Thursday, 31 December 2009

A year in liberty

Has 2009 been a bad year for civil liberties? Many people seem to think so. Guy Aitchison, at Open Democracy, has compiled a list of some of the lowlights of the year, from the death of Ian Tomlinson at the G20 protest in April to the government's determination to hang on to the largest possible DNA database, European Human Rights rulings notwithstanding. Henry Porter, similarly, calls this "a bad year for civil liberties". The Heresiarch has of course long kept a close eye on developments in these areas, and the news has rarely been positive, at least as regards what the government has done and attempted to do.

Almost all governments attempt to accumulate power to a greater or lesser degree, but the New Labour years have seen a fatal combination of factors. An ideological belief that the state can look after people better than they can themselves, allied to the cynical use of legislation to answer constant demands to be "doing something". A love of technological fixes, especially elaborate, expensive and intrusive IT systems. Then there's the pervasive fear of terrorism, despite the fact that there has only been one major terrorist incident in Britain in the entire decade; a determination to appear "tough", in the belief that appearing tough is invariably popular; and, finally, a generally low level of public debate, which has often allowed the government's assertions to go unchallenged.

Yet the news isn't all bad. 2009 often seemed like a year when the traditional concept of freedom under the law was under constant challenge from an expansive state, but it also saw a growing fight-back. The first major victory came last year, when the government gave up its attempt to introduce 42 days' detention. By that stage the issue was largely symbolic, and even 42 days represented a huge retreat from the 90 days the government and the police had originally considered "essential" for tackling terrorist plots. This year the new Home Secretary Alan Johnson admitted that the power was never particularly important, and the government had little desire to revisit the issue. It was an important fight nevertheless. A wide-ranging coalition came together and drew a line in the sand. The government was defeated. Things have never been quite the same since.

Here, then, is a list of ten positive developments in the broad areas of freedom and civil liberties on which we can build during 2010.

1) The Conservative Party made some important commitments. In an important speech in September, the shadow Justice Secretary Dominic Grieve promised to cut back the "database state", abandoning ID cards (and the associated register), adopt the Scottish system of limited DNA retention and review the ISA vetting system, which he described as "an arbitrary scheme". Most importantly, he stressed that data belongs to individuals rather than to the state.

This matters because the Conservatives are most likely to form the next government. It also exposes as fundamentally mistaken the idea fondly held on parts of the Left that there's something right-wing about attacks on civil liberties. What little support the government has had in its database obsession has come from veteran left-wingers like David Aaronovitch. Of course, there are differences between right- and left- of centre perspectives on civil liberties. Those on the right complain most about bans and central attempts at conditioning behaviour; those on the left are more likely to be concerned with police tactics or the treatment of detainees. That though, only demonstrates why the coming together of different party and philosophical perspectives has been so valuable. If Labour are cast into Opposition at the next election, I'd be surprised if they didn't rediscover their passion for civil liberties with remarkable speed.

2) Following on from this, there has been a remarkable increase in debate around the issue of liberty. February's Convention on Modern Liberty was, despite the sneers of the Aaronovitch tendency, both well-attended an influential. Ben Wilson excellent book What Price Liberty?, which came out in March, was one of several timely studies which tapped into the zeitgeist. There have been new civil-liberties focused blogs, from both right-wing (such as Big Brother Watch) and left-wing (eg Police State UK) perspectives. Newspapers from the Guardian to the Mail have carried stories and comment pieces; even the Sun, yesterday, ran with a woman's complaints that a CCTV camera seemed to have been focused on her bedroom. All such stories feed a growing sense that the expansion of the state and of surveillance has gone too far, and the Britain is now less free either than it was or than it ought to be. And, indeed, opinion polls began to show that "big brother Britain" was starting to cost Labour support. As such convictions become more pervasive, no government will be able to rely on the acquiescence it has enjoyed in the past.

3) There have been small concessions which, while not amounting to full U-turns, demonstrate the way the debate is now swinging. The forced scaling-back of ISA vetting, in response to a campaign led by authors like Philip Pullman, didn't go nearly far enough. But it did demonstrate that the argument that a particular policy is intended to "protect children" is no longer unanswerable. This represents a notable increase in scepticism.

4) The same may be true of terrorism. The tendency of police (and pseudo-police) to interrogate photographers under s44 of the Terrorism Act has long been a source of irritation; but it's only in the past few weeks that it became a big story. The harassment itself hasn't ceased, despite repeated "clarifications". But it's surely significant that ACPO have begun to worry openly about the practice costing the police public support.

5) This year CCTV began to lose its shine as a panacea, as it was revealed that it is actually not very effective at stopping or detecting crime. Given that public support for CCTV cameras is closely bound up with the perception that they are effective, this news may prove to be highly significant.

6) Jacqui Smith's ban on Geert Wilders entering Britain backfired spectacularly, as he predictably won his appeal, arrived amid far greater publicity than he would otherwise have attracted, and the predicted riots did not materialise.

7) Jacqui Smith herself resigned, a casualty of the expenses crisis (as, sadly, were some pro-civil liberties Tories, most notably moat-owning Douglas Hogg). Her successor, Alan Johnson, may not seem like much of an improvement; but while the authoritarian, database-building tendency is still present, and Johnson is clearly out of his depth, at least he doesn't seem quite so enthusiastic (indeed gleeful) an authoritarian as she was.

8) The dismissal of Professor David Nutt led to a much needed discussion of the facts about drug policy, and while politicians on most sides closed ranks (Evan Harris and honourable exception) outside Westminster there was wide support for the professor and signs that the public as a whole was ready for a more grown-up debate.

9) Simon Singh's ongoing battle with the British Chiropractic Association, while not directly connected with government policy, merits a mention here. Largely thanks to his brave (or possibly foolhardy) stand, there is now a highly-focussed campaign on the issue which has garnered increasing public attention and may well lead to legislation. English libel law has exercised a dampening effect on free speech for many years; now though it has been exposed as a direct threat to matters of public importance such as the discussion of dubious scientific claims. At the same time, campaigners in the United States against "libel tourism" have already persuaded many states in introduce new laws nullifying London defamation awards. In February, as super-strength Court of Appeal will assemble to hear Simon Singh's appeal against Justice Eady's notorious ruling on the meaning of the word "bogus".

10) Finally the internet emerged properly this year the frontier of liberty. Governments, including the British (and the Chinese, and the Iranian, and the Australian) will increasingly try to control it. But - as shown after the G20 protest, when images of police over-reaction caused the Met severe embarrassment - it also provides the public with new opportunities to fight back. They may be watching us, but we are also watching them as never before, and there are far more of us. A woman arrested after objecting to being quizzed about her filming in London got her revenge by posting the video on YouTube; soon, she was talking to the Guardian. Meanwhile, campaigners have exploited the Freedom of Information Act (one of the Labour goverment's better ideas, though I doubt they think so) with increasing sophistication in recent months to discover everything from the number of CCTV cameras operated by local authorities to the inconsistencies in DNA retention between neighbouring police forces. This, too, bodes well for the future.

The price of liberty is eternal vigilance. For many years, we as a society had been asleep. Traditional British belief in liberty had turned into complacency. Few people seemed to care any more, and only visitors from Eastern Europe seemed to notice what was going on. We were advancing merily along the road to a benign police state. 2009 was the year we began to wake up.

Happy new year everyone.
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Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Hari's hero

I notice that Johann Hari has been choosing his heroes of the year in The Independent. Among them is Evo Morales, president of Bolivia, who is, according to Johann, "an authentic democrat", one of two people (the other is the Afghan feminist Malalai Joya) who "embody what real democracy can mean".

When Evo Morales was a child, the indigenous peoples of Bolivia weren't even allowed to set foot in the capital's central square, which was reserved for white people. Today, he is the President, and for the first time in his country's history, he is diverting the billions raised from the country's natural resources away from the pockets of US corporations. It is building schools and hospitals for people who had nothing, and poverty is being eradicated in a stunning burst of progress.

That's one way of putting it. Another is that, like Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, Morales has embarked upon a programme towards almost unlimited socialist state control. He has already nationalised gas, oil, mining and telecommunications and begun Zimababwe-style land reforms. Other sectors of the economy, including electricity and the banks, are already being lined up. When one opposition leader spoke up against Morales, a mob of the president's supporters ransacked his house.

