Thursday, 29 July 2010

Proof that Westminster really is impotent

I doubt anyone will have been surprised by the news this week that women living in and around Cerne Abbas in Dorset have more babies than those resident anywhere else in the country. They do, after all, live in the presence of a famously ithyphallic chalk hill-figure, whose philoprogenitive properties are the stuff of legend. The Giant may not actually be an ancient fertility symbol (its original function being apotropaic or, more likely, merely satirical, and its probable age not much more than three hundred years rather than the thousands that used to be claimed) but its reputation as such is more than enough to account for the excess birthrate (an astonishing - for Western Europe - three children per woman).

Seeing THAT every day must surely turn anyone's thoughts to procreation. Add in the lack of much alternative entertainment in the evenings, and the likelihood that women of childbearing age who want to do rather more with their lives than become baby factories have mostly upped and left, and I don't think there's much need to appeal to the mystical powers of the cock o' the chalk.

But what's this? The district with the lowest per capita birthrate in the country is Westminster. It's a mere third that of the North Dorset village. Obviously Parliament's impotence in recent years has had a knock-on effect on the surrounding population. You can't argue with science. Read the rest of this article

Mark Thompson wants your vote

Mark Thompson, of Mark Reckons, reminds his readers that there are just two days left to register your support for his blogging brilliance in the annual Total Politics poll. The Lib Dem stalwart notes that is would be "just spiffing" if you voted for him.

There are, of course, other blogs you might like to vote for.

Here are the all-important rules:

1. You must vote for your ten favourite blogs and ranks them from 1 (your favourite) to 10 (your tenth favourite).
2. Your votes must be ranked from 1 to 10. Any votes which do not have rankings will not be counted.
3. You MUST include at least FIVE blogs in your list, but please list ten if you can. If you include fewer than five, your vote will not count.
4. Email your vote to
5. Only vote once.
6. Only blogs based in the UK, run by UK residents or based on UK politics are eligible. No blog will be excluded from voting.
7. Anonymous votes left in the comments will not count. You must give a name
8. All votes must be received by midnight on 31 July 2010. Any votes received after that date will not count. Read the rest of this article

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Cameron's Turkey Talk

David Cameron has been in Ankara today, talking up the prospect of Turkey joining the European Union. Perhaps he genuinely believes that both Turkey and the EU would benefit from such a development. But, let's be honest, it's not going to happen. Thank goodness.

The case against Turkey's membership of the European Union can be stated very simply. It is not, and for most of the last millennium has not been, a European country. Geographically, culturally, politically, economically and emotionally it is part of western Asia. It does contain a major European city - Istanbul, once Constantinople - and its history has long been entwined with that of Europe. It has a western-oriented middle-class, secular institutions and usually manages to produce a decent tune for the Eurovision Song Contest - at least, in comparison with the UK's dismal efforts. But Istanbul is not Turkey, and one evening in May cannot overcome the central fact that Turkey is too big, too different and in many respects too important to be absorbed into any recognisable EU.

If the EU has, over the past few decades, come to resemble the old lady in the nursery rhyme, contriving to stuff herself with a succession of ever more improbable animals, Turkey with its 75 million citizens (and, as Cameron pointed out, extremely high birth rate) would be the horse.

Furthermore, it is the settled will of probably a majority of European governments (whether or not they are prepared to say so publicly) that Turkey should never join. A pretence of memberships talks continues, and has continued for many years - one that would be a cruel deception if the Turks actually took it seriously, which they don't. For it is no more in Turkey's interests to join the EU than it is in the interests of most EU nations for Turkey to join them.

There are only two countries that still take the prospect of Turkey's accession to the EU seriously. One is the United States of America, which has a strategic interest in seeing some sort of European-Turkish linkage, whether or not the Turks or the Europeans want or need such a thing, and seems to regard the EU as somehow equivalent to Nafta. At any rate, it's hard to imagine the US inviting Mexico to join the union, or opening its borders to uncontrolled Mexican immigration and exposing its citizens to summary extradition on the orders of Mexican magistrates, which is probably the closest equivalent to allowing Turkey to join the European Union. But then the Americans have always had a clear-sighted attachment to their national interest. The other, less explicably, is Britain.

David Cameron used the opportunity of his visit to Turkey to rehearse the ancient British obsession with bringing Turkey into the concert of Europe. I say ancient. Cameron's speech referred to Elizabethan ambassadors bringing gifts to the Sublime Porte - no doubt he will repeat the sentiment when he arrives in Delhi - but the policy really dates to the 19th century when Britain regularly went to the aid of an ailing Ottoman Empire in its many struggles with Russia and with nationalist movements within its own borders. Diplomatic memories are long. More recently, British Eurosceptics (and perhaps Foreign Office diplomats) have fondly imagined that an EU containing Turkey would perforce be a much looser arrangement, more closely resembling Nafta than the current arrangement. A Europe more to Britain's liking. But if that were true (and EU expansion has tended to go hand-in-hand with more, not less, integration) that would in itself be another reason why significant EU players would block it.

What was truly bizarre about Cameron's speech - he is, after all, a practical man - was its almost Blairite moral tone, his apparent conviction that to keep Turkey outside the EU would represent some sort of betrayal - as well as being evidence of deep-seated Islamophobia. Cameron began his plea for Turkish accession by quoting Charles de Gaulle's famous Non to Britain's original application to join the European Economic Community:

Here is a country which is not European…its history, its geography, its economy, its agriculture and the character of its people – admirable people though they are – all point in a different direction…This is a country which…cannot, despite what it claims and perhaps even believes, be a full member.

I tend to the view that De Gaulle was right. Certainly, Britain's membership of the EU has been characterised by forty years of mutual suspicion, disharmony and ill-will. Believers in the dream of a united Europe have often found their project frustrated (or at least held up) by London, while integration has often worked against the interests of British people - from the loss of territorial fishing waters to the sometimes arbitrary operation of the European Arrest Warrant. Yet for all the cultural differences, differences of history and outlook, rightly pinpointed by the French general, the fact remains that the UK is in most respects a mainstream west European democracy. Not so Turkey. If Europe has struggled to absorb Britain, how much greater would be the difficulty in taking on Turkey.

Cameron, however, seemed to be channelling Kevin the Teenager. "We know what it's like to be shut out of the club," he commiserates with his hosts. So Unfair!

When I think about what Turkey has done to defend Europe as a NATO ally and what Turkey is doing today in Afghanistan alongside our European allies it makes me angry that your progress towards EU Membership can be frustrated in the way it has been. My view is clear. I believe it’s just wrong to say Turkey can guard the camp but not be allowed to sit inside the tent.

Utterly bizarre. Canada and (non-Nato) Australia are also part of the Nato coalition engaged in the doomed, pointless and increasingly costly mess that is Afghanistan, of course, but no-one is suggesting that they be offered membership of the EU. Geography aside, Australia would, in fact, be a much more natural addition to the European Union than Turkey - or, for that matter, most of the former Soviet republics who are also regularly touted as possible members. Not that the Ozzies, if they had any sense, would want to join. (On the other hand Australia, like Turkey and Israel, should certainly be allowed to enter the Eurovision Song Contest.)

But in any case Cameron's argument is irrelevant. The EU is part political union, part trading block, part idea. It's not a reward for good behaviour. And Turkey has its own interests in Afghanistan - far greater interests, indeed, than Britain, let alone any other EU member state, has in the region. It is closer geographically, it shares its religion and much of its culture with Afghanistan, Turkic languages are spoken there. Afghanistan is Turkey's backyard. To suggest that the Turks are involved in the conflict purely to do Western countries a favour is pretty strange. At a pinch, I suppose, they might want to keep on good terms with the Americans. But the relevance of the conflict to Turkey's EU aspirations - such as they are - is effectively zero.

I tend to assume that David Cameron is clear-headed enough to be aware of geopolitical realities, even if he feels himself unable to speak plainly. He must know that Turkish membership of the EU, on terms acceptable both to most EU nations and to Turkey itself, is impossible. It's not going to happen, because it is in no-one's interests for it to do so. At least, it is neither in Turkey's nor the EU's interests.

Yet Turkish membership of the EU is something that he professes to "feel very passionately about", which is odd. Cameron claims that opposition to Turkish membership can be attributed to three P's - protectionism, polarisation (the view that East is East and West is West) and prejudice - in other words, Islamophobia. But it is not necessary to bring Turkey within the EU to achieve free trade, or to have good relations across the Bosphorus. As for the third P, I assume Dave's thinking of the likes of Geert Wilders when he condemns:

Those who wilfully misunderstand Islam. They see no difference between real Islam and the distorted version of the extremists. They think the problem is Islam itself. And they think the values of Islam can just never be compatible with the values of other religions, societies, or cultures.

