Sunday, 28 February 2010

Winning through intimidation

The most popular thing John Prescott ever did was to punch a voter during a general election campaign. Labour would have won that election anyway, but the deputy PM's right hook was probably good for a couple of seats. Shagging his secretary didn't do him much harm, either, blessed as he was with a remarkably forgiving wife. But then Prescott had a personality that, for obscure reasons, many people seemed to warm to. Gordon Brown - so goes the conventional wisdom - is far less appealing. Logically, then, last weeks revelations about behind-the-scenes bullying ought to have been deadly. Instead, he is doing better in the polls than he has done for two years. What is going on?

It may be that the polls would have turned anyway. They have been narrowing slightly for weeks - ever since the farcical Hoon/Hewitt attempted coup. The latest poll in the Sunday Times, however, appears to show that the mudslide has occurred over the past few days, even the past 24 hours. It has coincided with the Alistair Darling story - the Chancellor's hilarious admission that his accurate assessment of the economic situation (the legacy of Brown's stewardship of the Treasury) had led to the "forces of hell" being unleashed against him, not just by Number 10, "but the Tories as well." The main political story of last week was the sight of those same forces unleashed against the head of a small anti-bullying charity. Underpinning both was Andrew Rawnsley's tales - surprising to few who take an interest in these matters - of Brown's tantrums. Those Brownfall clips on YouTube began to look even more like documentaries.

There are two possible explanations. One is that the spin - that Gordon's tantrums were evidence not of bullying but of passion - has worked. Along with the lachrymose performance Piers Morgan extracted from him the other week, the Rawnsley material serves to humanise our robotic Supreme Leader. He chews the carpet, yes, but only because he cares. The fact that he helped get us in the present mess with his over-lavish and badly directed spending matters less to voters, in the final analysis, than his commitment. Like any good boss, he wanted his underlings to put in as much effort as he did.

I don't think that's sufficient. The evidence of bullying is strong enough to withstand such a rationalisation. It was more than just passion for solving Britain's ills: it was abusive. So we're left with the possibility that the revelation of Brown's bullying behaviour has actually increased his popularity. Voters - a significant number of voters - aren't just willing to overlook the PM's abominable behaviour; they're impressed by it. They want to be led by a bully. Not because bullying is a sign of passion or commitment, but because bullying in itself is a good thing. Obviously, you wouldn't want your boss to be a bully. But there's a suspicion (justified or not) that however unpleasant they are to work for, bullies get results.

Logically, the management technique adopted by Brown, which besides shouting involved pog-headedness, not listening to advice and a tendency towards centralisation that would have impressed Frederick the Great, has been a terrible failure. Politics has very little to do with logic, however. Elections are won by the manipulation of hopes and fears, especially the latter, and shaped by the myth of personality. The coming election will be Cameron v. Brown, and a large part of the Cameron strategy has relied on the assumption that the Brown personality is an unattractive one. In normal circumstances - the circumstances that prevailed when Cameron and Brown ascended to their respective positions, for example - this would be a sound assumption to make. But these are not normal times.

The decline in Tory fortunes can be dated fairly precisely to that airbrushed poster. It was widely and mercilessly parodied, of course, but those parodies alone can't explain its abject failure. The poster projected an image of bland inoffensiveness, the airbrush removing not merely wrinkles but any trace of personality or passion. The man depicted on it looked utterly blank. It was supposed to say "here is a man you can trust". Instead it said, "I am Mr Nobody." It crystalised a growing sense, that while Gordon Brown continues to inspire negative emotions in large sections of the population, David Cameron inspires almost no emotion at all.

At around the same time, Gordon Brown -assailed, yet again, by members of his own party - began to seem resilient. The Hoon/Hewitt coup actually strengthened him. So did the disarray among his Labour opponents, as Miliband dithered and Purnell flounced off. The bullying allegations fed into an emerging view of Brown as a political strong-man, dominating his party through terror. Machiavelli's advice to his Prince, that it is better for a ruler to be feared than to be loved, remains plausible.

Gordon Brown swatted away the challenge from both Cameron and - more urgently - from David Miliband with his claim that it was "not time for a novice". The message Brown's Bullygate bounce might be that this is no time for a nice guy. So I was intrigued to read today, from the fanatically anti-Cameron Peter Hitchens, evidence that Dave too is a bully:

I said on my blog on Monday that Mr Cameron had better watch out in case people started asking questions about his own actions.

And within hours, a person (whose identity I now know, though he has asked me to keep it confidential) posted the following comment: ‘Cameron is far from blameless. I had the misfortune to work for him for a couple of months just after he was appointed to the Shadow Education brief in 2005.

‘Rudeness and inconsideration were his stock in trade with repeated attempts to humiliate me in front of others. Middle-of-the-night phone calls to pick up on adverse Press comment were not uncommon – much of it stemming from his own inability to clear a “line-to-take” in time for newspaper deadlines. Several colleagues often asked why I put up with it. Being an ex-journalist myself, I’ve worked for some nasty types in the past . . . he was undoubtedly the nastiest.’

This could be the boost David Cameron so desperately needs.
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Thursday, 25 February 2010

Jesus Is Everywhere

Jason Sereno sent me a link to this comedy video of his which he thinks would "fit along great" with my content. So since I've been too busy to write anything today, enjoy this instead.

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Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Performance anxiety

The Culture Select Committee's report into libel, privacy and press standards - out today - is a very meaty document, even if its conclusions are disappointingly cautious. On everything from prior notification to libel costs to whether or not Mr Justice Eady is a threat to the public interest they manage to come down somewhere in the middle. Still, it's a very thorough piece of work which seems to have succeeded in annoying Rupert Murdoch. And there are some tasty morsels along the way. Such as this:

12. Privacy laws tend to reflect the media cultures in which they operate, and, as we were reminded during our visit to Spain, these can be very different from the UK's. Staff at La Vanguardia told us that their newspaper would publish a story about a footballer having an extra-marital affair, but not a story about a politician having an affair. They explained that this was because the footballer's professional performance might be affected while the politician's would not, and also because readers would not be interested in a politician's affairs. The same news values do not apply in Britain.

How does that work? Perhaps years observing the under-performance of the English football team on the pitch - and their over-performance off it - has led these Hispanic journos to draw a somewhat dubious conclusion. But if anything adversely affects the performance of sexually vagrant footballers (or politicians) it's more likely to be the attendant publicity than the sex itself. Or am I missing something important about football? Read the rest of this article

Simon Singh Round-up

Some accounts of yesterday's proceedings at the Court of Appeal from people who were actually there:

Jack of Kent gives a typically lucid summary of the legal arguments. He also notes the remarkable turn-out in support of the science writer:

There were the great and the good of the skeptic world: Wendy Grossman, Professor Richard Wiseman, Dr Evan Harris MP, and so on. The press bench was full, including Nick Cohen and Padraig Reidy; there were famous bloggers and activists, such as Crispian Jago and Alan Henness. And then there were dozens and dozens more, just coming in and crowding in at the back. The usher even found 'deck' chairs for people to sit in the side aisle, and one bench usually reserved for lawyers and clients was made over to the public.

It would normally take a major multiple murder trial, one lawyer told me, to have this many members of the public at a court hearing.

Simon Singh's QC had a relatively untroubled morning, it seems. By contrast, the BCA's lawyer was quickly tied up in linguistic knots. "It was becoming painful." JoK highlights - rightly, I think - this terrific quote from an American court decision brought up by Singh's counsel:

Scientific controversies must be settled by the methods of science rather than by the methods of litigation...More papers, more discussion, better data, and more satisfactory models-not larger awards of damages-mark the path toward superior understanding of the world around us.

JoK's conclusion: too early to predict the outcome. "Simon may still lose: the Court of Appeal could decide that even if the High Court ruling is incorrect, it is not so incorrect that they should disturb the judgment." But overall it was "a good day in court".

Crispian Jago relates his experience as "a court virgin" in characteristically vivid style:

Lord Chief Justice started off the afternoon by stating the he was buggered if he knew why the BCA didn’t just accept the Guardian’s right to reply instead of arsing around with a dumbass libel case that will end up costing some poor bastard a shitload of cash. At which point I would have given my football rattle a good spin, had I been allowed to bring it.

Very atmospheric - though the resemblance between the mild-mannered Simon Singh and Eighties icon Mr T is rather lost on me. CJ also mentions (as JoK does) that Simon's use of the word "happily" - which Mr Justice Eady claimed meant "knowingly" - seems to have been a major point of contention yesterday. Would "insouciantly" or "blithely" give the best sense of it? Evan Harris on Crispian's blog left this comment:

I was very pleased at how effectively the word "happily" was suggested should be interpreted as "blithely" or "insouciantly" rather than "knowingly or deceitfully". If the judges accept that then it does not matter whether they find that "bogus" was reasonable as it was defined by SS in his next paragraph and/or that "not a jot of evidence" is a reasonable way of asserting that "scientific enquiry concludes no evidence of therapeutic effect" or "no good/reliable evidence of benefit".