At the moment, Morales' policies, which involve vast redistributions of wealth, are genuinely popular in Bolivia. He has also become a hero-figure of the British left, perennially on the lookout for an anti-imperialist hero who can stick two fingers up to the United States. The Guardian loves him. Once Fidel Castro was their man (still is, in some cases); but then Cuba became a totalitarian nightmare, as such socialist experiments invariably do. Bolivia isn't a dictatorship yet, and may not be for many years. But democracy means more than representing the will of the majority. How will he act when his policies begin to fail? As it is, Morales' claim to be an "authentic democrat" is scarcely helped by some of his international contacts.

What Hari doesn't mention is that Evo is a particularly close friend of Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, as this picture demonstrates. Last month Ahmadinejad visited Bolivia as part of a South American tour. A large crowd assembled outside the presidential palace holding pictures of the Iranian vote-stealer, and the two leaders issued a joint statement declaring their shared anti-imperialist vision. When Morales won the Bolivian election earlier this month, Ahmadinejad sent him fulsome congratulations. The message declared that the victory "will strengthen friendly bonds between justice-seeking nations and promote equality, independence, freedom and kindness" and "will also remind arrogant systems about the fact that wise nations follow justice-based spirituality and that the future belongs to nations like ours".

As one might expect, Hari is no fan of Ahmadinejad. One might think that Morales' ongoing love-affair with the Iranian loon would give him at least some pause. Read the rest of this article

Thursday, 24 December 2009

Christmas Greetings

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Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Boys will be (Tory) boys

We now know pretty well what next year's Labour election campaign is going to look like. "Don't vote for them, because they're toffs". The retreat to the politics of class hatred, prefigured in the Crowe by-election earlier this year, has informed Gordon Brown's recent soundbites. Alan "I'm just a humble postie" Johnson returned to it at the weekend. Mandelson, reportedly, isn't happy, nor I suspect are privately-educated members of the cabinet like Alistair Darling or Harriet Harman. The ugliness of the attack, and its obvious desperation, don't detract from its potency, however. Althought they wrought their havoc under Labour, under a financial regime devised largely by Gordon Brown, the evil bankers can convincingly be assimilated to Conservatives, perennially smearable as "the party of the rich". Even if the rich got richer under Labour than they ever did under the Tories.

Dan Hancox, writing for Prospect, has gone after an even easier (if less significant) target: Tory boys. He gatecrashed ("went undercover to") the Conservative Future Christmas party at the Warwick, Piccadilly, earlier this month, hoping, as he put it, "to see the next generation of Tory leaders do their pre-emptive general election victory dance".

He was, needless to say, on a toff-hunt. "Do I look like a toff?" asks a young man, who, according to Hancox, looks like a toff. Perhaps he really means "sounds like a toff"; or perhaps Tory and toff are so interchangeable in his mind that anyone walking into the party was instantly transformed into a tweed-wearing, fox-hunting, peasant-squashing member of the Bullingdon Club. My guess is that a small handful of party-goers - perhaps none - were genuine "toffs" (a word which, if it means anything, signifies a member of the aristocracy), rather more may have been bankers, and a fair smattering would like to be toffs but know in their heart of hearts that they aren't. They are, at most, playing at toffdom, as their left-wing contemporaries imagine they are saving the planet by camping in Blackheath or being battered by the police in Copenhagen.

Hancox's snarky piece, sarcastically entitled "Britain's bright Tory future", is illustrated by a photo showing four clearly inebriated young male Tories, who are presumably supposed to be representative of the species. One has a prominent brace in his mouth. They look harmless enough.

And the photo was taken two years ago, long before victory hoved into view (in those days, only the very foolhardy, or the very optimistic, would have predicted a Conservative victory). And what of this year's party-goers? Every cliché of the class war is present and correct. They are "floppy-haired", "young bloods"; one has a "ruddy burn-tan straight off the slopes" (he skis? burn him.) A small group of smokers hanging around the entrance is - I rather like this - "a hooray". At one point, conversation turns to the subject of names. "Jenkins is such a butler's name", jokes one (addressing someone named Jenkins). Hancox sees this as evidence that young Tories are "remarkably fixated" on class. I interpret it as irony.

Nevertheless, Hancox claims to have a serious point. In their Christmassy condition, some of the young Tories (the vast majority of whom, if his account of the evening is at all accurate, seem to have been male) behaved in a manner which might be construed as boorish, or just drunken, but which Hancox is keen to portray as stereotypically toffish. They also express opinions which seem to rattle our sensitive reporter.

One, for example, opines that while Cameron is an unfortunate necessity for attaining power, George Osborne is "the bloody man". I seem to remember Labour types preferring Brown over Blair in a similar fashion, in the days before the 1997 landslide. One makes a weak joke that Hancox interprets as "casual racism"; but it's a far cry indeed from the mid-eighties, when Tory boys indulged themselves in raucous singalongs of "Hang Nelson Mandela!" Now they just chant "Conservatives! Win! Oi Oi Oi!" to a hip-hop beat - a perfectly reasonable thing, I would have thought, to chant in the circumstances.

Does any of this matter? Hancox apparently thinks so. One party-goer is convinced that tomorrow belongs to him. "It’s called Conservative Future for a reason: we’re going to be in power in ten years!" he says. Well, some of them may be. The vast majority won't stay the course, or will find something else to do with their lives. And those who do eventually emerge as proper politicians will grow into far more nuanced and thoughtful individuals than they appeared to be at the Christmas party. David Cameron's own Bullingdon days are long behind him, however much Labour likes to bang on about it. It was at just such a gathering that a young right-winger named John Bercow first met a Hooray Henrietta named Sally, and look what happened to them. Strangely, many of New Labour's own leadership have managed to bury their own Communist pasts. Personally, I would much prefer to be governed by someone who misspent part of his youth drinking and throwing up than by one who sat around plotting the overthrow of society.

Tory boyism, in any case, has always been a pose. Conservative youth culture is a form of rebellion. Young Tories have always enjoyed being self-consciously obnoxious, mocking the right-on platitudes of their peers, winding people up. The aim is épater le bien pensant. This generation, having grown up under the most stifling, hectoring and self-satisfied government imaginable, can be forgiven for wanting to let their floppy hair down.

So no, this Christmas bash doesn't represent "a sobering glimpse of this country's future leaders", even if the report of it did fill Open Democracy's Guy Aitchison (on Twitter) with "a certain amount of dread". It does, though, probably represent a modest foretaste of the scenes we shall see on election night, before older and wiser Conservatives set about the gargantuan task of tying to rescue something from the wreckage of Labour's catastrophic mismanagement.
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A Brown Christmas

Taking some lyrics from Dungeekin's hilariously bleak New Labour carol service, ManWiddicombe offers us a piece of seasonal karaoke. To be enjoyed through gritted teeth.

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Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Jiggery Popery

I was fascinated to learn (via Andrew Brown) that the Vatican has trademarked the Pope. They are apparently anxious "to protect the figure and personal identity of the Pope from the unauthorized use of his name and/or the papal coat of arms for ends and activities which have little or nothing to do with the Catholic Church." The announcement bans the unofficial "use of anything referring directly to the person or office of the Supreme Pontiff." They even want assert control over the adjective "Pontifical". Brown predicts that the move might backfire, with "a rash of deliberately mocking Pope figures all over the net, as people see a chance to cock a snook at him." I never needed such an excuse myself, but since it's Christmas, here's a totally unauthorised picture of His Heiliness in a rather fetching hat. Come on then Benedict, sue me.

Why this move now? The explanation, according to the press release, is that there has been "a great increase of affection and esteem for the person of the Holy Father in recent years" (funny, not quite the impression I get) and that this has led to widespread misuse of the papal image. Usually, of course, moves to register trademarks - of celebrities dead or alive, or of institutions like Oxford University - are part of an effort to maximise revenue by closing down sources of unauthorised memorabilia. I can imagine that such a manoeuvre, had it been available in the late middle ages, would have been invaluable in establishing which piece of the True Cross, Holy Foreskin or vial of Virgin's breast-milk was the real thing.

But what will Papa Ratzinger be lending his name to? Shoes? Sunglasses? Aftershave? There must be many companies wanting to play it safe after the Tiger Woods debacle. These days, though, it's usually only dubious miracles credited to would-be saints that get the papal endorsement. It wasn't always thus. Ratzo's 19th century predecessor, Leo XIII, allowed his name and image to adorn advertisements for Mariani's medicinal wine (special ingredient: cocaine). "His Holiness the Pope", ran the blurb, "has fully appreciated the beneficent effects of this tonic wine" - which "quickly restores health, strength, energy and vitality" - and has awarded the company "a gold medal bearing his august effigy" in token of his gratitude.

