Wednesday, 31 March 2010

BCA lawyers "want Simon Singh to pay for his supporters"

Tomorrow Simon Singh learns whether or not his appeal against Mr Justice Eady's idiosyncratic definition of the words "bogus" and "happily" has been successful. On the result probably hangs the future of his whole case - though if he loses, there may be a final (and perhaps lengthy) appeal to the European Court of Human Rights. If he wins, as most of us hope, he will still face the possibly challenging task of persuading Mr Justice Eady that he did not, after all, libel the British Chiropractic Association.

The Lord Chief Justice isn't the only one to find the whole saga baffling.

The most striking thing about Simon's libel defence, apart from the shocking fact that he ever had to mount it, is the tremendous interest that it has attracted from bloggers, Twitterers, Facebook groupies and other online folk. Scientists and free-speech advocates - the two groups who have done most to draw attention to the case and keep it in the headlines - are, of course, over-represented online, and without this grassroots activism it's unlikely that the wider campaign for libel reform would have achieved anything like the traction, mainstream media interest and ultimately political support that it has.

Simon Singh himself has often expressed his own appreciation for the contribution bloggers and other online activists have made to the reform campaign, as well as to his own morale as he continues the drawn-out, vastly expensive and stressful process.

But will there be a sting in the tail? In the new issue of Private Eye, Ratbiter reports that the BCA's solicitors Collyer Bristow intend to bill Simon Singh, should they ultimately prevail, for "the time they spent in 'discussions with bloggers' about the case." Noting the embarrassment caused by the likes of Simon Perry and Zeno (Alan Henness), who between them reported hundreds of chiropractors to trading standards officers or the ASA for continuing to make the very claims criticised in Singh's original article, Ratbiter comments:

Instead of blaming the BCA for the bad publicity its attempt to punish Singh has brought in the blogs, Collyer Bristow wants to charge Singh for handling inquiries from bloggers that would never have arisen if the chiropractors had not sued in the first place! No wonder the firm is so keen to strop Jack Straw curtailing the ability of English lawyers to fill their boots.

For the record, I've never troubled the fine folk at Collyer Bristow or taken up any of their (literally) precious time. Have many other bloggers?

Collyer Bristow - who also represent one-time Heresy Corner fixture Max Mosley - have been prominent in the rearguard action being fought to defend lawyers' lucrative conditional fee arrangements, recently helping to set up the pressure group Lawyers for Media Standards. The firm's head of media, Steven Heffer, put out a press release after the House of Lords approved Jack Straw's scheme to limit CFA payouts in which he claimed that the government "is being directed by the interests of the powerful media lobby in the run-up to the election." They'll have been pleased that the statutory instrument concerned was blocked in the Commons last night by a group of MPs led by a former minister, Tom Watson, who has had his own recourse to CFA-backed libel actions.

As a Times diarist noted in 2007, Collyer Bristow "has always been rather partial to act for the underdog." Read the rest of this article

Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Blair launches DNA election

Back in February, Guy Aitchison noted that Labour seemed bent on making its illegal DNA-retention policy an election issue. This is the Home Office proposal to retain DNA profiles of anyone arrested by the police, even if they turn out to be entirely innocent, for six years. Not only does this treat anyone who has come into contact with the police (demonstrators, black people, Tory immigration spokesmen...) as a potential murderer or rapist, it happily - in the Eady sense - violates the principles laid down by the European Court of Human Rights. It has no good basis in evidence, is wasteful of resources, is disproportionate and discriminatory. Labour strategists, however, think it's an easy sell on the doorsteps, on the assumption that most voters share the police's view that there's no such thing as an innocent arrestee, merely someone who is yet to be convicted of an offence.

Guy wrote:

That the Labour party should so loudly trumpet its contempt for personal privacy and the presumption of innocence, parading its violation of the European Court on Human Rights ruling on DNA retention as one of the top six reasons to vote for it, tells you everything you need to know about its attitude to civil liberties and the rule of law.

At the beginning of this month, Gordon Brown made a speech in Reading in which he claimed that under Tory proposals "some sickening crimes would have gone unsolved, and many dangerous criminals would have remained at large." A few days ago Alan Johnson decided to ditch a potential compromise on the issue so he could make hay with it during the campaign. Now, here comes the resurrected Tony Blair to warn voters that the Conservatives have "gone liberal when actually they should have stuck with a traditional Conservative position." It's the clearest sign yet that Labour wants to make law and order - and especially DNA retention - a big issue.

As proof of Conservative folly Blair cites their willingness to adopt a system approved by the ECHR and which seems to be working well in Scotland.

On law and order the Tories have opposed the stronger anti-terrorism measures and much of the anti-social behaviour agenda. They even want to restrict the use of the DNA database. This employs the advanced technology of DNA tracking and matching, to provide incontrovertible evidence of guilt or innocence. Its use so far has resulted in extraordinary breakthroughs. Old crimes, whose victims or their families never received justice, can be solved and perpetrators brought to book. Innocent people have been freed. As the database builds up, it becomes an invaluable crime fighting tool. In time, it will also be a fierce deterrent, since criminals particularly murderers, rapists and those who commit violent assault, will know they run a big risk of detection. It is an absolutely sensible use of modern technology. It can actually help prevent abuses of civil liberties. Yet the Tories oppose it.

Of course, Tony Blair has never yet seen a civil liberty he didn't want to destroy. He's the man who brought us, among other highlights of his years in office, the Identity database, restrictions on trial by jury, the ban on protests in Westminster, youth curfews, the attempt (narrowly defeated by Labour backbenchers who had finally been pushed too far) to introduce ninety days pre-charge detention, Section 44 harassment of photographers, university researchers arrested as terrorists for downloading material from the US government website, a blind eye towards torture by friendly states, children imprisoned in immigration centres, environmental protestors redefined as "domestic extremists" and a permanent state of emergency. So it would be unfair to accuse him of a lack of consistency.

His comments are the usual mix of the tendentious, the emotionally rigged and the downright dishonest. The Conservatives don't want to restrict the use of the DNA database, merely its scope. Adding new samples to a semi-permanent database has no effect on "old crimes", since samples will still be taken on arrest and may be compared against cold cases. Profiles taken from "murderers, rapists and those who commit violent assault" will remain indefinitely on file, of course. And it's hard to know what he means by claiming that expanding the database to include ever more innocent people "can actually help prevent abuses of civil liberties". Perhaps he's referring to DNA's usefulness in eliminating potential suspects from a crime scene. But that, of course, has nothing whatever to do with the database.

Blair seems to think that anyone who objects to ever more draconian police powers and restrictions on traditional liberty wants murderers and rapists to escape justice. But to treat an ever larger proportion of the population as suspects who have yet to be convicted will no nothing to convict rapists and murderers. The logic of Blair's belief that the database is a "fierce deterrent" is that everyone in the country should have their DNA placed for their whole lives in the care of the police. That way, no-one would ever escape conviction for any crime - assuming, as Blair does, that DNA evidence is infallible. Which, of course, it isn't.

The version of DNA redtention preferred by the Conservatives would still yield the largest such database in Europe, by the way, so it hardly qualifies as excessively liberal. And it is the system preferred by Sir Alec Jeffreys, the man who invented DNA profiling. "Yet the Tories support it," wonders the sainted Tone. It's hardly puzzling that the Conservatives support it, if one imagines, or at least hopes, that policy should be based on evidence, logic and proportionality rather than macho posturing. It is, however, strange that the Tories should support it if you're as cynical about the business of politics as Tony Blair has always been, for all his Messianic posturing and unwavering belief in his own rectitude.

Two things emerge from Labour's determination to attack the Conservatives for "going liberal". First, it reveals (as if we didn't know already) the depths of Labour's cynicism on "law and order". Ever since Tony Blair launched his first memorable soundbite, "tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime", New Labour has positioned itself, wherever possible, to the authoritarian right of the Conservatives. This was purely, nakedly, for perceived electoral gain. If capital punishment hadn't been abolished in the 1960s, Tony Blair would be boasting today about how many more people had been executed by his government than under the soft, criminal-loving Tories. I can almost hear him.

Yet even hardline Tories have always recognised that getting tough on criminals doesn't entail criminalising the entire population, and that the police must retain the trust of the law-abiding majority. Labour has combined traditionally right-wing law and order rhetoric with its centralising, statist tendency to suspect and monitor everyone - in the process creating a new crime for almost every day it has been in office.

The other striking thing is how easy it is for Tony Blair to make strident and ill-argued remarks and how much effort it takes to refute them. The soundbite world of election campaigns encourages superficially plausible, emotionally manipulative nonsense like this. It's extraordinary how potent cheap arguments are.

