Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Harriet and the Punters

In the Dungeon: Hunting PunterNet. See also a great demolition job by Alix Mortimer, now posting again after a too-long absence. Read the rest of this article

Sunset in Brighton

There are two big winners from the Sun's decision to back the Conservative Party at the forthcoming election. The first is David Cameron, obviously. The Sun's support probably didn't swing the last three elections. 1997 and 2001 were both walkovers with or without the Sun, and by 2005 its support was in any case rather half-hearted. But it adds to the sense of inevitability that already surrounds a Tory victory in 2010. The Sun is following rather than leading its readership - or rather it is following the Murdochs, who have decided (in common with most people) that Labour's lease has expired. To win the support of the Sun, Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell had to persuade Rupert Murdoch of two things: first, that New Labour was no threat to his media empire (which was relatively easy); and second that they were going to win the election. Even so - and even given the dire state of the Conservatives in 1997 - it was not until the announcement of the dissolution of Parliament came that the Sun showed its hand. That news broke like a thunderclap over the campaign, even though it only confirmed what everyone already knew, or ought to have guessed. Yesterday's development, by contrast, has been long anticipated. Only the timing, which smacks of a rather desperate marketing campaign, was a surprise. (Like other leading bloggers, the Heresiarch was sent a special email from a Sun journalist alerting him to this crucial political development).

As another Sun, the Chinese general Sun Tzu, said a long time ago, the supreme excellence in war lies not in winning a hundred victories but in subduing the enemy without a shot being fired. An army that knows it has already lost has no stomach for the fight - though there will usually be a small group of suicidal diehards determined to re-fight the Battle of Thermopylae. Gordon Brown in his truly lamentable speech yesterday tried to strike a note of Churchillian defiance. But by all accounts an air of fatalism pervades this year's Labour conference. It's not just that they think they'll lose. It's that a large proportion of them positively want to lose. They know that in many ways - not least economically - Labour has failed. They know, too, that they are hated, certainly more deeply than John Major's government was ever hated, and more widely than Margaret Thatcher's. Many of them also hate themselves: for betraying their principles, such as they believed them to be, but above all for being part of a party, and supporters of a government, now held in such widespread contempt.

Which is why the other main beneficiaries from the Soaraway Sun's defection will be in the Labour party.

The alliance between New Labour and the most influential Murdoch title always seemed a little strange, though I suppose Blair and the Sun might be said to have shared an enthusiasm for Big Brother. To many Sun journalists, including the former political editor Trevor Kavanagh, supporting Labour never came naturally. And the paper's support for the party of the Left and the big state never seemed to affect its general tone of braying right-wing populism. But then New Labour's tone, more often as not, was one of braying right-wing populism, a fact which for years disguised the historically revolutionary statewards turn the country took under their rule. Now that the economic crisis has revealed the true extent of the state's expansion during the Labour years, the Sun's continued support for the party would not merely seem jarring but look ridiculous.

Having the backing of the Sun might have been useful politically for the Labour party, but for many of its members it was troubling psychologically - like having an unwanted admirer who was nevertheless tolerated, even indulged. What, they may have wanted to know, does that paper see in us? What does it say about our party that the country's most loutish, most sexist, most naturally un-PC, most intolerant and least thoughtful newspaper wants to be our friend? That, certainly, seems to have been Harriet Harman's opinion. Harman - along with Mandelson the most significant beneficiary from the implosion of Brown's premiership - came close to openly celebrating the Sun's defection today. Claiming that the Sun "knows nothing" about "equality", and that "the nearest their political analysis gets to women's rights is Page 3's News in Briefs", she urged delegates to "get moblised".

Perhaps she does sound a little like a jilted lover suddenly discovering that she hated her boyfriend all along. But then she and the Sun have never had the easiest of relationships. Take this randon story from March. Under the headline "Harman misled MPs over Fred", we are told that the "blundering" Commons leader was forced to apologise over some trivial mistake involving an unpopular banker. A few days later, "Harperson says sorry (again)". Here we learn that Labour's deputy leader, described as "gaffe prone", had "issued a grovelling apology yesterday after making a rude remark to an actor". Another story from the same month accused her of having once supported legalising porn. Sun stories about Hattie come in three broad categories: her "gaffes"; her manoeuvring for the Labour leadership (with its implied disloyalty to Gordon Brown); and her sponsoring of politically correct laws. Just this Monday the paper was protesting against "potty" proposals to ban topless calendars in the workplace as sexual harassment.

Until today, Harman was unable to respond publicly to such attacks coming from what was, theoretically at least, a Labour-supporting paper. Now she is set free. So is the rest of the party. This afternoon union leader Tony Woodley - who hates the Sun as much as a Liverpudlian as Harman hates it as a feminist - ripped up a copy of the Sun to cheers from conference delegates. It was a moment of catharsis. The guilt of twelve years as the Murdochs' pet political party could be purged. And this must be the final irony: that the week the Labour party decided it loved Peter Mandelson, it also stopped pretending to love the Sun.
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An elegaic couplet

That was the change we chose // change that benefits the hard
working majority and not just a privileged few

Catullus would have been proud.

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Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Gordon Brown stealing BNP clothes again?

Yesterday, the BNP issued a cheeky press release drawing attention to Labour's kleptomaniac tendencies:

The British National Party has started moves to copyright its political slogans after the Labour Party stole the BNP-origin term “Operation Fightback,” Nick Griffin MEP has announced. Speaking to BNP News after Labour unveiled its “Operation Fightback” banner at its flop conference this weekend, Mr Griffin said this blatant theft was the second time that the Government had used a BNP phraseology.

“Last year we saw Gordon Brown use the slogan ‘British jobs for British workers’ at a Labour conference,” Mr Griffin said. “Enough is enough; the BNP is now going to start copyrighting its slogans to prevent the ideologically-bankrupt thieves at Labour HQ from using our ideas.”

Today, Gordon Brown went further. He appeared to be adopting, almost word for word, BNP policies.

Last month, the blog of Lancaster Unite Against Fascism (link via Nick Barlow) uncovered a proposal it described as "garbage" to create compulsory communal homes for teenage mums. Here's what the proposer - who submitted the idea for discussion by the BNP conference - said:

Any amount of sexual health education is not going to reduce Britain’s high teen pregnancy rates, whilst the ‘rewards’ for becoming an unmarried teen mother remain so [relatively] attractive. The cycle of girls getting pregnant by man A, then being allocated a council flat & welfare benefits, then getting pregnant by man B, and being allocated a bigger council flat & more benefits, then getting pregnant by man C, and being allocated a council house & yet more benefits has got to STOP.

I suggest that there be no council flats and no welfare benefits available to unmarried mothers under the age of 21. Instead they will be placed in ‘mother & baby homes’. Here they will receive academic education as well as parenting classes, plus courses covering all aspects of their social development.

And here, with greater succinctness but indistinguishable sentiment, is what Gordon Brown said, to warm applause, in his Brighton speech today:

And I do think it's time to address a problem that for too long has gone unspoken, the number of children having children. For it cannot be right, for a girl of sixteen, to get pregnant, be given the keys to a council flat and be left on her own.

From now on all 16 and 17 year old parents who get support from the taxpayer will be placed in a network of supervised homes. These shared homes will offer not just a roof over their heads, but a new start in life where they learn responsibility and how to raise their children properly. That's better for them, better for their babies and better for us all in the long run.

We won't ever shy away from taking difficult decisions on tough social questions.

Spot the difference.

To be fair to the BNP proposal, it comes with rather more detail than the Labour effort. Thus we are given a glimpse into the regime at these institutions, which sound like Magdalen Laundries without the nuns:

The homes will be run by ‘matron’ type figures. The homes should not be ‘institution’ like, but at the same time there will be rules which must be adhered to; such as a curfew of approx 9pm, a dress code which states skirts must come to at least the knees & no cleavage to be on show. Failure to comply with the homes’ rules will result in the mother being sent to prison, and the baby being taken in to care.

This last point is rather significant. Brown's eye-catching proposal (one of the few surprises in a generally dull and predictable speech) has already been dubbed "Gulags for Slags (© Alex Massie) - although Charlotte thinks they sound more like Victorian poorhouses. But there are, as yet, few details. How will it be enforced? What does "support from the taxpayer" mean - child benefit? Student loans? Working tax credits? Or are these institutions - which will, doubtless, be described in benign terms as providing exciting new opportunities and greater "support" for vulnerable young mothers - intended merely for those who would in any case need to be housed at public expense? It's not clear. It may well be a classic New Labour back-of-the-envelope policy, devised to please putative Mail readers, ill thought-through and entirely uncosted. Headline first, policy afterwards.

