31 December 2009


Although Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's underpants may have failed to go off, they have certainly ignited the debate around the use of profiling to assess the risk passengers pose to aircraft security. This has been the elephant in the room ever since 9/11, but this week the British government admitted passenger profiling was "in the mix". Is this simply a detached, dispassionate practice, or is it also subject to unhelpful cultural bias?

As the press sifted through the known facts from his time spent studying in the UK, The Times noted last Wednesday that Mr Abdulmutallab was the fourth head of a Muslim Society from a college of the University of London to be arrested on terrorist offences. It's the sort of statistic that actually says very little, because on its own, its a dead end: does that put all Muslims in the frame, heads of Muslim Societies at UK universities, or, indeed, anyone at all? It's an innuendo in search of significance. But it has power in the mind because of the power of the crime of terrorism. It only takes one person to panic an entire nation. If we were to find that, statistically, several heads of the Rugby Society at University of London colleges had been arrested for drunkenness, it would be just as insignificant as a statistic, but we are likely to take a measured view because of the perceived threat to ourselves posed by drunks versus terrorists.

Does the activity of Mr Abdulmutallab put us in the clear to consider Muslim devotion a threat to our bodies regardless of the individual or to insist on more rigorous searches at airports? The fact that high-profile recent terrorist incidents in our sphere of interest have been committed by Islamists leaves those of us outside the faith conducting our own unconscious profiling whenever we are at an airport. But it is interesting how this form of cultural risk assessment is reported, when compared with something closer to home.

At about the same time as Mr Abdulmutullab was buying his special y-fronts, the Murphy Report was released in Ireland, as a follow up to the earlier Ryan Report published in May. Between them these reports set out in depressing detail the astonishing levels of abuse perpetrated by officers of the Roman Catholic church in Ireland upon children, decade after decade, and how that behaviour was covered up, denied and explained away with complicity at the highest levels of the church.

It would be possible to argue that, given the numbers of victims involved, the Church in Ireland has destroyed more lives than Abdulmutullab ever could have - though that would be to create a sick competition. However, we do feel able to idly speculate whether being a Muslim makes you more likely to be a terrorist - yet at the same time, I hear no debates in the press about whether being a Catholic priest makes you more likely to be a child abuser or pederast. In the one case, we can see beyond the collective to the individual, in the other they are all tarred with the same brush.

Returning to our original question, it seems about the only thing Mr Abdulmutullab didn't do was print a "I'm a Terrorist" T-shirt, since he was granted an entry Visa to the USA, despite being on at least one list of suspicious or undesirable persons, paid cash for the ticket and took no luggage with him. The nonsense reactions of those in charge of US air security reflect a desperate desire to reassure people than actually any useful precautions, not to mention to deflect a degree of political embarrassment. Under the precautionary principle, I am reasonably happy to accept a degree of profiling based upon intelligence and statistcal evidence, and sorry if that upsets a few people who fit an unfortunate profile. On the other hand, I'd also insist on the same level of scrutiny being applied to all religious zealots put in a position of where they are capable of causing harm.

30 December 2009

Fin de siecle

As befits a rubbish year, the end of the decade has felt something of an anti climax. In fact, I didn't even realise it was going to be a new decade until last week. Yet before we know it, we'll be having Noughties Nights at nightclubs, when people can dance to Girls Aloud wearing Ugg boots, drinking bottle of blue WKD.

I wonder when we became quite so self-conscious about bundling up the years into neat packages to be consigned onto certain shelves, as though on New Year's Day 1980 we went from being striking punks to greedy Spandau Ballet fans. I suppose the idea of the Roaring Twenties was the first, with the Wall St Crash to put clear daylight between the delicious abandon of 1929 and the sobering depression of 1930. Looking back on this first decade of the 21st century, what will we say were defining themes? And looking forward to the next, what on earth will we call it?

The Noughties sort of stuck in the absence of anything better, but how will we collectively refer to the years 2010-2019 when we come to look back at the end of the century? The Teens? Teenies? The Wunies? All horribly twee and silly - too much so for what looks set to be a serious time.

If the aforementioned 1920s can also be known as The Jazz Age, then I suggest the next 10 years hereby be known as the Teen Age. First, because we are about to go through a horrible transformation, where our comfortable existence is turned upside down, the lack of money will make us collectively grounded, plus where everything will seem so unfair, what with taxpayers subsidising bankers' bonuses. And by the end of it, we may just be able to afford to buy our own drinks.

20 December 2009

The final countdown

This week there has been a bit of a ding-dong, and not just from Santa's sleigh bells. Forget Copenhagen, the nation has been gripped by whether X-Factor winner Joe Schmo will get his Tiny Tim dream of a Christmas number one, or whether a spoiler campaign will propel another group to the top of the seasonal chart, in the form of a Rage Against The Machine song from 1993, "Killing in the name of". Simon Cowell has been harrumphing like a bad loser in tones of such unwitting irony that my head almost turned inside out with the mental gymnastics it took to realise he wasn't joking.

For me the most interesting thing is the passion aroused on both sides (or as near as Simon Cowell can come to it) about what is really a curate's egg. I mean, why does anyone give a toss what happens to be the best-selling song at the time of a public holiday? It's not as if there is a religious dimension to the rivalry, reclaiming the feast from the heathen hoards, a la Cliff Richard. The papers will not be filled with speculation as to what is the best-selling book, or the most popular movie on release. Is the Christmas single meant to say something about us as a nation, the aural equivalent of the Queen's Speech? If so, it may explain the sense of national decline.

Once upon a time, of course, it mattered financially. When singles came in vinyl format and you had to shift three quarters of a million units to hit the top, it was the biggest week for sales, thanks to their popularity as gifts. This habit has always puzzled me - you want to buy a record as a Christmas present for someone, but you know so little about them that you have to guess at a song. And if you had used the number one single as some sort of quality benchmark, more often than not the recipient would have been disappointed, as this accolade is won, as often as not, by the likes of Bob the Builder and Westlife - and going back further Shakin' Stevens and Benny Hill. You may as well select number 18 every year and hope for the best.

These digital days, when more people own soft copies than hard copies, actual singles sales are a tiny proportion of revenue for an artist, and given there is not even a Christmas Day Top of the Pops anymore, the question remains as to why people actually care. No-one strives to achieve an Easter Number One or August Bank Holiday hit. Have we let the nation down if the X Factor machine secures its fifth consecutive Christmas number one? What about if it's number one for New Year, not to say a new decade, as it almost certainly will be?

Where do we go from here? Is this the sign of Cowell's waning influence after four consecutive hits? Are the charts of the future going to represent the results of random social media campaigns rather than the current favourite tunes? I'd like to think it marks the end of the idea of a singles chart, which smacks of the bad old days of no commercial radio, three TV stations, and a waiting list at the GPO to get a phone installed. In the multi-channelled world we live in today, a monopoly system that claims to signify something of importance to everyone is an anachronism, and irrelevant to most people. Let's hope Simon Cowell goes the same way.

15 December 2009

Voting in the name of

As the steroid-injected, bloated cash cow that is X-Factor collapsed off the TV schedules, no doubt ITV executives were cheered by the advertising and phone-vote revenue raised, and Simon Cowell is calculating the precise number of burgers the carcass will make. And newspapers anxious about the sudden lack of stories can fill some time this week by talking up the viewing figures - 15 million on average, apparently, across the weekend's shows. The Evening Standard described the fact that more people voted for the final's contestants over the weekend than elected the current government at the last election as "the most interesting statistic".

No doubt the Daily Mail will join this chorus tomorrow, as a fitting subject for much tutting about lack of interest in politics (all Gordon Brown's fault) and the dumbing down of the population (also Gordon Brown's fault), probably as part of a dismal A N Wilson piece. But even if we ignore the millions of citizens ineligible for the electoral role who do vote for TV talent shows (the under 18s), it seems an odd comparison to make, much as the media loves to do it.

If, in order to vote for Bill or Ben (or whatever the finalists' names were), viewers had to go to their nearest school with a registration card between 7am and 7pm on a Thursday, as opposed to sending a text or ringing a premium rate number, the number of votes polled on X-Factor would diminish considerably. I'm sure over the weekend more people ordered takeaway pizzas than voted Labour in 2005, but that doesn't necessarily represent a collective expression of disillusionment.

But it does seem to have given Simon Cowell an idea for greater political engagement, as he says he wants to organise X-Factor style shows involving politicians ahead of the general election. Debating issues, fortunately, not singing (story here). According to the BBC, he wants to create a "bear pit" atmosphere, with a live studio audience and viewers voting via telephone. He wants to put on a show where a large studio audience was divided up according to its view on an issue, and then "a red telephone would allow politicians to ring in to state their case", which leads me to believe that he's gotten Prime Minister's Questions mixed up with Deal or No Deal.

Although I would welcome Mr Cowell's creative involvement in organising such an event, my greatest fear is it would spark a counter-campaign on Facebook, and before we knew it, the lead singer of Rage Against the Machine would be Prime Minister.

As you like it

"Shakespeare? I'd rather stick pencils in my eyes". So runs the quote on an ad I saw today, promoting the new Jeremy Clarkson book, presumably as an example of the author's wit and wisdom. Which is uncanny, because, faced with the prospect of Shakespeare, I too would rather stick pencils in Jeremy Clarkson's eyes. Actually, I don't even need to hear Shakespeare.