Some people do think that, of course. Many misunderstanders of Islam, indeed, happen to be Muslims - not just terrorists, radical Islamists and the Taliban, but the leaderships of Iran and Saudi Arabia. Others merely notice that when Islam comes to political power women and religious minorities tend to suffer. One of Tony Blair's most striking peculiarities was his obsession with lecturing the world on how it misunderstood "the real" Islam. I'm not greatly reassured to find David Cameron embracing it - though perhaps he's simply flattering his audience.

The Turkish experiment in moderate Islamic leadership remains unfinished - in particular, it's unclear how different the Erdogan government would look if it were not in a state of permanent conflict with the secular military establishment - but the leadership's rabid anti-Israeli rhetoric and its increasing closeness to the vile Ahmadinejad regime do not bode well.

It's not entirely absurd to put opposition to Turkish membership down to the belief at some level that the EU is a Christian club, or at least a culturally-defined one. That, though, is a happy coincidence, for in truth Islam is the smallest obstacle in the way of Turkey's accession. Its size, relative poverty, East-facing orientation and inherent instability all make it a most dangerous bedfellow.

Even if the AKP were no more Islamist than Angela Merkel's party is Christian, that would not make Turkey a plausible EU candidate. The country has a dismal human rights record, refuses to acknowledge its historic faults (principally, of course, the Armenian genocide) - indeed, threatens any Turk who does draw attention to the crime with imprisonment for "anti-Turkish activities", a kind of secular blasphemy. There's the Kurdish problem. Until recently, as Cameron noted in his speech, even the Kurdish language was banned. Certainly, the human rights situation has improved recently (if less than Cameron flattered his audience that it has) but Turkey remains in many respects an authoritarian country, at least compared with most of Europe, and there's little prospect of the EU imposing more radical change which most Turkish people simply do not want.

It is not the compatibility of Islamic values with those of other religions that is the problem here, but the basic compatibility of Turkey with the EU. It is just too big, too economically divergent, too militaristic, too complex, too much sui generis, to fit comfortably into the EU straightjacket. Russia, a majority Christian country, is likewise and for similar reasons almost certain never to join the EU. Like Russia, Turkey is its own civilisation, with its own perspective, its own historic destiny, its own needs. Neither Turkey nor the EU have anything much to gain from a forced, or even an arranged, marriage.
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Friday, 23 July 2010

Protesting the Pope - dates for your diary

The National Secular Society has announced plans to march through London on 18th September to Protest the Pope. Organisers are no doubt hoping they'll be able to make enough noise to drown out Ratzinger's Hyde Park mass. There must be some vuvuzelas left over from the World Cup.

The protest march will assemble at 1pm at Hyde Park Corner – Piccadilly Downslip (full details will be made available nearer the time). It will then proceed through central London and arrive in the vicinity of Parliament Square (details currently being discussed with New Scotland Yard). Please put this date in your diary and make every effort to be there. Spread the news of this event as far as you can. Local groups might consider getting a coach party to come and if you’re coming from outside London and could offer a lift to someone in your area, please let us know and we’ll put you in touch.

A number of other events are planned, including a public meeting at Richmond Library, on Thursday 12 August at 7.30pm. A riposte to the pontiff's plan to speak about education in Twickenham, "just down the road from Richmond", this will launch a campaign against state funding of faith schools and "support a local coalition of associations based in South West London that are organizing protests on the 17th September... Terry Sanderson, Keith Porteous Wood and Peter Tatchell will be speaking." The NSS is also running a mini film festival at Conway Hall 0n 13-16 September featuring a number of documentaries about abuse within the Catholic Church. Also showing is Carlos Carrera's film The Crime of Father Amaro, starring Gael Garcia Bernal as a young priest who - in a nice change - has sex with a woman.

Disappointingly for the anti-pope campaign, Ken Clarke yesterday announced that the government was going to make it more difficult for protesters to have visiting dignitaries arrested. Arresting the Pope - as proposed by Christopher Hitchens and supported by Geoffrey Robertson QC, though as usual Richard Dawkins got the credit - was always a non-starter, as well as a distraction. There will still be much fun to be had. Ratzinger, indeed, is facing a double whammy, with Catholic supporters of women priests planning to festoon London buses with demands that the pope "Ordain Women Now!" at the time of the visit. One of the organisers, quoted in the Guardian, said that "We love the church and don't want to be disruptive" and that "We are very concerned about what is going on in the church at the moment."

As opposed to, like, when? Read the rest of this article

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Was it wrong to release Megrahi?

The pursuit, trial, conviction and release on compassionate grounds of the alleged Lockerbie bomber Abdelbasset al Megrahi is a murky business. David Cameron yesterday described his release a year ago - as, indeed, he did at the time - as a "bad decision" and "heart breaking". Given that, to Hillary Clinton's manifest annoyance, despite being given less than three months to live Megrahi remains stubbornly alive, it is hard to dissent from that view. Not, though, because the murderer of 270 innocent people got to die a free man. Many people who have looked at the evidence doubt that Megrahi had anything to do with the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103. Rather, Megrahi's release forced the abandonment of an appeal process that might well have led to his freedom, not on compassionate grounds, but because the conviction was fundamentally unsound. The main hearing was due to take place last November. It would probably be over by now.

It isn't generally realised just how weak and circumstantial was the case against Megrahi. He was only identified as a prime suspect after being fingered by one Majid Giaka, a CIA source whose evidence during the trial was described by the judges as "at best grossly exaggerated, at worst simply untrue" and "motivated by financial considerations." In other words, at the time he pointed out Megrahi and his co-accused Khalifah Fimah as the men responsible, he was wholly dependent for his livelihood on providing his CIA handlers with the sort of information they wanted to hear.

When the case against Fimah collapsed (for there was no evidence against him beyond Giaka's say-so), the evidence against Megrahi was left hanging by the flimsiest of threads. In effect, he was convicted for purchasing, at a shop in Malta, articles of clothing that found their way into a suitcase which probably contained the bomb (although even that is open to some doubt). He was identified as the purchaser, two years after the event, by a shopkeeper who had previously identified other, earlier suspects, and who had in his original statements described a man approximately twenty years older than Megrahi was at the time of the bombing.

Moreover, it now seems almost certain that Megrahi could not have been the purchaser. After exhaustive enquiries (its unpublished findings run to 800 pages) the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission rejected some of the consipiracy theories that have grown up around the case, yet still

...formed the view that there is no reasonable basis in the trial court’s judgment for its conclusion that the purchase of the items from Mary’s House, took place on 7 December 1988. Although it was proved that the applicant was in Malta on several occasions in December 1988, in terms of the evidence 7 December was the only date on which he would have had the opportunity to purchase the items. The finding as to the date of purchase was therefore important to the trial court’s conclusion that the applicant was the purchaser....

New evidence not heard at the trial concerned the date on which the Christmas lights were illuminated in the area of Sliema in which Mary’s House is situated. In the Commission’s view, taken together with [the shopkeeper] Mr Gauci’s evidence at trial and the contents of his police statements, this additional evidence indicates that the purchase of the items took place prior to 6 December 1988. In other words, it indicates that the purchase took place at a time when there was no evidence at trial that the applicant was in Malta.

(The SCCRC's full statement can be read in pdf format here, while additional documentation can be downloaded from this website.)

None of these facts are being discussed, however, in the general reporting of the affair this week. Rather, the story is dominated by a synthetic row involving BP, the medical evidence and the role of Scottish ministers, almost the only people in political authority who played it straight. Just as the surrender and conviction of an acknowledged Libyan agent - either a scapegoat or a fall-guy - helped smooth Colonel Gaddafi's path to international respectability, so Megrahi's terminal cancer was most convenient for everyone concerned - apart from Megrahi himself, who besides being genuinely ill (if still breathing) was robbed of his only real chance of clearing his name. Similarly, the families of Lockerbie victims get to see the supposed murderer of their loved ones accorded a hero's reception in his native Libya - a further cruelty to add to their existing suffering, and one that could be assuaged by politicians on both sides of the Atlantic being open about the likelihood of a miscarriage of justice.

And so Abdelbasset al Megrahi will go to his death as "the Lockerbie bomber" - "the worst murderer in our history" was how Cameron put it - even though even the court only convicted him as an accessory to the bombing, leaving the identity of the real bomber legally (as well as factually) an open question - something else that has been entirely overlooked in the coverage of the case.

