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.