Leo lived to be 93, so it must have worked. Read the rest of this article

Monday, 21 December 2009

Equality before the law

If Harriet Harman's odious Equality Bill reaches the statute book in anything like its current form (in other words, if the House of Lords doesn't manage to delay it before a general election intervenes) then there may well be social and legal chaos in this country. There will also be a lot more work for lawyers. A lot.

Even without the new law, there is almost endless scope for legal mischief-making. The other day Lillian Ladele, the evangelical registrar who claimed that the right not to deal with gay couples formed a vital part of her beliefs as a Christian, finally lost her appeal. Right result; but the case should never have been brought. It should never have been possible to bring it. The Daily Mail has also been highlighting the case of a supply teacher suspended from duty after a family complained about her offer to pray for them. Legal action is clearly in contemplation here, too. Like Ladele, like the nurse Caroline Petrie who was disciplined for wanting to pray with patients ("coincidentally" - says the Mail - a friend of hers) Olive Jones is being represented by the Christian Institute, which makes a point of bringing lawsuits premised on the idea that Christians are being oppressed in "politically correct" Britain.

Signs are, though, that it is about to get a whole lot worse. The other day Mike Foster, Harman's deputy, said that once the legislation was passed both religious and secular groups should be "lining up" their lawyers. "The secularists should have the right to challenge the church," he said, adding "... I would like to see the faith groups stand up and be counted for what they think and to challenge secularism."

He not only expects the new laws to lead to a rash of litigation, he positively wants it. Christians v Secularists, atheists v Christians, gays v Christians, Muslims v Christians, Jews v Jews (as in the recent case of the Jewish Free School) the permutations are endless. As are the possibilities of enrichment for members of the legal profession.

It'll be better than libel. And, unlike libel, most of the money will be coming from the taxpayer.

These cases are usually fought with public money, often both sides being taxpayer funded on account of the great public interest involved. In other words, to establish the precedence between a louse and a flea (in a case like Lillian Ladele's, you really do wish that they could both lose) public money is thrown at lawyers. Just as the NHS has been virtually bankrupted by once unheard-of negligence suits, so public bodies are forced to devote money that should be spent on vital services to fighting off (or, alternatively, bringing) vexatious actions to enforce the new official morality. Meanwhile the country's vital infrastructure degrades and people in real need are ignored.

Trevor Phillips, chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, tossed a straw into the wind a couple of days ago, writing to the BBC Trust that some of the messages posted on the Beeb's website regarding proposed anti-homosexuality laws in Uganda would fall foul of the new law. Phillips came in for criticism for his move - the prominent media lawyer Mark Stephens called it "a pathetic attempt to censor free speech on a matter of enormous public interest." Perhaps he does relish the legal actions he will soon be empowered (arguably compelled) to bring. But he didn't draft the new law, he is merely pointing out its contents. As a "public sector body", the BBC will be required, under s148 of the Harman Bill, to (among much else) "foster good relations" between various groups possessing "protected characteristics" - a problematic term I've considered in detail before - and the rest of society. Allowing homophobes or other bigots to "have their say", even in the interests of free speech (which is supposedly protected by the European Convention) will be illegal.

Elsewhere, I notice that The British Humanist Association (perhaps taking up Mike Foster's suggestion) is looking for cases of religious discrimination against non-believers. They have launched a "very important call for evidence" to submit to the EHRC, especially in the areas of education, public services and employment. "Have you ever felt harassed when receiving a public service?" they ask. Are they hoping to find new Caroline Petries and Olive Joneses to make martyrs of, to the delight of the Christian Institute or the ineffable Andrea Williams of the Christian Legal Centre? It sounds like it.

From the Christian side, Baroness O'Cathain, the evangelical Tory peer, complained last week in the Lords that the Equality Bill was "for Christian freedom... the single most damaging Bill to come before the House in my 18 years as a Member." She also, needless to say, offered plenty of examples of Christians who had suffered in the name of "equality and diversity". This is the woman, incidentally, who earlier this year attempted to introduce a ban on "extreme writing", which would have made it a criminal offence to be in possession of written pornography, so it's hard to take her seriously as a defender of freedom. But that, in a sense, is the point. Her desire to oppress others who don't share her moralistic view of what constitutes acceptable literature is matched by the desire of others to restrict her ability to express bigoted opinions.

It's tempting to conclude that, after ruling the roost for several hundred years, Christian supremacists like Lady O'Cathain are finally getting a taste of their own medicine. But that's a dangerous road to go down. For one thing, in the past what O'Cathain calls "the unique place of the Christian faith in national life" didn't lead to endless legal battles. For another, the role of the law has changed from being an embodiment of a moral consensus and now strives to be the instrument for imposing a novel set of moral beliefs. This new dispensation - based around the incompatible concepts of "equality" and "diversity" - can be every bit as oppressive as the old, Christian-based morality, but it has far shallower roots.

While earlier illiberal laws (making homosexuality illegal, criminalising "blasphemy", restricting divorce and so on) reflected (followed, reinforced) popular prejudices or the dictates of the Church, the new official morality is largely sui generis. Legislation springs from the cosy relationship between the Labour government and various pressure groups, lobbyists and quangos, many publicly-funded, some of them staffed by once and future MPs - a process from which the public is effectively excluded. In the name of "progressiveness", the aim of these laws is to change society, to drag the public behind the vanguard. It is as much a top-down morality as anything decreed by the Pope.

But that's not the worst consequence of Harmanism. Groups like the Christian Institute paint themselves as the victims of the culture of political correctness, and to an extent they are. But the Equality Bill will provide them with as many opportunities as threats - religion, of course, being one of the "protected characteristics" sanctified by the bill. Without the politically correct laws they so dislike they wouldn't be able to bring their vexatious claims in the first place. In the culture of competing victimhoods, religious exceptionalists and their secular, relativising opponents, mutually loathing though they may be, both have much to gain by claiming their share of "rights".

Albeit not quite so much to gain as the lawyers.
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Saturday, 19 December 2009

Matters of Honour

Munir Hussain, controversially sentenced this week to thirty months in prison, is a devout Muslim. It would be crass in the extreme to suggest that his religious background had anything to do with the explemplary revenge he exacted upon his burglar, who as a result of a sustained and savage beating is now brain damaged for life. Nor would it be proper to draw parallels with another example of a Muslim man taking the law into his own hands, the case of "honour" murderer Mehmet Goren.

It is true that the victims of both men had roused in them an insatiable and uncontrollable anger: Walid Salem, the intruder, by tying up Munir Hussain and his family and threatening them with knives, 15 year old Tulay Goren by sleeping with a man twice her age to her father's quite reasonable disapproval. In both cases the honour of the man of the house might be said to have been impugned by the violation of his traditional property rights. But there is clearly a distinction to be drawn between a defenceless girl of fifteen - the man's own flesh and blood, moreover - and a career criminal who, though he may have been defenceless at the time Hussain and his younger brother beat him to a bloody pulp, had been far from defenceless a short time earlier. And the two convicted men themselves could not have been more different: Hussain was described as a pillar of the local community, whereas Goren was a compulsive gambler with apparent criminal connections.

Nevertheless, some of the language that was used surrounding both trials is instructive. In the case of Munir Hussain, we are told that he felt "that he let down his wife, Shaheen Begum, sons Awais, 21, Samad, 15, and 18-year-old daughter Arooj, by failing to defend them against Salem and his gang." Both he and his brother were described as "family men at the heart of the community". In the Goren case, the dishonouring conduct of the murdered girl was said to have stained not merely her father but her entire family. Charges were brought not just against Mehmet but against his far more respectable elder brother Ali, who was alleged to have chaired a family "council" at which Tulay was sentenced to death. He was acquitted - largely because the police were unable to find much evidence against him beyond the concept of "honour" itself.

The issue I wish to raise here isn't to do with the workings of honour-codes in traditional Asian communities, which in any case may vary. It is more to do with the way the cases were reported. Mehmet Goren's attachment to traditional values was seen, in the press, as a matter for condemnation. Detective Chief Inspector Gerry Campbell spoke of "a mindless medieval-style cruelty that has no place in a modern civilised society," and coverage has focused on the campaign to obliterate the custom. The traditional family, hierarchical and male-dominated, is generally seen as the source of the problem. Jagdeesh Singh, a Sikh whose sister was murdered by her in-laws after seeking a divorce, tells the Independent that there is a "very obstinate power structure which oppresses women and young people" and complains that "so-called community leaders, the influential religious groups and the local language newspapers remain deafeningly silent when these killings happen."