This doesn't surprise me. As I wrote last summer, "Happily, in the natural meaning of the adverb, need not mean deliberately and with "eyes open" - but, rather, the opposite."

Stephen Curry has a very full account of the morning session for the Nature Network. He even comments on the intertior decoration - "the court-room was a modern affair; light from a suspended ceiling illuminated magnolia walls and a pastel red carpet" - and is slightly disappointed by the wiglessness of the judges in their utilitarian new European-style gowns. In general, though, he was impressed:

What struck me from the very outset was the sheer strangeness of hearing science discussed in such detail in the unfamiliar surroundings of a courtroom.

No less striking was the air of professional courtesy that imbued the proceedings with an exceedingly civilised ambience. The judges were patient and polite, apologising on one occasion for having spoken to softly (Neuberger) and on another for having left part of the paperwork behind in his rooms (Judge). At several points they waited patiently, to allow Page the time to find her place in her notes. There was no arrogance or superiority, but a keen and tenacious interest...

Also surprising were the moments of levity that were sprinkled through the proceedings. At one point, where the interpretation of the article in the mind of the reader was being discussed, Sedley confessed to resisting the temptation to discuss Guardian readers as a subspecies of humanity!

I would go so far as to say that I have a newfound respect for the legal profession. It may be a scandal that the libel law of England and Wales permits such cases—where the issues are matters of science and public health that need to be fully and publicly debated—to be dragged through the courts. But I was re-assured on this morning’s evidence that, once in those courts, due and intelligent process is possible.

Padraig Reidy has a fairly straight report for Index on Censorship. He notes that Lord Judge said he was “troubled” by the “artificiality” of the case and also by its cost implications:

“At the end of this someone will pay an enormous amount of money, whether it be from Dr Singh’s funds or the funds of BCA subscribers.”

Finally, Simon Singh's own thoughts are relayed by Sense about Science. He thanked his supporters and expressed satisfaction with the day's events:

I am delighted the Court of Appeal has decided to reconsider the meaning of my article about chiropractic, and I am particularly glad that three such eminent judges will make the ruling. They grilled both sides on all aspects of the appeal. However I should stress that whatever the outcome there is still a long way to go in this libel case. It has been almost two years since t he article was published, and yet we are still at a preliminary stage of identifying the meaning of my article. It could easily take another two years before the case is resolved.

With typical modesty and generosity, he asserted that the wider cause of libel reform was more important than his own case, and mentioned others - notably Peter Wilmshurst - whose livelihoods were threatened by potentially ruinous libel actions. "Please continue to spread the word about libel reform," he concluded.
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Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Simon's Big Day

A sizeable crowd of pro-science and libel reform campaigners gathered outside the Royal Courts of Justice this morning to support Simon Singh as his celebrated defence against the British Chiropractic Association finally reached the Court of Appeal.

You won't, I hope, need reminding of how this bizarre case has progressed: Singh's article for the Guardian back in 2008 accusing the BCA of "happily promoting bogus treatments" for which there was "not a jot of evidence". The BCA's decision to sue him personally for defamation. Mr Justice Eady's remarkable ruling which over-defined Simon's words to mean something that no sane person would ever imagine he intended. The "plethora" of evidence which the BCA produced to support the claims that their discipline could cure conditions - colic, asthma - which had nothing to do with the spine, and which lasted, under the full scrutiny of clued-up science bloggers, far less time than it had taken to assemble. The ongoing campaign for reform of the libel laws which Singh's case first coincided with, then propelled to the front of the political agenda.
Photo: Robert Sharp / English PEN More here.

I've not been there, and for most of the day there has been radio silence from the Strand where a super-charged panel of the Lord Chief Justice, the Master of the Rolls and Lord Justice Sedley was hearing the case. It's been both frustrating and suspenseful, like awaiting the result of a closely-fought election. In the last few minutes Jack of Kent's Twitter stream finally came to life. As expected, there will be no result today. But there are hints that it has been going Singh's way. The BCA were "given a deliciously hard time", apparently, with Lord Judge "baffled" that case has got this far and "surprised" that BCA didn't take right of reply offered to them by the Guardian. If they had the evidence, why didn't they just publish it? And this: "Take it as given :-) All here very cheerful."

There's bound to be something more substantial on his blog before this day is out. The hints so far, though, would suggest that the court has been concentrating on the merits of the BCA's case and the issues of public interest rather than the narrow semantic issues that weighed more heavily with Eady. If so the judgement could be one of far-reaching significance. It certainly represents a stunning turnaround, not just from last year's decision but from the initial approach to the Appeal Court, rebuffed by Lord Justice Keene on the basis that Eady's strange definition of the word bogus was "in accordance with authority".

"All three appeal judges very sharp on need for scientific debate and nature of scientific evidence," apparently. Maybe not super-sharp, however - at one point Sedley mistakenly referred to homeopathy, before blaming his lapse on the papers. That's interesting on several levels. First - he reads newspapers! Second, the question of scientific evidence and how it may impact on the claims made by alternative practitioners has obviously been weighing on his mind. That suggests he takes a broad view of the matter, even though all that homeopathy and chiropractic actually have in common is a big question mark hanging over their validity. Oh, and they both feature in Simon Singh and Edzard Ernst's book Trick or Treatment which you really should read if you haven't already done so.

A more succinct account of the days events was provided by Singh's comrade in arms Ben Goldacre, who Tweeted, "Early reports suggest 3 appeal court libel judges have taken a big shit on the face of the BCA".

This is not, as they say, the end, or even the beginning of the end. Whether Simon Singh wins his appeal or loses it, the case is bound to drag on. If he were to lose, then the Supreme Court or even Strasbourg surely beckons: the right of scientists and journalists to make robust criticisms of - I may as well say it - bogus claims is a vital one for a free society, one which Eady's narrowly legalistic approach completely overlooked. This is something that will have, if need be, to be decided at the highest level. Even if this evening's optimistic Tweets turn out to be justified, it could still prove a Pyrrhic victory. This being a case which turns on complex scientific data, there will be no jury, and Eady J is known not to take kindly to being swatted by the Court of Appeal. Can he be relied upon to decide the case objectively, taking full account of all the points about public interest or the meaning of particular words the higher judges might have chosen to make? I wouldn't bet on it. Seriously, I wouldn't. This may be just the first of several trips to the Court of Appeal.

Whatever happens in this case, though the campaign for libel reform is powering ahead. Around 35,000 have now signed the Libel Reform petition. More importantly, perhaps, the Commons Culture Select Committee is about to issue what may well be a far-reaching report into the whole area of privacy and libel. I shall devour it with interest. There now seems to be a general consensus, dissented from mainly by the fine folk at Carter-Ruck and Schillings (and their clients) that change is needed: above all lower costs, an end to "libel tourism" and the provision of a stronger public interest defence for matters scientific or health-related. Singh writes in today's Telegraph that he has "yet to meet a single MP who is not concerned about the state of our libel laws and how they hinder free speech and the fair discussion of ideas." But agreement that something should be done is a far cry from actually doing something legislatively. It may, for a while still, be left to the judges. At least they now appear to be taking their responsibilities, not just to the lawbook but to society as a whole, rather more seriously than hitherto.
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William Tyndale - forerunner of the Daily Mail

This is a guest post by Rev. Julian Mann

This week there has been some discussion in advance of the launch of the 2011 Trust, a body headed by Frank Field MP which will spearhead the 400th anniversary celebrations of the Authorised Version of the Bible. A picture of King James juxtaposed with Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre is unlikely to appear in the publicity material. The emphasis is more likely to be, to quote the latest General Synod resolution, on the 'obvious opportunity' 2011 provides "to celebrate the exceptional contribution which that translation has made to shaping the life, language and culture of this and other nations".

The trust's website includes "developing educational school projects" among its aims. I doubt a 2011 presentation in a school assembly that made too much of the historical link between the English Bible and the emergence of the Sun or the Daily Mail would go down too well with the head-teacher. The curate would be unlikely to be invited again. Yet the historical reality is that trenchant criticism of the social, political and religious establishment in a popular free press would be simply inconceivable without the English Bible.

What is little known is that the Evangelical genius whose work formed the basis of most of the King James Bible, William Tyndale (c1494-1536), was also a trenchant journalist. Professor David Daniel in his masterly biography of Tyndale (Yale, 1994) provides an insightful commentary on Tyndale’s marginal notes to his translation of the Pentateuch:

‘The most notorious note is that to Numbers 23. Balam is quoting Balac the king of Moab, saying ‘How shall I curse whom God curseth not and how shall I defy whom the Lord defieth not?’, questions which Tyndale answers with ‘The Pope can tell how’. Such observations are angry. Anyone who believes that the margins of the Bible are not the place for anger about social and religious practices is not reading that Bible very well’ (p312).

Absolutely. Take for example Jesus’ denunciation of the scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 23: ‘Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness’ (v27, AV).

No civilised person can approve of everything, whether news or commentary, that appears in the British tabloid press or approve of the means by which the material is often obtained. But the capacity of a popular press to expose hypocrisy, mendacity and other forms of evil in high places is surely vital to our democracy.