I can imagine this idea emerging from one of those PR-driven policy workshops, and going down well in focus groups. It has superficial attractions. Like the rest of Brown's social authoritarianism - of which there was a lot in this speech - it combines crowd-pleasing appeals to traditional "values" with the "progressive" attachment to professional intervention and the state invigilation of the minutiae of private life. These slut huts would not be glorified hostels. They might be less objectionable if they were. By the sound of things, they would be closer to open prisons, or reform schools, staffed by social workers and parenting experts trained in the latest childcare theory. Like all Labour schemes, they would be filled with Orwellian surveillance apparatus, and would soon acquire Kafkaesque levels of bureaucracy. And, of course, they would cost the taxpayer far more than they saved.

It's just about possible, I suppose, that some bright spark was reading the LUAF blog and thought it sounded like a vote-winning Labour policy. But I doubt it. Some similar-sounding facilities are already being built. This report from Sept 13th, for example, describes a £300k scheme in Hounslow to turn a run-down hostel into a residential centre where "support staff will be on hand to prepare new mums to move into social housing." The young mothers will have their own bedsits. By the sound of it, the facility isn't compulsory, nor is it limited to 16-17 year olds: it is for mothers who are already homeless or inadequately housed. I don't have an objection to such schemes myself, provided they are voluntary, created through local initiatives in response to local circumstances, and they are affordable. But I'm fairly sure any national scheme - especially one implemented by a government with New Labour's track record of incompetent authoritarianism - would be none of those things.

No: in the final analysis I doubt this is a case of larceny. Any resemblance between Brown's policy and that of the BNP is purely coincidental. But that's the point. From British Jobs for British Workers to British Gulags for British Slags, by way of nationalisation or Operation Fightback, the BNP and New Labour provide a textbook case of convergent evolution. The BNP might be a "right-wing" racist party, but (as others have pointed out) many of their other policies are of the left. Increasingly, they are to Labour what UKIP have long been to the Conservatives: a natural home for disaffected core supporters. Fishing in the same pond, it's perhaps not too surprising that they are now speaking the same language, and having very similar ideas.
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Sums it up nicely

I'd like to share with you this comment, by "Anax", taken from a CIF thread on the policewomen banned from looking after each other's children. It could apply to most of New Labour's bully state legislation.

"It happened because we thought it couldn't".


And it will go on happening as long as there are people who still don't believe it has. Read the rest of this article

Monday, 28 September 2009

Roman Scandal

Better late than never, I suppose.

For more than thirty years, the paedophile Roman Polanski has been a fugitive from justice. The vile crime of which he was accused, and for which there is abundant evidence of his guilt, involved the drugging and rape of a thirteen year old girl. He also photographed her topless - which today would be enough in itself to have him sent to prison.

Neither at the time, nor during the subsequent decades, has Polanski expressed the slightest contrition for his offence - nor, indeed, has he even accepted that he did anything wrong. He has, however, expressed a great deal of self-pity. He has repeatedly painted himself as the injured party. And many of the leading lights of the film industry supported and continue to support him. Not only has he been allowed to continue his career in exile, he has been lauded, garlanded with honours in Europe and America, won an Oscar, been defended by the great and the good - and now that the law has finally caught up with him, his arrest has been denounced by the French minister of culture as an abuse of process. A "deeply shocked" Frederic Mitterand described his detention in Switzerland as "a new ordeal inflicted on someone who has already gone through so much".

His third wife Emmanuelle Seigner, "fearful, angry...and devastated" is organising a petition to protest against the extradition attempt. Monica Bellucci has already signed. French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner is said to be prepared to lobby Hillary Clinton personally. Organisers of the Zurich Film Festival, where the director was to have been honoured this week, are planning a special ceremony "to allow everyone to express their solidarity". The Swiss Directors' Association, for its part, branded Polanski's arrest "not only a grotesque farce of justice but also an immense cultural scandal".

The real scandal here is the enthusiasm with which Polanski's friends in the film industry are rushing to condone his behaviour, and denounce his arrest.

Far from being spontaneous or out of character, Polanski's behaviour at Jack Nicholson's house on 10th March 1977 bears all the hallmarks of a practised and manipulative paedophile. He was careful to groom his victim before violating her. According to a legal deposition made earlier this year by district attorney David Walgren (pdf), Polanski had previously made an agreement with Samantha Gailey's mother to photograph the girl for Vogue. On that occasion (the month before the assault) the mother had requested that she be present throughout the shoot. Polanski managed to persuade her otherwise, arguing that he needed to be alone with the girl so that she would "respond naturally". He was thus in a position of trust, and fully aware of the girl's age. The two repaired to "a nearby hillside" where Polanski "instructed the victim to take off her shirt and pose naked from the waist up".

On the 10th March itself, Polanski asked Mrs Gailey if he could take some more shots of her daughter. Before she agreed, she asked to see the results of the previous shoot. Polanski made some excuse about being "in a hurry because the light was going down". He went with the girl to "a friend's house" to take some more photographs before taking her to Nicholson's residence. The actor was out, but his housekeeper let them in. Polanski plied the girl with champagne before taking some more topless photos of her beside the swimming pool holding a glass. He suggested they take some more shots in the Jacuzzi. First, though, he offered her a Quaalude pill, which she accepted. "I must have been pretty drunk or else I wouldn't have" she later testified. Quaalude (Methaqualone) was a sedative popular in the Seventies, "used during sexual activity because of heightened sensitivity coupled with relaxation and euphoria". These days we would call it a date-rape drug.

When the two reached the Jacuzzi, Samantha intended to keep her underwear on. Polanski insisted that she had to be naked. So the girl, tipsy, drugged and in the care of a respected film director thirty years her senior, complied. Polanski took some more photographs. He then removed his clothes and entered the tub with her. He attempted to molest her. "The victim, evidently uncomfortable and wanting to extricate herself from the situation, told the defendant that she had asthma and had to get out... the defendant, however, was not satisfied." At his insistence Samantha swum the length of Nicholson's swimming pool. She then went upstairs to dry herself.

She was thirteen.

Polanksi followed her to the bathroom, where she told him she wanted to go home. He prevaricated; she insisted; he then ordered her to go and lie down in another room. As she was sitting on the couch, he began kissing her, despite her protests. He then performed what she misheard as "cuddliness" on her sexual organs. She was "ready to cry" and pleaded with him to stop. He ignored her protests and raped her. She was unable to fight back physically because (she later testified) she was "afraid of him". However she continued to beg him to stop. He responded by penetrating her anally. At some point during the proceedings, there was a knock at the door and Polanski went to speak with a woman (identified as Anjelica Huston) for a couple of minutes. Samantha began to get dressed. But her ordeal wasn't over yet. Polanski "sat her back down and continued to have intercourse with her until he ejaculated."

She was still thirteen.

Polanski then drove the tearful Samantha back home to her mother. He warned her not to say anything about what had happened, adding - in clichéd paedophile fashion - that "this is our secret". He also attempted to make her feel guilt over the incident. "You know, when I first met you I promised myself I wouldn't do anything like this with you." Thus began the denial which has continued until the present day.

Astonishing excuses are made for this inexcusable behaviour: his childhood as a Holocaust survivor, for example, or the terrible events of August 1969 which saw his heavily pregnant wife Sharon Tate butchered by the Manson gang. But having experienced trauma cannot justify inflicting trauma on others. Polanski's shameless apologists are even happy to malign the character of his victim. Yesterday, I heard novelist and Mandelson hanger-on Robert Harris minimising Polanski's crime by suggesting that his child victim might have had previous sexual experience. He was in his forties. She was thirteen. Nor was it a one-off: Polanski had a well-developed taste for young girls (one of his previous conquests was an underage Nastassja Kinski). By most people's standards, the man was a paedophile. Nothing that Michael Jackson was accused of came remotely close to the depravity of Polanski's offence. Even Gary Glitter would seem unfairly maligned in comparison. Yet Harris described the arrest - the arrest, mind, not the crime - as "monstrous".

Many (including the victim herself) have suggested that since the offence was committed so long ago, it should be dropped; even that Polanski has suffered enough. But that is a terrible principle. It's like saying that Nazi war criminals should no longer be pursued because they are now elderly, or that cold murder cases shouldn't be re-opened when new evidence becomes available. In cases of sexual abuse, there have been many instances of perpetrators being brought to justice long after the fact. Nor should it be forgotten that Ronnie Biggs, having lived most of his life in Brazil, was incarcerated on his return well into his dotage and only released a few weeks ago when he appeared to be on his deathbed. And Polanski's offence was far worse than Biggs'.

Most disgracefully of all, Polanski's "genius" is placed in the balance. He has, perhaps, directed some good films. That is, however, entirely irrelevant. All should be equal before the law. If Polanski were not a "genius" film-director, but just another absconded sex-offender, no-one would consider it wrong to arrest him now. Rather, the only criticism would be that he had not been arrested sooner. The double standard being exhibited here by Hollywood's finest is shocking. But then one remembers that the sexual exploitation of young women has long been commonplace in the movie industry. That too, though, is no excuse.

