Tuesday, 3 December 2013

"Forced Caesarian": the Mother's story, and the Judge's

This is about the superficially shocking story, brought to the world by Christopher Booker of the Sunday Telegraph, of the Italian woman subjected to a forced Caesarian section by order of a secret court, who then had the child put up for adoption despite making a good recovery. Working closely with campaigning family lawyer Brandan Fleming and maverick MP John Hemming, Booker told such a horrifying story that Shami Chakrabarti was moved to comment that it sounded like "dystopian science fiction unworthy of a democracy like ours."

The following, from a follow-up Mail article, is vintage Booker:

Throughout all my years reporting on scores of chilling examples of what social workers are allowed to do behind the closed doors of our secret family courts, the case reported yesterday... is not just the most disturbing of all. It also illustrates how far our ‘child protection’ system has now gone horrendously off the rails. The facts are so shocking they beggar belief.

But are they?

As a result of the storm of publicity, the courts have now released the text of the initial pre-adoption placement ruling by Judge Newton at Chelmsford County Court, which originally had gone unreported as it raised no major legal issues. As yet, the other significant ruling, by the Court of Protection on the "forced" Caesarian that gave the story its gothic appeal to headline writers, has not been released though there are plans to do so.

The adoption judgement clears up some points, especially concerning the seriousness of the woman's underlying medical condition, while dispelling the wilder suspicions occasioned by Booker's purple prose. It becomes clear, for example, that the court looked in some detail into the woman's family circumstances before concluding (though not with much supporting evidence) that no-one in the extended family was able to care for the child. It also sheds some light on what had been the mystery of the child's father. He turns out to be a Senegalese national who apparently offered to take care of the child. The judge decided that this was a "non-starter", however, partly it seems because of his unclear immigration status.

The ruling contains some rather puzzling elements. There is severe criticism of doctors who approved her transfer to Italy, on the grounds that the judge thought she didn't appear mentally competent, yet an acknowledgement that soon after her return to her home country the woman's condition improved markedly. The judge appears to accept that the mother has made a good recovery, that her condition is manageable so long as she continues to take her medication, and that she has strong family support. Nevertheless, he decides in favour of adoption, partly it seems because the year needed for assessing the mother's capability would be too long.

This aspect may well provide the focus for an appeal, which is now to be heard personally by the President of the Family Division, Sir James Munby - a judge who has a strong track record, both of encouraging greater openness in the family courts and of requiring higher evidential standards from social work teams requesting adoption and placement orders. In any case, it's difficult to read the judge's summary of the evidence before him as leading inevitably to the conclusion that the mother, with family support, was incapable of providing a reasonably stable environment for the child, at least in the forseeable future. On the face of it Judge Newton's assessment of the evidence would seem to fall short of that now required, following the important recent decision in Re B-S, when a court wishes to deprive a parent of his or her familial rights under Article 8 of the European Convention. But we shall see.

What has been lacking so far is the mother's own voice. It is of course against British law to name her, or to identify her in any way. Italian law is less strict, and her story has been told already in the Italian press, though without naming the child. The main account, based on an interview with the woman's lawyers, provides important context and some hitherto unavailable details, though with the caveat that it is is course told exclusively from her point of view. I therefore offer this redacted translation.

The whole truth about the London baby (and her "mad" mother)

This is the story (with original documents) of A, the woman forced to undergo a Caesarian section in London and whose baby was taken by the state

She has not seen her baby daughter, who we will call Rose, for five months. The English social services, she says, have forbidden her from seeing the baby since then. They told her that she had already been adopted. The truth, however, is that in England, in the county of Essex, the first meetings have only just begun between the baby, now sixteen months old, and her prospective adoptive parents.

Her name A and is 35 years old. The UK authorites considered her "mad" and was she subjected to a forced Caesarian section, while her baby was given to the custody of social services on the order of Chelmsford county court. Despite this, she has consistently expressed a desire to regain custody of her daughter and to return with her to Italy. A is not crazy; she suffers from bipolar disorder, an extremely variable depressive condition that manifests itself in an alternation of depressive and euphoric phases but which can be kept under control by medication.

The woman... today lives in Chiusi where, having failed to become a Ryanair hostess (at the relevant time she was in England for a training course) she earns a living as a carer for an elderly couple. She returned to Italy towards the end of 2012, having become convinced the British authorities were deaf to her concerns and that she would have a better chance of winning her legal battle from Italy. Also living with her in Chiusi are her two older daughers, aged 11 and 4, who have different American fathers. Italian social services have placed them in the custody of her mother because of A's bipolar disorder.

A is the victim of what Liberal Democrat MP John Hemming, after the case exploded in the British press, called an "abuse of human rights". "It's like something from the Hitler regime", says her Italian lawyer, Stephano Oliva, upping the rhetorical ante. Oliva, along with his colleauge Luana Izzo has represented A since the beginning of 2013. He's equally scathing of the response of the Italian authorities: the foreign ministry, the London embassy and the consulate, all of whom were alerted by the lawyers back in May. "Only the Ministry of Justice has responded. They told us that they had no jurisdiction and told us to pursue legal action in the UK."

A has a complex personal history. "We were initially brought into the case in early 2013 after the aunt of her second daughter, who lives in Los Angeles and had already offered to take over custody of the two elder girls, alerted us to the existence of a third child," says Oliva. "With the consent of the American aunt, of the mother and of the grandmother we asked the Court of First Instance in Florence to seek the custody of the three children, including the baby that was in the care of British social services." A, who with her two ex-husbands had lived both in Italy and the United States, where she managed her partner's restaurant, was enthusiastic about the scheme. Her idea in fact was to go and live in Los Angeles, close to her three children and her American in-laws. The Florence court however decided that it had no jurisdiction over the third child, remitting the question to the British court. The British court rejected the request for custody because the baby had no blood tie with her American aunt.

In this tragic case, which reads like a movie script, Rose is in fact the daughter of a third father, a Senegalese immigrant resident in Italy. She was born in August 2012: A found herself in England for a few months to take a training course for potential Ryanair cabin crew at Stanstead Airport. At her hostel in July, when she was eight months pregnant, she had a panic attack probably caused by failing to take her medication. She was upset because she couldn't find the passports of her two children, who were in Italy with their grandmother. She called the police. The police, alarmed by her agitated state, telephoned her mother who informed them of her bipolar condition. A was sedated and woke up in a psychiatric hospital, effectively in a state of detention.

She remembers saying, "But I'm fine, there's no need to take me to hospital," Oliva recalls. But the situation becase more tragic in August when A was taken to an operating theatre for a C-section ordered by the court. Notwithstanding this, she continued to protest, "Where are you taking me? I want to give birth in Italy." "Apart from anything else A speaks very good English, so it can't have been a problem of communication," observes the lawyer. Anyway. The child was born and in February 2013 was put up for adoption, despite the opposition of the mother (she appealed in June, without a final decision so far) and despite medical advice that mother and child should not be separated. There was also a bureaucratic mix-up: in court papers the child was given the surname of the mother's first husband, and not that of her actual father, a Senegalese national who has also offered to take care of Rose, a request rejected by the court. "It is an inconceivable decision," says Oliva, "beccause all the European directives guarantee the integrity of the nuclear family. The only exception is where there is abandonment, which is not the case here."

Following the birth A was moved to another hospital, still detained under the Mental Health Act, and was allowed to see her daughter once a week. In October 2012 she returned to Italy, partly to gain better legal support (the court-appointed lawyer who had represented her had failed even to give her notice of hearings). From then on until five months ago she was allowed to see her daughter on a daily basis.

Two sets of legal proceedings began in Italy this March. The first to give a negative outcome was the Florence tribunal, which declared it had no jurisdiction since baby Rose was not born in Italy. It made submissions to the high court in Rome. The Rome court offered a small chink of light. While declaring that it had no jurisdiction, because A should have appealed to it immediately after the birth, it declared on October 31st that "it could not recognise the decision of the English court because it was contrary to both Italian and international public law."

The foreign minister, contacted by the lawyers, has made no comment; likewise the Italian embassy and consulate in London, which according to Oliva "has never responded to our request in May." The consul, Massimiliano Mazzanti, has instead declared that he was told of the incident by social services in England.

To resolve this nightmare A now has two options: the pending appeal in England and the Florence tribunal which, her lawyers hope, will add the name of little Rose to the instrument of custody drawn up for her two sisters by her American aunt.


While the general thrust of the Italian account agrees with the facts put forward by Booker, there are a number of points of divergence. There is also the claim, not found in Booker, that the social services lied to the mother about the progress of the adoption: a serious allegation. Booker claimed that the mother was in the UK for only two weeks; the Italian version states that it was in fact for some months. Booker claimed that social services allowed no contact between mother and child, whereas this account makes clear that there was regular contact until five months ago. Indeed, it states that the decision to separate the two and to take "Rose" (given the initial P in the released judgement) into foster care was made against medical advice.