Without William Tyndale and the Jesus whose sayings he made comprehensible to English-speaking people, what we are permitted to read would surely be very different. Read the rest of this article

Monday, 22 February 2010

Moral and immoral chocolate

The Telegraph has a story about a new "chocolate" bar which, we're told, "can be eaten during Lent." Read on, though, and you discover that the distinctive feature of this product is that it is extremely low in fat. That's because it contains about 60% water. It was developed at the University of Birmingham. I do hope the researchers gain the full commercial benefit from their work, which could be billions and would fund any number of academic posts in chemistry, classics and other endangered subjects.

The new process replaces fat particles in the food with water or even air bubbles. Allegedly it's almost impossible to taste the difference. They suggest that the "new generation" of low fat "superfoods" could solve the country's supposed obesity crisis - which the Department of Health insists on erecting into a major national priority despite the fact that, even with today's supersized population, it only killed around 757 people last year. That is, admittedly, 757 more than were killed in Britain by terrorists.

Still, those afflicted by "body image issues" - doubtless after looking at too many airbrushed magazine adverts - will love these new super-low-fat chocolate bars. The researchers are also excited by their new "super-porridge", the main selling point of which is that it hangs around in a person's stomach for 5-6 hours thus banishing any feelings of hunger, and an equally super low-fat mayonnaise.

I can't help thinking that whoever wrote the story has the wrong idea about Lent. Lent is supposed to be concerned with spiritual discipline and self-denial, not a handy way of losing a bit of weight. If the new low-fat chocolate tastes as good as an old-fashioned one but doesn't pile on the pounds, then where's the self-denial? No-one eats chocolate in order to get fat: it's an unwelcome side-effect. If chocolate is sinful, it is because it is self-indulgent; the price paid for which is weight gain (and, in extreme cases, diabetes, heart disease, whatever). As such it is a moral food. By exercising the restraint involved in giving up something for whose taste you crave, you get the reward of losing weight. If you succumb to temptation, your punishment awaits. And quite right too. People who stuff their faces with chocolate deserve to get fat.

But this new super-chocolate is a patently immoral food. It promises reward without punishment, pleasure without pain. You can have it all, says super-chocolate, and you don't have to pay the price. In the limited case of super-chocolate, this may be true - if so, it will prove immensely popular. But it offers a dangerous lesson. The economic disaster which currently faces us is the result of the politics of "you can have it all", a nation living on credit headed by a supposed financial wizard who proclaimed an end to boom and bust. As a consequence, an enforced fast awaits which will last much longer than the forty days of Lent. Politics, meanwhile, will be engaged in the search for a new form of "super-chocolate" to convince voters that it's just business as usual. The con goes on. Read the rest of this article

Saturday, 20 February 2010

Learning to Hate Big Brother

At the end of last year I suggested that the tide was turning against the Big Brother state, that after years of sleepwalking into a surveillance society - one of the most pervasive and technologically advanced in the world - the British people were finally waking up. It seems I was right. A poll commissioned by the Rowntree Reform Trust - sent to me by Guy Aitchison of Power 2010 - shows that opposition is growing to various government measures sold as essential in the fight against terrorism and crime.

52% of those questioned said that ID cards were a bad or a very bad idea - up from 33% last time. Only 37% approved. There was just as much opposition to the construction of giant databases and to data-sharing between government departments - which is central to Gordon Brown's big idea of "transformational government". 65% disliked the idea of the government "collecting information about citizens and storing it on large computer systems which can then be used for a wide range of purposes and shared between different parts of government". There was only slightly more support for the centralised storing of NHS records - 55% thought that that was a bad idea. The question didn't even mention the cost of that particular project - £12 bn and counting.

Turning to the vexed question of the DNA database - something that is usually assumed to be popular, given the high-profile cases it has helped solve - opposition to the government's policy on retention would seem to be mounting. 92% supported the indefinite retention of DNA for those convicted of a serious sexual or violent offence, "such as rape or murder", but this fell to 25% for those convicted of "being drunk or disorderly, or taking part in an illegal demonstration". It is current practice to retain the DNA indefinitely of everyone convicted of any offence whatsoever, something that no major party is proposing to change. As for the Home Office's Strasbourg-baiting decision to retain the DNA profiles of everyone arrested, even if never charged, for six years, this seems to have very little support in the country. A clear majority of 56% were opposed or strongly opposed.

Most unpopular of all was the proposal for "allowing the government to be able access your phone, e-mail and internet browsing records wherever they are held" - something that ministers claim is vital to the fight against terrorism, child porn and organised crime. 83% disapproved, with 55% considering it a "very bad idea." Unfortunately, the Home Office persuaded the rest of the EU to make data retention the subject of a binding European directive. It is certain to happen however many people object to it, and the government, if it proves massively unpopular, will just blame Brussels. That's how our democracy works these days.

It seems, then, that that message is getting through. People are learning to hate Big Brother. In some ways this is hardly surprising, given the prevalence of negative stories in the media: lost government hard-drives, lifelong friends told they can't be trusted with one-another's children, savage fines handed out to people who put their bins in the wrong place, photographers searched under terrorism laws and a government that manages to combine hectoring authoritarianism with bungling incompetence. A public that increasingly distrusts the state and despises the politicians who supposedly represent them is going to resent handing over ever more data to its fallible care. The infantilising mantra that "we are keeping you safe" no longer washes. And, in an era of looming cuts, the cost seems almost criminal.

We may even be in the middle of a cultural shift going well beyond the relationship between the individual and the state. Over the past few years it has become almost a cliché that privacy no longer means very much in the Internet age, an idea summed up by Scott McNealy's notorious statement that "You have zero privacy, get over it." That was more than a decade ago. In the years since, as people put their lives online for all to see, privacy began to look like an outdated concept. The future was with self-exposure, total disclosure, CCTV and data-mining. Perhaps that's why Google were so unprepared for the backlash that greeted them after their ill-considered Buzz launch the other week. It was, I think, a straw in the wind. Privacy is on the way back. And with it a renewed sense that people's personal data belongs to them, not to the world at large and certainly not to the government.

The poll also found that 80% favoured a new Bill of Rights. This, though, was Question 2 - Question 1 having already invited respondents to choose from a list of suggestions as to what such a Bill might contain. Having already chosen from the selection of goodies on offer - everything from greater privacy rights to guaranteed housing to abortion on demand - few people would likely to say they thought the whole idea was rubbish, would they?

Personally, I'm all in favour of a Bill of Rights - one that concentrates on political liberties, though, not social entitlements which are fundamentally different in nature. To enshrine a "right" to prompt hospital treatment - which was the second most popular suggestion on the list, just pipped (I'm pleased to say) by jury trial - would be to put an important aspect of social policy beyond normal political debate. Would such a right be justiciable? If so, the inevitable result would be needless, and expensive, litigation, taking resources away from healthcare. If not, the "right" is pure political posturing which debases the whole purpose of a Bill of Rights, which is to define the limits of state power. Either way it's a seriously bad idea.

There are still a couple of days to register your vote on Power 2010's ragbag of suggestions for renewing democracy. The five winning ideas will form the "Power Pledge" which will form part of the group's "major nationwide campaign" during the election. Proportional Representation is well out in the lead, followed by getting rid of ID cards. The battle is for the last three spots. An elected second chamber, English votes for English laws, and a written constitution are currently hanging in there. The Bill of Rights suggestion is nowhere.

I'm not altogether convinced by this Pop Idol approach to re-writing the constitution, though I enjoyed DK's suggestion that having English Votes on the final list will annoy the hell out of "the usual Guardian lobbyists" responsible for the project. The influence of Scottish and Welsh MPs, unable to vote on health or education for their own countries but having the casting vote on what happens in England, is as clear example of a democratic deficit as can be imagined. It's also easily corrected. So it got my vote. I'm disappointed to see some of the best ideas - such as cutting back secondary legislation, introducing more public consultation, capping political donations and removing the Parliamentary timetable from the control of the whips - are languishing. A thorough renovation of our politics can't be reduced to a five-point plan.
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Thursday, 18 February 2010

A good decision

Jan Moir's notorious article on the death of Boyzone singer Stephen Gately was ill-timed, erroneous, distasteful, inappropriate and wrong. Its appearance on the eve of Gately's funeral upset many people, most of all his partner and his family, friends and thousands of fans. For that Moir and the Daily Mail had their just deserts in the unprecedented backlash that, thanks to Twitter, rapidly engulfed them.

But what of the Press Complaints Commission? Had it gone along with the tide of outrage and censured the Mail it would surely have earned the plaudits of the Guardian and the Twitterati. That would have been the popular course of action. It would have been a nod to the fashionable belief - now enshrined in legislation - that the causing of offence is in itself a kind of wrong that deserves to be redressed. Instead, by rejecting the complaint the PCC stands accused of being a toothless tiger, while its opponents mutter darkly about Paul Dacre's place on the board.

