BC, just before the departure of a disastrous naval expedition to Sicily, a gang of young bucks supposedly led by Alcibiades - the Tony Blair of his day - desecrated the sacred Herms, causing one of the worst scandals in Athenian history. And I particularly cherish this passage, from John Brewer's study on 18th century taste, The Pleasures of the Imagination:

One evening in 1663, three years after the Restoration, three courtiers - Sir Charles Sedley, Lord Buckhurst, and Sir Thomas Ogle - left the palace of Whitehall and walked north to the fleshpots and taverns of Covent Garden. Sedley's literary reputation at the court of Charles II was second to none. Playwright, poet and translator, he was told by his monarch that "Nature had given him a patent to be Apollo's viceroy" and that "his style, either in writing or discourse, would be the standard of the English tongue". Buckhurst was the great Maecenas of the court, the patron of Dryden, Butler and Wycherley, and the author of one of the Restoration's most famous songs, "To all you ladies". Both appeared, as Lisideius and Eugenius, in Dryden's Essay on Dramatick Poesie (1668) which was dedicated to Buckhurst.

The impression they made that evening was rather different. From the balcony of Oxford Kate's Tavern they shocked and delighted a crowd of onlookers with their blasphemous and obscene antics. According to Samuel Pepys, Sedley "showed his nakedness, acting all the postures of lust and buggery that could be imagined, and abusing of Scripture... preaching a mocking sermon from that pulpit... that being done, he took a glass of wine and washed his prick in it and then drank it off; and then took another and drank the king's health." Finally, according to the waspish gossip, Anthony a Wood, all three men turned their backs on the citizenry, and "Putting down their breeches they excrementiz'd in the street".

It would never have happened under Cromwell, would it? The past decade has been one one of Restoration-style decadence and excesss, in which elite hooligans were indulged. The next few years are unlikely to give Ross and his kind such leeway.
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Tuesday, 28 October 2008

Abolish the Licence Fee

I feel about the BBC rather as Richard Dawkins feels about God: I find it both frustrating and inexplicable that so many people, despite all the evidence to the contrary, continue to believe in it. Like religion, the Licence Fee (and the BBC itself) may once have served a useful function. In a different world, the BBC (like the church) was an important institution that served as a bulwark of culture and intelligence. It reflected and enhanced national life. Without thinking too much about who or what it was for, it found an appropriate balance between the popular and the highbrow. But that was a long time ago. Now, like a church that has ceased to believe in God and thrown away its traditional liturgy (I mention no names) the BBC is sustained largely by inertia, and exists principally to perpetuate itself.

The present BBC set up exhibits a kind of logical conundrum. In order to justify continuing to fund itself via a compulsory poll-tax euphemistically called a "licence fee", it must produce output that attracts a mass audience. Otherwise it would face charges of expropriating money from the masses to spend on the entertainment of educated middle class elitists. A sort of glorified Royal Opera House, perhaps - except that bills marked "Opera tax" don't arrive in everyone's mailbox. In today's demotic culture where making a fool of oneself on reality TV qualifies as aspirational the old idea that intelligent programming might broaden the mind, might increase by some margin the national IQ, is still trotted out when the corporation is called upon to justify its privileged status. But it is ever less visible in the output itself, which offers, on a typical night, a diet of low-rent soaps and formulaic dramas set in hospitals and police stations leavened with "documentaries" about car-chases or heart surgery and talent contests indistinguishable from those on other channels. This kind of dross is relatively cheap to make and attracts sufficiently high viewing figures to convince BBC bosses and politicians that it is fulfilling its remit to serve the general public.

But in servicing a mass audience, the BBC is merely duplicating the output of the commercial or subscription channels. Increasingly, BBC1 resembles ITV without the adverts, while BBC2 is generally inferior in its creativity or intellectual weight to Channel 4. The cases of Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross, currently at the forefront of people's minds, are relevant here. Both, leaving aside the recent confirmation of their boorishness and arrogance, are talented performers who attract large audiences. If their puerile conduct is found to be off-putting by Grumpy Old Men or Daily Mail readers, it is nevertheless a reflection of the depravity and shallowness of contemporary culture. Would that so many listeners could be attracted by lectures on Plato.

Many of the voices raised in their defence over the past few days have pointed to the outrageousness and danger of their work as a justification in itself. And of course there is a place for both, and for the deliberate causing of offence, and for envelope-pushing, even, in the right circumstances, for bad language. But that place is not a publicly funded network which threatens those who would prefer not to pay for its services with prosecution or even jail. If Ross and Brand are worth their large salaries, then they should earn them in the marketplace and not live as parasites on the public purse.

If the BBC declined to pay Ross £6 million a year, and drastically curtailed the salaries of other overpaid personalities such as Jeremies Clarkson and Paxman, Graham Norton or Chris Moyles, then it would have more money to spend on programmes of genuinely high quality. And such do exist, although the decline in the intellectual level of arts programming or historical documentaries is sad to behold. A BBC tightly focused on producing (or at least broadcasting) material that the commercial channels were unable or unwilling to supply would of course gain noticeably smaller audiences, which in turn would lead to grumbles about the fairness of charging every household in Britain for the great privilege of watching the TV. This, presumably, is why the corporation continues its long-running process of dumbing down.

Yet a BBC whose output is indistinguishable from its commercial rivals no more deserves the lavish public funding its receives than would a BBC which catered principally for a discerning minority. There should be no justification - or indeed tolerance - for forcing the public (on pain of large fines, a criminal record, or even imprisonment) to pay either for crap they do watch or for high quality public service broadcasting they might not. The switch to a multi-channel world ought to have made the anomalous and anachronistic position of the BBC glaringly obvious. Instead, the corporation had been permitted, indeed encouraged, to colonise the various digital platforms - as they have colonised cyberspace - to the detriment and exclusion of commercial operators. Rather than being phased out, the Licence Fee has shown a tendency to increase ahead of the rate of inflation. The BBC now functions as a kind of black hole at the centre of British broadcasting, distorting the space around around it and sucking anything that gets too close into a vortex from which no light can emerge.

The BBC and the Licence Fee exist in a close, mutually-supporting embrace. Neither is imaginable without the other. The BBC is as it is because of the Licence Fee, which in turn is justified as being the best way of funding the BBC in its current form. It's a classic circular argument, and like all circular arguments is difficult to break out of. Yet neither would be imaginable if they didn't already exist (just imagine what the public reaction would be if TV were entirely commercial, or the BBC funded out of general taxation, and a Licence Fee were proposed). Neither, I believe, would be much missed. Some TV programmes are commercially sustainable. Others would attract funding via subscription, or (if considered in the public interest) might receive direct grants from general taxation. I would put Radio 4 and possibly Radio 3 in that category. Some programmes and channels would disappear, but only because there is no need for them. Radio and television would look and sound remarkably similar, I would guess. We would just all be £140 better off.

Who, though, will bite this particular bullet? Not the present government, which sees in the BBC a mirror-image of itself, not just politically but socially too. Nor, sadly, the Conservative party. The Tory MP Christopher Chope recently introduced a private member's bill to abolish the Licence Fee, only to be told by the front bench spokesman Ed Vaizey that "I want to put it on record that I am a firm supporter of the licence fee, as is the Conservative party." He went on, depressingly,

I can happily cast self-interest aside and speak genuinely of my love and adoration for the BBC. I believe that it is fantastic and that most people in this country regard it as a great organisation and as family. The family analogy is important: we give the BBC the nickname “Auntie”, and, by and large, we like the BBC, but we also feel free to criticise and have rows with it. Sometimes, those rows are incoherent—rows for the sake of having a row, as most of us have in our own families.

Do most people still regard the BBC as a loveable old Auntie? A terminally senile one, perhaps, cared for by relatives who know that deep down they will feel relieved when she's gone. It strikes me as more like a friendly neighbourhood gangster, making its money from a classic protection racket. Of course, if a couple of million people suddenly stopped paying, the whole thing wouldn't last a week.

