Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Mr Goodwin

So Fred Goodwin has "brought the honours system into disrepute". How, exactly? He didn't award himself the knighthood that has today been withdrawn. He merely accepted it. He may well have brought himself into disrepute, by his graceless behaviour as much as by his reckless management of the Royal Bank of Scotland. He certainly brought the banking industry into disrepute, as of course did many others of its leading lights, some of whom still have their knighthoods and other gongs. He is responsible for his behaviour. He is not responsible for the honours system. The only people who may truly be said to have brought the system into disrepute as a result of Goodwin's business dealings are those who recommended and confirmed the award in the first place.

But then it would be hard to argue that the honours system was in particularly good repute even before the former knight ran his bank into ruin.

The Cabinet Office statement makes much of the "scale and severity of the impact" of Goodwin's actions at RBS, above all the £45.5 billion of taxpayers' money that had to be ploughed into the bank. But this was only the flip-side of Goodwin's apparent success in the years of his pomp, when RBS went from being a small regional bank, albeit one with a distinguished history, to being for a time the largest in Britain and one of the largest in the world. Goodwin was a gambler who, like many gamblers on a winning streak, didn't know when to quit and lost everything.

Except, of course, he personally didn't lose all that much; the taxpayer did. That may have been his final, and successful, gamble. The same, though, might be said of the last government which awarded him a knighthood for what looked at the time like unarguable and remarkable "services to banking". Gordon Brown gambled on an unending finance-driven boom, the country lost, and there was no-one to bail-out the bailers-out. So while the Goodwin knighthood in retrospect looks like a mistake, it was part and parcel of the last government's love affair with banking (a delusion largely shared by the Conservative opposition at the time, of course). So again, not Goodwin's fault. He didn't bring the honours system into disrepute. He was merely the most egregious example of its failures, its genuine disreputability.

I'm not arguing that Goodwin deserves to keep his knighthood (or indeed his pension, though no-one is threatening that). But unlike previously dispossessed knights, he is not a criminal or a traitor; he is merely an embarrassment. He just didn't turn out to have been quite so excellent a banker as he was thought to be at the time he was being given the award.

Perhaps we should extend the principle. Make all honours conditional on continued good performance. Shouldn't Sir Ian McKellan have lost his knighthood for his hammy performances in the X-Men films? Or here's an idea: instead of waiting for England to win the World Cup before honouring the manager, why not give him a knighthood in advance and threaten to take it away if we don't win? It would make a nice incentive.

In the middle ages, saints who failed to grant miracles were sometimes ritually humiliated. Their relics were taken out of their shrine, scattered on the floor of the church, and cursed. It was believed that by such means the saint might be encouraged to do better in the future. Or perhaps it just made the community feel better. Goodwin, of course, played the principal part in the collapse of RBS; he was no mere plaster saint. But while the fall of RBS was spectacular, and expensive, it was a symptom of the failure of the financial system as a whole. If not Fred, it would have been someone else.

It is Fred Goodwin's misfortune to have become the symbolic focus of public disgust at bankers, their bonuses and pensions, the damage their financial wizardry did the the world economy, the giant bills and seemingly sempiternal austerity with which they lumbered the rest of us. His personal demeanour contributed to this as much as the size of the RBS catastrophe. Had he surrendered his pension and prostrated himself before the nation as a humble penitent, he might today be leading some banking clean-up commission. He might be well on the way to becoming Lord Goodwin.

Plenty of other leading bankers who managed to keep their heads down during the travails of 2008 have kept their knighthoods and their jobs. They must be grateful to Fred Goodwin tonight for taking the flak on their behalf. In acting, unwillingly no doubt, as a lightning rod for public anger, he has performed his fellow bankers a great service. Worthy of a knighthood, almost.
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Sunday, 29 January 2012

The Age of Atheism, or Alain de Botton's Generation Games

Alain de Botton, who has been busy plugging his new book Religion For Atheists and discussing his plans for building an atheist "temple" in the City of London, has a theory about why atheists of a certain age can be so, so, angry. In an interview with Stuart Jeffries in the Guardian last week, we read:

He connects his father's militant atheism to the affliction that he reckons made [Richard] Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens so caustic in their bestselling attacks on religion. "I've got a generational theory about this. Particularly if you're a man over 55 or so, perhaps something bad happened to you at the hands of religion – you came across a corrupt priest, you were bored at school, your parents forced it down your throat. Few of the younger generation feel that way. By the time I came around – I'm 42 – religion was a joke."

He calls it a theory, but he obviously isn't using the word in a strict scientific sense, rather in the popular sense of "vague, untested notion". And he wouldn't be the first to imagine that a strongly-held view about the world must be the result of some deep personal trauma rather than, say, a rationally arrived at conclusion supported by evidence. De Botton is an atheist, albeit one whose professed aim is to learn from the "good bits" of religion rather than decry the whole thing as ludicrous. But the notion that no-one could possibly reject religion if they hadn't had a bad personal experience of it (for "true" religion is a wonderful thing, something to be cherished) is not infrequently bandied about by the religious when confronted by hardline atheists. It makes for a good security blanket, perhaps.

As it happens, Richard Dawkins' atheism has nothing to do with his bad experiences as a child. As he told Joan Bakewell in a BBC interview in 2004, his early brushes with religion were fairly positive -- except for the fact that, by the age of 16, he had come to the conclusion that God didn't exist. His parents "were orthodox Anglican in the sense that they were both baptised, as was I, but they were not deeply religious.... We used to go to Church every Christmas, but I mean apart from that there wasn't a lot of it about." He was confirmed at school -- a routine procedure. But that doesn't seem to have left him with any lingering resentment.

As for his own religious feelings:

At the age of about 13 when I was being confirmed, I did have a fairly active fantasy life about a relationship with God, and I used to pray and I used to have fantasies about creeping down to the chapel in the middle of the night, and having a sort of blinding vision and things. I don't know really how seriously I took that. It was a fantasy which happened in my head and it's not surprising that it should have happened in my head, because I was at that time being filled with all that sort of stuff in confirmation classes.