Around 25,000 people were sufficiently aroused to enter a formal complaint about Moir's article - a large number even in the era of online complaints forms. At least some of those who complained will have been genuinely distressed by the article. A far greater number, I suspect, will have been merely outraged, which is a far more enjoyable emotion. They will have relished being part of a group of the righteously indignant, just like the Christians who complained about Jerry Springer the Opera or the Muslims who protested against the Danish cartoons. Whatever else it was - an expression of mass grief, a symbol of the changing moral codes of early 21st century Britain, an anti-Mail hatefest - the protest against Jan Moir was a great communal experience. It had its high-profile cheerleaders - Stephen Fry, Charlie Brooker - but it was at heart a popular rebellion.

The PCC refers to this in its adjudication:

Indeed, the reaction to the article, and the publicity which had ensued as a result of its publication, was a testament to freedom of expression, and was indicative of a broader process at work, demonstrating the widespread opportunity that exists to respond to an article and make voices of complaint heard. The newspaper itself had published a response to the piece the following Monday, which criticised the columnist's views; the article online had attracted over 1,600 comments, mostly from individuals criticising the columnist; and the column itself had been widely circulated on social networking sites.

This highlighted that there were a number of forums in which challenges could be made to the columnist's opinion. Ultimately, this was evidence of a healthy system, in which an initial viewpoint could be so publicly analysed and countered. Both the newspaper and the columnist were confronted with the impact of what had been published.

Some have been surprised, and others disappointed, by the PCC's decision not to uphold the complaints. Iain Dale accuses the regulatory body of "wimping out" and claims that the article "clearly breached" the PCC Code of Practice. That, I think, is to misunderstand what the Code is designed to achieve. Dale refers specifically to the requirement not to publish homophobic comment. This is contained in Clause 12:

i) The press must avoid prejudicial or pejorative reference to an individual's race, colour, religion, gender, sexual orientation or to any physical or mental illness or disability.

ii) Details of an individual's race, colour, religion, sexual orientation, physical or mental illness or disability must be avoided unless genuinely relevant to the story.

Moir's article, in its general tone and in some of its particulars, would at first glance seem to fall foul of this provision. She refers to "happy-ever-after myth of civil partnerships" and "the ooze of a very different and more dangerous lifestyle". Some detected homophobia in her remark that Gately "could barely carry a tune in a Louis Vuitton trunk". But all this was implication and innuendo. She did not write "Stephen Gately was a screaming poof and deserved to die". And the clause refers specifically to individuals. Moir's comments might have been critical of gay lifestyles in general, but as the adjudication is quite correct in stating, "it was not possible to identify any direct uses of pejorative or prejudicial language in the article."

This is the nub of it. If Clause 12 were interpreted broadly as a prohibition of anything that might be considered homophobic, then it would come into direct conflict with another statement in the code, that "there is a public interest in freedom of expression itself." The PCC in this case had to balance the hurt caused by Moir's article with wider principle of free speech. It came down in favour of the latter:

Individuals have the right to express honestly-held opinions, and newspapers have the right to publish them, provided the terms of the Code are not otherwise breached.

As a general point, the Commission considered that it should be slow to prevent columnists from expressing their views, however controversial they might be. The price of freedom of expression is that often commentators and columnists say things with which other people may not agree, may find offensive or may consider to be inappropriate. Robust opinion sparks vigorous debate; it can anger and upset. This is not of itself a bad thing. Argument and debate are working parts of an active society and should not be constrained unnecessarily (within the boundaries of the Code and the law).

This is both important and right. The adjudication stresses that there is "a distinction between critical innuendo - which, though perhaps distasteful, was permissible in a free society - and discriminatory description of individuals". Furthermore, to rule against Moir's article because of its unfortunate timing "would be to say that newspapers are not entitled to publish certain opinions (which may be disagreeable to many) on events that are matters of public discussion. This would be a slide towards censorship, which the Commission could not endorse." It also pointed out that "issues of taste and offence do not fall under the remit of the Code."

Put these elements together and you end up with a clear statement by the PCC of what it is and what it is not. It is there to provide redress for individuals who have been misrepresented or intruded upon by newspapers. It is not there to police the boundaries of acceptable thought. There are other, less formal, mechanisms for that, as the Stephen Gately episode demonstrated. Public opinion, even among the Mail's core readership, no longer has much time for the attitudes that underpinned Moir's badly misjudged column. The Daily Mail is a business. If it regularly offends its readers it will lose them - a greater sanction than anything the PCC can offer.
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Etymology of a political insult

American and British slang sometimes diverges. What may on one side of the Atlantic be considered the mildest of terms, or even completely inoffensive, turns out to be rather stronger on the other. Randy, in the US, is a perfectly normal man's (or woman's) name. Wanker, as Joss Whedon was well aware, is a bleepable obscenity on British TV but usually escapes notice in America. "Scum" is a counter-example. In Britain, scum is what develops around an inadequately cleaned bath. In the USA it also means semen.

The term "scum-sucking", recently popularised by Labour minister David Wright, properly refers to an act of oral sex - just as "scumbag" actually means "condom". It appears, though, to be a fairly mild expletive. In Mean Girls, one of the characters - queen bee cheerleader Regina George - is referred to as "a scum-sucking road-whore", a formulation that ought to make the meaning crystal clear. The phrase was also employed in Curb Your Enthusiasm, in a scene featuring a sufferer from Tourette's. "Scum-sucking motherf_cking whore!" exclaims Larry David. Again, the meaning is fairly obvious.

Wright is not the first to employ the phrase "scum-sucking pigs". It crops up in a number of movies (including The Three Amigos). Cassell's Dictionary of Slang dates "scumbag", in its original sense, to the 1920s, but other semen-related uses of "scum" to the Sixties, which seems a little strange. There are several other derivations mentioned, all derogatory references to human beings, including "scumhead", "scumball" and (best of all) "scumbucket".

Wright's attempt to deny authorship of the "scum-sucking" part of his "you can put lipstick on a scum-sucking pig" Tweet lacks much credibility. It does, however, imply he knows - or at least suspects - what the phrase signifies. I've not seen this etymological information recorded in any of the discussion that the phrase has generated over the past few days, however. Why so coy? Read the rest of this article

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Juries on trial

The Today programme was leading this morning on new research into the inner workings of the jury room - the mysterious but cherished (yet increasingly questioned) heart of the criminal justice system. The message was clear: jurors are too thick to understand judges' guidance, even in relatively simple cases, and the naughty things find it difficult to resist looking up information on the Internet. Clearly a system in crisis. Dominic Casciani's website report was headlined, starkly, Jurors struggle to understand judges. The broadcast item acknowledged that the report by Professor Cheryl Thomas gave the jury system a thumbs up overall. But the main point was the need for Clearer Written Instructions. Otherwise juries risked Making Mistakes.

The tenor of the BBC's coverage led Douglas Carswell MP to interpret the new research as proof of an official effort to belittle and downgrade juries. He wrote on his blog:

Their report today suggests that ordinary folk are simply not expert enough. The citizenry can't even follow the instructions they're handed by judges, complain the report's authors. If only justice was left to the experts, they seem to imply ...

The jury system, thinks Carswell, has been undermined by the modern obsession with expertise and rules. It's just too uncertain and democratic - bottom-up rather than top-down. Grand juries have long since been replaced by the quango-like Crown Prosecution Service whose officals are now "in effect determining guilt." Magistrates have less discretion than they did, major trials can now take place without a jury at all if it's "too complex" and "the scope for juries to use discretion has been steadily undermined." This new report is part of this drift away from juries, says the MP, since "of course experts at the Ministry of Justice will think that experts at the Ministry of Justice are better at administering justice than the people."

Certainly there has been undermining of juries under New Labour. The impression sometimes given is that the ancient form of trial by one's peers - what Lord Devlin famously called "the lamp that shows that freedom lives" - is an archaic curiosity. But the Thomas report said no such thing. The BBC coverage was, as so often, seriously misleading.

Casciani admits that Prof Thomas "said the findings did not necessarily mean juries were returning unjust verdicts because they often translated legal language into words they more readily understood." In fact she was far less grudging. There was no evidence at all that juries were returning inaccurate verdicts. The mere fact that jury members were unable to regurgitate word-for-word the legal instructions they were given came as no surprise to the judge who was interviewed on Today, either. He saw it as no cause for concern.

It's also difficult to justify Carswell's view that the Ministry of Justice hates juries by reference to their own press release today. This is headed Ground-breaking research finds juries are fair and effective. It trumpets the finding that "all-white juries do not discriminate against defendants from black and minority ethnic (BME) backgrounds". This fact was not even mentioned on the Today programme, but the MoJ clearly intended it to be seen as the most significant conclusion of the report.

Thomas is quoted as saying that her findings "should lay to rest any lingering concerns that racially-balanced juries are needed to ensure fairness." In other words, we shouldn't see juries being tampered with to ensure racial (or perhaps religious, gender or sex-orientation) representativeness. Randomness works. Furthermore, the MoJ doesn't try to present the findings about jurors' recall of legal instructions as evidence of anything fundamentally wrong with the system. Rather, more written instructions would "help jurors do their job".

