Friday, January 31, 2014 


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Thursday, January 30, 2014 

Theresa May the extremist.

Did you know that one of the government's definitions of extremism is "vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including ... the rule of law"?  It's an especially interesting fact when you consider just how close the government came today to having an amendment inserted into its Immigration Bill that the home secretary knew to be illegal.  Dominic Raab's amendment would have, in his words, "at a stroke, cut out the Article 8 challenges" made by convicted foreign criminals using the Human Rights Act/European Convention on Human Rights against their deportation.  This would have gone a step beyond the government's similar defiance of the ECHR over giving prisoners the right to vote, where MPs merely voted against the principle, rather than on doing so as a point of law.

You would have thought then that the government instructed its whips to push for Tory MPs to vote against Raab's amendment.  After all, it wasn't guaranteed that Labour would vote against the Raab amendment, and so it was more than possible it could have gone into the bill.  It could then have been struck out by the Lords, it's true, but that would be to make assumptions about the other place would vote.  Despite this, and in a sign of just how restive the Tory right is despite the return to growth, David Cameron ordered the whips to stand down and for ministers and their hangers-on to merely abstain.  It's possible there might have been some behind the scenes shenanigans with Labour, with the party deciding almost at the last minute that it would oppose Raab's amendment, yet if there wasn't we came extremely close to a piece of legislation which the government knew to be illegal taking one step closer to becoming actual law.

This sorry state of affairs is explained as Cameron, the scars from previous close calls and the Syria defeat on his back, deciding not to order a vote against an amendment which despite being illegal he had sympathy with.  Quite apart from what this says about how those who make the law and their attitude towards small things like legality, it's another example of politicians deciding that they know better than judges who have examined the full facts of a case before reaching their decision.  Just a couple of weeks back we had Cameron himself and others asking people to respect the decision reached by the jury at the Mark Duggan inquest, and yet in other cases it seems the judiciary and the system is not to be trusted.  If, as Raab says, there are examples of domestic abusers using the relationship with the person they attacked as a reason as to why can't be deported, then clearly those cases needed further examination.  As Left Foot Forward sets out though, Raab doesn't seem to have got other facts right about Article 8 challenges, making you wonder whether he hasn't also made other mistakes.

Remarkably, Raab's amendment was only slightly more objectionable than an amendment which did pass, and one both the Lib Dems and Labour supported.  Having already stripped 37 dual nationals of their British citizenship since the coalition was formed, Theresa May's late amendment to the Immigration Bill will now allow the home secretary to also remove British citizenship from those born abroad even if they don't have dual nationality, leaving them stateless.  Defending this new power, May said it would be used in "very, very specific and limited circumstances" when someone's conduct has been "seriously prejudicial" to Britain's vital interests".  Translated, this seems to mean some of those who have gone to fight in Syria and elsewhere, with some of those who had dual nationality having already been stripped of their citizenship for doing so.  As it has also mainly taken place while they are out of the country, they're unable to return and appeal, having to do so from abroad.  Where this will potentially leave those who only had British citizenship is open to question, and it also begs how they'll be able to appeal against the decision without any consular access.

It also signals another step forward in the inexorable, some would say logical progression of anti-terrorism legislation.  First we had the indefinite detention without charge of foreign nationals who couldn't be tried due to the sensitivity of the intelligence evidence against them; when that was struck down, control orders were brought in as their replacement to be used against those we couldn't deport.  The coalition replaced control orders with TPIMs, which the joint committee on human rights recently reported should be renamed terrorism prevention orders as they are not investigative in any real sense, and which are now being imposed more on those with British citizenship than without.  Now the home secretary is set to have the power to remove a naturalised Briton's citizenship even if it will leave them stateless, purely on the basis of evidence which the individual will not be able to see.  One Tory MP said in the debate he saw no reason why this could not be extended to those born here as well.  Indeed, that seems to be the obvious next place to go should this become law.  Others protested that the power might not be abused by this home secretary, but could be by a future one.  When we have security services that accuse Russians of being spies on the basis of circumstantial evidence, it's more than safe to assume that there is massive potential for mistakes and abuse to happen now.

You can certainly see why the government is so keen on the power.  TPIMs only last for two years before they have to be withdrawn due to the severity of the restrictions they place on individuals on the basis of secret evidence; at the same time they're potentially ineffective, as demonstrated by the disappearance of two of those subject to them.  With this by contrast, so long as it seems someone has left the country, usually to fight alongside jihadists, there are no such worries.  Deprived of their passport, they can't return.  This leaves them the responsibility of the country they've gone to, or more accurately, at the mercy of the authorities there.  Regardless of what we think about such people, and we have to take it on trust they are not just interested in fighting abroad but also bringing the war back home, this washing of our hands is to ignore how they were most likely radicalised here in the first place.  It is though so much easier and also cheaper to dump our problems on others rather than say, actually attempt to prosecute them ourselves.  When the government isn't coming incredibly close to breaking the law itself, that is.

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Wednesday, January 29, 2014 

This is a post about sex and porn.

It's always a danger to write about things you know next to nothing about.  Not that that's stopped me in the past obviously, or indeed stops pretty much anyone from giving their keyboard a damn good slamming about pretty much everything.  One great example was this post from last year, which was cross-posted over on Lib Con, and where it quickly became clear that I was perhaps a bit old-fashioned in my views on the amount of flesh on display in music videos and also knew absolutely nothing about Justin Bieber or One Direction.  Ahem.

That post was partially in response to a comment piece by Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett, and here we are again.  I know next to nothing about how people my age and younger are conducting themselves sexually, except to say I'm not getting enough of it.  Whatever it is.  Cosslett however says she does know, and that many women are increasingly submitting to the requests of their partners which they are certain are influenced by pornography as they don't know how to say no or aren't confident enough to.  It's a topic we have broached before, and it would be to ignore the wide availability of hardcore porn and the potential for it to have made some young people believe the things depicted in it are normal and average to completely dismiss the anecdotal evidence we have.

At the same time, it's also difficult not to think that Cosslett is either exaggerating for effect, or is taking a few examples and stretching them to absolute breaking point.  I am more than happy to accept that, as Cosslett says, some men seem to think sex ends once they've ejaculated onto their partner's breasts or face.  The latter is after all overwhelmingly how most porn scenes now end.  Although this is somewhat to do with how the "money shot" in hardcore porn has always signalled the end of that particular sex scene, it doesn't explain why the "facial" has become so dominant over the more prosaic pulling out and coming which once sufficed.  In part it is about male power, without doubt, and in some scenes it's more than clear that the supposed star has no choice over how the scene ends, even if she clearly hates what's about to happen.  This is exacerbated further when "cum dodging" as it's referred to is mocked and belittled, as it sometimes is in behind the scenes sections of gonzo films, as though a woman not wanting to have semen sprayed into her mouth, all over her face or into her eyes or hair is pathetic and/or hilarious.

When Cosslett focuses twice on women having their hair ejaculated on though and fingers porn as being responsible you do have to wonder.  I honestly cannot recall a single instance in any porn scene I've watched where the male actor has specifically came on his co-star's hair, and her hair only.  It seems more likely that the woman she's spoken to has been unfortunate enough to have had a relationship with someone with this particular unusual fetish than it being indicative of something else.

Then we have "seagulling", which I most certainly hadn't heard of before.  Apparently once confined to boarding schools, it's supposedly spread to some universities, and involves the friends of someone bursting in on their pal once he's finished having sex with his girlfriend, and them ejaculating all over her.  There are some obvious problems with this having happened rather than being an exaggeration of an exaggeration: despite what porn might suggest, men generally cannot ejaculate all at the same time or one after the other.  Second, where are they hiding so that the unaware victim doesn't know of their presence?  Are they all in the room next door pulling themselves off without going off early or missing the moment?  Third, while I don't doubt that the alumni of boarding schools have and do get up to some otherwise unusual antics with each other, teenagers don't usually masturbate together.  That would most certainly be "gay".  It all sounds extremely familiar to the also apocryphal biscuit game, at least when it comes to all those involved taking part voluntarily, or a more recent supposed "thing" in America, rainbow parties, a gathering where a group of girls would all wear a different shade of lipstick and take it in turns to fellate their male school friends.