It is also asserted that Polanski was the victim of a legal stitch-up. It's true that he had entered into a plea-bargain. The prosecution had agreed to drop the more serious charges in return for a guilty plea to underage sex. This was, by all accounts, to spare the young victim the further ordeal of having to testify at a public trial, not because of doubts about the evidence. Polanski was hoping for a slap on the wrists; when it turned out that the judge might be intending to impose a custodial sentence after all he skipped bail - since when he has been feted by the sophisticates of European cinema. He has never since set foot in Britain, however: he knew very well that if he came here he would promptly be arrested. Quite right too.

It might be that in the faraway, swinging, hazy years of the Seventies drugging and raping a young girl was just part of the fun in the circles in which Polanski moved. So what? If he died in jail it would be no more than he deserved.
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Sunday, 27 September 2009

Collective madness

The Mail on Sunday today has further details on the two mothers who have been banned by Ofsted from looking after each other's children. One of them, Leanne Shepherd, describes the Kafka-shaped hole into which she and her lifelong friend Lucy Jarrett inadvertently fell when they decided to look after each others' children. The arrangement not only enabled them to carry on working without incurring onerous childcare costs but also seemed preferable to handing the children over to a complete stranger.

As Shepherd put it,

We were the same rank, worked in the same station, had daughters the same age and were close friends, so it made sense to job-share. We would split the 40-hour week, both working two ten-hour days, and the arrangement was working perfectly.

Unfortunately it was illegal. Under the Childcare Act of 2006, if someone who is not a close relative of the parents looks after a child for more than two hours in a single day "for reward", they must be registered as a childminder, a procedure which involves background checks, training in first aid, adherence to a voluminous code of practice, inspections of their property and payment of an annual £103 fee. The requirements include training in "core skills", ensuring that the government's 69 "learning goals" for pre-school children are promoted, the stipulation that no-one present in the house consume alcohol in the presence of children, a "written statement of procedures to be followed in case of complaints" and keeping a daily record to be available on demand to Ofsted inspectors.

In other words, under whatever circumstances the arrangement may be entered into, someone who wishes to look after a friend's child on a regular basis must become, to all intents and purposes, a professional childminder. The Mail suggests that there may be "thousands" of parents who are breaking the law, often unknowingly. Indeed: a law this crazy is almost designed to be broken. How many working mothers would be forced to give up work or pay professionals they (and their children) don't know and may not really trust if the rules were enforced to the letter?

It turns out that both are detective constables working for Thames Valley Police, a fact which gives this story added piquancy. In fact, as a tale of the deep, almost certainly inescapable pit of madness into which Britain has descended during New Labour's years in power, this story has a bit of everything.


- Ofsted only became involved because they received a formal complaint "from a neighbour" that the two women were operating an illicit childminding ring. Digging a little, I discovered the background. Apparently, the complaint came from a retired couple who had seen the child being dropped off. They had "an issue with the children being in the garden and making a noise". New Labour loves a snitch: even with the huge expansion in surveillance, the enforcement of many regulations is sporadic, dependent on spitefulness and jealousy to bring cases to the attention of the authorities. The consequence, deliberate or otherwise (I can't decide) is to erode trust in society, replacing it with a bilateral relationship between the state and the citizen.

- Once the complaint was received, it was investigated assiduously and at great expense. Even though no issues of child protection were raised by the longstanding arrangement, which was wholly reciprocal and private, Ofsted choose to interpret the rules in the most restrictive possible way so as to justify their involvement. Sticking to the letter, rather than the spirit, of regulations even when doing so serves no useful purpose is a point of pride to some bureaucrats and officials. Indeed, the more trivial the breach, the more essential it can seem to pursue it. It also provides easier box-ticking opportunities. As police officers, the two women involved will presumably be familiar with the culture of excessive enforcement in which they have been trapped - just as Patricia Scotland was familiar with the law she was fined heavily for breaching in what the Border Control Agency decided was a purely technical manner.

- New Labour's Sledgehammer principle applies. "DC Shepherd claims she has received a letter from Ofsted telling her she would be subjected to random surveillance to make sure she was not continuing to care for her friend’s daughter." Pause for a moment to consider the type of mind that considers it a necessary and proportionate use of resources to employ "random surveillance" to ensure that a mother isn't surreptitiously looking after her best friend's daughter as well as her own. And then consider that this vital surveillance work is to be carried out at public expense.

- The law of unintended consequences applies. The professed aim of the Childcare Act was to extend the provision of creches and childminding facilities, in order to meet the government aim to get parents back to work. Even the government seems to be worried about the implications of this story, and the minister Vernon Coaker was said to be having "discussions" with Ofsted about the regulations. Yet the law was passed by this government, and it was clearly intended to apply in cases like this. An exception was made for close relatives. It was open to the government to make a similar exception for reciprocal private arrangements between working mothers. They elected not to do so.

- It's claimed, as usual, that the purpose behind the rules is to protect children. A spokeswoman for the DSCF claimed that the rules were "proportionate" and "designed to ensure that care for children away from the family home meets requirements aimed at ensuring the safety and welfare of the child." The implication is that there can be no middle way between, on the one hand, natural care within the family and on the other a formal contractual arrangement between strangers. New Labour, which once made so much mischief denouncing Mrs Thatcher's misunderstood "there is no such thing as society" quote, has evidently taken the idea to heart. In Brown's Britain there are only individual men and women, and the State which supervises, licenses and controls all their interactions.

This story fits into a broader pattern, embracing everything from the closely related Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act (under which these women would presumably need to be registered) to new licensing requirements which have done huge damage to small-scale musical performances in pubs. In a perceptive article the other day (in the Guardian, of all unlikely places) Jenni Russell described the "new and uncertain world in which contact with children is increasingly regulated by officials and the state" as the product of "a collective madness" and "one of this government's most disastrous legacies".

The Mail has its critics, but it performs a valuable public service when it brings stories like this one to the widest possible notice. The BBC, by contrast, saw it as an opportunity helpfully to remind parents of their legal responsibilities.
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Saturday, 26 September 2009

Polly's fantasy Gordon

As Gordon Brown is greeted in Brighton with what one BBC reporter delightfully described as "a carefully rehearsed ecstatic welcome", Polly Toynbee has written his resignation speech for him. The short version is, "I'm brilliant: that's why I have to resign". Thus is the cognitive dissonance that has permeated Polly's Guardian commentaries for well over a year resolved into the sweetest of harmonies.

Her Gordon sings of his accomplishments, regrets that he is less popular than he truly deserves, and commends the party to whoever is chosen from "the abundance of talent" the Labour party has to offer - and who will then "take up the baton and run with it to a victory at the next election." And then he snaps his heels together three times and wakes up in Kansas. The public, meanwhile, will come round belatedly to appreciate the merits of their former leader. After all, "the British detest their politicians until they are powerless, when the most unexpected previous figures of fun and hate turn overnight into national treasures". I wonder who she's thinking of. Neville Chamberlain?

The other day Andrew Copson of the British Humanist Association asked me if I'd like to join. Not while Polly Toynbee is president, I replied. Someone so muddled in her thinking is in no position to lecture the rest of us on the virtues of rationalism. This piece is no exception. Although she has been lamenting Brown's deficiencies every other week for months, there are no hints in her imagined speech that suggest she is able to identify them, save the sad but unavoidable fact of the PM's terminal unpopularity. Her Gordon offers himself as "a scapegoat... to draw the understandable anger people feel at how risk and greed in the banks caused so many to lose jobs, homes and pensions." His only crime is not to have seen it coming - and in any case, the Tories didn't see it coming either. If anything, if the Tories had been in power, it would have been worse.

No-one would pretend, I hope, that the banking crisis would have been averted had we had a Conservative government (though if it had been that way around, I can well imagine Polly claiming that with Labour in charge it would never have occurred). That's not really the point. What did for the British economy, when the crash came, was the catastrophic budget deficit; and that is directly attributable to Brown's delusional belief (trumpeted ad nauseam) that he had abolished "boom and bust" and that he could safely put more and more of the nation's bills on credit. Golly Brownbee can't see that, of course. For him/her, the national debt was "necessarily incurred to prevent worse disaster", an unfortunate consequence of the collapse of Northern Rock, RBS, HBOS et al. Perhaps; but if the prime minister, as chancellor, had kept a tighter rein the expense, though unfortunate, would not have been ruinous - and the coming cuts would be less savage.