While Dawkins has written and talked repeatedly about his distaste for children "being filled with all that sort of stuff" it doesn't seem to have done him any harm.

As for the late Mr Hitchens:

It was not trauma or disillusion that propelled Christopher Hitchens into a life of unbelief. It was Mrs. Jean Watts, who taught nature class at Hitchens' boarding school when he was 9 years old. The pivotal moment, he recalled, occurred when Mrs. Watts explained that God had made the grass and the leaves green as a gift to mankind.

"She says, 'This is an excellent thing and proof of the glory of God, because he could have made vegetation orange or red, something that would clash with our eyes, whereas green is the most restful color for our eyes!' " Hitchens told C-SPAN. "And I sat there in my little corduroy shorts, and I thought, that's absolute nonsense."

Mrs Watts sounds daffy rather than malicious.

And Dawkins certainly doesn't need Alain de Botton's refined postmodernist take on religion to remind him of the beauties of art and architecture. He is a great defender of the King James Bible, for example, writing in The God Delusion that it "includes passages of outstanding literary merit in its own right" and is "a major source book for literary culture." We can, he writes, "retain a sentimental loyalty to the cultural and literary traditions of, say, Judaism, Anglicanism and Islam, and even participate in religious rituals such as marriages and funerals, without buying into the supernatural beliefs that historically went along with those traditions. We can give up belief in God while not losing touch with a treasured heritage."

Sounding oddly like de Botton himself in that last sentence. In fact, that sentiment is a good epitome of the entire de Botton project. Ironic, that.

If there is a generational point to be made here, it is not de Botton's. For men of Dawkins' and Hitchens' vintage, even if they rejected religion, "cultural" Christianity was part of their psychological make-up. Hitchens could quote the Bible as well as any preacher, and delighted in doing so, while Dawkins is much given to lamenting the decline in religious literacy among the younger generation. This atheism is not about rebelling against culture or upbringing, although it may have just a touch of Grumpy Old Men style whinges against the rottenness of the modern world. Just the merest soupçon.

As for the New Atheism being the province of older men; well it just isn't. Dawkins, AC Grayling, Daniel Dennett and some other prominent figures in the "movement" may have grey hair (or in Dennett's case, white), but today's atheist and skeptic movement is predominantly young. As Frank Skinner complained recently to the Archbishop of Canterbury, these days "it’s incredibly cool to be an atheist." And not just for comedians. There was a time when the membership of organisations like the British Humanist Society was drawn largely from the ranks of older men. These days they have a much younger demographic. Gosh, these days there are even girls with an interest in non-theistic ways of looking at the world, though it may be advisable not to get stuck in a lift with one.


So if you want to explain why "aggressive" atheism has suddenly become fashionable, there are better places to look than English boarding schools (or those troubling Irish establishments run by the Christian Brothers) of the 1960s. 9/11 and its aftermath, surely, has much more to do with it. Whatever religion might have been when Alain de Botton was a child, it certainly isn't "a joke" these days.

De Botton is of the generation that entered adulthood between the collapse of communism and the destruction of the World Trade Center; that remembers the tail-end of the Cold War; that was at school at a time when Christianity was no longer being taught seriously but other world faiths were hardly mentioned at all. It's a generation (I belong to it) for which religion was often, literally, a joke, who grew up when religion on the telly meant Thora Hird on Songs of Praise, or Derek Nimmo-style comedy vicars, or Not The Nine O'Clock News spoofing the Life of Brian "blasphemy" row.

And, of course, we're just that little bit too old to be taken in by political correctness. Which isn't to say that many don't talk the jargon with great fluency and apparent conviction. But we haven't really internalised it, just as we'll never be completely at one with our computer screens.

Many in this cohort never thought much about religion at all when they were younger. They didn't need to. It was, on the one hand, something that older people (or those weird members of the Christian Union) did, something both boring and irrelevant that didn't impinge much on their lives. And these days, for some, going to church is a tedious but necessary part of getting your children into a decent school. But on the other, it evokes feelings of nostalgia, not so much for their own childhood, but for the television that was on in the background. If not a joke, then more like Bagpuss: comforting, saggy and a bit loose around the seams.

Younger people, on the other hand, grew up faced with a much starker choice between belief (or exaggerated "respect") and ridicule or angry unbelief. The stakes are higher now, which is why Alain de Botton's Tower of Perspective just sounds silly, pretentious and irrelevant.

That's my "generational theory", anyway.
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Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Nadine Dorries: Still blaming the patriarchy

The Guardian is is puckish mood today, publishing (almost in the style of a Comment is Free piece but without the comments) an extract from Hansard in which Nadine Dorries MP takes on the BBC for being sexist.

Dorries begins with an anecdote about the "shocking" tale she had from an unnamed (but well-known) broadcaster, who said that sexism was rife at the corporation, adding that "should he raise the issue within the BBC, life would be made so difficult for him that the end of his career would be just around the corner." Dorries goes on to point out that many of the Licence Fee payers who compulsorarily fund this alleged behaviour are women.

Dorries' main criticisms are (1) that there are too few female presenters, especially on BBC radio and (2) that middle-aged and older women are particularly discriminated against. On the telly, "it would appear that in the minds of TV bosses, the viewing public only enjoy watching ageing male hosts accompanied by young blonde females." And even if, as with Today, there are women as part of the presenting team, "if the female presenter is away from the presenting team, one can go two whole hours in the morning when listening to the "Today" programme without a single female voice, and have male voices speaking at you throughout all that time."

Which is of course a horrible prospect. Still, there's always Woman's Hour. And sometimes Kirsty Young has a female castaway on Desert Island Discs.