I largely agree with this assessment by The Firm's Steven Raeburn:

No one in Edinburgh, Washington, London or Libya wants to talk about the embarrassment to Scots law and affront to international justice that was the Lockerbie trial. No one wants to talk about the fabricated material that was introduced as evidence, or the flaws in the Crown case or the bribery of key witnesses. No one wants to talk about the daily briefings imposed upon the bereaved families to try and persuade them all was well when the show trial had collapsed under the weight of its own inadequacy. Or how the UK relatives wouldn’t listen to them any more. No one wants to talk about the touted defence case that was quietly and almost totally dropped without comment on the imbalance. No one wants to talk about the witnesses whose testimony wasn’t heard, and those witnesses who were heard, but whose testimony was a tissue of lies and inconsistency paid for by US intelligence. No one wants to talk about the prevarications of the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission, whose report into the Megrahi conviction -at least, those parts of it released- went to great lengths to dismiss the work of investigative journalists over the 19 preceding years, before reluctantly, grudgingly, yet narrowly choking on its acceptance that a miscarriage of justice had in all probability taken place. No one wants to talk about the closed courts, the security vetted, court appointed defenders, the intelligence documentation that is protected by PII, the pressure applied to ensure Megrahi dropped his appeal, the refusal to hold a public inquiry despite the obvious need, the destroyed police notebooks, the inconsistent testimony, the limitations and narrowness of the appeal process, the clear and evident lack of guilt of the man convicted of doing something even the court agreed could not be established with any logic that fit the evidence, far less proven.

No. Instead, our Prime Minister, our First Minister, our Foreign Secretary, a gaggle of US Senators and their Foreign Secretary want to talk about why a bomber was released. The circumstances of how a bomber was released. Who made the decision to release a bomber. Whether BP had anything to do with a bomber’s release. Why a bomber hasn’t died yet. Whether a bomber should be returned to a Scottish jail. Bomber, bomber, bomber. Are you getting it?

(The whole thing is well worth reading.)

Nevertheless, the anger in the USA at Megrahi's release may have one positive benefit. The timely unpopularity of BP in the United States has thrown into relief the larger background to the apparently simple decision of the Scottish government to exercise the prerogative of mercy on behalf of a terminal cancer patient. In particular, questions have been raised about the oil company's lobbying of the British government to secure the 2007 prisoner transfer agreement with the Libyans and so promote their own business interests. It so happens that, for whatever reasons of grand strategy or personal self-image, the British prime minister at the time, one Tony Blair, was extremely keen on forging a good personal relationship with Colonel Gaddafi - the very man who, if as is officially the case Megrahi was involved in the bombing of Flight 103, presumably gave him his orders.

As the Mail reported on Saturday, Blair has recently been back in the scene of his past triumph, being "entertained as a brother" by the Libyan leader. Last month "they discussed a wide range of international and domestic issues, including lucrative investment opportunities" - despite a recent denial by Blair's spokesman that any such relationship existed. Now this may all be quintessential Blair behaviour - few people who know his track-record will have been very surprised by the revelations - but the Mail report predicted that the news "will anger those who lost family members in the Lockerbie bombing." It quotes the mother of one Flight 103 victim, who describes Blair's action as "incredibly hurtful and immoral", and another, who announced that she "detested" Blair and had "total contempt for the man."

Whether or not Blair's visit is in any way connected with BP - according to the report the Libyan government is "poised to invest millions of pounds" in the company - he does now run the risk of being linked in the minds of the American public both with a terrorist mastermind and with the corporation responsible for the largest oil spill in history. Will this ruin his image in the States, where he has up till now been widely popular, and thus threaten his enormous earning capacity over there? I do hope so.
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Monday, 19 July 2010

Caroline Spelman: how she learned to stop worrying and love the burqa

Politicians say daft things all the time, of course. But when one comes out with something as superficially idiotic as Conservative minister Caroline Spelman's comments about the burqa conferring "dignity" on women - made in an interview with Adam Boulton - it's worth asking if she may have a hidden agenda.

The inexorable spread through continental Europe of "ban the burqa" campaigns, and now legislation, has been greeted with bemusement and not a little smugness on this side of the channel. Thus Damian Green can dismiss the whole idea with a wave of the hand as "un-British", as though that were the end of the matter, and despite polls suggesting that a majority of the British people would actually support such a ban. Indeed, as the inimitable Leg-Iron points out, "banning random things with no real reason is now entirely British". Or as I put it back in January:

However much you or I may personally dislike these garments, it really is none of our business, nor the government's. But then increasingly many things that aren't or shouldn't be the government's business get done by the government in the name of the common good, or of equality, or to protect individuals from themselves. So it is at least interesting that leftish liberals who are so keen to intervene in other areas should be so convinced that it is wrong to intervene in this one.

At least for the time being, there's no prospect of anti-burqa laws coming here. As Damian Green also pointed out, with evident approval, we don't have a French-style secular state and do "have schools that are explicitly run by religions." His argument, based on the notion that Britain is (again, unlike France) "a tolerant and mutually respectful society" is still more-or-less the conventional wisdom - the only dissenters being, on the one hand (and paradoxically) UKIP and on the other Yasmin Alibhai-Brown. But tolerance does not imply endorsement, and it is still socially acceptable to qualify your support for the "right" of women to wear the burqa, if they so choose, by acknowledging that the garment (or the face-veil more generally) doesn't send out an altogether positive message about the status of women in society.

Not Ms Spelman. In her interview, she waltzed merrily over the line between supporting the right of women, however incomprehensibly from a secular Western perspective, to wear the burqa and positive enthusiasm for the thing itself:

Boulton: You don't see burqas as being repressive of women? You don't see a lot of men wearing them, do you? [Though to be fair, Adam, how would one know? They might all be men under there.]
Spelman: Indeed you don't. But I think it is quite interesting. I've been out to Afghanistan and I think I understand much better as a result of actually visiting why a lot of Muslim women want to wear the burqa. It is part of their culture, it is part of understanding that they choose to go out in the burqa...
Boulton: You really feel that? You don't think it's part of a manifestation of a culture that puts women in second place?
Spelman: For them the burqa confers dignity, it's their choice, they choose to go out in the burqa...

So much to say about this little exchange, which reveals Spelman to be, at the very least, profoundly deluded. I'll start by noting that she wouldn't be the first politician to have come back from Afghanistan with a thoroughly warped perspective, clad in the armour of supposed personal experience. Many who go there return convinced - or claiming to be convinced - that the Western military operation is somehow succeeding, for example, in bringing security and stable government to the country. I don't know who she's been speaking to, or how many of them were burqa-wearing women. I would be willing to bet, however, that she personally was not required (nor did she volunteer) to shroud herself in the imprisoning and dehumanising folds of a traditional, grille-fronted burqa of the sort that has long been shorthand for the oppression of Afghan women.

As indeed it should be. Imprisoned inside her mobile tent, the burqa-wearer must move through the world like a ghost, unable to express delight or sorrow, to join in the great play of life. It takes an unusually doltish spirit to detect anything "dignifying" in a garment that renders its wearer - as it is intended to do - an invisible object, a non-person, without the ability even to make eye-contact with another human being. It is indeed the most objectifying of costumes (the Bunny Girl has nothing on it) as can be established by observing how burqa-wearers are actually treated on Afghan streets by the men - not with respect, but with indifference or contempt. If a bundle of cloth does not look like a human being, after all, why should it be treated like one?

Does Caroline Spelman believe that women are generally treated with dignity and respect in Afghanistan? Does she think that the 87% illiteracy rate among that country's female population is proof that girls are held in high esteem by their families, or that the shockingly high number of child-marriages (routine in many provinces) and the domestic abuse that is so prevalent as to be almost de rigeur confer dignity on the women and young girls involved? Does she imagine that the penniless widows forced to beg or sell themselves for sex because the society allows them no scope for personal autonomy are better off because they're wearing burqas?

The honour killings, the mutilation and physical chastisement of females who dare to dissent from the patriarchal codes of honour that govern Afghan village life - perhaps they, too, are evidence of the great dignity of women in that land? Or does she imagine that being forced to go around shrouded from the world is somehow a compensation? That they may be unschooled, imprisoned sex-slaves treated in most cases as the personal property of their husbands or fathers, but at least (if they are allowed out at all) they don't have to show their faces. Perhaps it merely hasn't occurred to Ms Spelman that many Afghan women "choose" to wear the burqa because they know nothing else, or because they know that if they did not they face being spat at, ostracised, or having acid thrown in their faces.

But I doubt it. As I said at the start, there may be another explanation.

We are now well into the process of preparing psychologically for the coming withdrawal from Afghanistan. Western forces first entered the country in hot pursuit of Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda - which has long since departed - but also promising to transform the prospects of the Afghan people, especially the women. Indeed, so closely linked in many American and European minds were the burqa and the wider oppression of women and girls that the garment's persistence despite the formal toppling of the Taliban has proved rather embarrassing. Various rationalisations for the perceived oddity - "it's their culture", "it confers dignity" - are often heard, because the obvious reason, that the condition of women has not, in fact, improved, is simply too hard to face.

