Thursday, 29 September 2011

Unequal in Death

Our good friends the Saudis beheaded a Sudanese man last week for the crime of "sorcery". Abdul al-Fakki's offence, such as it was, was to take money from undercover members of the religious police in exchange for casting a love-spell. His trial and conviction took place as long ago as 2007, but although Amnesty International put out a press release a while ago there was no international campaign to free him. He languished on death row, ignored, for years and news of his gruesome death equally passed without comment from most of the world's major media outlets (though an obscure blogger at the New Statesman gave it a mention).

Meanwhile, yesterday's news that a woman was facing ten strokes of the lash for daring to drive a car in that progressive kingdom quickly became an international cause celebre - to the extent that King Abdullah has intervened to halt the penalty. Good for him, but however deplorable the idea of flogging a woman driver seems to Western sensibilities chopping a man's head off for a wholly imaginary crime is surely somewhat worse.

Al-Fakki, incidentally, would seem to be the first person executed for "sorcery" in Saudi Arabia since a man was beheaded in 2007 for a combination of sorcery, adultery and desecrating a Koran. A woman, Fawza Falih, died last year of ill-health and ill-treatment, still in prison on death row after being convicted of witchcraft on the basis of a probably forced confession. (Judith Weingarten has an excellent account of her case here.)Ali Sibat, a Labenese national whose "crime" seems to have consisted of telling fortunes on satellite TV, came close to being beheaded last year - but his case attracted sufficient international attention for the authorities to be shamed into staying the execution. He remains under sentence of death.

None of these cases have attracted anything like the public interest given to Troy Davis, whose execution last week by the US State of Georgia went ahead despite a last-ditch appeal to the Supreme Court and a worldwide media campaign based on doubts about his guilt. Nor have they attracted anything like the attention now being paid to the case of the Iranian Christian pastor Yousef Nadarkhani. He is facing the death penalty - by the cruel Iranian method of hanging - for apostasy. Not only was he born into a Muslim family, he has publicly proclaimed his new-found faith and he has declined no fewer than four opportunities to recant Christianity.

Extreme religious intolerance of this kind is not limited to Iran. Indeed, it seems to be rarer in Iran than in Saudi Arabia, where the practice of Christianity even by European or American expats is banned, or in our other ally, Pakistan. Death sentences for "apostasy" are vanishingly rare in Iran - the offence, as Nadarkhani's lawyers point out, is not even properly defined in Iranian law. In Pakistan, death sentences for "blasphemy" - often imposed on Christians - are now almost routine. Even if they are very rarely carried out, those accused face mob justice if they are ever released, and politicians who dare to suggest that the crime of blasphemy ought to be revisited tend to be shot.

None of this makes the predicament that Mr Nadarkhani finds himself in anything other than intolerable, or should undermine the campaign to save him. The death penalty for convicted murderers is wrong, but imposing it on members of religious minorities is worse. Freedom of religion and conscience is an inalienable human right. The fact that Nadarkhani could probably save himself by returning to the Islam of his parents serves, if anything, to render the threat of hanging especially cruel. It is of course a choice that has faced many Christians down the centuries: whether to recant and (perhaps) be damned, or to wear the crown of martyrdom. The blood of the martyrs was once the seed of the church. But this is the twenty-first century.

Nevertheless the attention given to this case is striking. It has been the lead item on today's PM on Radio 4, and has attracted vocal support from both politicians and religious leaders, to say nothing of influential bloggers. More than 19,000 emails have so far been sent in protest to the Iranian embassy in London alone. It's a remarkable success for a campaign that only began three days ago, whatever the ultimate result may be. Meanwhile the annual number of executions in China, for all manner of offences, runs into thousands. How many attract any international notice whatever?

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Tuesday, 27 September 2011

How to hand back a prize

The disgraced Independent columnist Johann Hari handed back the Orwell Prize for Journalism he won in 2008. We've known that for some time because he said so himself in what might well turn out to be his last column for the paper. We'll see. The Orwell Prize Council also put out a short statement acknowledging that Hari had returned the prize. Not that they were planning to allow him to keep it, of course.

A fuller statement from the Orwell Prize today has put some flesh on these bare bones. We learn that the committee reached its decision on the basis of one of Hari's prize-winning pieces, an account of women and multiculturalism that was substantially plagiarised from the German magazine Spiegel. That, too, was previously suspected. At least one of his other Orwell submissions has also been the subject of much comment elsewhere as to its reliability, but the facts in that case were somewhat murkier. The multiculturalism piece was a fairly clear-cut example of poor journalism and provided the Orwell committee with an easy way out of their embarrassment.

Hari himself wrote that he had only returned the prize as an act of "contrition" for the errors he made elsewhere, "even though I stand by the articles" which won it. So presumably he still rejects the committee's finding that "the substantial use of unattributed and unacknowledged material" in the offending piece "did not meet the standards expected of Orwell Prize-winning journalism." Not much contrition there.

But what does it mean to say that Johann Hari returned the Prize? Not, we learn today, that he actually returned the £2000 prize money. Instead, he returned a plaque with his name on it. A fine trophy, no doubt, and one that looked splendid on his mantelpiece - but was it in fact "the Prize"? Was it not rather a mere symbol of the Prize? Rather as an A-level certificate is not the same as an A-level, but merely serves as proof that the bearer has successfully passed the exam.