Judge Newton alludes to this, and indeed makes his opinion of the doctors' advice quite plain in paragraph 8:

The District Judge at the early stage gave permission for the Local Authority to withhold contact and I raise that because the doctors appeared to be saying at an early stage in the proceedings that the plan ought to be for P to be placed with the mother potentially in hospital. I was and remain deeply concerned about that. It might have been in the mother's interests but I think the mother, today, would understand that it would not have been in P's interests for that to have occurred. It has been of course of some concern to me because having made the order I did on 12th October concerning the instruction of Dr Winton, a consultant psychiatrist.

A further disagreement between Judge Newton and the doctors treating A is set out in Paragraph 9:

By that stage it was being asserted by the treating doctors that the mother had regained capacity under the relevant test. I have to say that when the mother appeared before me at that time she did not appear to be at all well, and I am surprised that it was being claimed that she had legal capacity . I am critical of the doctors because it appears to me that she was despatched (in deed escorted ) from the UK with undue haste simply because she wished to go back to Italy. I was led to believe that the mother was in a good state and a good frame of mind but frankly nothing could have been further from the truth, because if one looks at the reports of the admitting Doctors in italy , it is clear that the mother when she arrived in Italy was in a very poor state. She should in my view have been assisted here to participate in these proceedings. I know she wanted to go to Italy but by going to Italy any realistic prospect of P returning to her care was diminished substantially. It is for that reason it seems to me that it was a most ill-advised thing to have occurred. I was critical at the time and I remain critical to this day.

The judge here seems oddly confused. The "capacity" in question was not the capacity to care for her child, but the capacity to make decisions regarding her treatment. She was not being discharged willy-nilly into the community, but rather being "escorted" (presumably by medical staff) to Italy where she was admitted, presumably (though the judgement does not specify) to hospital. The treatment she received in Italy, moreover, between October 2012 and February of this year when the adoption hearing took place, had a salutary effect, as the judge acknowledged in paragraph 10:

The good news is that as a result of the mother eventually complying with her medication which she did for some considerable time whilst out there, it is very evident that she is actually extremely well and has given evidence before me. As I said to her during the course of her evidence it seemed to me that she was as clear and articulate, indeed more so than most people I hear from the witness box where English is their first language, and English is not the mother's first language.

This contrasts with the three to four months she spent as a detained patient at psychiatric hospitals in England, at the end of which, by the judge's impression of her and the assessment of the Italian doctors, she was in a "very poor state". Perhaps her return to Italy merely coincided with the improvement in her health rather than directly produced it; but in any event it doesn't appear to have done her any harm.

One thing that the released judgement doesn't address is the plan for the family to move to the United States, with the children placed under the guardianship of A's former sister-in-law, though this would appear to have been considered, only to be rejected, at a subsequent hearing. Booker's account of this was garbled: he implied that the plan was to send the child to live with the American aunt, whereas it now seems that the suggestion is that the whole family should move there. Whether this scheme has met with the approval of the US immigration authorities is uncertain. While the two elder children of American fathers both qualify for US citizenship and A probably has residency at least, Rose's position is likely to be more complicated. But whether that played any part in the court's rejection of the scheme isn't clear.

The question of the child's father is raised, but scarcely considered, both in the released judgement and in the Italian press. The Italian report offers the bizarre detail that his name was left off the court papers because of a bureaucratic error. Although this doesn't seem to have excluded him from proceedings, it's strangely fitting, given that so little thought seems to have been given either to his rights or to his responsibilities as a parent. His offer to assume responsibility for the baby was dismissed as "not, if I may say so, a starter" by a judge who also sniffily notes that "he has failed to take any part except for the fact that he saw both the social worker and the Guardian when they visited Italy, and has written to the court today indicating that he opposes the application of the Local Authority". Newton concludes, again baldly, that there is "no-one within the wider family who today can look after P even though the father attempts to put himself forward." Beyond his unclear immigration status, no evidence is offered in the judgement as to why the judge considers the proposal a non-starter, or what is lacking in his "attempts to put himself forward" as a carer for the child. He is an inconvenient detail to be swatted aside. 

The criticism of Booker's one-sided and significantly distorted presentation of the facts is largely justified, but that doesn't mean that the case of Signora A doesn't raise significant issues. Judge Newton's ruling is a model neither of clarity nor of judicial reasoning; he contradicts himself at various points and his decision seems unsupported by any compelling weight of evidence. These will doubtless be issues for the appeal. Perhaps good reasons can be found as to why it was impossible to transfer her to Italy, despite her express desire, prior to the birth. But it seems on the face of it difficult to see any, given that she seems to have been kept heavily sedated. That would have solved most of the problems that subsequently arose.

One thing the case does clearly demonstrate is the dangers posed by secrecy in the family courts and in the Court of Protection, not just to the administration of justice but to the reputation of the legal system. Where little is known about what actually takes place behind closed courtroom doors horror stories are apt to spread and to be believed.

Nor are the problems imaginary. President Munby has repeatedly acknowledged the inadequacies of the family courts system and in particular the attitude of some social workers. In one case he noted "the slapdash, lackadaisical and on occasions almost contumelious attitude which still far too frequently characterises the response [by social workers] to orders made by family courts" and complained of "a deeply rooted culture in the family courts which, however long established, will no longer be tolerated". These are strong words indeed: so strong that, had they been voiced by Booker or Hemming a large section of respectable legal opinion would immediately have cried foul.  Indeed, an official of the British Association of Social Workers has accused Munby of, among other things, giving encouragement to the Daily Mail. "Lord Justice Munby’s pledge to ensure greater transparency in the family courts has been heralded as a triumph by those opposed to the current restrictions in reporting on care proceedings, but I was left horrified," she complains. One might almost think she had something to hide.
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Monday, 18 November 2013

What David Cameron can learn from schoolgirls and soccer moms

David Cameron comes in for a lot of criticism from libertarian and sex-positive types for his morally conservative attitude to internet porn, as shown in his determination to force IP companies to introduce opt-in smut filters. But perhaps he just doesn't have either the time or the inclination to do his own research, and is reliant on what campaigners tell him, or what he reads in the Daily Mail. If so, then he can scarcely be blamed for assuming that the entirety of "mainstream porn" is violent and misogynistic, encourages adolescent boys to hate women and abuse their girlfriends and irreperably corrupts the minds of young children who innocently go looking for pictures of kittens.

After all, it's common knowledge that in the age of the internet porn is pretty grim stuff. Even self-declared feminist pornographers proclaim as much, even while selling their own dream of a sex-positive, eco-friendly, non-exploitative alternative. Indeed, the essential violence and misogyny of the "mainstream" is as much an item of faith among "alternative" pornographers as it is for anti-porn campaigners such as Gail Dines, who has described online erotica as "a never-ending universe of ravaged anuses, distended vaginas and semen-smeared faces".

Not only does the alternative producers' business model depend upon the existence of an unspeakable mainstream (rather as the censors' does also) so does their self-identity - now buttressed by a global network of arty porn festivals and feminist award ceremonies. The existence of easy-access, free and often pirated porn is the common enemy of both professional porn producers and moralists, it must be said, so the confluence of interest in damning "mainstream porn" isn't surprising.

It's also common knowledge that only boys and men want to watch porn anyway. Even in households without children, Our Dave promises, "husbands will have to have a difficult conversation with their wives about accessing porn at home". Because all women everywhere are horrified by the very idea of sexually explicit material - and men, meanwhile, are so ashamed by it they will acquiesce in default filters that in the way of things will end up blocking a great many sites that aren't remotely pornographic anyway. So that's OK then.

Is there any actual research, as opposed to anecdote, about what "mainstream porn" really looks like? It's not difficult to do, after all - at least, not until the Cameron Cordon arrives some time next year. Here's some, conducted by three women at New Brunswick University in Canada, led by graduate student Sarah Vannier and her supervisor Professor Lucia O’Sullivan. Recently unveiled by Vannier at a science and sexuality conference in San Diego, it has a catchy title - Schoolgirls and Soccer Moms: A Content Analysis of Free "Teen" and "MILF" Online Pornography. Ironically, the content of this content analysis is not free, but if the abstract is accurate it does what it says on the tin.

Vannier's research interests include oral sex among teenagers and sexual compliance in committed relationships ("I’m pretty sure I picked one of the most interesting careers out there", she says.) She has also written a sex advice column for her student newspaper - in which she notes that "although watching porn for research sounds like a ton of fun, it does get boring after a while". Concentrating on free sites not only makes for low research costs (though was the research possible on the university's own computers, I wonder?) it's also the most useful place to start, given that they account for the vast majority of porn consumption.

And as the abstract says in somewhat self-contradictory terms, "viewing free online pornographic videos has increasingly become a common behavior among young people, although little is known about the content of these videos." Presumably the content of the videos is not little known to the many who view them. But you get the point - little is known officially and publicly (or in academic journals) about the content of the videos.