Her evidence for this comes not just from listening to the radio a lot but from a Guardian article by Kira Cochrane, which she describes as "research" (though Cochrane herself admits that it "wasn't a scientific study"). Actually, she doesn't mention the most striking of Cochrane's findings (striking, that is, if you're coming from a Guardianista perspective), which is that off all the media she surveyed the most gender-balanced was the Daily Mail. As Cochrane somewhat grudgingly admits, "whatever the Daily Mail's style and tone, it clearly recognises the commercial importance of its women readers, targets a mass of material at them, and is rewarded as the only daily national, besides the Daily Express, whose female readers currently outnumber male readers."

Nadine Dorries has a similar point of her own, though, which must have caused a bit of wincing at King's Place:

The BBC is seen as the holy grail by the left. I believe that an irrational desire by the left to protect the BBC and not attack it or highlight its faults has allowed the present situation to occur, under the prolonged former governance by Labour. It is a worrying theme that the left irrationally protects what it regards as the issues on its turf, sometimes to the detriment of women.


That's moral blind-spot on the Left doesn't just apply to the BBC, of course. But that would be to digress.

There's a strong personal element in Nadine's critique, and it centres on one ageing male host in particular. While she is "not proud of the fact" that she once described Andrew Neil as an "ageing, overweight, orange toupee-wearing has-been" (though she's not sufficiently ashamed of the fact to avoid mentioning it) she's happy to complain that the ex-Sunday Times editor is "aggressive, abrasive and often rude" - and, moreover, "massively turns women off". He accuses him of only having Diane Abbott on his show to use her as a punchbag. She recalls her own run-in with him:

I ran over to College green and did a little piece to camera and gave a quick quote on David Cameron's election campaign. Mr Neil thought I could not hear him as I finished, but I still had the earpiece in, and heard him say, "Well, she looked tired and out of breath there didn't she?" Would he have said that about a male politician who had run over to College green to do that piece? No. It was another sexist, negative Mr Andrew Neil pearler, saved just for the women politicians.


She speculates that the sight of male political journalists making sexist comments about female politicians will put women off entering politics: "Why would any woman want to join us in this place when that is how they are regarded and spoken about?"

This is all vintage Nadine. It also confirms what I've long thought about her, which is that she is essentially a feminist. She uses not just the language and assumptions of feminism in her public utterances, but also (perhaps especially) its basic emotional propulsion, which is its sense of grievance. Rightly or wrongly, but either way like a classic old-style, Guardian feminist, she sees sexism everywhere, she interprets the basic operating system of the world as men taking advantage of women. She blames the patriarchy.

Hence, of course, her passionate belief that girls should be taught to withstand the pressure coming at them from the media, from their peers, but above all from boys and Say No To Sex:

It's girls who get pregnant, girls who lose their education, girls who are left to bring up a child on benefits, girls who reach old age in poverty, girls who are subjected to a string of guesting fathers as they throw in the towel in a life of welfare misery, girls who seek abortion, girls who suffer the consequences of abortion, girls who are subjected to the increased medical risks of giving birth at a young age, girls who have little control over condom use, girls who are pressurised, girls who are targeted by lad mag marketing, it's seven year old girls Primark made alluring padded bikinis for, girls who are targeted by paedophiles...


It's something of an irony that Nadine Dorries gets so much flak from feminists on the Left, who typically accuse her of being some sort of misogynist. I would say something about Caliban raging at his reflection, but I suppose that, too, would be sexist. Or something.
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Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Presidential election: bored already

It occurs to me that I have next-to-no interest in the forthcoming American presidential election. Perhaps it's just me, but I don't think so. The coverage so far has been notable for its going-through-the-motions quality. Synthetic arguments and desperate hyping-up of no-hopers have so far failed to inject passion or suspense into the race for the White House. The United States stands at a crossroads both economically and geopolitically; the issues involved are stark, the prospect darker than at any time since World War II. Who will be the next incumbent of the Oval Office ought to be a matter of pressing concern. I find myself yawning.

You might say it's early days yet, given that the final vote won't take place till November. But this time four years ago I was hooked. Partly it was the fascinating and then unresolved struggle on the Democratic side between Obama and Hillary Clinton. Partly it was a sense of an era closing and a genuinely new and exciting phase in US history beginning. Partly - though this came later - it was the explosion onto the world stage of the scintillating, freakish, incomprehensible Sarah Palin (whom I originally quite liked). But above all, I think, it was the sense that all this mattered.

Where are we today? Barack Obama will be the Democrat nominee, and he will probably (but not definitely, not even almost certainly) keep his job. But he's no longer the fresh, inspirational, world-changing icon that he was four years ago. It was apparent even then that he had been oversold, that it was unlikely that his performance in office would remake the map of the world. Yet it was hard not to be swept up in some of the excitement. His emergence and slow-motion destruction of the natural front-runner was awesome to behold. And there was, besides, the ongoing soap-opera of The Clintons to enjoy.

Similarly, on the Republican side there was some enjoyment to be had from not knowing which of the middle-aged white men would ultimately triumph. Even then, the early picking-off of the Revivalist loonies robbed the race of much of its colour. But for a time Rudi Giuliani looked to have the potential to be an exciting candidate, and the long tussle between John McCain and Mitt Romney for the chance to be on the losing side provided a rare spectacle of the victory of substance over money. This time, the fight was over before it really began. Sarah Palin's less-inspiring doppelganger Michele Bachmann provided some early frights, as did the (for a while) scarily plausible Rick Perry. But it's still January, and we know it will be Romney - a man who, aside from his adherence to the wacky religion of Mormonism, offers no interest whatever.

So we're left with a months-long war of attrition between the newly-boring Barack Obama and the always-boring Mitt Romney, for a job that doesn't seem to matter as much as it once did. Stand by for the most boring set of debates ever.
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Monday, 16 January 2012

No end in sight to unfair extradition rules

A few days after a student was told he faced extradition to the United States for alleged copyright violation committed in his own front room, which the British authorities show no inclination to prosecute and which may well not even amount to crimes under UK law, it is reported that the Coalition is about to abandon its longstanding promise to reform the system.