It's also difficult not to be sceptical about just how many women have been asked on a first date for anal sex.  Again, anal sex in porn is all but ubiquitous, although arguably it has in fact been in decline in porn over the last few years due to the internet free-for-all having had such an impact on the niche producers.  Are we though talking about first dates as in actual first dates, or first dates in the Tinder sense?  Searching for examples of women being asked for it on a first date turned up this piece, which as anecdote does suggest it might be happening, but only in the no-strings, one and done, dating sense (and in Australia).  Which it must be said, isn't wholly surprising.

None of this is to deny that porn certainly can be a problem amongst the impressionable, and that Cosslett is absolutely right in arguing that sex education desperately needs reform to address something that just 15 years ago wasn't anywhere near as big of an issue.  As Flying Rodent says though, sex education is not going to be a panacea.  Some of it ought to be pure common sense: if kids really do think the back bottom is as pliable as some porn makes it look and accessing it is also as painless, they've clearly never tried to stick a finger up their own passage or indeed took a dump, and I honestly don't believe anything other than a tiny minority do believe such, err, crap.  They might get the impression that heterosexual anal sex is normal, or that women universally enjoy it when they most certainly do not, but even that latter assertion seems dubious when plenty of porn does not suggest that at all.  The more honest makers will often include interviews with the stars where some have made clear they either don't like it or only do it because of the money.  Some of it is also about how to empower women to say no (and for some men to know that no means no): why do some whom as Cosslett puts it mock and deride their partners for asking for such things when with their friends feel unable to do so in the bedroom?

As Cosslett also says, what we really need is some proper research into sexual attitudes among the young, and also some facts on just how many really do watch porn and to what extent.  This is difficult precisely because of the age of those involved and due to the potential for lying and boasting which goes hand in hand with the discussion of sex, but clearly we need to go beyond anecdotes and a discussion based around them when no one really knows the reality.  One suspects it isn't as bad as Cosslett suggests, but there will be a minority who have been affected.  We won't know that however until we can talk about it, and that also seems as difficult as ever without descending into hyperbole.

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Tuesday, January 28, 2014 

Why I'm speaking up for myself against everyone who has criticised me.

You've probably never heard of me, as no doubt you have better things to do with your life than follow the online adventures of the Liberal Democrat prospective parliamentary candidate for Hampstead and Kilburn, but a couple of weeks ago I tweeted something which has the potential to be truly revolutionary.

I tweeted a picture of the online Jesus and Mo cartoon, the one that both Viz and Private Eye would reject as being a bit pathetic and transparent.  For those not in the know, this has caused controversy in the past, mainly among those who are always looking to be offended.  If nothing else, I know a controversy I can exploit when I see one.  After all, I was the person who felt Tommy Robinson or whatever his real name is (he hasn't actually told me it, but it's not important) was just desperate to get away from the far-right organisation he created.  That Robinson has now been sent to prison again and tweeted after the sentence that it was a "stitch-up" in no way means I was wrong to try and get him to slightly rebrand his unique critique of Islam.

I tweeted it not because I was seeking to speak for anyone other than myself, but because I know the only way to keep my think-tank Quilliam going is to make ever greater attention-seeking gestures.  I'd noticed you see that there's a certain section of the left-wing Twitterati/commentariat that is outraged by everything and anything some Muslims do politically.  A month ago the issue of the week was the voluntary segregation that fundamentalists at universities were insisting upon, and which the official guidance had acquiesced in.  Somehow Downing Street intervened, and soon everyone was backtracking.  It didn't matter that this essentially means fundamentalist women won't be able to attend speeches by their favourite extremist, and I speak having previously ploughed that furrow, or will just mean that such meetings will have to happen off campus, clearly an important wrong has been righted.

Why then shouldn't I join in?  There was never any chance of Nick Clegg or the Liberal Democrats deselecting me down to my tweet; look how they've dealt with Lord Rennard and Mike Hancock for goodness sake, so there was next to no risk.  Death threats?  I was in prison in Egypt for goodness sake.

You see though, this isn't about me.  Honest, it isn't.  No, I was speaking up for my religion.  Not all of us Muslims are mouth-breathers without a sense of humour, or who are offended by someone drawing a line and writing "Muhammad" next to it.  Some of us are also extremely ambitious and know how to get people like Nick Cohen writing columns.  I did it to create a space for people to speak out without being immediately accused of blasphemy, for Salmaan Taseer, Muhammad Asghar, Malala and Salman Rushdie.

Fundamentally, I believe in the same things as you do, just like most ordinary Muslims.  I'm not ordinary obviously, but you get the point.  I believe in the ability of those on social networks and in the modern media to blow extremely minor spats out of all proportion, presenting them as though they are about the very fundamentals of freedom of speech; I believe in making the most of such outbreaks of bullshit; and most importantly, I believe in myself.

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Monday, January 27, 2014 

Walking into Osborne's man trap.

It isn't always the case, but generally if you get a whole section of industry spitting tacks and issuing threats when you announce a new policy, it's generally a sign that you're doing something right.  It happened when Ed Miliband announced his intention to cap energy bills, when the big six squealed that preventing them from raising the cost of energy for 20 months would result in blackouts and a collapse in investment, and regardless of the merits of specifically capping bills, it focused attention on a monopoly that needs breaking up.

The fact that the usual suspects have been decrying Ed Balls' announcement he will bring back the 50p top rate of income tax should Labour win the next election, while being exactly what you would expect, also suggests that there's something in it.  It can't be that it'll raise almost no money while driving away business or cause those fabled wealth creators to flee due to having to pay an extra 5p in the pound.  Of course, it might raise hardly anything due to the fact that so many will use various dodges to avoid paying it, but that isn't the same thing.  The Institute for Fiscal Studies, while agreeing with the government that the £10bn Balls quoted isn't associated with the 50p rate, accepts that the evidence for how much it could raise or cost is uncertain.  The best insight is from HMRC itself, and associated with the 50p rate the coalition inherited and quickly binned.  Plenty of those who knew they were about to be affected gave themselves a windfall the year before it was introduced, while Osborne's announced abolition of the rate enabled them to repeat the procedure, only delaying it by a year instead.  The only way to know how much it raises is to give it a few years without messing around with the rate.  As Chris also points out, much of the reaction is just nonsense: top rates of 80p or more up until the 80s didn't affect the overall growth rate.

As much of a break with the past 20 years it will be for Labour to have an election manifesto that promises to put up income tax, it's insignificant compared to Balls' other announcement, that the party would ape the Conservatives and also aim to run a budget surplus come the end of the next parliament.  There was one important caveat, that unlike George Osborne Balls would seek to borrow to invest, and so only day-to-day spending would be capped rather than spending overall.  The Graun suggests it's the other way round, as budget surpluses have only been ran briefly in the past half century and are as it puts it, unnecessary.  Hopi Sen by contrast agrees with me.

The Graun is surely right when it calls Osborne's promise a hollow one.  To achieve the reduction in spending needed for his surplus the cuts would have to go far beyond anything the coalition has attempted so far, and even if the Tories manage to get a majority at the next election, you just can't see the politics being acceptable, even after the shit-kicking the poor and sick have received over the past few years.  When Osborne delays his fiscal consolidation even further, as he almost certainly will, the only people calling him on it will be Labour.  Just as no one has taken any notice of how Osborne has comprehensively failed to achieve even the reduction of the deficit foreseen by Alistair Darling, the same plan denounced by Osborne as being no plan at all and which would lead to us following Greece towards bankruptcy, so will everyone ignore the coming failure.