New Labour remains convinced that the electorate responds in a Pavlovian fashion to "tough" law and order messages, however illiberal, however alien to British traditions of privacy and innocent-until-proven-guilty, however little based in evidence. The Tories, for their part, deserve credit for preferring rational policies to the supposedly crowd-pleasing authoritarianism of their opponents.
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Monday, 29 March 2010

Digital Radio? No thanks.

I haven't got a digital radio. Not because I'm an unrepentant Luddite, but because I'm perfectly happy with what I've got, thank you very much, and I don't see any reason why I should throw away the six or seven functioning sets I'm currently using. True, I can't listen to Radio 6 Music - not on the radio, anyway - but nor will anyone else once the BBC goes through with its plan to close the station down. Other than that, I don't think I'm missing anything. I love radio, but like most radio listeners I have two or three favourite stations that more than adequately meet my needs. Radio isn't like television. People don't want endless choice. Digital radio may be shiny and new, but it no more represents an improvement on what has gone before than the Amazon Kindle represents an improvement on books.

The advantages of analogue radio are manifold. Sets are cheap to manufacture (indeed, you can make one yourself with a few bits of wire), use far less energy (that is, battery-power) than their digital equivalents and are, in most parts of the country, extraordinarily reliable. They are supremely lightweight and portable. The signal is cheap to transmit, too: a mere £10 million per year, far less than digital. When the reception isn't perfect, you hear a hiss. When the reception on a digital radio isn't perfect you often don't hear anything. DAB audio quality is improving, but many people find it still inferior to FM. The scrapping of millions of sets would be environmentally disastrous and would cost every household in Britain a considerable amount of money, both in initial outlay and in batteries.

Yet the government's stated intention is that as early as 2015 national analogue broadcasting will cease and the FM spectrum given over to community radio. Digital radio is to be illiberally and outrageously foisted upon us; and we are told by lying ministers and digital propagandists that it is for our own benefit. We have never been asked if we want analogue radio to be discontinued; we have merely been told (though many people remain unaware of it). Neither the government nor the BBC (which solidly backs digitisation, for its usual self-aggrandising reasons) has even thought to ask the public whether it wants to be deprived of traditional radio broadcasts. This is an elite project, decided behind closed doors and presented as a fait accompli.

To move to digital-only provision is in the interest of radio manufacturers, the government (which thinks it can get money from auctioning off the FM spectrum) and, perhaps, some broadcasters (mainly the BBC). It is not in the public interest. People do not want it: in a recent poll, 94% expressed themselves happy with the analogue radio service. In an extraordinary report released (pdf) today, the House of Lords Communications Committee accepts most of these points, but then insists that the switchover must go ahead anyway, because not going ahead "would risk turning confusion into an utter shambles." As though avoiding a perceived shambles is preferable to abandoning a process that is manifestly not in the public interest.

The report admits that digital radio is not better than the tried-and-tested analogue technology, notes that most people are happy with FM, acknowledges that up to 100 million sets will have to be thrown out (although the true figure is probably twice that) when they cease to receive the radio stations people bought them to listen to. It also highlights the lack of enthusiasm for digital broadcast shown by the commercial sector, and expresses scepticism that switchover would increase the range of radio stations available to listeners. It notes that "the spectrum which will be released by the majority of stations ceasing to broadcast in analogue has little alternative use or value." Startlingly, it admits that "there is no polling evidence on whether consumers wish to receive national radio services in digital only." Perhaps the question hasn't been asked becauset he answer is too obvious. There is, however, this:

We received written submissions to this inquiry from over 120 members of the public, many of whom are unable to see how a switchover of the national radio channels to digital only would benefit listeners. This included a number who already had bought and listened to digital radios and think that reception, particularly of music channels, is better on FM.

Had they wished, the committee might have used these facts to launch a devastating case against the whole notion of analogue switch-off. Instead, all the report has to offer is a suggestion that elderly and vulnerable people be given help - at considerable public expense, of course - to "upgrade" to DAB. And, perhaps, some sort of scrappage scheme, the cost of which would far exceed what would be required to keep the analogue infrastructure going until the time - if ever - that it dies a natural death. After all, as the report states, "the industry, manufacturers and retailers, will benefit heavily from the new sales generated by digital switchover." Not, however, the consumer.

Oh, and the report also recommends "an early and extensive information campaign to publicise the Government’s digital radio policy, its rationale and its implications for listeners." Don't ask people what they want, just tell them what they're going to get.

The paternalism is startling. The public deserve to "know what is being planned" - not to have any say over what happens. They need "reassurance", not to be listened to. There is a "danger" that there will be opposition to the process of digitisation. If the public don't want the process, then that should be that. It's not a "danger". It's democracy.

The whole report - like earlier contributions to the debate, for example last year's Digital Britain report - constructs the public as a largely passive mass, needing to be informed, and in some cases helped, informed of the great advantages of digital, persuaded to change, sold on the technology, given advice, and of course forced to pay the licence fee - everything except being consulted. Broadcasting is construed as an arrangement between government, the media and equipment manufacturers in which the people are grateful for what they are given. Both as citizens and as consumers they are shown scant regard.

Here's a telling line: "The gradual rate of take-up of digital radio services does not suggest that consumers are enticed by the reception quality, extra functionality or the digital-only content so far available." The obvious conclusion is that the vast majority of people may not want, and do not feel they need, the supposed benefits of digital radio. So why not leave it at that? Why is the fact that people are still buying analogue radios an "unhappy situation" and not a simple product of consumer choice? The only case the report is able to make for continuing with a policy no-one really wants is that "the path to digital has already been taken." It points to the fact that people have "invested" in digital radios. Yet there is no reason why analogue and digital services should not coexist for many years to come.

Digital radio may represent "the future". But that should be a matter for the market, not the government, to decide. When motor cars were invented, the government didn't act to ban horse-drawn carriages. When the telephone was invented, the government didn't phase out the postal service - and if the internet, as looks likely, kills off most physical post that, too, will have happened of its own accord, not in response to a central diktat. There's no good reason to abandon a medium that is efficient, inexpensive, environmentally friendly and popular, in favour of one that is inefficient, costly, damaging to the enviroment, and which no-one wants. None whatever.
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Sunday, 28 March 2010

Advice to Cameron: dump George

Labour strategists think they have identified a secret weapon in their increasingly plausible attempt to cling onto power in the face of political logic: shadow chancellor George Osborne. The Observer reports:

They said there was "strong evidence" from their own focus groups that people regard Osborne as "shrill, immature and lightweight", and that the Tories are already being harmed in the polls because of doubts about their economic policies.

A senior Labour party insider said mocked-up images of Osborne standing outside 11 Downing Street had been tried out on the focus groups and had drawn very negative responses. He claimed: "The intention is not to make it personal, but to make it about policy. When people are asked if they would like this man running their economy, the reactions are very strongly negative."

Of course the intention is to make it personal. And it may well work. The chancellorship is the only post, apart from the premiership itself, where it matters who is slated to occupy it. This is true especially at a time when the state of the national finances dominates everything else. And, frankly, George Osborne is not, and never has been, a plausible candidate for Chancellor of the Exchequer. That is not to disparages his intellect, his analysis of the economic situation or his grasp of policy detail. He has certainly been an effective political tactician - most notably, saving the Conservatives from having to fight an unwinnable election in 2007. If given the chance he might perform the technical aspects of the job competently, even brilliantly, and if so his reputation would grow with time. But the election is almost upon us; there is no time.

The problem is partly to do with his manner and his appearance. In some photographs he resembles a startled otter who's just been slapped in the face with a live salmon. He sounds querulous and weedy. A couple of weeks ago, Caitlin Moran likened him to Hugh Laurie's portrayal of the idiotic Prince of Wales in the third series of Blackadder. "You can imagine early Victorian explorers discovering a Pacific island full of huge, delicious, hapless George Osbornes and clubbing them into extinction in three months flat," she added.

There's no other word for it, he grates. It's not his fault, but he has an eminently punchable quality - like Ed Balls or Tony McNulty on the Labour benches. There's more than a hint of smugness - the most irritating quality in a politician.

There's also the toff factor, of course. Toffery isn't necessarily a turn-off, but there's toff and there's toff. Boris Johnson is gloriously, theatrically, life-affirmingly toffish, Bertie Wooster with brains, utterly lacking in self-consciousness or snobbery. People respond to that. George Osborne doesn't just come across as a toff, but a nerd as well. It's hard to think of a worse combination.

He can't help these things, any more than he can help being under forty. But politics is an unforgiving business, at times screamingly unfair.

Then there are the question marks over his personal judgement - ranging from youthful indiscretions (when he managed to get himself photographed with his arm draped around a call-girl) to the unfortunate business with Oleg Deripaska's yacht. Above all there's his inexperience - not just in fact but in appearance. Gordon Brown's most effective line - the one that saved his premiership - was "this is no time for a novice". However preposterous Brown's claim to economic management may seem over the long term, given the state to which he has reduced the national finances, the recession has not yet hit the country with the hurricane-strength force that was widely predicted. Alistair Darling is dull but reassuring, while the full horror of a Balls chancellorship will not be upon us until it is too late to vote. For the time being, and erroneously, sticking with Labour looks to many crucial voters as the safer option.