For the Afghan government, whose survival depends on balancing Western financial and military backing with the support of warlords and tribal elders, it is very convenient to be able to tell visiting politicians that the burqa is nothing to worry about, just part of the national culture, all about conferring dignity, not compulsory at all. There's even a grain of truth in the argument. The burqa, in its origin (and it is little more than a hundred years old), was indeed about preserving dignity - just not the dignity of the individual woman. Rather, it marked the status of the woman's family (in other words, the men), demonstrating their ability to keep their women in a condition of perpetual dependence and childhood. In poorer areas, where women worked in the fields or in markets, burqas were impractical and unknown. That, though, was a long time ago. These days the women prevented from working by the cultural obligation of the burqa tend to be those least able to afford it. Its spread both reflects and has contributed to the economic and cultural collapse of Afghanistan during the past thirty years.

Belief in the cultural necessity of the burqa, as demonstrated by Caroline Spelman, is part of the slow withdrawal of Western engagement, both military and psychological, from Afghanistan. What is being prepared is the wholesale betrayal of Afghan women, their rights and whatever little progress they have made since 2001 to be surrendered as we begin to "talk to the Taliban" in the hope of expediting our departure. The departure is both necessary and right: Western intervention in the country has not succeeded and is now doomed. It is not our part of the world; and the fight has already cost more in lives and money than can be justified by American or British national interest. The war is now wending towards its inglorious close - at least, our war is: the civil war in Afghanistan may well take several decades more to play itself out. But the inevitability of Western departure does not make it easy, especially when it means leaving behind millions of women, still confined to their burqas, to the tender mercies of the Taliban or equally repressive tribal elders.

But if we can convince ourselves that they are wearing their burqas out of choice, because is their culture and is the source of their dignity, it becomes a whole lot easier to leave them to their fate.
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Friday, 16 July 2010

Vatican PR machine hoist by its own petard

According to Andrew Brown it was a "Vatican PR disaster". Damian Thompson, who one suspects would like to be Ratzinger's chief spokesman himself (a role he has long fulfilled, after all, in a voluntary capacity) was typically splenetic about the Rome-based functionaries who, yet again, Let Benedict Down. "If I’d been put in charge of the Vatican press office with a specific brief to provide ammunition for the Church’s enemies," he writes, "I don’t think I could have come up with anything better than this."

What has happened? If you believe some of the Catholic Church's apologists, a welcome move to clamp down on priestly child-molesters has been overshadowed by a clumsy decision to incorporate it in the same document as a restatement of the church's traditional view on the male-only nature of the sacerdotal office. If you listen to the church's enemies, who can scarcely believe their luck, the Vatican now officially ranks ordaining a woman and sodomising an altar-boy as deserving of the same level of opprobrium. So irresistible was the story, indeed, that it swiftly escaped from behind the Times paywall where it was originally hidden. Caitlin Moran's Tweet summed up a general mood: "The Catholic Church: they hate women and gays, and f*** kids. On a day-to-day level, that’s a tough sell."

Another in a long line of Vatican PR fails, obviously. But what caused it and what, if anything, does the controversy say about the Catholic Church's attitude towards child abuse, women or, for that matter, its handling of the international press?

First, let's take a look at the document highlighted in a Vatican press release. The first thing to note about it is that it is of no conceivable interest to anyone who isn't a canon lawyer. It is a purely technical tidying-up of some procedural rules, specifying which priestly offences are considered serious enough to be referred automatically to Head Office (the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Ratzinger's old stamping-ground). These include various sexual offences, which are referred to in the peculiar euphemistic language of the document as "delicts against the Sixth commandment of the Decalogue" ("Thou shalt not commit adultery", as you won't need me to remind you) but a variety of other more specifically doctrinal offences as well. Here's the full list, translated from Vatican legalese into something approaching normal English:

1. Heresy, apostasy and schism
2. Stealing, throwing away or retaining for "sacrilegious purposes" a consecrated communion wafer. You might want to use it in a Black Mass, for example.
3. Purporting to celebrate mass without having been properly ordained
4. Celebrating the eucharist together with a minister of a fake "church", for example an Anglican or a Lutheran
5. Consecrating a communion wafer for a "sacrilegious purpose". The difference between this and (2) is subtle, but I think it means that you intended to use it for the Black Mass at the time you consecrated it, whereas in the first case you took some spares left over from a proper Mass to offer to Satan.
6. As a priest, offering absolution for having illicit sex, when the person they have been sinning with is you. This might be a mistress, or it might be a child you've been abusing and then made to feel guilty about it. It's equally sinful either way.
7. Simulated sacramental absolution, when you pretend to be hearing a confession but, for some reason, either aren't allowed to or don't really mean it. I must admit I struggled making sense of this one.
8. Using the confessional as an excuse for chatting someone up. "Say three Hail Marys and then come round to my place for some special spiritual exercises I've been working on."
9. Breaking the seal of the confessional - for example, telling the police about a crime someone has confessed to or informed you about. Potentially, this could include child abuse.
10. Bugging a confessional box, or sharing the juicy bits on Twitter.
11. Ordaining a woman as priest - alternatively, as a woman, being ordained
12. Sexually abusing a minor (below the age of 18) or "a person who habitually lacks the use of reason"
13. Distributing or possessing child pornography, but only where the children concerned are below the age of 14. If they're over 14, it's probably OK as long as the police don't find out.

It's an interesting list, especially as a statement of the sorts of offences the Vatican regards as most serious (and, perhaps, as evidence of some of the naughty things wayward priests get up to). Andrew Brown is understanding:

Obviously, if what you are trying to do is to maintain a functioning priesthood, then ritual or sacramental crimes are just as capable of destroying it as moral ones. So from that perspective it is makes perfect sense to have a list which combines the two, and I don't think (though I may be wrong) that any official Catholic would maintain that assisting at the ordination service of a woman is morally comparable to child abuse. It's just that both are absolutely incompatible with the Catholic priesthood.

For me, though, the real question is why this technical revision of canon law should have made the news at all given that it changes almost nothing, at least as regards the treatment of child-abuse allegations. The Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith has had sole jurisdiction over these cases since 2001 - although whether this has helped or hindered the rooting out of paedophile priests is a matter of debate. At most the document amounts to a clarification of the pre-existing position. It would have passed unnoticed had not the Vatican PR people attempted to portray it as a new attempt to get tough on the abuse crisis. Inevitably, some journalists picked up on the apparent equation of women priests with child rape and the story blew up in the Vatican's face - and rightly so, for as far as I can tell the specific measures against ordaining women are new. Unlike Andrew, I've no sympathy. The Vatican press office might be incompetent spinners, and act like naive innocents from time to time, but that doesn't mean they're not in the game of media manipulation as much as any other corporate PR department. They're just not very good at it.

There's an amusing passage in Nick Davies' Flat Earth News about how the Vatican tried to spin the death of Pope John Paul, in particular by making up his supposed last words. The departing pontiff was in no position to say anything, but that didn't stop the press office from providing no fewer than three different official versions. To begin with it was a simple "Amen" - just about plausible, if improbable (more likely it was "Arghhhh", transfigured by the ear of faith). Then it was the more considered "let me go to the house of the father". Finally it was claimed in all seriousness - and dutifully noted by reporters - that the comatose Pope had issued the following deathbead press release:

"It is love which converts hearts and gives peace to all humanity, which today seems so lost and dominated by the power of evil selfishness and fear: our resurrected Lord gives us his love, which forgives, reconciles and reopens the soul to hope".

Yeah, right.
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The legendary Jesus and Mo has taken my seven-word summation of the case against women bishops (or any other piece of religiously-motivated sexism) and run with it. Truly I am not worthy.

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Thursday, 15 July 2010

Blogging behind the paywall

It's nice to get paid for your blogging. I wish someone would pay me (yes, CIF, I do mean you). Still, the concept of blogging behind a paywall, as is now the fate of most of the Times' well-known bloggers (though happily not, at any rate for the time being, the great Professor Beard) strikes me as distinctly iffy. As it happens, I have quite a lot of sympathy for newspapers who want to honour the professionalism and expense of their premium content by forcing readers to pay for it, either online or in print. But blogging is not journalism, even though many journalists blog and the best bloggers sometimes even do journalist-type things (like investigation or, indeed, basic research) rather better than many proper journalists manage to do in these distracted times. It is a conversation, in which, ideally, the readers contribute as much as the writers. It invites, indeed requires, engagement.