Should Labour win the next election though, the Tories and the right-wing press will constantly remind Balls of his rash promise.  We all knew there were going to be cuts, but to pledge to follow Osborne's lead, even while leaving himself more wriggle room was to walk straight into Osborne's trap.  Even if Balls were to call an emergency budget immediately after the election and row back completely on his pledge, getting the "bad" news out of the way straight off and setting out how he would really be aiming to reduce the deficit, such as through a more balanced mixture of cuts and tax rises, it's dubious as to how such a strategy would would play out.  The dishonest approach at the moment is to give the indication that you can make these drastic reductions in spending without it hurting when it simply isn't possible.  Better to set out how you would get the deficit down in time, in a realistic fashion.  It's surely a better option than getting involved in a game of who can make the most ridiculous gesture with Osborne when someone is going to lose horribly.  Despite everything, it still remains unlikely to be the chancellor.

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Friday, January 24, 2014 

It's all gone sideways.

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Thursday, January 23, 2014 

It's all multiculturalism's fault. Again.

Horror of horrors!  Britain becoming more multicultural is leading to a "growing reluctance" to troops being deployed on the ground in areas which some of the population either called home or has connections with, says the Ministry of Defence, via the Graun.  It's yet another example of the fallout following the failure of the Commons to go along with the plan to "punish" Assad for using chemical weapons in Syria, and also yet another example of ministers and the wider government failing to point the finger of blame at themselves.

While it's no doubt true that "war weariness" played its part in MPs opting to vote against the motions of both the coalition and Labour which looked set to lead to yet another strike on a Middle Eastern country, the main reason why the vote went against the government was because it didn't even begin to make the damn case for an attack on Syria.  All that was presented was shaky intelligence which pointed towards chemical weapons having been used, along with the argument that such an act could not be allowed to go unpunished, despite the fact that previous chemical weapons attacks on a far worse scale had been.  It wasn't explained how launching a few hundred cruise missiles at Syria would prevent further such attacks, or how doing so would prevent us from getting sucked even further into a civil war we have nothing to gain and much to lose from getting involved in.  Public opinion was firmly against, and MPs for once represented their constituents in rejecting it, at that point.  Whether David Cameron was right to then rule out any action whatsoever is another question entirely.

Rather than take a look at whether the case for war was as strong as they believe it was, almost everything else has been held responsible.  Only the latest is multiculturalism, with Alistair Burt having previously said the decision had left a "constitutional mess", as it seemed MPs could now declare themselves against something that was previously the prerogative of the executive, without it being considered a vote of no confidence.  Originally it was all Ed Miliband's fault, while now there's also much wailing and gnashing of teeth over how we might not be able to be a "full spectrum" partner to the Americans unless we join them in every such conflict and ensure our army has the very latest devices of mass death at its disposal.

All this ignores that if you put a case forward that's considered convincing by a majority of the public, have the support of most of the media and also know that you have can rely on most of your party and the opposition, wars which are opposed by a large, vocal minority can still be fought, as Iraq proved and would still be the case today.  Our participation in the NATO action in Libya went ahead as well after all.  If instead you try to bounce the country into a conflict because an especially barbarous crime is carried out in a country in which 100,000 have already died without such action being considered previously, mainly due to how the American president foolishly set a "red line" which he didn't expect to breached, then you should no longer be surprised that MPs won't just march through the yes lobby no questions asked.  That still the government seems to be ignoring what ought to be staring it in the face is far more concerning than any of the calamities our supposed sudden aversion towards war has thrown up.

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Collymore and Ulrika.

I think I've made my views on trolling and Twitter pretty much clear, and don't really feel the need to repeat them again now in light of Stan Collymore's complaints about the abuse he's received for a while and which ratcheted up again at the weekend.  It should surely be noted though that unlike Caroline Criado-Perez, Collymore is in the business of making controversial comment on football and is no doubt well remunerated for doing so.  He's also pretty good at it, being the best thing on Talksport by a very long way.

Credit must nonetheless be given to both the Sun and Ulrika Jonsson for deciding this would be the perfect moment to bring up how back in 1998 Collymore attacked her and according, to Jonsson, said he "would fucking kill her".  No doubt he did.  One is also reminded however of how Jonsson's chosen way of promoting her autobiography was to focus on the allegation she made in it that she had been sexually assaulted earlier in her career, without naming the person responsible.  This, inevitably, led to speculation as to who it was, with Matthew Wright inadvertently naming John Leslie.  Jonsson chose not to cooperate with the subsequent police investigation into Leslie, with the CPS later dropping a prosecution against him at the last minute.

If we're going to bring hypocrisy into it, perhaps we should also consider the consequences of being deliberately vague and then not being prepared to pursue a case once the name of the person has become public.  As Ian Hislop said at the time, his general understanding was that you made complaints about sexual assault to the police, not the media (obviously, if the police ignore or don't act on complaints, then it certainly is legitimate to go to the media, although whether our press will treat ordinary members of the public's complaints with the same level of concern as they did someone like Jonsson, unless the individual being accused is also a celebrity, remains to be seen).  11 years on from that, and Jonsson is complaining about another incident that also resulted in no charges being brought, which Collymore apologised profusely for at the time.

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Wednesday, January 22, 2014 

Hosing down policing by consent.

One of the greatest myths of British public life has always been that our police force, unlike so many others around the world, operates through consent rather than fear.  While this might be true in certain areas, it most certainly isn't elsewhere.  It also fails to take into account how the police act in specific circumstances, most pertinently at demonstrations.  It's been mostly forgotten as a result of the riots of August 2011, but the policing at the G20 demonstrations in April 2009 was about as over-the-top and self-defeating as any in memory, leaving aside the actions of PC Simon Harwood.  Quite apart from the kettling, the number of officers who wielded their batons and used them with impunity demanded a response, and one was forthcoming in the shape of the "Adapting to Protest" report.  Then came the student tuition fee protests, where some felt the police held back as a result, and we seemed to have gone full circle.

Thanks then to the riots, the police both in London and nationally have found an excuse to demand they join their colleagues in Northern Ireland in being able to deploy water cannon if they so wish.  Not because water cannon is useful against the type of rioting and looting we saw two and a half years ago when the police were spread far too thinly to be able to cope, and when the perpetrators were moving from place to place rather staying in one particular area, as the author of the Association of Chief Police Officers report David Shaw admits, even if it would have been considered if available. No, it's more of an insurance policy as the police expect there to be further presumably violent protests against austerity measures.

Weirdly, Shaw writes that one of the other occasions when use of water cannon would have been considered was the protests outside the Israeli embassy back in 2009.  Strange, as I attended one of those demonstrations and I cannot for the life of me work out how water cannon would have helped the police one iota.  While I had left before the "kettle" was put in place, the main problem then was that the police had blocked off all other exits, leaving only one which you could reach by shoving past everyone.  There was never any danger whatsoever of the embassy itself being occupied, not least because the gates are impossible to scale, while the officers in front of the gates unlike some of their colleagues earlier in the day were properly kitted out and so well defended from missiles.  The main disorder that day happened after those still protesting were "kettled", with windows being smashed, so again I can't think how water cannon would have helped when it was the police that were stopping those demonstrating from leaving.  Unlike in Northern Ireland, where the police have come under concerted attack from protesters throwing petrol bombs and rocks at them, the worst that was thrown at officers that day were eggs, paint or the odd firecracker.  Some of those arrested following the protests, for instance, were convicted of violent disorder on the basis that they threw the balsa wood the placards were constructed out of at the police.