I began this piece with a religious metaphor, and I shall end with one, for it does strike me that the BBC and its Licence Fee have many of the characteristics of an organised religion. Call it Beebism. There's a creed of sorts: certain highly questionable propositions - quality, impartiality, accountability - are clung to like unimpeachable articles of faith. There is a revered founder, Reith, whose example is held up even as his precepts are betrayed. There are saints (David Attenborough, Stephen Fry) and even a recognisable devil-figure in the shape of Rupert Murdoch. Challenge a Beebist by pointing out the corporation's political bias or the low quality of most of its output and you'll be met by a kind of anguished denial similar to that of a Christian fundamentalist confronted by contradictions in Scripture.

In this theological closed circuit, the Licence Fee is imagined not as pragmatic and outdated solution to the BBC's funding but as somehow morally virtuous. Like God or the church, the BBC takes on a mystical significance as bearer of the national spirit; it is something, as the quote from Vaizey reveals, with which people feel they have a personal relationship. But that's an illusion, of course, as anyone who has come up against the BBC's self-justifying and haughty bureaucracy will have discovered. Just as the late medieval church preached poverty and humility while its cardinals built themselves palaces in Rome, the BBC has become the paradise of a self-regarding elite utterly convinced of their indispensibility.

Yet all is not well. Like the Church of England, the BBC frequently alienates its traditional audience with desperate attempts to draw in younger people who are nevertheless watching it less and less. The habit of TV viewing, like the habit of churchgoing (though more slowly, and later) is on the way out. The Licence Fee and the present structure of the BBC ought to be unsustainable in such a climate. Don't bet on it, though. Beebism, like theism, dies hard.

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Monday, 27 October 2008


On the face of it, the behaviour of Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand - in making obscene phone calls to the veteran and well-loved actor Andrew Sachs concerning his granddaughter - provides yet more evidence that the feather-bedded, complacent, self-regarding and overprotected BBC no longer deserves the licence fee. That these two might think such a stunt amusing is perhaps not so surprising - although it is a comment on the increasing uglification of the public sphere that it was passed for broadcast. What really rankles is that we are all forced to pay for these oafs. I sincerely hope they are prosecuted for their phone-call; but I equally know that they won't be.

As a funding model, the licence fee is an anachronism, and the Beeb's claim to provide unique quality programming is hard to sustain when set against the inflated salaries paid to the likes of Ross from money expropriated from the public. In the present climate, with advertising revenues under pressure, it's arguable whether Ross would manage to secure such a lucrative deal in the private sector; but if he's worth £6 million a year on the open market then that is where he should be. The licence fee was surely not designed to subsidise the lifestyles of the rich and famous. But then it's increasingly hard to see just what the licence fee is for. It survives, I suppose, largely through inertia; if it didn't exist, and someone suggested it as a sensible way of funding British broadcasting, it would rightly be dismissed as an unfair, regressive and unnecessary tax. If this latest incident adds to the pressure for reform - or, better still, abolition - then Brand and Ross may turn out to have performed a public service.

That said, there may be a little more to the story than first appeared. The Mail, which only ran with the story a week after the offending segment was broadcast, now reports that the young woman Russell Brand claimed to have slept with, Georgina Baillie, is on her way back from Austria "where she had given a performance of her horror themed show at Club 666 in Vienna with dance troupe Satanic Sluts Extreme". They also note that she once aspired to be a page 3 girl. And the paper, which today gave Melanie Phillips a full page to vent her predictable spleen -"What kind of degraded cultural universe are we all now living in?", she wondered - celebrated the discovery by plastering photos of the 23 year old - who goes by the professional name of Voluptua - all over a splash. She's certainly a sight for Halloween week. And she also looks like Mr Brand's type.

The Mail on Sunday yesterday quoted Georgina's mother Kate as saying that the situation was "awful" - and that Georgina herself didn't want to comment. Which rather suggested that Miss Baillie was an innocent abroad. On her Myspace page, by contrast, Voluptua describes her status as "swinger" and lists among her interests "pretty men with tattooes". She adds: I LIKE TO PARTY, I DON'T CARE IF YOU CALL ME A "WASTER" OR EVEN A "GROUPIE" BECAUSE I AM HAVING SO MUCH MORE FUN THAN YOU AND LIVING THIS WAY MAKES ME HAPPY.

Andrew Sachs may well have been deeply shocked and upset by the vile insinuations of two of the country's highest paid stars. But if he has been following his granddaughter's career at all closely shock is unlikely to be a new emotion. Brand and Ross, meanwhile, are undoubtedly enjoying this confirmation of their edginess (for the over-the-hill Ross, an especially gratifying experience). Ross is currently promoting an autobiography, as it happens. It's called Why Do I Say These Things?

As for the Mail, the story allows them to have the best of both worlds. After a couple of days self-righteously tut-tutting about the foul mouths of two stars and the lack of accountability of BBC executives, they get to fill their pages with photos of a scantily-clad rock-chick. Titillation for the Mail (and perhaps for their readers) is always made acceptable when served up with moral condescension. And Voluptua - who announces that she has "recently played a prostitute/ glamour model in a high profile tv pilot comedy/drama called "Trollops of Threadneedle Street" - gets a welcome blast of publicity. Everybody wins. Apart from Andrew Sachs, presumably.
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Sunday, 26 October 2008

Invasion of the body scanners

I'm not the biggest fan of the European parliament, which often resembles little more than outdoor relief for second-rate politicians and embodies in its procedures an unremitting federalism. Sometimes, though, it has its uses. On Friday it rejected - by a huge margin of 361 to 16 - a Commission proposal to introduce a new and intrusive generation of body scanners at airports throughout the EU. Or at least to shelve any such proposals until far more research - both into the safety and social acceptability of the devices - had been carried out. The size of the majority, and the tone of the debate, suggests that many MEPs were against the things on principle.

And one can see why. The scanners subject anyone walking through them to a virtual strip search. A clear computer-generated image is produced of their naked body, complete with breasts and/or dangly bits: this is scrutinised by an operative for signs of concealed weapons or cellulite. The operative, we are assured, does so in a professional manner and the image is not stored. At least, not at the moment; though I can imagine the day will come when they find their way onto a database for some yet-to-be-determined reason of "security". And while the current discussion concerns airports, if "successful" the scanners would almost certainly be extended to railway stations, public buildings such as courts or Parliament (though MPs themselves probably wouldn't have to go through them), and perhaps schools - worries about knife-crime here trumping the strictly technical point that the images would constitute child pornography. One day, I have no doubt, advances in technology will liberate body-scanners from the boxes in which they currently reside and they will become as prevalent as CCTV is today.

A spokesman for the Commission claimed that the technology would not only enhance safety and security, but would also have the potential to speed up the check-in process. (The latter is possible: but then most of the lengthy check-in procedures are purely theatrical anyway.) MEPs from all countries were however outraged. One British Conservative said that the plans added to "a growing anxiety that the EU is seen as a tool for challenging basic liberties, without the usual scrutiny and accountability provided at the ballot box." But that's only half the story; the Commission put forward its proposals under pressure from the Americans (who have been installing the scanners in airports for some years now) and, as so often, egged on by a British government which increasing acts as though it is answerable to the security services rather than to the electorate.

When the scanners were tried out at Heathrow a few years ago, the Times reported on the explicitness of the images and the concerns of some passengers, one of whom was quoted as saying that he was shocked by what the scan revealed. There was, however, no outcry either in the press or in Parliament. Very different has been the response in Germany. Last week the Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäubl promised that the scanners would "naturally" never be introduced in Germany, no matter what happens in other countries.