Despite strong backbench feeling on all sides (as evidenced in the debate organised by Conservative MP Dominic Raab) and despite her own previous public position, Home Secretary Theresa May is, it is reported, about to rule out any change in the extradition arrangements with the United States or with other EU countries. Instead, she is set to follow the conclusions of a report produced late last year by the senior judge Sir Scott Baker, who decided that everything in the world of extradition was absolutely fine. This should be massively disappointing to anyone who cares about justice.

In a sense, May's hands are tied because of the prevalent (but absurd) political doctrine that once you set up an "independent" inquiry into something you have to do whatever the inquiry recommends - or, at least, that it's politically dangerous to go against the suggestions of the inquiry, even when (as here) the inquiry's recommendations are abysmal. Indeed, the Evening Standard notes that "ministers acknowledge that they will have to take a few hits politically because of the decision, but that they feel bound to accept the former judge's verdict because of the detailed way in which he conducted his analysis of the law."

It would have been popular as well as principled to have introduced new safeguards for British citizens sought by foreign courts. I suspect it would have better reflected her own private views - to say nothing of Lib Dem colleagues such as Nick Clegg. But policy-making in this area as in others has largely been contracted out to "experts", and Baker has spoken. The manifold injustices of the extradition process will remain uncorrected.

A lot of the commentary - and indeed the criticism - surrounding cases such as that of Gary Mckinnon, the "NatWest Three" and now Sheffield student Richard O'Dwyer has missed the point, concentrating on the allegedly unequal nature of the 2003 Extradition Act. There certainly is inequality: British authorities seeking extradition from the USA have to show that they have a prima facie case; US authorities have merely to show British courts that they have correctly identified a suspect. But as the Baker report demonstrated, while formally unequal the rules have relatively little practical impact (though I do wonder what would have happened to Lotfi Raissi). Certainly, several defendants have been able to spin out the legal process in the UK for many years, even under the current regime.

No, the problem with the extradition arrangements between Britain and the USA is not that they are "unequal". If they are unequal, it is merely because Americans enjoy certain constitutional safeguards that we lack; that it good news for Americans, but it does not constitute some sort of dastardly US plot for world domination. Worse, excessive concentration on the "unequal" nature of the treaty with the USA distracts attention from the problems with the European Arrest Warrant, under which a British citizen can be hauled off to any other EU country with even less formality, and fewer safeguards, than if they're being sought by the USA. Sometimes for very minor offences. Take Tracey Molamphy, who spent two weeks in a German prison cell because of a minor incident that had occurred twelve years previously in Portugal. The EAW system is not "unequal", but it is illiberal, arbitrary and dangerous - and the number of people affected is much greater.

Sir Scott Baker's lamentable report (all 400 pages of which can be read here) failed to see what was wrong with either system, perhaps because he was asking himself the wrong questions. On the arrangements with the USA, Baker concluded that there is no significant difference between the US "probable cause" test for arrest and the UK's "reasonable suspicion" test, and that it was not significantly more difficult to extradite someone from the USA to the UK than vice versa. All of which may be true. But these are purely procedural points.

Baker took no account of the aggressive way in which the US authorities seek to exercise extraterritorial jurisdiction, for example in seeking the extradition to face trial of people who have never set foot in the United States. Nor did he recognise the huge difference between standing trial in your own country, with full access to such things as bail, financial support and family, and being hauled off to a foreign land, there to be treated as a fugitive from justice. To someone who may in fact be not guilty, the trauma and life disruption that will inevitably result from such an experience cannot be wiped away by an acquittal. Even where guilt is clear, the process of extradition is often in itself wholly disproportionate to the offence. Nor should it be forgotten that the sentences imposed by US courts, and the prison regime itself, are often much tougher than those in the UK.

Baker even rejected the straightforward amendment of a "forum bar", under which cases would if possible be tried in the UK. He did so apparently on the basis that it would "create delay". For the report, it didn't much matter where a case was tried, so long as the end result (acquittal or conviction) was likely to be the same. And I suppose that as a piece of abstract legal reasoning that might be so. Once again, however, the conclusion completely ignores the massive difference between the two situations from the point of view of the accused. Astonishingly, Baker even suggested that prosecutors were "far better equipped" to make the decision as to the appropriate forum than a neutral court. The lack of imagination, of empathy, of basic decency on show in this chilling report beggars belief.

The judge was much impressed by "the public interest that lies in having and operating effective extradition procedures", but seemed wholly unmoved by the human cost of such streamlined administrative processes on individuals and families caught up in them. Nor did he seem to care about the violence to the rule of law and to basic civil rights that inevitably follows. But in any civilised legal system the rights of individuals must outweigh the convenience of the system. Humanity matters more than efficiency. It is absurd and outrageous that basic and sometimes ancient protections (such as the right to know the evidence against you, the right of habeas corpus and to bail) are set aside when the word "extradition" is invoked.

It's simply not good enough for government ministers, Tory and Lib Dem, who for years have made valid and well-informed criticisms of both the US/UK treaty and the EAW, now to hide behind the drily legalistic and illiberal conclusions of Sir Scott Baker. Politicians, and lawyers, need to appreciate that extradition is a serious matter. The basic rights of citizens should not be so lightly or casually tossed aside.
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Friday, 13 January 2012

UCL atheists face down censorship

UCL's Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society seems to have won its tussle with the student union over its "right" to use an image taken from the popular "Jesus and Mo" cartoon strip.

The union had demanded that the image be taken down, following a "number of complaints" from Muslims suggesting that the image was offensive to their sensibilities. There's no mention, incidentally, of any complaints coming from Christians, although the image of Jesus in the cartoon is every bit as satirical and thus potentially "offensive" as that of Mohammed.

(Of course, some Muslims object to the depiction of Mohammed at all, even by non-Muslims, but that is an entirely bogus argument. Muslims may make a point of principle and theology of not depicting their prophet, but such a principle cannot apply, or even have any meaning, to those who do not adhere to the religion.)