Like the real one, Toynbee's fantasy version of the prime minister claims to have saved the world. If he hadn't been there to prop up the world economy - if it had been those do-nothing Tories, for example - "the catastrophe doesn't bear thinking about". But helpfully Brownbee tells us anyway: supermarket shelves emptying as the panic spreads, "total collapse", a whole generation left to rot away on the unemployment scrapheap. There follows a parody of Conservative policy ("the cruelty of Mrs Thatcher's 1980s cuts") and "blind indifference to national wellbeing" and, for good measure, a ritual denunciation of the Tories' more colourful allies in the European parliament. In passages like this, Polly Toynbee is perhaps merely providing us with a precis of what Brown intends to say in his conference address - though we can I think also expect grandstanding of the "I flew to Washington and told Obama what to do" variety.

Here's Polly's best line: "I will spare you the litany of Labour achievements – just look all around us". It works best if you remember where Brown, if he were actually delivering the speech, would be standing: in the conference hall at Brighton, looking out over the assembled delegates, almost all of whom will have jobs in the public sector; in many cases, jobs that did not exist before Labour came to power.

This is perhaps the key passage:

Ask yourselves what you value most in life. Most precious are those things we can only purchase together: health, education, safety in the streets, fine public spaces, parks, museums, sports grounds and beautiful public buildings. No shop sells anything we prize so highly ... The small state is the squalid state, penny-pinching, mean-spirited and devoid of things that make a country proud.

In Polly's universe, the government only spends money wisely on good things that everyone wants - like health, education, culture, "sports grounds and beautiful public buildings". The bigger the government, she thinks, the more benign it is. Perhaps Polly Toynbee really does believe this; no doubt Gordon Brown does, too. But it simply isn't true. There's very little connection between the size of the state and the quality of the services it provides. A big state can be every bit as squalid, penny-pinching and mean-spirited as a small one. But the impact of its penny-pinching and mean-spiritedness on ordinary life will be considerably worse.

The past decade has seen a growth of the scope, reach and activity of the state far beyond any improvement that has been wrought in public services. Toynbee makes no mention of the CCTV cameras (everywhere, expensively positioned but largely ineffective, it turns out, at preventing crime), the databases, the IT projects that don't work, supernumerary politicians and quangocrats, form-fillers (and those whose job it is to demand form-filling from others), consultants, regulators to regulate the regulators, processors to process the applications for permits for things that have been done quite happily for centuries without anyone batting an eyelid. For her it's all schools and hospitals. Brown will try to spin the British people the same bogus line.

In Monday's Telegraph, Boris Johnson defined with some precision the parasitical class that has emerged to suck the public coffers dry.

I don't just mean the outreach workers and diversity officers whose recruitment has caused such chronic spluttering into the cornflakes. I mean the legions of officials whose responsibilities have been generated by the cascade of bad law from Whitehall and Brussels, and then all the other officials whose non-job is to service those non-jobs – the folks in HR and IT and payroll and secretarial and legal and planning, all happily filling their days in meetings and PowerPoint presentations, job accreting to job in a vast snowball of public-sector employment, until we get to the point where a place like Newcastle has 75 per cent of its workforce in the pay of the state.

But he also - and this is the most telling point - noted that dismantling this infrastructure of waste will not be easy. Partly because of labour market ossification, but mainly because the political cost of directly firing people is so high, getting rid of non-jobs is far more difficult than creating them. The likely result is that the axe will fall in the worst possible place, on the infrastructure projects that the country actually needs. "...the danger is that government will go for the easier option. They will cut or defer investment. They will chop plans for spending on roads or rail or schools or sewers or power plants or fibre-optic cables".

This is the real tragedy of the New Labour years. It is not that they have spent a lot of money - and thus almost bankrupted the country - that is the true crime; because money that is well-spent is never truly wasted. It is that they have spent the money in almost the worst possible way, on things that we either did not need or which are actively harmful both to the wellbeing of society and the health of businesses. This will not be forgotten, or forgiven.
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Thursday, 24 September 2009

Republicans more gullible than Democrats - for now

Here's some interesting polling evidence from America.

Public Policy Polling conducted a national poll over the weekend into Americans' belief in two politically contentious and, in their different ways, bonkers ideas: 9/11 "Truthism" and Obama "Birthism". The former is the idea that the attacks of September 11 2001 were an inside job of some kind (ideas vary from the claim the Bush administration were warned in advance and did nothing to the suggestion that the US government - or the Israelis, or both - planned and carried out the atrocity). The latter is the notion that Barack Obama is not legally qualified to be president, because he was born outside the borders of the United States, possibly in Kenya, and that there has been a conspiracy to conceal this fact.

Here are the results.

As you can see, a majority of Republicans are suspicious of Obama's birth certificate (though "only" 42% asserted that the president was definitely not an American). Far fewer Democrats have such doubts. On the other hand, one in four Democrats believed that "President Bush intentionally allowed the 9/11 attacks to take place because he wanted the United States to go to war in the Middle East" - a further 12% were unsure. Compared to earlier findings, this represents a considerable increase in gullible Republicans, and a decline in gullibility among Democrats (a similar poll in 2006 had found a clear majority of Democrat voters with suspicions about 9/11). Some have taken this as evidence that there are more stupid Republicans than brainless Democrats. But it may just be that, with their president in power, Democrats have become less susceptible to the false comforts that belief in conspiracy theory provides.

It isn't, of course, particularly surprising that people are more likely to believe a conspiracy theory if it is politically congenial to them. It's one form of confirmation bias, which you find everywhere in politics. If you support one party, you're likely to believe positive stories about your leader and negative ones about the leader of the other party. I have constantly to battle the confirmation bias that tells me that the Conservatives will be an improvement on such things as civil liberties or the nanny state, despite considerable evidence to the contrary. There may well be deep-seated neurological reasons for this, or it may just be, as Hume believed, that reason is the slave of the passions. Conspiracy theories, too, tend to reflect, in a mythological way, deeper perceptions. 9/11 did come as a godsend to those in the Bush administration who were looking for an excuse to invade Iraq, for example; while to a substantial minority of Americans Barack Obama simply doesn't look like a US president (nor does his name sound like one). Truthism and Birthism are both examples of wishful thinking. That Republicans should be more prone to wishful thinking at the present time says something about the GOP's current predicament, perhaps.

The preference for Birthism above Truthism among independents is also rather telling. It doesn't necessarily mean that it's more plausible, merely that its proponents are currently more active (online, especially) than their Truthist equivalents. After all, 9/11 is slipping into history; those who doubt the mainstream account will soon be consigned to the same cultish milieu as JFK obsessives or Roswell watchers. Whereas those who doubt that Barack Obama was born in Hawaii can tell themselves that they might actually be able to change things. Read the rest of this article

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Dawkins Disappoints

Richard Dawkins won quite a few friends among Liberal Democrats in Bournemouth on Sunday, delivering a rousing message in the main hall on the iniquity of the libel laws and announcing himself as a long-term LibDem voter. The following evening it was a different story. A large crowd packed the Premier Inn to hear what had been billed as "Reason under threat – the war on irrationality" (No, the title doesn't make sense: it should either be Unreason under threat... or ...the war on rationality; but no matter.) A joint meeting of Humanist and Secularist Liberal Democrats, the British Humanist Association and Dorset Humanists, it was one of the most sought after events on the conference fringe. Expectations were high. The Prof, though, seemed to regard the event as just another stop on his book tour. His "speech" consisted of little more than readings from his latest page-turner, The Greatest Show on Earth, padded out with some asides and a Q&A at the end. The longest selection seems to have been taken from a chapter which was extracted in the Times last month.

For a certain type of Dawkins groupie, even being in the same room as the great man is excitement in itself. "OMGZ! I just totally asked Richard Dawkins a question about faith schools!!!" tweeted Mark "Reckons" Thompson excitedly from the hall. One elderly lady was so overcome with emotion that she collapsed and had to be carried out by paramedics. Others, though, felt rather short changed by the whole event. Speaking to some people who had been there at another fringe meeting yesterday, the Heresiarch detected a murmur of disappointment at the Dawk's failure to deliver something more audience-specific - or, indeed, to say anything remotely new.

According to Mark's write-up, Dawkins compared evolution deniers to Holocaust deniers (how Godwin of him) and came out with his usual schtick about how there's no such thing as a "Muslim child" or a "Catholic child" - which is, of course, nonsense. There are plenty of Muslim and Catholic children - it's just that some of them manage to grow out of it. "He pointed out that you would never label a child a Monetarist child or a Keynesian child!" No: but you see small kids wearing Man United shirts, don't you? Dearie me.