Either the Orwell Prize is rather more esoteric than that - it consists in the prestige of having won it, the fact of one's name appearing in the list of winners, but more particularly in the fact of being the winner - in which case it is impossible physically to return or hand back the prize. Or it's the money. It's probably a bit of both, money and prestige, but on balance I would argue that the Orwell Prize, insomuch as it may be said to have an existence in the corporeal realm, is the money. At the very least, the money is more intrinsic a part of the prize than the plaque, which is as I said a mere momento. The cash is the only element of the prize per se that can actually be handed back.

So Johann Hari hasn't returned the Orwell Prize, has he? He has merely accepted that he will no longer be described as being its winner, which isn't the same thing at all.
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Monday, 26 September 2011

AD/CE: Does it matter how we label a date?

It isn't quite a Marxist plot to destroy civilisation, and to describe it as "dumbing down" is to misuse (dumb down, in fact) a useful phrase. Nevertheless, the decision of part of the BBC (or at any rate, one part of that labyrinthine organisation) to embrace the politically-correct, faith-neutral dating terminology CE/BCE does advance an insidious tendency that should, where possible, be resisted.

Boris Johnson makes the best point:

You should not underestimate the influence of this verdict. What the BBC decides, all kinds of other publishers and broadcasters will decide to follow. Schools will snap into line, and if people protest they will be told that they are following best practice – it's what the BBC does, after all.

Indeed. It was for example the BBC's decision to drop the historic English name for the capital of China, Peking, that led to its almost universal replacement, for no good reason, by Beijing. More recently, the BBC has helped to eradicate Bombay from the English language in favour of Mumbai, again despite long and uncontroversial historical precedent - though in that case there was at least a formal decision by the Indian government that might be said to justify it. If the BBC did consistently adopt BCE/CE instead of the traditional forms BC/AD, the change would probably prove decisive. Who now remembers that "Celsius" used to be called "Centigrade"?

In fact, the BBC isn't exactly ahead of the curve here. Many school textbooks already use BCE/CE, as do many academic and an increasing number of non-academic history books. The issue has become increasingly self-conscious and fraught: it's now common to find a note at the start of a book justifying the author's choice of dating terminology. Indeed, the BBC is sending out mixed messages, on the one hand stressing that the decision over which style to use is left to individual programme makers, on the other putting out a statement that "as the BBC is committed to impartiality it is appropriate that we use terms that do not offend or alienate non-Christians."

The Beeb's confusion mirrors the current state of affairs nationally - and indeed throughout the English-speaking world. BC/AD is still probably normative, if only just. It's overwhelmingly the style used in popular speech (and thus heard most often on the broadcast media, including on the BBC). BCE/CE still sounds, to most ears, either puzzling or affected. To use the newer terms still suggests the self-conscious making of a point. But that is slowly but surely changing. As CE gains ground in universities, in schools, in print and finally in speech - at first disproportionately among younger people and those in positions of influence and power - it will reach a tipping point, after which it will seem entirely natural. Those who continue to use AD and BC will come to be seen as old-fashioned, fogeyish, religious conservatives. They will be the ones who sound as though they are making a point.

Melanie Phillips might today sound paranoid when she claims that the spread of the Common Era is "part of the wider desire to obliterate Christianity in British culture." But she is not paranoid to detect increasing momentum behind the new terminology, or to suspect that, unresisted, it will in time take over. Recent research has found that it only requires ten percent of a population to hold an unshakable belief - where the other ninety percent are not firmly committed - for that belief to spread through the population. Whether or not there are good philosophical or political grounds for replacing "Before Christ" with the more cumbersome "Before the Common Era", the belief that some such change was necessary took hold in sections of academia around thirty years ago and has been progressively spreading ever since. I see no reason for thinking that many people now convinced of the superiority of CE/BCE over AD/BC will ever change their minds.

I don't like the new terms. I find them inharmonious and cumbersome (BCE especially) and the argument that taking an initial standing for "Christ" out of the terminology renders it more neutral and less "offensive" is fairly risible. Especially since the initials can always be glossed as "Christian Era" and "Before the Christian Era" respectively, and any explanation of what the terms mean must necessarily involve mentioning Jesus. I accept that it is illogical to have one term taken from Latin (Anno Domini) and the other from English; AC would make more sense; but such is the legacy of history and as a linguistic conservative I revel in such anomalies as I revel in the absurdities of English spelling.

Above all, I never enjoy watching the triumph of smug people who believe themselves to be the embodiment of liberalism and progressive modernity.

So I find myself on the barricades alongside the Mayor of London, Melanie Phillips and James Delingpole in a no-doubt doomed defence of our traditional chronological initials. The loss of BC and AD won't change the world; nor will their supercession by BCE and CE end the dominion of dead white European males over Western culture or even mark more than a staging post in the decline of Christianity. But it will, in a small way, make our culture duller, more bureaucratic and more utilitarian.

