Saturday, July 04, 2009 

Weekend links.

An exceptionally quiet weekend, so let's keep this short and sweet. Rachel North posts on conspiracy theories, having appeared in the good but not overwhelming Conspiracy Files: 7/7 on Monday (not mentioning the fact that MSK left behind a martyrdom video which al-Qaida's media arm released was a very poor omission), as does Flying Rodent, although on ones which some regard as conspiracy theories but which are strikingly close to being accurate, Paul Linford has his weekly column, on Labour's latest miserable relaunch, both Jamie and Daily Quail have comments on Bernie Ecclestone's declaration that Hitler "got things done", Laurie Penny is back in Britain and depressed while the Heresiarch considers Sarah Palin's latest attention seeking.

In the papers, Afua Hirsch has a comprehensive piece on the fallout from Darryn Walker's acquittal on obscenity charges, Marina Hyde notes the politico obsession with the West Wing, Polly T says there is a pension apartheid, Matthew Parris believes victory is impossible in Afghanistan, Peter Oborne rather overstates his case that parliament is full of liars, as if lying in parliament had only just been invented while Andrew Grice reports that the Tories believe Labour is planning a "scorched earth" policy, which brings to mind Mandy Rice-Davis's contribution to popular culture.

As for worst tabloid article, there is but one contender this week, and that's today's Sun leader column, hysterical as ever in its fervour, both for war and support for our brave brave boys:

THE nation mourns two fine soldiers lost in war-torn Afghanistan.

Lt Col Rupert Thorneloe and Trooper Joshua Hammond both gave their lives for the same noble purpose: Helping to defend freedom.

Yes, of course they did.

If we ever stop believing in the justice of that fight, we surrender all that we won in centuries creating the foundations of Western civilisation.

But are we making the fight harder?

Slack and lazy immigration and visa controls could be allowing into Britain the very people intent on arranging the deaths of our troops.

If we don't control our borders properly, we place our fighting men and women in even greater danger.

Afghanistan is the front line. But the war is also fought here by terrorists who sneak into Britain. We must redouble efforts to secure our borders.

Err, except every single attack or attempted attack by Islamic extremists in this country has been carried out either by British citizens or by those who were here perfectly legally, and there is no suggestion whatsoever that this is about to change. Still, let's kill two birds with one scaremongering stone: both illegal immigration and terrorism.

Let us also remember today ALL the lives laid down by troops protecting us from terrorism.

Colonel Thorneloe and Trooper Hammond were separated by rank but united by courage.

On such brave and selfless soldiers lies the responsibility of protecting Britain and our Allies from those who would blow us to pieces.

See, there I was thinking that the troops were there in Afghanistan working on reconstruction and helping the Afghan people, not on protecting "us" from terrorism. This is significant for the fact that their presence increases the threat to us, rather than decreases it. You really have to hand it to the Sun for attempting to tell us that black is in fact white and that white is actually black.

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Friday, July 03, 2009 

Dispatches from the sandpit.

How to be sure that your death in service of "Queen and country" will actually make the news?

1. Be an attractive woman

2. Be a rank higher than the very lowest, those who usually can be ripped apart by bombs and who will only merit a mention at the next week's prime ministers questions

It's worth remembering that none of the main three parties oppose the utter lunacy which is our current policy in Afghanistan, where we serve as target practice for an enemy that is not going to be defeated unless we swamp the entire country with troops, which is not going to go away not matter how many years we spend there propping up a regime which we actively dislike, and where the only thing that makes this even approaching a "good" war is that most civilians seem to prefer the occasional 500lb bomb being dropped in their vicinity over the wearying tyranny which the Taliban and various other warlords impose. No amount of counter-insurgency theories or theorists are going to make the difference when you face an enemy which has been fighting for nigh on 30 years, and is not going to suddenly stop no matter how many hearts and minds you win or how many of them you kill. The sooner our politicians realise that this war is even more unwinnable than the Iraq one was, where the insurgents themselves eventually turned on the most brutal amongst them, the sooner the body bags of all our soldiers will stop being brought back.

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Thursday, July 02, 2009 

Toothless, useless, the Press Complaints Commission strikes again.

To get an idea of just how useless the Press Complaints Commission is, you only have to look at its non-investigation into the Alfie Patten disaster. You would have thought that they might just have something to say about how the Sun, the People and the Sunday Mail had almost certainly paid his family for personal interviews which led to some of the most invasive and potentially damaging intrusion into the private lives of children for some years, only for it to subsequently turn out that, oops, Alfie wasn't the father after all.