Odder still isn't that Shaw doesn't include the G20 protests as being an event at which water cannon would have been considered, despite the fact that senior officers had been briefing the press for weeks beforehand that they were expecting hardcore "black bloc" anarchists from Europe to be making the journey to London for the occasion.  The police deployment that day was far heavier than on the Gaza protests, and also one suspects for the first of the student protests, which makes you wonder if it's that precise fact that makes the difference.

It must be said that it's possible to exaggerate the effect of water cannon.  Certainly, while serious injuries have been recorded in line with its use and I simply don't believe the claim that no injuries have been associated with it in Northern Ireland, far worse can be meted out by officers tooled up and keen on whacking anyone they judge to be a threat with their batons.  It's also the case however that giving the police water cannon is another step towards militarising the policing of demonstrations when there is not the slightest evidence that their use would have prevented either injuries to officers or damage to property.  Would it have stopped the ransacking of Millbank?  Clearly not, when the police weren't prepared in the first place for the storming of the building containing Conservative Central Office.  It seems more about the police resorting to tactics they've previously eschewed precisely because they seem to think a precedent has been set where they think the public at large will support them.  They're probably right, but that shouldn't make Theresa May give in to their demands.

You suspect however that just as on stop and search, the forces ranged against her, whether they be in Downing Street or in the Labour party, which would think nothing of bringing it up should she refuse and there be further serious disorder, are likely to be victorious.  Policing by consent might remain in tact, but amongst those with reason to distrust the plod it will do nothing whatsoever to reassure of their good intentions.

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Tuesday, January 21, 2014 

A street called deceit.

Call me the cynical sort, but it doesn't exactly come as a surprise that TV production companies can tell lies on the scale of our very finest tabloids.  That prior to going with Channel 4 Love Productions had approached the BBC and pitched "The Benefit Street", a series which would look at a certain James Turner Street in Birmingham rather underlines the contempt shown to those featured who weren't informed of the likely end title of the programme they were taking part in, only it was likely to be something along the lines of "Community Spirit".

The whole farrago reminds of one of the most depressing pieces of television I've witnessed in recent years, another Channel 4 "documentary" (I can't recall the title), which compared and contrasted a British and a Polish building firm, as well as the families they were working for.  The British builder, was, naturally, a lazy and incompetent white van man, while the Polish were, naturally, professional, courteous and motivated.  Despite this, the British couple the Polish were doing the extension for weren't satisfied with the work and complained at every turn, finally succeeding in getting a major discount, the Pole filmed driving back home saddened by the experience.  The whole thing was representative of absolutely nothing, except that at times TV producers seem to like nothing better than showing this country in the worst possible light.

Exactly the same is true of Benefits Street.  It's been put together with just enough panache that it confirms the prejudices of those watching it: Charlie Brooker felt it sympathetic rather than exploitative, while to Fraser Nelson and plenty of others it's just the latest piece of anecdotal evidence proving welfare reform hasn't gone anywhere near far enough.  Taken as a whole it's only slightly less fictional than Made in Chelsea or The Only Way is Essex, but as it's a "documentary" rather than a "reality" show it's deemed a worthy topic of political discussion.

Factor in the non-arrival of our friends from Bulgaria and Romania and the opening month of the year has been little more than one long announcement of new restrictions on who can and can't claim social security.  Yesterday saw not just Theresa May and Iain Duncan Smith jointly make clear that jobless EU migrants aren't entitled to housing benefit, without of course providing any figures as to how many in such a position are claiming it, our old friend Rachel Reeves also popped up to explain how those who lose their jobs will have to jump through another new hoop before they can claim Jobseeker's Allowance under Labour.  They'll need to take a test in basic numeracy and literacy and agree to go on courses to improve both if necessary before they can get their princely sum of £72 a week.  Whether there'll be enough places available on such courses or not we'll of course worry about once yet another potential sanction is in place.

It doesn't take much to excite certain sections of the commentariat, and with Reeves also setting out how Labour might attempt to reintroduce a further contributory aspect to JSA, her speech was greeted with praise for how it could start to change the debate around welfare.  As laughable as that notion might seem, it did show just how difficult it is to suggest changes to social security which aren't punitive: Reeves set out how those who've made national insurance contributions for either 4 or 5 years could receive an additional £20 on top of their JSA for the first six weeks.  You don't need to pass even the most rudimentary numeracy course to realise that getting less than the equivalent of two weeks' JSA after having paid in for that period of time or longer doesn't strike as being especially generous.  It would be different if it was for three months if six months would be far too expensive, but just six weeks?  It doesn't even begin to re-establish the contributory principle, if such a thing was an unalloyed good idea in the first place.

The problem, as so often, is that Labour is approaching the issue from the wrong perspective. The  Institute for Public Policy Research, having been appointed to give Labour's plans the once over, says "[I]t is vital that those of us committed to a resilient and effective welfare system advance feasible reforms that can chime with popular values".  Popular values and popular views are not the same thing, it's true, yet values are influenced by views.  When the public believes £24 out of every £100 spent on benefits is lost to fraud, and 29% think more is spent on JSA than pensions, gearing reforms towards popular values doesn't strike as going together with "defending against the worst attacks on vulnerable people".  The more Labour tries to triangulate with the Tories on welfare cuts, the more they're encouraged to go even further.  Trying to introduce facts into the debate could backfire further, but it would at least make for a novel enterprise in what otherwise seems a time of universal deceit.

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Monday, January 20, 2014 

Much as I'd like to just laugh...

Is there anything quite as hilarious as a political party tearing itself apart?  Well, obviously, almost everything is funnier than a party being plunged into crisis over what amounts to in practice a refusal to apologise, even when the party is the Liberal Democrats, but bear with me here.  It's more to do with how the Lib Dems have so often portrayed themselves as being holier than thou, having such deep integrity, being above the petty squabbling which the Tories and Labour have so often descended into.  In actuality the party can be and has been brutal, not least in the way it dispensed with the services of Ming Campbell in double quick time, while if anything it's long been a master of the political dark arts, smearing and engaging in ad hominem attacks on opponents when it's suited them.

It also takes quite something to relegate the small matter of a UKIP councillor informing the world that the recent floods are God's punishment for the government daring to legislate for gay marriage to being a lesser story.  Nigel Farage, bless him, has pledged to smoke out the "extremist, nasty or barmy" from his party ahead of the all important European elections, raising the question of when he intends to resign, especially considering his intervention today to claim that sexism no longer exists in the City.

The Liberal Democrats, it's fair to say, have a problem with women.  Not necessarily on the policy front, and I fully respect their decision not to introduce all-women shortlists in an attempt to increase the party's share of women MPs, but clearly something hasn't been right for some time.  All the main parties have their dinosaur tendency, especially among those elevated to the Lords, and it seems due to a mixture of old fashioned views on what constitutes unacceptable behaviour as well as loyalty towards Lord Rennard that they weren't exactly fully enamoured with the verdict of Alistair Webster QC, who while deciding that the evidence and allegations made against Rennard were "broadly credible", also felt they couldn't be established beyond reasonable doubt.  His suggestion was that Rennard should make a formal apology.

Rennard however has refused to apologise, believing that if he were to do so it would amount to an admission of guilt and leave him liable to pay compensation if sued.  He also continues to maintain his innocence, and so an apology would be fairly meaningless in any case.  The Lib Dems have duly reacted by suspending Rennard again, although it remains to be seen exactly what sanctions can be brought against a peer who is refusing to apologise, other than continuing to withhold the whip.  Rennard in response has released a statement saying he's considering legal action against the party, ably assisted as he has been throughout by Lord Carlile, the former "independent" reviewer of terrorism legislation, the same Lord Carlile who never saw a control order he thought wasn't justified, and pretty much complained only during his time in the role of the overuse of section 44 of the Terrorism Act.  It's also the same Carlile who took to the Mail on Sunday yesterday to complain that Rennard had been subject to treatment "that Thomas Cromwell would have hesitated from using on behalf of Henry VIII".  Quite apart from how the Mail and its sister paper were in the vanguard, leading the charge against Rennard, it's odd that someone so outraged by an injustice done to a friend never expressed anything even approaching such passion when it came to the "mistakes" of the state.