I'm sorry, folks, but Richard Dawkins increasingly resembles the later Frank Sinatra, free-wheeling it through the tunes that made him famous and cheered to the rafters because - wow, it's him, it's really him, IN THE FLESH. Or perhaps these events are more like pep rallies. The fact that we've heard it all before, sometimes in the same exact words, doesn't matter. In fact it's comforting, like a familiar liturgy. If we're being honest, he hasn't had an original thought in years. This latest tome, for example, is aimed at convincing readers of the truth of evolution - and I'm sure it does that job very effectively, though I haven't read anything more than the Times extract. As Dawkins has said many times, Darwin's big idea is so very simple that, unlike most scientific theories, almost anyone can grasp it in minutes. All else is exemplification and evidence. There's actually very little to say - which doesn't stop Britain's Leading Public Intellectual from saying it over and over again.

All Dawkins books about evolution are basically the same. There's a memorable metaphor: in The Blind Watchmaker it was a blind watchmaker; in Climbing Mount Improbable it was a mountain of improbability; in The Ancestor's Tale it was the idea of ancestry. There's tut-tutting aimed at Creationists and other people too stupid to see the obvious truth of evolution. As a general rule, the more recent the book, the more moaning about Creationism it contains. There are The Facts, which are always fascinating and well-chosen, though occasionally one will have heard them before. And there are the awe-struck reviews - because, you know, nobody does it better.

But what's the point of this latest doorstopper, though? To convince Creationists? If that is Dawkins' aim - and he does write "Evolution is a fact, and... no unbiased reader will close the book doubting it" - then he will surely fail. Anjana Ahuja put it well:

Dawkins does nothing to encourage his opponents to read him and everything to push them away. He is liberal with his use of the word “ignorant”, occasionally prefacing it with “fatuously”, and a master of what I would call the “asnide”, which are barbed digressionary footnotes. In one, he quotes the zoologist Peter Medawar’s observation that “the spread of secondary and latterly of tertiary education has created a large population of people, often with well-developed literary and scholarly tastes, who have been educated far beyond their capacity to undertake analytical thought”. And yet he hopes to convert those who he simultaneously deems innately thick.

But then how many Creationists are ever likely to buy the book? About as many as there were in the audience on Monday evening, I suspect.
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Tuesday, 22 September 2009

More tea, vicar. Not so much rap.

Absolutely the best retort to the Bishop of Reading's theory that Jesus wouldn't have shopped in Marks&Spencer came in a CIF thread from the inimitable Ally Fogg:

These are not loaves and fishes.

These are fresh Italian Buccellato di Napoli, lightly toasted and drizzled with extra virgin olive oil, served alongside line-caught Tweed trout, delicately steamed and aromatised with a spray of balsamic vinegar.

These are not just loaves and fishes. These are M&S loaves and fishes.

There's almost no more to be said. But I'll say it anyway. The Rt Rev Stephen Cottrell, bless his guilt-ridden heart, worries that the image of the Church of England is a bit too middle class. So - in an unusually well-circulated press release - he lamented:

"How did it come to this, that we have become known as just the Marks & Spencer option when in our heart of hearts we know that Jesus would just as likely be in the queue at Asda or Aldi?"

The trouble is, Bishop, it hasn't "come to this". It has always been like this. The C of E may no longer be the Tory Party at prayer - its upper echelons have long been more of a Hampstead dinner party at prayer - but it remains, as it was at the beginning, is now and ever shall be, a church for the middle classes. To misquote one of the Rt Rev Steve's drink-sodden fellow bishops, that is what it does.

The bishop of Reading (who, were it not for Rowan Williams' cowardice, wouldn't have been this silly man at all) is "frustrated" because Jesus "got us started with church simply" (eh?) and his "first disciples were down-to-earth people who wanted to know what life was all about". Up to a point, perhaps; although JC also had posh disciples like Lazarus, Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, who equally "wanted to know what life was all about". Jesus would have been in the queue at Asda, and he would have been in the queue at a Salvation Army soup kitchen, and he would have been in the queue at Fortnum and Mason's. But that's Jesus for you. The Church of England isn't Jesus; it isn't even Christianity - just one part of Christianity, with an historic ministry to cater to the spirtual needs of the angst-ridden middle classes. Somebody's got to.

As for Christianity's other founder, the very middle class (but not notably angst-ridden) Saul of Tarsus, I can't resist quoting the following from AN Wilson's excellent biography:

An Anglican bishop, driving me in his car, once opined that Paul's Letter to the Romans was "all balls". At the time I did not see how how appropriate this judgement was, since Paul would certainly have returned the compliment and taken a low view of the "thoughts" buzzing about in this man's head. Anglicanism, an attempt to "make sense" of things, or to do them decently and in order, but somehow find a place for God in the world, would probably, had Paul lived to see it, have been for him the ultimate absurdity - more ridiculous than any of the other forms of "Christianity" which would have filled him with despair.

Historically, the Establishment nature of the Anglican church - reflected in the seats its bishops continue to occupy, preposterously, in the House of Lords - put it at odds with the common people in ways far more contrary to a Christian conscience than the emptying pews and general indifference it finds today. In the early days, it was an unabashed instrument of royal power. The Pilgrimmage of Grace of the 1530s, a revolt against the ecclesiastic reforms of Henry VIII, was a rebellion largely of the ordinary, pious folk of the North against the elitist intellectual snobs who were promoting the Reformation. In the next century, popular movements ranged against the C of E from the other side of the theological divide: the ultra-Protestants, the puritans and the radical nonconformists. The Eighteenth century saw the growth of Methodism as a religion appealing to the lower orders - sneered at as "enthusiasm" by the Enlightenment sophisticates of the Anglican establishment. In the Victorian age there was an influx of poor Catholics from Ireland. And in more recent times any number of demotic forms of Christianity have arisen or gained converts by appealing to what the good bishop likes to think of as the folks who shop in Aldi.

What sustained the Church of England through all these crises was its respectability, its position in the social hierarchy. In Jane Austen's day, a young vicar was often quite a catch, well-educated and urbane (though Austen's own clergymen were sometimes, it's true, more in the mould of Mr Collins). Jeremy Paxman, in his quintessentially middle class study The English, commented that "the best-remembered Anglicans are recalled for something other than their spirituality" - as diarists, naturalists, philosophers, do-gooders or eccentrics. He also quoted Dostoevsky:

Anglican ministers and bishops are proud and rich, live in wealthy parishes and dioceses and wax fat with an entirely untroubled conscience. It is a religion of the rich, and undisguised at that.

So a turning away from the Church of England by those who aren't middle class is nothing to worry about, really, since the church never had them in the first place. All those big city churches built during the heyday of Victorian prosperity were only ever a quarter full. What has gone wrong for the church in the past few decades is that its middle class stalwarts have also been deserting it. Those are the people it needs to win back if it is going to survive. And with typically embarrassing stunts like this latest push (which includes a back-to-church message delivered in what someone in the C of E thinks is "rap") the church just looks silly and rather desperate. Anglicanism can't do trendy, any more than the girl in Jarvis Cocker's song could do common. It's just too middle class.

All quality brands have a unique selling point. What's the Church of England's USP? Certainly not Jesus. All the other churches have Jesus, and some have other attractions too, like travelling saints' bones or healing or gospel choirs. No: the Anglican church has, among other things going for it, architecture, choral evensong, nice, well-meaning (if occasionally too well-meaning) clergy, politeness, a general avoidance of fundamentalism, books, a tradition of social involvement, and a certain level of intimacy with the powers that be. It also does by far the best weddings*. These are all middle-class things, naturally. M&S things. So why is it doing so badly? Partly because of the decline in religiosity among all sections of the population; and partly because the church's attempts to reach out to that large proportion of the population who are not and never will be natural Anglicans has only succeeded in annoying many of its natural communicants. It would do better, I suspect, if it went back to being aspirational, as it was for Mrs Thatcher (who defected from the Methodists when she started doing well for herself in politics). But there's something else, too, which occurs to me, which is that Anglicanism now, perhaps for the first time, has a significant rival for the affections of the thoughtful, spiritually and philosophically inquisitive middle classes.

The C of E's chief competition doesn't come from Islam, or Roman Catholicism, or Pentecostal house churches, or even (though this is closer) the New Age. No - it's the atheists, and especially the liberal humanists, who have invaded the established church's turf and poached its congregations. Being almost entirely a middle class phenomenon doesn't seem to have hampered the success of the New Atheism of the past few years, though. You'll never hear Richard Dawkins complaining that Darwinism only appeals to people who buy their groceries at Marks & Spencer (or, at a pinch, Sainsbury's). I wonder why not.

*excluding Judaism, of course
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Monday, 21 September 2009

Funding the news

Some US lawmakers are talking about giving tax breaks to struggling newspapers. The idea is that they would be redefined as not-for-profit organisations - charities, basically - working for the public good. In an interview with two medium-sized regional papers President Obama was "noncommittal" about the idea, but he did have some rather commonplace things to say about the nobility of the journalistic profession, and how proper journalistic standards were "absolutely critical to the health of our democracy". He also managed to find a few disparaging words for blogs:

I am concerned that if the direction of the news is all blogosphere, all opinions, with no serious fact-checking, no serious attempts to put stories in context, that what you will end up getting is people shouting at each other across the void but not a lot of mutual understanding.