"I won't let the German police be thought of as peeping toms - which they are not," explained Schäubl. His remarks follow a comment from an interior ministry spokeswoman, who assured German reporters with "complete clarity that we are not going to cooperate in this mischief". Another prominent politician declared that "an airport is not a nude beach".

Perhaps, in a neat reversal of history, the Germans are now coming to save us from tyranny. It's certainly somewhat ironic that it is German politicians - from the country that gave us not only the Nazis and the Stasi but also the world's largest naturist movement - who should want to spare us our blushes. But there we have it. And maybe it isn't so surprising. The Germans have enough recent experience of totalitarian governments - either directly or through proximity - to value the freedoms that we in Britain seem neglectful of. Though not quite so neglectful as the inhabitants of the so-called Land of the Free, where the American Civil Liberties Union has thus far failed to prevent the machines being introduced nationwide; one senior security executive was even happy to distribute naked pictures of herself to journalists in a bizarre PR drive. But then it was Bush's America that brought us Guantanamo Bay and the Patriot Act, so I'm not altogether surprised.

As to the scanners themselves, apart from the intrusiveness of the images there are potential health concerns. The manufacturers assure us (or, rather, assure the authorities that are set over us) that bombarding people with microwaves for the purposes of this screening is safe. But without years of study into the long-term effects there is no way of knowing. Certainly, a government comfortable with allowing the devices to be used on children, on pregnant women, on the elderly, on frequent fliers without knowing what long-term health problems they might cause is more than a little careless with its citizens' wellbeing. But then we knew that already.

But let's imagine that they are completely safe. Is that OK then? Of course not. The main objection, that of privacy and decency, remains. Entirely innocent people going about their business will be given an undignified choice between an intimate body search and having their privates exposed to the scrutiny of a seen-it-all-before warder security guard. Either everyone will be subjected to the process or it will be done on a random basis - anything else (singling out young men who look vaguely Muslim) would be condemned as discriminatory. The inevitable result of that would be that the actual terrorist is waved through while someone's granny is made to stand in the virtual buff. A small price to pay for increased security? No. An unacceptable price; and a society that doesn't see why that is so has lost a vital element of what it means to be civilised.

For, however scary they are in themselves, these machines reveal more than the presence of concealed weapons. They reveal the total disregard for the dignity of the individual on the part of the security apparatus. It simply doesn't register for them that ordinary men and women will be subjected to indignity, or even that this might be considered a problem. That is because, whatever language they employ about protecting life, enthusiasts for this sort of technology have very little interest in such old-fashioned concepts of individuality, privacy, dignity or humanity. They are technocrats, and their only concerns are process, efficiency, gadgetry, solutions. The people passing through the scanners might as well be cattle or hand-luggage; it's not that the devisers of these security measures don't care about people's feelings, it is that those feelings are irrelevant.

But will those feelings even be particularly widespread? I begin to doubt it. The past few years have seen a progressive erosion, not merely of privacy itself but of the very idea of privacy - not to mention equally bourgeois concepts such as modesty and shame. Increasing numbers of people are happy to share the most intimate details of their lives with total strangers; for many, indeed, self-exposure has become a form of validation. The government demands ever greater surveillance of and information about ordinary citizens, in the name of efficiency as well as security, and their demands generally meet with, at most, a resigned shrug. The ancient distinction between private and public is further broken down by phenomena as diverse as reality TV, primary school sex education and the data accumulations of supermarket loyalty cards. Metaphorically, we are increasingly naked and transparent. So when a device comes along which translates that metaphor into actuality there are many who have lost the mental tools to object. If you've nothing to hide, after all, you have nothing to fear. And who but a criminal or a terrorist could possibly have anything to hide?
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Saturday, 25 October 2008

Sharia Creep

The Mail today (Saturday) offers yet another twist on the "Sharia in Britain" story that has rumbled on for most of the year, ever since Rowan Williams incautiously described it as "inevitable".

According to the report:

Islamic courts have been cleared to deal with family and divorce disputes.

Sharia tribunals will be able to decide how a Muslim couple divide their money and property and who gets the children.

The sole proviso from Jack Straw's Justice Ministry is that a formal law court must rubber-stamp the ruling.

...The decision follows nine months of controversy over the role of tribunals run according to Islamic strictures.

As usual, a bit of reading between the lines is needed to work out if anything has happened; and the answer, it turns out, is nothing. There hasn't actually been a "decision". All that has happened is that a junior minister at the Justice department, Bridget Prentice, responded to a written Parliamentary question with a statement of the law.

Michael Penning, Conservative MP for Hemel Hempstead, asked "what guidance is issued on the validity of (a) fatwas and (b) other rulings issued by religious authorities in the determination of matrimonial disputes." In answer, Prentice stated:

If, in a family dispute dealing with money or children, the parties to a judgment in a Shari'a council wish to have this recognised by English authorities, they are at liberty to draft a consent order embodying the terms of the agreement and submit it to an English court. This allows English judges to scrutinise it to ensure that it complies with English legal tenets.

The use of religious courts to deal with personal disputes is well established. Any member of a religious community has the option to use religious courts and to agree to abide by their decisions but these decisions are subject to national law and cannot be enforced through the national courts save in certain limited circumstances when the religious court acts as arbitrator within the meaning of the Arbitration Act 1996. Arbitration does not apply to family law and the only decisions which can be enforced are those relating to civil disputes.

This is essentially a description of the status quo. All that has changed, perhaps, is that there are now Sharia courts handing down these rulings, which are being submitted as part of the usual divorce proceedings and, as the Mail has it, "rubber-stamped". Previously, these informal tribunals didn't exist; now they are not only in operation but spreading. Thus the number of people whose lives might be affected runs into the hundreds of thousands, potentially even millions. As the Mail notes in passing, "the great majority of consent orders are approved."

Much of the debate on this issue has been misleading, implying as it did that the government was contemplating allowing Sharia courts to operate in this country, when in fact (as the Lord Chief Justice pointed out in July) the mechanics for them to operate already exists. In September, the Times reported that the government had "quietly sanctioned" the operation of five such courts, and that as a result Sharia had been "officially adopted". The Mail's story repeats this misinformation - though it acknowledges that "rulings by religious authorities had no legal force". The default position has always been that Sharia courts can do what they like. The real question concerns their relationship to the domestic law: primarily, whether their judgements can be enforced. On this, the government has so far declined to act, referring merely to the pre-existing machinery of the Arbitration Act.

Prentice did offer one important clarification - which is that Sharia courts cannot be used formally to arbitrate questions of family law. This may, or may not, be significant. Technically, the difference may seem a small one: in the one case, the parties submit their dispute (eg a trade disagreement between two Muslim businesses, or an internal dispute within a mosque) to the Sharia court, knowing that the decision handed down will be enforced by the civil court. In the other, the parties submit their case (regarding property or the custody of children) and that decision will be taken by the civil court to be an agreement which forms the basis of the final decision. In the one case the court is upholding the judgement of the Sharia tribunal; in the other, it is merely using it as a template for its own determination. But the end result is the same: the Sharia principles are used as the basis of the decision, with all that this implies with regard to the imbalance between men and women.

This small distinction is potentially vital, however. The Times' report in September quoted a spokesman for the Muslim Arbitration Tribunal as stating that they had "taken advantage" of the Arbitration Act to "make rulings which can be enforced by county and high courts." It went on to describe inheritance cases, child custody cases, even criminal cases involving domestic abuse. In the latter, apparently involving incidents severe enough to have been referred to the police, the men had been directed to take anger management courses, and the women had agreed to withdraw their complaints. Not surprisingly, the news caused considerable disquiet. Most worryingly, it suggested that the police were turning a blind eye to domestic violence in the name of community cohesion or cultural sensitivity. And it raised fears that women might come under undue pressure.

