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.