Unfortunate shades there of Hazel Blears. Well, there's a lot of shouting across the void on the internet, but there's at least as much in more traditional news outlets. Newspapers have for years now been cutting down on reporting and filling their pages with columnists instead. The flight from factual content began well before the blogosphere began providing real competition. And as for independent blogs, there is, as you will be aware, a huge diversity. Many are ranty and waste little time on "serious fact-checking", others offer a depth of factual detail that almost no serious newspaper can rival. And, more often than not, links to the raw data that anyone can check for themselves.

As Tim Montgomerie notes, "the internet has democratised fact-checking". Mistakes, accidental and intentional, abound, but the self-correcting resources of the Internet are almost limitless: somewhere out there will be someone trawling through the slew of data and pointing out the truth. Read the online comments posted under almost any newspaper opinion piece and you'll see the clanging mistakes of well-paid and celebrated columnists mercilessly called out. Not all of them like it. And a blogger who tosses off a too-broad generalisation may never hear the end of it.

The only drawback is that no-one has the time to do the background research necessary to check all their own facts, let alone other people's facts. With the mainstream press, the reader can at least generally imagine that some sort of vetting procedure has been gone through before the story appears. Having said that, if you tot up the half-truth, exaggeration, inaccurate facts and cut-and-pasted press releases that make up a large part of the "factual" content of a newspaper it's not obvious that the Internet is a less reliable source. It's always dangerous to be a passive consumer of information, whatever its source. That danger increases with the internet - but, frankly, who isn't aware of it?

There's also a temptation on the part of the older media to exaggerate the unreliability of the internet as a source of news, to overstate the extent to which it is dominated by conspiracy theories, ranting racists and downright lies. It comes, I think, from the mistaken belief that most internet users are analagous to newspaper readers - or, more to the point, TV viewers - passively and uncritically absorbing what the Voice of Authority tells them. Not that even TV viewers have ever really behaved in that way. But with the Internet, the constructive engagement of the reader with what they are reading is part of the medium: it assumes, as the TV does not assume, dialogue. Add in that relational dimension, and objections to the blogosphere as a source of information evaporate.

As a self-confessed "newspaper junkie" - and someone who, for all his ultra-modern persona, grew up before the Internet - President Obama can perhaps be forgiven for worrying about the decline in traditional top-down journalism. The newspaper industry, for years in long-term decline, is now in freefall. Nick Cohen even claimed yesterday that it is "dying". On both sides of the Atlantic, regional and local newspapers are in deep trouble; some have already closed or gone online. Nationals, too, are laying off staff. In the UK, the receding tide threatens to leave an unhealthily dominant BBC in possession of a virtual monopoly of the dissemination of news and information. The migration of advertising online has now been added to by a collapse in advertising since the start of the current recession. Now the Murdochs are leading the retreat from free unline content, raising the prospect of an informational divide, with only those willing (or able) to pay having access to the full panoply of professionally produced content.

Is all this a threat to democracy? A common complaint about the state of the local press in Britain is that even those papers that do manage to survive are a pale shadow of their former shelves. The detailed reporting of local events that used to fill the pages - council meetings, planning applications, local sports fixtures, trials in the magistrates' courts - has largely gone, to be replaced by puff-pieces written in support of local businesses. The resources are no longer there - and the result, say some, is a serious blow to democracy. And that a paternalistic state should step in. Giving the Richard Dunn Memorial Lecture in Edinburgh last month, the BBC's Robert Peston claimed that there "already appears to be a consensus that in the provision of regional news there has been a massive market failure that will require state intervention and subsidy to rectify".

On the national level, we find that reporting of Parliament has dwindled. I'm old enough (just) to remember what Parliamentary reports in broadsheet newspapers used to look like. Major debates were covered in such detail one would have scarcely needed Hansard. Court reporting, too, was far more detailed. Page 3 of the Telegraph used to be the go-to place for juicy murder trials and sexual titillation. In fact, it was usually far more obscene than the corresponding page of The Sun. Nowadays there are just the facetious remarks of some sketch-writer to inform the reader of what happened "yesterday in Parliament", and accounts of criminal proceedings often read as though they've been written by the police. They probably have.

I wonder, though, if any of this really matters. Did anyone ever actually read the minutely detailed accounts of council meetings in their local newspapers? Sure, someone did: the councillors themselves, perhaps, or local politics obsessives. But if there was a big story lurking in the Gradgrindian details, and no local journalist rescued it from oblivion, it remained as buried as it would today - and possibly more so.

There's no need for local newspapers to fill their pages with tedious municipal business, any more than there is the need for national newspapers to devote expansive column-inches to the proceedings of the Agriculture select committee, and for a simple reason: it's all out there on the Web. It's what the Internet is there for. And unlike local newspapers, anyone with an Internet connection (which is most people, and will soon be everybody) can get it for free. The local politics junkies can still get their fix - and they no longer need a lowly-paid hack to second guess what they might be interested in. As for the scandals hidden away in the small print - well as often as not they will percolate their way up through the blogs. People who can be bothered can still find the information they want. And those who aren't bothered, aren't bothered. They never were.

This is perhaps the heart of the argument. The issue, for Peston, is "all about securing the greatest access for the greatest number of people to a diversity of competing high quality news sources". Indeed it is. If we allow that the Internet is the primary source of information in terms of volume (and it is) and that before long it will be the preferred choice of news for most people, then the notion that we need high-quality, diverse journalism properly to service democracy falls. There will still be a place for newspapers, and for broadcast journalism: but if it is allowed to find its natural level - the level that the market can sustain - then there will be much less of it, and it will be even less "reliable" than it is today. Premium-quality content will be there only for those prepared to pay for it. Everyone else will have to make do with, basically, trash - and the Internet, where both raw data and raw comment will continue to be available in abudance for people to wade through. Being informed, and even being entertained, will require more effort from the "consumer"; and those not prepared to make the effort will end up being uninformed. Personally, I'm prepared to say that that is their loss.

Peston defines public service journalism as "informing and educating the public so that there is democratic participation in big decisions about the future of capitalism". In the United States, public service journalism has always been furnished by private enterprise. In Britain, this is true only of public service print journalism: when the news is broadcast, the paternalistic concept of state provision (albeit arms-length state provision in the form of the BBC) has gone almost without question. Indeed, it is seen usually as something on which to congratulate ourselves. Unlike those unfortunate Americans, our democracy is served by the independent (Ha!), politically neutral (Ha! Ha!) and unselfinterested (Ha! Ha! Ha!) Aunty Beeb. Yet who would be prepared to argue that British democracy is more robust or accountable than the American version? Watergate brought down a president. Tony Blair chose his own time of departure.

Peston spoke in his lecture of "the fairness of the distribution of information and knowledge to all who need it, irrespective of their material circumstances." The implication of his remarks is that public service journalism is a public good - like roads, or schools, or healthcare (not in America, obviously), or the police - that can only be left to the market in so far as the market is able to provide it. And where the market fails, the state must step in. I think this is a dubious argument (like the similar argument that since political parties are essential for democracy they should be funded by the state). The media mediate: it is the information that is the public good, and as long as the information is available to all (as it now is, for the first time in history) the extent to which people are prepared to pay newspapers and other media outlets to deliver it to them in palatable form should should be up to them.

It could be that the mass media has had its day, and that propping up it with taxpayers' money is as futile as it would have been in the sixteenth century to state-fund monks to copy out manuscripts. The replacement of formal mediation in news provision by the free availability of primary information might turn out to be less the death of democracy than the beginning of it.
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Sunday, 20 September 2009

Seeing Simon

This lunchtime the Heresiarch spent an enjoyable hour or so in a very small room at the Highcliff Hotel in Bournemouth, listening to Simon Singh and others talk about science and the libel laws. There were only 24 seats, and at least twice that number crammed in, giving the whole meeting, as Churchill said of the House of Commons, a sense of urgency and crowd. Fortunately, being pathologically early (as per Prateek's recommendation) I had a good seat. I think I may have been the only non-LibDem in the room. If it had been the Labour conference there would have been men with machine guns there to keep out interlopers, but I saw no visible security - even at the BIC itself. It would appear that the LibDems aren't important enough, yet, for anyone to want to blow them up. Long may that continue.