13 December 2009

Assuming the position

Tony Blair has caused a bit of a stir this week by claiming he would still have invaded Iraq in 2003, even if he had known there were no weapons of mass destruction. As much as anything, this is a corner into which he has painted himself. To admit otherwise - that he would have gone to war only because of the WMD - would throw uncomfortable light upon the evidence, dodgy dossier and all. Better to tough it out as a moral position.

At the same time as Blair was undergoing his sofa grilling (at the hands of fearsome political interrogator Fern Brittan), the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, was complaining that politicians didn't take religious faith very seriously but as an "eccentricity" practised by "oddities". Since Tony Blair's positions are driven by his deeply held Christian convictions, Dr Williams' comments seem timely, although probably not in the way he intended. If Blair is the poster child for politicians taking religious views seriously, then long may we continue to seek their mutual separation.

It also highlights a contradiction at the heart of Blair the politician. He is often painted as a focus-group fanatic, unable to express the simplest opinion without knowing how it would play with key voter demographics. Yet time and time again, on some of the biggest calls, he would adopt a position based upon instinct and adjust his arguments, or even the facts, to suit it - from Kosovo to ID Cards, PFI and, ultimately, the Iraq invasion.

While this approach might work in the imaginary bubble of politics, I'm not sure how successful a strategy it would be for those who live in the real world. Suppose I want to go to the cinema, and so I tell everyone that a new James Bond movie is playing that evening in town. But when we get there, not only is the movie not showing, but it hasn't even been made. I then turn to my disappointed friends and offer them the opportunity to watch the latest Jennifer Aniston romantic comedy - if they don't like it, and tell me I should have checked the listings, I simply tell them that someone had to take the decision to come to the cinema, and that I believe the trip was worth it. And then spend my friends' annual wages on the tickets.

09 December 2009

Paying Liddle attention

I really don't want to talk about Rod Liddle, but I feel drawn towards his odious journalistic malfeasance like a moth to the flame. At the risk of giving him the oxygen of publicity, in last week's Spectator magazine, the journal of choice for all swivel-eyed loons, he wrote what he probably thinks is a "brave" article about race and crime in the UK. Once again he was speaking the unspeakable, or in his case writing the unreadable. Here's a sample, to give you a taste of what passes for work in Rod's world:

The overwhelming majority of street crime, knife crime, gun crime, robbery and crimes of sexual violence in London is [sic] carried out by young men from the African-Caribbean community. Of course, in return, we have rap music, goat curry and a far more vibrant and diverse understanding of cultures which were once alien to us. For which, many thanks.

As with all good debates, at the beginning I should declare an interest: I think Rod Liddle is a crypto-fascist troglodyte, and did before I even read his loathsome article. He's Clarkson without the brains, Littlejohn without the sophistication. Hitler without the moustache.

Not surprisingly, the article has attracted a fair share of attention, and not all of it says "well done Roddie". Most of the ire is directed to the fairly fundamental point that he actually has his facts wrong (and he cites no sources in the article - for more detail, click here). Black men do not commit the majority of the crimes he mentions, even in London (which he scurrilously tries to extrapolate across the country). But to me this is missing the point.

Let us suppose it were true - in some categories it nearly is true - would that make him a visionary? The question is, as it should be always when applied to statistics, especially in the hands of a dyspeptic boor like Liddle: what are you doing with this information? He presents it as though it were the dispassionate, neutral release of pure data, untainted by spin or innuendo. Does Rod suggest that we abandon all our present crime-fighting tactics and opt for an approach based upon racial profiling? Would I be allowed to pre-emptively attack Afro-Caribbean young men in the street, on the statistical probability of preventing an assault upon me? Rapists are 100% male - should the police start to profile all men on the assumption they will attack women?

Sometimes it's hard to spot the inference, we are so used to categorisation. If I say the majority of knife crimes in are committed by black men, you might think I was making a statistical observation (an incorrect one, as it happens). But what if I were to say that most insider trading in was committed by Jews? Leaving aside whether it is true or not (and I have no idea), suddenly it doesn't sound so dispassionate - I am cutting the data to make a point, and a pretty unpleasant one.

Liddle believes he is the heroic standard bearer for the Silent Majority, taking a stand against the woolly-minded forces of political correctness. Whereas 86% of people think he is a racist dullard with mercifully limited publishing channels. Probably. But who's counting, eh Rod?

3D or not 3D

We're now knee-deep in the Panto season, and I have noticed a curious phenomenon sweeping seasonal shows across the land: 3D. From Bromley to Aberdeen, pantomimes are being advertised as starring a particular children's character in 3D, illustrated above by a snippet from a promo for St Alban's theatre. (Incidentally, why are all panto posters set out the same way, regardless of location, star, story or quality? It's like a state industry - has no-one ever heard of design?)

I was always under the impression that the point about theatre is that it's all 3D. I can't recall a night at the live performing arts where someone didn't occupy the space in three directions, though obviously some occupy it better than others. Advertising a theatre show as "3D" is like advertising ice cream as cold, though in the case of Keanu Reeves' Hamlet, I suspect some clarification might have been needed.

Such multi-dimensional confusion is not confined to the stage; conversations with expectant parents have made me aware of something called a 4D scan that creates a very high resolution image of a child in the mother's womb. Because this is such an improvement on the normal ultrasound scan in terms of clarity, it was felt calling it a 3D scan just wasn't enough. It needed taking to the fourth dimension, although as I understand it, there is no prediction for the baby's development, unless the foetus is so wrinkly it also shows what the child will look like as a pensioner.

Spacetime is a slippery phenomenon even for those scientists who know what they are talking about, so I would suggest the lay world tries to cope with getting its use of 3D right before they start dabbling with String Theory. The metaphysical equivalent of remembering their lines and not bumping into the furniture.

06 December 2009

The bank of laughter and forgetting

My favourite cartoon series is Bloom County, which ran between 1980 and 1989, charting the incongruous banalities of an eclectic mix of characters in a mythical mid-American small town. In one strip from 1988, a ne'er-do-well propositions Opus, the naive penguin, about a hypothetical drug habit he is considering starting. He suggests to Opus that, if he were to develop a serious addiction, the cost in terms of crime, law enforcement, treatment and rehabilitation would be about $1200 per American, but if Opus were to pay him $100 now, he'd take up philately instead. I felt a little like Opus this week about the news of RBS's proposed £1m+ bonus payments and subsequent row with the government, its main creditor.

While I am not above a little banker bashing, I also recognise, as the part-owner of several banks, it is in my interest to get as good a price for them as possible. And it is not a total myth that the best people in any labour pool will attract the best remuneration, though it can be overstated. To suggest the best Investment Bankers will work for RBS out of public spiritedness is absurd, and to pay them below market rate is to leave cash on the table in New York. So how do we express our displeasure while recognising the realities of a fluid labour market? I think I have the answer, and I shall call it Clown Day.

Last year, at the height of the bank bail-outs, some senior members of the banking community did actually go on the record to say sorry. But in the intervening months since then, we've heard precious little of the 's' word from the lips of increasingly cocky members of Investment Banking world. While levels of champagne consumption at Canary Wharf may not quite have reached 2005 levels, the bonus bleating seems to indicate horrifically short memories. So here's where the clowns come in.

I would decree that for one day a year, say 15 September, everyone who works for a bank who is in line for a bonus above a set level, such as £297,920, must dress as a clown in full regalia: wig, funny nose, braces and long feet. Furthermore, they would have to spend the day on street corners in the west end of London hawking for change; any change they do receive would be given to victims of their folly, any abuse received they would keep. It would become an annual spectacle, even a tourist event to raise badly needed cash for the Exchequer.

This is not class war (which is apparently back in fashion), but the chance to show humility. September 15 is the date Lehman Brothers went bust, and should serve as a chilling reminder to all in the world of finance just what can happen if a government doesn't choose to underwrite their foolishness. The world, much less the taxpayer, does not owe them a living, and the day would give them a period of reflection away from the alpha male bear pit of the sales floor to appreciate the enormously privileged position they are in, and the responsibility they carry.

£297,920 is the annual salary of the Governor of the Bank of England, dwarfed by the opulence of the Square Mile's highest earners, but someone who does, at least, have to consider the national interest. In years to come, when the memories of this recession are as distant to our grandchildren as the Wall Street Crash is to us, we will have an annual reminder of what can happen to those who, entrusted with other people's money, are foolish enough to believe their own publicity

I don't think a day of ashes-and-sackcloth (or in this case, greasepaint and nylon) is too much to ask for a million pound bonus. For that sort of money I'd eat the sweepings from my garage floor. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it, a wiser man than me once said. For the bonus boys of RBS who cannot remember it, they should be condemned and repeat the day they were shown to be clowns.

04 December 2009

Paper tigers

A government-backed report into cancer this week revealed some interesting statistics, and a treeful of newspaper stories. Most preferred to focus on the negative aspects of Professor Mike Richards' findings in Cancer Reform Strategy, and there was certainly enough material in there for indignation by those papers for whom it is the stock-in-trade: "postcode lottery" for survival rates, lower one-year survival rates than our European neighbours and the call for improvement in early diagnosis.

For me the most interesting aspect of the report was the positive macro findings which gave reasons to give at least two cheers: "There has been a further fall in cancer mortality, with the latest data (the average for 2006–08) showing that, among people under 75, cancer mortality has fallen by 19.3% since 1995–97. We are well on track to achieve the target of a 20% reduction by 2010....For breast cancer, five-year survival rose from 80.6% in 2000 to a predicted level of 86.0% in women diagnosed in 2007. The equivalent figures for colon cancer in men are 47.6% rising to 53.4% and in women 47.6% rising to 52.7%."