If Osborne sounded more convincing and coherent on economic policy then his inexperience might be forgiven. But his performances since the budget have been unimpressive. In a post where (above all now) there is a premium on trustworthiness he just doesn't hack it. He has been unable to explain how Tory policy would differ from Labour's, except that the cuts would come sooner. Hardly a vote winner: "When would you like me to chop your arm off, now or in twelve month's time?" There's a contradiction between Conservative promises to tackle the deficit and their refusal to spell out the detail of where the cuts will fall, and the voters sense it.

The only thing that ought to matter to the Conservatives - including George Osborne himself - is winning the election. The race is so tight that the possibility of an outright Brown victory, with potentially disastrous consequences for us all, can no longer be discounted. If Osborne is the vote-loser that Labour's focus groups are telling them he is then it's politically dangerous to leave him in post. Obviously, his departure for a less high-profile position would look like panic ("Tory campaign in chaos as Cameron ditches top ally"), but the embarrassment would pass within a day or two and would very soon be outweighed by the benefits. And Cameron would have the element of surprise. It would undercut Labour's strategy, leaving them floundering. It would leave Cameron looking like a bold, ruthless, decisive leader. It would be a masterstroke.

But the time to do it is now.
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Friday, 26 March 2010

Pope Benedict XVI: criminal or idiot?

Joseph Ratzinger continues to have his defenders, mainly Damian Thompson, but most people think he's been caught bang to rights in the affair of the American paedophile priest who for a quarter of a century specialised in raping deaf boys.

Thompson quotes the Vatican's own press agency, which he seems to think is the most neutral source of unbiased information on the case. Here's how the Catholic News Service account begins:

The Vatican defended a decision not to laicize [remove from holy orders] a Wisconsin priest who sexually abused deaf children, despite the recommendation of his bishop that he be removed from the priesthood.

The Vatican defended. Not apologised. Not put up its hands and said "We got this one wrong". And there's no personal statement, even of vague regret, from the man who made the decision, against the recommendation of the local bishop (in fact several bishops), to allow the pervert Fr Lawrence Murphy to die in the dignity of his sacerdotal office. No. The Vatican defended "a decision". A stupid, cowardly, indefensible decision, a bad decision made by a man who has a habit of making - this, I think, is the key point - really bad decisions. Ratzinger is an idiot. A highly intelligent, subtle-minded, doctrinally pure idiot, perhaps, but an idiot none the less.

Who but an idiot would have welcomed the Holocaust-denying "bishop" Richard Williamson back into the fold, for example, after the man had gone on TV and said "I believe there were no gas chambers"? Who but an idiot would have found a comfortable Vatican sinecure for Cardinal Bernard Law, who ought to be helping the Boston police with their enquiries? Who but an idiot would have sat on a flight to Africa and started whittering about condoms spreading AIDS? Damian Thompson regularly complains about "liberal" bishops who aren't part of the papal fan club. But why should they give him their undivided support? The man's an idiot. Practically every time he opens his mouth he causes the Catholic church further damage. And then, when he could do some good by offering a humble and personal apology for his stupid mistakes, he stays silent and leaves it to the Vatican press machine to defend him.

Says Damian Thompson:

It drives me crazy that so much energy is being devoted to trying to acquire the papal scalp while certain profoundly compromised bishops and cardinals have managed to slip out of the public eye – and even land plum appointments in Rome.

Plum appointments in Rome, eh? Who, I wonder, is giving them these plum appointments, or at the very least failing to veto them when their names are suggested to him? Yup, that's right, Damian, THE POPE. Benedict XVI isn't the Queen, you know. He doesn't have to sign every scrap of paper placed in front of him. Theoretically, he has almost limitless powers. If he wanted to clear up this mess, he could do so. Given that he had such influence during the days of John Paul II, he could have done so twenty years ago. It matters that he didn't. That's why he deserves everything that is currently being flung at him, and more.

Some more from Thompson's favoured news source:

Vatican officials who spoke on background said the New York Times story was unfair because it ignored the fact that, at the urging of Cardinal Ratzinger himself, new procedures to deal with priest abusers were put in place in 2002, including measures making it easier to laicize them.

“This would be handled differently today, based on jurisprudence and experience,” one Vatican official told Catholic News Service. “But you can’t accuse people of not applying in 1998 a principle that was established in 2002.”

This justification is highly tendentious, self-serving and seems to be intentionally misleading. It was not "at the urging" of Ratzinger, as though he were merely a lobbyist, that the new procedure was adopted. He was the man in charge in 2002, just as he had been for the previous twenty years. The "Vatican official" - almost certainly Mgr Lombardi (the Vatican sharing with Whitehall an anachronistic love of confidential briefings, even when they serve no purpose) - is telling us that a man cannot be blamed for making a decision twenty years too late. The scale of the child abuse scandal was becoming evident long before 1996 when the Murphy case landed on his desk. Of course he can be blamed for it.

Let's be generous to Ratzinger. Let's assume that he's as horrified by the sexual abuse of children by priests as he ought to be. Let's assume that, at least by his own lights, his action in demanding that all cases of abuse be referred to Rome was an honest attempt to treat the problem with the serious it deserved, rather than a way of removing incidents from the prying eyes of local secular authorities. Let's not impute any sinister connotations to the requirement for secrecy, on pain of excommunication, which was demanded from witnesses (including the victims of abuse themselves). Let's accept that delays were the result of insufficiency of resources rather than of a desire to protect the good name of the church or an unwillingness to believe the worst of its clergy. And let's admit that he has, since his election, treated the abuse cases with more seriousness than his lackadaisical predecessor.

It's still not good enough. By centralising the procedure, Ratzinger took personal responsibility for all cases that came across his desk. If he had insufficient resources to do the job properly, he should have acquired them. If this were impossible, if he was unable to find the time or the means to tackle the problem as it deserved to be tackled, then he should not have undertaken the task in the first place - or if he had already undertaken it, he should have admitted publicly that his department was not up to it, and adopted some other procedure, such as the automatic suspension of all accused clergy pending civil investigation. Instead, he continued to act as though his office were the best and most appropriate forum, and in doing so delayed the day of reckoning at the expense of causing additional pain to the victims of child abuse. It was, at the very least, administrative incompetence of the highest order. And that lies at Ratzinger's door, no-one else's.

Here's my guess. As Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, a job that used to carry with it the more resonant title of Grand Inquisitor, Ratzinger had other fish to fry. Although, as the department responsible for clerical discipline, cases concerning paedophile priests came within its purview, they were never the priority. The clue's in the title: what bothered Ratzinger was doctrine. He spent most of his waking hours chasing down theologians who showed signs of independent thought, most notably Hans Küng (now taking his revenge), and removing them from their positions. He earned his nickname of God's Rotweiller for his savaging of doctrinal dissidents, his aggressiveness in defence of orthodoxy and his insistence that people at all levels of the church display unquestioning obedience to his and his master's diktats. He was Darth Vader to John Paul II's Palpatine.

It wasn't that the victims of clerical sex abuse didn't matter at all to Ratzinger. It's that they didn't matter as much as the other stuff, the stamping out of doctrinal deviation, the internal Vatican politics. Ratzinger was, and is, a man of seriously warped priorities. That much was evident in his letter to the Irish clergy, in which he put the blame for the abuse on secularising tendencies in wider society. Arguable, perhaps, if unlikely, but in any case irrelevant and out of place in a document that called for personal as well as corporate contrition. It was, though, vintage Ratzinger.

Richard Dawkins once wrote, in ironic celebration of Pope John Paul II, that he was "perfectly qualified to do it [the Catholic church] the gravest possible damage and is in the strongest strategic position to do so." In comparison with the present pope, however, his predecessor wasn't even trying.
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Thursday, 25 March 2010

Stuck up a tree

File under "health and safety gone mad"?

A five year old boy was stuck in a tree in his school playground, "at least six feet off the ground". Staff did nothing to get him down, but instead followed their policy, which was "to observe the situation from a distance so the child does not get distracted and fall" - according to the headmistress, as quoted by the Daily Mail. The boy remained in the tree for up to half an hour, until he was eventually rescued by local mother Kim Barrett, who just happened to be passing by. Instead of thanking her for coming to the aid of a distressed child, the headmistress accused her of trespassing, banned her from the school grounds for life, and reported her to the local police, who - to Ms Barrett's astonishment - came round to visit her. A PCSO informed her that "she had committed a trespassing offence by helping the young schoolboy down from the tree."

Ms Barrett, for her part, told the reporter that she was angry and upset at being treated like a criminal or a potential paedophile, when she was merely doing what any decent person would have done.