A post on the ASHS Facebook page thanks supporters, including Richard Dawkins and New Humanist magazine, and states the following:

We can now tell you that the University College London Union has recognized that mistakes were made and that the initial correspondence with our society was flawed. The Union is to review its stance on such matters and has said that this will not happen again. They can no longer call on us to withdraw the image. We welcome these developments, which set an important precedent for other universities. We also feel it appropriate to recognize the swift response of the Union, which certainly helped us reach this positive conclusion.

It is astonishing, or should be, that the right of people to be mildly satirical about sacred figures should even be in question in this day and age. No doubt UCLU thought it was being sensitive, inclusive and progressively liberal in demanding the atheist society remove the cartoon. But it was not. It was the action of illiberal bullies.

Incidentally, Jesus and Mo have their own unique take on the row, here.

And it's not over yet. Apparently, UCLU are still threatening the humanists with disciplinary action on the basis that the image might "constitute an act of bullying, prejudice, harassment or discrimination." This "could lead to the forced resignation of committee members, or disaffiliation from the Union." However, "in light of our now constructive relationship with the Union, such an event seems unlikely." Well, let's hope so.

The important message to take home from this case is that knee-jerk censorship in response to claims of religious "offence", whether genuine or (as here) plainly bogus, can and should be resisted. As Cranmer points out this morning, "it has taken many centuries of religio-political evolution, but liberal democracy has learned to permit expression of the God who laughs... So why are the thought police (aided and abetted by government) collaborating on the ascendancy of a god in whom there is no humour?" Offensiveness, in and of itself, is not something to be scared of.

Any strongly-held belief is likely to be offensive to someone. Avoiding of offence, either in words or images, is impossible in practice and undesirable in theory. People who complain about trivia, whether to the UCLU or to Ofcom or the Advertising Standards Authority, should be told to get over themselves. UCL's Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society deserves to be congratulated. They have proved, not merely that they had nothing to apologise for, but that if you stand up to bullies they tend to back down. Read the rest of this article

Thursday, 12 January 2012

Salmond fishing

In an excellent assessment of Alex Salmond's present dominance of the Scottish political scene (and how many people in England can even name another Scotland-based politician?) Jonathan Friedland wonders if full independence would really be in the SNP leader's interests:

Such an outcome ["devo-max"] might even suit Salmond better than independence, for his appeal rests, in part, on his status as the underdog, the plucky (Scottish) man against the mighty (London) machine. All-powerful first minister he may be but, as long as he is campaigning for independence, rather than achieving it, this appeal remains intact. For Salmond, truly the journey is as important as the destination.


There's some truth here, but not, I suspect, much. However much he enjoys his complete dominance over the Scottish political scene, what Salmond would love above all, I suspect, is to go down in history as the man who led Scotland to independence. He imagines standing in the company of Wallace and Bruce, or even of Washington, Gandhi and Bolivar, as the Father of the Nation, one whose deeds will echo in eternity.

Friedland writes that never since Tony Blair was in his pomp has Britain beheld a more naturally gifted politician. Or one, I would add, with a bigger ego. But Blair was ultimately a trivial figure, who went off to make his millions and was rarely to be seen again. He lacked much sense of history. He had a vision of the world, and his place in it, but it was a vision made up of slogans and generalities. Salmond's big idea is easy to understand and (unlike Blair's remade world) seemingly obtainable.

An independent Scotland would be terrible news for English politicians who aspire still to play the global game of great-power politics, and it could keep Labour out of office in London for a generation or more, but it wouldn't be obviously disastrous for either the Scots or the English. If you conceive of Scotland and England as separate countries, as most people in the UK do, it is the continuance of the union that appears anomalous. If Austria and Hungary can go their separate ways, or the Swedes and the Norwegians, or the Czechs and the Slovaks, or the Russians and the Ukrainians, then why not England and Scotland? It might largely be an historical accident that England, Scotland and indeed Wales entered the modern age with a consciousness of separate identities, but they did, and from that happenstance Scottish independence logically follows.

Staving it off will largely be a case of exaggerating the dangers. That said, inertia is a powerful force in politics. The two parts of Canada don't even speak the same language, nor do the two parts of Belgium, yet somehow both these unnatural entities stagger on, and have done for decades, despite strong independence movements. The union between Scotland and England makes far better geographical, racial and linguistic sense than either of those. Unless David Cameron manages to antagonise the Scots unnecessarily there's little prospect of an independence referendum going through. He's made a good start, though, with his refusal to countenance a two-part referendum. If "devo-max" is seen to be popular and workable, and the Scottish people are not allowed to vote on in, a retaliatory, "screw-you" vote for independence can't be ruled out. I'd be tempted, were I a Scot.

Especially if it meant Alex Salmond taking his place in history, and finally leaving the political stage.
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Monday, 9 January 2012

Defending Obscenity

The venerable Obscene Publications Act 1959, a legislative dinosaur that is now almost of pensionable age, is now on its last legs. That, at least, was the immediate consensus following the acquittal last Friday of Michael Peacock, a gay escort known professionally as "sleazy Michael", on charges of supplying obscene DVDs.

The material in question depicted acts that are legal to perform, which did not fall within the definition of "extreme pornography" contained in the more recent Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2009 (as not involving the threat of serious injury), but which nevertheless came within the CPS prosecuting guidelines for obscene publication - namely, "fisting" and urination. (Peacock mentioned in evidence that the two tastes are curiously linked, with a predilection for one usually indicating an enthusiasm for the other, too. Quite why this should be so is unclear, but it would make a fascinating research topic for a broad-minded psychologist, would it not?)

Live-tweeted by journalist Nichi Hodgson and Backlash's Alex Dymock, the case made for compulsive online reading all last week. Blow-by-blow accounts of the allegedly obscene videos (which were shown, not just to the jury, but to anyone in the public gallery at Southwark Crown Court, making the courtroom briefly into the country's only free, non-membership sex cinema) alternated with sometimes hilarious exchanges between witnesses, lawyers and the judge. If you missed, it, there has been much coverage elsewhere, which I won't repeat here - not least because I'm very late to this particular party. The must reads are from Chris Ashford (perhaps the fullest account of the case itself and the issues), Myles Jackman (who advised the defence) and Nichi Hodgson herself.