As for the BBC, though, I wonder why they're taking so long to roll out the change. One expects more from a bastion of political correctness.
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Thursday, 22 September 2011

Julian Assange hoist with his own petard

Julian Assange: now there's a man who doesn't like the taste of his own medicine:

I have learned today through an article in The Independent that my publisher, Canongate, has secretly distributed an unauthorised 70,000 word first draft of what was going to be my autobiography.

Shocking. But I was under the impression that Julian Assange was all in favour of unauthorised materials being secretly distributed. Isn't that what he has built his global celebrity on doing?

I own the copyright of the manuscript, which was written by Andrew O’Hagan. By publishing this draft against my wishes Canongate has acted in breach of contract, in breach of confidence, in breach of my creative rights and in breach of personal assurances... This book was meant to be about my life’s struggle for justice through access to knowledge. It has turned into something else. The events surrounding its unauthorised publication by Canongate are not about freedom of information — they are about old-fashioned opportunism and duplicity—screwing people over to make a buck.

Canongate's case is that Assange failed to deliver further installments of the manuscript as promised, or edit what had already been sent in to his satisfaction; and was unable to return the advance which has (predictably enough) all gone to pay his lawyers. But to be fair, if the extract in today's Independent is at all representative, it is at least partly about "screwing people". Two people in particular. According to Assange's - authorised? unauthorised? disauthorised? - account, the sexual encounters at the centre of the Swedish extradition proceedings that his is still fighting were acts of simple courtesy on his part:

I was supposed to be staying at the flat of a political worker called A——, who was away from her apartment. I went there, and after a few days she returned early. Ms A—— was a political spokesperson for the party and was involved in the arrangements to bring me over. I had no reason not to trust her, and no reason, when she pointed out that there was only one bed and would I be cool sleeping with her, to believe that this was naught but a friendly suggestion. I said yes, anyhow, and we went to bed together that night.

(I must say, in passing, that on this evidence Andrew O'Hagan's prose style is one of those, like Jeffrey Archer's, that depends for its excellence on repeated re-writes. The double-negative in the penultimate sentence is particularly excruciating.)

Assange suspects that he was set up in a honey-trap operation by a vengeful US government. He points to this peculiar experience as, in retrospect, perhaps significant and certainly rather sinister:

One evening... I went to dinner with a few friends and their associates. The Swedish journalist Donald Böstrom, a friend and very experienced news man of about 50 was there, along with another Swedish journalist and an American investigative journalist and his girlfriend. The American had possibly murky connections, but the girl was nice, and I was chatting her up with Donald frowning across from me. Donald later said I should watch what I was doing: he said the threat of a "honeytrap" was high at that moment, and I remember he went into detail about how Mossad had captured Vanunu. I guess I must have been up for affection, to put it coyly, because I didn't think very seriously about what Donald was saying.

Sorry. Let's read that again. Julian Assange was at a dinner party, and there was an American journalist there with his girlfriend, and he starts openly chatting up the girl, at which point his friend worries that it might be a honey-trap. Not just socially a bit naff. Was this a swingers' party or something? Read the rest of this article

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Troy Davis, capital punishment and Justice Scalia

If Troy Davis is executed in Georgia tonight for a murder that many people believe he didn't commit, one person who will be feeling quietly vindicated is Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. When the Court decided, in 2009, to refer the case back to a federal district court for further consideration, Scalia was blistering, almost contemptuous, in his dissent.

The case was worthless, he argued. The federal courts were powerless to intervene, and even if they did the decision that Davis deserved to die was unlikely to be reversed. The original trial was "untainted by constitutional defect." The facts had been reviewed exhaustively - and "every judicial and executive body that has examined the petitioner's stale claim of innocence has been unpersuaded." His claim was "a sure loser", and by granting him a stay of execution the Supreme Court was embarking on "a fool's errand". The only outcome would be unnecessary further delay to the execution of the state's "lawful criminal judgment".

And thus it has proved.

Scalia's dissenting opinion (pdf here) caused a stir at the time both for its unrepetentent tone (typical of the man) and for its implicit assumption of Davis's guilt. It was scathing about the "allegedly new" evidence that his lawyers had put forward in an effort to establish his innocence (or "innocence", to use Scalia's scare quotes). One passage in particular infuriated people who can imagine few greater legal outrages than the deliberate execution of an innocent man:

This Court has never held that the Constitution forbids the execution of a convicted defendant who has had a full and fair trial but is later able to convince a habeas court that he is "actually" innocent. Quite to the contrary, we have repeatedly left that question unresolved, while expressing considerable doubt that any claim based on alleged “actual innocence” is constitutionally cognizable.

That's right. It's not unconstitutional to execute an innocent man. It's just, well, not very nice. What matters constitutionally is procedural correctness, adherence to law and precedent, that the process of justice be fair and open and conducted according to clear principles. And if it leads sometimes to an anomalous result, such as the death of an innocent man, too bad. It's better than anarchy, or the uncertainty that would arrise if judges started making decisions based on personal feeling or what they had for breakfast.