Tim Kevan, the lawyer who blogs as Baby Barista, left the Times in protest after it became clear that their paywall would apply to blogs as much as to the main substance of the paper. He was later picked up by the Guardian, but was prepared to go it alone rather than sacrifice his audience for News Corp's stipend. He writes:

The problem was that I simply didn’t think many people would have read my blog stuck not only behind a registration wall but also with a fee for entrance on top of that. I also think that it could have been avoided since there are so many innovative ways of making cash online and the decision to plump for an across-the-board blanket subscription over the whole of their content makes them look like a big lumbering giant, unable to cope with the diversification of the media brought about by online content, blogging, Facebook, Twitter – the list is endless. Canute-like in their determination to stop the tide of free content and using a top down strategy which for the moment at least appears to lack any flexibility.

There are several problems with the Times paywall - the cost, indeed, being relatively modest, may be the least of it. As Mark Thompson points out, even worse is the daunting application page, which is an enormous hassle to fill out and demands a frightening amount of personal information in return for the privilege of giving Rupert Murdoch your pounds. I wonder if that's why, according to Michael Wolff, "not only is nobody subscribing to the website, but subscribers to the paper itself - who have free access to the site - are not going beyond the registration page. It’s an empty world."

When I first took a peek at the site a couple of months ago I was surprised to discover you had to be eighteen or over to access it - as though The Times and the Sunday Times were offering porn. Small wonder that more than one Times journalist has drawn the parallel between the fate of the commercial porn and news businesses, both threatened with being swamped by the vast amount of free content out there in cyberspace. Or perhaps it's just that working for Murdoch and sucking cock for a living had quite a bit in common to begin with.

Unlinked-to and unread by the vocal online community, Times writers, it has often been said, risk being marginalised from the great national debate. That may not be so much of a problem for the paper's main content. After all, it's easy enough to buy a copy of The Times, and any really big story, or worthwhile opinion-piece, will swiftly be re-reported, plagiarised or commented-upon elsewhere. The fact that Peter Mandelson's tiresome revelations this week about the Brown-Blair wars of the past decade were serialised in The Times didn't mean they went ignored by the rest of the media, sadly. But the blogs and other online-only content is effectively ghettoised and rendered pointless by the paywall. The likes of Oliver Kamm and Danny Finkelstein have effectively exiled themselves from the blogosphere. It's a wonder they still bother.

Still, some Times journalists seem to like the intellectual purity of the concept that none of their work should be available to all and sundry. Earlier today I had a Twitter exchange with Times religion correspondent Ruth Gledhill, whose well-informed views and regular scoops I can regrettably no longer read. I told her I thought blogging within a paywall was like "shouting inside a soundproofed cell" and "crazy". She retorted that "paying news journos to produces acres of free blog content was even crazier" But journalists are paid for journalism, not blogging, which is (or should be) supplementary and complementary to the main event. And was it really worth it to have lost most of her readers? "They are not unread and they are now making money to justify the time I spend on them!" she replied. So there. Someone evidently is still reading Ruth Gledhill's walled-off blog. Just not anyone I've ever spoken to.
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Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Taxing Steve

Now here's a great idea for recouping some of the increasingly frightening budget deficit, put forward by some bright spark on the government's hilarious Spending Challenge website, and pointed out by Dizzy: a windfall tax on people named Steve.

Mark Paul Woodhouse writes:

The best taxes are those that target a specific section of the population, whilst leaving the majority relatively unchanged.

The proposal is to simply tax people who have the given name Stephen or one of its derivatives.

Woodhouse (who I'm sure is being entirely serious) goes on to suggest a basic tariff of £1,500 per year for a Stephen, rising to £2,500 for the admittedly more objectionable Steve. Moreover, "If a Stephen (or one of its derivatives) is married to a Stephanie (or one of its derivatives) then a maximum tax of £6,000 should be imposed on the couple. Future revenue could be generated by targeting surnames such as Stephenson." He's got it all worked out. Not too sure about this, though:

The tax would encourage people to change their name by deed poll to something more imaginative.

Er, yes - I believe that's called a "loophole". When it comes to behaviour the goverment might want to discourage through the tax system, being called Steve isn't quite up there with chain smoking or driving a gas-guzzling four-by-four. The only reason for allowing such an easy opt-out (which might perhaps be mitigated by a levy on deed-polls) is that it would dispose of any claims that the proposal punished Steves for choices made by their parents (but then such is life). Doubtless, even with this proviso some would criticise the tax for being discriminatory (though, happily, Steveness isn't one of the "protected characteristics" mentioned in Harriet Harman's Equality Act, so it might be OK.) It would certainly impact more heavily on the male population. But then so does income tax.

I doubt George Osborne will be taking up the suggestion. Nevertheless, the idea isn't quite as barmy as you (or indeed Mr Woodhouse) may think. For a tax targeting Steves would differentially impact on the demographic best able to pay, and arguably most responsible for the mess we're in: the baby-boomers. It would, in fact, be a generally progressive tax. To quote Steven Pinker (who should know):

All my life I have been surrounded by reminders of the commonness of my given name. Its provenance is auspicious enough: stephanos, the Greek word for "crown". Nonetheless, it lay in obscurity for most of the two millennia after the stoning of the first Christian martyr... Not until the 19th century do a smattering of Stephens reappear on the world stage.. and the first decades of the 20th century added only Benet, Spender and Dedalus, the last of whom didn't even exist.

But between the 1930s, when it was around the 75th most popular name for an American baby boy and the 1950s, when I was born, Stephen (and Steven and Steve) rocketed into 7th place. And it seemed to be even more popular in the demographic circles I inhabited. For as my bulky cohort made its way through the python, I repeatedly found myself surrounded by Steves. In school I was always addressed by an initial as well as a name, since every class had two or three of us, and as I furthered my education the concentration of Steveness just kept increasing...

When I began to write science books, I became surrounded. I aspired to stand on the shoulders of Gould and Hawking, found myself debating first Gould and then Rose and at one point shared the shelves with all of them plus Budiansky and Jones... Steves also dominate high technology, including the CEOs of both Microsoft (Ballmer) and Apple (Jobs), the other joint founder of Apple (Wozniak) and the founder of AOL (Case)...

Hyperstevism is a phenomenon of the second half of the 20th century. Like tulips, dot-com stocks and other examples of the madness of crowds, the fortunes of Steve fell as quickly as they rose. Today it has fallen to levels not seen since the nineteen teens, and it may become as geriatric as Elmer or Clem.

From The Stuff of Thought

As this implies, Stephen and its derivatives are not merely differentially popular in his age-bracket; it is also primarily a middle-class name. Pinker is writing primarily about the United States, but the same demographic phenomenon appears on this side of the Atlantic. It goes without saying that all the Steves mentioned in the above passage could well afford the surcharge proposed by Mr Woodhouse, as could Stephen Fry, Steve Davis or for that matter Stephen Byers, who was such an ornament of the Blair government. Of course, not all Steves are boomers. There are younger Steves, such as Mr Steven Gerrard, the noted footballer about whom various things have recently been alleged. But he, too, could well afford to contribute.

No doubt about it, this one's a winner. The Treasury should certainly tax Steves. Jeremies, too.
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Tuesday, 13 July 2010

The case against women bishops in the Church of England, reduced to seven words

"I'm not a misogynist, but God is." Read the rest of this article

Monday, 12 July 2010

Loss of Faith

Remember the Government Faith Panel, that hand-picked bunch of semi-professional committee types, interfaith intermediaries, PR people and chancers whose announcement raised a few eyebrows back in January? I went to quite a bit of trouble tracking down the lucky thirteen to whom the former Communities Secretary John Denham lent his ear (Jesus, you may recall, managed with just twelve disciples), and was delighted to discover that it encompassed such colourful personalities as the student Islamic activist turned dentist Wakkas Khan and the Sikh former independent Parliamentary candidate Jasdev Singh Rai, as well as an old friend of David Blunkett's from Sheffield city council. But I may have been wasting my time. The Panel seems to have vanished.

Fearing that the Faith Panel might be about to fall victim to the new government's cost-cutting zeal (although the advisers were unpaid, it would still have been necessary to refund their expenses and provide them with a nice cup of tea as they filled the Secretary of State in on the latest comings-and-goings, faithwise) I sought out information on the departmental website. Nothing. Even the press release - which had proudly announced the creation of the panel and celebrated its bringing together of "an unprecedented wealth of knowledge and experience that will help advise on the big issues facing society such as the economy, parenting, achieving social justice and tackling climate change" - has been removed.