Whether you live in Paris or Peterborough, across the board, cancer survival rates are improving across the western world - in short, fewer people are dying of cancer at ages that we would consider 'young'. Terrific news if you are a human being but bad news if, instead, you write for the Daily Mail. For example, the Mail has warned us that the following things are likely to give us cancer: mouthwash, obesity, wine, shampoo, mozzarella cheese, chips, underarm deodorants, your height, vitamin C and candles. With all those threats lurking in every corner, it's a wonder we can even leave the house, never mind attend a screening appointment.

Even more disappointing for the Daily Mail is the apparent cause behind these reductions: evidence-based medicine. Those really boring things like better dietary advice, national screening programmes, vaccination, scientific research and improved surgical techniques. Because they are often difficult, slow and take a long time. They require some patience, rational thought and careful observation. All the things the Daily Mail is against.

The Mail likes its cancer solved quickly - preferably through a cheap, easily available, everyday commodity that can tackle a terrifically complex and various condition, such as cancer, in a simple way. So, again, according the Daily Mail, the following things will probably cure cancer - a balance, if you will, for all that shampoo and mouthwash: mushrooms, kangaroos, raspberries, a special gene, aspirin, tea and uncut carrots.

It is often said that fear of crime is much more prevalent that crime itself - no matter how much crime rates decline, people still put it high on a list of worries when polled in the street. In the same way what the Daily Mail writes about is fear of cancer rather than cancer itself, at least in terms of writing about its risks in a meaningful or sensible way. We see Jade Goody dead at 27 from cervical cancer, we listen to horrific statistics from cancer charities that 1 in 3 of us will die from it (or 1 in 2, depending on the type of cancer or who you ask). We conflate the two points, and imagine middle aged cancer as disturbingly common, smack bang in the middle of the Mail's demographic. But leaving aside unusual cases like lung cancer, which correlate strongly to a single cause, there is one overwhelming factor that determines the risk of you dying of cancer of whatever type and ferocity: age.

Cancer is a disease of the elderly, or at least the over 60s. Over 75 and the rates skyrocket. We all have to die of something, and for the elderly, cancer is a high risk. Of course some young people die of cancer, and when they do it seems cruel, baffling and capricious - the sort of thing that might make you throw up your hands and buy another punnet of raspberries or rub a kangaroo.

The relentless coverage of what is, to the majority of the population, actually quite a low risk, and the giddying array of PR campaigns to promote cures, products, drugs and quackery through the media has the effect of making cancer seem inexplicable, random as though a punishment from the Almighty. Certainly if every day you are told of a different test in a lab that produced a surrogate outcome on a mouse, and that is filtered through the Daily Mail to a simplistic cause and effect: today drink more tea to prevent cancer, tomorrow don't cut up your carrots. It is latter-day shamanism, and rather than empowering readers, or making them better informed, it stops them seeing the wood for the trees - from concentrating on what we know from long-term studies has a meaningful impact on risk insofar as you can control it: better diet, healthy exercise, moderate alcohol intake, no smoking and reduced stress. Evidence-based medicine saves lives, but where's the angle on that?

29 November 2009

Arrested development

I must confess to being slightly concerned this week, waking up to hear on the radio Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Constabulary, Sir Denis O'Connor, call for a return to traditional British policing tactics and methods. He was answering questions about his report on the enquiry into policing of the G20 summit earlier in the year but, in my sleepy delirium, I had visions of a return to those halcyon days of the 1970s: "sus" laws, racist beatings, the Birmingham Six and the West Midlands Serious Crime Squad, when recorded interviews and PACE seemed futuristic nonsense.

What Sir Denis meant was policing by consent, endorsing "accountability, approachability, impartiality and minimum force" in the way the fuzz goes about its business, rather than some of the recent innovative techniques of 'kettling', using the edge of a riot shield as a blade, and taking numbers off uniforms to prevent identification. The most damning part of his report addresses the lack of clarity and leadership over the approach to policing large scale protests, such as the G20. And although this is where the headlines are made, and the most newsworthy copy is filed, it's actually away from such events that policing in the UK faces its greatest challenges in repairing breaches in the public trust.

In another, less publicised report produced on the same day, it was showed the numbers of stop-and-searches being carried out still far in excess of those of just two years ago, from a peak back in April. Worryingly for politicians, these numbers included a large proportion of nice, respectable, middle-class people who would no more commit a crime than commit Harri-Kari. Just the sort of people, however, who would, and do, vote. Shadow Security Minister Baroness Neville-Jones said: "Inappropriate and ever wider use of these powers is one of the surest ways to lose public support in the fight against terrorism".

Apparently the surest way to win public support, in her book, is to have elected Police Commissioners, as the next day Chris Grayling, Shadow Home Secretary, outlined plans to make the Mayor of London the elected Commission of the Met, doing away with the Metropolitan Police Association (MPA) that does the job today. I don't think you have to be a fan of The Wire to see the possible disadvantages of a system of putting control of the police in the hands of elected politicians - not least because the present incumbent in the role is someone in whose hands I wouldn't trust the key to my drinks cabinet, never mind the safety of eight million Londoners.

I actually have some experience of how this might work; earlier in the year, I was doing some recruitment work with the London Development Agency (LDA), part of the triumvirate responsible for running London along with the Mayor's office and the London Assembly. In the middle of April, I took a call from the Head of HR at the LDA about a screaming urgent project to get a job web portal for Londoners up and running by the end of the month. When I asked why the tearing hurry to meet an impossible deadline, I was told rather sheepishly that the orders came direct from the Mayor's office: Boris wanted something in place for the anniversary of his election on 1 May to show he was tackling unemployment in the capital. Never mind the quality, just build the bloody thing.

The public support for the police is largely built upon wholesale ignorance about exactly what they do and how they work. The overwhelming majority of people will encounter a real policeman maybe twice in a lifetime, and certainly not from the wrong end of a riot shield; no matter how many column inches are written in The Guardian, there is enough of the population that will instinctively believe that protesters are troublemakers who deserve any kicking they receive from the police.

If, however, the public come increasingly into contact with the force of law and order through alienating instruments such as random stop-and-search, false arrests to increase the DNA database, speed cameras for minor infringements and Strict Liability policing (see here for a recent hair-raising example of this little-known legal nicety), they will start to question that trust. Which is why the one thing the public always claims to want - more "bobbies on the beat" - is the one thing a politician will promise but never deliver. Just in case a voter actually comes across one.

26 November 2009

Who's in charge around here?

To the general surprise of just about everyone, yesterday Britain's shiny new Supreme Court ruled that bank charges for exceeding agreed overdrafts were not illegal, much to the relief of the banking industry. For many years, High Street banking has been the poor relation to the glamorous Investment arm, and the prospect of having to shell out £2bn in backdated refunds made the margins look even less attractive. Everyone from so-called Consumer Groups to the banks' oldest chums, the Conservative Party, confirmed how shocked and disappointed they were - Shadow Financial Secretary Mark Hoban said: "This is a blow for consumers."

My first question would be: "which consumers and in what way a blow?" The recent massive bail-out by the government seems to have muddied this debate somewhat; that taxpayers now own a large proportion of many British banks doesn't make the services they provide magically cost nothing, from the shiny-glass-and-IKEA-sofaed bank foyers, to the ubiquitous street-based cashpoints. Who pays for this?

At the moment, the charges levied by banks for breaching overdraft limits do. Or as The Guardian rather emotionally expressed it: "The fact that all big banks openly and routinely use this source of revenue to subsidise the cost of providing banking services for better-off clients flies in the face of natural justice". I can't imagine what sense of outrage The Guardian must feel every time it enters a supermarket and finds the price of beans for the unemployed is the same as for the rich. Or as they might put it, that the poverty-line shopper subsidises the better-off customer. If they are examining the banking system for natural justice, I would think the last two years would show it is probably the wrong place to look.

Bear in mind we are talking about exceeding agreed overdrafts. In other words, when we promise to take £100 and instead end up taking £150, through need, bad planning or sheer stupidity. Try using that arrangement in our above supermarket - paying for one tin of beans but taking two - and see how far it gets you. Little sympathy or natural justice from Mr ASDA, I think you'll find.

These charges are not a subsidy paid by the poor - the level of income has nothing to do with it. It is a levy paid by the stupid, after having agreed a transaction - the fact that banks only charge you money and don't report you for theft reflects the fact it is an unconscious incompetence. But incompetence none the less - and I include myself in this group, as someone who has exceeded an overdraft and paid the price for it.

Let's imagine a world without this 'stupid tax' - where everyone is free to borrow as much as they like willy-nilly without thinking about the consequences or paying anything for the privilege. To pay for the convenience of cashpoints, bank managers and customer call centres we'd have to have a levy upon cash points, monthly current account fees, a tax upon transactions. Everyone would soon resort back to the practices of my parents' generation: queuing at the bank once a week for cash, paying for things by cheque or else stuffing it in a matress. In a world that relies on the free-flowing of electronic transactions, how exactly would this benefit the consumer?