Turning to the report itself (pdf) it turns out that "fairness" - especially with regards to ethnic minority defendants - was the main subject of the research. But then the title was "Are juries fair." The questions it posed were: Do all-white juries discriminate against black defendants? Do juries racially stereotype defendants? Do juries at some courts have consistently lower conviction rates than others? The answer to all these questions was No. Indeed, "the one stage in the criminal justice system where BME groups do not face persistent disproportionality is when a jury reaches a verdict." The ignorant masses corralled into jury service are less racist than the liberal elites who control the police and the CPS, it turns out. How embarrassing.

In fact, in racially-diverse Nottingham, white jurors were "significantly more likely to convict the White defendant when he was accused of assaulting a BME victim compared to a White victim." In other words, although in these dummy trials no evidence of a racial motive was introduced by the prosecution, the possibility suggested itself to the jury, leading to more convictions. These all-white juries aren't so much racist as anti-racist, over-alert to the possibility of racial sensitivity.

Another interesting finding (again unreported by the BBC) is that "Contrary to popular belief and previous government reports, juries actually convict more often than they acquit in rape cases (55%)." Previous research had taken a small (and, it turns out, unrepresentative) sample of cases and extrapolated the results to produce a misleadingly low figure - which was then used to justify new laws aimed at producing higher conviction rates. This new research - based on the totality of rape cases over the period 2006-8 - suggests that such measures could lead to significant miscarriages of justice. If there is bias against rape complainants, moreover, it is male alleged victims who are less likely to be believed. "This challenges the view that juries’ failure to convict in rape cases is due to juror bias against female complainants."

The report also disposes of those old briefs' tales of courts - notoriously Snaresbrook - where juries rarely convict. In fact "there were no courts with a higher jury acquittal than conviction rate." There were some variations, that were probably due to extraneous factors (the effectiveness of the local police's evidence-gathering, for example). But where defendants were charged with multiple offences the likelihood of at least one sticking increased dramatically. This is an alarming finding, suggesting that jurors' might well be influenced psychologically in fairly weak cases by the mere fact of there being several charges laid. "Let's compromise and find him guilty of the lesser offence." There's much scope here for prosecutorial mischief.

As for the business of jurors' not fully comprehending instructions from judges, the most striking factor seems to be age. Younger jury members have less trouble understanding the legal issues, it seems. So much for the supposed short attention span of the young... Conversely, of those jurors who admitted using the Internet to look up information - which is very naughty - about the case they were deciding, the vast majority were over 30. Does this mean that they are more net-savvy, or merely less obedient?

So much for the facts. The report's recommendations do however demonstrate some of the anti-jury feeling detected by Douglas Carswell. There's a background hum of fear that jurors might be insufficiently well informed to "do their job" properly, and an unspoken assumption that "doing their job" means bringing in the "correct" verdict. Giving "clearer advice" to jurors is likely to mean guiding their deliberations more closely. It is true, of course, that the role of a judge is to give authoritative advice to the jury on what the law says about a particular crime. But distributing written guidance, as suggested here, runs the risk of over-emphasising the legal formalities at the expense of the proper role of the jury, which is to decide whether or not the person before them deserves to be convicted.

A jury is perfectly entitled to bring back whatever verdict they desire - a fact that judges are apt to overlook. Nor is it necessarily a disaster for a jury to fail to reach a verdict. At times, where the evidence doesn't justify conviction beyond reasonable doubt but an acquittal would rob the prosecution of the opportunity of bringing back a stronger case, it is the most acceptable outcome. There is, perhaps, too much pressure placed on jurors to reach a clear verdict. The report was pleased to find that a mere 0.6% of trials result in hung juries. I find that figure alarmingly low. It probably indicates miscarriages of justice on either side.

There are some cases where the law and the facts point clearly to a conviction, whereas justice and humanity, or even commonsense, might lead to an acquittal. Mercy-killing is an obvious example (to me, at any rate): legally it is murder, but a mandatory life sentence in such circumstances is probably inappropriate. A jury that is "doing its job" as directed by the judge will "put any such considerations out of their minds" - as the summing up is invariably worded - and thus convict. Law 1, Justice Nil. Similarly, where a law is plainly asinine, or the CPS has failed to exercise proper discretion by bringing an inappropriate case to court (Paul Clarke, perhaps), it is not good enough for the jury to merely "do its job" and accept the judge's instructions.

Such obedience - understandable given the intimidating atmosphere of a courtroom - is inimical to the spirit of trial by jury. It risks turning the system into a rubber stamp. The freedom to say "Up Yours" to the judge is the most precious of all a jury's privileges. It is what the jury is there to provide.

I increasingly wonder, though, what BBC news coverage is there to provide.
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Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Triumphal Arch

Were Sigmund Freud alive today, I suspect he'd have found much to contemplate in the £1.85 million scheme to turn Brick Lane into a museum of cultural diversity.

Already, a 30-metre tall shiny steel "minaret" has been created to phallicise the local skyline. It's not actually a minaret, in that no muezzin will climb atop it to call the faithful to prayer, but since it's attached to the local mosque (once a church, then a synagogue) it would be odd to use any other word to describe it. Especially since when the design was first unveiled - as part of Ken Livingstone's doomed re-election campaign, strangely enough) it was officially called a minaret.

When opposition emerged to the attachment of an incongruous metal structure onto a Grade II listed building (hardly unprecedented: the Ottomans did something similar to the Parthenon) it became "an illuminated minaret-like structure". Now it's merely a "large steel art sculpture". "A crescent shaped light at the top of the spire has been included to help the structure act as a beacon for the area," adds a press release from the architects. Definitely not a minaret, then. Just shaped like one.

Stage two is an arch in the shape of a hijab - designed by the same architect as part of a "Cultural Trail". As a concept, it's not without interest. Arches, despite their somewhat vaginal shape, have historically been rather masculine structures. Roman emperors built them to celebrate their triumphs; Saddam Hussein had an arch erected to his glory in the shape of crossed swords. The "hijab arch", by contrast, will be feminine and accommodating - quite the opposite of the aggressive "minaret" - and will in addition provide shelter from the rain.

Someone from Tower Hamlets explained (unconvincingly, to some) that the structure isn't about Islam, not really, because "many men and women currently wear headscarves or bandanas as a fashion statement, and with Brick Lane being a cultural melting pot, this design reference seems appropriate and fitting." Hmm. Here's an artist's impression so you can judge for yourself.

It reminds me more of a bonnet from the era of Jane Austen. As far as I'm aware, however, Elizabeth Bennet and her sisters do not form part of the regions' rich cultural diversity, undoubtedly rich and undeniably diverse though it is. I think it's reasonably clear what they had in mind. It was described officially as being "based on the sculptural form of a headscarf". On the other hand, if we hadn't been told that we might not have noticed.

The Hijab Arch, or whatever they decide to call it, hasn't gone down too well with local residents, including Tracey Emin who has complained that the proposal "has no relevance to the heritage of the area or its future". Some feel that, when combined with the "minaret", the effect is to stamp an Islamic identity on the area - an ironic outcome for a project designed to celebrate "diversity". Others fear it embodies a stereotypical image of Islam. Kia Abdullah writes:

Personally, I cannot identify with the symbolism, even as a Muslim woman. For many, the hijab represents modesty and freedom of choice but we cannot ignore that it is also one of the most contentious and divisive issues of modern times – within the Muslim community as well as outside it. Its proposed role as a symbol of integration and inclusiveness is counter-intuitive at best and unfathomable at worst.

But that, perhaps, is the point. Whatever one thinks about it, the Muslim headscarf is far, far more than a clothing choice or even a religious statement. For some it symbolises oppression and male control of female sexuality (an interpretation for which there is a great deal of historical support, by no means all from the world of Islam). For others it is political as much as religious: a badge of identity, either proudly adopted or imposed by social pressure or, in some countries, by law. It is about demarcation: firstly of women from men, secondly of Muslims from non-Muslims.

Recently, in Britain, another meaning of the hijab has arisen: multiculturalism. It is not enough to tolerate the hijab. For many who consider themselves politically progressive, it must be welcomed, and indeed celebrated, as a symbol of cultural diversity. The women who, for whatever reason, choose to cover their hair, have become the focus of self-congratulation for members of Britain's current elites, a visible demonstration that (unlike, for example, France) this country prides itself in accommodating the idiosyncrasies of various faiths. (Although an exception is sometimes made for Christianity.) Arguments about the hijab's rationale or its consequences for social cohesion, or the connection between its recent spread and the growth in hardline Islamist ideology, are ignored or dismissed as weirdly French. Among high-profile commentators, only Yasmin Alibhai-Brown is prepared to take a more challenging line.

Although veiling has a long history in Islam, the hijab style of headscarf is very much a modern phenomenon. That does not, of itself, make it progressive: rather, its spread reveals how the conservative tendency within Islam is in the ascendant. It is part of the re-orientation of Islam globally in the directions of outward piety, moral conservatism and rejection of the individualism and moral libertarianism associated with the West. The measure of its success is that outsiders increasingly assume that it is the normal and expected attire of a Muslim woman. For those of an older generation, such as Alibhai-Brown, who grew up before there was such a thing as a "Muslim identity", it seems both reactionary and bewildering. But from the perspective of a partisan of multiculturalism, it is a useful signifier. Its popularity challenges Western cultural hegemony, for one thing. Above all, it says "different". Different is good. Promoting the hijab is a shorthand for promoting pluralism.