Today the Commission announced that it is to do, well, nothing. To be fair, that isn't quite what it's done. Because of the restrictions imposed by the High Court, which prevent the families of both Patten and Chantelle Steadman from being approached, the PCC supposedly has been unable to determine exactly what was paid, what was expected in return for that payment, how the families intended to use the money, how concerned the newspapers were about the children's welfare and the circumstances surrounding the original mistaken identification of Alfie as the father. It has instead elaborated on its guidelines on payments to parents for material about their children, which while welcome, is not for a moment going to stop this happening again.

While it's unfortunate that the families themselves cannot tell their side of the story, this is letting the opposite side completely off the hook. Is the PCC a regulator or is it not? A regulator with any teeth would have demanded that the newspapers themselves reveal what was promised, and just how, if the reports of the Sun setting up a trust fund for the child are accurate, it was intending to deliver the payment. It isn't clear that this information was sought at all; instead, it seems the PCC was relying purely on the families to inform them of what deals were made.

What the papers did provide the PCC with, predictably, was their arguments on how it certainly was in the public interest for them to claim that a 13-year-old who looked more like 8 had fathered a child:

The newspapers argued that the articles involved the important issue of the prevalence, and impact, of teenage pregnancy within British society. By identifying the principals involved and presenting them in a particular way, the story dramatised and personalised these issues in a way that stimulated a wide-ranging public debate, involving contributions from senior politicians (which included the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition). The newspapers said that they were fulfilling an important duty in publicising to a large audience a social problem that is perceived to be widespread. Their position was that the case was, on the evidence available at the time of publication, an exceptional example of the problem.

This is all true. This however doesn't take into account the fact that it was not in either Patten or Steadman's best interests for the entire world to know intimate details about their lives, with their parents making the decision for them based presumably on the fact that there was money offered in exchanged. There was only a story because of how Patten looked; 13-year-olds being fathers is rare, but not that rare. 15-year-olds being fathers and mothers however, is not a story at all, as in this case it subsequently turned out to be. Some might think it should be a story, and that it's a sad reflection on society at large when it isn't, on which they might have something approaching a point, but that isn't the issue here. Most damningly, the newspapers don't seem to have taken any real interest in how their stories would affect the children, and in the case of the People, doesn't seem to have decided that how Patten had to be begged, almost forced to come and speak to them might have suggested that they shouldn't be running such reports.

The Sun especially must be laughing at the weakness of the PCC. To say they profited from the story would be an understatement: almost purely down to the Patten report, which went around the world at the social horror of a baby himself becoming a father, they sky-rocketed to the top of the ABCe tables, becoming the most popular UK newspaper website for Feburary, with over 27 million unique visitors. However much they promised to pay the Patten family, they must have surely more than made their money back. For a newspaper editor who has dedicated herself to campaigning for child protection, either for Sarah's law or for "justice" for Baby P, Rebekah Wade seems to have completely lost her moral compass over Patten, and the only organisation which could have punished her has spurned its opportunity.

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Wednesday, July 01, 2009 

Basic inhumanity.

What possible purpose is served by the refusal to grant parole to Ronnie Biggs? The only conclusion that can be reached is that this is pure political grandstanding by Jack Straw, designed to win favour with the more punitive tabloids. It's also an insight into the similarly ridiculous way in which the prison system works. While Biggs was clearly guilty of his part in the Great Train Robbery, those convicted of murder who reject their guilt cannot be considered for parole and so are destined to spend their entire life behind bars until they do so, as Sean Hodgson almost did, until finally proved innocent by newly discovered forensic evidence.

As Biggs has apparently refused to show repentance for his crime and has not taken part in the courses which those looking to be released usually have to pass before their parole is granted, he looks set to languish in a cell until he dies, which might not be that far in the future. According to his family, Biggs can no longer speak, cannot walk and at the weekend broke his hip after a fall. Keeping a man in prison in such circumstances is the heighth of stupidity, as not only can he not receive the help that he obviously needs, but he also doubtless takes up extra resources which could be better used elsewhere. The prison system is overcrowded enough as it is, without also having invalids who now only seem to be inside because of the perniciousness of a government minister. It would be different if Biggs' crime was similar in proportion to that of say, Ian Brady's, still refusing after all these years to reveal where his final victim was buried, but despite the huge amount seized in the robbery, no one suffered to anywhere near the extent to which it would be appropriate to inflict a similar amount of suffering on those guilty. Jack Straw seems to be just playing to the gallery yet again.

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Tuesday, June 30, 2009 

Legislation which doesn't amount to a hill of beans.

One of the more cutting attacks of recent months on the government came not from the Conservatives but from that other continual provider of friendly fire, Frank Field. Writing about government business which was slowly winding its way towards conclusion, he said "week after week MPs have been turning up but with almost no serious work to do. There is the odd bill to be sure. But there is no legislative programme to speak of ... the whole exercise is vacuous."