As such stories tend to do, this one struck a chord, attracting more than 600 comments on the Mail's Website. Most were along these lines (from IY in Northhants):

Whilst the school felt that may not have been able to get the child down leaving him up the tree where he may have fallen to his death was not actions of reasonable adult just a bunch of pc brainwashed stooges.

Show me one normal human being who would have not got agitated with the school and their life threaten approach to a children safety and welfare. Most normal people would have more than 'approached the school in an inappropriate way'.

The sending of a plastic pod to caution Miss again confirms that the police have lost complete direction as to there job in society and the Chief Constable owes Miss Barrett an apology.

Yet another example of how far we have sunk under Liebore.

A number of bloggers (notably Julia M) spotted the story too.

The story pricks a number of sensitive points on the body politic. There's the health-and-safety-gone-mad angle, teachers sticking bone-headedly to rules dreamed up by a remote committee in the name of protecting children, even when the effect is to expose a child to danger. There's officialdom's suspicion and disapproval of members of the community acting on their own initiative and with altruistic motives. There's the way in which paranoia about lurking paedophiles has turned schools into day-prisons for children (Barrett had to climb over a locked gate to get to the distressed boy). There's the officious "just-doing-my-job" pseudo police officer following up an absurd complaint. Most enraging of all, perhaps, is the self righteous bureaucratic nannyspeak of the headmistress's attempt to defend the indefensible.

Yes, but is it true? I've been at this game long enough to realise you can't trust newspaper reports of anything, and stories like this tend to get improved in the retelling. The school concerned, the Manor C of E School in Melksham, Wiltshire, has a website, and which offers a markedly different - indeed, utterly irreconcilable - take on the story. In a letter, headmistress Beverley Martin thanks parents for "your many messages of support and your very obvious disbelief", describes the story - based on an incident that occurred three weeks ago - as "untrue", and laments that it has become "more and more sensationalised online".

These are the facts, according to Ms Martin.

1) At 11.05 am, at the end of playtime, the boy "wanted to stay out and ran up to one of the trees". A separate break-time began ten minutes later. In the intervening period, Ms Barrett was "observed ...entering the vehicular gate and turning across the private staff car park rather than walking to reception."

2) The boy was monitored by staff the whole time. (Ms Barrett, by contrast, claims that "when I took him in they had no idea he was missing".)

3) The boy "had been sitting and then swinging on the bottom branch of the tree and was in no way stuck and was not distressed." (This contrasts with Kim Barrett's recollection that the boy was six feet in the air.)

4) When Kim Barrett found the boy, he "was standing on the path, having exited the tree".

5) "The child was reluctant to talk to her and walk with her." (Again, flatly contrary to Barrett's statement.)

6) When challenged by a teacher, Barrett "became verbally aggressive and exited by climbing back over the locked gateway."

The letter concludes with a statement, supposedly from the boy's mother but which reads (to me at least) as though part of it has been dictated by the school:

I am amazed at the gullibility of the press and some of the general public. My child was never stuck in a tree and was very unhappy about a stranger approaching him in his school. I appreciate that the woman may have thought that she was doing the right thing, but there are proper procedures to follow and she shouldn’t walk past classrooms and staff to get at a child. The staff were doing their job and were fully aware that my son was there. They were also aware that a stranger was approaching him. They intercepted her to ensure there was no possibility of my son being removed from the premises. All I can say is thank God the staff behaved in the manner they did. I don’t know what the lady’s intentions were but I am really glad that I didn’t have to wait to find out. I fully support the actions of the school both before the incident and since.

Ms Martin concludes with the words "Please now make up your own minds."

So who do you believe? The boy's mother, of course, was not there at the time; nor, I gather, was the headmistress. If the school's description of the facts is accurate, Kim Barrett's actions seem bizarre, almost inexplicable; yet by all accounts she is a perfectly normal woman of 38 with children of her own. The police, having made their inquiries, did not see the need to take any further action. Neither account is wholly satisfactory. Barrett's claim that the boy had been stuck in the tree for 45 minutes would seem to be an exaggeration: it was more like ten. On the other hand, if the child was not up the tree, but merely sitting on a low-hanging branch which he was able to leave quite easily of his own accord, it has to be wondered why he was allowed to remain there for ten minutes after the end of playtime. The explanation that "he wanted to stay out", if true, says little for the school's approach to discipline or its perception of the importance of lessons.

On balance, I would say that Kim Barrett's account has a greater air of authenticity, though she may well be exaggerating (or, more likely, have misperceived) the danger the boy was in. Clearly she did not have permission to enter the school grounds. But equally clearly her prime concern was the welfare of the child, and her anger at being accused of trespassing is entirely understandable. An intelligent teacher in possession of common sense should have been able to defuse the situation and reassure both Ms Barrett and the boy, and would certainly not have involved the police. But then such a teacher wouldn't have allowed him to sit on his own in a tree while the rest of the school was in class.

In her anxiety to defend the school's policy and deflect unwelcome headlines, Beverley Martin has made a number of increasingly serious allegations against Kim Barrett. She appears unwilling to concede even that the passer-by had good intentions. That is perhaps the most depressing thing of all.
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Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Syphilis - The Facebook Plague?

The newspapers like their Facebook panics. A couple of weeks ago it was Peter Chapman, dubbed the "Facebook killer" because he had befriended his victim via the social networking site. Then the Daily Mail introduced a story about a criminologist who had posed as a teenage girl on a different site altogether to attract the attention of paedophiles with the headline "I posed as a girl of 14 on Facebook". Facebook threatened to sue. The latest story is all about how Facebook gives you syphilis.

According to Professor Peter Kelly, who is director of public health in Teesside, there has been a "fourfold increase" in cases of syphilis. Furthermore, when looking at the statistics he "saw that several of the people had met sexual partners through these sites." Finally, according to the Mail's version of the story, "Research has shown that young people in Sunderland, Durham and Teesside were 25 per cent more likely to log onto social networking sites than those in the rest of Britain." Sunderland, indeed, was described in a recent BBC documentary as "the Facebook capital of Britain."

Put all these facts together and what do you get? The reemergence of the scourge of 19th century artists and courtesans as the new Facebook Plague.

The story doesn't seem to be based on actual research, merely an off-the-cuff observation by Prof. Kelly which appears in a press release from NHS Middlesborough. The statement - headed "Warning as syphilis cases increase" - doesn't mention Facebook by name. All Prof. Kelly actually said was this:

Unprotected sex, especially with casual partners, is the biggest risk for syphilis. Social networking sites are making it easier for people to meet up for casual sex.

Somewhere along the line, someone has spotted a coincidence between the location of Prof. Kelly's office and research about social network usage in various parts of the country and thought, Aha! Facebook=syphilis=great story! But, as is so often the case, the story vanishes if you try to substantiate it. For it to be even potentially valid, at the very least there would have to be a correlation between disease prevalance and use of social networking sites in various parts of the country. So far as I can see, there isn't.

Nowhere can I find any basis for an assumption that syphilis is more prevalent in the North East than in other regions. The national statistics for 2009 show a gradual decrease in syphilis over the past four years from a high in 2005 - the very period during which social networking websites have taken off - and a more dramatic decrease in gonorrhoea since 2001. Set against these there have been large increases in chlamydia and herpes (in part because greater awareness has prompted more people to get themselves tested for sexually transmitted infections). The regional figures are varied. Highest by far is London, with more than ten cases of syphilis per 100,000 of the population and 294 for chlamydia. In the North East the infection rates are, respectively, 3.7 and 225. The North West has higher figures for both conditions, along with lower Facebook use.

So no, Facebook does not cause syphilis. If there is a link between social websites and STDs, it is more likely to be sex-focused dating sites that are to blame. And even there, as Debby Herbenick points out, if social networking makes it easier to find casual partners, it also facilitates the process of warning them afterwards if you find yourself infected - thus potentially reducing the spread of conditions such as syphilis. Furthermore, the internet can "make it easier for public health professionals to track a burgeoning epidemic and stop it before it gets out of hand."

It's just about possible that social networking usage might correlate positively with STD infection, but it wouldn't be the result of people using the Facebook site to arrange sexual encounters with strangers, because by and large they don't. It might be that the same social urge that drives people to seek out random contact with strangers for sex also drives people to seek out random connection with strangers in an online environment. Both might be seen as ways of tackling loneliness, for example. More likely, a higher infection-rate among users of social networking sites would be entirely due to sex-focused sites, which presumably is what Professor Kelly had in mind.

The Facebook link is certainly unwarranted. As the spokesman told the Mail, "Facebook is not the place to meet people for casual sex, it is about connecting and sharing with your existing friends." This however is lost on journalists who seem to imagine that Facebook is somehow synonymous with social networking online.