It's not clear why the police and CPS decided to target Michael Peacock or, having done so, why he was charged under the Obscene Publications Act. He might have been charged under the Video Recordings Act 1984 with supplying unclassified material, which would have been an easy prosecution win. Peacock himself is no porn-baron. In his fifties, he's a previous winner of a coveted "Flying Golden Penis" as the Erotic Awards' male sex-worker of the year, 2007. He supplied the DVDs as a sideline, advertising them in Craigslist as well as selling them to his regular clients. And as the case unfolded it became clear that Peacock wasn't exactly handing out the porn on street corners.

To gather their evidence, the police had resorted to an elaborate piece of subterfuge. An undercover officer, calling himself Dave, responded to the Craigslist ad via email, asking for details of his DVD stock. He was sent a list. He then (as Peacock's requested) telephoned, saying he was interested in buying the "five most popular fisting DVDs" and was invited to call personally at the defendant's flat. He went round wearing a wire. The defendant made himself coffee and asked what "Dave" wanted. Dave replied: "fisting". The undercover policeman also asked for "extreme" bdsm and fisting material. The requested DVDs, which form the basis of the prosecution case, were then handed over for cash.

It would seem, then, that police mounted a major sting operation to trap a male prostitute into selling hardcore DVDs to someone who had expressed a serious and persistent desire to obtain them. Bizarre.

By far the majority of the coverage so far has welcomed the verdict, seeing it as another nail in the coffin of a paternalistic, judgemental and outdated piece of legislation, as a victory for free sexual expression, as a sign that the law may be at last coming to grips with a more liberal society. It was described, before and after the verdict, as a "landmark" case that would either reaffirm or re-write the law on obscene publications. Legally, the case doesn''t create precedent - jury verdicts are findings of fact, not law. But the guidelines used by the police, the CPS and the British Board of Film Classification are based on the current "best guess" of what would be judged obscene by a British jury. At the very least, it would seem likely that fisting and urination will now be removed from the list of no-nos, bringing the material criminalised by the OPA into closer approximation with the list of activities prohibited under s.63 of the CJIA.

Indeed, it might well happen that prosecution under the OPA will in future be limited to material that would be illegal under the newer law. The OPA is increasingly unimportant as a criminal charge in any event. The number of prosecutions has dwindled in recent years, and the number of contested prosecutions is very small indeed. A couple of years ago an attempt was made to use the OPA against a civil servant from Tyneside who had written a story in members of Girls Aloud were raped and tortured. It collapsed.

At one time, the OPA was used to ban even straightforwardly explicit depictions of normal sex, but the police gave up that particular fight more than a decade ago. Indeed as Chief Supt Martin Jauch of the Met's Clubs and Vice Unit (now trading as SCD9 - Human Exploitation and Organised Crime) told Panorama in 1998, even then juries could be frustratingly reluctant to convict:

At the end of last year we had one particular tape which involved the insertion of a fire extinguisher into a body orifice. It was quite outrageous, it was degrading, it was really beyond anybody’s experience and that was found to be not obscene, it makes you wonder if they’ll find some of this material to be not obscene, then what will they find to be obscene.


All of which makes you wonder why the police and the CPS bothered in this latest case.

The OPA's true significance doesn't lie in the small number of prosecutions that are brought under it, but rather in that it sets the standard by which the police and the BBFC judge the shifting boundary of what is or is not to be considered "obscene". It is unusual - and increasingly anomalous - legislation in that it bans nothing outright but instead employs a notoriously subjective test, that of "tending to deprave and corrupt" anyone likely to see the material in question. Therein lies the law's uncertainty - and, for many, its inappropriate moralism. On the other hand, the very subjectivity of the test does make allowances for changes in society. It gives it flexibility.

It was possible for prosecutors to argue in 1960 that the book Lady Chatterley's Lover was depraving and corrupting - at least, that it might deprave and corrupt the wives and servants of members of the jury, if not the upright male jury-members themselves. It would not be possible so to argue today - and that is surely not just a consequence of the Chatterley verdict going the way that it did. That case was more a symptom than a cause of shifting public standards. On the other hand, one might argue that a consensual, staged act which appears to "threaten serious injury to anus, breast or genitals" - the test set out in the CJIA - does not "deprave or corrupt" someone whose personal kink it reflects any more than would fisting or urination. But to no avail, legally, because that law makes no allowances for taste (nor does it insist on actual harm). And unlike the OPA it targets the possessor - even an inadvertent downloader - rather than the producer or the distributor. Though apparently narrower in remit, in respect of those activities it proscribes (which may now go beyond what a jury would consider obscene) it is harsher and more regressive.

What of the concept of "obscenity" itself? Many would consider it outdated and illiberal by definition - as well as questioning the law's near-exclusive concentration on sex as the vehicle of the obscene. But now that the OPA has had the life almost squeezed out of it - between more liberal social attitudes on the one hand and the new extreme porn laws on the other - it's worth asking, I think, whether something of value is being lost.

The crux of obscenity law is that it bans the depiction of acts which, in themselves, are not illegal; it declares to be depraved and corrupting activities which it nevertheless acknowledges that consulting adults might indulge in, and still remain decent members of society. Something not quite logical there, perhaps. Yet is this not also a way of saying that the needs of society and the needs of individuals might not always coincide, and that there might be a space between what must be privately allowed and what may be publicly depicted? Not everything that is socially unacceptable ought to be illegal, after all: that way lies totalitarianism. But by the same token, the fact that something is legal does not - ought not, in a truly liberal society - render it socially acceptable.