The message is clear: there was a clash of cultures - Tulay Westernised and modern, wanting to act like a normal British teenager, against her brutish father who mentally has never left the Kurdish village in which he imbibed the atavistic honour codes which impelled him to murder. While his personal culpability is never questioned, his own violent temperament is viewed in the context of "traditional" Kurdish (and by extension Asian, by extension Muslim) ways of life. It is that mindset that, in the name of progress, human rights, and no doubt Mr Brown's British Values, must be stamped out. It is taken for granted that the legal system that tried Mehmet Goren for murder is morally superior in its insistence that all - even wayward daughters who fall foul of traditional and deeply-held norms of behaviour - deserve equal protection and equal respect.

Now look at the very different coverage of Munir Hussain's crime of violence. Here, the overwhelming note is one of support, not merely for his predicament but, to an extent, for his actions. He was defending his family; he was, moreover (like Tony Martin, the trigger-happy Norfolk farmer) reacting against a trespasser. An Englishman's home, after all, is supposed to be his castle. The (excellent) Conservative MP Patrick Mercer argued that the case was "not only a grotesque inversion of morality, but also sends out the depressing message that home owners have no right to guard their own loved ones and property." Simon Heffer was typically blunt:

Our system of justice should be ashamed of itself for treating these decent men in this way, and for not taking into account the inevitable imbalance of Mr Hussain's emotions at the time of the incident. The judge said it was his "public duty" to imprison them. Well, he should feel no duty towards me in that regard and nor, I imagine, towards millions of other Britons, whose only regret will be that the other raiders weren't given a good hiding.

It also explodes what little faith one has in the jury system, which is clearly in desperate need of reform if this one could not even glimpse certain eternal verities about criminals and their victims.... Such injustice is not rare. The authorities seem to love to punish people who are no threat to society.

More surprisingly, perhaps, Deborah Orr in the Guardian took a similar line:

I also believe that it is more important to resist jailing people unless they are a danger to others. If they have shown themselves only to be a danger to others when those others have robbed them, threatened them, humiliated them, frightened them, brandished weapons at them and subjected them also to the horror of seeing their wife and children treated in the same way, then those are circumstances that should be considered as highly mitigating.

The coverage highlights the ways in which Munir Hussain is a paragon of traditional Asian values. We are told that the attack on his home occurred when the family had just returned from mosque, and that he is a successful businessman and a former chairman of the Wycombe Race Equality Council. Why are these facts relevant? Partly of course to show up the contrast with his attacker/victim, Walid Salem, who, though presumably belonging to the same "community", is a repeat offender with more than 50 previous convictions. But partly also to set him up as a representative of ordinary decent folk who are assailed daily by the topsy-turvy attitudes of the liberal establishment, with its human rights obsession and "out-of-touch" criminal-loving judiciary. Not to mention the police who persistently let the public down by failing to catch serious criminals, presumably because they're too busy questioning photographers, but positively relish persecuting law-abiding citizens who try to fight back.

I'm not, by the way, necessarily disagreeing with this stereotype, which does seem to have more than a grain of truth in it. It is striking, nevertheless, the extent to which Hussain's supporters in the press downplay the extreme nature of the assault on Salem, which went far beyond "reasonable force" and was, in fact, a punishment beating. Salem was left so incapacitated that he was unfit to stand trial - which meant, of course, that the court came in for extra criticism for its "leniancy" towards the "true criminal".

If the messages left beneath articles or on message-boards or the discussions in radio phone-ins are at all representative, this attitude is widely shared among the general public. Such discussions show the veneer of liberalism, of civilised restraint, to be very thin. There's a palpable impatience with the criminal justice system, with its checks and balances, allied to a deeply-held belief that anyone invading someone's home "has it coming" and deserves what they get, up to and including death. At a deeper level, there's an easy assimilation of justice to retribution, where disproportionate retaliation is both a natural response and a salutary deterrent. People - this is my sense, at least - not only put themselves in Hussain's position and understand why he acted as he did, they applaud it, they hope that they would have had the wherewithal to do the same thing. They can even imagine enjoying whacking Salem with the cricket bat.

I certainly can.

This, of course, is why it is important that the law does not make too many excuses for retributive violence - which, often enough, is its own reward. Because the penalty for burglary in this country is not permanent brain injury, and because the law is there to protect the guilty from the innocent and the innocent from themselves. For what would a society look like which sanctioned do-it-yourself retributive justice? We don't have to imagine, for such societies exist.

In most of them, the law, in its abstraction, is less powerful than custom. There's a strong tradition of community cohesion, of informal justice, of family honour. They are intensely patriarchal. Needless to say, most of them have a terrible record for "honour" killing.
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Friday, 18 December 2009

Painting in a suspicious manner

The London-based watercolourist Liam O'Farrell writes a letter to The Guardian

I was stopped and searched twice near London City airport – for watercolouring! I was not even facing the airport. I was painting the Tate and Lyle sugar factory opposite. They said they saw me on a camera and thought that "no one would want to paint a factory". I explained that LS Lowry did loads. Then they said I could be an anarchist and I was carrying "suspicious paraphernalia" – this being a flask of coffee and an iPod. Oh, and a box of watercolours.

Once they had all my gear out, rummaged through what identity documentation I had and double-checked it on a few radios, they were satisfied I was just "weird" and left me to it. Until the next week, when I went back to finish off the picture and had to go through the same rigmarole all over again.

I have painted in Ukraine, Russia, Vietnam and plenty of other "controlled" states, and have never been questioned about watercolour anarchism.

This is getting ridiculous. Read the rest of this article

Thursday, 17 December 2009

Government message to teenagers: Don't drink, you might enjoy it

The advice from the government's Chief Nanny Medical Officer Sir Liam Donaldson couldn't be clearer. On no account must anyone under the age of 15 touch a drop of alcohol, ever. Otherwise they will descend into an inevitable pit of binge-drinking, casual sex, alcoholism and liver failure. People who think differently - who remember, for example, the glass of wine they enjoyed at Christmas when they were ten or eleven didn't seem to do them any harm - are either irresponsible parents or, at best, guilty of having a "middle-class obsession" with sensible drinking in the home.

Donaldson claims, as all government advisers must, that his advice (which, fortunately, doesn't have the force of law) is evidence-based. The evidence appears at the back of the booklet (pdf) which his department has issued today. And it's a mess. Although there are, indeed, studies quoted which appear to show that many alcoholics and other problem drinkers started early, there's nothing to suggest that 15 is a particularly significant age. Other ages - 11, 13, 14, 16, 18, even 21 - are used in the various pieces of research as cut-off points, but they all seem to have been arbitrarily chosen. Donaldson's choice of 15 might be the result of a compromise, or it might have been plucked out of the air. It does not, however, have any discernible basis in science.

If any message emerges from this mass of research, it is that people's experiences of alcohol are different and one size does not fit all.

We learn of one study in which "vulnerability to the risk of abuse was highest for adolescents who started drinking between the ages of 11 and 14, followed by those who started drinking before the age of 11 and participants who had their first drink at age 15 or 16." Taken literally, that would seem to suggest that it's not a bad idea to start children off on alcohol before their 11th birthday. One piece of research concluded that "age of first drink was not significantly related to the probability of current alcohol abuse or dependence"; another, by contrast, asserted that "the odds of lifetime alcohol dependence and abuse were reduced by 14% and 8% respectively with each increasing year of age at first use."

There was also research "that found that participants who reported an early age of onset of binge drinking but who had matured out of binge drinking by late adolescence (‘early highs’) were no more likely than non-binge drinkers to be alcohol dependent at age 21." It was, in fact, "participants whose binge drinking frequency increased between the ages of 15 and 18" who "had the highest likelihood of alcohol abuse or dependence at age 21."

As for the "middle-class obsession" with introducing children to alcohol at family functions, today's report quotes research to the effect that "drinking in family contexts has been shown to be protective against underage drinking and problem drinking in later life." So why is Donaldson so against it?

Much of the research does appear to show strong correlations between heavy drinking among teenagers and other forms of problematic behaviour - substance abuse, risky sexual behaviour, criminality, poor school performance and so on. But it does not show causality either way. Thus kids from broken homes are more likely to become "problem drinkers" and more likely to get into other kinds of trouble than those from more stable backgrounds. That, however, scarcely amounts to evidence of the dangers of alcohol, and certainly doesn't prove that their consumption of alcohol causes misbehaviour or even makes it worse. If anything, it suggests that their drinking is a consequence, not a cause, of their unhappy situation. For example, we learn that "psychiatric diagnoses of conduct disorder, oppositional defiant disorder or any externalising disorder at 11 years of age have been shown to significantly increase the likelihood of starting to drink by age 14".