This isn't to say there hasn't been skulduggery on the part of all sides.  Despite the insistence of Channel 4's Cathy Newman, it always felt suspect that the allegations against Rennard were brought out into the open so close to the Eastleigh by-election when they had been known about for some time, and the email chain which fell into the hands of the Rennard camp more than suggests it was timed for maximum damage to the party.  This said, equally clearly those who complained about Rennard believed that the only way they would be taken seriously was to go all out, and they were fully entitled to do so.  We don't know the exact details of the allegations, not least because it doesn't seem as though Rennard himself has been given a copy of Webster's report, but they amount to more than Rennard just putting his hand on the women's knees.  The Telegraph, having heard of the allegations in 2010, noted that they included accusations of groping, and most seriously, two prospective parliamentary candidates who after a dinner at Rennard's home were told to "go upstairs", and were only allowed to leave when one threatened to call the police.

Rennard could of course be telling the truth, but when you consider the allegations against him were so widely known at Westminster before they became public knowledge, and it was believed his resignation in 2009 from his role as party chief executive was not entirely about his health it becomes less and less likely.  The opaque nature of the investigations also hasn't helped, making it unclear exactly what he had been accused of.  Whatever it was he thought he was doing, some came to see his approach as being to promote those who played along, while those who didn't found their careers floundered.  Whether accurate or not, he clearly has plenty to apologise for, and his mealy-mouthed and self-pitying statement today has exacerbated the situation rather than brought it nearer to a conclusion.

Much as we could enjoy the schadenfreude and leave it at that, it reflects badly on politics as a whole.  One suspects Rennard abused his position precisely because he felt he was indispensable, a situation which isn't analogous to the other main parties, although it has been true of the SWP, which has been going through its own agonies over far more serious allegations.  The sooner the party gets a grip, difficult due to its structure and how Rennard is no longer an employee, the better.

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Friday, January 17, 2014 

Play the game.

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Thursday, January 16, 2014 

The real nanny state.

You might have missed it if you've been too busy reading all the juicy, sorry I mean disgusting allegations being made against both Bill Roache and Dave Lee Travis, gleefully, I mean dutifully reported by the country's finest, but just before Christmas Cameron's great firewall of Britain was finally finished.  The other big ISPs that had yet to put in place their "default on" internet filters duly turned them on, and to no surprise whatsoever many non-adult sites were blocked.  The filters it seemed had a special dislike for anything LGBT-related, exactly the kind of sites that confused or bullied children should never be able to see, while they also forbade access to blogs dealing with file sharing, rather than just actual file sharing sites.  Big no signs also appeared instead of sex education sites, in another development absolutely everyone saw coming.  These problems were naturally called "teething troubles", and no doubt some of the more egregious ones were quickly ironed out.

Something we haven't had previously was one of those in favour of "default on" filtering coming out and properly responding to an article critiquing the entire approach.  The Graun today gave space to John Carr, secretary of the Children's Charities' Coalition on Internet Safety, to reply to Laurie Penny's piece for the paper at the start of the year.  Apart from Penny's opening paragraph, which imagined someone being phoned by their ISP and asked whether they wanted to still be able to see dripping quims, ravaged buttholes and terrorists beheading infidels (I paraphrase slightly), which isn't how the filtering is being implemented but is an accurate picture of how some, finding their access has been restricted, will be contacting their ISP's help desk, it was a decent summation of how we got where we were and how closely related it was to outright censorship.

Carr is of course having none of it.  All the new approach is doing is helping parents, "making it a great deal easier ... to use filters if they want them".  The decision is entirely theirs, not the state's.  Except, by putting such pressure on ISPs to change their policies and implement "default on" filtering it, it seems remarkably close to it in my eyes.  If the decision was entirely theirs, as adults, then surely the default should be off?  Only those of age can take out a new account giving them internet access, so where's the harm in making such filters easily available but have them off by default?  Indeed, isn't the very fact they are on unless you choose to switch them off a wonderful example of providing a false sense of security?  Making parents believe the net will be safe for their children due to the new filters, meaning they don't have to do anything to protect them, seems even more irresponsible than the situation we had before to this layman.

Still, Carr says ISPs are just catching up with the mobile firms that have had their filters turned on since 2005.  What he doesn't mention is that only those with a credit card (not a debit card) can turn the filtering off, which excludes a decent chunk of the population.  Those without one who wish to have it turned off need to find their provider's local store and bring ID to prove they can look at mucky pictures if they so wish on their smartphone.  It's a great example of infantilisation, but one we're apparently prepared to live with.  Carr also dismisses Penny's claim that all we've heard about to do with filtering is pornography, or indeed child pornography, which the likes of Claire Perry willfully conflated in a successful campaign for something to be done.  How would a 9-year-old sleep after viewing a double chainsaw murder, he asks?  Considering that such extreme violence is even more difficult to stumble upon than pornography without specifically searching for it, this seems a rather moot argument.  A better question is how many 9-year-olds would be seeking out gore videos, the likely answer being hardly any.  Carr next mentions "women-hating violence", such as three men simultaneously beating and raping a woman.  Unless I've missed something, one of the few things yet to be recorded and posted online is the actual rape of a woman, so one presumes Carr is talking about a scene cut out of a film.  Again, how likely is a child to find something of that nature, especially one as young as 9 without looking for it?

This distracts in any case from the main arguments against, which are the filters should not be on by default and that if we must have filters, they should be a good deal smarter than the ones we seem to have been stuck with.  They should also be as transparent as possible: as mocked as O2's short-lived filter checker was (this blog was blacklisted on the under-12 filter, along with much of the rest of the internet), it was the only example of an ISP being clear with those supposedly responsible on what was actually being blocked.  Just as adults are able to see what ratings films and games have been given and make their own decision as to what to allow their children to see/play, why should there not be something similar to O2's checker where you can put in a URL and see its classification?  Perhaps it's because, as Cory Doctorow wrote, that such lists are considered to be trade secrets.  Carr says the filters will get better and errors can be easily rectified, but will they be?  Mobile operators are still incredibly reticent about their blocking practices, not inspiring confidence ISPs will be any different.

Carr finishes by saying that parents shouldn't "feel obliged to provide unrestricted access to all its horrors", but this obfuscates the issue.  Filters and censorware have long been available, only it was up to parents to make the decision for themselves as to whether to use them.  Making filters available as they have been, just not demanding they be default on, would fulfil Carr's argument.  We've reached a position where not just pornography but "extremist" material, file-sharing sites and everything in between is blacklisted by default, something you don't have to be a conspiracy nut to think is beneficial to both government and big business.  This has all been achieved through the age-old method of asking "won't someone think of the children?", the default fall back argument of the censorious everywhere.  Combined with the child porn angle pursued by the Mail, it's not a surprise the ISPs and Google gave in, or at least gave the impression they had.  What ought to be surprising is that a party which has constantly derided the "nanny state" and urges personal responsibility at every turn has been the one to do so.

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Wednesday, January 15, 2014 

The wacky French and their wacky views on privacy.

When it comes to schadenfreude on the part of the media, it doesn't get much more pathetic than their collective opinion on France. You don't have to be aware of the Sun's headline "ZE FROGS ARE FILTHY: OFFICIAL" to know the press doesn't much care for our friends on the continent. They are, variously, dirty, weak, lazy, vain, self-regarding, womanisers, rude and good at pretty much nothing except surrendering. At the same time and contradictorily we naturally envy their very joie de vivre, their almost blasé attitude towards sex, and some even on the right grudgingly admire the bloodymindedness of their unions and farmers in sticking two fingers up to both governments and the EU.