I contacted the department in search of elucidation. Back came the reply: "Details of the Faith Advisory Panel are not on the 'live' CLG website in line with the current moratorium on all policy areas under review by the new government" said spokesman David Carnell. "Under review" means, I suppose, on death row with little hope of reprieve. The statement went on to say that the future both of the remit and membership of the panel were being considered - but I also discover that the new Communities Secretary Eric Pickles wants to end "this habit of Labour appointing its mates and then kicking issues into the long grass." All that unprecedented knowledge and experience will be overlooked, then - a tragic waste, as I'm sure you'll agree.

Mind you, it doesn't sound as though even John Denham made much use of the panel - I'm advised that the panel has not met since March. And the panel members seemed a bit reticent about the whole thing. At least, few of them wanted to talk to me, although one, Jenny Kartupelis - from the East of England Faiths Council - "felt that the conversations were useful." She didn't elaborate. Read the rest of this article

Friday, 9 July 2010

Let her back

The Mail reports that the Home Office is looking at ways of denying Anna Chapman - who has British citizenship thanks to her four-year marriage to kiss-and-tell husband Alex - from re-entering the UK, as is apparently her wish. They hope to declare her marriage a sham - although by all accounts it was regularly and enthusiastically consummated - and categorise her as someone whose presence is "not conducive to the public good".

This is typical of our Home Office, vindictive and pointless.

Firstly, her presence is very much conducive to the national interest. There are many people here who would be very much inerested in having her back. She also deserves the opportunity to "set the record straight" by selling her own story to the News of the World - which, no doubt, already has its chequebook open.

Secondly, there is no evidence that she has ever done anything contrary to British interests. Her so-called spying activities, evidence for which was always extremely weak, involved no state secrets and seem to have amounted to little more than a hobby. She pleaded guilty only as part of the spy-swap deal, and seemed confused when asked to describe her espionage. And whatever she may have done she did entirely in the United States. The notion that her sojourn in London was part of a plot to groom her for a future as a real-life Bond girl is a fanciful piece of speculation that may excite the juices of some of our more ridiculous newspapers, but Her Majesty's government should be above such nonsense.

Not to mention the hypocrisy of acting as though there have never been any British spies in Moscow.

Thirdly, at a time of austerity and recession, she has already done so much to cheer us all up.

Please, Home Office, stop this macho posturing, and stop treating border controls as a means of scoring cheap political points. New Labour is over. Read the rest of this article

Thursday, 8 July 2010

Science and the octopus

So, the mollusc wins again. Paul the Psychic Octopus, having correctly "predicted" a series of German World Cup victories over, among others, Ghana, England and Argentina, switched its tentacled allegiance to Spain just in time to watch them squarely beat the Fatherland into Sunday's final. The cephalopod's reputation for oracular infallibility is maintained. Scientific rationalism wobbles. Richard Dawkins must be quaking in his smug atheistic boots. I know I am.

As you may recall, I suggested that Paul's preference for the German flag may have been due to conditioning (which is certainly possible for these intelligent invertebrates). Presented with two pots, each containing a mussel, the octopus might be expected to choose the familiar one, simply because the flag provided a reliable indication of food. On this basis I predicted that it would continue to favour Germany.

Annoyingly, I was wrong. Even more annoyingly, the octopus was right. Is there - can there be - a scientific explanation?

According to the usual version of the story, Paul's powers were first put to the test during the 2008 European championships, when he was said to have an 80% success rate. This may not in fact be true. Octopuses tend to have very short lifespans (around 18 months is a maximum) and there have been suggestions that original Paul - who was caught near Weymouth - has since been replaced by a Mediterranean impostor. If this is true, then "Paulo" has in fact a 100% success rate. Even more impressive, if one believes in the special qualities of this particular cephalopod. For myself, I suspect that one octopus is very much like any other, and that whether this year's Paul is the same as 2008's has little bearing on his match predicting success.

The 2008 Paul would seem to have consistently predicted German victories - including in the final, where Germany lost to Spain. During the present World Cup, with one exception (Serbia) Paul again preferred the familiar German colours. The pattern was clear. And with the psychic power hypothesis challenged by the result of the Euro 08 final, the conditioning hypothesis looked the stronger contender. As to the octopus's initial preference for the German flag, this may have be due to chance. But it has also been suggested by one marine biologist that the creature may be attracted to the strong pattern of horizontal stripes found on that flag (and, indeed, on that of Spain).

To date, the octopus has made 12 predictions, six in each tournament, and was "correct" in all but 2 - a success rate of 83% (the mistakes were both in the 2008 championship, so perhaps he's simply honed his selection skills). On the other hand, he has also predicted German wins on ten occasions. The conditioning hypothesis does not require that the octopus choose the German flag every time, merely that it should display a marked preference for it. It still strikes me as plausible - there is, after all, a known scientific mechanism underlying it - but to prove it would require a much larger piece of research, employing several different octopuses and hundreds of trials.

To prove - or even render plausible - the "psychic octopus" theory would also need far more experimental data. At the very least, it would have to demonstrate its powers to predict the result of matches not involving Germany, thus eliminating any colour-conditioning effect. [Update: it is pointed out in the comments that Paul belongs to a colour-blind species of octopus - any conditioning would have to be based on pattern-recognition and shade-differentiation rather than colour. Note, though, that the teams which beat Germany in both tournaments, and which Paul differentially chose, all had a similar pattern of horizontal stripes.] The more matches correctly predicted, the greater would be the evidence - but, again, it would take hundreds of trials to demonstrate a statistically significant effect.

Ideally, the experiment would not use national flags at all, but rather variable abstract symbols randomly assigned to teams, and different on each occasion. In such a set-up, there would be nothing for the octopus to recognise, and its choice would either be truly random or the result of an unknown (possibly paranormal) factor.

But even if there were to be such an effect demonstrated, it would not prove that the octopus was actually psychic. It would show merely a positive correlation between Paul's selections and the results of matches. As it happens, I do think that, even in the absence of a proper controlled trial, such a correlation may exist. Chance may explain it, of course - though with every correct prediction it becomes more likely that something other than chance is involved. So what, other than the existence of a genuine oracular octopus, might that be?

In a word, voodoo.

When it comes to the results of actual matches, we can forget the octopus. It has no idea that it is selecting football teams, and it certainly is not psychic. On the other hand, the human audience does believe (however half-heartedly or with tongue in cheek) that Paul is predicting football results. With time, and as Paul's success has been maintained and his fame has grown, his "predictions" receive increasing attention. This must have an impact. We should thus ask whether the "psychic octopus" is affecting the psychology of the footballers. If they imagine that their success has been foretold by the octopus oracle, their self-confidence will receive a boost. By contrast, if they believe that they have been cursed by the mollusc, their football may suffer - just as someone who believes an enemy is sticking pins in a doll to magically harm them may fall ill. Of course, Germany's losing players weren't consciously thinking about the octopus while they crumbled last night (at least, not much) but they were certainly aware of it - and that awareness might just have made the difference between victory and defeat.

UPDATE: In the comments, ElFlojo84 is "veering towards the idea that this is a publicity stunt from the aquarium, where the predictions are the work of a well-informed football fan and Paul's choices are being influenced somehow". It's entirely possible. The easiest way of hoaxing the predictions would be to place a real mussel in the "correct" box and a dummy one - indistinguishable to the audience - in the one they don't want the octopus to choose. This explanation has the benefit of simplicity and I'm kicking myself that I didn't think of it. Perhaps some tabloid with a big chequebook could track down an aquarium worker and find out the truth. We should be told.

UPDATE 2: Paul chose Spain over the Netherlands to win the final, and Germany over Uruguay in the play-offs. In other words, he went for the two most familiar flags, both of which had proved to be reliable indicators of the presence of food - just as the theory of conditioning would have predicted. The "hoax" theory would suggest the same result, however, since the two selected teams are also the favourites. The voodoo effect remains to be seen.
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Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Gay men: you have a legal right to enjoy Kylie

Today's Supreme Court ruling in the case of two gay asylum seekers who had been denied leave to stay in Britain on the grounds that they would be persecuted in their countries of origin sets an important precedent. The previous government - supported by lower courts - had argued that because it gay people were unlikely to be persecuted if they behaved "discreetly", they could not claim to have a well-grounded fear of persecution, as required by the relevant convention. Whatever the truth of that, I wondered how someone being returned to their home country after failing to obtain asylum on the grounds of their being gay could possibly escape the attention of the authorities, however discreet their behaviour.