And perhaps (though perhaps not) little is known to the politicians making decisions about internet filtering about the content of these videos. It's an area where admitting ignorance is a positive asset to a politician or a pundit, where claiming to know what you're talking about might be held against you. "I've never seen the stuff myself, but I've heard it's revolting" is the safest line to take publicly. I suspect that several politicians who may find themselves having "difficult conversations" at home next year know more than they will ever say. But since coming out in opposition to the porn filter is as much as admission of guilt, that will have to remain in the realm of conjecture.

So short of informing yourself by actually visiting these sites, which no-one in their right mind would ever do, you'll have to rely on Sarah Vannier's research. And so, without further ado:

The current study analyzed the content of two popular female-age-based types of free, online pornography (teen and MILF) and examined nuances in the portrayal of gender and access to power in relation to the age of the female actor. A total of 100 videos were selected from 10 popular Web sites, and their content was coded using independent raters.

The focus of the research, then, was not only on the content of the videos but on the underlying socio-political message. Were these "popular" genres characterised principally by violence and perversion? Were the women involved portrayed as the degraded playthings of insatiable male lust? Not entirely:

Vaginal intercourse and fellatio were the most frequently depicted sexual acts. The use of sex toys, paraphilias, cuddling, and condom use were rare, as were depictions of coercion.

Control of the pace and direction of sexual activity was typically shared by the male and female actors. Moreover, there were no gender differences in initiation of sexual activity, use of persuasion, portrayals of sexual experience, or in professional status. However, female actors in MILF videos were portrayed as more agentic and were more likely to initiate sexual activity, control the pace of sexual activity, and have a higher professional status.

(My italics)

So there you have it. Older female performers were "more likely to initiate sexual activity" but even in "teen" videos the women aren't entirely or even predominantly passive. There were "no gender differences". This is of course strikingly at variance with the almost universal assumptions about the content of mainstream porn, even those articulated by alternative and feminist pornographers. So contrary are these findings to the accepted wisdom I'd be amazed if they were taken seriously or used to inform the public debate. Nevertheless, I suspect the research will come as little surprise to the majority of people who actually watch the stuff.

Truly, online porn exists in a parallel universe
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In the modern schoolyard, being an Evangelical Christian is just so gay

This is a guest post by Rev Julian Mann

British secondary schools are now much tougher places for Christian teenagers than they were when I was at school in the 1970s.

Political correctness was an incipient ideology in that decade but it was not being enforced. Now it is and teenage disciples of Jesus Christ who articulate certain Bible-based ethical views, for example against abortion and same-sex marriage, face flak not only from their peers but also from their school authorities when, as is inevitable, such opinions generate complaints. 

Ironically, the ideological atmosphere in British state schools is such that you are almost more likely to be abused as 'gay' for being an orthodox Christian than for being a homosexual. 

Anyone conversant with teenage parlance knows that 'gay' is the new 'naff'.  No amount of Stonewall enforcement is going to stop teenagers from using the term about anything from an uncharismatic police horse to a peer's new quiff. It is in widespread usage in schools and teachers cannot monitor every conversation. But any student concerned about their school record will be deterred by an accusation of homophobic bullying, so will think twice about using the term perjoratively against a peer who comes out as a homosexual.

However, they well know that no such sanction will result if they use the term against a Christian peer. There is no equivalent of a Stonewall award for a school for tackling 'Christianophobic' bullying - not that Christians should want to generate witchhunts for 'Christianophobes'. That kind of atmosphere is not good for the gospel, which relies for its progress not on coercion or a climate of fear but on genuine persuasion.

In the current ideological climate, teachers are under little pressure to clamp down on verbal abuse against Bible-believing Christians. Furthermore, reflecting social attitudes among university-educated people most teachers would think anyway that in normal cases abortion and sex outside heterosexual marriage are morally right. They would regard any deviation from such ethical norms as extremely bigoted.

Therefore the following taunt within earshot of a teacher in a British secondary school is well possible:

"Hey you Bible-basher, I hear you're against gay marriage because you're a Jesus freak. You're so gay!" 

Julian Mann is vicar of the Parish Church of the Ascension, Oughtibridge, South Yorkshire.
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Monday, 14 October 2013

Selling Downton to the Chinese

Are 160 million people really watching Downton Abbey in China, as George Osborne claimed on the Today programme this morning? Probably not. As Tom Chivers points out, the figure was a projection based on current trends. The show only started airing in China this year. But Chinese thirst for British costume drama seems real enough. A recent survey found that 9% of the discussion of foreign TV on Chinese social media sites concerned British dramas like Downton, while the proportion was significantly higher among graduates and white collar workers. British costume drama has the same snob appeal in China as it does in the United States, it would seem. In what is described as a "disdain chain", "British drama fans look down on fans of American shows, who look down on Korean soap fans, who in turn look down on fans of domestic dramas."

Two or three centuries ago, a rising British middle class went crazy for Chinese tea and porcelain. Now wealthy Chinese are returning the compliment: one in four Bentleys sold, for example, is now sold in China, while English public schools are setting up Chinese subsidiaries. Britain seems insular in comparison. It's hard to imagine sizeable chunk of the British public enjoying a weekly drama in Mandarin exploring the private lives of Chinese aristocrats during the dying days of the Ching dynasty. And if Osborne's 160 million figure remains aspirational, it does at least give a hint as to the sheer vastness of the potential gains to be made in the world's largest market.

There's no doubt that Downton Abbey is a phenomenon. Julian Fellowes' period soap continues to hook viewers worldwide despite its wooden scripts, its psychological superficiality and the contrived plots (including the recent attempt to liven things up a bit by having one of the best-loved characters gratuitously raped). It may not actually be a quality period drama: the show is, for all its leaden forays into attempted social realism, simply honest escapism. But it looks like one, and it capitalises on a well-established British niche. Last year, for example, it was among the most-watched TV shows in Denmark, the Netherlands, Singapore and Brazil, where it runs in a "slot dedicated to contemporary fiction", according to an executive at the network that broadcasts it. The global audience was estimated at 120 million even before transmission began in China.

British TV may have struggled in recent years to come up with anything capable of comparison (even unfavourable comparison) with The Sopranos or Mad Men, or with the slew of lugubrious Scandinavian cop shows, but slightly cheesy costume drama is the field in which this country remains the gold standard, even if Downton is no Brideshead Revisited.

So should we celebrate a great British success story, a stellar example of cultural soft power and an export triumph to boot? To some it may be a matter of regret that the world has yet to acquire a ravenous appetite for our more contemporary products - The Office was probably the last modern-set British TV show to strike a global chord, and that largely through national re-imaginings with local casts, languages and situations. But since the UK has cornered the market in nostalgia porn it would be foolish not to exploit it. The world clearly wants our frocks and boaters, our class system and our stiff upper-lips. "Theme park Britain" it may be, but at least it gives the country a strong and attractive international brand. If nothing else, it's good for tourism, even if the Home Office seems determined to drive potential tourists away with a a visa system that is expensive, bureaucratic and off-putting. And today's tourists might even become tomorrow's investors.

There are obvious dangers if the nation's image abroad (and perhaps its self-image too) is based on the past rather than the present or the future. The danger of looking irrelevant. The danger of not being taken seriously. Downton Britain is charming and traditional, but fatally unrealistic. In the series itself, Lord Grantham's essential appeal as an aristocratic paragon is bound up with his failing struggle to adapt to a changing world. He is romantically doomed, as is his miniature kingdom, to obsolescence. Is this the image of the UK that millions of international viewers are imbibing? Or is it the other way around, and Downton is successful precisely because it embodies and reflects an image that Britain has so far failed to shake off? Boris Johnson's Woosterish public persona also goes down very well abroad.

By contrast, attempts by the last government to rebrand the UK as "cool Britannia" largely flopped. National clichés die so hard that many visitors still expect to find London's streets clouded with fog and its countryside peopled with fox-hunting aristos. And for all the lip service paid to British pop culture as an antidote to the Brideshead/Downton effect our most popular and influential musical export is still the Beatles. Other British cultural exports with global appeal are of a similar vintage: think James Bond or Doctor Who.

So perhaps this country, despite all our vaunted hi-tech start-ups and cutting-edge research, is destined to be the world's leading purveyor of cosy nostalgia. There are worse fates. The 21st century belongs to China, and if Western countries are to have an economic future it will be through selling what China, and other rising nations, want to buy. And if that something turns out to be Downton Abbey it may be unfortunate for them but is great news for us.
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Thursday, 3 October 2013

So what is Paul Dacre playing at?

This week's Private Eye has an interesting (should you care about such things) item about the future of legendary Mail editor-in-chief Paul Dacre.  It reports that Dacre's incentive package was amended in 2010 from a five-yearly bonus to one in which he was to be paid "an additional £500,000 for each full year that he continutes working until he is 65".  We also learn that "his contract was also amended last year from a rolling one to 'the residual term until his 65th birthday on 14th November 2013'."

A big hint there that Dacre is being eased out.  The 65th birthday looks like an excuse, or a face-saving formula.  There's no reason why he shouldn't continue as editor after then, should he wish to and should his employers want him to stay on.  On the other hand, were he really ready to quit, why would he want to cling on until a symbolic retirement age? 