Much as I tend to think in my more misanthropic moments that Britain is a beautiful country spoiled only by the natives, so those in the media who adore and might even have a holiday home in France itself think the same about the French. Their view of the nation and the stereotypes in which they so often paint the country, with the French then responding in kind about us "ros bifs", is especially refracted through the prism of our press versus theirs. On our side we have a boisterous, indefatigable, completely uninhibited media, which even now sees the sale of millions of copies of newsprint every day, whereas they have a cerebral, intelligent and generally respectful industry, which is precisely why in their view it sells a fraction of copies ours does.

More to the point, this apparent deference towards and respect for the privacy of even the most public figures makes a mockery of the very spirit of the free press. While the whole rest of the world is talking about president Francois Hollande and his apparent affair with Julie Gayet, a liaison which came as such a shock to Hollande's partner Valerie Trierweiler that she has been admitted to hospital, the French press limited themselves to asking about the alleged relationship in an extremely roundabout way, questioning Hollande over whether Trierweiler was still first lady, or if his security might have been loosened by the trysts. Hollande, politely as possible, insisted that private matters should remain just that.

Bashing the French and their odd little ways is of course tremendous fun. We would never allow our top politicians for instance to conduct affairs and then respect their calls for privacy, or indeed do the same when it comes to the royal family. From Fergie toe-sucking to Squidgygate, they've all been caught at it and exposed in the press. Curiously though, you don't tend to read much about the infidelities of Prince Philip himself, which seems distinctly odd. Still, the exception that proves the rule, right?

I mean, the media would never believe lies on the scale of those told by Mitterand, for instance. We draw the line surely at pursuing our representatives to the point of forcing them to resign over a blowjob, but otherwise we like to know who's shagging whom. It wouldn't take, say, the autobiography of a former minister to expose her relationship with a prime minister, for instance. Nor would suggestions that the breakdown of the marriage between a media baron and his younger wife might be linked to another former prime minister be quickly stamped on and not heard about again.  Our media is so dog eat dog in fact that even affairs between journalists themselves are reported on, especially when one of those involved was married to a soap star.  As for the exposing of those who've abused their celebrity, the record of the press is second to none, as we've seen over the past couple of years.

The fact is our media only exposes those it decides to, and even then only makes a song and dance about certain individuals, generally because they've either refused to go along with the narrative they're told to or have dared to involve their lawyers. It doesn't help that every editor seems to imagine that this latest example of infidelity by a politician could be a modern version of the Profumo affair, forgetting that one man died and another felt he had to pay penance for the rest of his days as a result of his shortlived relationship with a call girl. It also feels distinctly odd for the British media as a whole to feel so superior so soon after Leveson, when it was the very pursuit of such mundane details about celebrities and politicians that brought it so low.  Anyone would think some are trying to compensate for an ongoing trial which continues in the background.

Moreover, we're closer to the French position on privacy than the tabloids would like as it is. They might think indiscretions still sell papers, but it tends not to make us think any less of someone unless the details are especially sordid. And why should it? We only ought to know about an affair if it's affecting a politician so severely that their work has been significantly impaired. Only David Blunkett comes to mind as this being true of in recent years, while arguably Francois Hollande's alleged affair would also meet this criteria due to how it's impacted on Trierweiler. Vicky Pryce can also attest that seeking revenge via even as august an organ as the Sunday Times can go horribly wrong, not least when those you trusted turn over their source material with barely a fight.  It might also be worth remembering journalists and politicians consistently come bottom of trust surveys.  Could there possibly be a link?

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Tuesday, January 14, 2014 

Small mercies.

This septic isle can at times seem exactly that.  Whether it's politicians competing as to who can be the meanest to newcomers over a non-existent problem, documentary makers trying their hardest to portray benefit claimants in the least flattering light possible, the succession of aged celebrities currently standing trial on sexual assault charges, chief police officers (allegedly) threatening to use the Official Secrets Act against whistleblowers, or newspapers only able to discuss "difficult" topics if a fucking soap opera tackles one, things can get a bit grim.

We don't however live in a country where this passes as authoritative, informed comment: a place where black, despite looking really quite dark from whichever angle you look at it, is in fact white; and where you don't just mourn the passing of one war criminal at a time but also defend the honour of another, George W. Bush having been so cruelly misunderstood, only now regarded more favourably in comparison to the treacherous Obama.  Thank heavens for small mercies, eh?

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Monday, January 13, 2014 

The anti-Mandela.

Ariel Sharon was, in many ways, the anti-Mandela.  Whereas Mandela took up the gun relatively briefly and then spent the rest of his life pursuing a peaceful end to apartheid, Sharon never let a rifle or more accurately later, a Hellfire missile, slip from his grasp.  Not that you would necessarily know this from some of the obituaries on the man or from the state funeral he was given, attended by both the US vice president and our very own Tony Blair.  Never has a politician who was simply complying with international law when he ordered the evacuation of settlers from the Gaza strip, the one act in a long life of war that can be even vaguely described as peaceful, been so fêted and eulogised.

You could perhaps understand the coverage or the tributes if Sharon's disregard for civilian life or breaches of international law were one-offs in a career that spanned 60 years.  "Arik" however started as he meant to go on: he led the attack on the village of Qibya in the West Bank in 1953 in which at least 69 of the residents, two-thirds women and children, were killed.  Not that he was particularly concerned with the lives of his own men, either: always knowing better, in the 1956 Sinai campaign he ignored orders and drove his paratroop into the Mitla pass, where Egyptian forces were lying in wait.  38 under his command died.

The architect of the war in Lebanon, a war which failed in every single one of its aims, Sharon is most notorious for having been in command when the Phalangist militia carried out the massacres in Sabira and Shatila in retaliation for the assassination of Bachir Gemayel, wrongly believing Palestinian militants to have been responsible.  Around 2,000 are believed to have been killed in what was later regarded as an act of genocide, the aftermath filmed and reported on by numerous journalists.  Sharon was found "indirectly responsible" by the Kahan commission, yet still refused to resign as defence minister, eventually compromising by becoming minister without portfolio.

Sharon was also one of the biggest supporters of the settler movement, being completely open in his justification for the grabbing of land in the occupied territories: whatever they took he believed would stay theirs forever.  After helping to spark the second intifada with his deliberately provocative visit to the Temple Mount, declaring that the site would always remain under Israeli control, he became prime minister six months later, tying the "disengagement" from Gaza with the construction of the West Bank barrier, a policy he had previously opposed.  For all the surmising from some that the abandonment of Gaza, or rather what has become the perpetual siege of the territory would lead to dismantlement of settlements in the West Bank, the building of the wall, far from the 1967 border, was designed to become the de facto border for any eventual Palestinian state.  Not that this would be a state we would recognise: Sharon's vision was of a completely demilitarised series of statelets, the settlements that split and divide the West Bank remaining in place.

For all his failings however, Sharon the politician was a pioneer.  The evacuation of Gaza was a masterstroke, as the tributes have proved.  At the cost of a minuscule number of settlements, Sharon was reinvented as a mythical man of peace.  He was never anything of the kind.  Ever since his incapacitation the settlements in the West Bank have gone on growing, the Palestinians left with an ever dwindling amount of land that is barely even connected.  Israeli politicians, when they've so much as bothered to go through the motions, have rejected even the most generous offers from the negotiators of the Palestinian Authority, knowing full well that the longer they delay and prevaricate the lesser the chance that a Palestinian state will ever be established.