Scalia's remarks shocked many, including some of his fellow justices, but it probably represented an accurate statement of the law. The (self-)celebrated Alan Dershowitz took the words to their logical conclusion:

If a defendant were convicted, after a constitutionally unflawed trial, of murdering his wife, and then came to the Supreme Court with his very much alive wife at his side, and sought a new trial based on newly discovered evidence (namely that his wife was alive), these two justices would tell him, in effect: "Look, your wife may be alive as a matter of fact, but as a matter of constitutional law, she's dead, and as for you, Mr. Innocent Defendant, you're dead, too, since there is no constitutional right not to be executed merely because you're innocent.

In the real world, such a Kafkaesque denouement is most unlikely (one hopes). But the modern annals of capital punishment in the United States yield cases almost as striking. Take Jesse Dewayne Jacobs, who was put to death in Texas in 1995 even though his innocence widely acknowledged to the extent that another person had subsequently been convicted for the same murder. The victim was killed by a single bullet which they couldn't both have fired.

As recently as last week, Steven Woods was executed (also in Texas) for a double murder which someone else committed. Under Texas law, it is sufficient that he was present at the scene of the crime. Somewhat surprisingly, his co-accused, who confessed to the killings, is serving life imprisonment. "You're not about to witness an execution. You are about to witness a murder," Woods said before he was injected.

These are both troubling cases, though they received far less international publicity than Troy Davis's. As regards Davis himself, the evidence that he shot a police officer is circumstantial at best. Most of the witnesses at the trial have retracted their testimony, some claiming duress, and there is evidence pointing to another man - who originally fingered Davis as the killer - as being the true culprit. At the very least, there would seem to be reasonable doubt as to Davis's guilt, however clear-cut it may have seemed at the time of the original trial.

I find it impossible to separate the case for clemency in this one case from the argument against capital punishment in principle. Once you start arguing that Troy Davis should not be executed because of doubts about his guilt, you are implicitly accepting the state's right to take life under any circumstances. And if you conceed such a right, then you have to accept that the final decision will always be made by human beings, that human beings are fallible, and that therefore mistakes might be made. Mistakes are always a possibility. And capital punishment is irreversible. One of the strongest arguments against the death penalty has always been that mistakes can never be corrected.

The New York Times described the final decison of Georgia's Parole Board to refuse clemency as "a grievous wrong" and "a tragic miscarriage of justice". And so it is. But I don't find it plausible that members of the Parole Board, or of the appeal courts that heard Davis's many pleas for a retrial, actually want to execute an innocent man on purely procedural grounds. They at least must be fairly satisfied that he is guilty.

In any system of laws, someone has to make the imponderable decision as to whether to set aside a conviction or to exercise the prerogative of mercy. And it cannot be the New York Times, or the Guardian, or Amnesty International, or Desmond Tutu, or even the Pope. And it cannot be made on the basis of how many signatures a condemned man has been able to collect on his behalf, how many news bulletins have been devoted to the case, or how many tee-shirt wearing protesters come out to demand a that the decision of the courts be overturned.

Justice demands that such decisions are made by impartial, independent, contemplative individuals, acting honestly on society's behalf, able to take full and dispassionate account of all the facts. Sometimes, their conclusions will not meet with universal approval. But the law must be allowed to take its course. And if the result is outrageous, the only remedy is to change the law.

To that extent at least, Justice Scalia was right.

In the United States, from time to time they execute an innocent man to encourage the others.
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Monday, 12 September 2011

Tart and Vickers

The story of George Osborne, the exotic escort and the white powder has been hidden in plain sight for almost a decade now, ever since his mate Andy Coulson splashed it in the News of the World. Libel fears alone can't explain why the tale - complete with what looks to be a highly compromising photograph - didn't become a bigger story at the time, or indeed later as Osborne continued his steady climb up the greasy pole. But the media made little of it, nor did his political opponents, even as Natalie Rowe publicly mulled her memoirs. It remained background noise. Yet it never quite went away.

In 2009, for example, Rowe told the Mirror:

Two of her former clients are in Tory leader David Cameron’s top team today, while the other two are former Tory ministers – one was in the Cabinet. Her £1million memoirs – already snapped up by a major publisher – threaten to send shockwaves through David Cameron’s party ahead of next year’s general election.

They didn't. But they might now.

She says she had repeated sex sessions with them over a year-long period when they paid to be sex slaves. One snorted copious amounts of cocaine during the sessions.

“I had them barking like dogs and begging for mercy,” she said. “Quite often they would take me wholly in their confidence, discussing deep, personal matters about their past and their thoughts on other politicians. Most of them are desperately insecure and at war with their own egos.

It seems that the memoirs are finally coming out. Rowe has given a mildly revealing interview to the Australian media. Panorama is likely to feature the story as part of its ongoing investigation into News International's newsgathering techniques. Is George Osborne's past finally going to catch up with him?

In the interview, Natalie Rowe - escort, dominatrix or "vice madam" according to taste - now claims that George Osborne took cocaine in her company (something he has always denied) and that the two were "more than friends". Guido adds the charming detail that, "during kinky paid-for sex and cocaine sessions" George used the safe word "Louise". That's a VERY strange safe word, even though the then Miss Bagshawe could be pretty scary. Even more embarrassingly, perhaps ("thoughts on other politicians"?) George referred to his then boss William Hague, at that time posing as the scary face of the Tory right, as "insipid", a word Natalie Rowe had to look up.