If Sharia tribunals were permitted to act in family and matrimonial matters in a way analagous to the Arbitration Act there would be little to prevent abuses. Civil courts are in general reluctant to interfere with the results of arbitration to which the parties have given prior agreement. Thus it would scarcely avail a woman to come before a judge and try to argue that the Sharia ruling to which she had submitted was oppressive: unless it could be shown to be manifestly unfair it would be enforced anyway. Fortunately, there seems little danger of that happening, at least officially. The House of Lords this week affirmed the conflict which exists between provisions of some Sharia family law and modern notions of human rights, something which the European Court of Human Rights has also noted. Lord Hope described the system as it pertained in Lebanon as "arbitrary" and "discriminatory"; there's no particular reason to suppose that Sharia courts operating in Britain would be any less bound by traditional assumptions. The spectre of "supplementary jurisdictions", raised by Rowan Williams back in February (and the subject of an abortive reform in Canada some years ago) would seem to have been banished.

But of course things are never that simple. Legally, there may be no problem in allowing informal arbitration arrangements if they can later be tossed aside by a judge. Informally we know that family and community pressure is not infrequently brought to bear, and that it would take an unusually strong-minded individual to reject an agreement that had been decided by what looks like an authoritative religious court. Thus the more respectable the Sharia tribunals look, the more both members of the Muslim community and outside judges are likely to take them seriously, regardless of the formal legal position. So the government's inaction isn't really satisfactory. By doing nothing, they are allowing Sharia in by the back door. Worse, they are pretending otherwise.

There now needs to be an official investigation into how the Sharia tribunals operate, and whether they are handing down decisions in matters of divorce and inheritance that are substantially different from what would be expected either from a court of law or from a secular form of mediation. If that is indeed happening, courts should be instructed to ignore Sharia-based agreements, however voluntary they appear, and impose a secular solution. Of course, it may turn out that the decisions of the Sharia "courts" are entirely reasonable. At the moment, despite the huge public debate there has been this year, we just don't know.
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Thursday, 23 October 2008

Picking Palin

In chess notation, questionable moves are signified by a ?, terrible moves by a ??, and surprising but inspired moves by a !. A further category of move exists which is notated thus: ?! - it might possibly be inspired, but is more likely to be a blunder caused by the chess-player in question overlooking something obvious, like his opponent's knight lurking menacingly behind a pawn.

John McCain's selection of Sarah Palin looked for a while like it might fall into the ?! category. If not the @#!? category. McCain is actually more of a poker player, which may explain his willingness to stake everything on an unseen card. Now we know that Palin's effect on the campaigned turned out to go little beyond providing opportunity for Tina Fey to achieve worldwide stardom. So it's getting hard to remember just how exciting a prospect she at first appeared. And even harder to understand how the McCain team didn't realise what they were letting themselves in for.

Some new light is shed on this mystery in a long article for the New York Times magazine by Robert Draper. Draper has spoken to "around half a dozen" of McCain's senior advisers, and others lower down, most of whom "until very recently" were convinced of their candidate's eventual victory. He provides a fairly devastating analysis of what went wrong. It looks as though the Palin debacle was an accident waiting to happen, born of the McCain team's desperate search for definition and focus.

Draper describes an "identity crisis" which led to a meeting of Republican strategists on June 24th. One of them, Matt McDonald, admits that "we still couldn’t answer the question, Why elect John McCain?" They "needed a clear narrative. None, so far, had been forthcoming."

Several approaches had already been tried out and discarded in the course of the campaign. First came the "Heroic Fighter v. the Quitter" - in which McCain's determination to stay and win in Iraq was contrasted with Obama's desire to get out as soon as possible. Much was made of his credentials as a war hero. This "metanarrative" petered out, however, when it became clear that most Americans were already beginning to worry more about their jobs than about a faraway war.

The next idea was to portray McCain as a "country-first deal-maker", almost above party politics. That way they would be able to distance him from George W Bush while casting Obama as a slavish follower of the party line. "But", notes Draper "the matter of which candidate had shown more acts of bipartisan daring failed to become Topic A". Third came an attempt to depict McCain as simply more serious and substantial than his rival, with Obama derided as a "celebrity" unready to lead. The idea was to establish an "Icarus factor", as one of the aides put it. Unfortunately an America hooked on celebrity culture didn't seem to mind: the jibes merely emphasised the Democrat's monumental cool - especially when Paris Hilton made a surprisingly articulate foray into presidential politics. The tactic also came unstuck when McCain made a number of gaffes (talk of the "Iraq-Pakistan border" for example) that didn't make him seem all that ready to lead himself.

At this stage they were getting desperate. So they hit upon the "maverick" idea. Counterintuitively, they would put forward the long-serving Washingtonite John McCain as the anti-establishment candidate while the youthful black first-term senator with the strange name represented more of the same. It was a testament to the force of Obama's message of change that such a line was even attempted; but although it had been foreshadowed during the later stages of the primary race when the attempt was made to portray Obama as an elitist it ran up against McCain's record, age and affiliation.

By this time it was late August, and the choice of running mate had to be made. Most of the names in the frame were too nondescript, or too closely identified with the mainstream, to support the new narrative. Moreover, "polling data suggested that none of these candidates brought significantly more to the ticket than any other." Which is when one of the team suggested Sarah Palin.

Her attractions included the possibility that she might pick off some of the disaffected Hillaryites, that Newt Gingrich had described her as a "rising star", and, especially, the way she had "blasted through the oleaginous Alaska network... much in the same manner that McCain saw himself doing when he was a young congressman." She would therefore burnish McCain's maverick credentials. But significantly, Draper claims, what secured Palin the nomination was the thought that she would look good on the cover of Time magazine. It would appear that Palin's much discussed appeal to the Republican base - the Godfearing, gun owning patriots who believe Charles Darwin was some sort of pro-abortion socialist - hardly figured in these initial discussions.

Most damningly, Draper reveals that senior McCain aides, such as chief strategist Steve Schmidt and creative director Rick Davis, were fully aware of Palin's flaky performances in interviews even when the questions were largely confined to Alaska:

One tape in particular struck Davis as arresting: an interview with Palin and Gov. Janet Napolitano, the Arizona Democrat, on “The Charlie Rose Show” that was shown in October 2007. Reviewing the tape, it didn’t concern Davis that Palin seemed out of her depth on health-care issues or that, when asked to name her favorite candidate among the Republican field, she said, “I’m undecided.” What he liked was how she stuck to her pet issues — energy independence and ethics reform — and thereby refused to let Rose manage the interview. This was the case throughout all of the Palin footage. Consistency. Confidence. And . . . well, look at her.
...Schmidt, to whom Davis quietly supplied the Palin footage, agreed. Neither man apparently saw her lack of familiarity with major national or international issues as a serious liability..

The two were worried that McCain, who liked to surround himself with familiar faces, hardly knew Palin. But he went along with the plan and picked up the phone. The rest, as they say, is history. Also geography. And R.E. Even sex education. But above all comedy.

Especially amusing, in retrospect, is the enthusiasm with which the team congratulated themselves on their genius:

The spunky hockey mom that America beheld the next morning instantly hijacked Obama’s narrative of newness. (“Change is coming!” McCain hollered, almost seeming startled himself.) And five days later, in the hours after Palin’s stunningly self-assured acceptance speech at the G.O.P. convention, I watched as the Republicans in the bar of the Minneapolis Hilton rejoiced as Republicans had not rejoiced since Inauguration Night three and a half long years ago. Jubilant choruses of “She knocked it out of the park” and “One of the greatest speeches ever” were heard throughout the room, and some people gave, yes, Obama-style fist bumps. When the tall, unassuming figure of Palin’s speechwriter, Matthew Scully, shuffled into the bar, he was treated to the first standing ovation of his life. Nicolle Wallace confessed to another staff member that she had cried throughout Palin’s speech. Allowing his feelings to burst out of his composed eggshell of a face, Schmidt bellowed to someone, “Game on!”