What better a sign of his creation of this new reality than Tony Blair's tribute?  Easy as it is to forget, Blair is the head of the Quartet of states and organisations meant to be pushing the two sides towards a settlement.  Palestinians watching today will see the envoy of pretty much the rest of the world eulogising a man who, as Blair himself said, often left "considerable debris in his wake".  Those who express warranted distaste when Palestinian prisoners released under goodwill gestures are welcomed home as heroes regardless of their crimes should bear today in mind: a state founded on terrorism giving a war criminal the very highest honour it can bestow.  And we wonder why the Arab street remains suspicious of the West and its double standards.

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Friday, January 10, 2014 


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Thursday, January 09, 2014 

Revisiting the Twitter hate machine.

There has been, shall we say, an interesting response to the convictions this week of two of those who abused Caroline Criado-Perez on Twitter following her campaign for a woman to appear on a banknote.  At the time we were told repeatedly this was proof positive of how many women are treated when they dare to raise their voices in public for such causes, of the most vile misogyny, and how there needed to be a change in attitude by both social networks and the police to such incidents.  Some of us cautioned that the first two views especially seemed to ignore how trolling had developed, as well as how those who had previously been exposed as trolls tended to be rather pathetic individuals. Unlike political bloggers. Ahem.

Without saying the guilty pleas of John Nimmo and Isabella Sorley vindicate that stance, as it's evident that some of those behind the over 80 accounts who attacked Criado-Perez were motivated by little more than outright sexism, it doesn't exactly stand up the misogyny explanation either, something most of those commentating have curiously omitted from their write-ups. We shouldn't of course take the mitigating statements made by their solicitors completely at face value, but it doesn't surprise Nimmo was described as a pathetic friendless failure, whose only interaction with the outside world was to abuse public figures in an attempt to get online kudos.  Sorley meanwhile blamed her behaviour on both boredom and being drunk, the latter at least backed up by a string of convictions for being drunk and disorderly.

While you certainly can be a woman and a misogynist, Criado-Perez's explanation that our society is "so steeped in misogyny" that women joining in shouldn't be a surprise doesn't really cut it. Just as any ideology can blind you to far more prosaic explanations of behaviour, Criado-Perez's feminism seems to have stopped her from considering whether it might just be that Sorley is an immature person who's made some extremely bad decisions.  Going back through her tweets over the past six months, that certainly seems the more reasonable conclusion to draw.

Helen Lewis writes that the debate has been held back by how the abuse directed against Criado-Perez was so awful that it can't be quoted pre-watershed.  This seems a red herring: was the debate really held back?  I don't think it was; if anything, the response last July/August from the media was ridiculously over-the-top and misinformed precisely because those reporting on it were too closely linked to the people being abused.  I can more than empathise with Criado-Perez being deeply upset and changed by the nature of the worst of the abuse; a long, long time ago (we're talking over a decade ago) someone managed to find my address and threatened to come and beat me up, which even if extremely unlikely did cause me some worry.  No one deserves to be threatened in such an obscene way, yet they are just words, words delivered through a computer screen, and which are constructed precisely to garner such a reaction.  Feminists being threatened with rape or worse isn't instantly misogyny; it's pure trolling, the troll knowing that bringing rape into it is bound to result in a reaction.

Which is where I think so many have got it so wrong.  As Isabella Sorley tweeted, and I think we can take her word for it, "these people don't hate her, they are after a reaction and she is giving them one!"  The abuse went on and got worse precisely because it was bitten back against over and over, receiving such wide media attention.  Ignoring it completely obviously isn't an answer, but it's a better one than expecting either the police or Twitter to be capable of tracking down every individual who wrote something beyond the pale.  Wanting the police to investigate every instance as Criado-Perez seems to isn't just impossible, it would mean them also having to track down those who threaten racists, feminists who attack feminists, as well as those who tweet their disgust at the construct they've just witnessed on their TV screens.

Fundamentally, it does come back to the other point, the confusing of the internet you would like there to be with the one there actually is.  Some of those who took part in last summer's boycott were deeply shocked when they found that the part of the internet they occupied could be infiltrated by those from outside it.  Fact is that some users out there don't care for who you are, and are more than prepared to tell you about it.  Helen Lewis says we can't ignore what's happening and asks whether it will be enough to make us act, yet she doesn't suggest what we should do.  If that's because there is no real answer, and most of the suggestions as to how to deal with it either wouldn't work or would destroy fundamental online freedoms, as restricting anonymity would, then good.  If not, we either haven't learned anything, or simply don't want to.

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Wednesday, January 08, 2014 

Unanswered questions, familiar findings.

Of all the things you could have spent the last 4 months of your life doing, it's a pretty safe bet serving on the jury at the inquest into the death of Mark Duggan would rank at the very bottom of most lists.  To say you can't envy the 10 members of the jury would be putting it extremely lightly; whichever verdict they reached there would be have been major repercussions.  Had they found he was unlawfully killed, it's difficult to believe the Met wouldn't have reacted in the way they have in the past to jury verdicts going against them.  Members of CO19 downed tools after a jury found Harry Stanley to have been unlawfully killed, Stanley having been gunned down while being both Irish and carrying a chair leg in a plastic bag, the armed response teams happily returning to work after a judge overturned the inquest's findings.

The verdict the jury has reached however is just about the most inflammatory one possible.  They concluded by majority verdict that while Duggan had not been holding the gun when he was shot dead by officer V53, V53 was justified in believing that he needed to use force to defend himself as he genuinely thought Duggan was armed and about to fire.  Duggan was therefore lawfully killed.  The response from Mark Duggan's family, one of fury, is more than understandable.  V53 was not the only officer to testify that Duggan had been holding the gun when he exited the cab after the police conducted a "hard stop" on the vehicle; W70 also did, with both then saying the gun disappeared after the shooting.  W70's initial statement did not mention Duggan holding a gun though, with the officer saying in court he withheld it on legal advice, as this initial statement was not supposed to contain such details.

Where the jury's verdict is most likely to be challenged at a judicial review, and also where it collapses into a whole mess of contradictions is on how the gun got from the shoebox Duggan collected it in to behind a fence around 10 to 20 feet from where he died.  The jury's majority verdict by 8 to 2 was that Duggan threw it as soon as the minicab came to a stop, while one of the other two decided he threw it whilst on the pavement evading the police, leaving the last juror to decide that as no witness gave evidence that Duggan had done either he could not support either supposition.  Indeed, not only did Duggan manage to throw the gun without any bystanders or the police in pursuit seeing him, both the gun and the sock had no fingerprints or DNA evidence from Duggan on them.  The shoebox, by contrast, did have his fingerprints on it.  One officer specifically gave evidence that had Duggan thrown it he would have seen it, while Professor Jonathan Clasper gave evidence that as Duggan was shot first in the bicep, rather than in the chest as V53 testified, it would have been "very unlikely" he would have been able to have thrown it the distance it was found away.

If, then as the jury found Duggan had already thrown the gun away, how was it that not one but two police officers were certain that he still had it, only for it to disappear once he was dead?  Witness B gave evidence that Duggan had in fact been holding a mobile phone when he was shot.  Witness B also filmed 9 minutes of footage which he "sold" to the BBC (going by the Graun's reporting of the counsel for the officers, as I doubt the BBC did pay for it) of the aftermath of the shooting, at the time contradicting his later evidence by telling the reporter he thought he had been holding a gun.  The inquest heard that Duggan had been talking on a mobile phone 10 seconds before he was shot, yet there hasn't been much reporting on where the phone was found, or whether the officers could have mistaken it for a gun.  It would be one thing for one of the officers to do so, but for two seems unlikely.

It's not as unlikely however as the narrative we're meant to accept.  As no witness saw Duggan throw the gun, either before he got out of the cab or as he was shot, I can't see how the jury could make an informed decision as to how it got where it was found.  Whether that's a mistake on the part of the coroner in asking them to reach a decision, or on the jury for doing so might yet be decided in another court.