The problem with Field's criticism is that it assumes that fresh legislation is the be all and end all of government, and it has indeed become one of the key measures by which they are judged. This misses the point that it is not the quantity of bills which are passed, and New Labour has in the past been rightly accused of legislative mania, but rather the quality, on which Labour again falls down on. The immediate answer to passing frenzies and quick to evaporate moral panics is always to get something on the statute book, regardless of how those laws will end up being used and the overall effect they will have. The shining example remains the Dangerous Dogs Act, passed after a tabloid campaign and which outlaws entire breeds of dog, regardless of the dog's own nature. Last year's knife panic brought demands for anyone carrying a knife, regardless of age or reason, to be sent to prison, something which most judges are still rightly either ignoring or evading.

With this in mind, some criticism of what amounts to the next Queen's speech announced yesterday would be unfair. Who can blame a government in uncertain economic times, when it doesn't frankly have a clue how much money it will eventually have to play about with, from not having the most ambitious legislative programme mapped out? Added to this is that we are now less from a year away from an election, where the real big reforms and changes will doubtless be held over to put into the manifesto, and you're likely to be left with what is tinkering around the margins, dropping some of the more unpopular formerly proposed initiatives, with part-privatisation of the Royal Mail postponed and ID cards now not to be forced on anyone (although the real problem all along, the database, will still be around) while also attempting some populist gestures such as allocating more money to social housing building.

As of course this though is New Labour, they can't help but add some very real stings in the tail. The added measure in the housing commitment to make sure that "local residents" are first to be considered for new council homes has only one target, and that is the persistent myth, mined ruthlessly by the BNP, that migrants, asylum seekers and foreigners have the first crack of the whip. It's true that all councils have to bump up those who are in genuine need, whether homeless or otherwise, up towards the top, but asylum seekers and migrants are excluded from the very beginning until they are given leave to remain. Only 5% of social housing is allocated to foreign nationals, but this hasn't stopped the repeated claims that this isn't the case. That the government has now given succour to the idea, regardless of whether or not they also point out at the same time that it isn't true, it's the sort of legitimisation which the BNP and other discontents thrive upon and which they will be pointing out for years to come. It might not be entirely fair to call this "British homes for British workers", but it's not far from it.

Much the same is the case with the kind, generous, selfless gesture which is the offer of a job or training to the young who have been unemployed for over a year. Not a new announcement, but the stick being wielded is. Those who refuse a job, presumably regardless of what it is, will lose two weeks' benefit, and so on and so forth. The opposing argument will be that beggars can't be choosers, but putting someone into a job which they simply aren't suited to do is no solution at all. This conditionality was inherent in James Purnell's welfare reform bill, and it was just as damaging and potentially pernicious there as it is here. Most of those currently out of are work will welcome the possibility of a job, but not any job. One explanation for why this is especially being targeted at the young and out of work is that there is the potential to save money: tax credits, which eat into the savings made when the older out of work find employment, are not payable to those under 24. The government is therefore a winner regardless of whether a job is taken up or not.

Alongside the welcome retreat from the targets culture ingrained in the public sector under Blair, to be replaced by various rights to treatment or private tutors, although where the money's coming from is unclear, the most conspicuous absence is any real reform neccesitated by the expenses scandal. This might be for the better, as the beginning of this post argues, as legislation cobbled together in haste often fails all those involved, and it seems the current bill being rushed through is no exception, but for a prime minister who came in promising further constitutional reform, the final flushing out of the hereditary peers from the Lords is about as tame as it gets. It just confirms that as with the banking sector, parliament is getting back to normal, and far quicker than the City did. It can be argued that the public themselves didn't want major reform of Westminster, just an end to the gravy train, but at the same time it fails to answer the now critical insult that all politicians are more or less the same.

It's an attack which sticks, because all this latest package confirms is that Labour and the Conservatives are fighting a battle not over ideology, but over the little details. The key differences seem to be that the Conservatives will be slightly tougher, whether on law and order, foreign policy and the welfare system, and cut slightly more, except on health and foreign aid, and possibly education than Labour will. Little else really separates them. Neither is prepared to be honest about what they would cut, whether it's Labour who don't seem prepared to admit that they'll cut anything, or the Tories, who have no intention of telling just how harshly they're going to cut public spending. Here is where Alan Johnson's suggestion that there could be a referendum on voting reform at the same time as the election could have made so much difference. The promise that you would no longer be forced to decide which is the lesser of the two evils, with the Lib Dems joining the fray in certain areas, could have helped to suggest that there will shortly be a real choice. Instead we're fobbed off with the same old leftovers as before, regardless of which party is proposing what.

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Monday, June 29, 2009 

Girls (Scream) Alone.