22 November 2009

Penny for 'em

One of the quirks about the way the BBC is funded is the ongoing existence of programming "fossils" - bits of archania that should have disappeared with the advent of decimalisation. While these are harder to spot on BBC TV, they are particularly prevalent on Radio Four, our nation's flagship radio station of intelligence and, for many, myself included, the single biggest argument in favour of the licence fee (well, plus CBeebies). Radio Four bookends the day with two of these fossils: Prayer For The Day at the start and the playing of the national anthem at the end, but in between events such as the shipping forecast appear like trilobites in the Cambrian stratum.

One such relic given a dusting down this week was Thought For The Day, a curious 120 seconds at around 7.45am every day in the otherwise highbrow Today programme. The list of contributors is long and varied, as are their topics. But one thing unites them all - they are all underpinned by a religious theme, and this week the BBC Trust ruled it was not unbalanced for the editorial policy to exclude atheists or humanists in this slot. So for the time being we will continue to be treated to Rabbi Lionel Blue's reminiscences, Ann Atkin's deranged high Anglicanism and the Reverend Whatisface from the Church Of Making Up The Numbers on how mowing the lawn this week reminded him of St Paul's letter to the Ephesians.

One curious counter-argument that seems to have some currency amongst those who give a toss (and I realise this is of modest concern to many), is that by opening up Thought For The Day to the non-religious, audiences will awake to Richard Dawkins hectoring them for buying an Easter egg. The idea seems to be that, while Christians, Jews, Muslims and, presumably, Jedi Knights, can talk about any subject as refracted through their world view, those without a religion are one-dimensional, and all they can do is bang on about why they don't believe in God. I'm sure even the dullest humanist could improve upon some of the glib non-thoughts posited this week that included Rhidian Brook on why "Love, not money, makes the world go round".

Instead of getting sucked into a reductive argument, I propose a new slot to replace this particular fossil: Joke For The Day. Every day, a comedian would be invited to do a short routine, one-liner or favourite joke. It would turn TFTD from being the point at which people switch the kettle on to being the highlight of the entire Today programme. It may even bring in a younger audience who might then stick around to hear some current affairs, and it would certainly provide more useful content to the listeners. Then at least we would get a chance to hear something that was intentionally funny.

14 November 2009

Remember, Remember the 31st of October

Last Friday, as I simultaneously attempted to terrify my daughter and delight my son through the medium of home fireworks on Bonfire Night, I was deafened by something unexpected. It was the sound of silence from around the neighbourhood. In years gone by, I would expect to hear Friday and Saturday nights around November 5 turned into soundscapes from North Baghdad or West Baltimore, as private parties released coloured ordnance into the night skies. Not this year, as barely a firecracker marked that weekend.

This could, of course, be an effect of the recession or that it was raining heavily, but most journalists prefer to cite the malign influence of Health and Safety, not least because it affords them a soft target. At the risk of wandering into Richard Littlejohn territory, Health and Safety legislation has had an interesting impact upon Bonfire Night in recent years. Nowhere more so than Ilfracombe Rugby Club, where they held a "virtual bonfire night" - a large screen showed footage of a fire burning - rather than go through the rigmarole of getting the necessary permits to stage the real thing (story here). This visual treat is supplemented by a smoke machine and sound effects for added naffness, sorry, realism.

Inevitably this has been picked up by the lazy media as Health And Safety Gone Mad, cruelly denying every Englishman his birthright to maim or incinerate his children. Which it would be, if it weren't for the inconvenience of the facts: the rugby club has done this now for four years and found the originality of the idea pulls in more crowds than a conventional fire. They admit the idea was spawned by an unwillingness to cover the cost of fire marshalls and was inspired by "lager" - which probably gives a clue to the real reason for them not being able to complete the required paperwork.

What it does highlight is one of the hurdles to overcome in order to celebrate bonfire night - the use of fire and gunpowder by those singularly untrained to do so. And this may go a way toward explaining the relative decline of the event in the nation's calendar of celebrations that seems to correlate with a rise in activities centred on Halloween. Anyone who has been anywhere near a supermarket in recent weeks cannot have failed to notice aisles of off-the-shelf costumes, pumpkins, and themed confectionery for sale to commemorate the ghoulish and occult.

It could be a gross simplification to suggest a correlation between any rise and fall in the fortunes of these two occasions, as though it is a zero-sum equation - you either do Halloween or Bonfire Night. But that doesn't stop seasoned commentators from citing it as evidence of that other near-satanic phenomenon beloved of the fourth estate: creeping Americanisation (which is probably as old as America itself). I'd suggest it is, but probably not in the way most people understand it.

For anyone who can remember the bonfire night events of the 1970s and 1980s - the halcyon days fondly remembered by the Littlejohns as uncomplicatedly wholesome - all you needed was a scout troop, a big pile of wood, some petrol and baking potatoes wrapped in foil. Plus a few rockets stuck in empty milk bottles; organising a Guy Fawkes pyre was even easier than carving a pumpkin. I'd suggest the reason such events no longer happen is not because of Health and Safety, but because they were shit.

For a society recently emerged from the Three Day Week, miners' strikes and The Osmonds, the idea of burning a few pallets and sausages in a dark, wet field was probably the acme of entertainment. We no longer consider that worth doing not because of the need to apply for official permits, but because we have the Internet, on-demand television, 24-hour drinking, home-delivered pizza and central heating. American commercial cultural influences may have brought us plastic Scream masks and pumpkins, but they have also taught us to expect more, to demand better customer service, better products, more of what we want and less of what we should be grateful for.

10 November 2009

Calling the shots

The Prime Minister's ability to dig himself into a hole without anyone lending him a spade is self-evident, but it would seem The Sun has snuck up behind him with an earth mover, by publishing the recording the phone call between him and Jacqui Janes. I can understand Mrs Janes' reasons for collaborating with The Sun, but can ascribe no such higher motives for News International's grubby manipulation, who seem to have induced her into breaking the law.

The recording and interception of phone calls is governed by the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 ("RIPA"). If you go to the Ofcom website it's pretty clear what you can and cannot do:

Can I record telephone conversations on my home phone?

Yes. The relevant law, RIPA, does not prohibit individuals from recording their own communications provided that the recording is for their own use. Recording or monitoring are only prohibited where some of the contents of the communication - which can be a phone conversation or an e-mail - are made available to a third party, i.e. someone who was neither the caller or sender nor the intended recipient of the original communication.

Do I have to let people know that I intend to record their telephone conversations with me?

No, provided you are not intending to make the contents of the communication available to a third party. If you are you will need the consent of the person you are recording.

What do I do if my calls have been recorded unlawfully?

Under RIPA it is a tort to record or monitor a communication unlawfully. This means that if you think you have suffered from unlawful interception of your phone calls or e-mails you have the right to seek redress by taking civil action against the offender in the courts.

The Sun
would be a third party, and the Prime Minister certainly was not aware of the recording. So is Mr Brown going to press for a civil prosecution against Mrs Janes? Of course not, as Murdoch well knows - his media power makes him immune from any fall-out from the affair and, apparently, free to break the law.

News International does have 'previous' in this area, of course, as one of its reporters and a private investigator were jailed in 2007 (under RIPA) for intercepting mobile phone messages of the rich and famous on behalf of The News of the World. The editor of The News of the World at that time was Andy Coulson, who is now the Director of Communication and Planning for the Conservative Party, the main beneficiary of the story. What a happy coincidence.

The person who should be most worried by this story is actually David Cameron. Gordon Brown is a dead man walking, and hardly needs this shove down the stairs to see him off next year. But what it does show is the lengths Murdoch will go to, to see off political enemies and unseat those of whom he disapproves: dirty, underhand, illegal. Now Cameron has been invited to sup with the Devil, he should be nervously checking how long is his spoon.

08 November 2009

Grave doubts

I'm grateful to my friend Phil for drawing to my attention a story in Wednesday's Sun about a North Wales Police murder investigation that wasted £20,000 following up leads given by psychics (story here). An apparently straightforward suicide case was re-opened after information supplied by psychics was passed to the police by the suicide's family, and twenty large later it was confirmed as cobblers by the rather more conventional method of a second post-mortem examination. The police should, according to The Sun, have dismissed the psychics as "cranks" - a commendably sober judgement, undermined somewhat by the stories sitting next to it on The Sun's website: "Jacko's ghost at Neverland"; "Derek Acorah 'talks to Jacko' at Seance". Not to mention the horoscopes.

The police often accuse members of the public of mixing up fiction and real life when it comes to understanding police procedures, but it would seem that, on this occasion, they themselves have been guilty of one too many X-Files episodes. What makes this case unusual is it is normally a last resort rather than an opening line of enquiry that seems to have been done to satisfy the wishes of the family who were said to be "grateful". Touching as this is, I was not aware this was a service the police performed: wasting public money out of sympathy for the family rather than satisfying the rest of us there is some sort of process involved in investigating a death, not just a plan based upon whatever was on telly the night before.

Maybe they were confused after catching a show on Living2 that I stumbled across called Sensing Murder. It is a New Zealand TV show that re-opens cold cases and invites psychics to bring their powers to bear, in an attempt to get fresh insights into unsolved murders. It is also one of the funniest shows I have seen on TV in a long time - even funnier than Masterchef: The Professionals or The West Wing. It's a tricky act to balance - making the psychics' guesses carry some weight to make the show interesting, while trying to appear detached, to make it credible. Amazingly, for an "acclaimed" and award-winning show, they manage neither of these things, allowing the psychics to perform cold-reading techniques that wouldn't fool a child all the while failing to turn up any new evidence that helps solve a case.