Chris Dillow wrote a few days ago, apropos Peter Chapman:

Chapman could equally be called the “Ford Mondeo killer” or the “Murderer who killed because of police incompetence.” Why bring Facebook into it? Why not have a moral panic about Ford Mondeos?

It’s because Facebook is relatively new and unfamiliar, at least to trash papers’ target audience. So it’s easier to have a moral panic about it than about Ford Mondeos.

It may also, of course, have something to do with the fact that Facebook use is higher among journalists than among almost any other group. I've no idea what the journalistic incidence of syphilis is, however.
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Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Politicians for hire

It's Sir John Butterfill I felt sorry for. He really wanted that job. He'd brought along his CV and everything. He was delighted to confide how he was "one of the four original people" who had persuaded David Cameron to stand for the Conservative leadership - and, in what he thought must have been the deal-maker, he let slip that he'd been given the nod for a peerage in the next honours list. Of course, he added, you can never be certain about such things. Indeed you can't, John. Indeed you can't.

Then there was Geoff Hoon, who told the girl from the fictional lobbying firm "Anderson Perry" - great name, by the way, even if the website left something to be desired - that he was relishing the opportunity to use his ministerial experience, "bluntly", to make money. He thought (in one of several spectacular revelations in last night's Dispatches documentary that have been overshadowed by the sleaze story) that his skills and contacts would be of especial interest to American firms on the lookout to buy out struggling European defence contractors. None were named, but you got the impression that there were unlikely to be any independent manufacturers of defence equipment left in Europe in a few years' time as governments slashed their budgets. That's potentially a huge story.

Patricia Hewitt's lucid explanation of how big business gets to bend ministerial ears ought really to form part of the new citizenship curriculum. She explained how she used, "cheerfully", to attend corporate jollies in the good old days of Tony Blair - it was a good way of getting to know people - but Gordon rather frowned on that sort of thing. So now you had to be more subtle. A good tip was to sponsor a seminar at some fashionable think-tank, like Demos, and invite a minister along. Having set an appropriately intellectual tone, it should be easy to arrange to be sitting next to the minister at the lunch table. You're paying for it, after all. Sponsoring events at party conferences was also a good wheeze, she explained. She also talked about how useful it was to cultivate special advisers.

Hewitt explained that she might have a couple of days free a month for "something major", if the price was right. By my calculations that would bring her monthly obligations somewhere between a week and ten days. Stephen Byers, who offered to introduce Anderson Perry's clients to his close friend Tony Blair, was even more forthcoming. His boasts about bringing about changes in government regulations at the behest of Tesco, and coming to a murky agreement with Lord Adonis about terminating a rail franchise have caused the most embarrassment to his former colleagues. His defence seems to be that he was lying in what he thought was a job interview. It was certainly a shameless performance, what with his description of himself as a "cab for hire". What particularly intrigued me, though, was his tip that the best time for business to influence planned laws and regulations was during an election campaign, when the politicians were otherwise engaged and civil servants had Whitehall to themselves. The clear implication was that a new government would rubber-stamp almost anything their officials put in front of them.

The politicians caught on camera may have been slightly more careless, or greedy, than their colleagues. The worst was probably Margaret Moran, who has been (so far as her constituents are concerned) on an extended sickie but who seemed full of energy and enthusiasm when she saw pound signs in front of her eyes. But was their behaviour that unusual? Jack Straw, interviewed on this morning's Today programme, didn't seem to think so. While the ex-cabinet ministers had been suspended, he stressed heavily, for bringing the Labour Party into disrepute, their main offence would seem to have been stupidity. They were "suckered into a sting". In other words, they got caught. Had Anderson Perry been what it appeared to be, and actually was in the business of handing out wads of cash to politicians and ex-ministers in exchange for influence over government policy, then everything would have been hunky-dory. After all, no-one, least of all the Labour Party, would have been brought into disrepute.

It's possible to have a smidgen of sympathy for Jack Straw, who's walking a very fine line. On the one hand, he knows perfectly well that the trading of ministerial experience for cash is part of the deal for politicians. The difference between Stephen Byers' money-grubbing and Tony Blair's is merely one of degree: in politics, as in Hollywood, the really big bucks go to a handful of leading players. Byers, Hoon and the rest will soon have done their public service and will have to make their way in the real world. They have connections. Without being able to exploit them, they would probably be unemployable. On the other hand, of course, the public can't be expected to see it that way. We elect, and pay, politicians to serve our interests, not to build up a portfolio of useful contacts for afterwards.

That these retiring MPs fell for Channel 4's sting - and their comments during the covertly filmed interviews - shows that what "Anderson Perry" was offering was neither exceptional nor surprising. The programme demonstrated an age-old truth - not that these particular politicians were corrupt, but that money buys influence. On election day, all voters are equal. At all other times, money talks. It shouldn't take an undercover film crew to bring this home to people. Just look, for example, at the Digital Economy Bill, sections of which owe their entire existence to lobbying by record companies. It could have a devastating impact on Britain's ability to compete in the digital age. The proposal to disconnect households suspected of harbouring illegal downloaders - otherwise known as "teenagers" - sits oddly with Gordon Brown's claims in a speech yesterday about the paramount importance of unfettered access to the internet - not only as a human right, but as the basis of the government-citizen relationship. That's the power of lobbying.

So long as policies, laws and regulations can be formulated behind closed doors, with minimal (and mostly symbolic) public consultation and then whipped through a pliant Parliament, there will be lobbyists looking for politicians and ex-politicians to hire. The system benefits everyone concerned, except the general public, so it's somewhat naive to imagine that tightening up a few rules or offering up as token sacrifices a few politicians who get caught on camera will change much. Last night's Dispatches was compulsive, sometimes hilarious, viewing, but in stressing the venality of their victims the producers missed the real story.

Speaking, as they thought, off the record, Hewitt, Hoon, Byers, Butterfill and the rest offered a rare and candid insight into the way politics actually works in this country (and probably most others). Their descriptions were genuinely enlightening. They were not breaking any rules nor, as they saw it, being corrupt. If their activities seem questionable then it is the system, not these politicians, that has to change.
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Sunday, 21 March 2010

Keeping the Faith in Tony

The Tony Blair Faith Foundation is given a boost this week in the unlikely pages of New Humanist magazine, where long-time Blair acolyte Ruth Turner (you may remember the dawn raid on her home by the Metropolitan Police searching for evidence in the cash-for-peerages affair) lays out the rationale for the organisation. As with Blair's own remarks on the subject, it comes down to the claim that religion has the unique ability to inspire people to socially-useful activities.

According to Turner, by the middle of the century 80% of the world's population will be "people of faith"; this proves, she argues (or, rather, simply assumes) that this demonstrates that religion is "at the very core of life for billions of people, the motive for their behaviour, the thing that gives sense and purpose to their lives." Of course, it proves no such thing. The fact that the majority of the world's population is counted for statistical purposes as belonging to one or another of the "great religions" says nothing about their personal conviction or about the extent to which their religious belief move them to action, socially beneficial or otherwise. It is a great disservice to the complexity of human beings to reduce their behaviour to simple obedience to religious teachings or supernatural beliefs. Yet that is what Blair, and Turner, repeatedly do.

"Religious leaders are given a high level of trust," comments Turner approvingly. Well, you don't need to be Irish (or an Iranian exile) to realise where that can lead.

But here's what struck me about Turner's article. She says a great deal (albeit vague and feel-goody) about "faith", but little or nothing about Tony Blair. Yet the Tony Blair Faith Foundation is at least as much about Tony Blair as it is about Faith. More, probably. There is, after all, no shortage of faith-based initiatives, faith-based charities or faith-based talking-shops in the world today. And, to judge by Turner's hackneyed claim that faith motivates people to act in socially positive ways, the Tony Blair Faith Foundation has so far to discover any original angle on the role of religion in society. What, then, is unique or different about the Tony Blair Faith Foundation? Surely, it is the patronage and insight, the unique networking ability and global prominence of the former Prime Minister. Without Blair, the Tony Blair Faith Foundation would be unknown, unfunded and irrelevant. With Blair, it is known about and discussed throughout the world.

Ruth Turner may like to believe that the good things the TBFF wants to achieve (such as an increase in the supply of mosquito-nets in Africa) are the outcome of the role of faith in giving "sense and direction" to the lives of billions who otherwise would find it impossible to get up in the mornings. But religious faith has nothing to do with it: the money, the support structures and the inspiration are all coming from Tony Blair. It is not faith in God, but faith in Tony Blair that powers the thing - to be specific, the faith Tony Blair has in his own transcendant mission to the world, and the undoubted capacity he has to raise money, principally it must be said for himself, but also for the work of his eponymous Foundation.

This is the fundamental misconception that lies at the centre of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation. Imagine that it was a purely secular organisation with the same broad goals of increasing international understanding and bringing mosquito-nets to the world's poor. Imagine it was like the foundations set up by Bill Clinton, or Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. How different would it actually be? Well, there wouldn't be the pious platitudes about bringing about international harmony through inter-religious dialogue. But that's largely a distraction, at most indulging Blair in his quest for continuing relevance now that his domestic political reputation is in tatters.