Since then it hasn't been going quite so well. But it has taken a while for the McCain team's self-belief to sag. After the final presidential debate, Draper reports, "Schmidt wore a pinstripe suit and his blue eyes carried a victor’s gleam. Like every other McCain aide I encountered that night, he was convinced not only that the senator had turned in his best performance but that viewers would see him as the clear winner." Shades of Kennedy-Nixon 1960, perhaps. Or maybe by this stage the pressure had made Schmidt crack up completely.
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Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Riddle Me Ridley

Iain Dale offered an amusing vignette yesterday. He was taking part in a TV show (for Press TV, an Iranian-backed outfit) discussing whether George W. Bush was the worst president in US history. It was presented by Yvonne Ridley, the former Sunday Express journalist who converted to Islam not long after being kidnapped by the Taliban and is now one of the darlings of the international Islamist circuit. Says Dale:

I had never met Ms Ridley before, so being the polite lad I am, extended my hand to shake hands with her. She recoiled. "I don't do that!" she exclaimed. "What do you mean, you don't do that?" I asked, slightly nervously. "Have you never been to an Arab country?" she asked. "Not many," I said. "Well if you had, you'd know that Muslim women don't shake hands with men," she informed me. "Well all the Muslim women I know not only shake my hand but usually kiss me," I retorted. And then I added for good measure: "And anyway, I always go by the maxim, when in England...". So we didn't get off to a very good start.

Dale, it turns out, isn't the first person to come up against Ridley's preciousness in regard to the hand-shaking business. In an Observer interview with her a few months ago, Rachel Cooke revealed that she had lost a job with the Saudi-backed Islam Channel after refusing to shake hands with a Saudi prince. Who ought to know a thing or two about Arab etiquette.

Ridley has had a strange journey from hard-drinking Fleet Street hackette to her latest incarnation as a roving ambassador for radical Islam. In conversation with Cooke she described herself as a "motivational speaker" - "I'm reinforcing their beliefs, I'm attacking the War on Terror, which is a war on Islam, and I'm defending the resistance in the Muslim world." She apparently wowed a crowd in Tanzania by declaring that "Drinking Coca-Cola is like drinking the blood of Palestinian children!" George Galloway, her colleague in the Respect party (or what's left of it) once told her admiringly that "you make me look like a moderate". A line that Ridley is proud to repeat.

The convert's zeal might explain some of Ridley's odder pronouncements - such as her description of veiled women as "as multi-skilled, multi-talented, resilient women whose brand of sisterhood makes Western feminism pale into insignificance." She always denies suggestions of Stockholm syndrome, pointing out how she made such a nuisance of herself as a hostage that the Taliban were delighted to see the back of her. But certain aspects of her stance irresistibly recall the Jungian concept of enantidromia - a going over to the opposite extreme. Thus she has no sympathy for Iranian women who prefer not to wear the hijab - "It is clear that the hijab is an obligation, not a choice ... the Islamic Republic of Iran: there's a bit of a clue in the title" - preferring to stand up for Tunisian women fighting for the right to shroud themselves. She claims that "Just about everything that feminists strived for in the 70s was already available to Muslim women 1400 years ago," while hinting that most women would be better off - and certainly more Islamic - staying at home with the kids.

The Taliban will, if they have followed her career since 2001, certainly be proud, if perhaps slightly bemused, by their creation. In one article, for example, she complained in true Talib style about the popularity in some Muslim countries for boy bands:

Eminent scholars throughout history have often opined that music is haram, and I don't recall reading anything about the Sahaba whooping it up to the sound of music. Don't get me wrong. I'm all for people letting off steam, but in a dignified manner and one which is appropriate to their surroundings.

(There's something strangely New Labour about the phrasing of that last sentence.) In the same piece, Ridley poured scorn on Sami Yusuf, a British-born Muslim singer who "is so proud of his claret-colored passport that he wants us all to wave the Union Jacks." Such patriotism is not a notion that appeals to Ridley:

How can anyone be proud to be British? Britain is the third most hated country in the world. The Union Jack is drenched in the blood of our brothers and sisters across Iraq, Afghanistan, and Palestine. Our history is steeped in the blood of colonialism, rooted in slavery, brutality, torture, and oppression.

This extreme anti-Western rhetoric is presumably what endears her to her audiences. Pretty extraordinary stuff it is, too. She told Cooke that in Guantanamo Bay, "12-, 13-, and 14-year-olds [were] being locked up without charge, being sodomised by American soldiers". Elsewhere, she has described her views as "pretty much in line with Hamas" and Israel as "that disgusting little watchdog of America". In that regard it's worth noting that her current employer Press TV is notorious for Holocaust denial. Last year Ridley's presence at an event in Montreal was widely seen as evidence that Canada's New Democratic Party had been infiltrated by radical Islamists.

It's hard to know quite what to make of her. Rachel Cooke wrote that "she is extremely verbose but, in mood, swings between vagueness and anger, sudden changes in emotional weather that I find very disorienting." Some people speculate that she's simply a drama queen who enjoys all the attention. Or that she's just taking the piss. That last has been suggested by David T of Harry's Place who says that "sometimes, I do wonder if she’s not just going along for the ride: winding up the funny foreigners until they ululate and leap around." A more off-the-wall suggestion is that she's covertly working for MI6.

Two thoughts occur to me. First, Ridley seems to be an unusually literal example of the tendency of radical Muslims and left-wingers to find common cause. There can be nothing more reactionary than a desire to recreate a medieval theocracy based on sexual segregation, widespread capital punishment and rule by men in long beards, yet such movements will find vocal apologists in Islington and Hampstead, or in the pages of the Guardian. Ridley differs from most of her kind only in taking her political stance to its natural conclusion.

The other is that her combination of strange public behaviour, world tours, half-baked conspiracy theory and need for constant attention seems oddly familiar. She has become Radical Islam's David Icke.
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Tuesday, 21 October 2008

Wise Words

The other day Jacqui Smith called - with the usual spuriousness of a government that only lauches consultations when it has already decided the answer - for a wide-ranging debate on her plans for a massive new communications database. Well, it looks like she's going to have her wish. Last night the departing Director of Public Prosecutions, Sir Ken McDonald, spoke movingly of the dangers of throwing away centuries of legal and constitutional principle in the name of security. "We need to take very great care not to fall into a way of life in which freedom's back is broken by the relentless pressure of a security State", he said. And he left little doubt that, in his mind, the present government has been careless in that regard.

Sir Ken is not the first to make such a plea; he certainly won't be the last. His intervention is most welcome, though, for two reasons. First, because he has spent the past five years, as DPP, at the sharp end in the fight against terrorism. He knows that it is perfectly possible to investigate and prosecute terrorist suspects without resorting to new and extraordinary powers, reductions in the burden of proof or mass surveillance. As he put it:

I made clear that my period as Director of Public Prosecutions would be accompanied by a relentless prosecutorial struggle against terrorism. And so it has been.

From the start that struggle has been absolutely grounded in due process and pursued with full respect for our historical norms and for our liberal constitution. We have not feared fairness.

We all know that this has worked. Our conviction rate is in excess of 90%- unmatched in the fair trial world. We have a guilty plea rate of over 40%.

McDonald's comments came towards the end of a long speech in which he focused mainly on the history of the Crown Prosecution Service and on the role it played in society. It is in this wider context that he contested the claims made by government ministers (who seem increasingly to be acting as glove puppets for the security services) that Islamic terrorism is a new and unprecedented threat which requires throwing away large parts of the rule of law. Neither investigating nor impeding terrorism, he stressed, has been hampered by the need for what McDonald calls "fairness" - the proper balance between the interests of the state and the rights of individuals.