The meeting was organised by Sense about Science, and also featured Ben Goldacre, Nick Cohen and Dr Evan Harris. Simon was the main draw, of course. He spoke entertainingly about his ongoing struggle with the British Chiropractic Association about his right to use the word "bogus" of claims that spinal manipulation can treat childhood colic and other afflictions having little obvious connection with back trouble. He described how being sued for libel "saps all your will and energy", forcing you to put other things on hold - and admitted that the best result he could hope for (an improbable victory) would still leave him £50,000 out of pocket. The law is stacked against the defendant so heavily that backing down and apologising is "the only common-sense thing to do". As a result, scientific articles making important points are gutted before going to the printers, or never printed at all. That's why he feels a "responsibility to carry on fighting", despite the high cost to himself.

What astonished me is how cheerful he manages to be. He didn't seem "sapped of will or energy" at all; his speech was full of jokes and delivered with the confidence of a battle cry. I was able to grab a few words with him after the meeting and apologised for trying to lure him onto the path of common sense. If no one is prepared to challenge the legal bullies, then change is unlikely to come any time soon. Simon's case has galvanised a large and diverse body of opinion about the particular issue of how libel laws impact on scientific process - which isn't the only objection to the laws as they currently apply, but it is perhaps the one of greatest public importance. He might indeed be (as Nick Cohen was to imply), "mad to fight a libel action in London" - but a high-profile case like his raises awareness more than any number of spiked articles or reluctant apologies. Even if he loses (and he will, if Mr Justice Eady gets to make the decision) there's a good chance now of something positive coming out of it.

Next up was Mr Bad Science himself. Ben Goldacre described the present state of the libel laws as "a serious public health problem". He contrasted the timidity with which journalists and even writers in learned journals are now forced to proceed with the cut and thrust of debate at scientific conferences, where participants "tear each other to pieces". And he referred to his own libel difficulties - he has successfully fended off an action by Matthias Rath, a man who claimed to heal AIDS using vitamin pills. Libel plaintiffs, he noted, used their wealth to intimidate the less wealthy - but Goldacre himself was "so unwealthy I had nothing to lose".

Nick Cohen was less narrowly focussed on science, and more on the "national shame" caused by the "imperial" approach to jurisdiction taken by British judges. It was, he claimed, "difficult to make a case for press freedom in Britain" - an exaggeration, I think, as was his suggestion that "the press in Britain is dying". I hope not - and indeed, he revealed that the Observer prbably won't be shut down after all. He was on firmer ground discussing the abuse of the courts by "borderline criminals" like Robert Maxwell or the Saudi billionaire (and sometime al-Qaeda funder) Khalid bin Mahfouz, whose recent death went unremarked except by Private Eye. Mahfouz was responsible, Cohen noted, for the pulping of some 40 books over the years. But you can't libel the dead, so why the silence still from most of the British media? Cohen had no suggestions. Perhaps libel law was not the only weapon he had at his disposal.

Dr Evan Harris, who spoke last, had some kind words for the campaigners' enemy-in-chief Eady, even getting some nods from the room when he expressed approval of the Mosley judgement. But the Heresiarch's readers have probably heard quite enough about that subject. He concentrated on the Parliamentary campaign he is spearheading to introduce some long overdue reforms in the law of libel, and he sounded quite optimistic (although he noted that there have been intense lobbying efforts to protect the status quo). This may be another opportunity for LibDem/ Conservative co-operation. Harris noted that Conservatives had shown a greater interest in the subject than Labour. He also sounded strangely upbeat at the disappointing proposals that the government is now consulting on, which amount to little more than introducing a principle of single-date publication for online material. A necessary change, indeed, but one which would scarcely begin to address the issues under discussion today.

There was no sign of the great Dawk, who was speaking at the conference later (I wonder if the empty chair at the front was reserved for him). When he did make his pitch at the main event, he revealed that he had voted LibDem at every election since the party was founded. Well, I never had him down as a Tory, regrettably. But I must say I'm hugely delighted to discover that he was never taken in by Tony Blair. That's what comes of being a stern no-nonsense rationalist, I suppose. The motion - which calls for reforms to insure a "better balance" between "responsible journalism" and "vested interests" - was passed, obviously. But then so was the motion to ban airbrushing.

An added bonus came at the end, with an intervention from the wonderful Belinda Brooks-Gordon of Birkbeck College, who talks so much sense about Britain's sex laws, and who described the chilling effect of libel law in academia, where she works. All the cool people, it seems, are suddenly Lib Dems.
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Feminists who hate me

Here's what some American feminist bloggers and their readers have been saying about your long-suffering Heresiarch:

"One of those asshole dudes who believes that his important dudeliness qualifies him to lecture the feminists on the nature of feminism... he's quite a peach"

"I get these feminists-suck-at-feminism guys all the time. They got no argument, because they don’t know what feminism is; they just hate women."

"Thank god for knobs like this guy."

"Maybe the dude should stick to giving lectures to head injury victims about how it feels to be brainless and sensitivity deprived... What is he teaching, Male Entitlement Asshattery 101?"

"Male privilege on display. "

"Cluelessness is no excuse"

"I'm almost speechless at Heresiarch's total lack of awareness"

"You sound like someone with the arguing abilities of Vicky Pollard."

"You sound like Mr Blobby."

Some of these eloquent (and, I've no doubt, thoroughly merited) denunciations follow on from a withering assessement of the Heresiarch's efforts on something called Fannie's Room (Lynne Truss is right, it does matter where you put an apostrophe). The worst, though are on I Blame the Patriarchy, which helpfully explains itself thus:

I Blame The Patriarchy is intended for advanced patriarchy-blamers. It is not a feminist primer.

From my cheerfully-admitted position of ignorance, the advanced patriarchy-blaming on display here doesn't sound especially, erm, advanced. Still, the Heresiarch is delighted to have been singled out by the advanced patriarchy-blamers as a patriarch worth blaming. No doubt it brought respite to their lives of grinding oppression under the prevailing patriarchalist dispensation. I leave it to you, gentle reader, to determine whether I deserved it, or whether my detractors in the sisterhood may, just possibly, protest too much. Read the rest of this article

Friday, 18 September 2009

Reasons to be cheerful

There has been rather a mixed reaction to Dominic Grieve's pledges to reduce the scope of New Labour's surveillance state once the Conservatives come to power.

Many have welcomed the firm commitments to abolish the ID card register and the ContactPoint databse, to confine the DNA register to people who have actually been convicted of a criminal offence, and to give new powers to privacy watchdogs. But there's also a lack of detail in other areas, hints that the policies amount to a scaling back rather than an abolition of the database state, and no mention of some contentious forms of surveillance. Some people just don't trust Tories, of course. But there are more thoughtful critics, among them Henry Porter, who fears that there's a behind-the-scenes struggle going on between the parties libertarian and authoritarian wings. He writes that prominent shadow ministers like like George Osborne, Michael Gove and (would-be Home Secretary) Chris Grayling "really believe in keeping and using the powers of the state." Significantly, he suggests, "the databases and practices that the authors do not touch on are either Home Office initiatives, or the result of police policy, which of course comes under the home secretary's remit."

Scepticism is always justified - and the Conservatives don't deserve a blank cheque on this or any other issue. Nevertheless, I remain cautiously optimistic about Tory intentions in this area. There are several reasons why we shouldn't write off the next government months before they are even elected.

Firstly, there's more in Grieve's speech and document than mere lip service to a newly-fashionable suspicion of the big state. Grieve enunciated strong underlying principles. Among these were that personal information belongs to individuals not to the state:

Where private details are collected by the goverment, they are held on trust. The government must be held accountable to the citizens, not the other way around.

This sounds like motherhood-and-apple-pie stuff, but it is almost the opposite of the approach that has been pursued under Labour. Some of the surveillance and database infrastructure that has been constructed over the past few years is the result of long-established bureaucratic processes and technological change - actually, large parts of it are - but there's also no doubt that New Labour has seen a state which holds almost total information on every citizen as a goal to be pursued with enthusiasm and vigour. Supporters see the creation of linked and omniscient databases as the key to a new paradise on earth in which the beneficent potentialities of the State can finally be unleashed. Hence they are unlikely to be held back by the costs, the regular security breaches, or the concept that a state that knows everything is inevitably going to be the master rather than the servant of the people. They don't get it, and never will. Conservatives, with their innate scepticism of collectivist solutions, do get it.

There is a deeper lesson here about governance, delivery of public services, and public protection. We cannot run government robotically. We cannot protect the public through automated systems. We cannot eliminate the need for human judgment calls on risk, whether to children, or from criminal and terrorist threats. And we can never eliminate all risk, it is part and parcel of ordinary life...

Over-reliance on the database state has proved a woefully poor substitute for human judgment and care on the frontline of public service delivery. The state has encroached on the privacy of the innocent citizen, but delivered precious little in return.