On the other hand, some of the studies suggest that juvenile alcohol consumption goes along with more positive features of the adolescent experience. Like money. Children who get more pocket money drink more. So do those who have a part-time job. Those who grow up earlier both physically and mentally are more likely to drink - moderately - than those who are more backward. Drinking alcohol thus seems to go along with maturity, independence and entry into the world of work. It may even be an indication of future success.

Nor are the horror stories of drunken incapacitation borne out by the figures. We learn that the vast majority of teenagers have tasted alcohol earlier than Donaldson recommends - 81% of those aged between 13-15. But of the almost 3 million 11-17 year olds who had ever had a drink, less than half a million drank every week and a mere seven thousand (around 0.3 percent) had been admitted to hospital with alcohol-related problems. Moreover, both the number of children drinking, and the amount consumed (outside a small hard core of problem drinkers) have been declining for some years.

And what's this?

The 2007 ESPAD survey asked 15 and 16 year olds about the different positive and negative consequences that they thought might happen to them if they drank alcohol (Hibell et al, 2009). The majority of respondents associated alcohol consumption with positive consequences, with an average 71% endorsement across a range of positive outcomes. These included having a lot of fun (80%), feeling happy (77%), feeling more friendly and outgoing (76%), feeling relaxed (66%) and forgetting problems (54%).

Inevitably, the report treats this as deeply worrying. If young people have such happy experiences of alcohol, after all, they might keep on drinking - and some of them will become alcoholics, or, years down the line, require the services of the NHS. This, of course, is why middle-class parents (like, for example, David Cameron), with their "obsession" with introducing their children to moderate, civilised alcohol consumption, present such a social danger. Their attitude "normalises" alcohol, by giving young people the impression that there might be something normal about it; while fanatics like Donaldson, while no longer speaking the language of religion, clearly pine for Prohibition.

Talking of religion, the report also suggests, as part of its plans for spreading the anti-booze message, "special support should be developed for those whose faith might require abstention." Does this mean that mosques will be given public funds for launching anti-alcohol campaigns?

It's scarcely surprising that anti-alcohol puritans like Donaldson should turn for support to the leaders of like-minded faiths. For the pursuit of "evidence-based" outcomes in public health is now pursued with religious zeal. His world-view contains no concept of moderation and leaves no room for joy in life. The danger is in alcohol per se, not merely the over-use or abuse of it. The fact that a minority of teenagers who consume alcohol will drink in unhealthy quantities or have pre-existing problems doesn't mean that it is a danger to the majority. It does, however, suggest to those who think like him that the greater good is somehow served by making everybody's life miserable.

Similarly, Donaldson refuses to admit the obvious difference between moderate consumption en famille and unsupervised, unrestrained binge drinking. In his black and white universe, people are too stupid to understand the concept of proportionality. This is the man, remember, who previously lectured pregnant women, despite clear evidence to the contrary, that the merest drop of alcohol might "harm their baby".

What we are dealing with in campaigns such as this is less alcohol itself than alcohol as a manifestation of moral panic. As James Davidson put it in his invaluable study of the ancient Athenians, Courtesans and Fishcakes, summing up the prevailing official attitude towards drinking,

The broad range of intoxicating liquors known to man are viewed as manifestations of a single drug, alcohol, in various disguises. The wide experience of enjoying these beverages and the manifold forms of consuming them are viewed as manifestations of a monotonous pathology of intoxication and addiction, as ethyl first ensnares and then takes over the body.

Of course, the adult attitude towards teenage drinking, like the adult attitude towards teenage sex and teenage fearless self-endangerment (otherwise known as "irresponsible behaviour") is influenced by several different factors, among which are nostalgia, jealousy and fear of one's own mortality. Once one has reached the age at which such behaviour seems dangerous, and destructive of society, one is, almost by definition, no longer having fun. In the case of Sir Liam Donaldson, it may be wondered if he ever did.
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Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Lib Dems guilty of airbrushing ASA ruling

The Liberal Democrats' Jo Swinson is celebrating the first major victory in her nannyish campaign to restrict airbrushing in adverts, on the supposed grounds that looking at unrealistic pictures in magazines may lead teenage girls to develop a negative body-image. This year's Lib Dem conference adopted with little opposition her policy of forcing advertisers to disclose if any airbrushing had gone one, and to ban it entirely in publications aimed at under 16s. To advance her case, Swinson had earlier encouraged people to complain to the Advertising Standards Agency about an advert featuring the 59-year old Twiggy.

Swinson's campaign garnered considerable publicity, partly, no doubt, because of the opportunity it gave the Daily Mail to run an unflattering photo of the model at the supermarket looking her age. In the event, some 700 people responded to the invitation to complaint by registering at a Lib Dem website. That's not much, these days - it doesn't compare to the forty thousand who were motivated to complain about Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross, for example. There was also a single "independent" complaint.

The ASA have now agreed that this particular image of the Sixties survivor, used to advertise Olay eye lotion, may have been misleading. Since the advert has been withdrawn, the company acknowledging that the digital manipulation was "inconsistent with their own policies" the adjudication was a purely academic exercise. Nevertheless, the quango looked into the matter. The adjudication says,

We acknowledged that advertisers were keen to present their products in their most positive light using techniques such as post-production enhancement and the re-touching of images. However, we considered that the post-production re-touching of this ad, specifically in the eye area, could give consumers a misleading impression of the effect the product could achieve. We considered that the combination of references to "younger-looking eyes", including the claim "Reduces the look of wrinkles and dark circles for brighter, young-looking eyes", and post-production re-touching of Twiggys image around the eye area was likely to mislead.

The ASA, in short, accepted that, in the specific circumstances of an advert for allegedly wrinkle-reducing eye-cream, to airbrush out the wrinkles constituted a breach of the advertising code.

This isn't a surprise. As I noted around the time that Swinson launched her "Real Women" campaign, "there are already tough rules in place to deal with advertisements which make misleading claims." But of course the campaign wasn't about whether or not consumers were likely to be misled about the magical powers of Olay's eye lotion. The group complaint accused the ad of being "socially irresponsible". In her press release today, Swinson expresses the hope that the ASA's decision "marks the first step in really getting airbrushing in advertising under control" and goes on:

Experts have already proved that airbrushing contributes to a host of problems in women and young girls such as depression and eating disorders.

Liberal Democrats believe in the freedom of companies to advertise but we also believe in the freedom of women to be as comfortable as possible with their bodies. They shouldn’t constantly feel the need to measure up to a very narrow range of digitally manipulated pictures.

Experts have proved no such thing, of course; and Swinson's concept of a "freedom" not to see airbrushed adverts is, from a liberal point of view, rather a strange one. But what the press release doesn't say is that the main thrust of the campaign, that the advert was "socially irresponsible", was specifically rejected by the ASA ruling.

The adjudication noted that the advert was aimed at older women - indeed, it appeared in a magazine read mainly be a more mature readership. The ASA considered that the readers "would understand that the ad set out to associate the well-known mature female model with a brand, and would not infer that Twiggys appearance in the ad was achieved solely through the use of Olay Definity." [This seems to contradict the decision that it was "likely to mislead".] Most importantly:

We concluded that, in the context of an ad that featured a mature model likely to appeal to women of an older age group, the image was unlikely to have a negative impact on perceptions of body image among the target audience and was not socially irresponsible.

This ought to be a considerable setback for the Swinson campaign. The ASA have not said that an airbrushed advert could never be considered "socially irresponsible"; merely that the one advert that she decided to concentrate on to make her point was not. But if there are other, more clearly "irresponsible" examples of airbrushing out there, why did Swinson decide to focus on this one in particular? Couldn't she find any that better fitted her case?

The Lib Dem press release doesn't claim that the ASA accepted their main complaint, but neither does it mention the fact that it was rejected. That inconvenient detail has been airbrushed out. It might be thought that the failure of the complaint demonstrates the necessity for laws of the kind Swinson is pushing for - in which case, Swinson would have done better (from her point of view) to play up the rejection of proof that the ASA code is wholly inadequate. But that would sit oddly with the fact that the one advert she thought it worthwhile to complain about was found to be in breach. So instead she "welcomes" the ruling as proof of the success of her campaign. Yet by so doing, she gives the impression that the existing code is up to the job. So why the need for new laws?
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Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Adapting to a changing climate

Who said this?