Hence, I think, the Hijab Arch. I have to admit that, if you wanted a symbol for the changes wrought by multiculturalism on our society, it would be hard to find a better one.
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The most tasteless book plug ever?

Austrian Times reports the horrific case of a Norwegian man who killed his mother and cut up her body with a chainsaw, allegedly after she declined to read a book about Natascha Kampusch. She had described the account of the kidnap victim's seven year ordeal as "not my cup of tea", whereupon her "severely psychotic" son - who believed that Kampusch was his daughter - went berserk and shot her.

This is how the report ends:

Allan Hall, who wrote the book, told the Austrian Times: "I always thought the book was a killer read! It's a shame his mother didn't give it a go."

Did he? Did he really?

Oh dear. Read the rest of this article

Monday, 15 February 2010

Cherie and the Religious Jaw-breaker: the mystery deepens

Leading legal blogger Jack of Kent, under his real name Allen Green, has a new column in The Lawyer magazine entitled Bad Law. It's supposed to be a kind of legal equivalent of Ben Goldacre's legendary Bad Science column - though, given the nature of the host publication, he's probably preaching to the converted.

For his first case he attempts to get to the bottom of that strange story about Cherie Blair and the cashpoint assailant she treated leniently on the grounds that he was "a religious person". Allegedly. The National Secular Society made a formal complaint about her apparent discrimination against the non-religious, while AC Grayling declared that she "has proved herself unfit for the bench". Mrs Blair's comments, as reported, seemed fairly damning. But the facts were rather starkly presented in the press reports and it was hard to determine what had actually taken place.

At least two telling facts emerge from Mr Green's somewhat long-winded analysis. First, the miscreant, "devout Muslim" Shamso Miah, did not receive an unduly lenient sentence. A six month suspended sentence is well within the current sentencing guidelines, especially when, as here, it is combined with a community service order. Miah was "just another first-time offender."

The second point is more surprising. Though he (like me) assumed that the fact of Miah's religious convictions must have been raised in mitigation by his lawyer, this does not seem to have been the case:

Although it cannot be ruled out that the role in religion in his life was mentioned by his lawyer in open court, I can confirm that it was not actually part of the mitigation pleaded on Mr Miah’s behalf.

The judge’s awareness of the defendant’s religious beliefs was probably derived from the (confidential) pre-sentence report or the facts of the case (he had been to a Mosque before the assault).

Cherie Booth mentioned Mr Miah’s religious beliefs in sentencing even though they had not actually been raised formally as a mitigating factor: she raised them on her own volition.

Curiouser and curiouser. The good news is that, in the words of Paul Kaufman, a partner at the law firm which represented Miah, "a defendant’s religious belief or membership of a religious group is not in itself of any relevance in mitigation." If it were, there would be grounds for concern that people unable to demonstrate religious commitment are being treated more harshly - if only be default - and thus being discriminated against by the courts. My assumption had been that Mrs Blair's remarks reflected a tacit acceptance in the criminal justice system that religion was evidence of good behaviour, and achieved notoriety merely because of who she is. Apparently not. Far from merely accepting the plea that had been offered in mitigation, she raised the issue of Miah's religion of her own initiative.

If this is true, then the NSS complaint about her begins to look more, not less, justified. It's possible that she has been misquoted - but, if so, why has no correction been forthcoming? The case generated headlines embarrassing both for her personally and for the criminal justice system, accused of being biased against the non-religious. Yet, to my knowledge, neither Mrs Blair nor the Ministry of Justice has said anything about it. The only reasonable conclusion is that she did indeed say the things that were attributed to her, namely:

(1) I am going to suspend this sentence for the period of two years based on the fact you are a religious person and have not been in trouble before.

(2) You are a religious man and you know this is not acceptable behaviour.

Kaufman comments that "a legitimate question is raised as to why the Judge should mention this issue unless she did believe it to be a relevant consideration." Indeed. It's not just a legitimate question, given the above facts it's a conundrum. Especially since (as Kaufman also notes) "there is a risk that any reference to religion when passing sentence will encourage people to claim they are 'religious' in the expectation that they may be dealt with more sympathetically."

Anyone who finds themselves up in front of Judge Cherie Booth QC may well find themselves undergoing a religious conversion as dramatic as that experienced by many parents looking to get their children into a good local school. They'd be crazy not to.
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Some Quite Interesting facts about alcohol

The Telegraph is reporting the latest government scheme for cutting the nation's drinking. There will be health warnings on all bottles of wine and beer, including "the recommended safe daily alcohol consumption limits for men and women" and how many the product contains, and the logo of anti-booze "charity" Drink Aware. The government are also thinking about introducing a minimum price per unit, we learn. It's a thoroughly bad idea, both in practice and principle, but the way things are going it's beginning to look inevitable. Like an increasing proportion of public policy, alcohol has come to be viewed by officialdom almost exclusively as a health issue, in which arguments based on medical costs - genuine or spurious - trump everything.

Like most such reports, this one reads like an undigested press-release. It's full of the usual hair-rasising facts and figures, such as this:

Figures have also suggested that about 10 million people in England are risking their health by drinking more than the recommended maximum amount — which is two to three units a day for women, (about one large glass of wine) and three to four for men (two pints of beer). Studies have suggested that many of those most at risk are middle-class wine drinkers who do not understand how many units they consume.

Coincidentally, the subject of alcohol units cropped up on Saturday's QI. It's not a programme with a reputation of being a haven of libertarian dissent - we have Top Gear for that - so I was amazed to hear the following discussion:

Stephen Fry: This recommended daily allowance business is very interesting. In Britain it's 21 units, whatever that means, a week... in Poland it's 12 and a half units, a tiny amount, but in Canada it's 23 3/4, in America 24 1/2, in South Africa and Denmark 31.5 and guess where it's 35, Barry.

Barry Humphries: Orstrahlia

Fry: Orstrahlia Fair.... But, our limit is 21. There was a study which found that if you drunk between 21 and 30 you would belong to a group which had the lowest mortality rate in Britain. So in other words we're being recommended to drink too little alcohol for our health. In fact, it has been worked out that you'd have to drink 63 units a week, or a bottle of wine a day, to face the same death risk as a teetotaller.

Bill Bailey: I think you'll find most people are kind of making it up themselves, instinctively

Fry: Well the odd thing is, the guy who actually came up with it has admitted they made the number up. He said, well we had to say something so we said that.

Alan Davies: Is the assumption not that there are other lifestyle factors associated with the sort of person that likes a bit of wine?

Fry: Having an accident is the main problem, obviously. But none the less, just statistically and actuarially you are likely to live longer if you drink between 21 and 30 units.

Davies: If you're a social animal you're less stressed...

Fry: It may well be that the physical affect on the body is actually beneficial in moderate amounts.

(The researchers seem to have been looking at this report in The Times from October 2007.)

It would be nice to find this sort of rigorous analysis on the Today programme, or TV news bulletins.
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Friday, 12 February 2010

Why innate morality trumps the Ten Commandments

Watching Ann Widdecombe stomp around Mount Sinai on Channel 4 last Sunday, demanding a return to the Ten Commandments, I was reminded of the old woman who died recently in the Andaman Islands, taking her ancient language with her. She may not be quite the last of her kind, but Widdecombe's version of Old Testament morality has never seemed quite as anachronistic as it did in her strident presentation.

Expressing her admiration of the Puritans of the 17th century, she appeared to belong not merely to their moral but even to their mental world. It was "disturbing", she opined, that modern (i.e. 19th century) scholarship had cast doubt on the traditional belief that the whole Torah was dictated by God to Moses on Mount Sinai and written down there and then (including, I assume, the bit at the end of Deuteronomy where Moses dies). This paleo-Fundamentalism, which might be expected from the Rev Ian Paisley but sounded rather strange coming from a Roman Catholic, was largely beside the point, however. The nub of her argument was that, without the certainty provided by the Ten Commandments, society would fall apart. Drunkenness, sexual immorality, anti-social behaviour, disrespect, state-sanctioned killing of the infirm: in short, a ghastly mess.

The Ten Commandments, Widdecombe asserted, "taught me right from wrong." Ah yes, that old chestnut again. You need religion in order to be moral - or at any rate, as Cherie Blair told the man in the dock, if you're "a religious man" you ought to know better than to punch someone in the mouth at Lloyds Bank, and are thus unlikely to act in the same way again. Mrs Blair and Miss Widdecombe don't have much in common but they share this view of the social utility of religion. In Mrs Blair's case, the belief was sufficiently strong to override the fact that the man standing before her - who committed the assault on the way back from a mosque - had evidently not been restrained from punching his victim by any religious considerations. If religion didn't work on that occasion, why should it again?