But still. Osborne was young at the time, fresh-faced and stil nursing the remnants of a hangover from his last Bullingdon knees-up. The more lurid rumours and allegations may turn out to be entirely untrue. And a youthful friendship (even more than friendship - though if Guido's claim that she was charging him £350 a time (in 1994!) is true, it can't have been much more than friendship, and might have been much less) with a young lady who didn't know the meaning of "insipid" and didn't earn her money working for a bank bespeaks an encouraging broadmindedness and tolerance. In the social circles in which he moved, moreover, he would have been very prim and buttoned-up indeed not to indulge in the occasional snort of the white stuff. So probably no biggie.

Obviously the story intersects with larger matters - the phone-hacking enquiry (Natalie Rowe seems to have been among the victims), Andy Coulson's subsequent career in Downing Street, drugs policy, or the question of whether a politician's youthful indiscretions should have any bearing whatever on their subsequent career:

And I said to George jokingly that when you're prime minister one day I'll have all the dirty goods on you. And he laughed and took a big fat line of cocaine.

If George Osborne can - as a fully mature adult - get away with disgracing his great office by using the word "wankers" at an awards ceremony, it's unlikely that the disinterment of something that everyone already knew will scupper him. Rather more disturbing is the information that, even now, "Dave and George basically like laughing at losers" - not an attractive trait at any time and certainly unfortunate at a time when government policy is creating far more losers than winners.

Today's report by Sir John Vickers into the banking industry is, of course, of far greater significance to everyone in the country than whatever George Osborne got up to with other consenting adults as a young man. It has, so far, garnered more headlines. But the combination of sex, drugs and politics is a very strong one, and the soap-opera of politics often turns out to hold greater interest than the serious business of government.

I can't help thinking of Blondie...

Louise, Louise! this story isn't be true
Louise, Louise! the tabloids never knew,
Louise, Louise! the tabloids never knew- ew - ow!

Ah Natalie, it seemed like paradise
When she spanked me, it always felt so nice
I'd shout Louise! when I was black and blue

Those were the days, a line of best cocaine
with Natalie, would get me through the pain
I'd shout Louise, when I was black and blue

But now, Louise! this story can't be true
I'll shout Louise! till I am black and blue,
Louise, Louise! this story should be throu - ou - ow!

She's my nightmare and I'm in hell
Every time I see her picture in the press
When she opens her mouth it's a nightmare
This is not good for my political career

Oh Louise! dooby doo
Please stop this to-do! Louise! dooby doo
It was years ago! Louise! dooby doo
I'm trying to make serious points about the banking industry

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Friday, 9 September 2011

Scarth's law

It's good that Norman Scarth has been released by the Court of Appeal. Prison is no place for an 85-year old war veteran in failing health, or indeed for any 85-year old (except perhaps a serial killer). No obvious public interest was being served by his continued detention - at least, no public interest than would not be better served by keeping him in hospital, which is where he almost certainly belongs.

Scarth had been sentenced to six months for contempt of court after covertly recording a court and verbally abusing a female usher. It seemed harsh punishment, even for a man who - according to the High Court Judge who initially upheld the sentence - has repeatedly "displayed utter contempt for all lawyers and judges". He had already been arrested once this year while taking part in a disruption of Birkenhead county court in March: he was there to support a man who preferred not to pay his council tax and purported to arrest the judge. The incident so rattled the authorities that state privileges were invoked to have illegally filmed footage of the demonstration removed from YouTube. You don't mess with judges. Everyone knows (or ought to know) that.

But what, exactly, is society meant to do with the likes of Norman Scarth? Aggressive, deluded, a compulsive nuisance, a vexatious litigant, a writer of crank letters, a deranged conspiracy theorist, a man who, moreover, has served several years for attacking a bailliff with a chainsaw, Scarth is nevertheless not quite mad enough to be confined permanently to an institution. Though it is unsurprising to learn that he has spent time in psychiatric care. And equally unsurprising to learn that he did not appreciate the NHS's efforts to help him.

Instead, aged 79, weighing 8 stone, with spondulosis, osteo-arthritis & congenital fusion of the spine, in double handcuffs, escorted by three sadistic screws & a 'nurse', I was unlawfully carted off to Newton Lodge Gulag ‘Mental Hospital’, Wakefield, not as a patient (neither needing nor receiving any treatment), but a captive, just as much as Terry Waite, John McCarthy, Brian Keenan in Beirut, Daniel Pearl in Pakistan, Ken Bigley & Margaret Hassan in Iraq. I never expected to be let out alive, but by a miracle it happened, & here I am, still trying to waken the nation to the corruption which is rampant throughout this ruthless, lawless, murderous & merciless ‘1984’ Police State. And STILL under attack from the evil ones!

That, by the way, is a good sample of Scarth's self-dramatizing, self-pitying, paranoid prose, much more of which can be discovered on his blog. Lord Justice Pitchford, ordering his release, noted that Scarth was "an unusual individual in that the nature of his personality disorder means that he is not one of those who is likely to see the error of his ways and, to use technical language, purge his contempt."