So far there have been 27 episodes of the show in New Zealand, leading to a grand total of zero cases being solved. But, to be fair to the Kiwis, the show is based upon a Danish format, and they didn't solve any crimes either. In fact, in every country in the world in which the show has been created, not one psychic lead has ever produced any result. Not that you'd get that impression from the show itself or its website, which is more keen to tell you about the number of reality TV awards it has won. So maybe the cops in Dyfed shouldn't feel so bad about their recent bad publicity; they might be able to recoup the money from New Zealand TV, as the 2009 series of Sensing Murder is currently in production. And maybe by the time Ninox Television has recut it, it will turn out to be murder after all.

07 November 2009

Plus ca change

My son has been learning about the Gunpowder Plot at school this week. Being a serious-minded 7-year-old, he is getting to grips with the meaning behind the pretty fireworks of bonfire night. One exercise in particular asked him to think about some differences between the present day and the early 17th century.

So we discussed differences, trying to get beyond the superficiality of technology and creature comforts to what a different place the world was then. Of course I was able to reassure him that, these days, there was no chance of religious fundamentalists conspiring to blow up a British head of state or parliament in an attempt to reestablish a theocracy, funded by an overseas religious group claiming divine approval, or the government reacting by sanctioning the use of torture to extract confessions from those presumed guilty because of a common faith. Because that would be as though the enlightenment had never happened.

01 November 2009

Convict or conviction?

Two bits of recent news brought to my attention some interesting issues over UK employment law and, in particular, how we rationalise discrimination.

First, Nick Griffin's recent appearance on BBC TV was said to have raised the popularity of the BNP as an electoral force, but whether or not this is so is hard to test, as they are not currently accepting applications for party membership. Sadly this is not because they are spontaneously disbanding, but because they are being investigated by the Equalities Commission for possible breaches of UK employment law, specifically the 1976 Race Relations Act. According to the Commission's website: "The Commission has demanded that the party address potential breaches related to its constitution and membership criteria, employment practices and provision of services to the public and constituents."

At the same time a different organisation is also seeking to expand its membership in a similarly restrictive fashion, but apparently under the loving protection of the law. As Griffin was appearing on Question Time, the Roman Catholic church was offering the promise of ecumenical shelter to high Anglicans who could no longer accept the Church of England's reformed employment practice that allows women to served as ordained ministers (story here).

This strikes me as, at the very least, inconsistent, so I wrote to the Equalities Commission to ask about any upcoming prosecution of the Roman Catholic church. They replied by saying that the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act, under which any prosecution would be made, specifically exempts a church as an employer - so any such prosecution would fail. And they're right - section 19 (1) states:

"Nothing in this Part applies to employment for purposes of an organised religion where the employment is limited to one sex so as to comply with the doctrines of the religion or avoid offending the religious susceptibilities of a significant number of its followers."

This strikes me as totally bizarre, and is certainly one in the eye for those who claim Christianity doesn't enjoy protection of the law or a privileged position. Imagine substituting the words "political party" for the word "religion" in the highlighted Section 19 (1), above. Indeed, the prosecution of the BNP is precisely because its doctrines and sensibilities are at odds with employment law, but under another belief system exemption from the application of the law is secured. Why is Griffin's belief in discrimination any less valid than the Catholic church's?

I don't intend this to sound like a defence for the BNP - in fact, completely the opposite. The BNP is held to account, because the law defends the rights of employees not to be discriminated against by someone's belief system. It offers universal protection against the personal prejudices of others. But by exempting the Catholic Church, we are effectively saying that a religious point-of-view has greater need of protection than a political point of view. Or, more simply, a religious opinion is more valid than one based upon political beliefs, no matter how firmly held. A religious conviction, no matter how flimsy, bigoted or ridiculous, demands a higher level of protection than other views, and in the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act we have the proof.

None of this is the Equalities Commission's fault. Theirs is simply to enforce the law, not to make it, but I think they might at least make a public statement about it, instead of hiding behind their plush desks. I suspect their failure to do so has, at its heart, a misguided idea that faith is somehow more worthy of respect. Or as Mencken put it: "We must respect the other fellow's religion, but only in the sense and to the extent that we respect his theory that his wife is beautiful and his children smart".

Tough on fame, tough on the causes of fame

The great thing about the Internet is I am able to read stories in newspapers I have not bought about programmes I have not seen, and probably be no less informed about their contents than many viewers. But I am less convinced that those who lead the country are quite so up on its benefits. Take today's story from The Sunday Mirror about the government's new initiative to reduce anti-social behaviour: naming and shaming ASBO holders online. For an administration that prides itself on the fact it "gets" the whole online revolution, its manoeuvrings in this area are sometimes staggeringly crass. They think they are Max Clifford but end up coming across like Carter-Ruck.

Close watchers of New Labour will note this is simply an web-based version of something heralded by Tony Blair earlier in the century, an idea that died a quiet death. But presumably because of the groovy, digital application of the idea - a kind of Top Of The Pops for ASBO holders - Gordon Brown thinks this sounds like a vote-winning plan. As a fan of TV-based Saturday night parlour games like X-Factor, the Prime Minister should know that it will, of course, have the exact opposite effect of the one he intends.

Bored street urchins will compete with each other for top ranking, checking for realtime updates of their status via mobile phones each time they steal a car. The pathetic popularity of TV shows like X Factor and Britain's Got Talent are proof of the desperate lengths young people will go to for attention of any kind, even just for the chance of being slagged off by Simon Cowell. They also show the shallowness of undiscovered talent out there, so for those who can't carry a tune in a bucket, this is probably the next best thing.

Gordon Brown gave a warning to back up this latest policy initiative: "The consequences for committing anti-social behaviour should be clear." Your own record deal and kudos amongst your peer group, I would suggest.

22 October 2009


Tonight a notorious professional twit appeared on BBC's Question Time (just in case you have been living in a cave this last week), causing much breast beating across the media and chattering classes. I refer, of course, to Nick Griffin, Leader of the British National Party (BNP), in case you thought I meant Jack Straw. Everybody agrees that the prospect of Griffin's weasel words being broadcast across the airwaves is an unpleasant one, but those who would seek to lay blame are looking in the wrong direction.

Those politicians who oppose the appearance of Griffin naturally blame the BBC for issuing the invitation. Even those Voltairean types who extend the logic of their liberalism to include all comers complain that, outside of news coverage, the BBC is under no obligation to invite every self-aggrandising idiot who runs for office onto its flagship politics programme. Give him his election slots and hope he goes away.

I'm quite happy to say where the blame for this story lies: with us. Of course no politician is going to blame the electorate for anything, because they cannot be wrong. The BBC, too, is scarcely going to slap the hand that feeds them. So I'll say it - we're to blame. More than 1,000,000 of us thought it was a worthwhile use of their birthright to choose a racist representative back in May - that's one in every 16 people who voted. Complaining that the BBC is giving the BNP the veneer of respectability beside the point - they already have it in many people's eyes. Politicians blaming the BBC for tonight's three ring circus at Television Centre is perhaps the definitive example of shooting the messenger.

For too long we have acquiesced in the non-participation of the public in political life. Some is trendy theorising about young people participating through other channels - that wearing hemp trainers and watching Live8 is the noughties equivalent of joining the Young Conservatives. People are not embarrassed to admit they didn't vote at the last election; it is almost a badge of honour, that you are above it all. Yes, politics is complicated, difficult and often boring - just like tax returns, life insurance and building regulations - but you might come to appreciate the effort if your roof falls in.

I think Griffin's appearance tonight might actually be a good thing - not because I think he'll fluff his lines, or suddenly be exposed as an evil scumbag and or even because I think he'll end up looking stupid. I hope for all of those things but I realise that, in a reversal of the usual axiom, he may be an idiot, but he's not stupid. I really hope it makes people bother to find out what the BNP policies are, and then think again about the choices they make.

Shaw said "democracy is a device that insures we shall be governed no better than we deserve.", and the sight of the gurning, sweaty jowls of Nick Griffin is what happens when no-one takes elections seriously anymore. Perhaps people will suddenly start to realise what matters is engaging in political discourse. And that is not racist politicians appearing on our TVs. It's racist politicians winning unchallenged at the ballot box.

19 October 2009

Our lords and masters

Some heartening news this week, as technology struck a blow for parliamentary democracy. Trafigura, once an unknown commodities trader, became a little too well known for its own comfort, as its lawyers' attempts to keep its name in the shadows had the diametrically opposite effect. Much has already been written about the triumph of the Twitterati in sinking the ironically named Super Injunction (story here), but slinking in the background was another story about the Mother of Parliaments with somewhat less noble outcomes.

John Bercow, the slick new Speaker of the House of Commons, announced this week plans to let Lord Mandelson and Lord Adonis to address the Commons, in their capacity as ministers for Business and Transport respectively (story here). Apparently this is in the name of "modernisation" and "radical innovation"- MPs were apparently frustrated by their inability to cross-examine two senior government ministers, because they were members of the upper chamber. And Bercow is the man with reformist zeal, determined to throw off the out-moded ways of working.

To me this is like solving the problem of being burgled by putting your jewellery in the front garden. It is a distraction from the real issue: why does Gordon Brown have two secretaries of state who are unelected? Letting them take part in the business of the elected chamber is not a bold reform, as Bercow would have it - it is the ultimate snub to the country. Why should we bother having an elected government anyway? Lets just let Gordon pick his mates and they can get on with it. Or maybe we can change the terms of democracy instead - turn it into an X-Factor style talent contest, with the winner each week getting a different cabinet portfolio. After all, the Prime Minister seems to take such childish delight in every Saturday night end-of-the-pier gong show.