He seems to be especially alarmed by the creeping apparatus of surveillance, not just for the dangers it brings in terms of invasion of privacy but for what it does to the soul. Technology, he declared, "gives the State enormous powers of access to knowledge and information about each one of us. And the ability to collect and store it at will. Every second of every day, in everything we do." And he warned,

We need to understand that it is in the nature of State power that decisions taken in the next few months and years about how the State may use these powers, and to what extent, are likely to be irreversible. They will be with us forever. And they in turn will be built upon.

So we should take very great care to imagine the world we are creating before we build it. We might end up living with something we can't bear.

McDonald speaks here more as a human being - a fellow citizen - who has to live in this society than as an officer of the Crown or an agent of the State. Ministers and home office officials, by contrast, often sound as though the soulless, bureaucratic, rigidly mathematical technostate to which they are striving will not apply to them. The misery will be inflicted on them, too, once they leave office.

Compare McDonald's clear statement of principle with the doublethink we keep hearing from the Home Office. Take the latest suggestion, announced (where else?) in the Times, that anyone buying a pay-as-you-go mobile phone should be required to produce photo ID and register all their details. Because, of course, life in the surveillance state is not just about having nothing to hide, it's also about having nowhere to hide. Ostensibly to tackle crime, the measure looks like yet another nudge in the direction of "persuading" people to accept ID cards. Because it would be so much more convenient.

When asked to justify the measure, the Home Office repeated a quote made by Jackboots in her speech on 15th Oct:

The communications revolution has been rapid in this country and the way in which we intercept communications and collect communications data needs to change too. If it does not we will lose this vital capability that we currently have and that we all take for granted in fighting and solving crime.

But pay-as-you-go mobile phones have been around for many years without any perceived need for such an intrusive scheme. There is no question of an existing capacity being lost. In any case, it would be easy enough for criminals to circumvent by buying SIM cards abroad or re-programming them. Criminals, indeed, are the people least likely to be affected directly by most of the government's proposals. Much more vulnerable will be the people whose identities have been stolen and find themselves implicated in crime as a result.

There's little doubt that officials in the home office regard the niceties of legal procedure and principles built up over centuries - such as the right to know the evidence on which you are being tried, the presumption of innocence, and the ancient principle that anything that is not expressly illegal is permitted - as little more than a nuisance. Rhetoric about the duty of government being protect the public serves as a transparent cover for something much more basic, which is the desire that rulers have (and always have had) to measure, control and monitor the ruled. Technology makes these eternal ambitions easier to achieve, that is all.

It is good to know, then, that there is still room for independent public servants such as Ken McDonald in influential positions - which is the other reason his speech is so welcome. Like the judiciary - who in recent times have often found themselves at odds with government - he comes from a different tradition from the basically French model of central bureaucratic oversight that reigns in the home office. As he put it, "I am a barrister. I practiced at the Bar for 25 years before I became DPP. I remain a barrister and I shall return to practice when my appointment concludes in a week or so." The Bar has always seen itself as a profession of individuals who represent their clients while preserving their own independence - even where that client is the State. Barristers still pay lip-service to the principle that everyone is equal before the law. And they imbibe the ancient wisdom that the law is there to protect the citizen against the State as much as it is there to protect society against the criminal or unruly citizen.

There was much elegance as well as old-fashioned common sense in Sir Ken's remarks about terrorism. He acknowledged that the country "faces very significant risks" from terrorism. Yet the terrorism we face is essentially crime, no more or less, and should be confronted as crime. He insisted that he was "right to resist" the "paraphernalia of paranoia" being proposed to tackle it:

Of course, you can have the Guantanamo model. You can have the model which says that we cannot afford to give people their rights, that rights are too expensive because of the nature of the threats we are facing.

Or you can say, as I prefer to, that our rights are priceless. That the best way to face down those threats is to strengthen our institutions rather than to degrade them.

It is difficult to see who will maintain a cool head if governments do not. Or who will protect our Constitution if governments unwittingly disarm it.

A good question. But I wonder if the government is quite so unwitting as politeness compelled him to maintain. And he went on:

We would do well not to insult ourselves and all of our institutions and our processes of law in the face of these medieval delusions.

As I say, the response to terror is multi-layered. But it should not include surrender.

Well said.
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Monday, 20 October 2008

Being Prepared

"Scouting touches members of every community," said the former Blue Peter presenter Peter Duncan, speaking in his capacity as Chief Scout, as he launched new guidelines on sex-education. Rather an unfortunate turn of phrase, perhaps. Under the scheme, scout leaders will be encouraged to hand out condoms "if they believe the young person is very likely to begin or continue having intercourse with or without contraception". The plans have been greeted with predictable horror by Ann Widdicombe and equally predictable titters everywhere else.

Says the Telegraph, "family values campaigners accused the Scout Assocation of violating the principles of the 101-year-old movement". But I'm not so sure. Tom Lehrer got there fifty years ago:

Be prepared! That's the Boy Scouts' solemn creed,
Be prepared! And be clean in word and deed.
Don't solicit for your sister, that's not nice,
Unless you get a good percentage of her price.

Be prepared! And be careful not to do
Your good deeds when there's no one watching you.
If you're looking for adventure of a
new and different kind,
And you come across a Girl Scout who is
similarly inclined,
Don't be nervous, don't be flustered, don't be scared.
Be prepared!

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Saturday, 18 October 2008

Here be witches

The Times seems to have become the favourite dumping-ground for spooks who want to offload their latest scare story, however preposterous. It's only a few days since they were telling us that Skype phone services were creating manifold opportunities for terrorists. Now they claim that these same terrorists are escaping police detection by pretending to be paedophiles.

The "link between terrorism plots and hardcore child pornography is becoming clear after a string of police raids", claims the report, offering as evidence the information that indecent images of children have been discovered during anti-terrorist swoops. That rang a bell - didn't they find such images during the Forrest Gate raid on that family that turned out to have nothing to do with terrorism? Anyway, this would be just about credible were it not for the frankly bonkers claim in the next sentence that :

Secret coded messages are being embedded into child pornographic images, and paedophile websites are being exploited as a secure way of passing information between terrorists.

This sounds like conspiracy theory at its looniest, on a par with claims that if you play certain heavy metal records backwards you can discover secret messages from Satan. Given the intense resources aimed at cracking paedophile networks - second only to the resources aimed at cracking terrorism networks - for a terrorist to disguise himself as a paedophile would be about as sensible as going undercover at a fetish party disguised as Neville Thurlbeck. A far more effective disguise for an Al Qaeda network would be as a ladies handicrafts group: they could hide their bomb-making plans in the knitting patterns and no-one - certainly not Inspector Knacker - would be any the wiser.

It's almost as though, in 1590 or thereabouts, someone had discovered a conspiracy of Catholic witches to assassinate Elizabeth I, who were using black cats and toads to communicate with the pope. Although to make the analogy more exact, Walsingham would have leaked the story to William Shakespeare to use in one of his plays.

So off the wall is the article, indeed, that it's hard to escape the conclusion that the spooks planted it as part of some sort of psychological test. To see how far they could go with their scaremongering before the public stopped nodding politely - after all, they're the experts, if they say there's a major threat then surely there must be a threat - and just started laughing at them. Or perhaps they seriously believe that since the sheep-like public will apparently accept any intrusion into their liberty if it's done in the name of protecting children or fighting Islamists, putting the two together will square a neat little circle. Of course, they might actually believe in the connection. It would be the first time members of the intelligence services succumbed to this type of delusion.

There are also suggestions that terrorists are grooming children to become the suicide bombers of the future by approaching them for sex. The police were considering further research. "One source familiar with the proposal said that this could eventually lead to the training of child welfare experts to identify signs of terrorist involvement as they monitor pornographic sites."

"A way of finding who the extremists and terrorists are", an anti-terror source said, "is to go through the child-porn sites."