In the event, today's decision rejected the "discretion" argument. Being forced to live one's sexual life in hiding itself amounts to persecution, the judges decided. Gay people, said Lord Hope, "are as much entitled to freedom of association with others of the same sexual orientation, and to freedom of self-expression in matters that affect their sexuality, as people who are straight." The judges adopted the broad modern notion of a gay identity, in other words: being gay is about what you are, not just about what you do. This led one of them, Lord Rodger, to offer an insight into his own perception of the gay scene (and a gift to the Mail's sub-editors):

In short, what is protected is the applicant's right to live freely and openly as a gay man. That involves a wide spectrum of conduct, going well beyond conduct designed to attract sexual partners and maintain relationships with them. To illustrate the point with trivial stereotypical examples from British society: just as male heterosexuals are free to enjoy themselves playing rugby, drinking beer and talking about girls with their mates, so male homosexuals are to be free to enjoy themselves going to Kylie concerts, drinking exotically coloured cocktails and talking about boys with their straight female mates.

As a heterosexual non-rugby-playing Kylie fan, I object. So does my beer-drinking gay best friend.

Anyway, gay asylum seekers are now safe. But why stop there? It's a bit facetious to claim Iranian mullet-wearers will now seek protection in the UK from the state persecution of their "un-Islamic" hairstyles, but the categories of person protected under the Regugee Convention - dating from 1951 - are much broader than those enshrined in more recent anti-discrimination laws. The convention accords protection to anyone with "a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion." Gay people are a particular social group. But so are many people denied recourse under British law because they lack a characteristic appealing to the previous Labour government.

The two men who brought this appeal came from Iran and Cameroon. The propensity of the Iranian state to imprison, and sometimes execute, gay people is well-known, but the experience of the Cameroonian appellant, described by Lord Rodger, struck me as especially horrific:

In the case of HT it is agreed that, following an occasion when he was seen kissing his then (male) partner in the garden of his home, the appellant was attacked by a crowd of people when leaving church. They beat him with sticks and threw stones at him. They pulled off his clothes and tried to cut off his penis with a knife. He attempted to defend himself and was cut just above the penis and on his hand. He was threatened with being killed imminently on the ground that "you people cannot be changed". Police officers arrived and demanded to know what was going on and why the crowd were assaulting him. They were told it was because he was gay. One of the policemen said to the appellant "How can you go with another man?" and punched him on the mouth. The policemen then kicked him until he passed out. As a result of the injuries which he received he was kept in hospital for two months. After that, he was taken home by a member of his church who told him that he feared for his life and safety if he remained in Cameroon.

After all that, the Home Office wanted to send him back home. In some ways, today's judgement was academic, since the new government had already decided to end the practice of deporting gay asylum seekers. Another high-profile asylum seeker, lesbian Iranian actress Kiana Firouz, who had also been threatened with deportation, was granted the right to stay here last month. As the star of a film on the subject of gay asylum-seekers, the danger she would in Iran was obvious - to everyone except the UK Border Agency, that is. Today, though, I heard Labour's Tessa Jowell welcoming the Supreme Court decision, a remarkable change of heart from a member of a government that until a few months ago was fighting these cases with every weapon in its legal armoury.

Here are some key passages from the judgement, which is well worth reading in full:

Lord Hope:

2. The need for reliable guidance on this issue is growing day by day. Persecution for reasons of homosexuality was not perceived as a problem by the High Contracting Parties when the Convention was being drafted. For many years the risk of persecution in countries where it now exists seemed remote. It was the practice for leaders in these countries simply to insist that homosexuality did not exist. This was manifest nonsense, but at least it avoided the evil of persecution. More recently, fanned by misguided but vigorous religious doctrine, the situation has changed dramatically. The ultra-conservative interpretation of Islamic law that prevails in Iran is one example. The rampant homophobic teaching that right-wing evangelical Christian churches indulge in throughout much of Sub-Saharan Africa is another. The death penalty has just been proposed in Uganda for persons who engage in homosexual practices. Two gay men who had celebrated their relationship in a public engagement ceremony were recently sentenced to 14 years' imprisonment in Malawi. They were later pardoned in response to international pressure by President Mutharika, but he made it clear that he would not otherwise have done this as they had committed a crime against the country's culture, its religion and its laws. Objections to these developments have been greeted locally with derision and disbelief.

3. The fact is that a huge gulf has opened up in attitudes to and understanding of gay persons between societies on either side of the divide. It is one of the most demanding social issues of our time. Our own government has pledged to do what it can to resolve the problem, but it seems likely to grow and to remain with us for many years. In the meantime more and more gays and lesbians are likely to have to seek protection here, as protection is being denied to them by the state in their home countries. It is crucially important that they are provided with the protection that they are entitled to under the Convention – no more, if I may be permitted to coin a well known phrase, but certainly no less.

11. The group is defined by the immutable characteristic of its members' sexual orientation or sexuality. This is a characteristic that may be revealed, to a greater or lesser degree, by the way the members of this group behave. In that sense, because it manifests itself in behaviour, it is less immediately visible than a person's race. But, unlike a person's religion or political opinion, it is incapable of being changed. To pretend that it does not exist, or that the behaviour by which it manifests itself can be suppressed, is to deny the members of this group their fundamental right to be what they are.

14...But coupled with an increasing recognition of the rights of gay people since the early 1960s has come an appreciation of the fundamental importance of their not being discriminated against in any respect that affects their core identity as homosexuals. They are as much entitled to freedom of association with others of the same sexual orientation, and to freedom of self-expression in matters that affect their sexuality, as people who are straight.

17. In situations such as those presented by these appeals the fact that members of the particular social group are persecuted may not be seriously in issue. In Iran, where the death penalty exists, persons have been hanged simply because they are gay. In Cameroon homosexuality is illegal and the sanctions for it include sentences of up to five years imprisonment. Although prosecutions are rare, homosexuals are liable to be denounced and subjected to acts of violence and harassment against which the state offers no protection. But the situation in the country of origin is only the beginning, not the end, of the inquiry. The Convention directs attention to the state of mind of the individual. It is the fear which that person has that must be examined and shown to be well-founded. In cases where the fear is of persecution for reasons of religion or political opinion, it may be necessary to examine the nature and consequences of any activity that the applicant claims he or she may wish to pursue if returned to the country of nationality. It will not be enough for the person merely to assert that persons who are of that religion or political opinion are liable to be persecuted. The question is, what will the applicant actually do, and does what he or she will in fact do justify the fear that is complained of?

22. The submission that it is proper to examine the question whether it would be objectively reasonable for the applicant to be expected to tolerate some element of concealment – I would prefer not to use the word "discretion", as this euphemistic expression does not tell the whole truth – when he is returned to the country of his nationality cannot be dismissed so easily. Behaviour which reveals one's sexual orientation, whether one is gay or straight, varies from individual to individual. It occupies a wide spectrum, from people who are naturally reticent and have no particular desire to establish a sexual relationship with anybody to those who wish, for various reasons, to proclaim in public their sexual identity. Social and family disapproval of overt sexual behaviour of any kind, gay or straight, may weigh more heavily with some people than others. Concealment due to a well-founded fear of persecution is one thing. Concealment in reaction to family or social pressures is another. So one must ask why the applicant will conduct himself in this way. A carefully nuanced approach is called for, to separate out those who are truly in need of surrogate protection from those who are not.

35...The way he conducts himself may vary from one situation to another, with varying degrees of risk. But he cannot and must not be expected to conceal aspects of his sexual orientation which he is unwilling to conceal, even from those whom he knows may disapprove of it. If he fears persecution as a result and that fear is well-founded, he will be entitled to asylum however unreasonable his refusal to resort to concealment may be. The question what is reasonably tolerable has no part in this inquiry.

Lord Rodger

62. Having examined the relevant evidence, the Secretary of State or the tribunal may conclude, however, that the applicant would act discreetly partly to avoid upsetting his parents, partly to avoid trouble with his friends and colleagues, and partly due to a well-founded fear of being persecuted by the state authorities. In other words the need to avoid the threat of persecution would be a material reason, among a number of complementary reasons, why the applicant would act discreetly. Would the existence of these other reasons make a crucial difference? In my view it would not. A Jew would not lose the protection of the Convention because, in addition to suffering state persecution, he might also be subject to casual, social anti-semitism. Similarly, a gay man who was not only persecuted by the state, but also made the butt of casual jokes at work, would not lose the protection of the Convention. It follows that the question can be further refined: is an applicant to be regarded as a refugee for purposes of the Convention in circumstances where the reality is that, if he were returned to his country of nationality, in addition to any other reasons for behaving discreetly, he would have to behave discreetly in order to avoid persecution because of being gay?

65.... so far as the social group of gay people is concerned, the underlying rationale of the Convention is that they should be able to live freely and openly as gay men and lesbian women, without fearing that they may suffer harm of the requisite intensity or duration because they are gay or lesbian. Their home state should protect them and so enable them to live in that way. If it does not and they will be threatened with serious harm if they live openly, then most people threatened with persecution will be forced to take what steps they can to avoid it. But the applicant's country of nationality does not meet the standard of protection from persecution which the Convention envisages simply because conditions in the country are such that he would be able to take, and would in fact take, steps to avoid persecution by concealing the fact that he is gay. On the contrary, the fact that he would feel obliged to take these steps to avoid persecution is, prima facie, an indication that there is indeed a threat of persecution to gay people who live openly. His country of nationality is therefore not affording him the necessary level of protection. So the receiving country should.