For all its many faults, the Obscene Publications Act sought to strike a balance between private and public rights. It recognised that citizens might lawfully get up to things that the majority of their fellows might consider depraved and corrupted while asserting that the majority also had the right to have their sensibilities protected. Most importantly, by leaving the final decision to a randomly-selected jury of ordinary citizens, it granted custodianship of the standards of decency to the people as a whole rather than their being decided unilaterally by politicians and police. These are principles worth clinging on to even if, by the beginning of 2012, the Act itself had ceased to serve a useful function.
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Friday, 6 January 2012

Divide and Rule


I do have a modicum of sympathy for Diane Abbott as the latest victim of Twitter's thought-police, ever-watchful for any signs of deviation from the mindless pap that passes for permissible opinions these days. Her public dressing-down by Ed Miliband was an inevitable demonstration of the pieties of modern discourse: she had Tweeted something stupid and "offensive", and while stupidity is tolerated (even encouraged) offensiveness is unforgiveable, or at least forgiveable only after a sufficiently abject apology.

Of course, she was being called out for double standards as much as for mere offensiveness. An acute racism-spotter herself, she appeared, in her comment that "white people love playing divide and rule" she was indulging in the sort of generalisation that she would undoubtedly find outrageous if aimed at black people. So to some extent she deserves her humiliation. But it's dismaying that all the noisy, self-righteous demands for her to withdraw the remark should have crowded out any consideration of whether, in fact, she might have had a point.

To say that "white people" monolithically do one thing or another is absurd rather than actually offensive. In the context of playing divide and rule it doesn't actually make any sense whatever. Which white people? When? But I imagine that when Abbott thinks about "white people" what she is imagining is the British establishment. In the days of the British empire, in non-white colonies (for example, Abbott's own ancestral Jamaica) "white people" and "British establishment" would have been virtually synonymous. And the British authorities certainly did find that "divide and rule" was a useful tactic for governing societies that might otherwise develop a single identity in opposition to the colonial power. The policy has left a long and unfortunate aftertaste in some parts of the world, most notably perhaps in India and Pakistan where British administrators deliberately taught the natives to think of themselves first and foremost as Hindus or Muslims.

The equation of "white people" and "British establishment" doesn't really work in Britain, especially not in modern Britain, where the establishment is no longer uniformly white. Yet successive British policy-makers have indeed found a policy of "divide and rule" to be useful in the context of a multi-ethnic society. Although of course it's no longer called "divide and rule". It's called "multiculturalism".

Bim Adewunmi, whose exchange of tweets with her MP precipitated the Twitterstorm, writes that her concern had been with the term "the black community" - implying as it does a monolithic entity. She writes:

Here's how it goes: a) something deemed to be a "black issue" is on the news agenda; b) Without fail, "community leaders" and the now standard "ex-gang member" are wheeled out to be interviewed. ... I hardly ever recognise any of the so-called "community leaders" on these programmes – I doubt many ordinary black people, ie those they purport to represent, ever do.

The view from Whitehall, and indeed from the BBC (and other establishment peaks as well, no doubt) is indeed something like that. A concept like "the black community", or "the Muslim community", or for that matter "the gay community" is easier to conceptualise than the notion that the public "out there" is a collection of individuals with complex, varied identities. Today, "divide and rule" politics has never been more institutionalised.

The other day, the former Met commissioner Ian Blair was on the radio, in response to the Stephen Lawrence verdicts, boasting that "this was the most profound change to the police in thirty years, as they moved from a kind of colour-blind policing that treated everyone the same to one that understood the previous experience and expectations held by different communities." So the legacy of that brutal racist murder was that citizens are no longer to be treated equally under the law? It's worth reminding Blair, and others like him, that it was not "colour-blind" policing that led to Stephen's killers escaping justice for so many years. It was policing that treated him first and foremost as black, and only secondly as a human being.

But that sort of thinking, often masquerading as liberal and progressive, is all too prevalent, and is enshrined in law, notably in the 2010 Equality Act. It comes naturally to the British establishment precisely because it is a continuation of the old idea of divide and rule. Here lies the irony of Diane Abbott's claims: she believes (or appears to) in the myth of a monolithic black community. The myth gives her a power-base, after all. She is fully engaged in the game of divide-and-rule when it means dividing blacks from whites. She seems to think of black people rather in the way that old-style trade union bosses used to think of their members, in fact. Hence her contemptuous attitude to any member of "her community" who engages in the race-relations equivalent of crossing a picket-line.
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Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Charlotte Church clock: the final countdown

Since my New Year's Day post, evidence has continued to emerge about the "Charlotte Church countdown clock", which the singer herself told the Leveson Inquiry had run on the Sun's own website in the period leading up to her 16th birthday in 2002.

It turns out that there were two of them, neither of which, needless to say, were in any way connected with the Sun. One, which seems to be the earlier version, was hosted on Yahoo's much lamented (by some) GeoCities pages. It was plain and amateurish in style, merely showing a picture of the young singer, the message "how long left until Charlotte Church is legal?" and a ticking clock. This seems to be the clock featured in most of the reporting. It is certainly the site that was referred to in a report in the South Wales Echo of 2nd January 2002, in which the creator of the site is named as "William". There was a link on the site (which can be accessed via WayBackMachine), which takes you to a log-in page for the gossip site PopBitch. This may or may not be significant.

But there was also another clock, much more professional in appearance and with its own domain-name, www.charlottechurchconsentcountdown.com (thanks to Cath Elliott for unearthing this). This site, no less sleazy than the first, claimed to be "dedicated to the most beautiful girl....soon to be woman in the world." It carried a disclaimer to the effect that it was "no way related to Charlotte Church and does not promote sex with minors." There's no hint as to the identity of the person or persons behind the domain.

Despite reports around 2nd January 2002 from outlets including the BBC, which I naively took at face value, that the "countdown clock" had been taken down after intervention by Charlotte Church's lawyers, it's clear that both these sites were still up and running up to and indeed long after her 16th birthday. The second was last archived on 28th November 2002. The countdown was replaced by different photos and the message

Charlotte is legal! As of 21st of Feb 2002 Charlotte Church is all woman. Hip Hip Hooray!


The earlier site was still visible as late as October 22nd 2004, by which time Charlotte Church was 18.