An ingenious tactic for the police to master since, as the source puts it, "we will get an operational strategy with the paedophile unit when they are infiltrating a paedophile site. If... they are using these kind of sites as a smokescreen, as a safe haven, they will never think we are cops."

Of course not. The terrorists presumably imagine that the cops only pose as 13 year old girls.

The evidence offered for all these claims is rather thin. A former preacher at the East London mosque who was convicted of rape "was being examined for his links to a hardcore Islamic militant who was later convicted of terrorism." In Spain, the alleged mastermind of a Muslim cell has also been accused of downloading hundreds of child sex abuse pictures and videos. Child porn has turned up on several computers seized in terror raids in Britain, it is said - although "in one case fewer than a dozen images were found." Which is more likely to be evidence of incautious browsing habits than any actual sexual interest in children.

The usual unnamed source claimed that the suspects' alleged interest in child porn presented a contradiction with their religious commitment. "Here they are hating Western decadence but actually making use of it and finding that they enjoy this stuff." On the other hand, in a companion piece an Italian magistrate was quoted as doubting that they were actually paedophiles: "in many parts of the Arab world wives are often very young girls of 11, 12 or 13...But that is not paedophilia, it is a question of Arab culture." It was more likely that they were using the pictures as "an instrument to hide messages of quite a different content ... they use pornographic images simply to camouflage the content of their messages." But he offered no evidence for this extraordinary claim, which seems to be the basis for the whole story.

Several different ideas seem to have been mixed up in these articles. Alongside the suggestion that some of the suspected terrorists have paedophile leanings and the "secret codes" business - which really belongs in a bad spy novel - there's a rather different claim that paedophiles and terrorists have similar characteristics, a notion that would seem to be based on dubious psychological profiling. The report claims a "startling similarity in the way that jihadis and paedophiles target vulnerable young people", as though Osama's sidekicks set up profiles of themselves as 14 year old boys into emo and texting. Furthermore:

Shahien Taj, the director of the Henna Foundation, which deals with domestic violence against women and children, said that both terrorists and paedophiles were obsessed with control and domination. She attacked the hypocrisy of terrorists who claim to espouse religious motives on one hand while degrading children on the other.

One might say much the same about any shadowy clandestine organisation. Satanists, perhaps, or Freemasons, or reds under the bed, or indeed witches (or Jews, or Bulgarian heretics). But these days it's paedophiles and terrorists. But perhaps it's more of a tactical alliance than natural sympathy:

The source explained that both types of criminal also share a need for great secrecy and indeed it is the paedophiles' status as outcasts as well as their expertise in encryption techniques that may have first attracted the terrorists...

Some paedophiles have become adept at encrypting information and burying it so deeply in the internet that no outsider can easily find it. Paedophiles then meet in cyberspace and swap notes on how to reach the images. None is likely to rush to police saying they suspect that they have spotted a terrorist loitering on their child porn website.

I wonder if they've been won over with promises of underage brides under the new Islamic dispensation.

Does anyone believe this obvious bollocks? Well, Labour MP Andrew Dismore, chairman of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, was on hand to describe it as an "important development" which "could become a very important weapon in the fight against terrorism"; and the Conservatives' Pauline Neville-Jones, who once chaired the JIC, thought the discovery "potentially provides useful insight". But in the comments below the original article there was more scepticism. "These claims are made by the same people who said their were weapons of mass desctruction in Iraq", said Gary from Houston. While Bill in Bristol noted that "I have never in all my born days read a more ridiculous load of drivel." And Jack in Guildford thought it "offensive the government think we'll swallow this tripe".

However, there's an approving write-up over at the BNP's website, where many commenters spotted a link between paedophilia and Muslim immigration. "It underlines the grave danger that they are putting EVRYONE in", wrote one. "If they are ignoring the fact that our children are at a serious risk from the terrorist nonce cases, then they have totally lost the plot." Another doubted that the BBC would dare to report on this scandalous plot. For several, it stood to reason that terrorists would be into kiddie porn, Mohammed being a paedo himself of course.

This rather misses the point. The security people aren't saying that the terrorists are actually paedophiles, merely that they're pretending to be such as a sneaky way of avoiding attention; they go on to make the same claim in relationship to extreme right-wing groups. But perhaps the BNP endorsement is just what they're looking for. The government and its stooges have on several occasions shown themselves more than happy to flirt with the far right if they think it will advance their authoritarian agenda.

UPDATE: David Gerard has a nice parody.
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Friday, 17 October 2008

The perfect crime

The other night Newsnight offered an explanation of the way in which Credit Default Swaps work. These are financial instruments to which Royal Bank of Scotland (market capitalisation around £11 billion) has an exposure estimated at £2.4 trillion - more than 200 times its current value. Barclays' position is almost as bad. If I understood it correctly, a vast amount of purely theoretical money is notionally secured on assets worth a fraction of the total sum. Like remortgaging your house 200 times. But as long as the banks don't collapse no-one finds out and the bankers can collect their enormous bonuses. Amazing to discover that what all these years we imagined was the global financial system was little more than a gigantic pyramid scheme.

It reminded me of this:

Perhaps we should start learning the lyrics to Springtime for Hitler Read the rest of this article

Thursday, 16 October 2008

McCain and Roosevelt

In today's Independent, Johann Hari is less than impressed with John McCain's personal hero, Theodore Roosevelt. McCain has described this all-American hero - probably the first president who acted and thought like the leader of an international superpower - as the strongest influence on his political thought. Hari is appalled. Citing Roosevelt's view of war as "spiritually uplifting", he accuses the 26th president (1901-1908) of being a war criminal, responsible for the deaths of 3 million Filipinos and the author of a policy of naked colonial aggression.

He wanted to take over Panama and build a canal for US goods through it. The Colombian government refused to surrender its territory. So he spent a fortune trying to stir rebellion in Panama, and as soon as there was a hint of it, he sent in the US navy to grab the land. McCain calls this "energetic and forward-looking". The Attorney General called it "illegal". McCain says now that Roosevelt's foreign policy is his model. "He sought to preserve peace and order," he claims, "by confronting potential adversaries with America's resolve and readiness to fight, if necessary, to protect its interests."

Hari admits that Roosevelt fought against corruption. But this isn't to McCain's credit: "It is the aggression that he loves in his Teddy, not the reform."

This is mostly rot, of course. Roosevelt was a man of his time, and as such he used language and behaved in ways which we might find shocking or even reprehensible. In many respects he was the USA's Winston Churchill. Like Churchill he emerged from a sickly childhood to embrace a love of the outdoors, military life and manly pursuits such as hunting. Like Churchill again, he was a writer, producing books on history as well as natural history, a larger than life personality with a flair for a striking phrase that sometimes got him into trouble. Both were mistrusted and resented by more conventional colleagues. They even looked rather similar - although, interestingly, on the few occasions the two met they did not get on. Roosevelt accused the younger man of "levity, lack of sobriety, lack of permanent principle, and an inordinate thirst for that cheap form of admiration which is given to notoriety." Takes one to know one, I suppose.

Churchill's reputation is even safer than Teddy Roosevelt's, but that doesn't stop people dredging up embarrassing quotes about Gandhi or the desirability of using poison gas on Kurdish civilians. But as the quote from McCain shows, his enthusiasm for Roosevelt is based on more on the president's most famous dictum of "talking softly while carrying a big stick".

Nevertheless, McCain's evident enthusiasm for the older Roosevelt left me wondering if it didn't influence his surprising choice of running mate. There are a number of interesting similarites between Theodore - the most macho of US presidents - and the former beauty queen Sarah Palin. Both have a tough, outdoors, gun-toting image, for one thing, and a clear (possibly overbearing) sense of American exceptionalism. Both are enthusiastic supporters of the military, Roosevelt as a former colonel, Palin as the mother of a young soldier. Roosevelt was governor of New York at the early age of 40, while Palin became governor of Alaska at 42. Roosevelt had six children; Palin has five. For both, their striking taste in eyewear forms an integral part of their public image. And like Palin, Roosevelt had served less than two years as governor of his state before becoming the Republican vice-presidential candidate. In Roosevelt's case, he served less than a year as VP before the assassination of McKinley put him in the White House. Given McCain's age and uncertain health, that almost seems like an omen.