Scarth has a long catalogue of complaints against the powers that be, which range from claims that the state stole his savings and rigged an election in which he obtained 66 votes to a bizarre claim that his local library has been taken over by agents of Common Purpose. The underlying theme in his weltanshaung, so far as one can be deduced, is that Britain has been taken over by Nazis, indeed by people "worse than the Nazis". Typical of the evidence he sees of the conspiracy against him is the fact that the Conservative Party failed to adopt him (rather than David Davis) as its candidate in the 2008 Haltemprice and Howden by-election. He stood as an Independent instead.

If Norman Scarth deserves a modicum of sympathy due to his age and mental and physical infirmity, the same cannot be said for his supporters. Some are well-intentioned but gullible people naturally distressed by the sight of an old man being manhandled and banged up - especially one who refuses to appear in public without a row of medals. Even Cranmer has been suckered into backing him, no doubt in his case out of an excess of Christian compassion. But for the most part Scarth's camp encompasses an online lunatic fringe of sociopaths - Madeleine McCann theorists, ranty bloggers, right-wing anarchists, followers of David Icke, proponents of weird constitutional theories, tax-evaders. Claiming to have Norman's interests at heart, they sustain and promote his delusions, presenting a sick man who clearly needs help as a champion of civil rights.

Targeted by corrupt lawyers and judges West Yorkshire Police were sent out to terrorise Norman, who lived under siege for eleven months before riot police illegally forced an entry into his home and brutally assaulted him. The Police maliciously prosecuted Norman for a minor injury to a bailiff. There was no fair trial: there was perjury by officers, judicial obstruction of key defence witnesses and the press were banned. Defamed by the corrupt judge as a ‘dangerous man’ he was sentenced to 10 years. His appeal against conviction was obstructed by the legal establishment, the judiciary, the Court Service and the Prison Service; and then permission to appeal was refused. His lawsuit against West Yorkshire Police has also been obstructed by conspiracy and collusion. Norman’s treatment in a succession of hellhole prisons has been inhumane - savage and brutal. None of it is justifiable. He has borne his incarceration with the dignity, determination and courage that few can match. He is a frail old man who works tirelessly for many long hours, often cooped up in his cell, trying to expose an evil for the sake of ALL OUR FREEDOMS.

Sentimental and misleading tripe.

Scarth is no Walter Wolfgang. Nor is he just a harmless eccentric. And the British prison system, for all its faults (and they are many) does not go out of its way to torture war veterans. Let's get real. Scarth's plight raises questions about how society treats someone who cannot, or will not, conform to the basic decencies of normal behaviour, who threatens officials, who treats every attempt to aid him as evidence of a massive Nazi conspiracy, who is, in short, no less an anti-social menace than a teenage ASBO-wielding vandal. But it is not a national scandal. Just a very sad, and probably unavoidable, tale of mental decline.
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Thursday, 8 September 2011

The best displomatic service in the world

William Hague, speaking today:

Above all, we cannot outsource parts of our foreign policy, for example to the European External Action Service as some have suggested. Indeed the breadth and depth of the FCO is a great asset for our success in the European Union, and along with other European countries’ Foreign Ministries is crucial to our ability to project collective influence. There is not and will never be any substitute for a strong British Diplomatic Service that advances the interests of the United Kingdom. We can never rely on anyone else to do that for us.

Is he taking the piss? Read the rest of this article

Ban on gay blood donations not lifted

"Ban on gay blood donation lifted", claims the headline. Not quite.

For more than twenty years, the UK Blood transfusion service has imposed a lifetime ban on any man who admits to have ever having sexual relations with another man from donating blood. This is on the assumption that gay men are likely to be infected with the AIDS virus, and that even though blood is thoroughly screened before being used in patients, even though the chance of infected blood making it through the screening process is around one in four million, one can never be too careful.

Many campaigners (Peter Tatchell, for example) have always seen this as being hurtful and discriminatory, as well as medically unnecessary. Its effectiveness was also open to question, since research has suggested that, ban or no ban, gay men form a higher proportion of blood donors than the population average. The Sunday Telegraph reported earlier this year that around seven per cent of sexually active gay men are thought to give blood despite the ban. This compares with around 5% of the eligible population.

But no-one ever talks about that. The polite fiction is maintained that because gay men (or, to be strictly accurate, men who have had more than zero same-sex contacts in the course of a lifetime) obey the rules and don't try to donate blood. It's important to note this, however, since it points to more than the widespread flouting of the ban. It also provides independent confirmation that the ban is not needed. (Where are the cases of contaminated blood being passed onto patients as a result of breaches of the rule?)

So, will today's news be a cause for celebration among gay men, who are now allowed to donate blood? I rather doubt it.

Instead of the lifetime ban, it will in future only apply for twelve months. Thus a gay man, or a bisexual man, or a normally heterosexual man who got drunk and curious once upon a time, will be able to give blood provided he hasn't had sex with any other man for over a year.

And what self-respecting gay man would fit into that category? There may be some selfless enough to give up sex just so they can donate blood, but there probably won't be many.

Under the new rules, even a gay man who always uses a condom, and who has been perfectly faithful to his (also 100% faithful) civil partner, for the past ten years, even a gay man who has only ever had sex in his life with one other equally chaste man, is still banned from giving blood if he has been sexually active in the past year. What matters is the fact of sex itself, not whether or not the sex is in any sense risky.