As Grieve points out, the growth of government databases has been "inspired by New Labour's view of the relationship between the citizen and the state, which allows central and local authorities wide powers of command and control over our lives". And he offers chilling quotations from "transformational government" guru Sir David Varney (a Brown favourite), who reassured ministers not to worry unduly about the risks associated with government by database since "The public do not see the process. They experience only public services packaged for their needs". That statement, needless to say, reveals not only breathtaking arrogance in its disregard for personal privacy, but also astonishing naiety that in the age of the internet the public will not "see the process". In fact, the public has seen more and more of the process, and increasingly doesn't like what it sees.

That, incidentally, is a second reason why we should be cautiously optimistic about Tory plans. "Contrary to New Labour assumptions", writes Grieve, "the public are now all too aware of the growing risks." After years of sleepwalking into a surveillance society, the British people have started, belatedly, to rouse themselves - thanks in part to the tireless campaigning of groups like NO2ID and the Manifesto club, or people such as Henry Porter who helped organise the Convention on Modern Liberty earlier this year. Labour ministers, who believed that concern for privacy or belief in the rule of law were purely middle class diseases, have been caught out by the storn that broke the other day over the Independent Safeguarding Authority. It's no surprise that Dominic Grieve promised to review the scheme on Wednesday. I hope he can be persuaded to drop it completely. For all the misleading talk of Ian Huntley, there is no evidence that the scheme would serve any useful purpose whatever.

Thirdly, Grieve makes the argument from costs. The cost savings to be had from scrapping and scaling back surveillance are considerable. As he pointed out:

ID cards have been independently estimated to cost £19 billion. And time and time again, public sector databases have run over their estimated costs, and that's before taking into account the costs of clearing up when things go wrong. These have proved to be enormously wasteful and inefficient investments of taxpayers' money as we struggle through a recession.

Even government ministers are now talking - off the record - about making a symbolic sacrifice of ID cards as part of The Cuts, despite the fact that so much money has already been thrown at the scheme (and so much more committed in private-sector contracts) the actual savings would be disappointingly meagre. Taking an axe to the surveillance and data-gathering machinery of the New Labour state would, however, yield considerable returns. These were projects embarked upon during the years of plenty, when a few billions were neither here nor there. They have suddenly become much harder to justify. Faced with a choice between closing hospitals and disconnecting CCTV cameras or deciding not to spend an estimated £2 billion monitoring ever call made or email sent (and that, in itself, is the scaled-down version), it would be a brave minister who decided to close the hospital.

A fourth reason for optimism lies in the change in public opinion mentioned above. This has partly come about because of the scandals associated with breaches in data security (of which the Grieve report, incidentally, contains an excellent summary). But there is a generational change, too. The database state may have seemed modern a decade ago, but in the age of Twitter the whole concept is clunky, harking back almost to the era of mainframes. Technology has made the totalitarian dreaming of yesterday - a state in possession of truly Godlike knowledge of everyone who resides within its borders - something like a realistic possibility for the first time in history; but it has also spread information around like muck, it has turned back the surveillance onto the state. What happened to the Metropolitan police in the wake of the G20 protests earlier this year shows how the authorities can no longer control information. We are watching them watching us. While Grieve was right to point out that New Labour has, in many dangerous ways, shifted the balance from the citizen to the state, in significant ways it is now shifting back. A government that understands this alteration will be swimming with the tide. And radical action on the surveillance state will provide the new government with a headline-grabbing way of demonstrating a clean break with its discredited predecessor.

Then there is the nature of Toryism itself. Henry Porter is right to note a strong authoritarian streak in many (though by no means all) Conservatives. However, Conservative authoritarianism is very different thing from the sort of authoritarianism we have come to expect from Labour. It is, for a start, much more focussed. It tends to have particular and rather narrow obsessions: banning smutty films, for example. It is very keen on law and order. It wants to crack down on criminals and control immigration. Civil libertarians will find much to object to in Tory authoritarianism, if it is given free rein (which it won't be, though the Tory Conference might be thrown the odd bone). Yet it is not as dangerous as Labour authoritarianism, because it has always gone along with a belief in the individual, the integrity of the family and the need to preserve historic institutions. In the Conservative worldview, the state is there to back up these natural institutions, not to replace them. There is no state-worship in Toryism; nor is there the belief that the larger the State, the more benign or helpful it can be. These are all deep-seated Labour ideas. Some Conservatives might relish the mischievous possibilities of databases and surveillance, but they don't delude themselves that these are nice, friendly things.

It is the combination of New Labour's theoretically progressive goals, its love affair with technology and its almost pathological desire to "send a message" on whatever issue has attracted the attention of headline-writers that has caused so much of the problem. A new government will bring a fresh, sceptical eye. It's even possible that in Opposition Labour will rediscover the importance of civil liberties.

There are still major obstacles in the way of a proper dismantling of Britain's uniquely intrusive surveillance architecture. The most serious, perhaps, will be in the civil service. NO2ID's Guy Herbert has commented that "we need an incoming government to understand that what it needs to do about the civil service approach to IT is radical, and that the database state is a deeply embedded adminstrative approach whose acolytes will defend it." There are also the private contractors who have done so well out of the New Labour years, and whose lobbying prowess is formidable. But still, things are definitely looking up.
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Johnson on journalism

Dr Samuel Johnson argues that "the present state of many of our papers is such that it may be doubted not only whether the compilers know their duty, but whether they have endeavoured or wished to know it."

This is guest post on the occasion of the doctor's 300th birthday.

A journalist is an historian: not indeed of the highest class, nor of the number of those whose works bestow immortality upon others or themselves, yet like other historians he distributes for a time reputation or infamy, regulates the opinion of the week, raises hopes and terrors, inflames or allays the violence of the people. He ought therefore to consider himself as subject at least to the first law of history, the obligation to tell the truth. The journalist, indeed, however honest, will frequently deceive, because he will frequently be deceived himself. He is obliged to transmit the earliest intelligence before he knows how far it may be credited; he relates transactions yet fluctuating in uncertainty; he delivers reports of which he knows not the authors. It cannot be expected that he should know more than he is told, or that he should not sometimes be hurried down the current of a popular clamour. All that he can do is to consider attentively, and determine impartially, to admit no falsehoods by design, and to retract those which he shall have adopted by mistake.

This is not much to be required, and yet this is more than the writers of news seem to exact from themselves. It must surely sometimes raise indignation to observe with what serenity of confidence they relate on one day what they know not to be true, because they hope it will please, and with what shameless tranquility they contradict it on the next day, when they find that it will please no longer. How readily they receive any report that will disgrace our enemies, and how eagerly they accumulate praises upon a name which caprice or accident has made a favourite. They know, by experience, however destitute of reason, that what is desired will be credited without nice examination; they do not therefore always limit their narratives by possibility, but slaughter armies without battles, and conquer countries without invasions.

There are other violations of truth admitted only to gratify idle curiosity which are yet mischievous in their consequences, and hateful in their contrivance. Accounts are sometimes published of robberies and murders which never were committed, men's minds are terrified with fictitious dangers, the public indignation is raised, and the government of our country depreciated and contemned. These scribblers who give false alarms ought to be taught by some public animadversion that to relate crimes is to teach them, and that as most men are content to follow the herd, and to be like their neighbours, nothing contributes more to the frequency of wickedness than the representation of it as already frequent.

There is another practice of which the injuriousness is more apparent, and which, if the law could succour the poor, is now punishable by law. The minute descriptions of men whom the law has not considered as criminal; and the insinuations often published in such a manner that, though obscure to the public, are well understood where they can do most mischief; and many other practices by which particular interests are injured, are to be diligently avoided by an honest journalist, whose business is only to tell transactions of general importance, or uncontested notoriety, or by advertisements to promote private convenience without disturbance of private quiet.

Thus far the journalist is obliged to deviate from the common methods of his competitors by the laws of unvariable morality. Other improvements may be expected from him as conducive to delight or information. It is common to find passages in papers of intelligence which cannot be understood. Obscure places are sometimes mentioned without any information from geography or history. Sums of money are reckoned by coins or denominations of which the value is not known in this country. Terms of war and navigation are inserted which are utterly unintelligible to all who are not engaged in military or naval business. A journalist, above most other men, ought to be able to judge what will be plain and what will be obscure; what will require a comment, and what will be apprehended without explanation. He is to consider himself not as writing to students or statesmen alone, but to women, shopkeepers, artisans, who have little time to bestow upon mental attainments, but desire, upon easy terms, to know how the world goes; who rises and who falls; who triumphs and who is defeated.

If the writer of this journal shall be able to execute his own plan; if he shall carefully enquire after truth, and diligently impart it; if he shall resolutely refuse to admit into his paper whatever is injurious to private reputation; if shall he relate transactions with greater clearness than others, and sell more instruction at a cheaper rate, he hopes that his labours will not be overlooked. This he promises to endeavour; and, if his promise shall obtain the favour of an early attention, he desires that favour to be continued only as it is deserved.

Payne's Universal Chronicle, 1758
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