Of course, there are differences. Palin is far more of an outsider, for one thing. Roosevelt was a member of the New York aristocracy, attended Harvard, and was a war hero before entering politics. He was also a far more impressive figure intellectually, and in many ways ahead of his time. He was an early conservationist, for example: not quite our Sarah's style. The best remembered incident in his life came when he passed on the opportunity to shoot a bear cub. Palin, on the other hand, is better known for pulling the trigger. And I would be surprised if Sarah Palin action dolls, fun though they are, prove to be as enduring and well-loved as teddy bears. Read the rest of this article

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

Listening In

There are two ways to interpret Jacqui Smith's announcement (in a speech to the IPPR) that the government is to "consult" about plans for a new massive database containing details of every phone call, internet search and email made by anyone, anywhere in Britain, ever.

The first is that it merely confirms what we already knew, that the Brown government remains wedded to the goal of omniscience and total control, all in the name of tackling terrorism, or international crime, or perverts, or whoever happens to be the object this year's headline-grabbing moral panic. That they won't stop until they have perfected a mind-reading chip that records details of every thought you ever have, and then makes it compulsory to have such a device implanted in every ID-card wearing citizen, because, after all, you can't be too careful when it comes to protecting the public. Comprehensive details of the scheme currently being drawn up by GCHQ were published in the Sunday Times a couple of weeks ago, and chilling reading they make. And we all know (or ought to) what the word "consultation" means when this lot use it. It means collect statements from vested interests and others who agree with our position to use as propaganda when the consultation period is over, and ignore everyone who disagrees.

According to the Daily Mail's report of Smith's remarks,

Activities which will be subject to snooping for the first time include visits to social networking sites such as Facebook, auction sites such as Ebay, gaming websites and chatrooms.

Police and security services will not be able to access the precise content - but will know each site visited, and to whom and when a phonecall, text message or email was sent. This could be accessed within an hour of being sent, in virtual 'real time', sources say.

The Mail accompanies their article with a still from the film The Lives of Others, featuring a Stasi officer listening in on someone's conversation. Which suggests that Smith may have some problems with the PR for this scheme.

In her speech Jackboots trotted out the usual line that the terrorism we face is uniquely dangerous and thus requires new and unprecedented powers. After a brief trot through the history of "international terrorism" since the seventies (conveniently defining her ground so she could pretend the IRA, who were rather more successful and efficient terrorists than the likes of poor, manipulated Nicky Reilly, don't count) she declared that:

The international threat we face from terrorism today is wholly different in type, as well as extent, from the threat we faced twenty years ago. It is a wholly new form of terrorism – so different in motivation, complexity and reach, in fact, that it might as well have a different name.

The focus of those who threaten us today is not a cause related to a specific geographical area. They wish to kill British people – and of course others – anywhere in the world. They want a reordering of global political structures and a separation of faith groups.

The want a lot of things. The experience of the past seven years, though, shows that they are unlikely to come anywhere near achieving their aims. Unlike the government, whose ambitions for total control over a subservient or at least quiescent population seem to be far more realistic and well-advanced.

She then goes on:

In a country like our own – where law enforcement and intelligence agencies have managed to disrupt attacks and attempted attacks – it is sometimes hard to explain the scale and urgency of the threat we face. But no-one should take the absence of attack to mean the absence of threat – nor, indeed, to mean the absence of success in countering that threat.

To the last phrase of which one can only ask, eh? What she seems to be saying is: the police and security services have so far been very successful in foiling terrorist plots using the powers they have. This proves that they don't have enough powers. Of course, if a major attack succeeded then that, too, would be used as evidence that more powers were needed. And if the terrorist threat suddenly ceased to exist, I don't doubt that even that would be seen as a good reason to extend surveillance powers: as a deterrent to such a threat ever arising again.

Indeed, the empire of counter-terrorism is ever-expanding. Smith again:

You will have read last week about the excellent work of the Department for Children Schools and Families in providing advice to teachers on how to deal with signs of radicalisation. John Denham’s department has been working with student bodies and higher and further education to do something rather similar. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport is considering what impact the issue of counter radicalisation should have on their programmes – as are the Department for Work and Pensions; and the Department of Health.

The Department of Health??? What - because of that doctor who drove his car into Glasgow airport? Strange she didn't mention the Ministry of Defence. The army hand out guns to people: what if one of them turns out to be a terrorist? Come to think of it, the Agriculture department ought to get involved - what with all that fertiliser sloshing around on farms. And a well-placed Al Quaeda sympathiser in the Treasury, the FSA or one of our leading city firms could do untold damage to the banking system. I wonder...

Now, listen to this for doublespeak:

There are no plans for an enormous database which will contain the content of your emails, the texts that you send or the chats you have on the phone or online. Nor are we going to give local authorities the power to trawl through such a database in the interest of investigating lower level criminality under the spurious cover of counter terrorist legislation.

First of all, no-one has ever suggested that there were such plans - it would be, in information storage terms, impossible. Nor do the snoopers want it - the lavish GCHQ plans call for live-streaming of information, so once they know who is talking to who, they can start eavesdropping. But if local authorities aren't going to be given access to "such a database" to investigate lower level criminality, surely that must be because "such a database" does not, in fact, exist. Which leaves unanswered the question of what access they will have to the database that will exist.

All very frightening. But on closer examination it seems that what Jackboots promised may not actually happen. The Mail carried sceptical comments from the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. More importantly, says the report, a Bill is "expected to follow by the end of 2009 or 2010." In other words, the chance of it becoming law before the next election (assuming a later election in a year to 18 months' time) are virtually non-existent. The plans were due to have been announced in the Queen's Speech in a few weeks time - as the Sunday Times reported only a couple of weeks ago. "Officials say there is insufficient time," reports the Mail, as the subject is so "complex". More likely, the home office has calculated, following its retreats of the past couple of days on 42 days detention and secret inquests, that bringing forward the proposals at this stage would be asking for trouble.

Another problem for the government involves the massive cost of the project. The Interception Modernisation Programme, which would require the construction of a vast database, has been estimated as costing £12 billion. And that's only an initial estimate. A cash bonanza for the IT companies who would seem to be the only people, apart from the spooks and some of the police, who want such a scheme. The government is now saying that a cheaper option would be to require ISPs to store all the data, for access by police/MIF/local councils/whoever as and when. This would only cost the taxpayer about £1 billion, they think, with those same taxpaying schmucks picking up the bill as the telecom companies recouped their costs. But that's still a lot of money - though it perhaps doesn't seem so at the moment, given the enormous sums being thrown at the banks. And in any case the Mail might be slightly confused, since a figure of £1 billion is quoted elswhere as having already been allocated to the scheme.

In an interesting sidelight, The Register reports that the Ministry of Justice, under budgetry pressure, is considering "spending cuts that could possibly affect IT systems." This is to fill an expected funding gap, ahead of what is rumoured to be a savage public spending round. Officials "have identified a series of "quick wins" to recoup big savings that include the axing of computer systems to manage cases in the family and civil courts. These include the Electronic Filing and Document Management System, which would save nearly £46m if dropped." £46 million isn't very much in the world of government IT projects: it's certainly dwarfed by the huge sums being promised to companies operating the National Identity Register, the NHS "spine", or the paedophile-friendly childrens' database ContactPoint. So if such a paltry sum is seen as worth saving, how will these far grander projects justify themselves in the middle of a recession?
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