Tuesday, 27 May 2008


There is a serious point to this post. Honest. It isn't just an excuse to link to Lordi -

- who won the Eurovision contest in 2006. Much to the delight of a somewhat Goth stepdaughter.

Nor even to link to last year's Serbian winning entry (Molitva) -

- which was a perfectly respectable piece of music.

Though if doing either upsets some of the anglo-snobs, then it is a thing worth doing.

Each year, Wogan makes the same tired old points about "local voting". How countries with similar history and cultural background have a "surprising" tendency to vote for one another. This year - as the UK totted up yet another last place with a fairly mediocre entry - this was brought out yet again both as excuse and evidence of Johny Foreigner not playing fair. This year, too, a few more commentators have jumped on the bandwagon. Bruce Forsyth, for one.

You know: its true. There is some local voting. But rather less than our national apologists pretend.

Almost every vote was greeted by the sneermeister with a comment along the lines of "I could have told you that would happen".

Well, no, actually. There are plenty of countries in Central Europe - which means any one of them could have voted for half a dozen other countries and incurred the same barb, courtesy of Wogan.

Poland is in Eastern Europe. It borders Byelorussia, Ukraine, Lithuania. One might easily have predicted they would vote for Poland. Strangely, those three countries voted for a song that had something going for it. They voted for the Russian entry. Despite far stronger cultural ties to Poland, they did not send their votes westward. That result can't all be blamed on a desire for lower gas prices.

People not only like voting for neighbours. They like voting for songs they can understand.

The largest language bloc in Eurovision nowadays is the slavic one. Once upon a time, English was de rigueur for entrants. No more. Is it surprising if slavs vote for fellow slavs?

And is it not to be encouraged if old enemies, such as Bosnia and Serbia find the time to forget historic differences and support one another?

The performance of the BBC commentators was disgraceful. Far from uncovering some dread Euro-plot to do Britain down, they only highlight how out of touch the UK is with its nearest neighbours.

Azerbaijan did relatively well on Saturday. Wogan was incredulous. It was clear he didn't understand why. He said so several times.

Perhaps it is time to replace Wogan with a commentator who DOES understand Europe.

Perhaps, at a higher level, it is time we all stopped taking the piss, and attempted to understand our fellow Europeans.

Monday, 26 May 2008

Tough on crime...

Will they never learn? And just who is leading whom in the latest moral panic?

Yesterday morning, we woke to news of yet another unprovoked and senseless stabbing. This time, it is a budding actor and bit-part player in the next Harry Potter movie. No offense intended.

The news leads on it. Yet another young man has fallen victim to "knife crime". Like, there is this disease out there which just afflicts teenagers the moment they pick up a knife.

The problem with this point of view - as I tried rather unsuccessfully to argue in a radio interview last week - is that it exists in an almost evidence-free vacuum. There aren't any very good long-term statistics for the usage of knives. Many incidents claimed as "knife crime" are simply incidents involving a sharp instrument. Like a bottle.

Murders in which a knife were used actually fell over the last few years.

So, yes. The headlines are clear. The facts are far less so.

Of course, there has been some very good and recent research in this area. The Centre for Crime and Justice Studies has impeccable academic creds - and might actually have some idea what it is talking about.

So, naturally, when an MP - Margaret Moran - wishes to instigate law on the online sale of knives, she goes... not to the CCJS for insight, but to a rather tawdry sting set up by the Sunday People. (This involved journalists posing as children and showing how easy it is to purchase illegal items online).

Headlines all round!

In the same week, the newspapers all reached for a study by GB Group Ltd. The fact that this company is the UK's largest provider of online id systems and may have something to gain from a little panic in this area was quite overlooked.

So there you have it. There's a knife problem. Its official.

Those who have looked at the problem closely reckon that it is not knives that are the problem - but something deeper. Something about a culture in which young people no longer feel safe UNLESS they carry knives.

If they are right - then focussing on knives is just so much waste of time. Ban knives, and they will sharpen screwdrivers. Ban screwdrivers and the hyper-lethal umbrella will make an appearance. And so on.

Unfortunately, tackling underlying problems is difficult and unglamorous. So expect more headlines. More panic. More politicians making irrelevant speeches.

But don't expect anything that contributes to a solution any time soon.