Mandelson, however, prefers to position the proposal as somehow enhancing democracy: "Peter is very much in favour of democratic accountability and reducing the distance between the two houses of parliament," a 'source' at the business department said. "He is full of enthusiasm for this if others decide to go ahead with changes." Which is an odd way of putting it, given he is not subject to "democractic accountability" himself (and why is he "full of enthusiasm" if other people make the changes? If they decide not to, will he change his mind and say it was a rubbish idea?).

Surely the most radical innovation of all would be to bring the mountain to Mohammad: make the House of Lords popularly elected, thus giving Mandelson all the legitimacy he so publicly desires? Or is there only so much accountability our masters can take?

14 October 2009

Believing the unbelievable

How do we decide what we are entitled to believe? It may sound a curious question, but one that has been going around my head for a week now, since my discovery that the Srebrenica Massacre of 1995 didn't actually happen. Or it did, depending on your point of view.

I suppose I had previously acquiesced in the view that, in July 1995 following the fall of Srebrenica, in Bosnia-Herzegovina, between 3,000 and 8,000 Muslim men and boys were rounded up by Serbian forces, shot and then buried in mass graves in various spots around the city. But according to www.srebrenica-report.com this was impossible logistically and numerically, and the number had essentially been created by Muslim spin doctors and swallowed unquestioningly by the outside world, giving the US government the excuse they needed to arm the Bosnians. Certainly, according to the Srebrenica Report group, the DNA evidence was flaky or non-existent beyond about 200 victims.

It's difficult to know how to react to that. My instant reaction was wariness, probably influenced by the precedent of Holocaust deniers. But the Nazi Holocaust is very well documented, the arguments are familiar and have been publicly documented many times over the years. In short, you'd have to be an idiot to deny the veracity of the scale of Hitler's Final Solution. But what about Bosnia? So much nearer in time, well-documented, and yet shrouded in the fug of public apathy, highly partisan views and UN shilly-shallying. If you read the Srebrenica Report site it appears lucid, well researched, fully cited and the product of people drawn from respectable academic institutions, not the ravings of a lunatic. Could they be right - and if so, does that make me a heretic to say so? Does it make me a Serbian proto-fascist? Is it the moral equivalent of denying the Holocaust?

Trying to find stuff out online, especially about something as complex as Srebrenica, is like trying to fill a water glass by standing under Niagara Falls. You can see why people form opinions and then filter the evidence to pick stuff that reinforces their view (can there be any other reason for the continued existence of The Daily Express?) - and not just because humans are hard-wired towards confirmation bias. Because to do otherwise would mean devoting your life to it, if you truly mean to read around a topic.

Richard Dawkins has recently published a book setting out the case for Evolution in which he equates people who refuse to accept the reality of Evolution with Holocaust deniers. Understandably this has upset quite a few people - but his point remains valid: why is denying Evolution in the face of overwhelming evidence seen as a matter of choice, but denying the Holocaust in the face of equally stacked evidence seen as completely unacceptable (and, indeed, illegal in some places)? Are we entitled to fail to believe something, despite all evidence to the contrary, simply because we find it an inconvenient truth?

Returning to Srebrenica, I decided the only thing I could do was at least try to find a consensus view, so I emailed Nick Davies, author of Flat Earth News. It's not a story he has covered, so wasn't able to offer much insight, other than one of the members of the Srebrenica Report is George Bogdanovic, who has made a rather grubby little movie about the subject (http://www.offoffoff.com/film/2002/yugoslavia.php). Another was a former Defence Minister for Serbia. Neither of them declared these interests, but that was probably the extend of the dirt among listed members. Does it invalidate the evidence they cited? Does it rebut the awkward questions about the number of identified victims they raised? Casting Serbia as the devil no more answers these questions, than denouncing Hitler confirms the truth about Auschwitz.

This summer the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) published its latest findings that confidently identified a further 6,186 victims of the massacre at Srebrenica, bringing the total to around 8,100. Just about the same as the number of victims reported missing after the Serbian occupation (story here). Since this came a full four years after the Srebrenica Report group published their findings, I thought I should ask them for their reaction to these latest identifications. Their email address is no longer valid and the site has not been updated for a while. I don't think Srebrenica Report has done enough to convince me of their case - an opinion I think I am entitled to.

06 October 2009

Strictly Come Quietly

In a story that could have been written just for Hofflimits, news reaches us that from November, the Great British public will be able to join in the CCTV revolution from the comfort of their own homes (story here). A logical extension of The X-Factor will see the citizens of Stratford Upon Avon granted access to local CCTV online, with the chance to report any misdemeanours they see being committed in real time to store detectives. To the winners will go points and prizes, to the losers, presumably, court and jail.

It is the brainchild of the founder of a website called Internet Eyes, James Woodward, who claims the monstrous ubiquity of CCTV in the UK is a victim of its own success. You see there are too many cameras that record absolutely nothing of interest; a recent survey of cameras in London estimated one crime was captured for every 1000 cameras in place. Presumably the rest were in use elsewhere, being operated by failed coppers ogling the hemlines of girls on the street. But this is not because there is not enough crime, or they are badly placed, or, frankly, superfluous. It is because there aren't enough police officers, failed or otherwise, to spend 18 hours a day watching footage of a brick wall on the off chance a mugger will walk in front of it.

This is where you come in. The Internet Eyes website will offer up to £1,000 if you spot shoplifting or other crimes in progress, thereby combining crime prevention with the incentive of winning money, not to mention generating a certain gameshow-esque thrill. What could possibly go wrong? I'm sure you have worked it out already.

I'm not a betting man, but I'd reckon the odds quite good on a crimewave hitting Stratford in November, as people send their mates in to Lidls to liberate a few tins of special brew, before phoning in the "crime" and pocketing a cheque to be split with their fleet-footed friends later. No doubt the coppers will eventually iron out the process of "reward for reporting" - do you get the check only after a conviction, or is it enough just to report it?

Think of the added dimensions this could bring to neighbourhood disputes. That grumpy old sod from next door pops into oddbins - you put a quick call in to the old bill, say you've seen him slip a Cabernet down his trousers. Look at that pramface with her brats in Netto - I should report her just for wearing that skirt. Truly the mean-spirited nature of the worst Daily Mail, curtain twitching tendencies this country can offer are just a month or so away from being fully realised at last. But at least it will stop people banging on about the clash between X-Factor and Strictly Come Dancing on a Saturday night. They'll be too busy zooming in to see exactly what Mrs Faversham from number 24 is putting in her trolley.

Motoring offence

Yesterday the DVLA withdrew from sale two items from the upcoming auction of high-value licence plates. The grounds for doing so was the risk of causing offence, should they appear in public, and those incendiary combinations of letters and numbers were: F4GOT and D1KES.

I must say I struggled to make out what they "spelled" on a computer screen, never mind on the back of a 90 mph Subaru. And even now I can see the "words", I'm struggling to understand the point of the exercise. I suppose even the illiterate have the right not to be offended, but I do wonder quite what the real thinking behind it was.

Let's assume a homophobic driver wants a vanity plate to reflect his bigotry. I could understand if he were to buy F4G H8R (see, I'm getting into this lingo). But to suggest he would want to drive around with "Faggot" on his car as a bizarre badge of honour seems wrong headed, any more than I would covet a licence plate that read L1verp00L FC. If I saw F4GOT on a car registration (and managed to decode it in time) I would be inclined to think the owner of the car was gay, and proudly reclaiming the word, as hip-hop artists did with with word "nigga" in the 1990s.

Beyond this I worry about the broader implications of this posturing by the DVLA. Are we suggesting oppressed groups prowl the car parks of England looking for offence at knee height? Or, for that matter, trawl the DVLA auction site (a very dull thing to do at the best of times) to be outraged at badly spelled playground language? According to Stonewall, it is to make Britain "more equal", but to construe offence in the unlikeliest places seems to say more about Stonewalls sense of self-importance that taking action to protect gay people from the random violence of idiots.

Meanwhile I expect there are disappointed water defence engineers in the Fens who would have like the registration D1KES as a symbol of pride in their profession. Not to mention the faggot makers of Lancashire.

30 September 2009

Cause and affect

With timing designed to cause maximum political embarrassment, yesterday The Sun announced it was switching its political allegiance from New Labour to David Cameron's Conservatives (formerly known as The Conservative Party). Gleefully parading its already monstrous ego, as both creator and subject of the news, the story also led the news on the BBC and ITN news, to the eternal discredit of those who should know better.

No doubt the BBC would maintain it was an important story because of the supposed enormous political influence The Sun holds. Famously, after the 1992 surprise Conservative election victory, the paper claimed "It was The Sun wot won it", which did more to enfeeble the British political system and diminish democracy in this country than anything in the last 20 years. Not because it was true, but because politicians believed it was true, and have been cowed by it ever since.

I would like to say for the record that the emperor has no clothes. The Sun can no more win an election than increased sales of ice cream causes hot weather - it is a confidence trick of causality, muddling up cause and effect. Yes the paper has publicly backed the winning party for every election in the last 30 years, but that's like me saying my support for Manchester United has caused them to win the Premier League. People will ultimately vote a government in or out not because The Sun tells them to, but because they come to a conclusion about the issues themselves through a mixture of media influence, including The Sun, peer pressure/influence, prejudice and judgements about likely outcomes to their own personal circumstances. The Sun is the ultimate glory fan, backing a winner to bask in its reflected glory, deluding itself that it says something about its wisdom.