All life on Earth shares one atmosphere and each nation, each state, bears a responsibility to all to protect it. Our government officials need to be well-informed as the debates continue on legislation to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.

Al Gore? Ed Miliband? George Monbiot?

No, it was Sarah Palin, writing to Alaskan citizens in July 2008, shortly before she came to the international prominence that she still, despite everything, enjoys. She also said this:

Alaska’s climate is warming. While there have been warming and cooling trends before, climatologists tell us that the current rate of warming is unprecedented within the time of human civilization. Many experts predict that Alaska, along with our northern latitude neighbors, will warm at a faster pace than any other areas, and the warming will continue for decades.

She was explaining why she had set up a sub-cabinet with special responsibility for climate change, the purpose of which was "to identify priorities needing immediate attention along with longer-term steps we can take as a state to best serve all Alaskans and to do our part in the global response to this global phenomenon."

These days, Palin is more likely to say things like this:

While we recognize the occurrence of these natural, cyclical environmental trends, we can't say with assurance that man's activities cause weather changes. We can say, however, that any potential benefits of proposed emissions reduction policies are far outweighed by their economic costs.

In the same article (which appeared in the Washington Post and the Guardian) she highlighted the "Climategate" emails which, she wrote recently,

reveal that leading climate "experts" deliberately destroyed records, manipulated data to "hide the decline" in global temperatures, and tried to silence their critics by preventing them from publishing in peer-reviewed journals. What's more, the documents show that there was no real consensus even within the CRU crowd.

It might be that Palin has genuinely changed her mind, her world-view rocked by the shocking information leaked/hacked from East Anglia. Or it might be political positioning. Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post, who unearthed the circular (pdf) from last summer, comments that

When she was in office, Palin treated the issue as serious, complex and worthy of urgent attention. Now that she's the iconic leader of a populist movement that reacts with anger at the slightest whiff of pointy-headed, "one world" intellectualism, she writes as if the idea of seeking ways to mitigate climate change is a crock.

It fits with a pattern I've identified before. The pre-election Palin was a small-town and fairly sensible conservative, her populist approach in keeping with her credentials as an ordinary "hockey mom" who, by dint of hard work and a belief in public service, found herself moving with extraordinary speed from a seat on Wasilla town council to the governorship of her state. Post-election she is an opinionated celebrity, a kind of shock-jock without a radio show. If there's a simplistic, populist bandwagon she'll climb aboard. She has even winked at the conspiracy theorists who doubt Obama's right to be president. Adopting climate change scepticism - whatever might be said about the subject scientifically - is, politically, a badge of dissent, part of her rejection of (and by) the elites of Washington and New York. In just the same way, David Cameron's embrace of green policies has been central to his attempt to position the Conservative party in the centre of British politics.

The transformation of Palin from a mainstream politician, however untypical her background and route into politics, to maverick outsider may have begun during the presidential election campaign as a strategy of appealing to the Republican grassroots dubious about John McCain. But it was the intense mockery that followed - much of it, as Michael Jeffries points out, based on snobbery - that typecast her forever as a naive right-winger. Originally, as her policy on climate change while governor demonstrates, she was a much more nuanced figure. She was never an evangelistic Green, of course. One of her proudest achievements as governor was to block the listing of the polar bear as an endgangered species. What emerges from her Alaskan policy, rather, is a hard-headed pragmatism, adopting strategies to deal with the effects of global warming and at the same time ensuring that the new low-carbon energy regime could be turned to Alaska's economic benefit.

Ironically, Robinson reports, the chairman of the Cabinet working group that Palin assembled to develop a climate change strategy, Larry Hartig, "is scheduled to deliver a presentation at Copenhagen. Posted in advance on the Internet, the presentation shows that Alaskans aren't just fretting about the abstract possibility of effects from warming. They're dealing with a real, live situation."

As governor, Sarah Palin had to deal with that situation. The situation she now has to deal with is rather different: it is to maintain her profile, possibly for a future return to electoral politics, mainly at the moment because that is now her career. So far, it seems to be working. A recent opinion poll showed that her personal approval rating was as high as Barack Obama's - but, unlike his, moving in an upward direction.

Climate change scepticism, undeniably, is a populist cause. It may now be becoming a popular one. And Sarah Palin is determined to be its poster-girl.
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Monday, 14 December 2009

"Loony Left" now swimming in Conservative mainstream

This is a guest post by Rev Julian Mann

Back in 1986, I attended the annual conference of the National Union of Students as a Conservative delegate. It was there that I got a sense as a young man of a new political ideology emerging in Britain. Political correctness was then in its adolescence and, outside student politics, was confined mainly to what was then known as the 'Loony Left'.

Now it appears to be mainstream Conservative thinking.

I am not now a member of any political party, but I was invited to apply for tickets to a Cameron Direct question and answer session with the Conservative leader here in north Sheffield on Friday. I raised with Mr Cameron the serious crisis facing the orthodox Christian community from the Equality Bill and in particular its impact on our desire to uphold heterosexual marriage. I asked him a). whether he wanted to do anything about our concerns and b). whether he could because of the pressure from Europe to take away our religious exemptions.

He said he was in favour of some aspects of the Equality Bill (the fact that it tidies up various bits of legislation) but he had some concerns about its impact on faith groups. He ended by saying something along the lines that he was in favour of faith groups being allowed to continue
provided they don't discriminate.

Though I am very much a layman on political philosophy, this struck me as a quite extraordinary statement from a Conservative. I thought they believed in a limited role for government. I also thought they had an ideological commitment to safeguarding people's rights over their property.

Mr Cameron is clearly a very bright and able man and has sincere and deeply-held convictions about the need for greater personal responsibility in society. It was also impressive how he was able to give answers on such a wide range of issues. I certainly wouldn't be able to think that quickly on my feet.

But it seemed to be astonishing that a Conservative leader refrained from offering a firm assurance that his party would oppose any moves to compel churches to host blessings for civil partnerships on our premises and to employ staff who do not adhere to our Christian moral standards.

Instead, he spoke in terms of politicians giving permission to faith groups to operate in society. Mrs Thatcher was a strong-minded character but the thought would never have occurred to her that Caesar should tell God what to do over the couples He allows to get married in His churches and the kind of people He employs to serve in them. She certainly never would have invoked 'anti-discrimination' as the rationale for government intervention in the voluntary sector. Mr Cameron's terms of reference reminded me of the NUS back in the 1980s.

Christian churches in fact have a spiritual and moral obligation to discriminate in favour of heterosexual marriage and in terms of who we employ. They must be good Christian role models to the people in their care. We certainly don't discriminate in terms of the people to whom we proclaim the living Christ and look after in our groups and social care programmes.

We have no desire to impose our standards on non-Christian voluntary associations and charities. But we do ask to be free to uphold our Christian spiritual and moral standards in ours. Read the rest of this article

Sunday, 13 December 2009

The man who did (for) God

The present British government is notoriously faith-friendly. Communities Secretary John Denham, despite claiming to be a secular humanist, has taken to giving speeches lazily singing the virtues of "faith", while (after a brief hiatus under Hazel Blears) his department has gone back to its bad old ways of bunging large wads of cash at radical Islamists. Meanwhile, the drive to expand religious schooling continues apace. And this weekend, memories of Tony Blair's faith-drenched time at the top were revived by his saccharine, yet curiously revealing, interview with Fern Britton which I forced myself to sit through this morning.

Blair was careful not to blame God for the decision to invade Iraq. His religious faith, he noted, merely have him the strength to take difficult decisions, however they turned out. What was ringingly clear as always, however, was the moral certainty with which he pursued his goal of getting rid of Saddam Hussein, and that certainty was indeed driven by religion. Blair exemplifies the phenomenon described recently by researchers at the University of Chicago for religious believers to be strengthened in the opinions they already hold by the conviction that they are shared by God. In Blair's case, even if the invasion of Iraq didn't have explicit divine sanction it fitted in with his general worldview, which did.

That worldview, we are led to believe, teaches him that the way to deal with dictators like Saddam Hussein (or, indeed Milosevic) is to invade their countries and remove them from power. At least, that's what he felt at the time. Perhaps he's mellowed. Recently, Blair was in Azerbaijan, picking up a cool £90,000 for opening a formaldehyde factory - one whose environmental sustainability he was anxious to assert - and heaping praises on the government of President Aliyev, despite what is generally admitted to be a lamentable human rights record. I can't help wondering how much he might have collected from Saddam Hussein for opening an oil refinery in Iraq, if only the Baathist dictator were still in power. Missed opportunities, Mr Blair.