Friday, 16 May 2008

The impossibility of being good

As someone brought up in the catholic tradition, I find it almost axiomatic that no good deed is possible unless there is free will on the part of the "doer". Or if that is too theological: the same principle holds in most systems of Law.

You cannot be held responsible for an act that you were co-erced into doing.

For that reason, it always used to irk me that British Rail - or whichever company was selling me my train tickets at the time - would refuse to sell me a saver ticket before a certain appointed hour. Their own rationale, of course, was that if they sold me such a ticket, I might just hop on a train reserved to non-saver tickets, thereby depriving them of their due income.

I disliked this approach. It was impractical. A mere 12 minutes separated the time at which my local station would sell saver tickets and the departure of the first saver train for London. So there was always the possibility that you would end up missing the train.

More than that, I hated the moral abdication it forced upon me. I never had any intention of fare dodging. But I like to feel that were it an option, I would have chosen the righteous path. Cue metaphor linking "the straight and narrow" to Railtrack.

Now fast forward to Thursday when a man is refused alcohol in Tesco. Was he acting strangely? Was he breaking any laws? Was he, perchance, being abusive to staff?

Why, no. His crime was simply to be accompanied by his 15-year-old daughter. Yes. As a Tesco prig explained carefully to the errant shopper, we won't sell you alcohol "because you're with your daughter and she's not over 21".

As I noted today, in my local Tesco: there are plenty of notices reminding me that I may not buy alcohol unless I appear to be over 21. There is also a notice warning me not to supply alcohol to under 18-year-olds.

But this finger-wagging is a step further. A step too far.

The man was doing absolutely nothing illegal. Nonetheless, he was penalised because it was possible that he might. Not content with obeying the law, Tesco appear to have taken it upon themselves to be our moral guardians as well.

Which fits so perfectly with New Labour. Once upon a time, a certain Gladstone accused Conservativism of being "distrust of the people tempered by fear".

That ethos is still alive and kicking today. Its just that its no longer the Conservatives who own it.

Thursday, 15 May 2008

MP's looking silly

Perish the thought!

No sooner do I wonder aloud about what you might read if Hansard were a precise record of what was said in Parliament, then I am reminded that Lib Dem MP Jo Swinson is trying to overturn a ban on the wider availability of parliamentary material.

In an early day motion on 2 April, Ms Swinson noted "that there is currently a ban on the posting of parliamentary video clips on websites described by the relevant authorities as `third party hosting websites'". That's Youtube, in case you hadn't guessed.

Her fond hope is that by allowing wider dissemination of such material, there would be greater public involvement in the political process.

Of course, some MP's argue that the end result of such a policy could be episodes like this:

But mostly, the argument seems to boil down to the simple self-interest one. The public right to view should be restricted in case MP's decide to make utter tits of themselves.

"Hear! Hear!"

Wednesday, 14 May 2008

Cunning Stunts?

Another small item for the "internet accuracy" bin.

Following my observation that even Hansard self-censors when the language turns blue, my brother sends over a reminder of a funny story from New Zealand.

To quote directly:

"A National MP was attacking Labour (which as well as a female PM has lots of other women on the front bench). What he meant to say was “the country will not be taken in by your party’s cunning stunts…I sure you can figure out he actually said to a shocked house!

"The Speaker ruled that Hansard should reflect what the MP intended to say."

Vouching for its veracity, he adds that it was on all news media and he spoke to a couple of cabinet members who were present at the time. (Yes: little bro has also had his turn at political activism, standing, once upon a time, as a Labour candidate for the New Zealand parliament).

Well. I do remember finding links to this before. But buggered if I can now.

Perhaps I am just no good at googling.

Or maybe the internet is slowly eating itself.

Do, please, forward a link if you can find one.

Tuesday, 13 May 2008

Accuracy on the internet

It’s a very small point. But it illustrates perfectly the dangers of relying on the internet as any sort of record of note.

Over the last couple of weeks, I appear to have turned into UK numero uno writer on the subject of extreme porn (at least, according to Google). Accident: I’d much rather be writing about Data Security!

It does mean, however, that I keep an eye on who is saying what about the subject. Like the BBC. On 8 May the Criminal Justice Bill received the royal assent. The BBC ran a short piece that was written very much from the perspective of those celebrating the Bill’s passage. Fair enough. There are two sides to every argument, and both should be heard.