In the past, The Sun has backed the Community Charge, decried Scottish devolution and the minimum wage and U-turned more times than a driving school. Its track record of influencing change is no better than mine. Yesterday's switch of tack does not condemn the Labour Party to defeat at the next election, for they have already done that themselves - it merely goes to show it positioning itself in line with its readers' views. I would urge all politicians to consult the next set of ABC figures in December to see how far The Sun's readership has declined these last 20 years, and how many other sources of news people use these days. Then just maybe our politicians will remember they have spines.

25 September 2009

…as the ASDA said to the bishop

The Bishop of Reading, The Rt. Reverend Stephen Cotrell, has been making headlines this week with his marketing-led analysis of the English church-goer. His assertion is that the Church of England needs to move downmarket to shore up its declining customer base – or as he put it:

“How did it come to this, that we have become known as just the Marks & Spencer option when in our heart of hearts we know that Jesus would just as likely be in the queue at ASDA or Aldi?”

I am intrigued by the many implications of this thought. First, that Aldi and Marks and Spencer are mutually exclusive. The current recession is proving that middle class people are just as adept at shopping at discount food retailers as the great unwashed. Second, Jesus may indeed have been found amongst the aisles at Netto, but I also guess He wouldn’t ignore those people who frequent M&S as well. After all, what more of an Everyman statement could He make than to buy His underwear from M&S?

A part of me also thinks that rather than queuing for His Pot Noodles, He might instead be tempted to make His own, maybe updating the loaves-and-fishes model for a modern audience – 5,000 kebabs with chilli sauce from a single pitta, maybe?

Modernisation is, of course, at the heart of the entire argument. The Bishop’s outburst was part of a PR campaign to encourage lapsed believers to give the C of E another try; something else the Church has in common with supermarkets is a recruitment drive in the run-up to Christmas, its busiest trading period. As part of this, “a rap-style radio advertisement” (shudder) has been launched to get the yoof back through church doors, featuring this gem:

"Don't look to make no airs and graces.
Faked up smiles and masked up faces.
No need to make no innovation.
Please accept this as your invitation."

It would seem the use of double negatives is to be a feature of the new ASDA-style Eucharist in an apparent attempt to patronise their new audience to within an inch of their lives. How very middle class. How very M&S.

19 September 2009

Bones of contention

This week saw the beginning of a tour of the bones of St Therese of Liseux, coming to a cathedral, church or prison near you. There hasn't been this much excitement about a tour of old relics in this country since the last Rolling Stones concerts, and the Catholic Church has promised us "a time of grace" for the 30-day duration of the visit. Given that St Therese's disintegrating DNA has also visited Russia, Kazakhstan, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Burkina Faso, Lebanon and Iraq in the recent past, I'm not sure she has much of a track record in that department.

I find it fascinating that, far from being slightly sheepish about this barely-disguised idolatry, the Catholic Church is loudly trumpeting the visit. If there is anything less likely to convince non-believers of your credibility as an intellectual force, I would have thought relic visits would be akin to an Iranian World Tour of Stoning, or Libya parading a terrorist through the streets. Oh, hang on...

But this is not being done for the likes of me, of course - according to the Catholic Church's website "many people have been praying and asking for this to happen, and now their prayers have been answered", which shows a remarkably skewed sense of 'prayer priorities' if you ask me. According to one attendee to today's first stop in Taunton, "although she lived over hundred years ago, St Thérèse is a saint for our times." Quite literally, it would seem, as she has her own 2009 calendar that you can download from her own website. I don't think she has a Twitter account, but I've no doubt she'd get a lot of followers if she did.

Maybe the promoters of the secular world's own poster boy for 2009, Charles Darwin, are missing a trick? Instead of boring things such as exhibitions, movies, documentaries and eponymous extensions to the Natural History Museum, they should have exhumed old Chuck's remains and paraded them to the Science Museum. I think it's important to fight anti-intellectualism on its own terms, just to show that, in these times, it's not about the arguments but who has the best PR. I'm half inclined to switch on "X Factor" to see if St Therese's sarcophagus turns up performing an attempted healing.

14 September 2009

Back online

Big thanks to my friend Marc Allington for figuring out just what the heck was up with my web URLs, and why my Blogger account was no longer recognising them. www.hofflimits.co.uk is back up and running - now for hofflimits.com.

31 August 2009

The long eye of the law

Last week saw a new government-sponsored ad campaign to draw attention to the hitherto underplayed dangers of driving while under the influence of illegal drugs. Speaking at the launch, Transport Secretary Lord Adonis said "Whatever one's views on drug taking" it is imperative that drug-driving is made totally socially unacceptable.

While it is true that enormous strides have been made in the last 30 years in making drink-driving socially unacceptable (at least in the UK), this whole campaign seems a little half-baked. If the idea is to make drug-driving socially unacceptable, then that means influencing people's attitudes, making them see the consequences of their actions upon the lives they wreck. All laudable stuff, until you see the ad campaign they have used, which is answering a completely different brief. It would not be the first time the cleverness of an ad has masked its message, but either Lord Adonis hasn't seen the ad, or he has signed off the wrong brief.

The ad features young beautiful things driving back from a night out. I am meant to deduce they are probably under the influence of illegal drugs, but, at this stage, the banter is charming, the people are beautiful, it could actually be an ad promoting the use of drugs for a good night out. But then we notice that all the occupants of the car have massive eyes, like aliens from Communion heading back to the mother ship after closing time at Roxy's. And then they get nicked by the police because their eyes gave them away; the boys in blue, rather than regarding them as a car of genetic mutant freaks, choose to arrest them for driving under the influence of a few grams of whizz. Then we get the pay-off: "Your eyes will give you away. Drugs have an involuntary effect upon your eyes that you cannot control. The police are able to spot this."

So where's the 'socially unacceptable' part of this campaign? This is pure bogey-man stuff, "Heroin screws you up" for the new generation. It is a crass and obvious attempt to scare users into compliance, not to question their own behaviour. Anti-drink driving campaigners realised the futility of this approach back in about 1985, and their recent success in reducing drink-drive deaths has been a switch of tack to convince the public of the moral weight of their cause, not to scare people with breathalysers.

But if you are going to scare people, you'd better make sure your threat is credible - and this campaign is, frankly, laughable. Apparently the police can spot if your pupils are overly dilated or constricted, which is pretty impressive; I have a vision of traffic cops holding up a little ruler to measure the exact size of the aperture and make a judgement to prosecute on that basis on a dark roadside. "Well, m'lud, as soon as we shone the bright torch in his eyes, we could see his pupils were heavily constricted."

There is no "drug breathalyser" equivalent to accompany this slick advertising campaign, despite such equipment being standard in Germany - instead our police have to rely on the less-than-credible roadside tests such as touching your nose or walking a straight line. I cannot imagine such flimsy evidence would stand up if challenged in court, because it is just so subjective, and you may have any one of at least eight medical reasons why your pupils are constricted.

If I were in the habit of driving while high on drugs, far from being worried, I would take some comfort from the fact that, despite the government's claims to "create a national debate" (always the last refuge of the desperate), their ability to catch the guilty has not moved in twenty years.

24 August 2009

In defence of irony

As a nation, the British recourse to irony as a reflex reaction to any social situation can be both a source of national pride and irritation. It is also a weak point when it comes to those odd occasions when you are confronted directly, though this weekend I discovered that, even then, it has its place.

I was walking to my local supermarket, when I noticed outside was a galley of evangelical Christians performing "street healing", vocally and enthusiastically drumming up business outside the store in a very un-British fashion. It was friendly and harmless, but no less irritating for all that, and I prepared to run the gauntlet of unwanted attention familiar to all who have to confront "charity muggers" on London's streets every day.

Except I had forgotten I was wearing my T-shirt from The Onion, America's finest satirical news source (http://www.theonion.com/); a gentle mocking of a familiar U.S. bumper sticker, it reads "Are your cats old enough to learn about Jesus?" Our would-be healer stopped in mid-approach and was genuinely puzzled - not really knowing what to do. I could see him mentally calculating whether I was serious or not - and considering a level of proselytising beyond even his own comfort zone. I passed through without comment or molestation into the store.

Now, if I can devise a similar device that has the same effect on the charity-backed guns-for-hire that block my path every day en route to work, I may yet die a rich man.

21 August 2009

Bravehearts required

It would be safe to say that England and Scotland have enjoyed a turbulent relationship these last 1,000 years or so. Neither country realised its full economic or political potential until they decided to bury their differences and become a single country some 300 years ago. And ever since there have been those who have sought a divorce from this marriage of convenience.

It could be argued such voices are in the ascendant, given that the Scottish National Party now rules the recently-devolved government, usurping the Labour Party from its century-old position. And those who long for the days of full independence, when Scotland can bestride the world stage once again as a Nation To Be Reckoned With have been granted an insight into the grubby reality of Realpolitik this week.

Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi may or may not have murdered 270 people (and I must say, the evidence I have seen looks pretty thin), but this week the Scottish government had to make an uncomfortable decision about his future, with the world, and America in particular, watching. How Jack Straw, sat in the safety of the Ministry of Justice in London must have enjoyed saying: “nothing to do with me, guv”, when asked about Megrahi’s future.