It was hard not to recall the Blair years when trying to make sense of Rowan Williams' latest pronouncements on the alleged sidelining of religion in modern politics. According to the Archbishop, who was speaking to the Telegraph's George Pitcher,

The trouble with a lot of government initiatives about faith is that they assume it is a problem, it’s an eccentricity, it’s practised by oddities, foreigners and minorities. The effect is to de-normalise faith, to intensify the perception that faith is not part of our bloodstream.

Given that religious leaders are consulted by this government to a degree unprecedented in modern Britain, and even a non-religious Cabinet minister subscribes to a central role for "faith" in the political process, Williams' frustration with Labour's use of "faith initiatives" seems a bit strange. Surely the government ought to concentrate on dealing with the problems that religion causes - and where it isn't seen as a problem, leave it alone.

While that quote was the most eye-catching in the interview, he also had some broader comments on the relationship between politics and religion. He appears to think - like John Denham, like Blair - that religious belief ("faith") is most important as a source of motivation and strength, and that therefore politicians ought to have, and talk about, their own personal faith. This way, religion would be "normalised". Yet he also claimed that "we, curiously, have three party leaders, all of whom have a very strong moral sense of some spiritual flavour". Even the openly atheist Nick Clegg, who "takes it seriously"(!). Williams went on:

I think it’s important for politicians not to be too protected, to be able to establish their human credentials in front of a living audience... Part of establishing their human credentials is saying 'This is where my motivation comes from ... I’m in politics because this is what I believe.' And that includes religious conviction.

As always with Dr Williams, it's possible to read that in several ways. But he seems to be saying that discussion religion is another form of the "transparency" expected of modern politicians, like coming clean about their expenses claims, perhaps. The logical conclusion of this line of thought would be a Register of Members' Religious Interests, in which MPs were compelled to list the churches, mosques or whatever with which they were affiliated, what donations they had made (since we are paying their salaries, it's Our Money, after all) and how often they conversed with religious professionals. It might, indeed, be very revealing. Something similar goes on in the United States, informally at least. Before last year's presidential election Barack Obama was forced to devote an entire speech to explaining his relationship with Pastor Jeremiah Wright, whose Chicago church used to attend, while one of Sarah Palin's former religious contacts turned out to have a sideline in Witch-finding. Do we really want to see that here?

Williams seems to want a sort of celebrity politics, where who the leaders are (which includes what supernaturalist belief-system they subscribe to) matters more than their policies. But political decisions should be based on evidence and open democratic debate, not private conviction. And if, as is probable, religious beliefs don't translate into political decisions anyway, merely providing the politician with personal consolation, then what they believe has little actual relevance. There are exceptions - like abortion - where specific beliefs can have direct influence on political decision-making, but even here most British politicians have been able to separate their personal convictions from the wider interests of society.

Tony Blair, of course, that master of ambiguity, managed to be simultaneously open and private about his faith. The official position was that he "didn't do God"; but unofficially, his God-doing was obvious and unabashed (or fairly unabashed: he recoiled in horror from Jeremy Paxman's notorious question about whether he prayed with George Bush). In any event, there was never any doubt about the centrality of religion to his political mission. "I only know what I believe," he once announced, as though that were a virtue. Presumably Rowan Williams would approve. But I find it hard to imagine (perhaps I'm wrong) that Christians generally in this country took great pride in the fact that Tony Blair, while he was in Downing Street, was overtly devout. When, shortly after leaving office, he went over to Rome I could detect no deafening chorus of jubilation from Britain's Catholics, although some Anglicans expressed themselves glad to be rid of him.

When he first came to office, Blair's religiosity was generally seen as a plus, largely because "having faith" is still generally seen as an indication of decency and moral conviction. It was only towards the end that he became widely ridiculed for it. Indeed, it's possible that much of the current hostility towards politicians "doing God" owes less to a traditional British reluctance to emote about religion than to the experience of ten years of Tony Blair. If so, then it may be one of his few positive legacies.
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Saturday, 12 December 2009

An illegal picture of Tiger Woods

The injunction obtained on Thursday by Schillings, on behalf of Tiger Woods - granted by Mr Justice Seedy (who else?) - bans the reproduction of "any photographs, footage or images taken or obtained of the Claimant naked or any naked parts of the Claimant's body or of him involved in any sexual activity".

Presumably that would include this one:

It's hard to tell what his hand is doing but he's certainly got a big smile on his face.

TMZ, the American gossip site, have released the full injunction in pdf form. Schillings are anxious to point out that

For the avoidance of doubt this Order is not to be taken as an admission that any such photographs exist, and in the event that these photographs do exist, and it is not admitted, any such images may have been fabricated, altered, manipulated and or changed to create the false appearance and impression that they are nude photgraphs of our client.

So no Photoshopping. Got that? Read the rest of this article

Friday, 11 December 2009

Reproduced without permission

Three years ago, almost to the day, Liverpool-based web developer Thom Shannon took some amusing photos of himself and his friends posing with their faces partially obscured by banknotes. The effect, as you can see from the example below (reproduced with permission) is to create an eerie merging of the face on the note with the human being in the picture. I've no idea who thought of it first, but it has been doing the rounds for some time - see, for example, this how-to guide from June 2007. Anyway, Thom posted the pictures to his Flickr album and shared it with other like-minded jokers in a group called Money Shots. There are several such groups out there: here's another.

According to the Mail, these images are now "littering the web" in what is "the latest craze". They seem to have lifted the story - along with the pictures - from the blog Intense Zone, which ran them last week (without permission) in a post about "a new craze going around the world". The Mail's version - minimally altered - appeared on their website on Tuesday. Thus far, a typical story of the mainstream media discovering a trend years after it started and imagining it was new. But then Shannon, alerted via a friend on Twitter, took exception to this uncredited use of his photograph, for which he, after all, holds the copyright. He left an indignant comment below the article:

You did not ask permission to use any of my photos and haven't even credited me. I do not want my face appearing on this website and neither do my friends, please remove them immediately.

They didn't.

The photographs have since appeared in the Telegraph and the Sun, the Telegraph initially crediting them to Intense Zone. Thom Shannon spent much of this morning trying to contact the organisations concerned. The Telegraph have complied with his request for a picture credit (he did not ask for payment) and he has spoken to someone at the Sun. The Mail, so far, have ignored his protestations.

Thom has no idea how Intense Zone got hold of the pictures, though he tells me that "they've been used around the web a bit but most people have made some effort to credit them clearly." As for the unauthorised reproduction of them in the newspapers, he says that he is "annoyed that a paper like the Mail can just get away with it," adding that "I have no practical recourse, and legal action is out of the question."

Writing about the affair on his blog, Charlie Beckett of the think-tank POLIS couldn't see much problem. He even congratulated the Mail on not deleting the complaints from Thom Shannon and several others who pointed out the blatant copyright violation. He argues that people published the photos on the Internet with no thought of financial gain and, presumably, because they wanted people to see them. The pictures served merely to illustrate a "slight" news story that was worth reporting; and anyway, some of those featured might be happy for their funny photos to be shared with millions of others via the good offices of the Daily Mail.

Beckett spectacularly misses the point (though perhaps he is just being provocative) when he writes:

If they had wanted privacy then they should have changed their security settings. If they wanted payment then a little note or code would have made that clear...Generally, the principle online has always been that sharing is good. So what if the Mail made money out of it? Isn’t the point of open source and creative commons that we all benefit from the Internet’s link economy?

Let's take these points in turn.

Just because a photo is on the Internet doesn't mean it is supposed to be publicly visible. Most of the photography to be found on Flickr and tumblr albums are put up for the benefit of the friends and family of the people who took them. Even though they're often publicly accessible via search engines they rarely circulate far. That's why many people imagine they can display their personal photos in virtual anonymity, and why incautious postings can come back to haunt people who have a brush with fame or notoriety. An embarrassing photo or email, intended to be confined to a small group of friends (or even sent to just one other person) can go viral, and sooner or later will reach a journalist looking to fill space. In the case of Amanda Knox, it may even have sent her to prison.

In any case, this is not merely, or even primarily, about "privacy". Beckett's claim is tantamount to saying that if you don't want your house burgled you should install an alarm: good advice, no doubt, but no excuse for theft.

As for the right to re-use the images, there was a copyright notice (allowing limited non-commercial use) on Shannon's original Flickr page. Thom has now reposted the original pictures with digital watermarks and a message that reads "I've never felt I needed to use watermarks before but having the Daily Mail rip off my photos without any credits and completely ignore my requests for them to remove them has bothered me."