Assuming this account is accurate (and the evidence for the Eye's story seems quite clear), it provides some context, at least, to Dacre's kamikaze-like behaviour in recent days.  It's not clear whether or not he personally decided to run the now-notorious article about Ralph Miliband, which might otherwise have passed without much fuss, under the headline "The Man Who Hated Britain". But there's little doubt that it was he who responded to the criticism from Ed Miliband with a trenchant refusal to apologise, indeed a determination to repeat and underscore the allegations about the Labour leader's Marxist father.  And the Mail's attempt to link the story with its campaign against press regulation certainly has Dacre's fingerprints all over it.  So what is he playing at?

It could well be a case of the devil coming in great fury because he knows his time is short.  Nothing to lose, now, after all.  Better to go down all guns blazing in a fight to the death with Ed Miliband than to just slink off to his retirement home.  His departure, even if postponed until November, will (at least in his own eyes) take on the lineaments of a martyrdom.  Perhaps he believes that he can bring Miliband, or the whole regulatory process, down with him.  Or perhaps it's simply his last hurrah for the Blackshirts.  Either way, he will be enjoying his final battle.

There's a risk here, of course, which is that Dacre's behaviour will hasten the dawn of Leveson-style regulation, by increasing Miliband's determination to accept nothing less (feelings of outraged filial piety now joining his longstanding desire to muzzle newspapers like the Mail).  Already, pro-regulation campaigners scent blood: the fury with which the Mail is now being pursued is somewhat opportunistic, however genuine the anger behind it.  They will not be appeased by securing Dacre's scalp (as it will inevitably appear); the removal of their most rabid opponent will be no more than a first step.

As Roy Greenslade has it:

In truth, the whole affair has blown up in Dacre's face because of his intransigence. The Mail editor has become the centre of a story that has legs.

In the process, he has achieved the reverse of his intentions. A dignified Ed Miliband has emerged with an enhanced image. As for press regulation, he has made it infinitely more difficult for the matter to be resolved in favour of the system he favours.

But perhaps Dacre doesn't really care, and this last campaign is part of a scorched-earth policy.  There's said to be little love lost between Dacre and the man often touted as his successor, Mail on Sunday editor Geordie Greig.  Greig himself today issued an abject apology for one of his reporters gatecrashing a memorial service for Ed Miliband's uncle.  He was insistent that he had nothing to do with it (but then who did dispatch the reporter without his permission?  One of Dacre's minions?).   The subtext to Greig's grovelling is presumably to signal that the Mail under his control will be softer, gentler affair, a labrador puppy to Dacre's pitbull; and no doubt there's also a hint of panic that the scandal might cost him his long dreamed-of prize. 

Ed Miliband, meanwhile, has gone over Dacre's head to the present Lord Rothermere, demanding a thorough enquiry into the ethics of the Mail.  Such an enquiry could only satisfy by presenting the Labour leader with Dacre's head on a platter.  But if Dacre is leaving anyway, the sacrifice can only be a symbolic one.  Unless, of course, it gives Rothermere a most convenient opportunity to remake the Mail's image by loading all of its sins onto a scapegoat, who will then be cast out into the wilderness with only a vast pension to sustain him.  Or unless Dacre has raised the stakes so high that his departure now would look too much like a victory for the supposed enemies of a free press.  In which case the plans for his retirement might have to be revisited, and Rothermere (and the whole country) might be stuck with him for logner than originally expected.  Who knows?

UPDATE: The Press Gazette is reporting that Dacre is staying on for another twelve months at least, having agreed a new contract. It's not clear when he negotiated this. In any case, it puts paid to any "scorched earth" theory, but I doubt the timing is entirely coincidental. Perhaps his new lease of professional life has gone to his head.
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Thursday, 26 September 2013

Why a decline in smoking led to the smoking ban

Here's an interesting graph published today by the Guardian, based on evidence provided by the Office of National statistics.

It shows the steady decline in smoking over the past forty years.  Though there have been occasional blips (the most noticeable, in 1998, is apparently due to a change in the way the statistics were calculated) the direction of travel should be no surprise: from 45% of the population in the early seventies to around 20% today.

Smokers are smoking much less, too. I was also interested to discover that the threshold definition for a "heavy smoker" is twenty a day, and that only 5% of men and 3% of women come into that category.  The figures for 1974 aren't offered, so I'm not sure if the official definition of "heavy smoker" has changed, but 20 a day was most people's idea of average back in the 70s.  It wasn't unusual to come across chain smokers getting through as many as a hundred a day.

This is, of course, excellent news, unless you're in the life insurance business or are at all worried about the implications for pensions and social care of so many more people not dying of lung cancer and other smoking-related diseases.

You'll notice that the big decline took place in the seventies and eighties, long before the ban on tobacco advertising which was introduced in 2002, let alone the ban on smoking in public places (2006) or the introduction of graphic "warning" images on all packs in 2008.  It would be hard indeed to spot any effect from any of these measures from the graph alone.  It also suggests that the pearl-clutching reaction from the health lobby when the government recently shelved plans to introduce "plain packaging" for cigarettes (ie to replace branded designs with horror-movie stills showing the effect of smoking) was overdone.  The likelihood is that smoking rates will continue to tail off - although, as the end of the graph shows (the part that coincides with all the recent anti-smoking measures) the decline won't be nearly as steep as it was in the 70s or 80s, or even the early years of this century.  That's because the practice is now largely confined to a hard core of addicts and contrarians.

The graph neatly illustrates my longstanding principle that in public health policy the sledgehammer is only brought out once the nut has already been largely cracked.  It's only when the number of smokers was reduced to a small, and increasingly unpopular, minority that it became politically advantageous to clobber them.  Prior to that, the law was based on gentle persuasion (such as small-scale warnings on packets that merely informed purchasers that "smoking can seriously damage your health") along with the general background noise of official disapproval, public education and well-publicised "quit smoking" campaigns.

All this worked - or at least it coincided with a long and sustained fall in smoking.  The above graph, on the other hand, shows a very slight tick upwards at the end (representing the last couple of years) among male smokers at least.  Could it be that the increased intolerance of the law and the ever shriller and more apocalyptic language employed by anti-smoking campaigners is actually counterproductive?  It's at least plausible that the type of person still determinedly smoking after all these years of health scares (as opposed to those who have simply failed to give up) reacts badly to the authoritarianism of bans.

The pattern revealed by the graph does, however, show something significant about anti-smoking laws.  They aren't really aimed at discouraging smoking, or protecting the health of non-smokers, or even at punishing smokers (as some pro-smoking dissidents like to think).  Rather, they are a form of bandwagon-jumping.  Measures such as "plain packaging" are seized upon by politicians seeking to prove themselves "relevant" and up-to-date, in much the same way that they pounce upon passing moral panics or promote ideas that seem popular with focus groups.  The long-term decline in smoking is a social trend for which politicians would like to claim credit.  Introducing "tough" measures that can scarcely fail - because their aim has already been achieved - and which can claim to be both morally virtuous and medically justified is almost too tempting.
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Friday, 20 September 2013

Springtime for Godfrey

In honour of Nigel Farage's reputed youthful enthusiasm for Nazi marching songs (which he of course denies) I've composed this little ditty about his outspoken colleague Godfrey Bloom, who got into trouble today for hitting the terrier-like journalist Michael Crick and naïvely using the word "slut" in its old-fashioned sense of "slovenly".  It should be sung to the tune of the Horst Wessel Lied.  I believe it's traditional to raise the right arm during the final verse.

I'm Godfrey Bloom, I fly the flag for UKIP,
I'm never short of a well-chosen phrase,
The po-faced critics scorn me but I love a good quip
To wind up women, foreigners and gays

As MEP for Yorkshire and the Humber
Against the bureaucrats I'll bravely take a stand
In Brussels you might find me drunk inside the Chamber
But never sending aid to Bongo Bongo Land

A woman's place is cleaning out the kitchen
Or failing that, a brothel in Hong Kong;
I'll have no truck with greens and their absurd religion
I'm Godfrey Bloom, so join in with my song

My forthright style and views on every issue
Embody all that's great about UKIP
I always speak my mind, and sometimes speak my fist too,
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Wednesday, 18 September 2013

David Attenborough's Population Problem

National Treasure he may be - and pillar of the liberal establishment - but twinkly, avuncular old David Attenborough has long been a Malthusian population bore.  So it's not really surprising to find him sounding like a stuck record in the Telegraph this morning, warning that nature will take revenge on our pullulating species unless people stop having children.  Especially in the third world.  He was defending his comments from earlier this year about human beings being "a plague", saying that this was "blindingly obvious" and that the planet was "heading for disaster unless we do something." 

As for Nature's revenge - he managed to make it almost purposeful:

They've been having... what are all these famines in Ethiopia, what are they about? They're about too many people for too little piece of land. That's what it's about.  And we are blinding ourselves. We say, get the United Nations to send them bags of flour. That's barmy.