For the religious leaders, many possessors of fine beards, who are happy to attend his expenses-paid seminars, BlairFaith merely provides an opportunity to meet their peers and boast to each other about the size of their followings. It may suit Blair's ego to imagine that world peace will result from such encounters, but centuries of conflict have deeper causes than "faith". Religion, ultimately, is not the solution to the Middle East or any of the world's trouble-spots. It isn't even the main problem.

Someone else apparently putting their faith in Tony Blair, if not in his Faith Foundation, is Gordon Brown. We learn today that the Blairster will be the Labour Party's secret weapon during the election campaign. In what is described as a "high risk strategy", Blair will make "a series of carefully timed interventions in the run up to polling day." He's said to be "absolutely up for it." Of course he is - especially given the narrowing in the polls. The last thing he'd want is for a surprise Labour victory to be seen as a personal triumph by Gordon Brown.
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Friday, 19 March 2010

Damian Thompson, the Pope and Panorama

Has Damian Thompson managed to resolve the cognitive dissonance that has been afflicting him ever since the latest round of the ongoing clerical abuse scandal began?

It seems that he has.

Torn between his love for the Pope - who presided for many years over the Vatican department charged with investigating priestly paedophiles, without it seems managing to do much to prevent it - and the horrific facts now emerging not just in Ireland and the USA but throughout the world, Thompsn has fallen back on his old standby. It's not the Pope's fault at all, it seems. Both as Benedict XVI and as Cardinal Ratzinger, he was just about the only person in the entire Catholic hierarchy who cared enough to want to do something about it:

In 2001, he demanded to be sent bishops' files on accused clergy, because he did not believe the cases were being handled with sufficient rigour. He cited a 1962 document which stressed the need for confidentiality. But – and this point is crucial – Ratzinger used his new jurisdiction to act far more harshly against sex abusers than had their useless local bishops. From that point forward, writes John Allen, an American Catholic journalist, "he and his staff seemed driven by a convert's zeal to clean up the mess".

Unfortunately, Thompson continues, Ratzinger is and was such a Nobby No-Mates at the Vatican that his valiant attempts to root out paedophiles were thwarted at every step by a conspiracy of liberal bishops, whose love of trendy liturgical innovations is matched only by their desire to cover up for clerical perverts. Now these cliquish plotters have joined forces with Guardiansta types who don't like the Pope's views on condoms:

Secularists who despise Catholicism are manipulating tragedies to marginalise Catholics and blacken the name of a Pope, Benedict XVI, who has done far more than his predecessor to root out what he calls the "filth" of sexual abuse. Unfortunately for the Pope, his enemies inside the Church, who include members of the College of Cardinals, are happy for him to take the rap. Ratzinger was never "one of the boys", the "magic circle" of bishops who covered for each other, and now he is paying for it. Expect some judicious leaking of scandals to sympathetic journalists just in time for his visit.

"Sympathetic journalists", by the way, is code for Ruth Gledhill of The Times.

This really won't wash. Even Thompson has to admit that in 2001 Ratzinger "defended and enforced" an earlier requirement that evidence be heard in strict secrecy "under pain of excommunication" - something that he describes as "legitimate secrecy". He also accepts that the future Pope "could have been more vigilant" concerning events in the Munich diocese where he was bishop. And if Ratzinger really was driven by a "convert's zeal", why didn't he simply throw open the relevant files for the world to inspect? Even if his own earlier shortcomings were the result of ignorance rather than complicity, it must by that stage have been apparent that the culture of secrecy had allowed the situation to fester.

Thompson at least professes himself "furious" about the dreadful behaviour of the rest of the church hierarchy (almost everyone, that is, apart from his beloved pontiff):

As a journalist working in the Catholic media, I've encountered again and again a level of deceit reminiscent of the flunkeys of a tinpot dictator. Charles Chaput, the current Archbishop of Denver, a lonely campaigner against episcopal back-slapping, has condemned the "clericalism, excessive secrecy, 'happy talk' and spin control" that enabled the establishment to move abusers around parishes like pieces on a Monopoly board.

So on the one hand you have a church hierarchy steeped in a culture of cover-up, in which deference to superiors and a desire to protect the organisation's reputation counted for everything, and the interests of child victims for little or nothing, in which men who lectured the world on morality, compassion and truth lied repeatedly, obstructed criminal investigations and threatened witnesses with eternal damnation if they didn't keep their mouths shut. On the other hand, there's the saintly figure of Joseph Ratzinger, who maintained the policy of secrecy over many years, and has been supreme absolute monarch of the Catholic Church for almost five years, during which time he has been uniquely placed to deal with the scandal, yet has regularly said too little, always too late. Yet we are supposed to believe that none of this has anything to do with the Pope, and it's all the fault of Thompson's Tablet-reading enemies?

Joseph Ratzinger may not have personally constructed the edifice of deceit and legalistic obfuscation over which he now presides - Rome wasn't built in a day, after all - but he is its perfect embodiment.

Here's the transcript of a remarkable episode of Panorama that aired in October 2006. It features an interview with Father Tom Doyle, a canon lawyer described as "once a Vatican high flyer" who "criticised the church's handling of child abuse and was sacked." Speaking of the notorious 1962 document Crimen Sollicitatonis - reaffirmed by Ratzinger as recently as 2001 - Doyle had this to say:

Crimen sollicitationis is indicative of a world-wide policy of absolute secrecy and control of all cases of sexual abuse by the clergy. But what you really have here is an explicit written policy to cover up cases of child sexual abuse by the clergy, to punish those who would call attention to these crimes by churchmen. You've got a written policy that says the Vatican will control these situations, and you also have, I think, clear written evidence of the fact that all they're concerned about is containing and controlling the problem. Nowhere in any of these documents does it say anything about helping the victims. The only thing it does is say that they can impose fear on the victims, and punish the victims, for discussing or disclosing what had happened to them.

This is the policy Damian Thompson defends as "legitimate secrecy".

He also approves Ratzinger's decision to have all allegations investigated at Rome, on the grounds that "he did not believe the cases were being handled with sufficient rigour." Yet this policy merely facilitated the continuing cover-up. Panorama described the move as "a missed opportunity to modernise the church's approach just as its biggest scandal was about to break in America." Here's what Fr Doyle thought in 2006:

There's no policy to help the victims, there's absolutely no policy to help those who are trying to help the victims, and there's an unwritten policy to lie about the existence of the problem. Then, as far as the perpetrators, the priests, when they're discovered, the systemic response has been not to investigate and prosecute, but to move them. ...There's total disregard for the victims, total disregard for the fact that you're gonna have a whole new crop of victims in the next place. Now this is not just in the United States where this is happening. This is all over the world. You see the same pattern and practice no matter what country you go to.

Perhaps the most shocking story in the programme - because the most recent - involved a Brazilian serial child-abuser first accused in 1991 who was still active more than a decade later. He was moved at least 4 times following the first allegation, and continued to abuse in each parish to which he was appointed. He finally ended up in "a tiny, and very impoverished community" - appointed by a bishop well aware that he was facing charges in Sao Paolo - where he befriended and abused a five year old boy. As the reporter points out, this was after Ratzinger's instruction that all allegations of child abuse be sent to the Vatican: "So if it knew about the criminal charges against Father Tarcisio why did it allow him to continue working as a priest in close contact with young children?"

Not much wriggle-room for His Holiness there. Nor for Damian Thompson, for that matter. As the Irish abuse victim turned campaigner Colm O'Gorman put it, this child was raped "at exactly the same time that bishops and the Vatican are giving us excuses for why it happened, and for what they're going to do to put it right." Fr Tarcisio was finally convicted, no thanks to the church, after damning evidence was discovered in his private diary.

What should the Pope have done? Perhaps he could have taken Fr Doyle's advice, given more than three years ago on Panorama:

Cardinal Ratzinger, who now is Pope, could tomorrow get up and say 'here's the policy for throughout the church. Full disclosure to the civil authorities. Absolute isolation and dismissal of any convicted cleric. Complete openness and transparency. Complete openness of all financial situations. Stop all barriers to the legal process. Completely cooperate with the civil authorities everywhere.' He could do that.

He could have. But he didn't. Will he do so now that it's probably too late to save either himself or his church's international standing? Unlikely - though the "pastoral letter" currently winging its way to Irish bishops will presumably be more humble in tone than previous offerings. Will he sell off his palace and the treasures of the Vatican museum to help pay for compensation to the victims? Will he resign? Will he fulfil the ancient prophecy of St Malachy by being the last ever Pope? Probably not.