The prosecution against Darryn Walker, the author of the story "Girls (Scream) Aloud", has collapsed without a jury even needing to be troubled by any of the evidence. Despite having had since last July to come up with a case, although it seems it didn't come to the attention of the press until last October, the Crown failed to offer any evidence after Walker's defence demolished any hope of a conviction.

It does now appear that as I wondered back then, the key factor in Walker being charged was that his story mentioned the very real girl group Girls Aloud. It's still unclear whether he first wrote the almost identical "Pieces of Candy", which has a fictitious girl group undergoing the same torture as the members of Girls Aloud do in their version, then adapted it, but regardless, it was his decision to make it "real" that led to his prosecution. According to the prosecution, it was undertaken under the fear that those merely searching for Girls Aloud might be unlucky enough to come across Walker's fevered writings, featuring the rape, mutilation and murder and all five members of the group, and so, presumably, be "depraved and corrupted" as the Obscene Publications Act requires for there to be a conviction.

The idea that either of those things was likely was always laughable. Walker's story was (and still is) contained on an archive for writing posted on the Usenet group, and even then is not easily found; search the website itself for Girls Aloud and it is not even on the first page. It is instead hidden away on the Kristen archives section of the website, which itself has a warning which states that it is filtered by most net nanny software, then on the "putrid" sub-section, which has a further warning. You won't find it on the list though, as it's been removed, presumably at Walker's request. The page itself though does still exist. Having jumped through these hoops, you then have Walker's own warning. However, by the simple fact that the CPS thought it was worth prosecuting someone for writing a bad story, the Streisand effect has taken over, with the story now mirrored and far easier to access. My post alone on the prosecution has had a large number of hits today, meaning that any intrigued younger reader wanting to read what all the fuss was about has had far more opportunity than they ever would have had before.

That truism alone, that when you try to ban something cultural you instantly make it more alluring and more desirable regardless of its quality ought to be enough to discourage the censors, especially in this age, from attempting to do so. Walker's story can hardly be defended on artistic grounds, but it can be on the grounds that it is highly unlikely, as the psychiatrist called to defend him argued, that it would turn anyone into a sexual predator. It's also completely true that it was only likely to appeal to those already interested in such material; if someone was simply searching for "erotic celebrity fan-fiction", which fills a rather specific niche on the internet for those who prefer words to pictures, they were likely to go for more easily available writing featuring the gorgeous pouting quintet, rather than that which also involved the sawing off of arms and breasts. Unpleasant as it doubtless is for those depicted to be written about in such a way by complete strangers who then share their fantasies with others, there seems to have been very little legal action taken against sites hosting such stories. Most will admit to the vanity of searching Google for their own name; whether stars themselves dig deep into the darker recesses of the internet and discover such writing is another matter entirely.

Walker though should certainly have never been prosecuted. It raises questions, not only of those who authorised the prosecution, but also of the Internet Watch Foundation, which initially brought the police's attention to the story. Supposedly, why they simply didn't block access to either the page or the site as a whole is because it's hosted overseas and because there is no international agreement on what is obscene, quite rightly, yet as we saw during the Wikipedia/Scorpions debacle, that didn't stop them then. Presumably the page was reported to them, unless they themselves came it across during one of their own trawls, and they decided that it was so terrible and so shocking that the police had to be involved. It certainly makes you wonder about those who are in charge at the IWF; if the likes of "Girls (Scream) Aloud" makes them rush to involve Inspector Knacker, what do they go through at the sight of "2 girls 1 cup" or even the video of the death of Neda? This is, it needs stating again, a completely unaccountable body that doesn't just censor child pornography, but also material that "incites racial hatred", potentially breaches the OPA, as Walker was accused of, and now "extreme pornography", since the law came into effect in January. The law has already been used, although it seems mainly to prosecute those selling beastiality DVDs along with pirated blockbusters.

Quite how much it cost for Walker to be brought to trial, let alone the police and CPS time dedicated to considering whether he should be charged over fantastical words he wrote is irrelevant when it comes to what it has done to the man himself. Regardless of his own sexual predilections and fantasies, and that he wrote such things is no indication whatsoever that he is partial to acting out anything like that his protagonists do in his stories, his life has quite possibly been ruined. Anyone now "Googling" for him when he applies for job, having lost his as a civil servant when he was charged, will soon discover he was up before the beak on the charge of writing perverted stories about a popular beat combo, which is likely to do wonders to his chances of finding employment. It ought to be ridiculous in 2009 that anyone writing fiction, even if it is fiction which features real people, should be charged with obscenity; that someone should be potentially ruined because of it is not just ridiculous, it's disgraceful. No thought however seems to have been put into this before charging was proceeded with, just as no one at the IWF presumably thought through the consequences when they boggled at the original submission to them. This ought to lead to a reform of our obscenity laws, yet if anything they seem likely to be tightened further still.

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