Beckett asks "at what point does material in the public domain become copyright?" There's a simple answer to that: a photograph becomes copyright the moment it is taken, a piece of writing the moment it is written. You retain the copyright even of personal letters you have sent to other people, which they cannot legally republish without your permission. Just because something is widely shared on the Web doesn't mean it is "in the public domain". A custom of fair use, often (but not always) set out in a Creative Commons licence, has emerged online; bloggers, of course, quote extensively from each others posts, generally without causing upset. But that's no more than a custom. It doesn't alter the law of copyright.

The re-use of photos even online is a controversial area. It's a good principle to seek permission for images you intend to re-use, although in practice the spread of images is often impossible to police; indeed, the original copyright holder may be difficult to trace. There was a good discussion of this issue on Pandora Blake's blog in the summer, prompted by her discovery that one of her watermarked spanking photographs had resurfaced on someone else's Tumblr page. She was able to trace the trail back no fewer than 22 "reblogs" to her original image, and comments:

I very nearly decided not to bother. After all, I'm not making money off these images. But I persisted; it's a point of principle, especially when I'm not the only person whose copyrighted material is being stolen. By the time I'd written an email to the support team reporting the infringement, I'd worked up a nice head of steam, and felt thoroughly justified.

Even so, there's surely an important distinction, morally if not legally, between social networking sites and the websites maintained by large profit-driven organisations. As Will Sturgeon notes, the line is often crossed, "the moment the tabloids start monetising this content". Several companies that have recently become obsessed with protecting their own copyright take a cavalier approach to material discovered on Facebook or a blog. The Mail, incidentally, is one of the worst offenders. As long ago as 2001, it was taking material from websites and republishing it without permission - in one case, after the copyright owner had explicitly refused to allow publication, even for a fee. Last year, the Mail on Sunday decided to run a "blog of the week" feature, reproducing entire blogposts in its print edition, without payment and even without informing copyright-holders of what it had done.

When one such blogger, Johnny B, complained the MoS agreed to pay him for his article. But their reply also contained this revealing comment:

We generally take the view that blogs published on the internet have already been placed in the public domain by their authors and, in case of amateur writers, most people are happy to have their work recognised and displayed to a wider audience.

Even if this is true, it doesn't alter the fact of copyright violation. As the digital rights expert Mathias Klang pointed out at the time, what is strange about such incidents is that they reveal a "misguided belief that what is online is somehow in the public domain and that these mistakes are being made not only by amateurs but also be the 'professional' media. And this is despite the fact that the discussion on online copyright is almost as old as the internet itself."

In any case, how can they presume to know, without asking, that someone wants to have their work reproduced? And how, indeed, can they be sure that anyone writing a blog is an "amateur writer" at all? Many blogs are written by people who have also had material professionally published. This applies even more to images, given that almost all professional photographers and artists now have an established online presence.

Whatever the law says, it's impossible to control the flow of copyrighted material online. But a professional media organisation shouldn't hide behind this fact of digital life to evade their legal and moral responsibility. And the hypocrisy can be striking. The mass media are happy to embrace the free-and-easy culture of content-sharing when the copyright belongs to non-professional (or assumed to be non-professional) photographers, writers and film-makers. At least, they understand it as meaning that they have a perfect right to rip it off for their own commercial advantage. They are increasingly reluctant to extend the same latitude to their customers. As Kevin Anderson writes in a comment on Charlie Beckett's blog, "if newspapers show a rather fuzzy view of rights online, they can hardly seize the moral high ground on this issue, although they are trying."

We all know that the media increasingly depend on material filched from the internet to fill their pages and drive traffic to their sites. When a tasty little morsel arrives in a journalist's inbox, it's tempting to use it, and to rationalise the publication as just another step in the great chain of sharing. But there's a large media organisation is in a wholly different league from a normal internet user. If someone's amusing photo or scandalous email has provided a newspaper with good copy, it's surely not asking too much for them to take the trouble to find out who it belongs to, and give them some credit.
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Thursday, 10 December 2009

Britain turns into Poundland

One thing's clear after yesterday's abject performance from Alistair Darling - and you will excuse, I hope, an untypical lapse into the vernacular - we are, as a country, in the shit. Not just in the shit, but choking and spluttering in a Loch Ness of slurry. The chancellor can count himself fortunate that, whatever the outcome of the election, he won't be the one having to take the measures necessary to tackle the deficit crisis - because the man who does, whether George Osborne, Ed Balls or even Vince Cable (a good possibility if there's a hung Parliament) is likely to be very unpopular indeed.

A perceptive analysis by Carsten Volkery, albeit well-larded with Teutonic schadenfreude, appears in Der Spiegel. Tim Montgomerie points it out. He also notes the clever double entendre in the German title: Großbritannien schrumpft zur Mini-Macht means, literally, "Great Britain shrinks to a mini-power", but "mini-macht" also sounds rather like the term for a corner shop ("mini-markt").

In other words, Britain is now Poundland - a shrinking country with a sinking currency.

Volkery's piece is thus far only available in German - or, for readers without any German, in the gobbledegook served up by Google's auto-translator. Here's a paraphrase:

London - The United Kingdom is anticipating dark times. In the coming years cash-strapped local authorities could be forced to ration the streetlighting, reports the Financial Times. Shopkeepers could be asked to pay for the police themselves. And the public would have to wave goodbye to amenities from libraries to swimming pools.

Welcome to formerly booming Britain. With the disastrous state of the public finances, not only local government is threatened with cutbacks. The reason is that the economic crisis has hit the island far more than other European countries. Britain is the only country in the G-20 group of leading industrial nations, which has not yet come out of recession. In the third quarter of 2009 the economy for the fifth consecutive time has shrunk. For the current fourth quarter, the long-awaited turnaround is expected, but growth will remain weak for the foreseeable future.

Volkery then looks at the decisions made by Alistair Darling in the face of the record £178 billion deficit, noting that he "refrained from harsh cuts" because of the looming election. As for the future, Volkery predicts that by 2015 the UK will no longer number among the world's top ten economies - falling behind even Russia, Brazil and Canada: an "alarming" decline. Darling has remained vague about future cuts in the face of threats to the country's vital AAA credit rating, instead going for a populist but largely symbolic attack on bank bonuses. And Volkery wonders, as many do, where on earth future growth in the economy is going to come from.

The three major engines of growth in the past decade - financial services, the property market and public sector expansion - are all finished for the time being, he suggests. And after the de-industrialisation of the Eighties and Nineties - which continued under Labour - there's not much else. Labour and Conservative politicians keep talking up the green economy, but here Britain lags behind other major countries. The strength of the financial sector, he concludes, allowed the rapid expansion of the public sector and both disguised underlying the weakness of the economy: now the country is cruelly exposed.

The piece is more than a little gleeful, and I don't know why Volkery thinks the housing market is so weak. He also displays a typically German preference for industrial manufacture over other (equally valid) forms of wealth-generation. But his general analysis rings chillingly true. Darling got a big laugh yesterday when he claimed that "we make these decisions from a position of strength". It could be he know's the game's up and was injecting a dash of gallows humour into the proceedings; more likely, I think, that Gordon Brown, a stranger to irony, insisted the phrase went in. It was almost a Ceaucescu moment.

There was more pessimism on display in the Economist's Bagehot column, which noted how the Empire still casts a long shadow on national life. The highlight is this savage dissection of the psychology of Brown's Britain:

Beneath all this is the peculiar British combination of bragging and bewilderment, an air of expectations great but unmet and of unrealised specialness. It is hard to think of another country so keen to magnify its accomplishments (everything must be "the best in the world"), yet also to wallow in its failings; so deluded and yet so morbidly disappointed. Every recent prime minister has struggled to overcome this sense of thwartedness and decline, and to come up with a notion of Britishness to replace the defunct imperial version. Mr Blair tried Cool Britannia. It flopped. The gloom may be almost as acute now as it was in the late 1950s or 1970s.

Gordon Brown's most un-British obsession with "Britishness" certainly falls into this category - unlike Cool Britannia, which was really just a bit of froth. Even at the time it seemed as hubristic and empty as the Dome that was its symbol, yet that didn't really matter because it tasted like the head on a pint of Guinness. Now that the bubbles have evaporated, it is evident that there never was any beer.

Which raises an interesting question about the next election. Given that whoever wins will be faced with the biggest mess to have confronted an incoming government since the end of the Second World War, and with it the near certain prospect of deep unpopularity, wouldn't the wisest long-term political strategy be to try very hard indeed to lose?
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