The abuse cover-up scandal may be making the headlines in the world at large, but Pope Benedict has other, equally important, things to think about. He has, for example, just appointed a high-powered commission - led by Cardinal Camillo Ruini and consisting of "cardinals, bishops, theologians and experts" - to look into the alleged appearances of the Virgin Mary at Medjogorje in the former Yugoslavia. Reuters reports that the commission "will work in a confidential manner and submit the result of its investigation to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith." Another secret committee at the Vatican - great.
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Thursday, 18 March 2010

An experiment in democracy

At the height of the expenses row last year, some were speculating that the end of party politics as we know it was at hand, and that the next election might see an influx of independent, anti-politics politicians. That now seems unlikely (perhaps it always did) but there will almost certainly be more independent candidates than ever before, as well as a wide range of smaller parties with little or no experience of conventional Westminster politics. The potential for the people to destroy the party system and elect an entirely different type of Parliament is there, even if the majority of voters will in the end plump unenthusiastically for one of the usual suspects.

A Parliament consisting only or mainly of unaffiliated MPs is certainly an intriguing prospect. I suspect it would produce far less legislation, and any laws that were passed would be more closely scrutinised. And MPs, being fully answerable to their constituents rather than the party whips, would have to listen much more attentively to what their voters want. On the other hand, with most "independent" candidates you're asking people to vote for a personality, or at most for some nebulous "anti-politics" platform based around appeals to common sense. At least with conventional parties you're voting for a raft of policies set out in the manifesto.

Here's another idea: vote for someone who agrees to consult local voters on every issue that comes before Parliament and act in accordance with their wishes. Denny de la Haye, a 36-year old IT consultant and digital rights activist who also set-up the Police State UK blog last year, intends to stand in Hackney South and Shoreditch at the general election on just such a ticket. His slogan is "get a vote". Vote for him and you can keep on voting. As he explains on his website, launched yesterday:

Direct democracy takes 'one person, one vote' to its ultimate form. For each issue that arises in Parliament, every person in the country should be allowed to vote on that issue.... I think we should be starting to create a direct democracy right now, enabled by the digital technology that is already available to us. That's why, if elected, I promise that I will vote how the people in Hackney South tell me to vote.

For each vote coming up in Parliament, I will put a poll on this website. Every voter living in Hackney South and Shoreditch will have a login for the site, and will be able to vote in the polls using their computer or their mobile phone. Whatever the majority vote is, I will vote that way.

There are, however, three slightly vague exceptions: Denny de la Haye reserves the right to vote against any law which he deems racist, sexist, or otherwise discriminatory; in favour of civil liberties; and in favour of electoral reform.

Intrigued, I contacted Denny and posed a few questions.

Heresiarch: Is this just you or are there others standing at the election on the same or a similar platform?

Denny: So far it's just me. The plan is to build the web service in such a way that other candidates can also use it, if others would like to run on the same platform (they can choose their own exceptions, as long as they're not contrary to the core idea of direct democracy and there aren't too many of them). I have had one enquiry along these lines already, and I hope to get more over the next week or two, but I'm not sure if they'll be for this election or the next.

H: Has this direct democracy idea been with you a long time, or did it occur to you as a sudden epiphany?

D: A long time. I've wanted to be able to vote on issues since before I was old enough to vote. As the 'net has come into increasingly widespread use, its application to the idea is obviously tempting. The idea in its current form has been fairly crystalised for the last few years.

H: Are you funding the election entirely out of your own resources? How much do you anticipate spending on the campaign?

D: I am funding the campaign entirely from donations (there's a Donate button on the website), topped up with my own money where necessary (i.e. if I don't get enough donations for the registration fee). I wasn't kidding when I said I can barely afford my mortgage... I certainly can't afford a political campaign.

H: Realistically, how many votes do you hope to get?

D: I honestly have no idea. I hope the idea resonates with people - there's certainly an groundswell of opinion against party politics at the minute, although I'm not sure if people always realise that's what they're being let down by, or if they just think it's politics in general.

A lot will depend on how much publicity my campaign gets, and how well that filters back down into the people who can and do vote in this area. I suspect a lot of my publicity will be online, which is good for promoting the concept, but not necessarily useful for getting elected.

H: Edmund Burke wrote, "Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgement; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion." Presumably you disagree?

D: Well, he's talking about a representative. My long-term goal is to cut out representatives from the process. I only have my three reservations because I'm still 'responsible' with the current system, and I can't bend my conscience past a certain point on some issues, regardless of the will of the people. If I were rewriting the actual political system, I'd only have one vote of 60 million nation-wide, and I could exercise my reservations on/with that single vote.

H: How do you define the scope of your reservations? An example: if your constituents wanted to vote for a ban on abortion or a return to capital punishment, would you regard these as falling within the excluded area?

D: Those are convenient examples for me, because although those are decisions I would strongly disagree with (very strongly in the case of banning abortion), I would be willing to vote the way I was 'instructed' on them. I can't give an honest answer to 'what is the scope of the reservations', because "it depends". I hope that in the majority of cases where I state (in advance, by the way) that I will be overriding on a given vote, the poll (which will still run) will show strong support for my position anyway.

If there's strong opposition to my position on one of these votes, then I think I have a duty to educate and inform people about what led me to my decision, and I hope I can win them over. If I can't, then I guess they have to vote for someone else with different exceptions at the next election. By then hopefully there will be a range of direct democracy candidates to choose from! ;)

H: Wouldn't your online polls be difficult for people who weren't connected to the internet, thus increasing their exclusion? Would you have any mechanism for compensating for that?

D: My site does briefly mention SMS voting as an option, although it needs more research to flesh out the details. Mobile phone ownership is fairly endemic, so I think that negates a lot of the disenfranchisement argument regarding Internet access. There are also public Internet facilities, for instance in local libraries, but I think the mobile phone route is the key one to explore.

H: Do you think enough people would be interested in the issues to make a direct democracy properly representative, or would the decisions end up being made by relatively small groups of people with a vested interest or particular obsessions?

D: There are two schools of thought on the levels of participation I would get. One is that people are fed up with politics and can't be bothered to vote any more - often expressed with "they're all the same" and "it makes no difference how I vote" - and it's possible that this lack of engagement will persist and will cripple my idea. The other school of thought is that my idea will encourage people to re-engage with politics, because their vote will actually count in quite a visible way, on issues they specifically care about. I have no idea which of these is true, but I think we should find out.

Regarding special interest groups swamping the polls... I think to a large extent my answer here is 'the people who care enough to vote, should get their voice heard'. If people feel strongly against something a special interest group is pushing, they should vote too, not try to remove the vote from the special interest group.

In general, this is all based on a belief that education and information are the way to achieve good decisions in a democracy, rather than disenfranchising anyone you don't trust to make the right decision.

H: Of the major parties, which comes closest to expressing your general philosophy?

D: Does the Pirate Party UK count as a major party? :) If not, then I guess I'd have to say the Liberal Democrats, in honour of their Freedom Bill - even if their Lords did commit some shocking errors in respect of the Digital Economy Bill.

So, is this a runner? The general view about people in Britain is that they aren't particularly interested in politics and are quite happy to be left alone by politicians for the four or five years between elections. But times have changed. The Internet has freed up debate and information. Demands for greater decision-making power to come into the hands of the people will surely follow. If nothing else, ideas like Denny's demonstrate that the potential for radical change is inherent even in the unreformed Westminster system.
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Wednesday, 17 March 2010

When Green isn't good

Going green is bad for your moral health. It says so in the Guardian, so it must be true. Perfectly decent people - charitable, kind to their neighbours, honest as the day is long - walk into Sainsbury's and find a pack of organic vegetables calling to them like the fruit in Christina Rossetti's Goblin Market "Come buy! Come buy!" And the moment they place it in their basket they are transformed into monsters of selfishness and depravity. Science proves it.

The science comes from Toronto, where researchers Nina Mazar and Chen-Bo Zhong invited subjects to mock-buy eco-friendly and non eco-friendly products. Those who bought the environmentally-approved stuff later proved to be up to six times more likely to cheat and steal in an unrelated moral task to do with sharing money. By contrast, those who had been "exposed to" environmental messages, but hadn't had the opportunity to put their eco-thoughts into operation by purchasing something green, exhibited greater moral behaviour in the later task.

These findings were in line with the psychologists' prediction about the "halo effect" of green products and messages. Because environmentalism is generally seen as good and virtuous, hearing a green message will instil in many people a subconscious desire to do good, rather as hearing a sermon might have done in ages past. Indeed, the researchers claim that "people tend to be strongly motivated to engage in pro-social and ethical behaviors if their moral self is threatened by a recent transgression." If they feel guilty, in other words.

Environmentalists know how to target people's guilt feelings about the harm they might be doing to the planet by going on holiday or leaving the TV in standby. But once you've actually gone out and spent your green pound, you're likely feel yourself in moral credit with the universe and thus, perversely, have "permission" to go out and do something moderately wicked. Whereas if you haven't slaked your thirst for do-goodery by purchasing some organic carrots, you might do something else virtuous instead.