Actually, it's Attenborough who's barmy. Ethiopia is five times the size of Great Britain but has a roughly comparable population: there's plenty of room for more people. The famine of the 1980s, which indelibly fixed the world's perception of that country, was caused - and certainly prolonged - by a civil war as much as by rain failures.  The country's chronic poverty and underdevelopment didn't help much either.  Temporary famine relief is no substitute for economic development, of course, but it's more humane than sitting back and watching people die, and does at least preserve a country's human resources without which no development would be possible.  The productive parts of Ethiopia can be lush and bountiful: to suggest that it can't support a sizeable, and even growing, human population is to mistake circumstance for destiny. 

Which is what Malthusians tend to do.  Ever since Thomas Malthus proposed, in 1798, that famine and pestilence would intervene to check the increase in human population, doom merchants (and their modern descendents in the green movement) have been predicting demographic disaster.  Malthus was wrong, of course, and not for a forgiveable reason: he somehow failed to notice that he was living through the agricultural and industrial revolutions that were as he wrote transforming the world's (or in those early days, Britain's) ability to sustain a steadily growing population. 

A similar mistake was made a few decades ago by American professor Paul Ehrlich in his bestselling - but laughably wrong - The Population Bomb (1968).  Ehrlich forecast that the final decades of the 20th century would be characterised by devastating famines and the collapse of food production, to be followed by mass death.  "Hundreds of millions" would starve to death during the 1970s.  And the problems wouldn't be confined to the third world, either: by 2000, he predicted, the UK would be "a small group of impoverished islands, inhabited by some 70 million hungry people".  He thought that there was an evens chance that England would have ceased to exist by the turn of the century.

Trapped as he was in Malthusian circular reasoning Ehrlich didn't factor in the new agrarian revolution that was about to transform global agriculture.  One would imagine that having been so embarrassingly mistaken he would have recanted and retired into obscurity: but no, he's still actively promoting his misanthropic message even today.  The Guardian seems to give him a regular platform, often billing him as "the world's most renowned population analyst".  From last year, for example:

The optimum population of Earth – enough to guarantee the minimal physical ingredients of a decent life to everyone – was 1.5 to 2 billion people rather than the 7 billion who are alive today or the 9 billion expected in 2050, said Ehrlich in an interview with the Guardian.

"How many you support depends on lifestyles. We came up with 1.5 to 2 billion because you can have big active cities and wilderness. If you want a battery chicken world where everyone has minimum space and food and everyone is kept just about alive you might be able to support in the long term about 4 or 5 billion people. But you already have 7 billion. So we have to humanely and as rapidly as possible move to population shrinkage."

"The question is: can you go over the top without a disaster, like a worldwide plague or a nuclear war between India and Pakistan? If we go on at the pace we are there's going to be various forms of disaster. Some maybe slow motion disasters like people getting more and more hungry, or catastrophic disasters because the more people you have the greater the chance of some weird virus transferring from animal to human populations, there could be a vast die-off."

Quite mad. 

Like Attenborough, Ehrlich is one of the patrons of the pressure-group Population Matters, formerly the sinister-sounding Optimum Population Trust.  Since rebranding themselves, they've stopped publicising their preferred population levels, so it's not clear if they still advocate reducing the population of the UK to a "sustainable" twenty million.  Ehrlich's comments would however suggest that they do.  It would be unfair to describe the group or its supporters (who also include James Lovelock and Jonathon Porritt) as eugenicists or misanthropes, but as Brendan O'Neill once wrote, after attending one of their conferences, "there is something unavoidably spooky about people who spend their waking hours fretting about overpopulation, and who hand out leaflets saying ‘How many is too many?’ illustrated with a picture of an innocent-looking schoolgirl (white, of course) doing population sums on a blackboard".

Contrary to Malthusian assumptions, the population does not expand inexorably until it reaches natural resource limits.  It is quite capable of regulating itself.  Human beings aren't breeding machines but intelligent and rational creatures.  The most recent UN population estimates foresee the total human population expanding from its current 7 billion to around 9 billion by the middle of this century and then, or a little later, to stabilise or even slightly decline.  It won't be pestilence and famine that halt the growth of population: the rate of growth has been slowing for decades and in most advanced industrial countries has already gone into reverse (the increase in population in the UK is largely a product of immigration). 

In country after country the pattern is the same.  As people live longer, as child mortality declines - factors that ought to spark a population boom - the birthrate goes down.  What intervenes to reduce the increase in population.  Three things, mainly: prosperity, the emancipation of women and birth control.  They tend to go together, and they happen without much prompting from Attenborough and his well-heeled friends at Population Matters.  Nor is there any need for an equivalent of China's draconian and cruel One Child policy.  The "something" that needs to be done to halt ever-rising population turns out to be a by-product of economic progress.

Nor is there any reason to suppose that scientific and technological progress will not come to the aid of a growing population, even one that as it becomes more prosperous demands a higher standard of living.  It always has in the past.  A gloomy Malthusian hunter-gatherer living at the end of the last ice age, when he wasn't warning about the looming threat of climate change (which was killing off all the mammoths and seemed likely to do the same for human beings too) would no doubt have been fretting about the capacity of the environment to support ever growing numbers of people and prophesying imminent disaster.  He wouldn't have foreseen the Neolithic revolution, still less the technological advances of the Bronze Age, to say nothing of the astounding industrial leaps of the past two centuries, all of which resulted in a more efficient use of available resources and thus enabled more people to be supported.  He would have made the mistake common to all Malthusians of imagining the natural environment as something to which human beings are subject rather than something that is made and remade by human beings.

Attenborough claimed in a lecture at the RSA in 2011 that "there is no major problem facing our planet that would not be easier to solve if there were fewer people, and no problem that does not become harder - and ultimately impossible to solve - with ever more."  But the truth is almost the opposite: the more people there are in the world, the more creativity and innovation tends to occur.  The industrial revolution was not wrought by hermits living in mud huts: it arose from the meeting of people and ideas in cities that were already expanding.  And the rate of progress has only speeded up since then. 

Attenborough's gloomy prognostications will be proved wrong - but unlike Ehrlich, he won't be around to see it.
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Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Web filtering - making the best of a bad job

I've had an idea.  It probably isn't a very good one, but I offer it as a provisional solution to the looming problem of overblocking by internet filters that are supposed to protect children from porn but invariably end up by annoying everyone, children and adults alike.

It came to me while watching a debate on "protecting children from harm on the internet" at the Lib Dem conference on Sunday.  The motion being debated was proposed by the former Play School presenter Floella Benjamin, now apparently a baroness.  It was a strongly worded, Mumsnet-friendly motion, proclaiming inter alia that "the long term effects on young minds of early exposure to often violent and abusive sexual material is hightly damaging to impressionable young people and may significantly alter their attitudes to sex and violence."  It called, not merely for opt-in filters as the government wants and as the ISP industry has agreed to deliver, but for mandatory age-verification for sites offering explicit material. 

There was also an amendment tabled by Julia Cambridge, which offered slightly different proposals.  It demanded that filters should be offered to all new broadband customers and on an annual basis to existing customers.  But it also - and here's the interesting bit - demanded that:
"...when a customer who does not have a filter installed or who has a filter switched off starts loading a website which would have been filtered out that customer is made aware they have not got a filter installed/switched on and is provided with the the opportunity to install/swtich on a filter."

Neither the motion nor the amendment found much favour with the hall.  Most who took the floor spoke out against it, many making the point that filters are notoriously unreliable and catch material that is far from pornographic, including sites that are important educational resources for enquiring teenagers.  Cambridge councillor Sarah Brown complained that her own blog was banned from filtered public wifi.  Jess Palmer, a possible Lib Dem star of the future (assuming the party has a future, of course) spoke passionately and movingly about growing up as a lesbian and finding on the internet resources denied to her either at school or at home, as well as of the joys of fanfic that would undoubtedly be banned by the web filters that will some be the default setting for UK households.

Sarah Brown compared web filters to her inaccurate SatNav that apparently confused Plymouth with Warsaw.: "Automatic systems behave like this because they don’t know enough to realise when they’re doing something obviously ridiculous. They just do it anyway."

But such concerns, though true, don't seem to have deflected the government from its determination to be seen to be doing something to protect children from the big, bad internet, and now that the larger ISPs are on board it seems inevitable that the majority of the population - those who "simply click through", as David Cameron put it, or who are too embarrassed to demand adult content, or fearful of being put on some GCHQ list of porn-addicts - will soon be consigned to the "family-friendly" web.  Others, perhaps including major news sites and many independent writers and bloggers, will censor themselves rather than run the risk of being mislabelled as "adult" or "explicit".  Discussions will be circumscribed, language will be censored, creativity will be stifled.  Caution will run riot.  Most people's online experience will be of an internet designed for children and for corporate giants.

How to prevent that scenario, which even politicians acknowledge is undesirable but which seems inevitable given the fallible and play-safe set-up of algorithmic filters?