Cath Elliott notes that this site was selected as his "website of the day" on 2nd January 2002 by Matt Kelly, who was internet columnist for... the Mirror. "Should we be afraid of this website or treat it as a weird joke?" he asked. Either way, he was happy to publicise it and publish its address.

So it seems that the tasteless countdown clock was indeed promoted, if not actually hosted, by a tabloid newspaper. Just not the evil Murdoch Sun.

I suspect most of my readers won't need reminding that the editor of the Mirror at the time was one Piers Morgan.
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Sunday, 1 January 2012

The Truth about that Charlotte Church "countdown clock"

Here's how Laurie Penny begins her latest Guardian tirade against (anti-female) sexism in the media:

Charlotte Church was 15 years old when Britain's best-read daily newspaper began a public countdown to the day on which she could be legally fucked. The singer, now 25, told the Levenson inquiry into press ethics and standards that the feature made her "feel horrible", and described over a decade of bullying by the Murdoch media group and others.


Laurie is, of course, referencing Church's evidence to Lord Justice Leveson on 28th November, in which the singer claimed that The Sun had run this sleazy feature on its website in the weeks leading up to her 16th birthday. Like almost everyone else who has covered the story, she accepts Church's recollection completely at face value. Few if any questions have been asked. Even News International has been subdued in its denial, a spokesman stating merely that the company "had uncovered no evidence" that it had ever run such a countdown. Perhaps, like sensible MPs during the expenses scandal, NI wants to keep its head down. It was left to others, after all, to rebut the Guardian's false claim that the News of the World deleted messages from Milly Dowler's voicemail.

I suppose it's easy to think badly of the tabloid press, given some of the revelations. Almost any claim, in in present atmosphere, seems plausible. But it's possible to exaggerate their villainy. And there is no evidence whatever that The Sun (or for that matter any other tabloid newspaper) ran a "countdown clock" around the time of Charlotte Church's 16th birthday. There's no evidence because (almost certainly) it didn't happen.

There was such a clock, but it was not (so far as anyone can tell) associated with any newspaper or media organisation. "Charlotte Church Countdown" was an anonymous website. Its existence was extensively reported in the media (including by the BBC), but almost entirely in terms of the Church management's response to it. Thus the Mirror reported on 13th December 2001:

A TWISTED new website is counting down the hours and minutes until Charlotte Church is old enough to have sex.

The lewd internet countdown features a picture of the 15-year-old star and a 24-hour clock, running backwards to her 16th birthday - when she reaches the age of consent - on February 21.

Under the heading "Charlotte Church Countdown", a message tells how long is left until "Charlotte Church is legal".

Charlotte fan Mark Adams, 38, from Penarth, south Wales, said: "It's nasty. She's still a schoolgirl."

A spokesman for her record company said details of the website would be passed to the Cardiff star's legal team.

Charlotte is preparing for a busy Christmas. She will be interviewed by Michael Parkinson on BBC1 on Christmas Eve and a concert from New York will be broadcast on ITV the same day.


I quote that report in full, including the final sentence, because it raises the intriguing possibility that the publicity surrounding the "countdown", however unwelcome it must have seemed to Charlotte Church, was treated by her management as nevertheless being in some sense a marketing opportunity. But perhaps it was "Charlotte fan" Mark Adams who spotted it and was responsible for alerting the press.

Be that as it may, the site was closed down after Church's management took legal action, as was reported on 2nd January 2002 [but see update 3 below] . The Sun's own coverage of the incident is no longer online, but it is unlikely to have differed significantly from that in the Mirror.

Might Charlotte Church have been mistaken? Quite possibly. Human memory is notoriously fallible. And Church's witness statement (pdf) is inaccurate in other respects, too. She claims to have been fourteen at the time of 9/11, for example, when in fact she was fifteen. The questioning to which she, along with other celebrity witnesses, was subjected by the Inquiry can hardly be described as rigorous.

The Sun has many things to be ashamed of, but running a Charlotte Church Countdown Clock is not one of them.

UPDATE: The Guardian has now removed the first paragraph of Laurie Penny's article in response to my findings and at Laurie's request. See her comment below. Charlotte Church's (almost certainly false) claim about the Sun "countdown clock" however remains part of the formal evidence submitted to the Leveson enquiry and largely unquestioned elsewhere. Major journalism fail.

UPDATE 2: Simon Hinde on Twitter points out that Chris Moyles made distasteful comments about Church's 16th birthday on his Radio One show. This is true. He told listeners that he wanted "lead her through the forest of sexuality now that she had reached 16". The remark was the source of a complaint to Ofcom that was upheld. As Simon says, the BBC here was a worse offender than the Sun. Not for the only time.

UPDATE 3: (2nd Jan) An anonymous source sends me a clipping from the South Wales Echo, dated 2nd January 2002 - the date on which several outlets reported that the site had been closed down. It basically repeats the details given above, but includes an interview with CC's mother who is quoted as saying "This is disgusting. This is the first that we have heardabout this site and I think it is sick. We will do everything in our power to have it shut down."

Significantly, the report says that the site "was still running this morning despite assurances from her record company that it is being shut down."

UPDATE 4 (3rd Jan): Brendan O'Neill has written on the issue in Spiked. Since he was apparently unaware of my findings he is unable to explain how the countdown-clock mistake came to be noticed and removed, merely repeating the Guardian's own explanation that it was taken down "because News International denied it". (Amended 9/1/2012)

He has, however, found an archive copy of the original clock, here. This is a significant discovery, and should put to rest any lingering suspicions that the Sun may have had anything to do with it. In fact, if you follow the link to "William", the page's alleged creator, you reach a log-in address associated with the gossip site Popbitch. Moreover, the archive proves that the site was still visible as late as October 22nd 2004, by which time Charlotte Church was 18, despite claims that Charlotte Church's lawyers had had the site removed. This, of course, raises issues about the accuracy of the original reports - most of which, I suspect, were based on press releases put out by Sony.
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