What this research doesn't prove, whatever James Delingpole might want to believe, is that committed environmentalists (or socialists, for that matter, about whose belief-system a similar halo effect seems to operate, at least in their own minds) are less moral than eco-sceptics, that "all that ostentatious recycling... is all just a cloak of sanctimony used to hide the rancid mass of pullulating vileness beneath." This may well be true, of course; just as self-consciously religious people often exhibit remarkable bigotry towards others and engage in ugly feuds within their own communities. A true eco-sceptic, meanwhile, would be unaffected by the environmental message in the first place, and would not therefore feel especially pleased with themselves after buying organic produce. But they would no doubt have moral triggers of their own. Rather, the research suggests that human beings in general are caught between self-interest and a desire for moral self-worth. On the one hand, they want to think of themselves as "good" people; on the other, they will do badness if think they can live with themselves afterwards.

The study reminds us, as if we didn't know, that environmentalism occupies an exalted moral status in today's society. That, of course, was why the researchers chose the purchase of eco-friendly products as the "moral" act whose effects on subsequent behaviour they could investigate. As they write, "consumer choices not only reflect price and quality preferences but also social and moral values." It's hardly new information. For many years companies have exploited the halo effect by claiming to be environmentally friendly in the belief that it would boost sales.

David Cameron's early environmentalism - "vote blue to go green" - was part of a similar strategy to dispel lingering notions of the Tories as the nasty party. Being "nasty" and being "green" are widely assumed to be incompatible. It might even be - as per the Canadian study - that having put moral credit in the bank by adopting some token green policies they will be able to draw upon it by embarking on tough policies in other areas without incurring the same opprobrium suffered by the Thatcher government in the Eighties.

In former ages, in many countries, religion occupied the place of environmentalism today. Even in modern secular Britain it has retained some of its moral sanctity, in that people claiming to act from religious motives are given licence to indulge immemorial bigotries. But it used to be much stronger. Perhaps the ultimate expression of the paradoxical moral situation revealed in the Canadian study came during the Crusades: knights believed that going to the Holy Land was a meritorious act, and thus that they had moral and religious permission to indulge their desire to kill as many people as possible. Massacres of whole towns were the inevitable consequence.

The concept of moral permission is a troubling one, philosophically, because it implies that the practice of virtue isn't necessarily self-reinforcing, but may be the opposite. Doing good deeds leads to bad deeds; being an "ethical consumer" frees you to be an unethical colleague, partner or friend. It also has more practical consequences. If the environmental situation is as dire as some experts believe, then green consumerism may turn out to be very bad for the environment, in that it diverts moral resources from the big lifestyle-changes that may be necessary towards small, largely symbolic gestures whose main effect is to make shoppers feel warm and self-righteous inside. On the other hand, it's good news for companies that know how to fulfil people's desire to be good little environmentalists with the minimum pain.

Do Green Products Make Us Better People (pdf)
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Tuesday, 16 March 2010

On tour with the Pope

The increasingly discredited, scandal-engulfed head of the Roman Catholic church is coming to Britain in September, and now we know where we can go to boo. The Liturgical Mystery Tour kicks off in Edinburgh, where the Queen will give him the traditional lavish welcome. Her Maj is used to this kind of thing, of course. Previous guests for whom she has laid out the red carpet include Ceaucescu and Mugabe. By comparison, Ratzinger's involvement in covering up decades of child abuse in his native Germany and worldwide might seem fairly minor stuff, though not perhaps for the thousands of traumatised victims.

Then it's off to Glasgow for an open-air mass. The BBC notes that almost 300,000 people turned out to see John Paul II in 1982. But that was before all the scandals, and JP II was noted for his charisma. In Ratzo's case, the main interest will likely focus on his choice of outfit. Incredibly, according to Scotland's Cardinal Keith O'Brien quoted in The Times, the pope will use the trip as an opportunity to "give guidance on the great moral issues of our day." Clearly the spirit of irony is alive and well at the Vatican.

The doddery alleged paedophile-enabler will then shift his attentions down south. In Coventry, he will beatify an obscure Victorian theologian at another open air event. Then it's London's turn. The former Hitler Youth stalwart will "give a major speech to British civil society at Westminster Hall" perhaps, if we're really lucky, lecturing his audience on the evils of contradicting the normal order of things by giving equal rights to gay people. We're also promised "an event focusing on education" which sound rather mystifying. Somehow, though, I doubt it will focus on sex-education, which is something Ratzo might have profited from the last time he sounded off about AIDS.

He'll then meet the Archbishop of Canterbury at Lambeth Palace. How very generous of Rowan Williams to provide tea and biscuits to someone hoping to persuade traditionalist Anglicans to desert the relatively sane C of E for his own scandal-hit church - although The Times reports that he had offered an "uncharacteristically terse welcome" to the visit. Indeed the Archbeard is not generally known for his terseness. Finally, the Pope "will pray with other Church leaders at Westminster Abbey". For forgiveness, I hope.

The announcement comes at an interesting time. In Germany, there are demands - so far unmet - that the Pope publicly denounce and apologise for the cover-ups of clerical sex abuse that took place under his watch as Archbishop of Munich and, later, head of the Vatican department responsible for investigating it. Instead of tackling the problem Ratzinger at the very most did nothing and may well have colluded in the conspiracy of silence. The German revelations join those from many other countries - unusual only in that they appear to implicate the Pope personally. Cranmer thinks it "beyond question that this flood of child sex abuse cases constitute a papal PR disaster of potentially apocalyptic proportions for the Vatican." But then, as the Independent pointed out yesterday, there have been so many other PR disasters over the past few years it's difficult to keep track.

Curiously, the Tour's official website of the makes no mention of any such difficulties, unlike the National Secular Society which describes the government's invitation to the Unholy Father as "a rebuke to all those Britons who are incensed by the horrific revelations that are emerging daily about the Vatican’s activities." They're planning to give Ratzo a very warm welcome.

Christopher Hitchens has written a furious piece in Slate accusing Ratzinger of being "a mediocre Bavarian bureaucrat once tasked with the concealment of the foulest iniquity, whose ineptitude in that job now shows him to us as a man personally and professionally responsible for enabling a filthy wave of crime." For Hitchens, the pope is the man "chiefly responsible for the cover-up" of clerical sex abuse adding - taking his cue from Fr Amorth's tales of Satanic infiltration of the Vatican - that "his whole career has the stench of evil - a clinging and systematic evil that is beyond the power of exorcism to dispel."

Hitchens wrongly attributes to Ratzinger personally phrases written by Vatican lawyers in 1962, which specified that cases involving abuse be heard "in the most secretive way... under penalty of excommunication." There's no doubt, though, that Ratzinger had more than an inkling of what was going on - specifically, the policy of moving abusive clergy to other posts where, as often as not, they carried on abusing. And it isn't denied that as Archbishop of Munich he personally approved a decision to sent one notorious abuser for "therapy" to a religious retreat - rather than involving the police, as might have been more proper in such circumstances. At all stages in his career, Ratzinger has placed protecting the church, its reputation - and even its paedophile ministers - ahead of the interests of the victims or or open investigation of crime.

Damian Thompson claimed to have detected "international fury" in response to a report in The Times about the Ratzinger revelations. There's international fury, all right - but it's aimed squarely in the Pope's direction. No doubt the Pope, and his church, will survive these storms - the former is sackable only by God, the latter has come through worse. Indeed, there have been far worse popes than Ratzinger. Peter de Rosa's Vicars of Christ remains a terrific compendium of historical scandal - though it is more than twenty years old and contains nothing about the abuse scandals. Instead you can read about the likes of John XII, who was elected pope at the age of 16 and proceeded to turn to the Vatican into a giant brothel, Sixtus IV - he of the eponymous Chapel - who was said to have "waded mitre-deep in crime and bloodshed" - or the great Renaissance soap-opera of the Borgias. By the standards of his more questionable predecessors, Ratzinger is almost a saint.

He is, nevertheless, in his obduracy, his hypocrisy, his stubborn attachment to preposterous doctrines a fit symbol of the whole rotten cult. As I have argued before, the scandals currently engulfing the church not only undermine its claim to be a source of moral guidance in the world, they also spring from its self-definition as God's vehicle on earth. If you believe that the church is God's chosen mechanism for salvation, it stands to reason that its good name counts for more than justice, or the law, or the suffering of individuals in its care. Since becoming Pope, Ratzinger has positioned himself as a champion of traditional Catholic teaching - standing against a world that he sees as corrupt and decadent. Yet he has ignored the corruption and decadence of his own church. He may personally be a humble man - as his supporters claim - but his view of the church and his role in it is anything but.

I hope he has a lovely time. After all, he's most unlikely ever to come back.
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