Commenting on the case in The Times, Hugo Rifkind wrote that while "his instincts" were with the National Secular Society's complaint about this apparent privileging of religion, "as my philosophy degree taught me in week one, it’s only Cherie’s lot that make conceptual sense." What, without God, can morality be based on? he wondered. There is "no such thing as abstract morality", a concept which "doesn't even make any sense." Non-believers were "annoying" for pretending that their understanding of morality was based on anything other than human convenience. Absolutes come only from God; anything else can only be relative.

There are two answers to this. The first, from the perspective of philosophy, was supplied by A.C. Grayling writing the other day on the Richard Dawkins website. He thinks Rifkind's argument "an awful advertisement for wherever Mr Rifkind studied philosophy" (it was Emmanuel College, Cambridge, apparently) and points out that for most of history's great moral philosophers "ethics are not premised on divine command or the existence of supernatural agencies, but proceed from consideration of what human beings, in this life in this world, owe each other in the way of respect, concern, trust, fairness and honesty." There is nothing abstract or relativist about humanist morality, for the basic facts of human nature and the needs of social organisation don't really change.

If anything - Grayling doesn't go this far, but I will - it is religion-derived morality that has a tendency to be contingent. No purely humanist system of ethics has ever taught the imperative of human sacrifice, for example, or the sinfulness of eating shellfish (but not beef; or vice versa). To impute a moral good to something arbitrary, and for no better reason that it is the will of God, is the hallmark of religious ethics. One sees it even in the Ten Commandments, which mix the kind of injunctions found in any moral system - "Thou shalt not kill", and so on - with utterly pointless obsessions to do with graven images and not being rude about God.

Moral philosophy, of course, is largely concerned with creating a coherent rationale for, and explaining, right and wrong without confusing the issue by bringing in God. If the be-all and end-all of morality were to be found in the Bible, taking the form "this is what God says", then there would be no need for philosophy at all. So A.C.Grayling has a professional interest in dismissing the notion that morality might have religious roots. And there is a counter-argument. Some evolutionary theorists suggest that religion evolved as a means of spreading and inculcating moral norms that have survival value for the group. Philosophers might be able to think their way towards a morally correct solution to any problem (though the number of disputes that arise among ethicists around issues such as euthanasia, abortion, punishment and so on suggests that such solutions might be hard to discern). For those without the time or the inclination to tease out all the issues, however, the clear answers provided by a religious code provide an acceptable substitute. (At least in theory; in practice theologians argue about morality just as much as philosophers do.)

Add to this what might be termed the Santa Claus theory of religious morality. God is an omniscient being who knows if you've been good or bad, and will reward or punish accordingly. Fear of Hell, even more than the (frankly unenticing, to many) promise of eternal bliss, promotes good behaviour. Such a theory seems to be contained within the Ten Commandments themselves. The second commandment - the one about images - is explained on the grounds that Yahweh is "a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the sons, even unto the third and fourth generation". By contrast, those who honour their father and mother are promised that their "days will be long in the land".

On this view, a secular society such as ours may be living on borrowed time. People still obey religiously-derived norms, even though not themselves religious, because they form part of the cultural legacy of society. But this won't last forever; and the way into the abyss is already visible in the chaotic mess of a typical Saturday night in Nottingham. Only a religious revival can save us. It's an incredibly pessimistic view of human nature. It also impedes moral progress. As Stephen Fry pointed out on Widdecombe's programme, the Ten Commandments have nothing to say about slavery. He might also have noted that the last commandment lists women alongside livestock and real estate as property that ought not to be coveted.

As recent debates over women priests and gay partnerships show plainly, the churches are still engaged in a game of moral catch-up with secular ethics. Come to think of it, there's not even a specific commandment against punching someone in the face.

Science provides the second, and perhaps most compelling, retort to those who believe that morality somehow needs God. A recent paper by Ilkka Pyysiäinen and Marc Hauser looked at the evidence and concluded that there was no significant difference between the moral intuitions of religious and non-religious people, or between the members of various religious groups. They concluded that "moral intuitions operate independently of religious background and, more importantly, do not require religious input. In fact, a considerable amount of work in this area shows that moral judgments are relatively immune to the explicit moral dictates of both religious and legal institutions."

The authors argue from such findings that religion "cannot be the ultimate source of intra-group cooperation". Moral judgments depend on underlying mental mechanisms which "appear to operate independently of one's religious background." This doesn't mean religion can't serve the purpose of moral inculcation; but it does show that there is no basis for the notion that religious believers have a higher or more consistent moral sense. Morality doesn't come from religion, but seems to be innate and universal. It doesn't appear to have much to do with the threat of punishment, either: views of euthanasia, for example, are unaffected by whether or not it is legal in the country in which you happen to live.

These findings ought to put paid to utilitarian arguments for religion as a necessary instrument of social cohesion. Oddly, it's also good news for religious believers: their moral behaviour is not, after all, the result of their fear of divine displeasure. Ann Widdecombe is mistaken: the Ten Commandments didn't teach her right from wrong. It was her knowledge of right and wrong that first attracted her to the Ten Commandments.

The fallacy is to confuse correlation with causation. Because religion and morality traditionally go together, one is imagined to produce the other. "In many cultures," write Pyysiainen and Hauser, "religious concepts and beliefs have become the standard way of conceptualizing moral intuitions... many people have become so accustomed to using it, that criticism targeted at religion is experienced as a fundamental threat to our moral existence."

It also makes "a religious man" seem like an appropriate candidate for lenient treatment in court.
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Thursday, 11 February 2010

Cautionary advice to young ladies - and Internet users

Paying a rare visit to the Dungeon, I attempt to make sense of this bizarre piece of "sex education" allegedly offered to British schoolgirls in 1963.

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Parliamentary Expenses: the real scandal

I wonder if the cost of the new "Independent" Parliamentary Standards Authority - a staggering £6.5 million per year - will cause the same level as anger as the duck houses and plasma-screen TVs that led the government to set it up in the first place. Somehow I doubt it. But it should.

£6.5 million represents around £10,000 per MP. As the BBC report points out, it's almost six times the total amount being paid back by assorted troughers. Cutting back on abuses, it seems, will cost far more money than the abuses themselves. How is this possible? How can it be that the IPSA will need EIGHTY staff to do its job? That's one for every eight MPs. The scheme doesn't even apply to the 724 members of the House of Lords. All the new job involves (or should involve) is shuffling paper and making sure Parliamentarians don't overclaim on their annual expenses.

An experienced accountant could do the job in a couple of hours at most. To monitor 646 MPs would thus take 1292 hours: about nine months of a thirty-five hour working week. The job could be done satisfactorily by a single person. Four people could polish it off in a mere two months: during the summer break, perhaps, while on secondment from the civil service. Or it could be outsourced to a firm of auditors for a fraction of the cost. The IPSA need cost nothing, even the £100,000 they intend to pay Sir Ian Kennedy to chair it.

The IPSA, with its eighty staff, its overpaid head, its much-vaunted "independence", no doubt its PR people, fancy stationary and well-appointed offices, is a far greater abuse of the public purse than anything perpetrated by the likes of Derek Conway or even Elliot Morley. It may not involve dishonesty or playing the system, but the waste is practically criminal nevertheless. Off the back of public indignation and politicians' desire to quell it, a whole new level of wasteful and pointless bureaucracy has been created at a time when every penny of state expenditure needs to be scrutinised and, where possible, cut. When the axe swings, it will be swung at hospital wards, local libararies, vital defence equipment, stuff that actually matters to people's lives. But the £6.5 allocated to IPSA will be untouched.

But surely, some will say, if it helps "restore public confidence" in Parliament it will be money well spent. No, it won't. The expenses crisis was a mere symptom, not a cause, of the crisis in confidence in politics. And MPs stuffing their boots with expenses, however memorably, are as nothing when compared to the relentless growth in the regulatory state over the past couple of decades. This latest job-creation scheme will make matters worse. At one level, the IPSA is just another quango. It will act like quangos always do, firstly to preserve itself in being and secondly to extend its area of operations. One day, perhaps soon, it will make the case to go beyond its initial brief - to compile reports on Parliamentary efficiency, to rank MPs in order of effectiveness. After all, its eighty employees will need something to do to fill their empty days, once the straightforward task of approving or rejecting MPs' expenses claims is out of the way.

Already, we see signs of what is about to take place. On the IPSA website (developed, no doubt, at considerable public expense) Sir Ian Kennedy announces that:

Working on behalf of the public, we will set standards for financial propriety and provide services to MPs by setting, administering and ensuring compliance with the new scheme and paying them their salaries. Our challenge is to create and put into operation a scheme which helps to build public confidence in the way in which MPs are financially supported in going about their work and enables MPs to do their job.

Which all sounds fine and dandy, but goes very considerably beyond what a body responsible for MPs expenses ought to be doing. What does "ensuring compliance" mean, beyond saying Yes or No to any request for money? Why is their job to "build public confidence", for that matter? If they succeed in giving the right people the right money, then public confidence will be restored in the natural course of events. Kennedy's words suggest that IPSA wants to go beyond this, to actively propagandise on behalf both of itself and of the expenses regime it "creates and puts into operation".