Messy compromises and uncomfortable decisions have been the stock-in-trade of the British (not to say English) government for many years. Worldwide revulsion and outrage at the sometimes necessary defence of self-interest can be a mixed blessing for those who carry the British passport and the southern English accent around the world.

Contrast this with the worldwide affection for all things Scottish, nurtured by a wide diaspora and rivalled only by the Irish. Turn up at any city, from Bombay to Badajoz, and you’ll as likely as not find a Scottish pub (next to an Irish bar), clad in all things tartan, and misty-eyed occupants (though that might down to the whisky). Free from the burden of self-government, they fear neither recriminations nor hostility from a world brought up on Braveheart. This week has been a lesson in the often uncomfortable responsibilities of self-government, but a price to be paid to all those who would one day carry a Scottish passport.

14 August 2009

Sticking plaster solutions

President Obama's decision to re-open the debate over Healthcare is certainly brave, and one that has had a surprising impact on this side of the Atlantic. Watching the US debate on "Socialised Medicine" from the UK, we have been presented with soundbites from a series of right wing commentators pouring a non-stop stream of abuse upon our hapless National Health Service. No doubt that perception is just as lopsided as the "facts" being promoted by those opposed to Mr Obama's project.

Until this point I had no idea that our system of healthcare was evil. Not just evil, but akin to the Nazi Final Solution. It will probably come as something of a surprise to those hard-working nurses at my local hospital when they realise they are latter-day Joseph Mengeles. It feels a bit like your neighbour is having an argument with his wife over which car they should buy, and so he takes a picture of your car, and shows it to her saying: "Is this the awful piece of shit you want to drive? Only a psychopath would drive such a car. You are such an idiot for wanting this car". When his wife can't even drive.

Leaving aside the idiocies of the arguments over how long it takes to get a hip replacement in the UK, I have been intrigued by two main aspects of this debate. The first is: why the UK? Almost all countries have some form of government-backed collectivised healthcare support, why pick on the NHS as the worst? I'm not an expert, but I am willing to believe that the NHS can provide a better standard of care than, for example, North Korea (I'm assuming North Korea has a state run health service). I note Fox News didn't try uncovering horror stories from Sweden, France or Germany where things run rather well, even if they do cost a lot of money.

The second is this false opposition generated by the debate: free market healthcare vs. socialised medicine. To caricature the debate, if the government starts to pick up the tab for healthcare like in the UK, the days of Sodom and Gomorrah will be upon America. Now I've been to many parts of the USA, and I have never seen anyone dying on the streets. Or even slightly injured, begging for medicine. In fact, if you do get ill and have no health insurance, contrary to popular European perception, you don't get thrown in a bin and taken away. A hospital will treat you, and the government will pick up the bill via one route or another.

In fact, if you have a moment, the US government spends a greater proportion of national income on healthcare provision for its citizens than the UK does - a little above 7%. According to Federal Government projections, by 2019, at the current rate of spending, Medicare (the US government programme for retirees health provision) will absorb one quarter of all US Federal income taxes. Therefore the answer to the question "do you want socialised medicine?" is actually "we've already got it, thanks".

24 July 2009

A different sort of school examination

An interesting story in the press this week about children's authors being vetted before appearing in schools (story here). Apparently the likes of Philip Pullman and Anne Fine feel "demeaned" by having to submit to the new, more extensive safeguarding checks before working in a class of children, hinting darkly it is either a revenue raising exercise or reminiscent of the notorious Clause 28 legislation in the 1980s.

A short way of summarising their arguments would be: "don't you know who I am?" Pullman seems to regard it as insulting that anyone would even think to ask someone working in a school for a background check. "You ought to be able to trust people, so to say to a child that you're having someone to talk to you but don't worry, we've checked him out and he's not a paedophile, implies that everybody who isn't checked is."

I can't quite understand why Pullman's knickers are quite so tightly twisted, but it seems to be cutting off the circulation to his brain. How is asking for a background check on someone working in a school, no matter how briefly, the same as announcing to the children that their visitor is not a rapist? Yes you ought to be able to trust people, and the sun should shine in summer and England should win the World Cup every four years. I wonder how he'd feel if he found out his local GP wasn't registered with the General Medical Council? No doubt it wouldn't be a problem, after all, you've got to be able to trust people.

And as for the comparison with Clause 28, that is a really cheap shot; clause 28 was about what children did or didn't get taught. Safeguarding is about what happens before you even get to the classroom. After the years spent trying to get authorities to take protection of children from sex offenders seriously, and the high-profile failures to protect some children, it seems either extraordinarily naive or pompous, or both. After all, why would a child sex offender try to get work in a school?

Perhaps the most revealing remark was by children's author Adele Geras, who called the scheme "lunatic". "They ought to be able to refine this legislation to make exceptions for people who see huge groups together". For a professional writer her subtext here is not that subtle: "they ought to make an exception for authors" - they are artists, after all. Just like Gary Glitter.

21 July 2009

Chew on this

One of the ironies of the modern age is, as the number of communications channels widens, the number of different sources of news actually narrows. Cutthroat competition to produce the latest, quickest, hottest stories at the lowest cost has created the concept of "churnalism", and those feeding the rapacious news beast are as complicit as those who buy the papers and download the podcasts. One of the upshots of this is the constant need to produce new information, facts and opinions no matter how useful they are to an audience. It is the news equivalent of making chewing gum.

Nowhere is this more evident than in a government press release. And to make it easier to understand - to give the gum some flavour - it has any contextualising background removed, and is presented as naked truth to a scared world. This week gave birth to a "fact" that I can see becoming burnished across the popular consciousness, and accepted without question. "65,000 people could die of swine flu" was the headline that everyone grabbed from an announcement by Sir Liam Donaldson, Chief Medical Officer. That sounds like a lot of people, the sort of number that is clearly designed to make me panic, hide under the bed, or buy multiple copies of the Daily Mail to await their special feature on how swine flu will impact house prices.

Just suppose I want to accept that the government is trying to tell me something useful. How do I use this information in my assessment of likely risks and understand the consequences? There are some things I need to know to do this:

  • What's the baseline? What would be a normal number of deaths we could anticipate from seasonal flu, and how many swine flu deaths will offset those who would have died from regular flu anyway?

  • This is a worst case scenario, though no doubt it will be talked into fact imperceptibly over the coming weeks, though it is little more than a back-of-an-envelope calculation. How likely is a worst case scenario? Governments need to plan for those, but they also need not only to tell us the probability of it happening but how they worked it out so we can do the sums ourselves.

  • 65,000 people represents 0.1% of the population. So 99.9% of us will live in fear of something that will, in all likelihood, mildly inconvenience us. This is not to deny it is important, but we need to bear it in mind. In Botswana, half the adult population is HIV-positive or has AIDS. That clearly is something that affects a whole host of decisions on a daily basis. But I don't think we're quite there yet.

What I would like is a reasoned statement of the facts and to understand the conclusions that have been drawn from the data. We cannot eliminate risk from our lives, but I would like to understand what it actually is. Maybe we are a victim of our innumerate society that governments don't bother trying to give people the tools to make informed decisions, because there is too much other media noise to distract our interest.

16 July 2009

Bonus balls

Last week the oldest advertising agency in the UK, and rival to my present employer, went bust. It had survived nearly two hundred years of wars, umpteen changes of government, recessions and even the Great Depression, but this was a crisis too far, and the company went into adminstration. One more tale among thousands from this recession, and unremarkable for all that.

Being closer to home, the winding up of Barkers seemed telling to me somehow, as at head of the queue to stake a claim over the assets were a number of banks, as the number one creditors. Once they have stripped the fittings and raided the safes, there will be nothing left for the 150 or so ex-employees who were laid off a few days before, despite promises made to the contrary. This may be normal practice, but I was interested to see that this doesn't seem to work in reverse.

This week, Goldman Sachs announced it was setting aside about £4bn for bonuses after a very health 2nd quarter of 2009. I thought it interesting that, when a bank goes bust (as all those who took government financing effectively did last autumn, including Goldman Sachs), first in the queue for payment is those bankers who caused the mess in the first place. The reasoning for this is that GS has paid back the money it borrowed, so is now entitled to do what it likes with the spoils. I realise that Goldman Sachs is a US bank that borrowed American government money, but where they lead British banks will surely follow, despite the promises this week of tough new reforms for the banking sector.

I guess my first question would be about how much interest Goldman Sachs paid on the £6.1bn it borrowed from the Fed? I'm guessing not very much (but have you tried to secure an interest-free loan recently from anyone, neve mind a bank?). So Sachs may have paid back the Principal, but it certainly has not remunerated the American taxpayer for the opportunity cost of bailing them out. In other words, what the government might have done with that money instead of loaning it to corporate incompetents - such as building schools, job creation schemes etc.

Second, even if it had, I wouldn't want the bank to pay it back at 2%, 10% or even 100%. I'd demand it paid back at 1000%, or more, like punitive damages for the tobacco industry. I'd demand the repayment terms be so personally painful for those running the bank that they would be totally focused upon ensuring that it NEVER happened again. Front of mind, top of the agenda - nothing so important as going back to the days of loans secured against assets, not bundles of other people's debt.

As the debate about bonuses hots up in the UK, and banking industry heads start to bleat about the need to properly incentivise its employees, I couldn't agree more.