Meanwhile, heterosexual men can screw around as much as they like and still give blood, just so long as long as they refrain from sleeping with prostitutes or intravenous drug addicts.

The new rule, in short, advances neither the cause of patient safety nor of non-discrimination. If anything, it enforces the discrimination by distinguishing for the first time between proper gay men and heterosexuals who once went through a phase (or an "ex-gay" man who sucessfully completed one of those Evangelical conversion courses). In that sense, this new "liberalising" move is about imposing, rather than removing, a true "gay blood ban". But however you look at it, the ban on gay blood donors remains firmly in place.
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A disturbing insight into the mind of Alex Hilton.

The name Alex Hilton may be familiar to you. He was formerly one of Britain's leading left-wing political bloggers, as Recess Monkey and as founder of Labour Home. He was a Labour candidate at the last election and was the target of a famously vexatious libel action brought by Johanna Kaschke, which was eventually struck out. These days he is the public affairs manager for the Anthony Nolan Trust, a leading cancer charity.

Yesterday I used Twitter to draw attention to a recent execution in Iran of three men for "offences against religion", said to involve sodomy. The "offences" seem to have been consensual. The Independent quoted Mahmood Amiry-Moghaddam, a researcher at Iran Human Rights, as saying:

Iranian authorities have previously presented such cases as rape, in order to make the execution more acceptable and to avoid too much international attention, but this time the news is not presented as rape.

The case is a salutary reminder that despite hopeful events elsewhere in the wider Middle East the Islamic Republic of Iran continues to behave with unabashed barbarity.

Graeme Archer, re-Tweeting the story, added the thought that "Meanwhile, Edinburgh students boycott Israel." The parallels aren't exact, but I tend to share his puzzlement at the Left's obsession with the misdoings of Israel - still the only true democracy in the Middle East despite the hopeful events of the Arab Spring - and its continued indulgence of the truly vile regime of Ahmadinejad and the ayatollahs. It's always worthwhile showing up double standards.

The comment brought forth this from Alex Hilton:

That's right. Hilton's interpretation of the complex, miserable and seemingly unresolvable story of the Israel/Palestine question boils down to "race murder" on the part of the Israelis. Race murder. In other words, what the Nazis did to the Jews: a deliberate policy of the extermination of an ethnic group on the basis of its racial character. No mention of politics. No mention of terrorism. No mention of the declared aim of Hamas to remove Israel from the face of the earth. No room for complexity of any kind. "Race murder".

I challenged Hilton on this deplorable sentiment. "Is that an unfair precis of israeli govt's disregard for palestinian life?" he replied lamely. Yes. It is unfair. It is also obscene and ridiculous. You surely do not have to be an uncritical champion of every action of the Israeli security forces to see that. And it's no excuse that Twitter only allows 140 characters in which to express a thought.

Hilton seemed genuinely surprised that anyone might find the characterisation of Israeli policy as "race murder" offensive or unwarranted. Such rancid opinions are perhaps commonplace in his social world, but it's rare to see them expressed so unguardedly. Nor is it necessarily wise for someone who represents the public face of a leading cancer charity, and who (I think) still has ambitions of being a Labour MP. Still, it's good to know sometimes what people really think.
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Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Assurances were given

Britain's cosying up to the Gaddafi regime may have happened under Labour, and Tony Blair, with his "Dear Muammar" and his pseudo-Islamic salutations, may have been a simperingly enthusiastic licker of the Colonel's blood-bespattered posterior, but the shoddy deals now being exposed in Libya bear the unmistakeable stamp of traditional Foreign Office cynicism.

Take, for example, the rendition in 2004, through the good offices of the CIA but with British intelligence making the whole thing possible, of Abdul Hakim Belhaj. Embarrassingly, Abdul Hakim Belhaj turned out years later to be a key figure in the revolt that (with NATO backing) has toppled Gaddafi, but at the time he was just another dissident - someone, moreover, who could be portrayed as having "links" with the wider world of Al Qaeda-style terrorism. He was only ever interested in Libya, but the weird psychology of the War on Terror meant that Gaddafi's enemies for a time became ours. And anyway, he was a pawn in a greater game.

Except of course that - Torture Convention and all that - we're not really supposed to hand people over to foreign governments who are in the business of pulling out their fingernails or electrifying their genitals. It's not just that it's not nice - it also happens to be illegal. But don't worry, there's a way round that little problem:

Assurances were sought and received that the suspect would not be mistreated and ministerial approval at Secretary of State level was received, sources said.

Aha, assurances were sought. So that's all right then. No British complicity in torture at all. Assurances were sought. Assurances were received.

It's enough for Gaddafi's men to have promised they wouldn't torture their detainee, once he "arrived safely" - as MI6's Sir Mark Allen put it in one of his chatty letters to Moussa Koussa. The Libyans wouldn't lie, would they? They wouldn't be in the business of giving "assurances" that turned out to be worthless, not our allies, not our new bestest friend Muammar.