I suggest crowdsourcing.  The way to do it is hinted at in the aforementioned amendment. 

If you're a customer of TalkTalk, the one major ISP that currently offers default filtering at source, all your traffic is routed through servers run by the Chinese company Huawei.  Even customers who do not want filtering still have their traffic routed through the system, although matches to Huawei's database of blockable sites are in that case disregarded.  It seems likely that other filter systems will work the same way - opening up the possibility of customers who haven't opted for blocking nevertheless being informed that they are about to visit a contentious site. 

The conference amendment suggested that customers would then be offered the chance to change their minds about filtering, a proposal that seems frankly bizarre.  Perhaps, though, they could be given a different choice - a button to report the block as inappropriate.  Sites reported by users as having been improperly flagged could then be reviewed by human beings and, if found to be educational, or literary, or simply not pornographic, then placed on a safe list.  Thus customers who choose not to have their web experience mediated by cyber-nannies could help improve the service for those who do, mitigating the worst aspects of default filters.

I don't pretend that this is a perfect solution, or even a workable one.  But default ISP-level filtering is now an inevitability in the UK, whether we like it or not.  The question is how to make the best of a bad job.
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Monday, 16 September 2013

Yes but... the Niqab debate

Here we go again

The niqab is an anachronistic garment that oppresses women. It embodies the idea that women are the property of men, have a lesser status and are repositories of sexual temptation. It's also a security risk. It should be banned, at least in public spaces such as schools or courtrooms. We should lay down a clear principle that in our society men and women are equal.

Yes but, in our society, no-one is forced to wear it. Women who wear the niqab are exercising a free choice. It is illiberal to forbid them from manifesting their religious beliefs in the way that they choose. It also amounts to discrimination against women, because no-one is seeking to ban religious attire worn by men, such as Sikh turbans.

Yes but, what of other women and girls who might not be exercising a free choice, but whose "choice" is being foisted on them by husbands or fathers? Banning the face veil allows them to discard it without being seen as "bad" Muslims or "bad" women. Should not society be promoting these women's freedom?

Yes but, as far as we can tell, such women are in the minority. Most women who choose to wear the niqab do so entirely voluntarily, sometimes over the objection of their (male) family members. For some young women, it is almost an act of rebellion, like dressing as a goth or wearing a very short skirt might be.

Yes but, no young women are being pressured by relatives to become goths or to wear overtly sexualised clothing. And even if girls choosing the niqab are going against the wishes of their parents, they may well have fallen prey to extremists. Have you ever noticed how terrorist suspects in court are invariably accompanied by heavily-veiled wives? The spread of the niqab is a sign of growing separatism and extremism in parts of the Muslim community, and if we don't act to discourage it as a society, more young women will feel pressure to conform. We owe it to those potential victims to take a stand. Instead, naive and well-intentioned liberals fight for the rights of extremists.

Yes but, the niqab hurts no-one except (arguably) the wearer, and then only because other people discriminate against niqab-wearers. The proper course of action is to educate the rest of society to not be prejudiced against women who choose to manifest their religion in this way. There's no reason why niqab-wearers shouldn't play a full and active part in our modern, multi-faith and tolerant society.

Yes but, that's probably asking too much of other people. The human face is a highly-evolved mechanism for communication. Psychologists tell us that a high proportion of communication - perhaps as much as 90% in some estimates - is non-verbal. The ability to read in someone's face their emotions, their intentions, even their honesty is a fundamental human skill, without which social interaction would be far more difficult. It's natural to want to see someone's face; it's not some giant conspiracy against Islam. It's also natural to distrust people who decline to share their faces with other people, as if they have something to hide.

Yes but, that's still the problem of the person who objects to the niqab. It's not the niqab-wearer's problem. Not everyone relies on non-verbal communication, anyway. Some people are blind. Even sighted people in this socially networked age can have meaningful exchanges with people they have never met or even spoken to.

Yes but, why should anti-social behaviour be encouraged, or at any rate condoned, just because it is done in the name of religion? If someone wanted to go to school wearing a V for Vendetta mask, perhaps to make some political point, would that be allowed? Why give special privileges to religion? Niqab-wearers may say that they are acting out of severe religious commitment, but the niqab is not compulsory in Islam. It's the choice of an eccentric minority, which is what it should stay.

Yes but, it's not just a matter of religious choice, or personal conviction. Many niqab-wearers say they feel more comfortable wearing it. They are not sexually objectified, reduced to their outward appearance, or subjected to sexual harassment or the stares of men. The veil protects them against the misogyny of wider society. It is above all an expression of sexual modesty, an outward sign of the conviction that they do not exist purely to gratify men.

Yes but, there is no more objectifying garment. It strips away a person's individuality, reducing her to a formless, shapeless mass. Besides, it is quite false to suggest that a woman wearing a niqab is not judged on her appearance. Assumptions will readily be made about her, true or otherwise: that she is an oppressed woman, that she is a religious extremist, or that she does not want to interact socially with other people. This will necessarily reduce her engagement in society. It is also dangerous to argue that for a woman to cover her entire body, and even her face, is an expression of "modesty": it's essentially the same argument as that which tells sees short skirts as an invitation to rape. It is insulting to both men and women. It also ignores the truth that some men find veiled women sexually attractive. And have you ever read the Arabian Nights?

Yes but, the niqab still represents a powerful rejection of a sexually objectifying, superficial and decadent western culture that judges women on their personal grooming and encourages a shallow, hedonistic approach to life.

Yes but really? Among those who choose to wear it, the niqab is a demonstration of narcissistic self-absorption. It's a demand for attention, attracting the stares that it is allegedly designed to deflect. Nothing says "look at me!" quite as assertively as a niqab in a society in which it is abnormal. It's an act of cultural aggression, not of submission.

Yes but, that's not the intention. The niqab wearer doesn't want to blend in but she does want to blend out. The niqab is liberating because it allows its wearer to ignore all that and concentrate on what really matters, which might well include education itself. To restrict the niqab would therefore be to force women to conform to an oppressive social standard.

Yes but, historically the emancipation of women has always been as much sartorial as political. In Victorian times, women were dressed up like dolls and barred from most areas of public life. Demands for freedom from imprisonment in corsets and long skirts went along with campaigns for the right to vote, to attend university and to join the professions. In the 1970s, feminists burned their bras as symbols of patriarchal oppression. But the bra itself was invented to free women, who were moving into the workplace and for the first time in modern history taking their full place in society, from the restrictiveness of the corset. Feminists today decry the "objectification" of lads' mags and internet porn, but these developments take place in the context of a society that offers unprecedented and growing opportunities and freedoms for women.

Yes but, it's historically inaccurate to suggest that the niqab is associated with oppression. The only reference to veiling in the Quran involves the wives of the Prophet: their concealment was a demonstration not of their subjugation but of their high status. The burqa and similar garments were originally the preserve of the upper classes, whose women never worked and often lived in purdah, only occasionally venturing out or receiving unrelated male visitors. The veil was an expression of their superiority over women who toiled in the fields or laboured as servants. Prostitutes, too, might often be veiled, and for an ironically similar reason: as proof of their exclusivity, their unavailability even to be gazed upon by any except those who could afford to pay.

Yes but, that makes the point, surely. The concept of a woman being both veiled and playing a full part in society makes no sense. The niqab was always a symbol of separation and segregation, of demarcation: of women from men, of Muslims from non-Muslims, of the leisured classes from those who had to work for a living. Historically, veiled women may have been privileged, living in a gilded cage, but they were always essentially the property of the husbands or fathers who could afford to subsidise their enforced idleness.

Yes but, the niqab today facilitates social engagement, rather than preventing it, because it allows women who would otherwise be kept at home to go out, to study, even to work without her modesty being compromised. Surely it's better for her to be free to leave the house, even veiled, than to remain indoors? That's far more "oppressive".

Yes but, at least if the niqab-wearer remains at home she isn't contributing to the normalisation of an inherently sexist and oppressive custom. It's a counsel of despair to suggest that society's response to a manifestly regressive and discriminatory custom is to accept it because the alternative might be even worse. Banning the niqab, at least in public spaces, isn't about telling people how they should dress. Rather, it's about sending a message about what kind of society we want to see. One in which men and women are equal citizens.

Yes but, suppose it was men who were required to wear veils. People wouldn't complain then that it was a signifier of oppression. Instead, women would be demanding the right to wear veils too.

Yes but, men aren't required to wear veils, are they? That's the whole point!

And so on. For what it's worth, I instinctively dislike the niqab and find the arguments of its proponents entirely specious. I'm naturally opposed to banning things, and I don't think that French-style criminalisation of the niqab is a realistic proposition here in any case. But I do think that the French commitment to secularism embodies an important principle that is all too easily lost in the laissez-faire liberalism of the UK, which slides too easily and too often into indifference. The French authorities, it's worth noting, take a much firmer line against female genital mutilation than do their British counterparts, who have somehow managed to bring not a single prosecution.