What was not so fair were a number of inaccuracies. The article stated that the new provisions on extreme porn became law on that day. (Nope: they await a “commencement date” in Parliament). It also suggested no significant opposition. Equally untrue – unless you dismiss peers, lawyers and public demonstrators as “insignificant”.

So far, so ordinary. What follows is seriously Orwellian. A thread (on the BBC messageboards) pointed out these inaccuracies. Debate followed. And if you re-visit the BBC link today – there is no sign of these inaccuracies. The page also carries a “last update” stamp – but this has not been updated. Yet.

Perhaps this is all in the spirit of modern exams: if you make a mistake, you put it right again and again and again. But it did set me thinking.

There are swathes of recent history that I have experienced personally that just aren’t recorded accurately – or at all – on the internet. We all know how unreliable it is.

But you might expect the BBC to be more accurate. Or if they get it wrong, you might expect an edit trail to show what they have changed.

This sort of thing happens ALL the time. It even afflicts Hansard – the supposedly comprehensive record of all that is said in Parliament - most usually when the recorder “doesn’t quite hear” decidedly unparliamentary language.

Can anything be done? This is not really a Press Complaints issue. It is corrosive. Perhaps the time has come for readers to be more active in recording and objecting to this sort of re-writing. Because if it happens for the little things, you can be pretty sure that one day it will be happening for the big stuff as well.

Thursday, 8 May 2008

Horses in the news

Is it my imagination - or is there a surfeit of horsy stories around right now?

At the weekend, the Daily Mail announced that a "stalking horse" might now stand against Gordon Brown. This was a story about how disgruntled Labout MP's might put up a candidate to run against our Dear Leader in the autumn.

Unfortunately, the dramatic effect was quite ruined by a combination of my poor eyesight and a tendency to skim read. What, for a moment, I thought it said was "Talking Horse" to stand, etc.

Which is an altogether far more interesting image. Gordon Brown vs. Mr Ed! Now THERE's a contest I'd like to see.

Meanwhile, various candidate sculptures are advanced for the "Angel of the South". One of these is a gigantic statue of a white horse.

Ah, dear! Has classical education completely died in this country?

Don't do it! For no sooner will the horse have been put up and the admiring crowds gone home for the night, then... a little trapdoor will open underneath, and a marauding army of Greeks - and maybe, nowadays, a few Albanians - will leap out to ravage the Kent countryside.

Well, it MIGHT happen.

Since we are so risk-averse in every other aspect of our lives, I wonder that no-one else has pointed out this danger to those deciding on the appropriate statuary with which to grace our fair land.

Tuesday, 6 May 2008

Protecting the Children

Its a sunny day. Gloriously sunny. The first truly sunny day of the nursery year.

So what more natural than the following conversation, overheard as I dropped off our youngest at nursery this morning.

Mum: "What time are your breaks?"

Supervisor: "45 minutes in the morning, 45 minutes in the afternoon"

"OK: he's got sun block on now. But could you put some on later?"

"Sorry - we're not allowed."


"You'd have to come in and apply it yourself."

Good to see that our children are being kept 100% safe from all possible harm! Er, apart from skin cancer.

Monday, 5 May 2008

History according to the internet

The joy of working on a new book is that research will often take you back into territory long forgotten.

If I want to look at social mores today, a swift canter through earlier periods seems a fair way to start. The '60's, for instance, which threw up such amazingly odd movements as the Situationist International. According to Guy Lebord, one of their leading lights, they were an “artistic avant-garde, {…} an experimental investigation of possible ways for freely constructing everyday life, and as a contribution to the theoretical and practical development of a new revolutionary contestation” .

Make sense of that, if you can.

Sadly, they suffered a truly "Life of Brian-esque" tendency to split. Eventually, the movement wound up in the 1970's after the last 2 members decided to call it a day. Or split.

Meanwhile, I was desperately trying to remember who tipped a load of ink over Prime Minister Ted Heath in the '70's. I know it happened. I can still see the pictures.

I have a suspicion that it might have been Peter Hain's sister.

Perhaps my googling skills aren't up to the task. Or maybe it is like other things that I remember - and the internet has never heard of. Search for Al Stewart on youtube - and you'll find next to nothing before Year of the Cat!

And maybe there is a serious point here. Which is that the internet is really history with holes in it. Although you may have difficulty explaining that to a generation that now seems to think that all knowledge resides on the web.