I had a look at the recruitment section of IPSA's website. "IPSA is its people," it proclaims, not without some justification. "We are clear that how we attract, retain, develop and reward our people is central to our success," it goes on. No: how effectively they scrutinise MPs expenses claims will be central to their success. They just need to get in a couple of decent accountants. They don't actually need "people". "We are a modern, forward-thinking organisation committed to being a place where good people want to come and work." Ye Gods!

Then there's the usual guff about being "customer-focused", devoted to openness and to giving each other "mutual support"; about employee wellbeing and "access to canteen facilities with competitive rate" and "flexible reward schemes". Yes, indeed, there will be bonuses - paid no doubt out of the money they manage to prevent MPs from claiming. So now, instead of funding Hazel Blears' plasma screen your taxes will be funding some unknown IPSA employee's instead. Result!

There are currently 14 posts being recruited, including a Facilities Manager, three communications people (a director, a manager and an assistant manager), a Policy Manager and an Assistant Manager of Corporate Performance. Will any of these people actually be scrutinising MPs accounts? It doesn't sound like it. They will be doing jobs that don't need doing, and certainly don't need paying for. I wasn't especially bothered by last year's expenses crisis; there were some bad cases, but much of the indignation was artificial and unjustified. The cost of IPSA, on the other hand, enrages me.
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Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Dancing on a pinhead

The tabloid version of today's ruling by the Court of Appeal in the Binyam Mohamed case is that our pathetically weak and liberal judges are more interested in the human rights of terrorists than the right of ordinary citizens not to be blown up. Con Coughlin's reaction in the Telegraph is ridiculous. "Why don’t our judges just come clean and sign up with the Taliban?" he asks. "The judical establishment never misses an opportunity to undermine the government’s efforts to protect us from harm."

He means, I think, the judicial establishment occasionally manages to frustrate the government's efforts to undermine the very traditional freedoms they claim to be defending. In his view it is the judges' duty to swallow whatever piece of illiberal nonsense the securocrats in the Home Office dream up. Anything less is tantamount to joining the Jihad themselves: "if another al-Qaeda bomb goes off in London, the judges will be as much to blame as Osama bin Laden." He even argues that the recent - entirely theatrical - upgrading of the "terrorist threat" ought to have swayed the court's decision.

From the opposite perspective human rights lawyer Clive Stafford-Smith (described as "odious" by Coughlin) celebrated what he called the "scathing" judgement in which the court had "slapped the government down".

The actual judgement, by a full-strength line-up of the Lord Chief Justice, the Master of the Rolls and the President of the Queen's Bench Division (the Father Son and Holy Ghost of the English judiciary) bears out neither of these claims.

In fact, their lordships bent over backwards to accede to the Foreign Office's campaign to prevent evidence of US- sanctioned mistreatment (known about and overlooked by British agents) from reaching the public domain. Lord Judge stressed that "publication of the redacted paragraphs would not reveal information which would be of interest to a terrorist or criminal or provide any potential material of value to a terrorist or a criminal." The case had in fact "endorsed the application of public interest immunity and the maintenance of confidentiality over secret information." It has even emerged that one of the judges, Lord Neuberger, was persuaded by a secret - but inevitably leaked - letter from the government's lead QC Jonathan Sumption to suppress one particularly damning paragraph in his speech that cast doubt on the reliability of evidence from the security services.

Hardly an information free-for-all, in other words.

The government lost for the simple reason that its case had become unsustainable. The evidence they sought to suppress had emerged in open court in the United States. It was accepted by all sides as true. In fact, the mistreatment alleged in the American evidence - including genital mutilation - goes far beyond the sleep deprivation described in the suppressed paragraphs from the original British High Court judgement. The Foreign Office was reduced to arguing that the source of the evidence - the fact that it had come from US intelligence - ought to outweigh the fact that it was already in the public domain. In short, while it was common knowledge (1) that the evidence had been provided by US intelligence and (2) what the evidence was, the combination of these two known facts (itself known) ought not to be mentioned in a court judgement. Otherwise the Americans might decide to stop sharing intelligence information (however derived) with Britain. This is hair-splitting to a degree remarkable even among lawyers. As one of the judges put it, "angels are now dancing on a pinhead".

The publication of the facts in the USA was a fairly recent development, however. The judges made clear that, without that change in the facts, they would, with a show of reluctance, have upheld the government's case. They were quite happy to accept at face value the government's invocation of "national security" - until events across the Atlantic made the government's position look ridiculous. David Miliband was crowing about that this afternoon, which makes it all the more remarkable that they fought on, instructing their lawyers to put forward ever more abstruse arguments. It was an unnecessary embarrassment. Thanks to its stubbornness, the government looks at once ineffectual and shifty, as well as - once more - America's poodle.

It did however give the judges an opportunity to sound off. Lord Neuberger was especially good on what he called "the central point":

namely that the court should administer justice in public, which means that all parts of a judgment should be publicly available, unless there is a very powerful reason to the contrary. This principle is so important not merely because it helps to ensure that judges do not, and do not appear to, abuse their positions, but also because it enables information to become available to the public. What goes on in the courts, like what goes on in Parliament or in local authority meetings or in public inquiries, is inherently of legitimate interest, indeed of real importance, to the public. Of course, many cases, debates, and discussions in those forums are of little general significance or interest, but it is not for the judges or lawyers to pick and choose between what is and what is not of general interest or importance...

It's a good principle, even though Neuberger was seemingly quite prepared to breach it. Only the publication of the facts in the United States allowed him to pose as a champion of open justice.
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Tuesday, 9 February 2010

The AV con-trick

Of all the things claimed about Gordon Brown's preferred method of ballot rigging electoral reform, Alternative Vote (AV), perhaps the most misleading is the suggestion that it would eliminate tactical voting. Chris Huhne, for example, explaining why the change would represent "a small step in the right direction":

AV will end "tactical" voting, whereby people vote for their second preference party to block the party they dislike most. It will allow everyone to vote for who they want, secure in the knowledge that if their preferred candidate has no chance and is eliminated in the count, their second and third preferences will be used for someone else. The process of elimination and counting goes on until someone has at last half of the votes in the constituency.

AV is therefore better because voters have more choice, and can honestly support who they want.

In fact, far from meaning the end of tactical voting, AV would institutionalise it. It is tactical voting erected into a formal system. The greater "choice" it provides, moreover, is entirely illusory, and thus AV represents a con on the public.

After all, what is a second preference vote, in a constituency where your first preference is not one of the two leading contenders, if not a tactical vote? When your preferred candidate is eliminated, your vote - all of it - will be given to someone else still in the race. This will usually be the person you would have voted for tactically, if you were so minded, under the current system of first past the post. But whereas under the present system a tactical vote is the result of a conscious choice - its meaning is that you would prefer to see another candidate lose than your preferred candidate win - under the proposed AV system it would be the default option. For many people, their tactical vote would be their main vote.

Except that they might not be fully aware that what they were doing was voting tactically. To them, it would seem like they were expressing a second preference - whereas the arithmetics of their constituency dictates that their second choice is in fact their "real" vote. This is what is meant by saying that AV ensures that votes aren't "wasted". Under AV, the winning candidate will often have won through a combination of first- and second-preference votes (and in some cases third- and fourth- preference votes) and will thus appear to have a majority. But the first-preference votes will be enthusiastic; the second-preference votes may well be grudging; the third and fourth-preference votes may be casual or even ironic. All will count equally.

This is part of the reason why AV tends to increase majorities. In 1997 and 2001, the system would have led to Labour majorities (based on around 40% of the total vote, in the latter year on an extremely low turnout) that were not merely huge but crushing. Even in 2005, when a tepid 35% backed Labour, the party would probably have romped home with more seats than it actually won. AV only "saves" wasted votes at the expense of enlarging the most objectionable feature of first past the post, its tendency towards democratically-unjustified majorities. It is even possible for the winning party, in terms of national share of the vote, to be defeated by second-preference tactical voting, leading to a second-choice party winning a majority of seats. That would be a less democratic result than anything thrown up by FPTP.

There's only one way to counteract this defect in AV - and that's by voting tactically. Conscious tactical voting under AV is much more of a headache than under FPTP, but the principle remains the same: to ensure the defeat of your least favoured candidate. Under AV, any would-be tactical voter has to work out where each candidate's second preferences are likely to fall.

Say you're a Tory who could live with a Lib Dem but hates the thought of a Labour MP. It's a three-way marginal, but with Labour likely to gain the most first preferences. If the Lib Dem is eliminated, you guess, the majority of their votes would be redistributed in favour of Labour (and vice versa). If the Conservative is eliminated, very few of their votes would go to Labour, but rather more would go to the Lib Dems. To avoid a Labour victory, you should vote Lib Dem as your first preference: the object being to avoid the Lib Dem being eliminated before the Tory, thus ensuring the redistribution doesn't favour Labour. On the same principle, Labour voters ought to vote Conservative.

That sounds like a mad system to me. Madder than the one we've got at the moment, even.
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