I would also argue that the social trends associated with the niqab - political extremism, extreme social conservatism and gender apartheid - are both regrettable and potentially dangerous. I think we should take more seriously the arguments of Muslim liberals, such as Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, who see in the spread of the niqab the growing power of narrow and regressive forms of Islam such as that associated with Wahhabist Saudi Arabia. It's worth remembering (but usually forgotten) that the campaign in France to ban the burqa was vocally supported and to some extent led by Muslim feminists - the very people whose voices are squeezed out of the British debate.

This isn't a simplistic question of freedom of expression versus secularism or social conformism. Personal freedom is an important principle but isn't the only thing that matters, nor is it a trump card. Nor is religion.
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Friday, 6 September 2013

Coming out in Barnsley

Sixteen year olds registering at a sixth-form college in Barnsley, fabled home of Ian McMillan and Arthur Scargill, were told to fill out a form giving their details to the school authorities.  The first question, coming after the section requesting contact details, asked their gender, the second (which may have been incomprehensible to some) enquired whether their gender had changed since birth.  The third invited them to "please indicate your sexual orientation."  The options given were, in alphabetical order, Bisexual, Gay man, Gay woman/lesbian, Heterosexual, Transsexual or "Prefer not to say."

It is reported that some students were reduced to tears at being asked to disclose such personal information, not as part of an anonymous survey but on the front of a form that was designed to gather data about them as individuals.  I'm not surprised.  It could be argued that the question was optional, in that a "prefer not to say" box was provided.  But as one student was quoted as saying , she "did feel under pressure to tick a box and then if you ticked 'prefer not to say' it might make people question why you have done that."  Not all students would have felt such pressure, the breezily heterosexual ones least of all.  But it was wholly predictable that some would.

What does surprise me is that anyone imagined that putting such a form in front of sixth formers, some of whom might be vulnerable and confused about their sexuality, others of whom might be fearful of bullying and discrimination, was in any way appropriate, even in a town as blessedly free from homophobia as Barnsley.  Whoever devised and whoever approved the form should have no place in the education system, as they clearly have little understanding of sexual development or of the adolescent mind.

In what fantasy land is every 16 year-old secure and confident enough in their sexuality to be able to declare publicly - or at least to their teachers - which of those essentialist boxes they fit into?  Some will be.  But at that age, most are either at the beginning, or have not yet begun, their sexual lives.  They will have wildly differing levels of maturity.  Yet the bureaucratic mindset, which is interested merely in the assemblage of data, shows no understanding of the psychological impact that such intrusive questioning might have - if not on the majority, then on many of those whom equality laws are supposedly designed to protect.  For some of those youngsters confronted, quite unexpectedly, with a bluntly-worded request about their sexual orientation, it may have been the first time they had been expected to think in such terms.  It would have been a question better explored in a counselling session than on an official form.

When it comes to sexual orientation, the official dogma imagines a society that does not yet (and may well never) exist, one in which everyone is certain of their erotic identity and secure and confident enough openly to declare it.  Where there is no embarrassment surrounding sexuality, not even among 16 year olds, and where no-one minds intimate details about themselves being placed on a database accessible to school staff and, if the occasion arose, other professionals (and no guarantee that it would not be disclosed to their parents).  Where no prejudiced or ill-intentioned person would ever come across it, because prejudiced or ill-intentioned people are nowhere to be found in the ranks of public employees.

Barnsley College was, to begin with, predictably defensive, citing its duty under the 2010 Equality Act to collect statistical information about sexual orientation, as about gender, disability and ethnicity.  The initial statement noted merely that it was "a method of monitoring the success of protected characteristic groups."  Such weasel words, of course, reveal the true focus of their priorities: not the welfare of their students, but their data-gathering responsibilities under equality law.  But they were forced to change their tune after Wes Streeting of Stonewall, among others, criticised the form, saying that it was "not acceptable that students were asked to disclose their sexual orientation in a way that failed to respect their privacy" and that they "should have done their homework." Stonewall's own expert guide, aimed at companies employing adults, recommends that such questions be asked on detachable forms that can be separated and anonymised.  

The college has now apologised and promised a review, "taking into account feedback from our students."  Yet this apparent change of mind only underlines the manifest incompetence of the school authorities, seemingly reliant on "student feedback" to educate them that a teenager's sexuality ought not to be a matter of public record, and that they should not feel under any pressure, however slight, to disclose it. 

Even as a means of evidence-gathering, the form is basically useless.  It is likely to under-count gay and lesbian students, and those least likely to respond accurately are going to be those who might be in most need of protection.  Indeed, there is a huge incentive for those in the closet to lie because, in a society in which homophobia remains an issue, where there is even the slightest fear that the information might be misused, the only safe answer is "heterosexual": anything else, even "prefer not to say" is potentially compromising or may be felt to be so.  Is a teenager who has been bullied on account of (real or supposed) orientation then to be told that their bullying or underperformance is of no consequence because they don't form part of the school's official LGBT statistics?  Or if that isn't the intention (presumably it isn't) is that teenager, or even a teacher, nevertheless likely to think that their officially-designated status will make a difference?

Since the introduction of the public sector equality duty, there have been regular stories of bone-headed councils, quite unnecessarily, asking direct questions about the sexuality of tenants or of residents joining the local library, or even of companies asking job applicants to specify their orientation on recruitment forms.  It is unnecessary, even if the duty to collect data exists, because such information can be ascertained more accurately and with less possibility of causing offence through anonymous surveys.  I sometimes wonder if the aim isn't merely to collect information (with the laudable aim of targeting discrimination) but also to create a society in which no-one is allowed to be either private or in doubt about their sexual orientation and in which we all fit neatly into predefined boxes. 

It's certainly the case that the Equality and Human Rights Commission has regularly expressed the view that some people's reticence about sexual orientation is an obstacle in the pursuit of their utopia.  The quango has laid down making sexual orientation "a public matter" as central to its policy in the area.  It has also publicly lamented the exclusion of a sexual orientation question from the 2011 census.  ECHR advice and codes of conduct stress the importance of canvassing information from employees and service users, and it suggests re-framing monitoring as "personal information sharing" as a way of persuading the reluctant to talk. 

One EHCR report acknowledges that "data collection is not about intruding into the private lives of individuals," but then goes on to claim that the fact that some people continue to regard their sexual orientation as private holds back progress.  Openness is key.  "People should be able to have the right and choice to be open about their sexual orientation," it says - which is, of course, true.  But the EHCR seems unwilling to accept an equivalent right not to be open, partly because it seems to believe that such a desire for privacy would not exist in a truly tolerant society.  It's a form of victim-blaming that underestimates the courage that coming out still involves.

It is true that sexuality is nothing to be ashamed of and that many gay people, happily, are now proud and open about their orientation.  But you don't produce a tolerant society by causing vulnerable people shame and embarrassment or by imposing the cult of openness on people who consider their sexuality to be an essentially private matter.  That such a question should have been posed to teenagers, and with such disregard to its likely effect, is gobsmacking.  A moment's reflection should have been enough to decide that this was not appropriate.  It suggests school leaders whose brains have been reduced to mush by the bureaucratic tasks placed upon them in the sacred name of equality and diversity.
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Monday, 2 September 2013

Armchair generals underestimate Britain's influence

Here's the strangest revelation to follow from Thursday night's Commons vote, a decision that was both farcical (in the manner it came about) and magnificent (in the way it seems to have reinvigorated both the "Parliamentary" and "democracy" parts of what is mostly inaccurately called our Parliamentary democracy). It turns out that the believers in Britain's continuing role as a leading voice in world affairs, who often seem so delusional (never more so than when bemoaning the catastrophic consequences for our national credibility of not bombing Syria on this particular occasion) were right after all. The UK does still pack some sort of punch on the world stage. Just not in the way they assumed.

Large parts of the commentariat and the political leadership assumed that not joining in Obama's planned tweaking of Bashar Assad's moustache meant that the UK would never be taken seriously again. Many are still wedded to that dismal belief today. Take, for example, David Blair in the Telegraph, who seems to want to outdo his namesake in enthusiasm for war-related brown-nosing of Uncle Sam. In a hysterical piece, he writes that "by casting a grotesquely irresponsible vote, our MPs have downgraded our Prime Minister in the eyes of the world’s superpower." Hitherto, he thinks, the American president, whoever he happened to be, could rely on Britain providing "serious military capability" whenever there was somewhere that both countries agreed needed bombing. This gives the British "credibility" in Washington, he believes.

Such credibility is now at an end, thinks Blair, because of the "strange new doctrine that Parliament must approve any military action" (I think the word he's looking for is "democracy") and because of what he sees as the pacifist/isolationist tone of some of the speeches in the Commons, many of which stressed the importance of the UN. What he doesn't tell us is what such supposed "credibility" actually brings the UK, beyond patronising pats on the head at the White House (much talk of "our closest ally" and "special relationship", a phrase rational people cannot hear without wincing) and the ill-disguised contempt of the rest of the world.