77. At the most basic level, if a male applicant were to live discreetly, he would in practice have to avoid any open expression of affection for another man which went beyond what would be acceptable behaviour on the part of a straight man. He would have to be cautious about the friendships he formed, the circle of friends in which he moved, the places where he socialised. He would have constantly to restrain himself in an area of life where powerful emotions and physical attraction are involved and a straight man could be spontaneous, impulsive even. Not only would he not be able to indulge openly in the mild flirtations which are an enjoyable part of heterosexual life, but he would have to think twice before revealing that he was attracted to another man. Similarly, the small tokens and gestures of affection which are taken for granted between men and women could well be dangerous. In short, his potential for finding happiness in some sexual relationship would be profoundly affected. It is objectionable to assume that any gay man can be supposed to find even these restrictions on his life and happiness reasonably tolerable.

82. When an applicant applies for asylum on the ground of a well-founded fear of persecution because he is gay, the tribunal must first ask itself whether it is satisfied on the evidence that he is gay, or that he would be treated as gay by potential persecutors in his country of nationality.

If so, the tribunal must then ask itself whether it is satisfied on the available evidence that gay people who lived openly would be liable to persecution in the applicant's country of nationality.

If so, the tribunal must go on to consider what the individual applicant would do if he were returned to that country.

If the applicant would in fact live openly and thereby be exposed to a real risk of persecution, then he has a well-founded fear of persecution - even if he could avoid the risk by living "discreetly".

If, on the other hand, the tribunal concludes that the applicant would in fact live discreetly and so avoid persecution, it must go on to ask itself why he would do so.

If the tribunal concludes that the applicant would choose to live discreetly simply because that was how he himself would wish to live, or because of social pressures, e g, not wanting to distress his parents or embarrass his friends, then his application should be rejected. Social pressures of that kind do not amount to persecution and the Convention does not offer protection against them. Such a person has no well-founded fear of persecution because, for reasons that have nothing to do with any fear of persecution, he himself chooses to adopt a way of life which means that he is not in fact liable to be persecuted because he is gay.

If, on the other hand, the tribunal concludes that a material reason for the applicant living discreetly on his return would be a fear of the persecution which would follow if he were to live openly as a gay man, then, other things being equal, his application should be accepted. Such a person has a well-founded fear of persecution. To reject his application on the ground that he could avoid the persecution by living discreetly would be to defeat the very right which the Convention exists to protect – his right to live freely and openly as a gay man without fear of persecution.
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Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Doctors and Nuns

There was quite a stir this morning when it was revealed (by one of Cameron's cuties) that years ago a London hospital had hired out one of its wards for a "big budget" porn shoot. But what was the hospital, and what was the film? The Heresiarch has investigated, but was forced to consign his discoveries to the Dungeon. Read the rest of this article

Monday, 5 July 2010

6 of the best?

When BP issues a press release or organises a press conference on the subject of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, it is reported for what it is - propaganda. But the BBC is in a rather different position - for it not only reports the news, it is also invariably newsworthy in itself. The size of the Licence Fee, the content of its programmes, the number and availability of its channels and radio stations, the salaries paid to its leading personalities, all these and more are of enormous interest and frequently controversial. Yet as a major news provider, unlike BP it is in a unique position, if not to control, then at least to shape the public perception of itself - for when it reports on itself, it does so with the veneer of objectivity, as though it were its journalists had no vested interest in how it comes across. All BBC reporting on the subject of the BBC should therefore be treated with extreme caution.

Today, for example, sees the publication of the "interim response" by the BBC Trust - itself a paradoxical body that portrays itself as representing Licence Fee payers rather, I suspect, as the Countryside Alliance represents the interests of foxes - to a recent BBC strategy document. This, in turn, was reported first and most comprehensively by the BBC's own journalists - who thus partly determined what points received the most coverage, and what were overlooked. The response is available online for all to read in its entirety (pdf) but it's safe to say that the vast majority of listeners and viewers won't bother.

So what does the Trust say? The headline news, according to the BBC's own reports as more-or-less faithfully reproduced by the rest of the mass media, is that BBC 6, a hitherto obscure digital music station whose threatened closure inspired a passionate online campaign to preserve it, is indeed to be saved for the nation. At one level, this represents a defeat for the BBC leadership, so one might expect the BBC reportage, if it was primarily a propaganda outfit, to downplay its significance. But of course, the news that the BBC is not to cut one of its services can easily be portrayed both as a triumph of listener power and as proof of the unique qualities that the reprieved station possesses.

Since its closure was announced, indeed, the station's audience has almost doubled. A cynic might imagine that the plan to abolish BBC 6 Music was a cunning ploy to increase its profile. More telling, though, is the audience profile of the station - its average listener is mid-thirties, educated, urban, affluent and computer literate, politically liberal, easily mobilised and articulate; its average listener, in other words, is quite likely to work for the BBC, or at the very least to know someone who does, which may explain why the oppostion to the plan was so widely and sympathetically reported. The campaign to save 6 Music, unlike the unsuccessful (and almost invisible) campaign to save the also-threatened Asian Network, was pushing at an open door.

Celebrating the reprieve of 6 Music also has the advantage, from the BBC's point of view, of drawing attention away from the more significant, and rather trenchant, criticisms contained in the Trust's response of the poor quality of some television programming. In fact, the fate of the two digital stations occupies a relatively small section of the document. That said, the tone is friendly and supportive throughout, stressing from the outset how much the Trust supports the Director General's aim to make sure the BBC's output is high-quality and distinctive and how much the corporation is loved by the public. Much of it could have been written by the BBC's PR department, and, for all I know, was.

The case of BBC 6 Music is interesting. I have no particular feelings about its distinctiveness and quality, since although being in the target demographic I don't listen to it. I don't doubt that it is well-loved by its small and growing band of listeners. I do however wonder whether its quality and distinctiveness require a whole radio station to sustain, and could not be accommodated by removing some of the junk currently to be found on Radio 2 (and which would otherwise swiftly be picked up by the commercial sector). And if 6 is as vital to the nation's musical life as some of its supporters have alleged, I wonder how we ever managed without it.

The answer, of course, is that 6 Music is a digital station, and the BBC shares the conviction of the government (of whatever political complexion) and of other parts of the broadcasting industry that there is a vital need to ditch analogue radio in favour of the inferior, costly and environmentally unfriendly DAB system. Almost no-one wants their FM radio to be rendered arbitrarily useless by government diktat, but that doesn't prevent the supposed voice of the public from joining in the cheerleading of this democratically outrageous policy. The document lets the cat out of the bag in this paragraph:

There are big challenges ahead for digital radio too, although the direction of future change is much less clear. The BBC’s newer stations were designed in part to drive digital take up. By 2010, we can see that take up of DAB radio has been slower than expected ten years ago and the BBC’s digital-only stations have not achieved the audiences or impact that was then expected, although the intention behind the Digital Economy Act was to provide new impetus. The BBC is already committed to playing a role in leading the UK radio industry to a fully digital future. A question remains about what that means in the longer term and what the potential is for internet-based radio platforms to evolve. If DAB is to be the future, the BBC can only be one player, alongside Government and the commercial industry, in deciding what the strategy should be for the future shape of investment in both infrastructure and services.

In other words, the digital stations are not important in themselves, but only insofar as they serve the aim of driving digital take-up and thus accelerating the process of destroying FM. Seen in this light, the battle to save Radio 6 has little to do with public service (for the vital aspects of the service it provides could be provided on the existing channels) and everything to do with saving digital radio itself. For many of its devotees, 6 has been the best argument for switching to digital radio - there is, after all, precious little else of value on DAB that is unavailable elsewhere. To improve the distinctiveness and quality of Radios 1 and 2 would be cheaper and would have the additional benefit of reducing unnecessary duplication of commercial stations, but it would not "drive digital take-up". In other words, it would serve the interest only of listeners, not of the government, the BBC and the rest of the industry.

The report describes the take-up of digital radio as "disappointing", a strange value-judgement for a Trust supposedly representing the interests of the audience. It can scarcely be described as disappointing from the point of view of a consumer who has decided not to waste their money on one, after all, only from the point of view of someone (not a consumer or licence-fee payer) with a vested interest in justifying analogue switch-off. It also acknowledges that the BBC has a "clear duty" to drive digital take-up through the provision of appealing digital-only services. Again, duty to whom?
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