The jury was nonetheless entitled to find Duggan had been lawfully killed as they accepted V53's overall account of what happened, that he felt threatened and believed Duggan was about to shoot, even while finding he didn't have a gun. V53 was wrong about where he first shot Duggan, and about the colour of the cab, yet neither it seems was enough to make them doubt his evidence sufficiently to reach an open verdict. It's also not surprising when a jury is always likely to accept the word of an officer when there were no other independent witnesses close by, the cab driver's evidence contradictory, while Witness B was over 100 metres away.  From the time Duggan left the cab to being shot dead just 10 seconds went by, and while it's difficult to see how V53 could be so certain about the movements he thought Duggan was making in order to justify shooting him, it again isn't surprising they came down in the police's favour.

Little however it seems was learned from past tragedies and shootings involving the Met.  While nowhere near on the scale of the "complete and utter fuck-up" which was the killing of Jean Charles de Menezes, the Met are once again describing a death they were involved in as being "by a thousand fuckups".  The jury found the police did not do enough to "gather and react to the intelligence" that Duggan was due to collect the gun, while in the aftermath we again heard the usual subsequently proved wrong claims that Duggan had shot at the police.  The crime scene was improperly secured, and handed over to the Independent Police Complaints Commission late, while the cab itself was driven away from the scene before later being brought back.  The officers themselves were, as in the de Menezes case, allowed to confer and write up their statements together, while they refused to answer the IPCC's questions, only giving written statements.  The IPCC is now set to be further reformed, but whether it will make much of a difference if officers are still to be allowed to confer before giving their statements remains to be seen.

The reaction of some to the verdict, best seen in the comments to David Lammy's piece that covers all the bases, reminds of the exact same calls we heard at the height of the riots that followed Duggan's death.  Regardless of how involved Duggan was with a sub-section of the Tottenham Man Dem, and the police likely have exaggerated it to a certain extent, when someone is killed by the police and there are unanswered questions about what happened, there has to be a swift response to such concerns.  That clearly didn't happen in August 2011, and what followed, even if not fully connected, were the worst riots in 30 years.  The exact reason why there were such suspicions is precisely because we've seen it all before, and while on this occasion the most likely explanation is the one reached by the jury, even if no one saw Duggan throw the gun, an unarmed man was killed when he should still be alive today.  There were never going to be any winners, but it's hard not to feel extremely hollow about today's verdict, and whatever happens from today, a dark piece of modern British history is still not yet over.

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Tuesday, January 07, 2014 

Michael Gove's WWI bollocks.

Of all the people Michael Gove could have picked a fight with, it fairly boggles the mind that he chose to start one with Baldrick. If there's just one thing that we Brits tend to unite over, it's our love for heroic failures/idiots, even more so when they're fictional. Take David Brent, Rab C Nesbitt, Mark and Jeremy, and a myriad other examples. None however come close to Baldrick, who gets more lovable the stupider he gets, the character who named a thousand regimental goats, and coined a catchphrase that manages not to get annoying extremely quickly.

To be fair, Gove's problem isn't with Baldrick, Blackadder or Oh! What a Lovely War as it is those dastardly left-wing academics who have conspired to caricature the first world war as being accurately presented by such fictional works. For Gove, the Great War was just as necessary as the second, a war for which the blame lays firmly with Germany and its rulers' "ruthless social Darwinism" and "aggressively expansionist war aims" . To argue otherwise is to impugn the patriotism of those who fought and made the ultimate sacrifice, regardless of how as Gove acknowledges, the scale of the sacrifice was a tragedy.

Gove is of course entitled to his view and acknowledges there is no "unchallenged consensus". There are also certain elements to his argument which are fair enough. Gove is however nothing if not an unrepentant neo-conservative when it comes to foreign policy, and it's therefore hardly surprising that he dislikes the healthy scepticism that our culture in general has for war, something if he was more honest he might accept is precisely because we've learned to be the hard way.

What infuriates and bewilders is just how very wrong he is about almost everything else. For probably the most cerebral member of the cabinet, he lays it on so thick that it makes you wonder whether he or one of his equally combative aides actually wrote the piece. It reads more like a typical Mail "aren'tcha sick of these lefties" article than it does from a minister looking to redress the balance.

Others with a firmer grasp on the first world war than me have pointed out that regardless of the revisionism of recent years, the conflict remains one of military disasters and mistakes, and despite Gove placing the blame "plainly" on Germany, one of the most recent acclaimed works on its origins spreads it far more widely. It's also rather baffling that Gove fingers (ooh er) left-wing academics when the historian most responsible for the view of the war as one "of lions led by donkeys", now mostly discredited, was none other than that noted communist Alan Clark. The only historian Gove names is Richard J Evans, who it so happens was one of the most senior to criticise his initial plans for changes to the history curriculum, and who, naturally, Gove quotes out of context.  Evans wrote that the men who enlisted were wrong to think they were fighting for freedom and so on in the context of the first world war leading to the second, an argument first made most forcefully by AJP Taylor (a leftie, natch) and since further refined, expanded upon and mostly accepted.  Gove then goes even further and claims Evans's criticism of his changes to the curriculum was in fact aimed at commemorating the first world war at all, when in fact he was contrasting the government's plans which he welcomed with Gove's "tub-thumping" approach to history.

More my style is to look at what Blackadder actually says about the war.  If we dispense with the caricature of the generals and Haig as being either idiots or completely flippant about the lives of the soldiers they were sending into no man's land, which clearly isn't meant to be taken entirely seriously, just as how we're not meant to think that Elizabeth I was the equivalent of a batty schoolgirl with absolute power as she's portrayed in Blackadder the Second, it comes out pretty well.  Ben Elton and Richard Curtis never claimed the show to be anything other than playing fast and loose with GCSE history, and that's what it does.  The section in the final episode when Baldrick asks how the war started, as well as being funny, is fairly accurate: both ourselves and our allies had empires far beyond what the Germans had and it was precisely in that context Germany wanted to expand; it was too much trouble not to have a war, despite the fact that we could do nothing to help Belgium, our ostensible reason for joining in, due to the trains; and it's also the case that the formation of the triple alliance and the triple entente, despite being partially meant to prevent such a major war due to the deterrent aspect, failed, or as Blackadder puts it, "was bollocks".

We knew this already though, surely?  The bigger question is why Gove felt the need to disturb what had mostly been a friendly consensus on the commemorations in this anniversary year, and do so in such a dishonest fashion.  One explanation is Gove and his aides seem to thrive on confrontation, just as his hero Tony Blair did; he doesn't seem content unless he's attacking teachers and their unions, or journalists who dare to criticise his education policies.  Flying Rodent suggests it's all part of a continuing attempt to draw dividing lines and get your supporters fired up, with little in the way of fallout if you lose as nothing was at stake in the first place.  The Mail didn't imagine such a response however when it said Ed Miliband's father hated Britain, last year's article making an interesting juxtaposition with Gove's, the minister lambasting imaginary left-wingers for "denigrating virtues such as patriotism, honour and courage" when that was precisely what the paper did when it came to someone who volunteered to fight for the country that gave him sanctuary.

Closer to the truth is that Gove believes every word he wrote.  Just as he stresses traditionalism and discipline when it comes to education, he sees much in the values that began to be lost following the first world war.  Even if it took another half century for deference to truly begin to disintegrate, no longer after the Somme and Passchendaele did the ordinary man start from the position that those in charge knew better.  It brought blind patriotism into question, while it took years for the pacifism that set in after the horror of the trenches to be shaken off enough for another war to be considered.  Most telling is that he can't seem to see Blackadder is patriotic in that it does celebrate the sacrifice of those who enlisted, as one of the most moving and perfect endings to any comedy makes startlingly apparent; it's just that it does so while not absolving those who put them there from blame or responsibility.  This isn't an "ambiguous" attitude to this country, it's one that has become thoroughly British.  As with so much else, Gove wants desperately to turn the clock back.

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