A country is not strong and respected as an independent voice if its only international role is to fire missiles and drop bombs in pursuance of another country's foreign policy. Nothing proclaims weakness so much as pearl-clutching prophecies of doom from people who think that the nation is just one bombing raid away from global irrelevance. In their way, voices of the Blair (Tony as well as David) or Paddy Ashdown persuasion are just as pessimistic, just as defeatist, as those who urge Britain to give up its "post-imperial pretensions" and settle for for an international influence on a par with, say, Swaziland. They don't want this country to have actual influence either in Washington or the wider world - or, at any rate, they don't believe that such influence is possible. What they want is the appearance of influence, an illusion bought at great expense in wasted military hardware and often lives and which in any case fools no-one.

These people's greatest ambition is for the UK to be the monkey to America's organ-grinder. But who ever took the monkey seriously? The audience respects the organ-grinder while the monkey, if he's lucky, gets tossed a few peanuts. What kind of ambition is that?

Assuming you believe that Britain ought to have some sort of influence in the world, it can only exercise it by being true to its own principles or by acting in its own interests - as, for example, the French invariably do. Parliament rightly rejected the opportunity to join in with Obama's ill thought-through gesture bombing, recognising that there was nothing in it either for Britain or, more importantly, for the people of Syria. Syria isn't merely "not our war"; bombing military targets as punishment or as an expression of moral indignation isn't even our solution. ("Our solution", championed by William Hague, which strikes me as even more bonkers than the proposed bombing campaign, has long been to "arm the rebels.") It's not our responsibility as a nation, even a nation that has a few dozen Tomahawk Cruise missiles to its name, to dig President Obama out of the hole into which he dug himself by declaring his foolish "red line" last year. Even if you believe, as I do, that the Assad regime was guilty of using chemical weapons and deserves to be punished for it, there's simply no evidence that this proposed response will do anything to alleviate the suffering of the people of Syria, which is after all the only thing that really matters.

David Blair, incidentally, passes over Syria entirely, beyond the merest of nods: "let’s leave aside the case for and against the proposed strike on Syria and focus on the diplomatic consequences for Britain." A remarkable example of tunnel vision, if all-too-representative of the general tone of the commentary. This isn't about us, and it isn't about the frustrations and hurt feelings of armchair generals not being allowed to join in the fun.

But we now know the actual impact, at least in the short term, of last week's Parliamentary vote. It was to bounce a panicked (or perhaps secretly relieved) Obama into putting the matter before Congress, not in emergency session, but next week, by which time both the case for military strikes and the likely consequences will be clearer. The Francophile John Kerry might have taken the opportunity to snub Britain and wax lyrical about an "oldest ally" that was last of serious military assistance to the United States in 1782, but Obama (despite his oft-alleged Anglophobia) appears to have more sense. He realises, as many in the US do, that the UK is a serious ally and thus should be taken seriously. He appreciates, better than many on this side of the Atlantic, that when the House of Commons, despite a tradition of bi-partisanship on questions of national security and defence, declines to support a particular military course urged by the government, that this is unlikely to be a petulant whim.

Far from destroying British credibility - even in Washington - Parliament's decision to apply the brakes on the rush towards a futile bombing raid has done much to restore it. Last Thursday, largely as a result of actions by Ed Miliband that were either fiendishly Machiavellian or just plain indecisive, and a response by David Cameron that was almost an object lesson in how not to do politics, Parliament reflected the will of the nation. It taught the American president a lesson in the value of reflection and the importance of democratic debate that he has shown himself perhaps surprisingly willing to learn. It showed the world that, whatever the desire of political leaders, leader-writers and BBC war-junkies to get involved in something - anything - that the Americans want to do the UK isn't quite a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Pentagon. It began to undo some of the damage caused by Tony Blair. It reasserted the national interest.

And the world took note. It made a difference. Who would have predicted that?
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Wednesday, 28 August 2013

In Syria, the right thing to do may be the wrong thing to do

The real test for our political leaders pondering Syria, and one which the evidence of their public utterance would suggest that they're failing, is to separate the principled moral case for punishing the Assad regime from a pragmatic analysis of what the proposed bombing campaign will actually do.

The first is easy, which is why it is so appealing to practitioners of the politics of emotion. Hit the bad guys who did the bad thing. Chemical weapons are barbarous and their use is contrary to international law. The Ghouta massacre was a monstrosity and deserves to be punished. By resorting to such means the Syrian rulers have put themselves beyond the pale of the world community: politics is a cynical game, and international politics most cynical of all, but it's hard to see Assad and his lovely wife ever being welcomed to cosy summits with other leaders. The new Cameron doctrine of "not standing idly by" is certainly in play.

I'm incidentally unconvinced by assertions that the Syrian power structure is not ultimately responsible for the chemical attack, or that there's insufficient evidence that they are behind it. There's ample evidence. They alone had the motive and the opportunity. As to why they would have done something so seemingly irrational as to have perpetrated a chemical massacre under the noses of UN weapons inspectors, and in defiance of Obama's well-publicised red lines, especially at a time when according to the consensus of news reports they are making major gains against rebel forces, there are a number of possible explanations. It may have been a rogue commander (this would be the natural explanation for an intercepted phone call from a senior Defence Ministry official demanding to know what had happened). It may have been Bashar Assad's hothead younger brother Maher, out for revenge after a failed assassination attempt on the president.

Or it may have been more calculated. Der Spiegel, quoting a defecting Syrian general, reports that recent rebel inroads into the Alawite heartland of Latakia have drained irregular forces from Damascus, where they had been supporting the depleted national army. According to the defector, the regime solved two problems with the gas attack, "holding the thinned out front around Damascus and strengthening the morale of the fanatics in their ranks." Lack of response to earlier small-scale gas incidents (the responsibility for which remains controversial) and Obama's evident desire not to get ensnared in another drawn-out conflict, may have led the Syrian leadership to underestimate the international reaction.

We don't really know. But any of these theories makes more sense than the suggestion that rebel forces killed hundreds of their own fighters, along with many women and children, just to attract international sympathy. Doubts about regime responsibility are so far-fetched that they make opponents of military intervention look ridiculous. Leave them to the likes of Galloway.

But even to ask "is Assad guilty?" or "how should he be punished?" is to seek to answer the wrong question.  For many opponents of Western intervention, our leaders must have a dark hidden motivation, whether it's to increase American power or just to test some shiny new weapons in the field.  Or they're merely indulging their narcissistic desire to play a leading role in events.  On the contrary, I think the problem is that our leaders aren't cynical enough.  They're motivated by the desire to do "the right thing"; and while the proposed action is morally justified it's strategically highly dangerous.

The intention seems to be "surgical" strikes, serious enough to serve as an effective deterrent, not devastating enough to hand Syria to Al Qaeda and its affiliates. How can such an outcome be guaranteed? It can't be. Too much depends on subtle balances of which even the best intelligence can't be fully aware. The planned missile strikes will certainly tilt the military balance away from Assad and, therefore, towards the rebels (both the "good" rebels, who want a constitutional democracy, and the currently much stronger Saudi-backed jihadists). But that won't necessarily hasten the end of the war. It may prolong it further.

While it's impossible to be sure what's really going on (I certainly don't know), if the balance of recent reports is anywhere near accurate the civil war has been heading towards a de facto partition of the country, with the regime solid in some areas and the rebels in effective control of other - and with Assad strengthening and extending his control over key strategic areas while being impotent to take back the whole country. It is possible to see a settlement emerging based on these facts on the ground. If so - and it would depend on a perhaps implausible realism on both sides - then striking at Assad's military infrastructure may wreck the best hope for short-term peace. It would strengthen both the morale and the capability of the rebels vis-a-vis Assad, but still leave the regime with enough fighting strength to dig in. The result could be the intensification of the fighting and yet more destruction of life and property.

This isn't inevitable. If reports of Assad's military recovery have been overdone (and they may well have been - there have been recent, underreported rebel gains) it's just possible that targeted airstrikes will tip the balance decisively in the rebels' favour, dooming the regime. But it's a huge gamble to take. The balance of probability at the moment must be that Western intervention will make the situation worse.

But perhaps it matters little either way. It is already too late to save Syria. The Assad regime was always brutal and undemocratic, yet the country over which it presided was a precious thing, a place where Sunni and Shia, Muslim and Christian, secular and religious lived side-by-side in greater harmony than anywhere else in the middle east. That has been utterly destroyed, along with Syria's infrastructure and economy. Returning the country to anything like normality will be the work of decades, and even then its tolerant, mixed society is almost certainly gone forever. Neither the improbable restoration to supreme power of a morally bankrupt and illegitimate regime, nor the more likely triumph of Saudi-backed extremists, nor even an Iraqi-style attempt at democracy can alter that. Of all the tragedies that have followed the misnamed and misguided "Arab Spring", that of Syria is perhaps the worst. Even the outrageous deployment of chemical weapons is of small account set against the wider context of a wrecked nation.
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