Were the British security services so staggeringly naive that they actually believed these assurances? It's hard to imagine. But that doesn't mean that the assurances were worthless. They were (or so officials would have hoped) legally exculpatory. The seeking of assurances was not a means of exercising pressure on the Libyan government, still less a way of preventing torture from actually taking place. It wasn't even about Abdul Hakim Belhaj and his fate after his "safe arrival" in Tripoli. It was a ritualistic dance - like so much in bureaucratic life - performed for the benefit of the assurance seekers themselves. The aim British authorities in seeking assurances wasn't to prevent torture. It was merely to receive assurances.

This sort of institutionalised cynicism, it may be felt, is defensible if it for the higher good. By the higher good I obviously don't mean the ability of BP - for whom Sir Mark Allen went to work shortly after leaving MI6 - to win juicy oil contracts. Of course not. I mean freedom and democracy, regional stability, persuading the Colonel to give up his WMDs, that sort of thing. As the wise and urbane former ambassador Charles Crawford puts it:

The key thing to understand in all this is that there are only two basic choices available to democracies when it comes to dealing with odious regimes: Isolation, or Engagement. And that both can have perverse consequences, because it is impossible to deal with perverse regimes without some perverse outcomes...

Above all, if you engage with dirty people, how to avoid some of their dirt ending up on you? The promise of Engagement is that it offers the hope of slowly but surely changing things for the better; the danger is that while you are doing that, the key leaders of the regime in fact get far richer and learn how to be oppressive in new, cleverer ways.


...without outside democratic engagement (and the high-level civilisational rewards which rightly flow to the regime for behaving in a less extreme way) the chances of reducing Libyan torture at all (and thereby opening some small new space for opposition trends) are hugely reduced.

What is wrong with this analysis, which draws on so much experience, is so rational and unsentimental and, for want of a better word, plausible? One answer is that it leads, all too often, to embarrassments like the one the British government now finds itself in. Someone that British intelligence knowingly (assurances or no assurances) handed over to Gaddafi's torturers ends up in a position of power and our politicians and diplomats look grubby. The country's interests are damaged as a result.

Revolutions invariably take practitioners of realpolitik by surprised. The more ruthlessly analytical, the more unsentimentally realistic they consider themselves to be, the less they seem able to imagine the overthrow of the brutal dictatorships with which they do their Machiavellian business. Events catch them napping.

On the day that Julius II was elected, Cesare Borgia told me that he had thought of everything that might occur at the death of his father the Pope, and had provided a remedy for all, except that he had never anticipated that, when the death did happen, he himself would be at death's door.

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Friday, 2 September 2011

Bullingdon: the truth

Will David Cameron ever live down his Bullingdon days? He was asked about his misspent youth once more this morning by Evan Davis. His answer, as before, was that "we all do stupid things when we're young". In response Labour put out a prim press-release stating that he "needs to start admitting what he did and start taking responsibility for what he shrugs off as youthful indiscretions." According to the New Statesman's George Eaton, Labour "regards this as legitimate political territory."

What exactly did David Cameron get up to with fellow members of the Bullingdon club?

Jim Pickard of the FT offered a reasonably accurate description of Cameron's most notorious evening with the Buller last month. The closest thing to a contemporary account, however, was provided by Sebastian Shakespeare in an essay collection entitled The Oxford Myth, which came out in 1988 (it was edited by Boris Johnson's sister Rachel, and Boris himself contributed a memorable essay on the inner workings of the Oxford Union which, shall we say, explains quite a lot about his subsequent career).

In the summer of 1987 the members hired a double decker bus and brought with them a case of Bollinger to drink while they toured the town and nearby country lanes. They eventually ended up at a restaurant outside Oxford and the bus waited for them for the duration of the meal, at which there was a lot of sconcing and toasting. On their return they thought it would be amusing to do a round of social calls and they paid a visit to an undergraduate, who lived above a restaurant in St Clement's, intending to trash his room. One member scaled the drainpipe while the others threw some potted shrubs at the door. However, one pot unfortunately went through the restaurant window. The panic-stricken student, holed up in his flat, called the police, who came upon the scene within minutes. Those caught were taken to the cells while two members were later tracked down by sniffer dogs in Merton Rose Garden.

Shakespeare - who went on to be the Evening Standard's Diary editor - also gives details of other Bullingdon parties of that era, events which Cameron may or may not have attended but which Boris Johnson almost certainly did. For example:

Besides the summer events there is also the Buller Brekker. In Easter 1986 it took place in Woodstock at the Bear Hotel where they hired two prostitutes: "we always hire whores". Prostitutes were paid extra money by members who wanted to use them and they were taken off into another room. Otherwise they just sported themselves and challenged individuals, egging them on. "There is not really much point in hiring a prostitute if you consume two bottles of champagne. Also, if you have twelve friends standing around it takes quite an effort of will to go for it."

Shakespeare's source (unnamed, but possibly Ralph Perry-Robinson) doesn't name names but does given the following assessment of the general mood:

The Bullingdon is great fun to be at but if you happen to arrive late you walk in and you notice everyone's lolling around and only uttering vague and intermittent words. When you're drunk everything seems much better and it doesn't matter if there are long patches of torpor and people slumping off chairs. The Bullingdon is something you feel very happy about a year after, but one feels frightful about the morning after.

Not to mention twenty years later when you're lecturing young people about responsibility...
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