Sunday, 4 May 2008

"New Labour: New Puritanism"

That's the working title. Of course, titles can change.

The ambition is a book that examines two questions. Have we, as a nation, become more puritan over the last ten years? And how far can that be attributed directly to New Labour?

The obvious answers seem to recede as the questions come into focus. So it feels as though I have a happy few months of research ahead of me.

At the same time, any thoughts, angles, intuitions or perceptions on this issue would be exceedingly welcome.

Bin there (haven't done that)

I know. I really should get back to my local Council (South Kesteven).

About a year ago I asked them whether micro-chipping bins was not a matter covered by the Data Protection Act (2001).

Their legal department responded in three stages. First: they had only been in post for a couple of days - so couldn't possibly comment. Then, a day or so later, they grew more confident and categorically stated that this was not a matter to which the DPA applied. But they'd consider it further.

Finally, they told me to go away. Or, in council-speak: "we have addressed this question in our previous e-mails and there is nothing more to add".

Oh dear. The only problem with this response is that the DPA is something I know a lot about. So does the Information Commissioner - whose Office wrote back to me wondering why the Council should think this was NOT a matter covered by the DPA.

So I really need to follow up.

Of course, this illustrates a sad trend in modern Councildom. Were I acting as a consultant on their behalf, I would have given much the same advice. (I would, of course, have taken a suitable fee for same!).

I would have identified chipping as an "active risk". The amber lights would have started flashing. They might have had the chance to avert a possible future derailment of their scheme.

But mere ratepayers are of no consequence. So the Council carries on regardless.

And if their scheme turns to ashes, it will be I, as ratepayer, who picks up the tab.

Saturday, 3 May 2008

Leading AND Listening

Now there's a good trick. If you can manage it.

Trouble is: even if you think Gordon is going to attempt it, you just know it feels like he's going to fall short of both.

And in the news next week:
  • Jacqui Smith will be standing and sitting
  • Jack Straw will be talking and spitting
  • Alastair Darling will be taking money off the poor and giving it back again
  • John Prescott is eating and vomiting (so no change there)

The road to Hell...

...is paved with micromanagement.

To put it another way: if you wish to know where this government is going wrong, you have only to look at their shiny new Criminal Justice Bill. Take, for instance, the bit about "extreme porn".

Now is not the place to re-rehash the many arguments against it. For that, look here, here and here.

But the devil is in the detail. Once this Bill is Law, you could go to jail for up to three years for possessing an image of an action that is not itself illegal.

Imagine, for argument, that your significant other gets a kick out of "playing dead". No - not just their bored response to your usual Saturday night ritual. Its a kink!

It is not against the law. Although having a picture of it soon might be.

Mindful of the silliness of this result, the government introduced an amendment. Now, if you have a picture of yourself and sig other and you knew they were not really dead...well, that's OK. Same for any other participant - if ménage à trois is what floats your boat.

Although the photographer would still go to jail.

Oh. But if numero trois just couldn't make it that night and you mailed them a copy of the pic... they could go to jail for three years. Er: but you'd still be OK.

And if you happen to look at a picture that falls into what the government claim to be extreme and pornographic categories, then even if you know that no humans or animals were harmed in the making of it, you could go to jail.

Unless its part of a BBFC rated film.

Unless its a part of a BBFC film rated taken out of context and viewed for the purposes of sexual arousal.

Where - oh, where - is the sense in all this? Its clearly not protecting anyone from exploitation. Its not drawing a line under any particular type of picture. Its a nightmare jumble of edict and counter-edict that will give barristers indigestion. Not to mention some very large fees. How then is the ordinary pc user meant to understand what is going on?

Meanwhile, the one category of porn that is now protected by law - the odd couple realistically staging their fantasies and committing them to film for their private delectation - is now specifically exempt from any penalties under it. That is, if you believe the government's own rhetoric: the thing most permitted will be the thing closest to the criminal act.

Its a mess. In the Lords, even peers basically in favour of the principle suggested, politely, that the government might wish to take these clauses away to a Select Committee where they could be considered at greater length.

But no. This government must be seen to be "doing something". Sending a message. So in place of coherent law, we will end up with a bullet point guide to what we may or may look at.

They have been warned - by lawyers, Lords, experts alike - that it won't work.

But are they listening?

Are they, Hell!